Tim Blake Nelson is no stranger to the world of writing. The actor, known for his roles in films including“Syriana,” “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” and “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” is also an accomplished playwright (“Eye of God,” “Socrates”) and screenwriter (“Leaves of Grass,” “Anesthesia”).
Nelson has turned his talents to fiction with his debut novel, “City of Blows,” published by Los Angeles-based Unnamed Press. The book follows four men in the entertainment industry – actor/director David Levit, producers Jacob Rosenthal and Brad Shlanksy, and agent Paul Aiello – whose lives collide after Jacob hires David to direct a film adaptation of a critically acclaimed novel. Nelson’s book has garnered strong advance reviews, with Kirkus calling it “an ambitious, acerbic, entertaining take on the film business.”
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Nelson will launch his novel on Feb. 7 in a conversation with filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, at an event sponsored by Book Soup at Colburn School’s Zipper Hall. He answered questions about his book via Zoom from New York, where he lives; this conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
Q. You’ve written stage plays and screenplays before, but this is your first novel. What made you decide to take the leap into fiction?
I’ve been reading a novel at all times since I was about 10. It’s a form I’ve always revered, and I’ve always been curious if I’d ever mature as a writer to the extent I’d be able to write one. I got to a point when I was around 56 — I’m 58 now — where I had a play that was going to be produced, and several screenplays that I’d written that were waiting to be produced, and I didn’t want to muddy the waters by starting another scripted narrative and adding that into the mix.
So I decided to try my hand with a novel, without any expectation that I’d succeed and finish it. But I got into a rhythm with it, and a narrative began to crystallize, and a plot started to congeal. And I found myself looking forward to getting up every day and working on it.
Q. There have been a lot of novels that focus on Hollywood and the film industry. Have there been any that have stood out to you?
Nathanael West’s “The Day of the Locust” is one that really had a big impact on me. John Fante wrote a novel called “Ask the Dust” that also meant a great deal to me. And “American Dream Machine” by Matthew Specktor is fantastic. With these books, each person brings his particular sensibility, and I think mine is more from the point of view of a practitioner in a lot of different areas. Also, I’m very interested in how business works, because I think to understand America, you really do have to have an understanding of economics, because we are so resolutely a capitalist society, and stuff is valued based on the money it earns, particularly in an industry in which the product is so expensive.
It’s always tricky because you need to be incredibly specific in whatever you take on in a novel. You want to allow yourself to be abstruse enough to achieve a measure of credibility, but you don’t want to be so abstruse that the reader isn’t let in. I just read this amazing book, “Galatea 2.2” by Richard Powers. One of the things I love about him — and there’s a British author named Ian McEwan, who’s the same way — is, man, when they go into a subject, you really feel that you’re in the hands of an expert. When they write a novel, the research is kind of breathtaking. So I really wanted that to be the way the film industry was addressed in “City of Blows.” But the reader has to be able to understand it.
Q. There’s a sort of hard-boiled edge to the dialogue in “City of Blows” that reminded me of some other L.A. books, like “The Big Sleep.” Was it challenging at all to write dialogue in the context of a novel rather than in the context of a stage play or a screenplay?
I think that the dialogue in a novel shares a lot with dialogue in a play. And I love writing plays because I can just let characters go on and on and on. There’s a lot of unrestrained diatribing in “City of Blows,” but a lot of it is based on countless characters I’ve met out in Los Angeles over the years who don’t mind imitating art. They have an idea of how they should sound, and how an agent is supposed to behave, how a producer is supposed to behave, how an aspiring actor is supposed to behave, what a smart person sounds like. So there’s a self-consciousness to the dialogue that’s embraced in “City of Blows,” because I think that a lot of people out in Hollywood are performing in their everyday lives. I’ve found that the extremes to which people go, particularly in Los Angeles, which really is all about performance and presentation, usually reflect the way that people aspire to be.
Q. You’ve acted in a lot of movies that are based on books. Do you find that any part of you is more drawn to those roles?
It’s all been great source material: William Faulkner, Cormac McCarthy, even Homer. There’s always a richness to antecedent characters because you are able to mine the source material. That’s particularly true in Faulkner, because there’s so much interior reality in those novels. In the case of “As I Lay Dying,” it’s more of a cubist look at narrative because you get it from so many different angles. I’ve had to learn as an actor how to be responsible with the source material. But when you’re playing a part, you’ve got to play the part for the director directing the movie, not for the novelist who wrote the book.
Q. Your first film role was in Nora Ephron’s “This Is My Life,” which was based on the Meg Wolitzer novel “This Is Your Life.”
I read the novel and then I read the collected works of Nora Ephron, too. On my first day of shooting, I had to let Nora know that I’d read her work. So I told her this in line for breakfast, and she looked at me and nodded and clearly wanted some specifics. Eager to prove that I’d read every single word of her collected works. I said, “I particularly liked your piece on the Pillsbury Bake-Off.” And she said, “Oh, what didn’t you like about the others?’”
Q. You studied classics in college. In an interview a while back, Joel and Ethan Coen said that you were the only cast member of “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” to have read the “Odyssey.” And they were speculating whether you read it in ancient Greek or in English. Would you like to address that?
I’ve read it twice, in translation. I was a Latinist; I didn’t do Greek. Joel and Ethan read it, and I’m certain George [Clooney] and John [Turturro] read it. That’s what’s great about the Coen brothers. They’re incredibly generous guys, and whenever they have the opportunity to elevate someone else, they’ll do it, even if it involves denigrating themselves.