“SO SORRY,” writer Joshuah Bearman e-mails after he forgets about our interview. “I’ve stood up someone exactly twice before, and have been stood up a couple times too, and it’s terrible. I could still meet, if you aren’t peeved …”
A year ago, Bearman might have made the same mistake and it wouldn’t have seemed like such Hollywood behavior. But ever since Wired magazine published his nail-biting account of “How the CIA Used a Fake Sci-Fi Flick to Rescue Americans From Tehran” in 2007, and it became the Oscar-winning movie “Argo,” well, Bearman has hit the big-time. He has since optioned nine other projects based on his work as a journalist.
When we finally come face to face later that same afternoon, Bearman is sitting in the far corner of Fix Coffee in Silver Lake eating a turkey-and-cheese sandwich. I can’t resist teasing him about his tardiness and his treif.
“My dad keeps kosher,” Bearman says as cheeky consolation. “My stepmom keeps kosher, too. They’re very Jewish.”
You might say Bearman owes the start of his career to Judaism. While in graduate school at Columbia, he published his first piece — an interview with his physicist father about the elder’s work studying the Dead Sea Scrolls — in the fourth issue of McSweeney’s, the prestigious literary journal founded by author Dave Eggers.
“The issue basically came out the same time [that Eggers published] ‘A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius,’ and his career obviously exploded,” Bearman recalls.
So did Bearman’s. The issue containing his maiden story also included work by authors Denis Johnson, Haruki Murakami and George Saunders, winning the mag easy praise as “the voice of new generation,” Bearman recalls, and loads of attention. “I didn’t even know who all these people were.”
Bearman didn’t have the bookish childhood one might imagine for a successful writer. When he was 9, his parents divorced, and he and his brother Ethan moved from their native Minnesota to Pasadena so his father could work for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. His mother stayed behind, got involved with a drug dealer and soon became a severe alcoholic prone to disappearing. Oftentimes, for months on end, Bearman wouldn’t know where she was. His father eventually remarried; his mother regressed into her illness. She also had another child, Bearman's half-brother David, whose tumultuous childhood led to chronic legal trouble. Bearman detailed their tale of woe in a wrenching personal piece for "This American Life."
Growing up surrounded by turmoil eventually took its toll. Angry at being cheated out of childhood, Bearman left his father’s house at 16 to live with a friend, who was experiencing early-onset schizophrenia. “It was a wacky household,” Bearman recalls of his brush with other family dysfunction. After high school, he enrolled at Cal Poly Pomona, moved in with a girl he met on the first day of classes and got a job at Pizza Hut. “That’s a weird scene out there,” he remembers. “I lived all summer on pizza, in a s----y apartment complex, watching, like, ‘Hellraiser 3’ on cable.” He flunked out within the year.
“I wasn’t really ready for school,” he says, looking back. “I grew up late. It probably had to do with the fact that I didn’t grow up with my mother.” But, even since his mother died a few years ago, he says, he hasn’t spent much energy investing in the psychoanalysis of it all.
“When I look back on what I was doing, it seems like a totally different person,” he says. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do; I didn’t know anything.”
Bearman eventually transferred to UCLA. “I basically clawed my way back to the land of the living.” He also “wandered around Europe for awhile, chased a girl to Vienna” and spent a year abroad at the University of Heidelberg in Germany, where he studied Heidegger (one can only imagine what his Hashomer Hatzair, ardently Zionist, Yiddish-speaking maternal grandparents would have made of his inquiry into the avowed Nazi fan).
By 2004, he got his first staff position with the LA Weekly and, shortly thereafter, a magazine assignment from Harpers. Bearman likes to tell how an editor once described his journalism as, “Dude, No Way” stories, as he seems to be most attracted by the outrageous and unbelievable: For Playboy, the “true-life 1970s Hollywood epic” about a “cocaine-addled” Jewish producer (Burt Schneider) who helped smuggle the legally endangered leader of the Black Panther movement (Huey Newton) to Cuba; and for the July issue of GQ, “how a group of 20-something surfers and their former high school Spanish teacher form one of the most successful drug-smuggling operations in the country” — which George Clooney is rumored to be developing for film. Bearman also once considered writing about Joseph Stalin’s attempt to crossbreed monkeys and humans in order to create a race of ape warriors — seriously —– but ultimately deemed it unreportable.
Nowadays, he lives a double life, working as a nonfiction reporter as well as a screenwriter. “I like having a foot in both worlds,” he says, explaining that he was recently hired to write his first screenplay. Though he's been lucky to work with some tip-top talent, not everything ends in an Oscar. “I’ve seen people get paid some serious money to write total nonsense based on my stories, and I was like, ‘I would write that same garbage for half that!’”
Because while Hollywood is fun, glamorous, and pays the bills, journalism maintains its appeal because “it forces you to reckon with something entirely outside your experience.”
Tell that to somebody who doesn’t know Clooney.
Correction appended: An earlier version of this story misstated Bearman's relationship to his brother, Ethan. They share the same parents.