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Smooth Operator

Hold the phone.

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Bruce Wagner

Photo By Laura Peterson

NEW YORK — Next to an Oscar statuette, the cell phone might be Hollywood’s most important object, at least in the Hollywood according to novelist Bruce Wagner, whose so-called cell-phone trilogy — which includes “I’m Losing You” and “I’ll Let You Go” — concludes next month with the release of “Still Holding” (Simon & Schuster).

Wagner’s books aren’t necessarily about phones per se; they’re more about the loneliness of living in a world of surfeit and superficiality. “I’m compelled by the rawness of human emotions and the largeness of personalities and depravity that can occur in a town where the intersection between gods and paupers is so pronounced,” Wagner says, by phone, of course, from his Los Angeles home.

The novelist, who also wrote the miniseries “Wild Palms” in 1993 and has made two independent films out of different sections of “I’m Losing You,” feels the titles of his books, which certainly have a sense of humor, also convey an emotional weight. “I was talking to an old girlfriend on the phone and she said, ‘Well, I’ll let you go,’ and it was so heartbreaking because she was in a bad place when I talked to her. It’s one of those things you say when you feel worthless and that the other person’s time is so much more valuable than yours,” Wagner adds, before call-waiting beeps.

“Can you hold on one quick second?”

After a moment, he’s back.

“‘I’m Losing You’ is a title that can stand for many things: for a relationship, for a life. ‘I’ll Let You Go’ is a sort of acquiescence to that notion,” Wagner goes on. “And ‘Still Holding’ refers to this idea that we hold on to so much in the space of our own death to make it better. We hold on to our attachments.”

Wagner’s books aren’t all “unceasing darkness and cynicism and satire,” as he likes to say.

“I’m not a morose person by any means, and I think if someone would meet me and then read my books they would not put me together with the person who wrote those books. Not to start any rumors that I’m not the author of those books.”
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The novels chronicle the intersection of celebrities and “real” people and the ways in which our idea of movie stars transforms them into fictional characters, whether in our own heads or in Us Weekly.

“Celebrities are archetypes and, in Hollywood, because they go to the grocery store and they go to the car wash and we run into them, the lines become blurred. We project so much onto these people. A lot of my work is about the confusion of the personal assistant to a celebrity who suddenly, because of the behavior of the celebrity, feels that they are the celebrity’s friend.”

Though “Still Holding” features its share of depressing subplots — a thinly veiled Brad Pitt goes into a coma, an overweight personal assistant goes off the deep end — there’s also the wry characterization of a Drew Barrymore look-alike who moves to Hollywood, only to be cast in a Spike Jonze movie about celebrity look-alikes.

“I’m an Aries, so I’m attracted to twins and doubles,” he explains. “I did an essay some years ago for Talk magazine about celebrity look-alikes, and I found their stories to be tremendously poignant. The notion of these people coming to Hollywood to act and the only job they could get was impersonating someone famous became a kind of weird metaphor for existence.”

Though Wagner has lived for years on the outskirts of Hollywood — “in terms of my socioeconomic status and my status in the business itself,” he elaborates — things are only now beginning to accelerate. Paramount and Fox Television bought “I’ll Let You Go” for him to make into a television series; David Cronenberg wants to direct one of his original screenplays; Wagner would like to adapt “Still Holding” for the screen, and he’s been working on two non-cell phone novels.

That’s not to say he’s abandoned the concept altogether. “I might put together a collection of short stories about Bud Wiggins, a character in ‘I’m Losing You,’ called ‘Bud Wiggins, Returning,’” Wagner says. “In showbiz, when you get a call back from someone, they always say ‘Sherry Lansing, returning.’” And if Wagner hasn’t already gotten that call, it likely isn’t far away.
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