Mackerel
Cover image by Tim Shields, CC2.0.jpeg

Timothy O'Grady & The View From Vegas

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The View From Vegas
In Conversation with Timothy O'Grady

27 Nov 2016


Cover image by Tim Shields, CC2.0, http://bit.ly/2fTmAaW

 

The city doesn’t particularly want you to see the levers and pulleys behind the scenes, but it doesn’t go to great lengths to hide them either. Everybody, after all, knows that Las Vegas is a stage and everybody’s moving too fast to care.
                                         - Timothy O’Grady, Children of Las Vegas 

 

Mackerel: What is that moment when a story you're being told comes alive?

Timothy O’Grady: That’s very unpredictable. It’s something that manifests itself in desire. A desire to tell it. I remember once playing golf with Arnold Palmer and I asked him what his greatest strength was. And he said desire. Some people believe that God created the world out of desire. Telling the story is very specific but also contains things you care about and want to articulate in some way. Desire allows you to relate to these things.

For Children of Las Vegas, the city itself was so strange to me. I couldn’t understand it. All the time I was trying to figure it out. It was uniquely impregnable to me.

And the stories were a way in.

The city always seemed to be in retreat from me.

Like a mirage of sorts.

Yes, exactly. But it was a mirage shrouded in agony, in shame, anger and distress. The imagery in the stories was very strong. For one of them, it was her aunt in pink shoes and a do-rag on her head, washing rocks and grocery bags in front of her house. Or a bottle war in a nightclub that was being overseen by a boxing commentator and a bunch of young women in short skirts waving flashlights to celebrate and see who had bought a $90,000 bottle of champagne. I asked Louis Harper (one of the story contributors) if he had any happy memories and he said, “Yes I did. I once asked my mother for $2 for food and she actually gave it to me.”

The city began to make sense through their stories. I instinctively realised the stories were not just about Las Vegas but our need for Las Vegas to exist. And implicit in this is a larger story about us. 

Timothy O'Grady, Singapore, 2016. 

So images were how you approached the city and the people?

I remember when a friend of mine, Patrick McCabe, a novelist, was in a Dublin hotel. And Harold Pinter was there. He sat down next to Pinter and said, “So what’s next, Harold?” And Pinter said, “Green chair, blue dress.”

That’s all he knew. He just saw this chimerical picture, but the writing of it would be to find out why it appealed to him. And all my novels have started with a picture I didn’t expect. A man sitting in a café or a very fat man with webbed hands trying to get into an apartment where he lived with his mother. I would see this and not know what it meant. The process of writing was to articulate why it was all so fascinating to me. 

Her Name Was Rio, by Thomas Shields. CC2.0 http://bit.ly/2fJLXhJ

How does this city that’s switched on 24/7 affect people?

The city is a cruel imposition on people. Not everybody experiences it like that, but the 24-hour nature of it is particularly distressing. What the city does is try to reverse nature. It’s difficult to find an exit in the casinos. There’s no natural light and they pump in oxygen. They try to keep you in a functionally drunk state so you’ll stay awake but not make good judgments. There’s no time, and they want everything now, with no sense of continuity.

The parents of the children I interviewed have been completely colonised by the city. They haven’t been able to keep their balance in this city that screams enticement at them all the time. So the children came to see the city as oppressive. They would look at the lights and think, those are the lights that hurt me. People would disappear all the time. Nevada Stupak’s father called and said he would be back in ten minutes and he wouldn’t appear for three weeks.

There’s timelessness about the slot machines because it’s very repetitive. Each time there’s a new story, there’s a kick in finding out how the story would end if I pull this lever and press this button. Their parents could go there getting junkie like sensations from the stories and stay there for days, eating casino food, nodding off in a chair and their children were at home eating peanut butter out of a jar with a spoon. 

Christ in Limbo, Follower of Hieronymus Bosch (Netherlandish, 1450-1516)

Sounds like a level of hell.

Exactly. One of the initial cover ideas for the book was something from Bosch, where people are perpetually bleeding to death. You never really die but the city is taking your life force all the time. It used to be run by gangsters but its now very corporate and scientific and they get psychologists to figure out how to make peoples’ addictions grow. The most successful way they’ve found above all others is sex, because the phrase ‘What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas’ is that iconic messaging that draws people in. 

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But it works! Because it goes to the part of your consciousness where my dirty little secret can be acted out full blown in Technicolor without consequences, because I’ve got the cash.

And you don’t pay the moral price for it.

Nobody makes you accountable as long as you have the means to afford it.

There are these short essays between the stories. They’re zoomed in moments to different parts of the city - infrastructure, people, and history. How did you come to choose these topics? 

I first thought of this as journalism, so it was going to be photograph and text as testimony and that would be it. I first worked with Steve Pyke (the photographer) on a similar project. But I found that with ten stories, the length and raw experiences proved too relentless. I wanted some space in the book, to have excerpts that felt cooler, more distant and objective.

There’s a Polish journalist called Ryszard Kapuściński. He wrote The Emperor: Downfall of an Autocrat, an analysis of the decline and fall of Haile Selassie's regime in Ethiopia.  And you can see the poet in it, the imaginative way he had of using forms to tell the story. And I was kind of guided by that. He had these short pieces that took things out of the specific and into the general. I was aiming for that. To make the book about something larger than Las Vegas. 

You spent some time in Singapore as the NAC-NTU Writer in Residence in 2012. Do you feel anything kindred between Singapore and Vegas? 

The message each place is sending is virtually the diametric opposite. Vegas is trying its best to be as vulgar as it can. Singapore is trying its best to be as well-dressed as it can. Vegas doesn’t want respect, it wants amazement. But the reason why this book is published in Singapore is that I met Hoe Fang (chief of Ethos Books) in 2012 and mentioned this book to him. He had been campaigning against the casinos effect on Singapore and has subsequently seen the consequences of gambling on families here in Singapore.

But Singapore does consume people, with its endless chase for consumer goods and capitalist pursuits. And I think the country does set out to wow visitors, though in a different way.

Yes, shopping here is probably the equivalent of gambling in Vegas. It’s like an endless duty-free airport. Thousands of people with empty hands just walking about. I don’t know if they even buy anything. Its extraordinary how the population gets drawn into these buildings and then stays inside for extended periods of time. 

Describe your role in the book: were you a curator, a journalist, a confessor?

Personally, it provided the answer to a mystery. Once I heard the stories, it made sense of what I was seeing. Then I asked if they were willing to be named and photographed and interviewed, assuming they would say no, but they were extremely eager to do it. The city is in such denial of the existence of these situations because it depends on this dazzle effect and anything that shatters this is meant to be suppressed and not spoken about. So people end up living in a black hole where nobody hears them and nobody wants to hear them.

Some people hesitated, but most people wanted to share. I did feel responsible to them. It’s their book as much as mine. I wanted to present them the way I saw them and didn’t want to feel bad about anything inside. I didn’t really exclude much because I wanted to present them, as they were, clear-eyed witnesses to their own lives who were looking objectively at what happened to them.

I spent hours with them asking questions and wrote down everything and recorded it. I listened and picked up and transcribed and arranged it in the order that I wanted. The pictures they made of their lives stayed with me. The technical exercise of writing their stories wasn't difficult. But I had to get the order right, at least in a way that made sense to me. I had to figure out a texture that would create some relief and intensity.

But I had such a hard time getting this book published. It always surprised me, because the stories seemed so dramatic, but publishers didn’t feel the same way.

Why was it important for the subjects of the stories to be photographed? 

I go back some way with Steve Pyke. We did a novel together, and a few pieces of journalism. I wanted to get the person to the reader, and so I felt having a face and the voice would be the most that a book could do and it felt necessary.

So it was about authenticity?

Yeah, there’s something actual about it. They don’t have to imagine the person like in fiction, so that’s a way into the story.  

Timothy O'Grady together with Joanne Harris at a panel during the 2016 Singapore Writer's Festival. 

You said in your panel at the Singapore Writer’s Festival that non-fiction intends to do something. In fiction the story exists somewhere but you have to find it. So what’s harder to write for you?

Fiction is harder by galaxies to write. I remember reading Joan Didion saying she looks at her studio door with a low dread. And that’s more familiar to me.  I wrote this book about golf and somebody said that it’s a game of mishits. Almost everything is a mishit and there are very few pure shots. But for most people, they don’t hit a pure shot ever. Fiction writing is kind of like that. You’re slightly missing most of the time. So there’s almost a disappointment sentence by sentence. You can have your thrills but they are rare. I can only think of about three or four times in my life where I’ve set down and written something for about twenty minutes that produced itself.

You have to bring much more of yourself to fiction than non-fiction. And it’s so uncertain. You don’t know where it’s coming from, you don’t know if it’s going to keep coming. You can have the technical ability but it has got to be animated by something you can’t quantify. 

You described seeing the situation in Vegas as an emergency. Would you ever launch the book in Vegas?

I would love to bring these people on stage with the mayor, and get this book into Las Vegas and see what happens. Some people who read it went on Facebook and went, “It’s not like that. We don’t live like that. Everybody’s looking for the dirt on us.”

There was a Las Vegas publisher who looked at it and said, “How do you expect people to read this? Tourists won’t like it. Residents won’t like it. Who do you think is going to buy it?” He was furious at me for even asking him to read it.

He was probably looking for the next Hangover, something seedy but also fun.

It seemed to me that this is a matter of life and death with these people. They are living lives that are utterly unacceptable but at the same time they are utterly innocent. So it seemed like an emergency in that sense, especially given the projected image of the city: 

'Everything is great, everything is wonderful. If you have a fantasy we’ll make sure it can be delivered to you.' 

That's a colossal lie, and the stories in the book are the proof that it was, and still is, a lie.

Reflections by Richard Ricciardi, CCV2.0, http://bit.ly/2fJPdte

Give us your dreamers, your harlots and your sins
Las Vegas
Didn't nobody tell you the house will always win?

Brandon Flowers,
Welcome To Fabulous Las Vegas

Children of Las Vegas is available online from Ethos Books and at all leading bookstores in Singapore.