Coerte V. W. Felske

The very dapper Coerte V. W. Felske lives in New York City. He is the author of three novels: The Shallow Man, Word, and now, Millennium Girl. There has been no shortage of controversy surrounding the publication of his work, since Felske writes about subjects that are upsetting or morally objectionable. His first amusing novel, The Shallow Man, was about a man, Nick Laws, who was obsessed with models, and gave us the term "Modelizer."

Right away, Felske's work seems destined to be filmed like authors like Nick Hornby and Chuck Palaniuk, who I think he somewhat resembles if any. His novels were a pleasant shock to me when I read them years ago. Felske was also good at coining terms and creating comic situations. He took his sharp observational skills and turned the focus on Hollywood and its hangers on, in his second novel, Word. Heyward Hoon is an unsuccessful screenwriter who gets hired by a producer to procure some women. Again, this wild and humorous look at what it takes to make it in movies is given the Felske touch. Both novels are now being made into films. His new novel,
Millennium Girl, is mostly about goldiggers, women who travel around the world in search of wealthy businessmen. Bodicea is a girl from a small town who is just about at the end of her window of opportunity, her twenties, and is desperate to marry a "walletman" before she turns thirty. Poignantly, Felske shows us a glimpse of this jetset world where people like to mix love and money. I talked to Coerte Felske recently in a cafe in Soho, where we talked about all the buzz around his work.

AL: There is a certain sensationalism about your work. Are you ever worried that there isn't enough literary content?
CF: I think my books are, for the modern age, as literary as it gets. You can talk about the masters of old: I would guarantee that Doestoevsky or Fitzgerald, or anyone like that, wouldn't be writing like they did back then right now. It's much more of "sound bite-y" world. I don't think that I'm trying to adapt a style for that world, but I'm a product of it. There's so much more information being thrown at us. I wouldn't discount my books as being non-literary. If you look at today's writers, can you find someone who's delivering page for page the way I am? It's hard to find.
AL: How would describe your writing style?
CF: My books are about the voice and it seems conversational. People may think that it's easy to do or not labored over. But when you get into the guts of someone's persona and you have that inner core, the bile of someone's life, thrown out over 400 pages, it may seem really easy to do, but in reality, finding that voice is just as difficult as laboring over a lot of sentences, and going through a thesaurus and looking for better words. I don't do that. When I find a voice, I lock on and that's the guts of my subject.
AL: You have a background in film and you wrote some screenplays?
CF: I did. I started out at Dartmouth College as a Romance language major, where I did my thesis in Italian on recent trends in Italian cinema. I read tons of literature in both French and Italian. That led me to Columbia film school, where I was interested in directing films, and I took classes with Milos Forman for two years. I became a screenwriter as a result of that. But really when I left screenwriting, I found that the novel format was much more suited for me. I always felt that screewriting was a limited bastardized form of literature. A whole new life sprung up for me because with novels you can play with language and words, which was what I was good at, rather than telling a story or showing character's motives visually, which is what you have to do in screenwriting.
AL: I think that some of the objections with your novels, especially The Shallow Man, which is about models, and Millennium Girl, which is about gold diggers, is that some find that these characters are involved in some form of prostitution. Especially when you hear stories about the Elite Modeling Agency and the whole business surrounding Darva Conger and Who Wants To Marry A Millionaire. What do you think about that?
CF: They were all specific stories to me and I never thought of it that way. The women in my stories have been the driving force: the Catsuit Feminist in The Shallow Man, and Teal in Word, they're far from being prostitutes. In the end, they are triumphant. You mentioned the guy who got nailed at Elite Agency. I like to know that my stuff is being reflected back to us. That stuff has been going on for years at all the agencies. The Shallow Man was not so much about models, but about the male mentality of a guy who is beauty-obsessed and model-obsessed and how fucked up that drive can be. With Word, it's all about people going to Hollywood, who do things that might push the envelope on soul salvation. My books are accurate anthropogical surveys of what is out there in terms of the types of characters. Millennium Girl is about a small niche of women. It's a piece of literary documentary of women who I interviewed for a magazine. With the research I did, I found out what they were up to, and then I created a modern heroine in Bodicea. This prostitution angle I don't agree with at all.
AL: Your characters seem to have some family history issues that they are trying to avoid or change. Do you believe in certain Freudian ideas that heredity and family are a bigger influence than environment and free will?
CF: I'll have to side more with the genetic school. I think that people are mapped out when they are born. And this will help and that will hurt somewhat, but eventually people get back to what their genetic map is and their behavior. That is hereditary, without question. Nick, from The Shallow Man, and Bodicea, are both from small towns and not financially advantaged. Heyward Hoon, from Word, is different, but I didn't want to make him the son of dying Wasp fortune and privilege. I am "gene" guy. You don't fall far from the tree. Parental help and guidance and counseling early on can guide you, but your whole deal is cut from early on is my feeling.
AL: What about people who have effortless talent versus someone who works harder for the same effect? Stendhal once said: "Twenty lines a day, genius or not."
CF: It's been my experience that in this society the one who works harder will show the fruits of success for a longer period than the one who has this gift. If they are not properly dealt with and encouraged, they can be one-shot wonders. They could be like shooting stars across the sky and then you don't see them again. I like the people who have the drive and the work ethic.
AL: Did you go to some of these places in Millennium Girl like Aspen and Ibiza?
CF: Not Ibiza, but Aspen, St Tropez, Gstaad, St Moritz. My word for it is "The Digger Tour." All the girls knew where they were going next. There's all these places like Miami and even Brunei, that they would talk about. So I was in Aspen, having fun myself, and I saw this flock of women and they had this thing going on. They were showing up at all the parties and they didn't necessarily know that many people. So I was acting sort of undercover, and this whole world and subculture was revealed to me. What I wrote about girls going to Brunei was very accurate, and I was miffed that the lawyers took out two crucial points out of the book: first, that the men never wear condoms, and second, that there was so much anal sex going on over there that these women would have laser surgery before they came back to America. These things were taken out of the book. So much much has been written about Brunei, that I wanted to really show how horrifying it is. International businessmen travel from all over to Brunei as guests to the Royalty there. These girls show up at 7pm in evening gowns. They get tapped on the shoulder and that's it. They get paid very handsomely, but.... that's out and out prostitution. Again it's what is the price for the soul? My books on the whole are about fractured people. You have people crying out for their own individuality and their finite resources, and it's a Darwinian competition. People will be forced into situations which may be morally objectionable to make it. It's a gray area, but I try to give it humanity. These are universal drives that are not too far from our lives.
AL: Do you feel that Millennium Girl is the best book of the trilogy since you wrote it from the point of view of a woman and it seems a little bit more ambitious?
CF: I wouldn't change a note of what I wrote. I'm proud of all three. I think that they showed something about our culture at a certain time. I don't think that I would have been able to write in the first person as Bodicea, if I didn't explore the other various themes in the prior two books. Getting the voice of a woman was a challenge. I'm happy with them the way they are. I don't go back and think I should do this with The Shallow Man. At the time I explored many options. Everything is in there for good reasons.
AL: You've probably talked about this in regards to your books: there is a peculiar language to each work that is part buzzwords and like a secret code that the character relates the story in. Are these words that you have made up or have heard people use in the various scenes that you have studied?
CF: Sure it's invented. But you notice in situations in life or in any occupational business that you're involved in, there's a language. I wouldn't say buzzwords, but when you spend a day with someone in a completely different profession, you heard the crackling language out there. I find that totally fascinating. It's good to float away while reading fiction and discover a world that you don't know about. In film, you don't have the same canvas you do when you're writing a novel. These playful words are a significant part of my novels, something that either Doestoevsky or Fitzgerald don't do, but I feel it makes literature more exciting. The buzzwords didn't come before the subject matter. It came along during the process. Fifty percent came from the milieu or the occupation, and the others are invented by me.
AL: You have written a few screenplays, published three novels, finished a fourth, all in the space of five years. How fast do you work?
CF: Word was delayed for over a year. Yes, I am, at worst, a book a year guy. Without question. I don't know what all these other writers do with their time? To me, it's like "Get on with it!" I hear about people working on a screenplay for a year or a book for three years. I can imagine if I got into research, if I was so far out of my element, that I needed all that research, and I was trying to be Tom Wolfe, and trying to throw the encyclopedia at you, it would take more time. I seek out the psychological interior of characters, what moves human beings, and the cry for the soul. That what I want to be in my book, not the encyclopedia. That's where I want to be. Stuff like Michael Crichton which tries to incorporate new technology doesn't interest me. It's first character, then plot for me.
AL: What do you think of writers who teach creative writing courses or ones who may be jealous of any writer who has success?
CF: When you talk to them about the subject of writing or any other writers they just throw out this envious bile, which may be valid to some degree, but usually is so saturated in their own struggle, that it's sometimes hard to take seriously. When people are critiquing you, sometimes it's a cry from their own soul. I have seen stuff about my books on the Internet. There was a GQ writer last year who just went off. I had great reviews for just about everyone with the Word book. This guy was just anti-this and attacking me personally, and people just see what's up so fast. It's just as relaxing having that appraisal, because in the end, readers aren't that stupid.


Mike said...

Whatever happened to this dude? His books were great.