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One-time bad boy Lewis Nordan on the mathematics of writerly failure, the myth of the tortured artist, and the new film Wonder Boys

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Writer David Templeton takes interesting people to interesting movies in his ongoing quest for the ultimate post-film conversation. This is not a review; rather, it's a free-wheeling, tangential discussion of life, alternative ideas, and popular culture.

"You know, all things considered," states author Lewis Nordan, "seven years isn't all that long. It's not that long at all."

Nordan is referring to the seven years that it has taken Grady Tripp--the irresponsible, pot-smoking, writer-hero of the new film Wonder Boys--to compose his second novel, a follow-up to his award-winning first effort, something called The Arsonist's Daughter.

Owing to the ego-bruising lag time, Tripp (well played by Michael Douglas) has suffered a professional pummeling at the hands of his colleagues and critics, a psychic drubbing that only makes his problem worse.

Nordan is the enigmatic Mississippi-born force behind a wonderful bevy of Southern tragic-comic-folk-cult-favorite novels--Wolf Whistle, The Music of the Swamp, Sugar among the Freaks, and Lightning Song, to name a few. He, too, has gone as long as seven years between books, and yet no one would dream of suggesting that his career has ever been anything like over.

On the contrary, in conjunction with the release of Nordan's brand-new Boy with Loaded Gun --a jaw-droppingly honest memoir that leaps from the author's bizarre and magical childhood to his struggles with alcohol, infidelity, and his son's brutal suicide--booksellers across the United States celebrated the event with such off-beat happenings as arrow-catching contests, massive public Nordan-o-thons, and live llama races.

Grady Tripp should be so lucky.

Wonder Boys is based on the novel by Michael Chabon, a celebrated alumnus of the University of Pittsburgh, which is the main setting of the book and film and the primary location of Nordan's between-the-books income. He's been a professor of creative writing there for many years.

And speaking of years . . .

"Seven years really is nothing for a novelist to wait on writing another novel," Nordan insists. As evidence, he cites the name of Donna Tartt, another Mississippi-born writer and the author of the bestselling 1982 thriller The Secret History. "She gained all that money and fame for her first novel, and yet the second one has never appeared," he says.

Then there's Frank Conroy, who published the cult classic Stop-Time in 1967 and didn't write another book until Mid-Air in 1985. In between, he remained an omnipresent figure at writers' conferences around the country.

"He was respected and famous even though he didn't publish any books for years," says Nordan. "So seven years seems too soon to say that Grady Tripp was all washed up."

Wonder Boys--with its motley cast of book-writing characters (including Tobey Maguire as a suicidal literary genius and Robert Downey Jr. as a gleefully hedonistic, drug-addled book editor)--is a veritable parade of agonized artists, happily wallowing in their own misery. In many ways, Wonder Boys is about misery. At the very heart of the movie, and to a degree, at the heart of Nordan's own alcohol-fueled history, there writhes an enduring old myth: that of the brilliant-but-tortured writer.

"Of course, the mythological part is the notion that you need the torture in order to be a writer," says Nordan. "It's the idea that if you were to quit drinking or using you would lose the capacity to feel as a writer feels, or to do as a writer must do.

"It's not that writers don't act as if that is true," he admits. "But it still isn't true."

Toward the end of Boy with Loaded Gun--which Talk magazine listed as one of 10 books that will "keep you talking all month long"--a now-sober Nordan writes, "Hard drinking was part of the romance of writerly suffering. I sincerely believed this part. When I finally quit drinking years later, I believed that I had also quit writing, the two were so intricately woven into a single fabric in my imagination."

Did Nordan really believe that sobriety would mean an end to his writing career?

"I did indeed," Nordan says. "I thought, 'Well, this is the end. I'll save my life by stopping my drinking, even though I know my ability to write will fall away.' But it didn't. I made this big, melodramatic choice of 'Life over Art'--and then found out I hadn't given up art at all. I could have both."

In fact--mirroring the sentiment of Grady's concerned student-border, who boldly suggests that her landlord's writing might go more smoothly if Tripp wasn't always stoned--Nordan feels that he's become a much better writer since giving up the bottle.

"Oh, I do," he says, with a sharp-edged chuckle, "and not just because I'm a living writer instead of a dead one. After I quit drinking--even though I was very frightened, and really couldn't write for a while--I began to see more clearly, to sense intuitively what I had been doing as a writer, and to recognize what I needed to do to build on that.

"I'm convinced that I wouldn't have been there without sobriety."

Which brings us back to Wonder Boys and poor old Grady Tripp, who, in the movie at least, ends up losing almost everything but somehow stumbles into a kind of bittersweet redemption.

"That's another thing that bothered me," Nordan remarks. "In the end, Grady's psychological problems were allowed to just dissipate. We didn't see how a person comes to grips with his life crashing in on him like that."

Instead, as in some fairy tale, a wish is made and every problem disappears--without much effort or concentrated self-improvement from Tripp.

"Take it from me," Nordan says, "whether you're a writer or not, tortured or not--your life doesn't get better until you make it better."

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From the March 16-22, 2000 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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