Josh Rottenberg
January 31, 2005 AT 05:00 AM EST

Bruce Wagner scopes out the art deco lobby of Hollywood’s Chateau Marmont like a hunter in a duck blind, eyes peeled for any sign of a celebrity. The legendary hotel is usually a reliable spot for catching stars in their natural habitat, but since Alan Cumming strolled by half an hour ago in a wool cap and high-water pants there’s been nary a famous face in sight. ”It’s kind of desolate,” Wagner sighs. Still, he’s not giving up just yet. ”Maybe we’ll be descended upon by Philip Seymour Hoffman or Vincent Gallo within minutes,” he says.

This kind of mid-afternoon stargazing isn’t just a diversion for Wagner; it’s research. Through five novels, he has established himself as the leading literary chronicler of the Hollywood scene, spinning dark-hued tales of a bizarro L.A. where celebrities, both real and fictitious, collide with a motley parade of wannabes, has-beens, and hangers-on. Following his ”cell-phone trilogy” of I’m Losing You, I’ll Let You Go, and Still Holding, Wagner’s latest novel, The Chrysanthemum Palace, charts the ill-fated relationship between three children of famous parents, each of them haunted by the legacy of their illustrious families. It’s a dynamic the 50-year-old author, who was raised in Beverly Hills and formerly worked as an ambulance driver, knows well. ”I grew up surrounded by the children of celebrities,” says Wagner, whose own father is a retired radio producer and whose mother works at Saks Fifth Avenue. ”I’m grateful I wasn’t in that position. If one has a neurotic bent, the burden of waking up every day under the shadow of an obelisk must be difficult, especially in this town.”

Readers will undoubtedly develop their own theories of who inspired the novel’s main characters: the son of the creator of a Star Trek-like TV series, the daughter of a screen siren, and the son of a literary giant. But aside from mentioning that he went to school with Elizabeth Taylor’s kids, Wagner isn’t much help in the guessing game. He had his fill of that with his last novel, Still Holding: ”There were people who said [protagonist] Kit Lightfoot clearly was Brad Pitt, clearly was Harrison Ford, clearly was Leonardo DiCaprio. That’s completely antithetical to the way I work. It’s just whatever people project.”

Though Wagner’s writing, which also includes the 1993 sci-fi miniseries Wild Palms, has always been steeped in the entertainment business, he bristles at the label of ”Hollywood novelist.” ”The knee-jerk reaction from critics is ‘Once again, Wagner drives a dagger through the heart of Hollywood,”’ he says wearily. ”It doesn’t matter what I write about. I could do a novel set in Anchorage and people would write, ‘Hollywood misses you, Bruce. Hurry back.”’

Director David Cronenberg, who’s developing a screenplay Wagner wrote called Maps of the Stars, about a heroin-addicted child actor and his dysfunctional family, says his work runs deeper than ripped-from-the-tabloids showbiz satire: ”Bruce is a Hollywood writer like James Joyce was an Irish writer. He uses the obsessions of Hollywood as a springboard to discuss the human condition in general.”

At this point in his career, Wagner says the ideas are coming faster than he can set them down: He has already sketched out his next several books, starting with a ”colder and more clinical” novel he plans to call Grand Mal, the sequel to his newly reissued 1991 debut, Force Majeure. As long as Hollywood keeps minting — and destroying — celebrities, there seems to be no end of material. Who needs Philip Seymour Hoffman and Vincent Gallo? Wagner’s got a cast of thousands roaming around in his head. ”I’m in an ocean of stories right now,” he says. ”It’s a nice place to be.”

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