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Steven Bochco, novelist -- it's par for the course in the year of the Hollywood novel.

August 31, 2003|Mimi Avins | Times Staff Writer

There is bad news in the capital of envy and schadenfreude: Steven Bochco has written his first novel. As if 10 Emmy Awards and credits as co-creator and executive producer of "Hill Street Blues," "NYPD Blue" and "L.A. Law" weren't enough, now he has turned out a too-sexy-for-prime-time amorality tale that publishers fought over as they lavished the rookie author with praise and multibook deals.

Those who don't choose to see the recall as the defining California event of 2003 could claim this as the season of the Hollywood novel, when mysteries, satires and fictionalized histories of the movie business crowded bookstores. In June, screenwriter Gigi Levangie Grazer's "Maneater" and producer Robert Cort's "Action!" hit the shelves; in July, Leslie Epstein's "San Remo Drive" was greeted with stellar reviews. Epstein is director of the creative writing program at Boston University, and his father and uncle were the Oscar-winning screenwriters best known for "Casablanca." Director and screenwriter Bruce Wagner's fourth Hollywood novel, "Still Holding," will be published in November.

Bochco's "Death by Hollywood," out Sept. 9 from Random House, is the latest addition to a genre nearly as old as motion pictures: stories that dissect life behind the scenes. Yet despite its title, its author's resume and a cast of characters that includes a tortured screenwriter, a trophy wife, a blackmailing Lothario, an adulterous AMW (actress, model, whatever) and an A-level agent with a repertoire of snarky in-jokes, is Bochco's new baby really a Hollywood novel? And what is that, anyway?

Judging by a passel of them, from the antique to the freshly minted, the label is a little like social anxiety disorder and other "garbage diagnoses" the medical establishment assigns to ailments it can't quite explain. The best of the latest would be as entertaining if they were examining the sexual proclivities, mood swings and spending habits found in other ostensibly glamorous ZIP Codes. In an interview in his office on the Fox lot, Bochco says his novel "isn't a story in which the central plot is driven by the fact of Hollywood. I suspect that I could transplant this story, with minor changes, into almost any environment."

But we aren't just anywhere. We're in 90068, where screenwriter Bobby Newman is drinking too much and writing too little. His lucky break makes Courteney Cox's career-making boogie with Bruce Springsteen look puny: Spying through an electronic telescope from the balcony of his home in the hills, Newman observes two naked strangers in a house across the canyon. They mate, then argue. One of them smashes the other's brains in with an acting award several status points below an Oscar. (Death, be not small time.) Instead of reporting the murder, Newman writes a screenplay about it, researching his script by getting close to the killer and the LAPD detective on the case.

As the mystery artfully convolutes, it often isn't clear who's the manipulator and who's the manipulatee. It is obvious, however, that Bochco understands how "the business" works and harbors amused affection for the most desperate of his schemers. His agent-narrator's jokes wouldn't be as funny without the sting of truth. To wit: When he explains to Newman why the director having an affair with Newman's wife is the more valuable client, he says, "if I lose credibility with this guy, he'll start bad-mouthing me all over town. And the next thing you know, my calls aren't being returned.... Suddenly I can't afford my kids' school, I can't make my mortgage payments, and my wife dumps me for Ron Perelman."

Bochco admits that having the freedom to riff and quip about his metier -- and about surgically augmented breasts, marriage gone stale, power funerals and the creative high to be found in the zone -- made spinning his story easier and more enjoyable than any writing he's ever done. Yet he doesn't quite see his book as a Hollywood novel. "It is less about Hollywood than it is set in Hollywood," he says. "Obviously, I chose Hollywood because it's an environment that I'm intimate with, and I can more easily find a comfort level in an environment I know a lot about. But here's the thing: People do really make more of Hollywood than it deserves. Hollywood is a company town where we make films and television. If you're in Detroit, you're in car land. In New York, you're in the financial world. In any place where a business dominates the culture of the town, the behavior of the people will be specific to that business. But the behavior isn't really specific. As a writer, you have to locate the logic of behavior for your characters, and if you have it, there's going to be an inevitable reality to what they do. Character drives story."

Tinseltown as a backdrop

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