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
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
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
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 him...it'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
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,
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
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 age...to 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
RH: Apart from Bret, who we discussed earlier,
are there any other writers of this generation that
JM: I don't even know what my generation is. I don't
think there are that many writers exactly my age I
RH: I was thinking more of the younger crowd,
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
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 there...as 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.