There is bad news in the capital of envy and schadenfreude: Steven Bochco has written his first novel. As if 10 Emmy Awards and credits as co-creator and executive producer of “Hill Street Blues,” “NYPD Blue” and “L.A. Law” weren’t enough, now he has turned out a too-sexy-for-prime-time amorality tale that publishers fought over as they lavished the rookie author with praise and multibook deals.
Those who don’t choose to see the recall as the defining California event of 2003 could claim this as the season of the Hollywood novel, when mysteries, satires and fictionalized histories of the movie business crowded bookstores. In June, screenwriter Gigi Levangie Grazer’s “Maneater” and producer Robert Cort’s “Action!” hit the shelves; in July, Leslie Epstein’s “San Remo Drive” was greeted with stellar reviews. Epstein is director of the creative writing program at Boston University, and his father and uncle were the Oscar-winning screenwriters best known for “Casablanca.” Director and screenwriter Bruce Wagner’s fourth Hollywood novel, “Still Holding,” will be published in November.
Bochco’s “Death by Hollywood,” out Sept. 9 from Random House, is the latest addition to a genre nearly as old as motion pictures: stories that dissect life behind the scenes. Yet despite its title, its author’s resume and a cast of characters that includes a tortured screenwriter, a trophy wife, a blackmailing Lothario, an adulterous AMW (actress, model, whatever) and an A-level agent with a repertoire of snarky in-jokes, is Bochco’s new baby really a Hollywood novel? And what is that, anyway?
Judging by a passel of them, from the antique to the freshly minted, the label is a little like social anxiety disorder and other “garbage diagnoses” the medical establishment assigns to ailments it can’t quite explain. The best of the latest would be as entertaining if they were examining the sexual proclivities, mood swings and spending habits found in other ostensibly glamorous ZIP Codes. In an interview in his office on the Fox lot, Bochco says his novel “isn’t a story in which the central plot is driven by the fact of Hollywood. I suspect that I could transplant this story, with minor changes, into almost any environment.”
But we aren’t just anywhere. We’re in 90068, where screenwriter Bobby Newman is drinking too much and writing too little. His lucky break makes Courteney Cox’s career-making boogie with Bruce Springsteen look puny: Spying through an electronic telescope from the balcony of his home in the hills, Newman observes two naked strangers in a house across the canyon. They mate, then argue. One of them smashes the other’s brains in with an acting award several status points below an Oscar. (Death, be not small time.) Instead of reporting the murder, Newman writes a screenplay about it, researching his script by getting close to the killer and the LAPD detective on the case.
As the mystery artfully convolutes, it often isn’t clear who’s the manipulator and who’s the manipulatee. It is obvious, however, that Bochco understands how “the business” works and harbors amused affection for the most desperate of his schemers. His agent-narrator’s jokes wouldn’t be as funny without the sting of truth. To wit: When he explains to Newman why the director having an affair with Newman’s wife is the more valuable client, he says, “if I lose credibility with this guy, he’ll start bad-mouthing me all over town. And the next thing you know, my calls aren’t being returned.... Suddenly I can’t afford my kids’ school, I can’t make my mortgage payments, and my wife dumps me for Ron Perelman.”
Bochco admits that having the freedom to riff and quip about his metier -- and about surgically augmented breasts, marriage gone stale, power funerals and the creative high to be found in the zone -- made spinning his story easier and more enjoyable than any writing he’s ever done. Yet he doesn’t quite see his book as a Hollywood novel. “It is less about Hollywood than it is set in Hollywood,” he says. “Obviously, I chose Hollywood because it’s an environment that I’m intimate with, and I can more easily find a comfort level in an environment I know a lot about. But here’s the thing: People do really make more of Hollywood than it deserves. Hollywood is a company town where we make films and television. If you’re in Detroit, you’re in car land. In New York, you’re in the financial world. In any place where a business dominates the culture of the town, the behavior of the people will be specific to that business. But the behavior isn’t really specific. As a writer, you have to locate the logic of behavior for your characters, and if you have it, there’s going to be an inevitable reality to what they do. Character drives story.”
Tinseltown as a backdrop
For a long time, writing about Hollywood was an exercise in getting even. The first generation of novelists to take pens in hand were Easterners imported by the studios, including Nathanael West (“Day of the Locust”) and F. Scott Fitzgerald (“The Last Tycoon”). They viewed writing scripts as selling out, one more reason to feel wretched in an unfamiliar place they neither liked nor understood.
Carolyn See, professor of English at UCLA and author of several novels set in Los Angeles, wrote her doctoral dissertation on the Hollywood novel in the 1960s, when there were more than 500 in print. “Even the most literary ones look an awful lot like the trashy ones, and vice versa,” she says. “There are certain cliches that were repeated by these homesick East Coast guys who hated it here: Since there are no seasons, everything’s sterile. The peaches don’t have any flavor. Or there’s something wrong with the Pacific because it doesn’t smell salty. The idea that there’s a vast conspiracy to keep intellectuals down and banish brains is a constant theme. Most of these novels are obviously seen from a writer’s point of view, and writers are notoriously scorned and given the short end of the stick. They seethe with resentment and see studio executives as idiots in the same way we all see our bosses as idiots.”
The next wave crested in the 1970s and ‘80s, when Jacqueline Susann, Harold Robbins, Sidney Sheldon and Jackie Collins attracted readers hungry for potboilers that provided good, bad fun. A delight for voyeurs, the enthusiastically trashy tomes satisfied the hope that those who catch the brass ring acquire misery along with a personal publicist and a gated Bel-Air estate.
Today’s Hollywood novel is more likely to be the pet project of someone who’s made it. Some insiders-turned-authors are unduly fascinated with the entertainment industry’s bellybutton lint. Others let the business serve as a backdrop. They’re using their own lives as material, but they’re not driven by revenge.
In his novel, Bochco refreshingly observes without judging. Good isn’t rewarded, nor evil punished. In fact, the lines that separate them are as wiggly as Mulholland Drive. “The book is fiction informed by experience,” he says. “I’m nearly 60 years old, and one of the benefits of age is you learn that everybody misbehaves. You can be harsh, or you can be forgiving, but it’s gonna happen. You get to a point in life where you think, ‘Well, I’m not proud of everything I’ve done, but I’ve survived and I’ve learned some good lessons.’ You stay conscious and you learn that stuff about yourself and other people, and you become a bit more generous. You have to assume that if you root around, somewhere, in every character, you’re going to find some decency.”
Decency is nice, but the roman a clef must deliver dirt. Bochco maintains that his characters are composites, including an actor with a career trajectory similar to that of David Caruso, who famously (and optimistically) quit “NYPD Blue” to become a movie star. “I’m not going to be coy and tell you that character is a fabrication out of whole cloth, because too many people know the story,” Bochco says. “But that’s not David Caruso. That’s informed by David Caruso and three or four other actors I’ve worked with over the years, and half a dozen anecdotes I’ve heard about other actors.”
Real names are dropped too. To set a scene at the Grill without mentioning Brian Grazer, Barry Diller or Brad Grey would be like not describing the green leather banquettes. But names that get good tables at the Grill aren’t necessarily recognizable at Barnes & Noble. Perhaps that’s why the cover of “Death by Hollywood” lists Bochco’s TV credits as well as blazing his name in day-glo letters three times the size of the title.
Veteran literary agent Morton Janklow, who represented the novel, says a Hollywood name doesn’t carry a book by itself. “Hollywood suffers, as does journalism, from a belief that people are far more interested in the inner workings and machinations of the business than they are,” he says. “It’s common for Hollywood writers to write books that they think will be colossal, and often they’re not. The reason is, there’s a difference between knowing that the director and screenwriter don’t speak to each other and writing a good story. The behind-the-scenes stuff isn’t as interesting to the world at large as it is to the players themselves. Steven Bochco’s name, which is gold in the business, is not generally known in the reading community.”
Still loves his day job
At first, Bochco thought of “Death by Hollywood” as an idea for a movie. He showed an outline, which read like a short story, to his friend and occasional collaborator, writer-producer David Milch. Milch told him, “This is a novel.” After reading 10 pages, Janklow agreed. “You have no idea how rare it is to read a first manuscript from someone who writes for film or television and have it be good,” he says. “This book feels as if he’s written 10 novels.”
Bochco did write a “Death by Hollywood” screenplay after he finished the book but wouldn’t entertain offers for the rights or the script. “The magical part of this whole experience was, I didn’t have to do it. Nobody gave me any money to do it. It was just my own little private thing. If I can find that for myself again, I’ll do it, and have just as much fun as I did this time. But the moment it becomes a job, or a payday, or trying to meet somebody’s expectation, I think it’ll lose its special appeal to me.”
Anyway, he has a day job, which he has no intention of giving up. Although “Marriage,” a drama series he conceived for HBO, was recently aborted, Bochco’s production company has pilot commitments from NBC and ABC and is busy with the 11th season of “NYPD Blue.”
One of the skill Bochco has perfected in his long television career is writing on the fly. If he has 15 or 20 minutes between meetings, he uses the time to finish a scene or polish dialogue. He began his book with a modest goal of completing two pages a day. And even though he’s written and supervised countless scripts, he became as entranced as a novice by the intricacies of the book’s plot.
“I knew the end of it, but I didn’t know how to justify the end,” he says. “I also knew I’d have to figure out a legitimate way to get there without the audience -- I mean the reader -- feeling cheated. At a certain point, I became obsessed with it. I’d wake up at night thinking about it, think about it in the car. I figured it out in the shower one morning, and I went running out of the shower, soaking wet, into my wife’s bathroom saying, ‘I got it! I got it!’ ”
(Here is where knowledge of the territory can add authenticity. Were there such a scene in a novel about a successful television producer, it’s questionable how many writers who haven’t frequented the Westside’s better neighborhoods would be aware that a jog through the master suite from his bathroom to hers can cover some distance.)
Even though his major characters might be jaded, Bochco is a romantic who entertains the possibility that they could fall in love, or into friendship, as if they were innocents. “I’ve populated this book with characters that are a figment of my imagination,” he says, “but it’s an imagination that’s informed by a lifetime of experience. I’ve been married, I’ve had children, I’ve been divorced. I have friends who’ve been through difficult times and have been unhappy and then become happy.”
Bochco’s narrator wonders why the screenwriter’s unappreciated wife doesn’t leave him. “It’s a fair question,” he muses, “particularly when you’re asking it about someone else’s marriage and not your own. I’m no shrink, but I’ve been around the block a few times myself, marriage-wise and otherwise, and I think the answer is, people get scared. Scared of divorce. Scared of losing their money or their social standing. Scared of being alone. Or maybe sometimes they just don’t think they deserve any better than what they’ve got and they’d rather be in a [lousy] relationship than no relationship at all.”
The thought that readers might assume such sentiments were his own didn’t inhibit Bochco. Sitting in his office, dressed in neat, faded jeans, a pale blue polo shirt and white sneakers, he manages to project confidence without arrogance. The risk he took in trying a new medium wasn’t self-revelation but failure. “I’ve faced that risk for 30 years and had my brains beaten in,” he says. “And if you’re still standing, you do develop a kind of hide. That said, when people do like it, it’s incredibly rewarding. I find the kind of things I’m attracted to more and more are even riskier.”
“Death by Hollywood” would be a different book if it had been conceived as an angry antidote to creating stories by committee. “It’s not that I’m uncomfortable with the restrictions of television,” Bochco says. “You work with other people and you share credit and you share ideas, and what you give up in self-aggrandizement you gain by learning a tremendous appreciation for the power of the chorus. But the joy of just writing a novel -- where you don’t have to worry about the length, or notes from the censor, or other people’s opinions -- it’s very liberating. I grew up fantasizing about being a writer, and that meant being a novelist, sitting in a room all by yourself crafting this thing. At my age, to have sat down out of left field to do something like this and to have it actually turn out and to have people say, ‘Nice job,’ it’s priceless.”