Steve Lopez, a columnist for the L.A. Times, befriends a homeless musician, Nathaniel Ayers, in The Soloist, which is being produced as a movie with Jamie Foxx playing Ayers and Robert Downey Jr. as Lopez.
What attracted you to Nathaniel Ayers? Why him and not another homeless person?
I had no initial interest other than the possibility of writing a column. He clearly lived on the street and also clearly had been classically trained. I simply wanted to know what happened. In downtown Los Angeles, lots of homeless people roam the streets, but not many of them are working on Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings. Over time, though, I realized that Nathaniel’s story was capable of speaking for lots of people on the pavement. He helped humanize the destitute and destigmatize mental illness. I hope his story will make it harder for people to cross the street to avoid a homeless person and that the homeless will draw more compassion than contempt.
There are several times in the book when you get frustrated with Nathaniel not responding to your attempts to help him. Why didn’t you just give up on him?
The frustration was born of my affection for him. I found him smart, funny, charming, obviously talented—and terribly tormented. I was his only friend. But being with someone like Nathan can burn through your patience, and you have to keep digging for more. Yes, it’s frustrating, maddening, exhausting. But for all that, it felt good to try to help someone in need, and he showed his appreciation in ways sometimes obvious and sometimes subtle.
In what ways is the power of music redemptive? Who is redeemed in your book?
I think of redemption, in this sense, not as atonement but as deliverance. Nathaniel was in some ways destroyed, his career halted and his dreams snuffed. But also, music saved and sustained him, as if it were a spiritual, healing force. I’d have to admit, as well, that I had never adopted a cause in my life. One of Nathaniel’s many gifts to me was to get me outside of my own head, so I could experience the humility that comes from trying to help someone.
You write that you hope your encounter with Nathaniel will have had as big an impact on his life as he has had on yours. What lessons has he taught you?
He took an impatient man and taught him patience. He helped me appreciate, and feel inspired by, a kind of music I knew nothing about. His passion for his mission rekindled my passion for my own. My life is much busier now, richer, more challenging, more rewarding. And I picked up a guitar I had long ago abandoned.