Interview with Jay McInerney

Posted by Goodreads on August 1, 2016
Jay McInerney burst onto the New York literary scene in 1984 with Bright Lights, Big City, his paean to youth and the jacked-up, hipster lifestyle of Manhattan defined by the pursuit of "Bolivian marching powder" and the avoidance of any real feeling, especially loss. Since then, the 62-year-old novelist and wine columnist has continued his love affair with New York City through the prism of Russell and Corinne Calloway, the glamorous couple from his novels Brightness Falls (1992) and The Good Life (2006). His new novel, Bright, Precious Days, is the third in a trilogy, offering McInerney's satirical take on his favorite obsessions, including infidelity and the dog-eat-dog world of book publishing. Interviewer and Goodreads Author Joy Horowitz spoke with McInerney by phone about what advice he'd give his 30-year-old self and how an author who's onto his fourth marriage continues to mine the myth of perfect coupledom.

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Goodreads: What was the genesis of Bright, Precious Days?

Jay McInerney: It was really my response to the financial crisis of 2008 and Obama's election. It just seemed to me that the years leading up to that and following those events were a particularly rich time in New York, the first palpable shift in the zeitgeist after September 11th. Honestly, the first image I had for this book was a bunch of friends sitting around a loft watching the election returns in 2008.

GR: Do you feel nostalgic for that moment?

JM: Well, yeah. Yes. I mean, on the one hand it was scary to watch the world economy teeter and nearly melt down, but on the other hand, Obama's candidacy and election were certainly historic. I think, like many New Yorkers, I was incredibly optimistic and hopeful when Obama was elected. By the time I sat down to write the book in 2012-2013, it was possible to look back on that event with a kind of chagrined wisdom, a kind of nostalgia, because I'm not sure anyone could have lived up to those expectations. Given all that's happened, that moment seems pretty poignant now.

GR: It took you three or four years to write this book?

JM: Yeah, this book took a long time. Three years. I'm not quite sure why I finished it in 2015. I wrote close to five drafts. Some books come quickly. Bright Lights, Big City I did in six weeks. They don't come quite that fast anymore.

GR: Why is it important for you to keep writing about the Calloways rather than write new characters?

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JM: I'm fond of them. I think it's really interesting following characters over time. In this case, over half of their lifetimes. My favorite of John Updike's novels are the Rabbit books. He wrote four of them. I always wanted to do that. I didn't know when I wrote Brightness Falls that this would be the set of characters I'd stick with. I certainly have the sense of them living here in Manhattan beside me and witnessing the things I do. Russell was more a representative character than I am. He has more of a normal life than I do. If I hadn't been a novelist, that's probably what I would have done—gone into publishing. I somehow think of him as the life not lived, the road not taken. For some reason, Corinne is someone I'm incredibly fond of. I like writing about her.

GR: Can you see yourself writing any future books that are not Manhattan-based?

JM: If I write six more novels, I can bet that five will be set in Manhattan. I think every writer has turf, ya know, and sometimes it's the homeland—the place he or she was born. But in my case, my father was kind of a corporate gypsy, and I moved from one middle-class suburb to another middle-class suburb. So I don't really have a hometown. When I arrived in Manhattan, I sort of fell in love and said, "This is it. This is where I'm meant to be." And I think it provides me with endless fodder for contemplation and satire.

GR: You've said you despised every place you grew up. Is that really true?

JM: That's probably an overstatement. I had a relatively happy childhood. But I grew up in these places that were just sort of white, middle-class enclaves of child rearing and lawn tending. I was really happy to escape that environment and become an urbanite.

GR: You've also said you don't think Manhattan is conducive to monogamy.

JM: I guess what I meant by that is Manhattan is a very competitive place, and it's a place with lots of distractions. People are rubbing up against each other all the time. I don't know if statistics would bear me out, but I think there are a lot of acquisitive, striving, ambitious people here. Maybe they're not the most steady and the most faithful as a species.

Certainly in the case of this new book, I was fascinated by the idea of a couple that can stay together for 30 years, or 25 in the case of this book. It's not something I could achieve myself. Of course, if they were the perfect couple and didn't have any problems, I wouldn't have much to write about. So the balancing act in this book is to almost break them up but keep them together. Maybe that's a spoiler alert.

GR: The theme of the book, in part, underlies the mystery of why people stay together, especially given their need over time to deal with past ghosts.

JM: Exactly. Marriage is at the center of the book, and Russell and Corinne's marriage is what holds it together. At one point, when I was struggling with titles, I was thinking of calling it Russell and Corinne. Ultimately, that seemed a little boring.

GR: What's with using the word "bright" in your titles?

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JM: Yeah, that's a good question. I think of my characters as moths attracted to the bright lights of Manhattan, and I think I was almost unconscious when I came up with this title, that I was repeating myself. But then I thought, I kind of liked the circularity of this title referring back to the first one. I don't know. I guess it's just a tic.

GR: I'm curious about one of your stories that sounds apocryphal and want to ferret out what's real.

JM: Oh, yeah. Which one? There's a lot of those.

GR: The day John Lennon was killed, you wound up spending the day doing blow with Raymond Carver before he took the stage at Columbia. Is that true?

JM: Yeah, it's true. For many years I didn't tell the illicit part of the story. But yeah, that is true. I woke up that morning to my clock radio—if you remember what they are. I was hearing all these John Lennon songs and people crying. And I was struggling to regain consciousness and eventually figured out that John Lennon had been shot. Not long after that I got a call from my future editor Gary Fisketjon (who was my former Williams College roommate), who had lunch with Raymond Carver and his editor Gordon Lish. The two editors had to go back to work, and Carver had nothing to do. Gary knew I was a huge Raymond Carver fan, so he sent him down to my apartment. I actually thought he was kidding, but a half hour later my buzzer rang and this big bear of a man appeared in my doorway. I mean, I was thrilled, but it was so strange. I guess I thought that [the cocaine] would be a good icebreaker. Apparently it was. I think we talked for about five hours.

GR: Then he turned out to be an incredibly important figure in your life in terms of your writing.

JM: He did. He wrote me a letter after that. As much as he had a good time, he sorta suggested to me that the life I was living in Manhattan was not conducive to producing literature and maybe I should consider going to a writing program. He was teaching then at Syracuse University, and he suggested I apply, which I did. Happily, I was accepted. So I moved to study with Carver. And, indeed, life in Syracuse was a whole lot less distracting than downtown Manhattan in the early '80s. I had a really good experience there in that I really buckled down and wrote every day for three years and saw Carver frequently. He became a good friend and read all my stories and commented on them. He really helped me to become a writer. He was a wonderful guy. I lived a couple doors down the street from him and went to dinner and movies with him. He was great company. I got to read some of his stories in manuscript before they were sent to magazines. It was an amazing experience. I also was lucky enough to have Tobias Wolff as another teacher, and that was an incredible bonus. Tobias Wolff and Raymond Carver for two whole years!

GR: Goodreads member Steven asks, "At what age did you realize you wanted to be a writer?"

JM: I was in eighth grade. I think I was 13 when I discovered Dylan Thomas. My eigth grade teacher had us read an anthology of poetry, and Fern Hill was in it. Then later I became mesmerized by Dylan Thomas. He's like the perfect poet for an adolescent. He's sort of drunk on language, and it's very purple and very musical. I suddenly felt like, Wow, language isn't just this transparent medium to convey information. It's this beautiful instrument. I subsequently became fascinated by poetry in general. For quite a few years I told people I wanted to be a poet when I grew up—much to the chagrin of my father, who was mortified. He was a businessman.

Eventually I discovered Ernest Hemingway and James Joyce and other writers who made me realize that prose could be just as beautiful as poetry, and I shifted my focus to fiction.

GR: Goodreads member Kelly asks, "Why did you choose to write Bright Lights, Big City in the second person?"

JM: It's almost an accident, really. I was in a nightclub one night. I found myself talking to myself in the mirror. I had no money, and I had run out of drugs. My friend had ditched me, and I caught myself talking to myself in the mirror of the bathroom, saying, 'You're not the kind of guy who would be in a place like this at this time of the morning, but here you are.' When I finally made it home that night, I wrote those sentences down. It was very curious, but I caught myself in the act of an interior monologue. And I realized, Hey, we talk to ourselves in the second person. You don't look in the mirror and say, "I idiot." You say, "You idiot." So I wrote this down on a scrap of paper and I kind of forgot about it.

About six months later, George Plimpton called me. I had submitted a story in The Paris Review. He sort of liked the story, but he wanted to know if I had anything else. So I went through my drawers, and I read everything I had written up to that point, and I realized most of it wasn't very good. But I came across this scrap of paper in the second person, and I thought, "Wow, this sounds original." So I sat down, and I wrote the story which would become, more or less, the first chapter of Bright Lights, Big City. And I kept thinking as soon as it becomes too large to do the second person, I'll switch. But it seemed to work, and I stuck with it. Then when the story was published and people really liked it, I thought there's more to the story to tell. Again, I thought I'll see if I can do it in the second person, and if it gets awkward, I'll stop. But when I tried third person, I thought it lost a certain amount of energy and self-consciousness and humor contained in that second-person voice. I'm really glad I stuck with it. In a very limited context, I think it was successful. But I don't think I can do it again. It's not a very versatile mode. You can't deal with large periods of time or large numbers of characters with the second-person narration.

GR: Goodreads member Matthias asks, "What advice would you give your 30-year-old self, and how do you define success?"

JM: To my 30-year-old self, I'd say, "Try to avoid the spotlight a little more." After the publication of Bright Lights, Big City, I became fodder for the media and even the tabloids. It never occurred to me anyone would become interested in a novelist. Each successive interview or photo session seemed like a good thing. It seemed like, yeah, I'm promoting my book here. But in retrospect I should have just turned my back on a lot of that stuff and just stuck to the business of writing the next book.

I define success as being able to do what you love and ideally make a living at it. I mean, I've been fortunate enough to do that. I didn't think I'd be able to make a career at it, but the fact that I have amazes me and makes me happy.

GR: Goodreads member Amos says, "I really want to ask about your recurring character Alison Poole—"

JM: [laughs and then grunts]

GR: —"who also features in Bret Easton Ellis's novels."

JM: I know!

GR: "Is the character based on a real-life ex named Rielle Hunter? If this is true, it seems like maybe Bret portrays this character in a much more unflattering light than you do."

JM: I wrote Story of My Life in 1988. The main character was a 21-year-old woman named Allison Poole. I think Bret really liked the character, and he did know the woman the character was based on somewhat loosely.

GR: This is the same woman John Edwards had the infamous affair with?

JM: Exactly. [Life is] even stranger than fiction. She came back into the spotlight with a vengeance, I guess. Yes, it is the same woman. Bret told me he was going to put her in American Psycho. And I was like, you're kidding. But then, there she was. And she appeared in American Psycho, and she nearly gets killed by Patrick Bateman. Then she had a much larger role in his book Glamorama. I think initially, this is kinda Bret's idea of making fun of our critics for saying we were so alike, because we're really very, very different writers. But I think he thought, OK, they think we're interchangeable, I'm gonna interchange characters here. I also think he liked Alison Poole. All of Bret's writing is darker than mine. That's the answer to that question. I've never written about a serial killer.

GR: Can you talk about your writing rituals?

JM: Even though I'm not a morning person, I find I have to start in the morning. I try to be at my desk by 9:30 or 10. If I don't start writing by noon, I just can't get going. If I'm lucky, I write for three or four hours and take a break. When I'm really deep into a book, my work hours get a lot longer. Sometimes I write for 10 or 11 hours with small breaks because I just feel this pressure mounting of the book coming together and wanting to get it down while it's in my head. That can be really exciting when the work is really driving you and you want to stay at your desk and keep going.

GR: So does that mean you're a bummer to live with at that moment?

JM: Yeah, the habits I have get a little weird. I go to bed late and wake up early when I'm in that final phase.

GR: Do you listen to music when you write?

JM: Lately its' been John Coltrane and Miles Davis and Buddy Guy and Muddy Walters.

GR: What books are you reading now?

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JM: I just finished Garth Risk Hallberg's City on Fire, which I didn't want to read while I was writing and which took me a while because it's a long book. I was impressed. I liked it a lot. I very much enjoyed Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler, a first novel about coming to New York and coming of age. It's a terrific novel.

GR: What books and writers, beyond Raymond Carver and Tobias Wolff, most influenced you?

JM: When I was young and struggling to find my own voice, some of the books that influenced me were The Sun Also Rises, and Evelyn Waugh was a big enthusiasm for me in my early 20s. Another book that was a huge influence on me was Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which I think for all intents and purposes is really a novel. The prose was just like, wow. I was looking for the prose equivalent of rock and roll, and this seems to be it. Another book that was a big influence on me was The Ginger Man by J.P. Donleavy, a book that people don't seem to talk about much anymore. The prose and wit were just electric. I also was influenced by Thomas McGuane, who I thought was a master of the language.

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