Interview of Patrick Nathan for The Future Was Color

by Jun 4, 2024Interviews

Patrick Nathan’s second novel, The Future Was Color, makes facing and accepting our perpetual apocalypse feel sexy. When we first meet the protagonist, George Curtis, formerly György Kertész, a queer Hungarian Jew who fled Budapest during World War II, he has already witnessed the end of the world more than once and has made a career of imagining new cataclysms, writing scripts for science-fiction films. Sentence by intricately dazzling sentence, Nathan renders 1950’s Los Angeles cinematically, following George as he navigates the cool, breezy, laconic tensions and anxieties that fracture and bind the small world of Hollywood in the McCarthy era. He and his fellow writers carry notepads to jot down flashes of inspiration, or to document unusual, unamerican behaviors. Everyone has secrets, but the seductive, drug-laced atmosphere of Hollywood blows those secrets wide open, giving the characters equal opportunity to tease out their pleasure or their destruction. The Future Was Color is a novel about witnessing, again and again, our own destruction, and yet it magically allows us to face it each time and feel hope, to feel we must engage with the world we share even as it self-destructs. Or, if you ask Nathan, “this is a novel about being horny for the entire planet.

Stephen Patrick Bell: You credit The Bad Waitress, a diner in Minneapolis, for planting the seed of a question that grew into TFWC. Can you talk a bit about how that curiosity turned into a novel? 

Patrick Nathan: Right, the origin story. This diner used to be around the block from my apartment, and I got in the habit of going there. Even after I moved, I went back regularly—to eat, to write, to hang out. I wrote most of Some Hell there, a lot of short stories, and the novel I wrote after Some Hell. Their whole thing was pulp—B sci-fi movies, dime novels, the old Hollywood monsters, whatever. I’d seen these movie posters hundreds of times, so I don’t know what made this time any different, but I looked up at a poster for Earth vs. the Spider and noticed that the screenplay was by László Görög—an incredibly Hungarian name. The movie came out in 1958, and it didn’t take much imagination to understand what a Hungarian was doing in Hollywood in 1958. I wondered what it would’ve been like to leave a cosmopolitan city like Budapest under such apocalyptic conditions, only to end up in Southern California. What does that do to a person’s mind? And what if he was gay and horny? Those things together are essentially what drove the novel in its earliest conception. 


SPB: There are hints throughout the novel that George’s story is being told on his behalf. How did you land on this framing and what freedoms and constraints did it afford you? 

PN: I’ll get to this, I promise, but we have a couple hurdles ahead of us. First, I want to say I learned the hard way that I’m not a “vomit it up” kind of writer; I tried that with my first novel, Some Hell, and ended up writing the same shitty book several times because I wasn’t giving myself time to think about what I was doing—sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph. I’d never finished a draft of a novel before, and it meant a lot to me just to get all those words on a page—without thinking much of the words themselves, beyond some precious sentences I ultimately cut anyway. So when it came to newer work, or work that came after that first novel, I was more careful. I no longer had the anxiety that I couldn’t do it, at least in terms of the bulk of the thing. Turns out it’s actually pretty easy to just put words in an order on a page without thinking of them, but editing that kind of mess is—for me—virtually impossible. So I decided, when I began writing the next book—which exists but no one has read—to hit as close to the target as I could with that first draft. For the most part, this is how I work now. It means

searching around for a first sentence and writing that sentence over and over, in different ways, in different styles, even different points of view. Then that expands into a paragraph, which I write over and over; and then a page—likewise. So the first page takes a very, very long time—months, if you count the long stretches where nothing happens, at least nothing on the page. But then once it arrives—the voice, I guess, or the style—the writing happens quickly, and for the most part looks like it does in the version people eventually read. If I’m lucky enough to get to that point, anyway. 

You asked about the narrator—who is indeed not George, the novel’s protagonist, but has a voice, has an I. There really was no philosophical thought behind this, initially. It just came out of that process, that search for the novel’s style. Eventually I realized there was something missing from the sentences I was writing—something off in the rhythm—and it was in adding those recursive pauses in the narrative: “George told me”; “he said”; “he explained”; “he began.” It made me think of Salter’s Sport and a Pastime, the narrator who’s there and isn’t, who’s lying and isn’t, and how that functions in the novel. Obviously it functions differently for Salter’s novel than it does for mine, but it gave me a looseness, a distance. And then I realized I could use this narrator to dilate and contract time, and of course to talk to the reader or listener, however you want to imagine that. It wasn’t until later on that I realized how much work the narrator was doing in service of the story’s larger themes—probably because I didn’t know what those themes were. But it all came out of style. It sounded wrong, or flat; then someone stepped in and said “George told me,” and it gave just enough texture to the sentences to make them pleasurable to write. 


SPB: Define: precious sentence. 

PN: I want to say you know it when you read it but unfortunately most people don’t, or don’t seem to. If I had to generalize, I’d say a precious sentence is one written in imitation of the style of an author one reveres—not just enjoys, but reveres—but because of the author’s own lack of style, the sentence is wearing that style rather than is that style. It’s a sentence you can blow on or tug on and the disguise falls free. Racoons-in-a-trenchcoat stuff. 


SPB: Speaking of, you’re the sort of writer with a command of language that makes it easy to take fun detours that could, in someone else’s hands, feel messy, tortured, and overwrought. Instead, they flow like swift, glassy rivers of ice melt. I wanted to share a favorite passage and make you talk about it. 

It’d begun to snow – a wet, warm fall so low you could pause it if you tilted your head at just the right speed, and fill the air around you with tentative, hovering flakes unsure of where to land. We’ve made a mistake, György imagined the snowflakes would say, and we are very sorry, we must go back to our own heaven where we were born


SPB: What insight can you give me into the mechanisms at play in your head and on the page when something like that makes it into the book. 

PN: It’s funny you’d ask me to define a precious sentence and then find the one sentence in the book that I still feel uncertain about, the one where I maybe reached too far, or simply didn’t finish. I think about that sentence a lot. I don’t know that I earned the snowflake voice. It’s the word “heaven.” Who’s born in heaven? What does that mean? Even rhythmically it’s off—the one two-syllable word in that clause, galumphing trochaically alongside the other, surer words. Thanks for pointing it out. (As a side note, this is fun—I wish I could be this mean when I talk about other writers’ books.) 


SPB: You talk about sound in a way that makes me wonder how much poetry you read or write. What role does music play in your writing practice? We see György brush up against the jazz scene and I’m curious if there was a playlist you had in mind for different characters or settings. 

PN: Not only did I start as a poet but as a musician, if you could call it that. In the basement where I lived, I wrote and recorded multiple albums in my late teens. Trent Reznor is as big of an influence on my early writing as JT LeRoy, Laura Albert’s creation, whose books made me want to drift from music into novels. The structure of music—particularly the unit of the album or the symphony, the “big work”—is extremely influential to me as a writer, particularly as a novelist. Every novel I’ve written, published or not, has a musical structure, or at least it does to me. It helps me modulate the pacing, the tone, the shifts in emotional register, the moment when you need a rest, all that. This doesn’t mean that I have a specific album or even playlist in mind; it’s more like having written a lot of music (a long time ago, admittedly), I perceive the structure of my novels in those metaphors. 


SPB: Some Hell ends in LA and TFWC starts there. Are you angling to become an LA novelist? Is there a screenplay rattling around in you? What is it that draws you and your work there? 

PN: Aside from all the historical aspects of the novel—that a lot of Jewish artists and intellectuals moved there to escape the Holocaust and ended up working for the movies—there’s something apt in placing a character who’s interested in science fiction in a city that’s never felt all that real, that’s always had an aura of fantasy. In Some Hell, Colin and Diane are on the run, in a way. Throughout the entire novel they’re on the run from themselves, but this culminates in a sort of semi-literal escape; what starts as a vacation turns into hiding. Part of that is the seduction LA offers—its beauty, its light, and its strange chimera of history and historylessness, especially through the eyes of Midwesterners like them (and like me). They start to pose themselves, almost consciously, as though they’re being watched, as though they might be judged on their impersonation of someone who might live there. For George, in Future, there’s a bit of a parallel; he’s playing at being a Hollywood writer, blending in as much as possible, this alien from another place. It’s just a feeling, of course, an aura, but in my fiction LA seems like the one city where everyone is foreign, no matter who you are, because no one belongs. It’s not a home so much as an extended rental. So it’s easy to put people there and have them act like visitors, foreigners, observers. The foreigner, the visitor, the alien—some of fiction’s oldest tropes, its most familiar narrators. I guess Freud would like a word. 


SPB: The book’s cover, a Hockneyesque image that conjures the languid seductive qualities of mid-century Los Angeles and the indulgence of the Hollywood set, captures the Los Angeles you’ve written so perfectly. How involved were you in selecting this image? 

PN: When it’s time to select a cover, usually the publisher sends a handful of comps—four to six versions that are all sort of variations on a theme. This is after you fill out a cover questionnaire, which always seems like something you fold up into a little airplane and throw into a fire—which is fine, since authors never know what they want. But unless you have an actual picture in mind, something that you know you can license, you’re usually waiting for the

designer to send along whatever the publisher is able to—license, I mean. And this Jonathan Wateridge painting—combined with the syrupy, melted candy color palette—was just absolutely the one. Then I had to ask my husband what was wrong with the font. I have no language when it comes to fonts—I just point and indicate distress. But he was able to articulate what wasn’t working in the font they’d chosen, and with some back and forth we arrived at this cover. 


SPB: We should also talk about your (shirtless) author photo. Reactions to the back of your book I’ve observed range from “slutty!” (complimentary), “slutty!” (derogatory), to “cute boy!” (observational). Were you trying to match the cover? 

PN: Who said slutty-derogatory? I need names. 


SPB: I have to protect my sources. 

PN: I was trying to match the mood of the book, I guess, more so than the cover—though it works with the cover as well. It’s a cropped version of a nude my husband took with a Fuji Instax while we were on a strange hike in the desert. I’m totally stoned in that moment, which is probably why it’s the only author photo where I look relaxed. I wanted to look relaxed. I didn’t want to look insane, which is how I feel I’ve looked on the backs of both of my other books. It’s fine to look insane if you’re writing about suicide or fascism, but not so much pools and parties. 


SPB: I just want to compliment your party scenes. You might want to consider only ever writing parties, yours are so fun to read. What were the most and least fun scenes/sequences for you to write? 

PN: Thank you. I did have a lot of fun with the parties in this book, particularly the Vegas party. I was sort of shocked I could sustain it for almost 40 pages, especially in a book that barely breaks 200, but it just kept getting weirder and the guests kept getting more interesting. But I’m not sure if anything was not fun, or the least fun. This is a strange book for me in that none of it felt like work—except maybe incorporating some editorial feedback, which ultimately helped the book but always feels, in the moment, like getting sent to your room as a ten-year-old. But the writing of it, that was just one pleasure after another. Maybe because the whole thing was a procrastination novel. I’ve alluded a few times to there being another novel—which, by the way, doesn’t take place even partly in LA; maybe that’s the problem. This other novel is a monster. The current draft is 460 pages. It has maybe a dozen narrators. It’s almost more of a prism than anything else. It will probably become nothing but I’m not ready to let go. But Future was my escape from that project, and the entire thing felt like a warm bath. 


SPB: We have to talk about Madeline. She’s such a powerful character, bending the entire world of the novel around her, despite never truly being the star she was so clearly born to be. Did you always know she was going to be pulling the strings? 

PN: Madeline gradually took control of the novel, or at least its direction. Maybe momentum is the right word. Bending the novel around her is a great way to say it, actually, since she has a gravity only one other person in the novel seems to have. Both capture George in their orbit and don’t let go without some disaster. But no—when I first thought of putting her in the novel, she didn’t play the part she does now. She was supposed to be more of a background character, or even just serve as a setting—a place for George to be, rather than a person to challenge him. But I’m glad she did.


SPB: The narrator says of Madeline, “I never met her. I didn’t want to. I knew, from George, just how charming she could be.” What is the great danger of charm? 

PN: It’s all a balance, isn’t it? Every time we meet somebody there’s that risk of change, of being altered. This is what Maggie Nelson gets at in The Argonauts. But charm, I think, is a special case; charm is closer to what art does than what a person does: charm, like seduction, is a one-way force. The person being charmed is much more vulnerable, much more at risk, than the charmer. This is sort of what magnetic characters are always up to in fiction—or in movies and TV shows, for that matter. They seem like “whole” people among unfinished persons, people desperate to complete themselves. Because of that, they tend to rub off on everyone around them; they are the constants who allow for change, no matter the cost. We’ve all met these people in real life, too, where they tend to be a lot more dangerous. 


SPB: You mentioned the horniness. It permeates. Your characters are plagued with it. Even when they’re abstaining, “this tension increased to a ring or a drone you could almost hear, until [they’re] sweating with piety, with chastity.” Scarcely a page into the book the reader is given a clear idea of George, what he does, what he observes, and what he desires. Observation and desire are laced with danger – it’s the 50’s, McCarthyism – but there is a thrill that comes from flaunting what the dominant culture deems unfit or impure that many of the characters indulge in. “Several times, György caught himself smiling at a party or ballet or art opening, sitting there with his champagne or his martini. Nobody could know, he thought to himself, what he carried swimming inside him. It was an almost excruciating excitement to be among the rich, among the civilized, a used and fucked thing put away wet, his legs trembling, his lips swollen.” How did the banality of horniness match up with the specificity of the novel’s various settings? 

PN: Being horny is a sort of attitude, a way of facing the world—a geil sein, I guess. It’s one of the rawest and, like you said, most banal ways of being interested in what’s around you, of wanting to be part of it or belong to it. It’s a way of wanting to enjoy the world. I didn’t really realize it while I was writing, but it’s very much a novel about wanting to enjoy the world, even if it feels like you’re not supposed to, even if everyone and everything around you tries to elicit guilt or suffering or abstention. So much of style in a novel (or any other artform) is the way the writer positions themselves against the world. I don’t mean “against” in any negative sense, exactly, but certainly an abrasive one—a way of resisting, of pushing back, of slowing down. The rock in the river, as I wrote in Image Control. The stick in the spokes. Asking for pleasure in a world of guilt is part of that style, I guess—or at least it’s George’s style. Life is terrible; and it’s a lot of fun. 


This book has a number of sex scenes which are rendered beautifully and serve the story well, but I’d like to take a moment to focus on the jellyfish sting. It is a moment that manages to incorporate pain, humiliation, generosity, care, shame, vulnerability, and desire, then ties it all together with an erotic ribbon. With that and the other scenes in mind, can you talk about what sex and eros are doing, how they function, in your work? 

PN: That entire sequence—the boat trip, the island, the dinner by the water—is probably the most benignly decadent in the book, so much so that it threatens to erase or occlude George’s political convictions. Everyone just really lives, that day. And it felt appropriate, even realistic, to try something new—for everyone in the scene. At least I assume it’s new to all of them. Jack and George and Walt and Jacques are all sort of primed, by then, ready to enjoy anything, and it felt right for it to unfold (or flop out) the way it does. Again, it goes back to that geil sein, a word I didn’t know I needed but will now use all the time. Your eyes literally dilate when you’re horny for someone. This is a novel about being horny for the entire planet.


The Future Was Color by Patrick Nathan is available for purchase here

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