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Festival of Books

A Hollywood of the mind

The Writer's Life: Matthew Specktor drives past the boyhood landmarks he repurposed in his L.A.-set novel 'American Dream Machine.' Reality and fiction commingle.

April 19, 2013|By Carolyn Kellogg, Los Angeles Times
  • Author Matthew Specktor at the site of the old Creative Artists Agency building in Beverly Hills.
Author Matthew Specktor at the site of the old Creative Artists Agency building… (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los…)

Specktor will appear at the Festival of Books on Sunday at noon on the panel "Fiction: Inside Hollywood" with Adam Braver, Alex Espinoza and Nina Revoyr. More information:

Matthew Specktor knows the offices of talent agency CAA — past and present — like his own backyard. That's because, as son of top agent Fred Specktor, they practically were. He ran around in the hallways; he worked in the mail room. And although that it set him down the not unexpected Hollywood producer path, what he really wanted to do was write. Books.

In "American Dream Machine" (Tin House Books, $25.95), Specktor's second novel, the business of Hollywood is essential to a story about fathers and sons, passion and ambition, friendship and failure. A talent agency is at the center, and the ups, downs, outs of one agent in particular, Beau Rosenwald, who is by turns steely, inexplicably charming and surprisingly vulnerable. Beau's boys — by different mothers, of course — grow up together, as closely and complicatedly bonded with one another as their father is to his business partners.

It took Specktor, a native who grew up on the Westside and attended Crossroads School, half a lifetime to figure out how to turn his personal experience into fiction. A bookish student for as long as he can remember — he was reading Mark Twain in first grade — Specktor found himself trying to get a handle on writing at Hampshire College in Massachusetts.

"I had a pool of L.A. experience," he says, "but I didn't know what to do with it because it's not what literature was made of."

In "American Dream Machine," the city provides both the setting and the texture of the story. The book strives to be of Los Angeles rather than about Los Angeles.

Specktor agreed to take me on a tour of his Los Angeles. On a fine spring day, we visited places that appear in the book and those that helped inspire it. Well, we didn't exactly visit — we drove past, in his Prius. This is Los Angeles, after all.

"When I was here, the only Crossroads building was that one. That was it," Specktor says of his old school as we drive past a modest brick building set apart from the more splashy Crossroads compound in Santa Monica. "The people who taught here were interesting; they were like the grown-ups to whom my geeky little self attached." They taught him Latin; they showed him Fassbinder films. "Crossroads was my intellectual sphere," he remembers fondly.

But not everyone who attended when he did came away with the same aesthetic sensibility. "Michael Bay was a year ahead of me," he says as we drive toward a residential area of Santa Monica.

In the novel, a trio of boys grow up together; the narrator is Nate, an observer trying to make sense of the world around him. "This is Nate's house. My house. It's exactly the same," Specktor says excitedly. He clearly didn't visit this street while writing his novel, leaving his memory to construct the white, two-story traditional-style house with the square green lawn. "The trim was green, not blue, but it's crazy, it's basically just the same old …," he trails off. "That's not the sort of house that you go, oh, a Hollywood mogul lives in that house."

"When my parents bought that house in 1970, the neighborhood felt entirely middle class." He describes characters in the book, despite being major figures in Hollywood, as being "homely" — in the old sense of the word, meaning commonly seen or known.

"One thing I did not want the book to do was to be too inside," he says, careful not to use the inside-Hollywood phrase "The Biz." As he deftly navigates the traffic clogging around the 405, he tells me he thinks he's found the right balance. "Now that lots of older Hollywood people have read it, what I get is, How do you know that? How do you remember that?" He laughs, as if amazed by his luck. "It's conjecture. Responsible, fictitious conjecture."

We drive into a residential pocket of Century City, past the house where his family lived when he was very young, updated and mostly hidden from view behind a new fence. He used to play on nearby Crestview Court — a child his age lived in every house, and the street was their domain. This afternoon, the tiny dead-end street is empty. Specktor, who's now a parent, shakes his head ruefully. "The idea that we would just play in the street!"

This free-range childhood of California in the 1960s and '70s is part of the book, but it's not without its consequences. There are power struggles between children that seem invisible to the adults around them as well as the threat from adolescent skate toughs.

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