The Beatrice Interview

Jay McInerney

"Reading Carver was to realize that realism could be reinvigorated..."

interviewed by Ron Hogan

You read Bright Lights, Big City. There's no use denying it. It may be the only book by Jay McInerney you've ever read, but you read it, even if you hated it. That was over a decade ago. McInerney's written four novels since then. The last two, Brightness Falls and this year's The Last of the Savages, have actually been rather straightforward, non-gimmicky books, stories that demonstrate that he can handle themes as competently as he can create character voices. The Last of the Savages chronicles the thirty-year friendship of Patrick Keane and Will Savage. When they meet in boarding school in the mid- 60s, Patrick is a kid from the suburbs with a scholarship, while Will comes from a prestigiously old Memphis family. But it's Patrick who becomes staid and conventional, while Will becomes a rock impresario, recording black rhythm'n'blues artists, scandalising society by marrying a black woman, and eventually getting lost in the music, the drugs and the sex while Patrick stands by and watches. The parallels to Fitzgerald are simple to make (Patrick=Nick, Will=Gatsby), aided by the fact that despite the modern subject matter, some of the book's underlying philosophy is very old-fashioned. But as was the case with Brightness Falls, there's a bit more to McInerney's work than the obvious.

RH: This is the second big, plot-driven, straightforward novel in a row for you.

JM: Yeah. That's a conscious decision at some levels, in that I was hoping to do... not more 'conventional', but more 'ambitious' forms of narrative than I had in my earlier books. With this book in particular, I wanted to deal with the passage of time, so it covers a period of roughly thirty years. It was a challenge, an adventure that I wanted to take, whereas the challenge of Brightness Falls was in depicting a panoramic canvas, a big picture in terms of space and the layers of social strata.

Having said that, my new novel, the next one, is a short, nasty comic novel, whatever that means. (pause) It would be pretty easy to chart a linear progression of my development as a writer, but I don't know if my novels are always going to continue to fit neatly into that framework. There's not necessarily a master plan, but I did feel constricted by my earlier books, in that I didn't want to write another novel about the travails about a young individual trying to make sense of the world. And there comes a point where you exhaust your own autobiographical material and resources, and have to reach out beyond that for your writing.

RH: At the same time, you're a very public writer, and it's often been a struggle to shake off that original image of you and your work.

JM: I've struggled my entire career against a very strong, almost indelible image of me as the author and the protagonist of Bright Lights. I'm amazed at the persistence of that image. The caricature was always just a caricature, but it's a hard thing to shake off. People don't want you to change, or once they feel they know you, they don't want to give you credit for what you do. There's always been a personal element to my critical reception as a writer; people say that I'm too much of a public figure, too successful. My relationship with the press is an odd hall of mirrors.

RH: To me, it was a surprise to discover that you're actually several years older than the rest of the crowd you've been lumped into.

JM: I should also point out that I was the first writer in that bunch. Publishers had virtually written off the potential of anybody under thirty being a reader and it had been a long time since a first novel had made a really big stir. There hadn't been a lot of young writers, first novels that proved people my age were reading. So when Bright Lights hit, publishers started looking for other books about young people in urban settings. Bret Easton Ellis was signed after my book took off, then his publishers promoted his work as following my example, and the press sealed the image by writing about the "Brat Pack" writers. I never particularly felt I was part of a group. In fact, I had nothing to gain by it; I could only lose, depending on who they mixed me with, because I had been there first. But I like Bret and I admire his work, even though we're very different as writers.

RH: First there was the "Brat Pack", then once the backlash against you and Ellis started, by that time the press had found the "Generation X" writers to build up as the Next Big Thing.

JM: And of course, Bret's actually in the "Generation X" age category anyway...Really, I just see my career as a succession of books, each one of which has been an attempt to do something different, maybe a bit more ambitious than the book before it. Eventually, for a writer, there's a body of work, and the body of work creates its own space whereby it has to be interpreted in its own right. I plan to be around for a long time, and when I think about writers like John Updike and Philip Roth, their careers have lots of ups and downs, but their overall body of work is coherent, and that's what I would like to achieve someday.

A lot of my readership is my generation, and they're changing and growing up along with me. They're not hanging out in nightclubs anymore. At the readings and book signings, I do get a lot of college kids, people in their 20s -- the type of readers more likely to come out to events -- and while it's gratifying to be read by people younger than me, my original readers' lives have changed. They've grown up, started to have kids and careers, and I hope that my work continues to be as relevant to them as my chronicling of my twenties in New York's '80s was.

RH: I know a lot of younger people who are surprised by how much they like Brightness Falls, even though it wasn't what they were expecting from you when they picked it up.

JM: Now that this book is out, I've actually been thinking a lot about Brightness Falls. When I was still writing it, I wasn't sure what I thought, but looking back, I'm really proud of it. It has a special place in my heart.

RH: I actually read it and The Last of the Savages back to back, and so I noticed a lot of similarities in style and theme. For example, the relationship between Patrick and Will is kind of a skewed reflection of the friendship of Jeff and Russell in the earlier book.

JM: There's a similar dynamic, though Russell isn't as straight as Patrick, and Jeff's not as crazy as Will...well, maybe he is in some ways. Often in my books, there are Apollonian and Dionysian characters in contrast with each other. I hadn't thought of the two books as being related before, but it makes sense.

One of the things I like about going on tour is that you get to meet people who have actually read your books. In the case of Story of My Life, which was universally reviled by the American critics, but was praised in France and England -- it actually outsold Bright Lights in England -- every place I go on this tour, somebody raises their hand to tell me that it's their favorite book of mine, and other people in the audience will agree.

To get back to your question, on this tour I'm meeting a lot of people who read Brightness Falls. Most people haven't read the new book yet; they're there to buy it. And I've been getting a lot of good response about that book.

RH: I remember a comment you made back when it first came out, about how you were in the middle of writing that book when Tom Wolfe's essay on the current generation's inability to write 'great social novels' came out in Harper's.

JM: I probably never should have mentioned that article...but it was funny, in that I was working on precisely the type of novel that he claimed nobody else was writing. The thing about that article is that it was ultimately such a shameles ad for Bonfire of the Vanities, and basically saying "Everybody should write the type of novel I write." Wolfe's a very interesting writer, a wonderful writer actually and a virtuoso, but when he talks about Balzac, I feel like saying that Balzac may make people laugh, but he can also make readers cry...but yeah, when I was working on that book, I did want to do a big social panorama, and my models were authors like Balzac and Thackeray, the same writers that he was using. Oddly, we both stumbled on the same nineteenth-century model to describe twentieth-century New York.

RH: Getting back to a point you made earlier, The Last of the Savages does read like a similar project, but with an expansive sense of time rather than space, dealing with the trajectory of a particular generation.

JM: I always had the sixties in me. I always wanted to be a part of it, but by the time I got my driver's license they had cancelled the whole thing. It was too late. But we're still waging those battles that were initiated then. The great cultural wars, the sexual revolution, the civil rights struggle. This stuff is still quite relevant to us, in the context of the original Republican Revolution in 1984 to the political struggles today.

But these characters are of a different generation than me, about seven years older than I am. It was hard, going back so extensively in time, to keep track of all the events. I had a timeline at one point, and the copy editor sent back notes saying things like, "Sorry, Otis Redding was already dead then."

RH: Let's talk about the ambiguity of Patrick's character. His sexuality is never quite spelled out, although there are several references to his confusion over it.

JM: I think that he is somebody who was so imbued with the idea of conventionality that he was able to fan his interest in a 'normal' sex life, and that his attraction to men is something that is virtually impossible to acknowledge. It terrifies's a very unfashionable idea, but Patrick is an unfashionable character, and I think he makes an interesting case for the argument that following all your desires may not be the route to happiness. Maybe control of your desire is a different way to happiness.

I wish I could say that I don't know people like Patrick, but I do. Men who, even in 1996 when you would think "Who cares?", are gay but won't admit it to themselves...well, certainly won't admit it to other people, and possibly not even with themselves. I've talked to friends who are less closeted than that, but still somewhat closeted... there's a case to be made that it's much more difficult to do your own thing, for a man or woman to face down social convention and defy it, which is why a lot of people go with the flow in any society.

RH: The ordeal of facing down public convention turns Will at one point from a mildly eccentric rascal to somebody in serious psychological danger.

JM: Yeah. It's wearing on him. It's wearing doing what I do, even. Patrick represents an alternative to that '60s ethos, the caricature phrase being "do your own thing." He would say that if everybody does their own thing, there's no such thing as social order, as society. He submerges his impulses for the good of the greater whole.

I'll give you a less extreme example. Matrimony is based on the notion of fidelity, but it usually involves an amount of sacrifice for most people, the submersion of one's impulses for a good greater than their own desires and whims.

RH: You're happily married again, and a father, right?

JM: Yeah, 18-month-old twins. Fatherhood's something I thought I had missed, but it snuck up on me. It makes you think about time in a different way, stretches out your notion of time. Most of us, if we come to the realization that we're mortal, think in terms of the time that we will occupy on this earth. But once you have kids, the future stretches out in front of you, when you start thinking about the time they will occupy on earth, and that they'll be living in the future...but it's a great experience, though I'm still very early into it.

RH: It seems from much of the recent publicity about you that this particular marriage and fatherhood has had a calming, positive effect on you.

JM: My life has become much less frenetic than it used to be. It's taken people a while to catch up with that; a lot of people still see me as a symbol of the eighties. But I'm a happily married father of two living in Franklin, Tennessee. I can think of any number of inelegant ways to have reached my still be hanging around chronicling nightlife and chasing models, consuming all the latest drugs, but it would be unseemly. I've done that already. That's the provenance of another generation. Other people can do their own versions of what I did ten years ago, but I really rode the eighties very hard and drained the cup dry in New York. So I'm fairly happy to be somewhere else now, at least half the year. I may never be as famous as I was then, but I don't mind, because it was fairly destructive being a public figure in a city like that that can consume you faster than you can consume it...

RH: ...particularly when you have a satirical monthly taking jabs at you every month, huh?

JM: Right. So I'm glad to be someplace else. I'm still slightly surprised when people take shots at me these days in a location that I haven't occupied fulltime for years.

RH: Apart from Bret, who we discussed earlier, are there any other writers of this generation that you admire?

JM: I don't even know what my generation is. I don't think there are that many writers exactly my age I read...

RH: I was thinking more of the younger crowd, actually.

JM: Oh. I like William T. Vollmann's work a bit, though it can be uneven. I read most of it when it comes out. I like David Foster Wallace; I think Infinite Jest is overall a nearly brilliant achievement, although again somewhat uneven and sometimes maddening in its length. I wish Mark Leyner would go back to writing fiction. I liked his My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist phase a lot, even up to Et Tu, Babe.

Let's see...Sherman Alexie; Jennifer Egan -- I haven't read her novel yet, but I have read the short stories; Douglas Coupland, although he's another writer who can be uneven: he'll come up with great insight into that generation's mindset, their spiritual condition, but then twist that into the sappiest, sitcom-level plots...I try to keep up with most of the new writers because I'm always looking for somebody to come along and reinvent the novel and I'm happy when I find something really original, with a strong voice.

RH: Are you still reading a lot of nineteenth- century work as well, though?

JM: I go back and forth. This year, I've been getting away from the nineteenth century. I actually reread Dante's Inferno, and most recently I've been reading a lot of modern Scottish and Irish fiction... Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting is pretty terrific. I might have been happier if it was tighter in its formal matter, but that's probably just my stupid quibble with a wonderful book. There, to me, is the example of a book that delivers news about the culture, and shows there's still something new under the sun. People talk about how the novel is dead, but it always seems to come back.

RH: One of the things that I wanted to touch upon with regard to literature is the influence that Raymond Carver had on your writing, both in the flesh and through his stories.

JM: He was a very important figure for me, first as a hero reading him in the mid-seventies. I like to say that it's similar to what it must have been like to encounter Hemingway's short stories in the mid-twenties in terms of the purity of the prose, the colloquial rhythm of his sentences. The other great thing about Carver in the seventies was that everybody was going around saying that realism was dead, and the novelists that everyone was talking about were postmodernists, meta-fictionists like John Barth, John Hawkes, Robert Coover, people who were essentially writing novels about writing novels, writing novels that were meant to be taught, that essentially denied the reality of the world outside the text, so reading Carver was to realize that realism could be reinvigorated, that it was still possible.

I subsequently had a chance to meet Carver in 1980, when he came to New York for a reading. He came to my apartment because he had nowhere to go for a few hours and my best friend who worked at Random House, who had met with him for lunch, had sent him my way. We just really hit it off -- I was supposed to take him around New York and show him the sights, but we ended up staying in the apartment talking for three or four hours. He encouraged me to leave New York and come to Syracuse to study with him. He could see that I was getting nowhere in a hurry living in New York, trying to make enough money to live during the day and dissipating myself at night, and for whatever reason he seemed to see something in me at a time when there wasn't much there to see, so he helped me get a fellowship at the university and I stayed there three and a half years altogether.

It was interesting because while I was there, I got to see him become famous -- he was just a cult figure when I first met him, which was nice, because I was one of the last people, I think, who was able to become close buddies with Ray. He encouraged me to write every day, would read everything I write, go over it with me word by word.

RH: For me, the thing about Carver is about letting the events tell the story, without having to tell you what characters are thinking, because it's revealed in their actions.

JM: He leaves almost everything unsaid; it's a great trick. Carver leads you up to the edge of a cliff and leaves you standing most other writers have discovered, it's a very hard thing to do....luckily, I had pretty much finished imitating him by the time that I went to study with him, so unlike most of the people in my graduate seminar, I wasn't writing "Raymond Carver stories" -- which nearly everybody was in the early 80s. I did do it at one point, for about a year, until I got it out of my system; but I'm sure that the influence lingers even today.

BEATRICE More Beatrice Interviews
Charles Baxter | Tibor Fischer

All materials copyright © 1997 Ron Hogan