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Writer's Rantings Draw Raves

Authors: Caleb Carr is never short of things to go off on--L.A., the movie business, other writers, even serial baby killers.

November 05, 1997|SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Caleb Carr is down on Los Angeles.

Then again, it is hard to believe that Los Angeles even has been targeted, even has been given a particularly prominent rank in the author's disaffections.

Carr is of the genus Angry Young Man, species New York. He is such a New York guy that it's hard to believe Los Angeles or anyplace else even registers on his radar screen.

Give us a good Angry Young Man, New York style, any day. They need a good spanking, is what they need, but we end up feeding and caring for them instead, putting them on the bestseller lists. Carr's 1994 thriller "The Alienist" was on the New York Times bestseller list for 24 weeks; it sold 1.5 million copies in paperback alone.

In his new book, "The Angel of Darkness," he returns to the cast of characters from "The Alienist," now on the trail of a suspected baby killer. But back to the subject at hand:

"People in Southern California are far meaner than in New York," Carr says, and this is the least of it. "They are, for the most part, nasty, back-stabbing, mean-spirited people."

I tell him not to hold anything back.

"I was here for the Northridge quake, living in Beverly Hills," he continues. "No one came out of their homes to check on their neighbors! In New York, nobody would check if things were normal, but in an earthquake, everyone would be in your business.

"If something bad happens in New York, people are nice to you, which is when you need it. In Southern California, people are only nice to you when things are going well and you don't need it."

(He's not finished yet.)

"There's a constant sense of competition in Los Angeles and most of Southern California, a rampant insecurity. Ninety-nine percent of the men in this town are adolescent sexual neurotics. I'm sorry, but it's true! Half of the women who move here become lesbians, the other half complain that they can't find a man! No wonder! It's like one big frat house."

He seethes for a moment, and then notes that he writes "very much out of anger."

But what is he so angry about?

"Brutality, injustice, people who use positions of trust to commit abuse."

Ah! The last point brings us 'round to the stove burner on high: Carr's love-hate relationship with Hollywood, which he has called "the creative quagmire."

"I have been a lifelong movie nut and have read a lot about the movie industry. I always believed the people who ran it understood movies and I was not prepared for how ignorant they are about the literature of their own product. When you go into a story meeting and you make a reference to some classic movie, what you get is a bunch of blank faces. They don't watch movies, particularly old movies. They might as well be making underwear."

Carr did some development work in New York, as a reader in Paramount producer Scott Rudin's East Coast office. In 1990, a play Carr had written was adapted for TV and was produced after being completely dismantled. ("At least," Carr says, "I did the dismantling.")

"It was about some kids who get hijacked by terrorists, but you couldn't say anything negative about Arabs, and children couldn't hold deadly weapons. . . . It became a ridiculous example of corporate homogenization."

After that, he started working on "The Alienist."

"I expected it to provide a stipend so that I wouldn't, like so many scriptwriters I know, have to take jobs with ignorant executives."

But his first love was still the movies.

"You won't find many writers who love movies as much as I do," Carr says, momentarily relieved of anger.

(He's a good-looking guy, with his long, brown hair and glasses that scream intellectual, but I'm here to report that he is even better looking when he's hopping mad.)

"Movies formed much of the imagery that I use in my books. I just don't have the same love for written literature that I have for movies. Language doesn't particularly thrill me in and of itself. I'm a storyteller," he emphasizes, "not a writer."

He sold the movie rights for "The Alienist" to Rudin, "with great trepidation and with his pledge that if the initial writer didn't work out, I would be brought in. Scott will tell you a different story," says Carr, "but he has had three writers and at least six drafts--none of them done by me. He never fulfilled his pledge to bring me in.

"Just recently, I contacted him and tried to bury the hatchet. Now we are negotiating ways for me to get involved. I want the initial shot at directing the project as well as a chance to write it. One thing I'll never be in this town again is 'just the writer.' "

Rudin, it seems, is even angrier than Carr. "I don't want to get into a verbal pissing match, but we are not negotiating ways for him to get involved," Rudin says. "There is absolutely no conversation."

One wonders whether Carr's experience in publishing can be half as bad.

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