Frederic Tuten’s new book of inter-related short stories, the provocatively titled Self Portraits: Fictions (Norton), is now in bookstores. Merging autobiography and fantasy, Tuten’s sixth book is dedicated to his old friend Alain Resnais, director of the classic French film Last Year at Marienbad. (Tuten acted in Resnais’ short film, The Year Zero One, shot in Lower Manhattan) and has a book jacket that features Roy Lichtenstein’s painting “Self Portrait with Cheese.” Inside, a story by the same name is dedicated to his late friend who made original paintings for two of Tuten’s previous novels, The Adventures of Mao on the Long March and TinTin in the New World. Art figures prominently in all of Tuten’s previous novels, and, on October 12, he will appear with Steve Martin at The Getty in Los Angeles to talk about art in their works and lives.
Earning praise from such literary lights as Susan Sontag, John Updike, Iris Murdoch, AM Homes, and Edmund White, among others, Tuten’s novels are “rich with a rare beauty, wit, wisdom, and pathos.” These were my exact words when I called him last week (full disclosure: one of the stories in his new book is dedicated to me), and began buttering him up for the following hard-hitting questions.
Splice Today: Gravity: for or against?
Frederic Tuten: Very much for. I like that a ball I toss into the sky will return to me and not go off into infinity. How many balls can one afford to lose that way?
ST: If instead of a person you were a food, what kind would you like to be, sweet or savory?
FT: I would like to be a very thin, small pizza, baked in a wood-burning oven in Rome. Just spicy enough, just crusty enough, so that I never satiate and leave a craving for more. Or Mandrake root.
ST: The E channel is canceling Keeping up with the Kardashians in order to air a new reality TV show starring you. What’s the name of the show and what can we expect to see in season one?
FT: You would see me making coffee—espresso with hot milk—at six a.m. I walk to my desk and, after a struggle, I decide to look at my email before getting down to write. I answer 10 or 20 and write 10 more, then go back to the kitchen and make more coffee. Then I sit at my desk facing Tompkins Square Park and look at the trees, and, depending on the season, I can or cannot see though their branches. (The camera may indicate the seasons in this way.) I write, as I do with three fingers, so the camera has time to absorb the full weight of my writing progress. The camera stays with me at my computer for anywhere between two hours or 10 minutes, depending, until I rise from the desk and return to the kitchen to make more coffee and then again return to my desk. I write. I look about the room, taking from my shelves three or four books at random and start reading. Perhaps for full dramatic effect, I may read aloud a passage or a few chapters to myself of what I find so fascinating and want to share with the audience. Time passes in real time.
This brings us to a late lunchtime or if you are English, High Tea time. The camera sees me changing from my pj’s and into street clothes. You follow me walking along the Park’s rim and talking to the squirrels for a few minutes, then cut to my entering a restaurant, maybe Mogador, on 8th St., where staff and diners greet me as if I have just won the lottery and come to share it.
I see this as the format for the whole of season one. Other episodes may show me napping after lunch, talking on the phone and Skyping, then at desk writing until dinner, when the scene of the lunch is repeated. The camera follows me as I make my dinner choices and I talk to the waiter about neutral topical events such as the uses of poverty and war, and whether I should have again what I ate at lunch.
I see a whole successful season of this show, which could easily be called: “Writer of New York.” Or “House-Writer of New York.”
ST: You look like Tintin. Did you ever imagine when you wrote your third novel Tintin in the New World that you would look like Herge’s character grown up?
FT: Tintin c’est moi, to paraphrase Flaubert. Yes, I wrote about him for so long, over 16 years, that I began to look like him. Now I look like him had he grown up. But it’s not just the time I spent writing about him that did it, the truth is that I loved and felt at one with him and his world. In writing the novel I often felt I was writing my autobiography. Maybe authors begin to resemble their characters the way dog owners begin to look like their dogs. Now, perhaps I am a grizzled Tintin.
ST: Best literary sex scene?
FT: I nominate a scene from Tintin in the New World. When Clavdia Chauchat seduces Tintin in a little hotel room in Machu Picchu with a window full of moon.
ST: At the heart of your work is romance, passion, love and an appreciation of beauty. Tell me about the first time you saw a woman naked.
FT: The romance, passion, love and the appreciation of beauty is spurred by the body, but comes from a place before and lasts after the body falls from beauty. I was a romantic at five, with tons of crushes on girls and with a kind of free-floating love that longed for attachment. At 15, I attached.
ST: What’s your second favorite book, song and film?
FT: Raymond Queneau’s novel, Pierrot mon Ami, the song “Blue Moon,” and the film, Groundhog Day.
ST: Most overrated literary classic.
FT: The Catcher in the Rye.
ST: Most underrated anything.
FT: The great French artist, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes.
ST: Self Portraits: Fictions is dedicated to your old friend the French director Alain Resnais and one of your stories “The Park Near Marienbad” references his film, Last Year at Marienbad. What gives?
FT: We became friends in the 1970s when he was living in New York. He cast me in The Year Zero One. A little end of the world film. I had some lines. Never having been an actor or in a movie before, I asked him how I should say the lines and he replied, “How should I know, you are the character.” We saw a good deal of each other when I was living in Paris. One day I was to go to his apartment for a drink and then go together for dinner in a nearby restaurant. I searched for his name on the door bell and for a moment thought I was at the wrong building because his name was not there and then giving a second look I thought I was hallucinating because my name was there in place of his and it still is.
ST: Speaking of the French: Is adultery necessary?
FT: For adulterers, it is like air.
ST: What’s the most important characteristic you look for in a friend, a lover, and an enemy?
FT: From a friend, friendship; from a lover, ecstasy; from an enemy, loyalty.
ST: In my sleuthing, I uncovered a photo from a 1970’s “Page 6” of you going somewhere with Diane Keaton. You’re wearing this great coat. Do you still have it? And if so, may I borrow it?
FT: It was a coat I bought at the Salvation Army. It was great, gray, long down-to-the-shoe-tops thing with a fake mouton lining and collar. I looked like a man who had just stumbled out from the Bowery—before it became chic. It tells you what great character Keaton has to have appeared with me in that coat in public and not have hidden her face when we were photographed.
ST: Favorite punctuation mark.
FT: The question mark. Does it not interrogate the true nature of the human condition?
ST: Best gerund.
ST: You’ve decided to produce your own line of cologne. What will it be called? Describe the fragrance and a little of your marketing strategy for it.
FT: I would call it eau de Frederic—aftershave and mouthwash in one. It would smell of pinesap and bubble gum with a soupcon of peach or peche. I would not allow it to be sold over the counter in any store or shop or fancy magasin. It would require a prescription from a Board Certified Aesthete and sold only at museums of high quality, like the Louvre, the Prado, the Met, the Brooklyn Museum, the Frick, or the Museo del Jamón in Madrid.
ST: Why do you write?
FT: For the usual reasons: The Fame, the Money, the Glory, and of course, there’s the immortality of five minutes that comes with the territory, not to speak of the shorter term adulation of the millions who read your every word and cascade you with handwritten love letters and invitations to parties, openings, dinners, ball games and cock fights. Have I forgotten the intellectual stimulation? I’m sorry, what was the question?
ST: In your second novel, Tallien: A Brief Romance, your protagonist, French revolutionary Jean-Lambert Tallien, eats a meal of peas and whale fat.
FT: Well, I invented that fine dish with the thought that it is what an impoverished young revolutionary in 18th century Paris could have afforded. The whale fat gives it a little bit of an exotic touch and elevates it a few steps in price above lard. Are you sure I did not write “lard?”
ST: Peas, for or against?
FT: I’m for them in small numbers.
ST: Cats: should we trust them?
FT: I trust them to be who they are and love who they are. I like their distance and their autonomy; I like how they groom themselves; I like their friendship once they have decided to give it; I like how they sometimes stare you down then walk away as if you did not exist. I trust that they will never become dogs.
ST: If you could travel through time, to when would you go?
FT: I’d go to the opening night of Hamlet to see Shakespeare play the ghost.
ST: The cover of Self Portraits features a Lichtenstein painting called “Self Portrait with Cheese.” How often did you and Roy talk of cheese?
FT: Never. Roy loved astronomy and astrophysics and was a bit of an expert in both, so after a few scotches I may have asked him what kind of cheese the moon was made of. I hope my story reflects the whimsy, the irony and self-effacing humor that I found in my friend, Roy, and in his painting.
ST: Tell me, what’s that weird comb shaped vegetable I always find in Chinese food?
FT: It is mandrake root and makes women pregnant—as in John Donne’s famous line: “Get with child a mandrake root.” It goes very well with pork dishes.
ST: You go to a pet store and buy seven pets. What are they and what do you name them?
FT: Rulfo; Puvis; Zapata; Wagner; Queneau; Bach; Garibaldi. They are all cats.
ST: I read that you once had a cat named Nicolino, whom you vowed to include in every one of your books. Would you mind analyzing him in Freudian terms?
FT: There was no vow. But he was so much in my daily life that when he died I missed him and wanted to bring him back to my world. To have him on the page was to have him continue with me and me with him.
Nicolino was a deep narcissist. One of the reasons I loved him. He pretended to be meek and mild, to play the second fiddle, until you saw him halt before a mirror and there make the most outrageous theatrical poses and self-satisfied cat cackles. He was great and he knew it.
ST: Of all of Freud’s complexes, which one do you have, which one do you want?
FT: I don’t know what it’s called when you can’t let anything go and you hold on to matchbooks and laundry receipts and every book you bought and were given in the last 30 years, but my apartment is a train wreck, a library and a stationary store. It’s as if I were building an Egyptian tomb with all the things I need to take with me to the next world. I need a little bit of the complex, whatever it’s called, that sheds the world day by day like old skin.
ST: Right turn on red: for or against?
FT: Of course, for. But I also like the more adventurous right turn on yellow.
ST: Day or Night?
FT: Why can’t I like both but one a little more? I like early morning best of all, when you and the world promise a fresh life. I like also that time the French call entre chien e loup, between dog and wolf, that moment which is neither night nor day but the thinnest line in between.
ST: You are walking down a long hallway and come to a room with two doors. Then what happens?
FT: If you are a man, you enter the one marked, “MEN.”
ST: General: what’s your strategy?
FT: Advance. Retreat. Pretend to surrender. Advance in full force!
ST: What advice would you give to young doctors just starting out? Young bears? Young octopi and giant squid? Young peaches? Young wives, young men, young editorial assistants, young trapeze artists? Or anyone else otherwise young?
FT: Do not; against any advice or incentives to the contrary, do not get old. For peaches this means no longer than six hours off the vine.