The first thing you see when entering Barry Gifford’s writing studio in West Berkeley is the portrait of Jack Kerouac.
There isn’t a computer on the desk or a television mounted on the wall. A small portable CD player is the only concession to the modern age. Otherwise the studio resembles a dorm room circa 1992, stacked with books — many of them foreign editions of the 60 or so titles Gifford has published over his career — and decorated with posters and postcards.
“It’s like a collage,” Gifford tells me. “Everything becomes a collage. It’s people I like to remember and think about who are inspirational to me in some way.”
The 71-year-old, Chicago-born writer was drawn to the Beats because Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs were educated people who celebrated their influences. “They’d had this academic experience that I didn’t have. If they said Dostoevsky, I read Dostoevsky.”
Although it’s mainly writers and musicians on the walls, two of Gifford’s best known works are tied to movies, both collaborations with the filmmaker David Lynch: the adaptation of Gifford’s novel “Wild at Heart” and his original screenplay for “Lost Highway.”
Like its author, “Wild at Heart” has an improbable origin story. Gifford checked into a hotel in Southport, N.C., at the mouth of the Cape Fear River to work on a book about sport fishing he’d been contracted to write. But when he woke in the morning his imagination was roiled by the voices of a young couple. He started writing and knew he was on to something special. He called his agent to see if he could get out of the fishing book. When the publisher balked, Gifford decided to send back the advance and keep working on the novel.
Those voices became Sailor Ripley and Lula Fortune. In their first scene together in the Cape Fear Hotel, Lula thinks, “The world is really wild at heart and weird on top,” which serves as succinct a guide to Gifford’s oeuvre as you’ll find. But Gifford wasn’t done with the star-crossed lovers. He would write a total of seven Sailor and Lula novels and an eighth, “The Up-Down,” published in 2015, told from the point of view of their son, Pace.
When David Lynch inquired whether Gifford would be interested in writing the screenplay for “Wild at Heart” he was in the middle of writing its sequel. “I said [to Lynch], ‘You write it and send me the screenplay and I’ll tell you what’s wrong with it.’ And he said fine.”
“Wild at Heart,” starring Nicolas Cage and Laura Dern as Sailor and Lula, won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. A sequel was made into the gritty film “Perdita Durango” by Álex de la Iglesia starring Rosie Perez, James Gandolfini and Javier Bardem. The movie made Bardem a star and brought Gifford great acclaim in Spanish-speaking countries.
While saying no to David Lynch seems like an unorthodox way to establish a career, it’s part of a pattern of following his instincts that has guided Gifford all of his life.
Gifford went to the University of Missouri on a baseball scholarship but dropped out before the end of his first year to pursue music in Europe. He worked in the merchant fleet for the money and then would go back to Paris or London. He made his way to San Francisco in January 1967 planning to ship out to Asia but was captivated by the cultural revolution happening in the city and decided to stay. By 1968 he was writing for Rolling Stone. He eventually married Mary Lou Nelson, a native San Franciscan; they have four adult children.
Gifford’s Chicago accent has been flattened by all his years on the West Coast, but he sounds like he could have been one of Nelson Algren’s drinking buddies, especially when talking about what he calls “the underclass.”
It’s not an affectation or pose. Gifford’s father was involved in organized crime and his mother was a beauty queen. Even before his father’s death from an illness when Gifford was 12, he had a peripatetic existence. “I was born in a hotel, lived in hotels all through my early life. And so my mother and my father would be gone at night. I would stay up all night watching movies on TV. … From a very early age — 5, 6, 7 years old — I was just watching movies, and I think that’s how I developed my sense of narrative.”
As an autodidact, his ideas never seemed to fit in with the status quo. After writing about a trip he took in the ’70s to Kerouac’s hometown of Lowell, Mass., Gifford was approached about writing a biography of Kerouac. He turned it down.
“I said, ‘I’m not a biographer, but I have an idea … I would rather do an oral biography of Kerouac,’ and the publishers in New York didn’t understand what I was talking about.”
Penguin rejected the idea and the book, co-authored by Lawrence Lee, was published “for a pittance” with a small publisher. Penguin ended up acquiring the title, “Jack’s Book: An Oral Biography of Jack Kerouac,” in 1979 — and it has never gone out of print.
Then in the ’80s, Gifford parlayed his love of film noir and pulp fiction into an effort to find a wider audience for writers David Goodis, Jim Thompson and Charles Willeford by launching Black Lizard Books. He published 80 titles in four years, including Thomson’s “The Killer Inside Me,” bringing a literary sensibility to crime fiction that influenced a new generation of writers and filmmakers. (In 1990, Black Lizard was sold to Vintage, which slowed the frenetic pace of its reissues and many are once again out of print.)
While movies and books served as a surrogate parent for Gifford, they also supplied him with a template for his own stories about the underclass peppered with snappy dialogue and frequent outbursts of over-the-top violence. Many of his best-known novels are short — about the length of a screenplay — and consist of tight, modular scenes packed with information. In other words, they are stories made up of stories.
Gifford has spent much of the last decade working on a series of very short stories about a boy named Roy, most of which are just two to five pages in length. Seven Stories Press published “The Roy Stories” in 2013, but in quintessential Gifford fashion he realized he had more to say. “The Cuban Club,” which was published late last year with the paperback coming out in the fall, adds 67 more tales.
Although Roy shares many autobiographical details with his author, Gifford insists they are works of fiction. “My feeling has always been the same. The truth is in the work. People always say, ‘Oh, is this true or is that true?’ That kind of thing. The truth is in the work.”
Gifford isn’t slowing down, and his work is in demand. He is working on a libretto — his third — for an opera as well as a novel: a western that’s “very different from my other work.” There’s even talk of a Sailor and Lula series for the small screen.
“I really don’t make plans. I’ve never made an outline. I’ve never known where the story was going, where the novel was going to end up. I never wanted to know,” Gifford says. “I just started writing when I was a kid and I’m still doing the same thing.”
Ruland is an author and host of the reading series Vermin on the Mount. He lives in San Diego.