This month THE ARTIST’S BOOKSHELF discusses Cintra Wilson’s coming-of-age novel COLORS INSULTING TO NATURE. It’s an intriguing read, to say the least, and raised a number of thought-provoking questions. So many in fact, that I thought it my duty, as moderator of the book club, to contact Ms. Wilson and ask her some questions of my own.
ME: Okay, we’re dying to know. Because we’re all star-chasing, celebrity-worshipping freaks, we’re curious as to how much of your novel is autobiographical. (Not in the corny, James Frey, did-it-really-happen manner, but in the broader sense of a writer drawing on personal background and experience.)
CINTRA: Well, really, it wasn’t SPECIFICALLY autobiographical (I have the opposite problem as Frey – I keep hoping nobody will really connect the dots connecting any of my book to Truth). But I like to think what was real about it was the emotional wringer; all those terrible humiliations, all those moments where Liza fails to be the person she wishes she was, both professionally and morally. Nobody specific, in the book, was anyone specific, although there were quite a few composites where I Frankenstein’d two or three or four people together to make one person. The actual events of Liza’s life, and her upbringing, were….ahem….ENTIRELY different from mine.
ME: Most of your novel is set in California, which seems to be the ideal backdrop for the various coming-of-age themes you examine. Why California and not Nebraska, Florida, or New Jersey?
CINTRA: I’ve never lived anywhere but San Francisco, LA, and New York. Ya write what you know – I wouldn’t be able to describe Nebraska with any authority. Or Florida, for that matter. All I know about Jersey I learned on The Sopranos.’ But California has the special weirdness of being the state that houses Hollywood – and even if you live in Northern California, you are still subject to the spell of that bizarre, throbbing glow from over there. For some reason (maybe because I’m older) Hollywood seems a lot less important on the East Coast. But on the West Coast it really had the Power of Myth, when I was growing up.
ME: You absolutely nail the 80′s. Will history be any kinder to that era?
CINTRA: I think I was one of six people that really enjoyed the eighties. It was a fairly innocent, creative time to be a club-kid. People worked really hard to create looks that were bold and interesting – they didn’t just go out and buy a bunch of Prada shit and prance around in it. That would have been laughable. It would have looked square, boring and pathetic. Now, of course, I adore Prada, but that’s because your brain gets smaller as you get older. I think designers have been slowly but methodically taking the Power of Fashion away from creative kids, since the 80′s — we used to be able to tear t-shirts and pile on a bunch of rubber junk jewelry and rip up and an old prom dress and do outrageous hairstyles, like the punks, or like Madonna did in the 80′s – and make solid enough statements to influence the way our peers dressed. Most of our stuff came from thrift stores, and that was cool. That would be much harder now – kids have to have those $200 jeans and $4000 handbag and the like. If you had that bag in the 80′s,, it would get stolen, and everyone would laugh at you. Now everyone looks exactly the same, and it’s totally boring.
ME: With Liza you developed a stunning Holden Caulfield-like protagonist. Most of the novel seems to reflect her point of view, even though it remains narrated in the third person. Did you ever consider doing the novel in the first person?
CINTRA: Interesting. No, I didn’t want to do it first-person, because Liza’s vocabulary would have been too limiting – plus, she ages something like 20 years, over the course of the book. I didn’t want it to be a “ looking back” type fake memoir. Plus, I wanted to say things about Liza that only God could say – really get into her head and reveal all her most embarrassing thoughts and secrets in such a way that she would DIE if she knew. I was really quite sadistic to poor Liza.
ME: Throughout the novel, Liza continually reinvents herself, striving to attain fame, recognition, and stardom. Ironically, she finally gains some degree of success in Las Vegas, a city that constantly reinvents itself. What’s the most outrageous Vegas stage show you ever witnessed?
CINTRA: Breasts and motorcycles and some kind of swimming-aquarium, all at the same time. I saw Siegfried and Roy, too, but that was kind of a loser. The all-time most vomitous Hollywood performer ever, though, is Danny Gans. He’s like the comedy answer to Wayne Newton. He makes me feel as if I have been entirely hosed-down with simple-syrup and live maggots.
ME: Liza’s brother Ned serves as sort of a doppleganger/mirror image, an extremely introverted visual artist with no career ambitions. Ironically, he achieves notoriety when picked up by a gallery and promoted as an outsider artist. Here you seem to say that celebrity might NOT be so totally arbitrary after all. Have you softened your stance?
CINTRA: I actually posited Ned as my example of someone who really, really NEEDS to be left alone – not only does he not want fame, he’s agoraphobic and literally CAN’T be seen – and this is the thing that attracts fame to him. Liza would kill for it, so Fame doesn’t want her. Fame would kill Ned, so it seeks him out. Ned is also supposed to be the example of what I think is the artistic ideal: someone just very, very involved in making their beautiful thing, who has no particular vested interest in anyone else liking it. Liza tries so hard to please a hateful public – Ned simply works hard on something that is his own, pure expression of beauty, for himself. But as far as my stance, re: fame – yeah, it’s pretty random. Some people who deserve it get it, obviously. Some don’t, and some who clearly don’t deserve it are on the cover of Entertainment Weekly.
ME: In the novel, as with many of your writings, you display a fascination/horror with the concept of celebrity and its place in American culture. We’re now blessed/cursed with “ American Idol,” “ Celebrity Chef,” “ America’s Next Top Model,” “ Extreme Makeover,” and myspace.com. Where do we go from here? Any thoughts about further evolution of our concept of celebrity?
CINTRA: I think we should bring back public executions. It’s the logical next step. Simulcast them. Camus says if you’re going to do the death penalty, do it big.
ME: In The Artist’s Bookshelf, we try to pair books with exhibitions at the Walker. We’re reading COLORS INSULTING TO NATURE in conjunction with the current Sharon Lockhart exhibition Do you see any connections to her work?
CINTRA: I like the idea of kids, kind of unattended. The 80′s were more like that. Kids are under such lockdown these days. I think a lot of the things parents fear are their children having the kind of formative experiences that were actually very important for them — the parents – when they were young. Kids at that age…it looks like they’re around 10, or 11 – are very wise, complicated creatures. They haven’t yet been rendered idiotic by sex and the awful self-consciousness that comes with puberty. They’re thinking about wild, abstract things – just beginning to get a little bit defensive.
ME: What are you reading these days?
CINTRA: Oy. Lots of stuff. I’m reading “ The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time” by Mark Haddon; “ Culture of Narcissism: American Life in An Age of Diminishing Expectations” by Christopher Lasch; “ Talk of the Devil: Encounters With Seven Dictators” by Riccardio Orizio, and ELLE Décor.
ME: What’s next for you?
CINTRA: I’m working on a few things. I have a one-man show (I KNOW, I just hate saying “ One Woman” or “ One Person” – it sounds idiotic)that I’m going to be performing in NYC and, I think, the UK, called “ Contextual Retardation and Cultural Narcissism”…..I’m also doing the American version of a British hit book called “ Is It Just Me Or Is Everything Shit?” which is by two very funny chaps named Steve Lowe & Alan McArthur….the Britishisms are too thick for the American audience…also, I’m coming out with a Christmas Fable next year, tentatively titled “ You Better Watch Out.” Think of it as a cross between “ Frosty The Snowman’s Christmas in July” and “ The Manchurian Candidate.”
And the usual articles. You can finally check out my tabloid-meltdown column, The DREGULATOR, on my website now: www.cintrawilson.com. It is actually being updated regularly, for once.
ME: Thanks, Cintra.
CINTRA: Have fun with the book.
To check reviews of COLORS INSULTING TO NATURE go to:
To learn more about the Sharon Lockhart exhibit go to: