CALIFORNICATION IS A STATE OF MIND: Interview With “God Hates Us All” Author Jonathan Grotenstein… by Marco Mannone
So Showtime has a little series called “Californication” about a compulsively hedonistic writer who also happens to be a devout family man. Maybe you’ve heard of it? Tom Kapinos created the splendid walking contradiction that is Hank Moody, who is played with mellow charm by David Duchovny in a performance that makes us forget he once chased aliens for a living. Struggling to reignite his earlier success, Hank is constantly torn between settling down with his girlfriend and daughter, or letting his raging id steer him into one sexual collision after another. Currently en route to its fourth season, the series has become one of the hottest on cable and has recently spawned a literary spin-off in the form of Hank’s infamous novel, “God Hates Us All”. That’s right. You can now purchase and read the book that put Hank on the map, with his very name on the cover and a brief bio on the back. And it’s not only a bona fide work of fiction, but a damn good one at that.
Fans of the raunchy-yet-bittersweet comedic series will be able to decipher some semi-autobiographical back-story on Hank’s youth in New York, but the novel defiantly stands alone as its own narrative, independent of the show. This is thanks exclusively to the novel’s real writer, Jonathan Grotenstein, whom I had the pleasure of sitting down with at a coffee shop in Eagle Rock to discuss the nuts and bolts of his creative process. Jonathan’s story centers around a young, nameless narrator living in New York City in the late 80’s. He is a blue-collar kid with a psychotic ex-girlfriend, an adulterous father, a flirtatious best friend and no real direction in life. Recklessly quitting the food-service industry, he finds himself running pot all over the city for a powerful dealer called The Pontiff. This new vocation affords our narrator the ability to move into the famous Chelsea hotel, and to begin consorting with a colorful cast of characters that shade-in the term “sex, drugs and rock n’ roll”. But his newfound life in the fast-lane comes with its heavy share of heartache and stark, personal revelations. From one writer to another, our conversation went something like this…
MARCO MANNONE: How did you get the job to write Hank Moody’s infamous novel?
JONATHAN GROTENSTEIN: I got the job because of the relationship I have with the editor on the book. The first book I ever wrote was “Poker: The Real Deal” with Phil Gordon, and the assistant editor was a woman by the name of Cara Bedick. Cara became an editor in her own right, and she was given “God Hates Us All” as sort of her first book that she was going to shepherd through the process. She needed to find someone who could work quickly and cheaply.
MM: How long did you have to write it?
JG: It’s for a division of Simon & Shuster called Simon Spotlight, that generally has really, really tight deadlines. Probably not more than four months (for a nearly 200-page work of fiction).
MM: Were you a fan of the series before you ever got this job?
JG: Yeah, I watched all of the first season, and when I started writing it, the second season was just about to get underway. I liked the show. I have to confess I didn’t love Season One, but as I was writing the book and watching Season Two, which I thought was much stronger, I very much fell in love with the show. Also getting to meet Tom Kapinos, who created the show, and sort of hearing his voice and realizing what he was trying to do with it, helped develop an appreciation for it. But yes, I had seen all of the episodes (at the time) before I was ever approached to write it.
MM: What aspects of the show did you connect with — as a male, as a writer, also living in Los Angeles… any specific aspects you could identify with?
JG: Yeah. I mean, I like to think that one of the reasons Cara thought of me was… Hank and I are similar in certain ways and very different in other ways. I’m not in any way the ladies man that Hank is, or as brilliant as Hank is supposed to be, but I definitely have my angry moments, my darker moments. I didn’t have an old, beat-up Porshe that I was driving around, but I did have an old, beat-up Mercedes convertible that I was driving around. I’m a guy from New York who’s been out in L.A. for a while, and sort of has the same kind of love-hate relationship with the city that he seems to have. I’m also a recovering entertainment industry person. I found that industry to be a lot more bullshit than I could tolerate. I think that helped me relate to where Hank was coming from, as well.
MM: In the series the book’s story is never revealed. How much freedom were you allowed to create it from scratch?
JG: A lot. An insane amount of freedom. I’m not even sure how much a huge fan of the book Tom Kapinos is. First of all, it’s very hard for him because Hank is his baby, and has a very specific voice, and he thought of the book in a very specific way. And having someone else write that, I think… He wasn’t going to write it, not in three months or four months. But he had a very definite idea of how he wanted it to be, and the sort of tone it should have. We met once and talked about it on the phone a couple of times and exchanged a bunch of e-mails. Ultimately, I latched onto the idea that Hank was a writer in the 1980’s, the late 80’s in New York City. The book that Tom and I sort of hit on was (Jay McInerney’s) “Bright Lights, Big City”, and he thought that was a book that Hank might have written. There’s another book called “The Fuck-Up” (by Arthur Nersesian) so I went back and read “Bright Lights, Big City” and “The Fuck-Up” and I thought, alright, if Tom thought that Hank would have written those kinds of books, then I’m gonna sort of go in that vein. But you know, I’m not the writer that Tom is, especially when it comes to Hank’s voice, so I was forced to go with things that I knew. And a lot of the book are things that are semi-autobiographical to my life, or people that I’ve met or encountered and I had as much leeway as I wanted. Especially with the first draft. With the second draft after Tom had a chance to read it, we sort of figured out some ways to help what I had written converge with the idea he had for the book all along.