Thumbing a ride to Hollywood
by Jeff Baker
Years ago, Walter Kirn studied with Gordon Lish, a legendary writing teacher known for pushing his students out of their comfort zone.
"He told us to think of the most embarrassing thing about ourselves and write about it, that the rest was (garbage)," Kirn said. "I didn't take him up on it, but later I was casting about for something to write about and I realized that the most embarrassing thing about myself was that I helplessly, publicly sucked my thumb until I was 20. It really dominated my life because I lived in fear of doing it automatically in front of the wrong person. It was bizarre. Little did I know it would turn out to be a good metaphor."
Kirn's second novel, "Thumbsucker," is full of good metaphors for modern life. Published as a paperback original in 1999, it became a word-of-mouth success (pardon the pun) that was made into a movie, much to Kirn's surprise. He had nothing but praise for the way director Mike Mills retained the spirit of his novel while eliminating large sections of it, and had fond memories of visiting the set in Oregon.
"We wanted some moody, typically overcast Portland weather, and what we got was blue skies and blazing sunshine," said Kirn, who had a cameo as a debate judge. "It was a heat wave."
Mills told the online magazine Salon that during a low point in his attempt to get the movie made, Kirn told him "none of us really knows what we're doing. We're all just guessing. That's all it means to be human." Mills was so inspired he wrote Kirn's speech into the movie as dialogue between Keanu Reeves and Lou Pucci. When Kirn heard the story, he laughed and said, "Well, I did say that."
One element of the novel eliminated from the movie was the family's conversion to Mormonism. Kirn's family converted when he was 12, and questions of religion and faith inform much of his work, including his new novel "Mission to America" (Doubleday, $23.95, 271 pages). Kirn said he moved to Montana in 1990, two weeks after local cult leader Elizabeth Clare Prophet predicted the world would come to an end.
"When you think the world's coming to an end, it changes your outlook on lots of things," Kirn said. "You can charge your credit cards to the max because you'll never have to pay the bill."
On a more serious note, Kirn said that "because I was a Mormon, I was more aware of the way people use faith to create separate realities. Right now, America is a patchwork of separate realities. Where I live, we've got people who cut wood and pump gas, and people who fly in for a weekend in a private jet and don't have any contact with anyone else. Or look at New Orleans: Those people were living in a way that people who go to Bourbon Street have no idea even exists."
Besides writing novels, Kirn is a critic who regularly reviews books for The New York Times. His pleasant experience with "Thumbsucker" notwithstanding, he is unhappy with "the way movies have made a science out of storytelling. I can't write that way. I don't write with any premeditation."