While the idea of being sucked into a story is hardly new, James Greer’s new comic novel Bad Eminence (hardcover, Kindle, audiobook) may be the first where the blurring lines between reality and fantasy take influence from such French New Wave movie directors as Jean-Luc Godard. In the following email interview, Greer — who, you should know, is a former co-worker of mine — discusses what else inspired and influenced this admittedly odd novel.
Photo Credit: © Thomas Early
To start, what is Bad Eminence about, and when and where does it take place?
The simplest way to describe the plot is to say that it’s about a translator who starts working on a new English translation of Alain Robbe-Grillet’s novel Recollections Of The Golden Triangle — and then the plot of that book starts happening to her. It takes place in a version of our present day. Naturally, she starts to wonder what if any of what’s happening is really happening, which is another way of wondering about the nature of reality itself. So in a way, it’s a book about the nature of reality itself. One which contains, at the end, the secret of life. I call that a bargain.
Where did you get the idea for Bad Eminence, what inspired it?
A Parisian friend of mine told me that she went to high school (in Paris) with the famous French / British movie actress Eva Green, and that Eva has a twin sister. And further that everyone in high school assumed the twin sister would be the movie star because she was much more outgoing than Eva, who was apparently bookish and shy. No idea if that’s true, but I thought it was a fun idea for a character. That’s how it started. How it went from there to the weird meta narrative I ended up with is a mystery I’m not anxious to solve.
Aside from the Eva Green thing, is there a reason why Vanessa’s sister is a famous movie star as opposed to a famous TV star? Or, for that matter, a famous musician or famous athlete or someone who’s famous for just being famous?
The reason is, as I mentioned, her character was based very loosely on a Real Person, and that person is a movie star. But beyond that there’s no particular significance to the choice, except that, if you’re going to resent your twin sister for “stealing” your life, it might as well be the most glamorous possible life to have stolen.
Bad Eminence has been called a literary satire, but it sounds like it’s more odd that funny, and that it’s not at all jokey. How do you describe it?
I think it’s a comic novel with some serious underpinnings, rather than a serious novel with comedic interludes, if that makes sense. I do think it’s funny. But it’s also odd. Vanessa can be very funny in her misanthropy and general grumpiness. I also don’t like the idea of satire, which to me is more of a lesson, in the sense that satire usually has a didactic purpose, whereas Bad Eminence, to me, is more of a parody, which is a game, or even an affectionate homage. A pastiche, even. Now I’m just throwing out words.
Bad Eminence is your third novel after Artificial Light and The Failure, though you’ve also released a short story collection called Everything Flows. Are there any writers, or specific stories, that had a particularly big influence on Bad Eminence but not on anything else you’ve written?
Off the top of my head, I’d say Renata Adler, Eve Babitz, Joshua Cohen (in particular The Book Of Numbers), Jennifer Egan’s The Candy House — and of course Robbe-Grillet, but only in the sense of opposition.
How about such non-literary influences as movies, TV shows, or games? Did any of those things have a big influence on Bad Eminence?
There are definitely a lot of filmic influences. In particular the French New Wave movies of the ’60s. Godard is one of my all time favorites, but there’s probably more specific influence from Alain Resnais (especially Providence and Last Year In Marienbad), and Agnes Varda (Le Bonheur in particular). Because screenwriting is my day job, there are likely more movie influences than I consciously intended, but I will say that because screenwriting is often an extremely structured discipline, I like to take advantage when writing novels of the complete freedom the novel form allows you.
I don’t have a TV and I don’t play board, card, or video games, so I can’t claim any influence there.
Speaking of movies, you’ve written or co-written a number of screenplays, including for the new movie Mirror Moves, which you also directed, as well as Unsane, which Steven Soderbergh directed. You just touched on this a little, but I’ll still ask: How do you think writing movies may have influenced how you wrote Bad Eminence?
I think, to continue my previous thought, more as a break from what I have to do when writing a movie. First, with a script you have to tell a coherent story (usually), and second, you have to tell it in such a way that it unfolds predictably in 90 to 120 minutes. So the movie-writing influence on Bad Eminence is more of a negative one, though I’m sure certain habits or tics carried over from my screenwriting. I did my best to stamp them out, but you know how tics are.
Steven Soderbergh has a role in Bad Eminence, as does actress Juno Temple, who was in Unsane. I have to ask, is this your attempt to do your own version of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and if so, where does Mirror Moves fit in?
I also refer to my first novel Artificial Light in Bad Eminence. I like when everything connects together, but I am not (yet) enough of a megalomaniac to think about constructing my own universe, cinematic or otherwise. With Steven’s liquor, Singnai 63, I just thought (and luckily, he agreed) it was an opportunity to lampoon the idea of Sponsored Content, and with Juno, I thought it would help further blur the lines between reality and fiction if I put a real actor in with a fictional one. Juno, in addition to being a supernal talent, is a very generous human being who was kind enough to grant me permission to use her likeness, or a version of her likeness, in my book.
On a serious note, I did want to ask about Mirror Moves. What is that movie about?
Interestingly enough (to me, if to no one else) there are certain parallels between the book and the film, though they are completely different in terms of “plot,” however loosely defined. Mirror Moves was inspired by the story of the Green River Killer, who was active in the Pacific Northwest in the ’80s. Extremely prolific. I wasn’t so much interested in the actual serial killer (serial killers are boring, and in my opinion already get too much press), but one fact caught my attention: He was married to a woman for fifteen years and she had no idea her husband was a serial killer. None. So I thought…that’s an interesting idea for a film. We witness a fictional version of this woman as she comes to realize over the course of a police interrogation that her husband is in fact a notorious serial killer. And then we see, subjectively, her mind fracture as she tries to deal with that realization. So it’s another story about what’s real and what’s not real. With no real answer.
And where can people see it?
The screening we did the other day in L.A. was a test preview, meaning the film isn’t actually finished, and I just wanted to get some feedback from friends and other humans. It’s being submitted to several of the usual festivals as we speak, and its distribution will depend on its reception at these festivals. Here’s hoping.
So are you thinking that you’d like to write and direct a movie version of Bad Eminence?
No, because it’s literally unfilmable. I mean, it could probably be done, but it would take someone much more talented than I am and with a much bigger budget than I can access.
The thing is, if you did direct the Bad Eminence movie, you’d get to decide who stars in it. So, who would you cast as Vanessa?
Probably Jodie Comer [Killing Eve]. If anyone could pull off the character of Vanessa, she could.
So, is there anything else you think people need to know about Bad Eminence?
I’d advise keeping a large dictionary close at hand. Vanessa has an enormous vocabulary and she likes to show it off. In more than one language.
Finally, if someone enjoys Bad Eminence, which of your other books would you suggest they read next and why that one?