A Novel Is a Long Slow Dream: A Conversation with William Kotzwinkle

By Collin MitchellDecember 23, 2023

A Novel Is a Long Slow Dream: A Conversation with William Kotzwinkle

Bloody Martini by William Kotzwinkle

AN ONLINE SEARCH for “William Kotzwinkle” conjures a handful of winning photos. One in particular features the young, mop-headed writer grinning from behind thick, black-framed sunglasses. The undated image of a young Kotzwinkle resembles “Boon,” Animal House’s (1978) sardonic frat boy who sings along to “Shout” using a beer bottle as a microphone during the film’s emblematic toga party. Swaying to the beat of the fictional band Otis Day and the Knights, Boon exaggerates the rakish style of a storied Greenwich Village, the neighborhood that arguably embodied literary cool in midcentury America. It’s also where, coincidentally, Kotzwinkle started his career. “My living room lampshade was a silk-screen print of a Tibetan male deity embracing his consort,” William Kotzwinkle, the actual living writer, told me in a written interview. His latest novel, Bloody Martini, came out earlier this year. “I’d painted the room red. This was the state of my world—intense. Manhattan was a teacher, powerful but essentially indifferent. You made it or you didn’t; it couldn’t care less.”

This definitely describes the guy in the glasses.

Bloody Martini, the follow-up novel to 2021’s Felonious Monk, features Kotzwinkle’s latest lead, Tommy Martini, a Benedictine monk with anger issues. The novel balances wit with darkness, motifs rare in a genre where comparable authors sometimes write like they got their cultural references from a subscription to USA Today. Over a 50-year career, Kotzwinkle has written nearly two dozen novels, a handful of produced screenplays, and numerous children’s books.

Kotzwinkle was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, in an era when residents considered fumes from the city’s waste coal dumps “mildly annoying.” In the mid-1960s, Kotzwinkle moved to New York City and caught the acting bug after reading lines with his roommate at the time. That’s when he had “the realization that beauty could be caught like a firefly in a bottle.” The young Kotzwinkle tried his hand at acting: “[And] my roommate had his own realization that the jock he had for a roommate had been bitten by the Muse.”

Kotzwinkle is perhaps best known for his novelization of Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), and its follow-up, The Book of the Green Planet, a book-only sequel published in 1985. The novels have won the acclaim of critics and fans for the care they take in depicting the empathetic, humanlike qualities of the titular character. This tracks with Kotzwinkle’s other work. As a writer, he has a penchant for the first person. A couple of his novels—The Fan Man and Doctor Rat share something similar in their voice with intense depictions of inner thought. “Only the mad truly know their world,” Kotzwinkle said in our interview. “We on the outside may be sympathetic or horrified but we can’t match the mad when it comes to originality.” I asked if he thought the breadth of his work was in communication and suggested that he might actually be an alien who can write. “I need to be heard,” Kotzwinkle answered. “If I had no audience, I’d still write in the hopes that the aliens you mentioned would finally explore the planet and find a thumb drive containing my novels. ‘Commander, we uncovered some interesting material, primitive of course, but worth taking a look at.’”

Kotzwinkle started publishing in the late 1960s. He earned critical acclaim for his 1974 novel, The Fan Man, and in 1977, he was awarded a World Fantasy Award for Doctor Rat. His 1989 novel, The Midnight Examiner, captures in part his first job as a writer: “I worked as a writer for a sleazy tabloid newspaper. All of our content was bogus. The editor would dream up ridiculous but intriguing stories and tell me to write them. My first assignment was ‘South American Woman Gives Birth to Puppies.’”

This kind of over-the-top exuberance evokes the spontaneity of Horse Badorties, The Fan Man’s protagonist. The novel reads as a satire of 1960s counterculture, although Kotzwinkle corrects me on this point. “I wasn’t writing a send-up of the counterculture,” he said. “I was mirroring it. The Fan Man outwits his landlord, outrages common decency, suffers from countless compulsions, and through it all makes lovely music from another century.” This sums up the ethos of the book’s hero, excluding the absurd belief that Horse holds about his handheld electric fan helping to create beautiful music. He believes the $1.95 item can change the world. The guy’s the ideal optimist because, for better or worse, nothing will stand between him and his mission, no matter how absurd or complicated. Kotzwinkle creates a similar dynamic with the insidious Doctor Rat, who vainly preserves his own disillusionment that he has nothing to do with the harm done to his fellow lab animals. The novel’s voice is both naive and insidious; Doctor Rat can’t shake the belief that he’s done nothing wrong. “If I can get someone to believe this,” Kotzwinkle said, back on his days as a tabloid writer, “I can write anything.”

His latest novel, Bloody Martini, is a tightly plotted thriller-noir. Tommy Martini has been working on his anger in a Benedictine monastery in Mexico; to fulfill the dying request of his best friend (and rich guy) Finn Sweeney, he now returns home to Coalville. Sweeney beseeches Martini to locate his wife, Bridget Breen, who had been the subject of Martini’s own desire in high school. During his quest, as Publishers Weekly put it, “Martini fends off local goons, bought-off cops, and politicians who want him dead—in particular, Brian Fury, the sadistic district attorney who couldn’t pin Martini for murder” a decade before. Besides finding Breen, Martini also makes the moves to take out a local prostitution conspiracy. It’s a lot for one guy. Despite his best efforts, Martini tries to keep cool and not kill anyone. But Coalville is a rough place. “I was three whiskey sours into the night and feeling the promise whiskey gives,” Martini says before meeting a debauched drug addict for intel on Breen. “In Coalville, if you aren’t half drunk by nine o’clock, you’re out of step with your ancestors.” Despite the austere sadism of the novel’s world, Kotzwinkle’s dialogue is funny, bantery, aware of its own artifice: “You think he’s dumb enough to keep a murder weapon around?” asks Duke Devlin, whom Martini describes as “a blood-freezing Irish wiseguy from my childhood.” Devlin continues, “He’s the kind that says goodbye to his turds before flushing. He’d never get rid of a gun he paid good money for.”

I asked Kotzwinkle how he keeps his finger on the cultural pulse. His answer was invariably spectral. “Wisps of present popular culture cling to my fingers, go up my nose, settle in my lungs,” he said. “I have to admit something powerful is going on with youth. It overwhelms my nostalgia for yesterday and plants me firmly in the now.” This spirit was likely with him when he was an upstart novelist. “When I used to walk across Manhattan, I felt an intimacy with the streets,” he said.

Jorge Borges puts it so well: “Everything […] entered my vain heart / with the clarity of a tear […] making it real like a legend or a verse.” I knew, with every step I took, that I’d been given sufficient clarity to describe the legend that was developing around me. This became The Fan Man. My other books came about in the same way—something entered my vain heart with the clarity of a tear—and I had to describe it.

This vanity may be familiar to most writers. Like he said: “I wanted to be heard.”

What’s most attractive about the Martini series is that the hero is as much a good guy as he is a brute. At times, he reads like a textbook response to the “likable character,” someone who checks all the boxes for human decency. “As for the Felonious Monk series,” Kotzwinkle explained, “I wanted access to Martini’s dark and light angels, those voices all of us have in our heads. I thought, nobody can tell this guy’s story better than he can. He has just enough education, just enough poetry in his soul to handle it. Anything fancier would be false.”

Toward the end of our conversation, I asked Kotzwinkle about being both a screenwriter and a novelist, someone who, over time, has come to primarily write novels. “A novel is a long slow dream in which I can wander around looking for lost parts of myself. In that sense, my novels are autobiographical but they are the autobiography of my fictitious self,” he said. Finally, I asked him what’s the most surprising thing about his career. “Walter the Farting Dog selling two million copies,” he said about the enormously popular children’s book. It’s like nothing else described here. No surprise from a guy who likely wears his shades to a house party.

LARB Contributor

Collin Mitchell is a writer based in Southern California. He contributes literary criticism and reviews to the Los Angeles Review of Books and Publishers Weekly and is the author of the historical novel The Faithful (2018). He holds an MFA in creative writing from UC Riverside.


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