Novelist Jay McInerney on Getting Your Novel Underway

Anyone interested can find out plenty about the celebrity side of Jay McInerney. The entertaining details have been laid out for public consumption since the publication of his first novel, the 1984 bestseller Bright Lights, Big City. And the stories read like fodder for fiction—there was the Japanese model he married overseas; the hospitalization of his second wife after the collapse of that marriage; a four-year affair with model Maria Hanson. And of course the Fitzgeraldian excesses of alcohol, cocaine and late night parties in the clubs of New York City with fellow literary brat pack authors Brett Easton Ellis and Tama Janowitz.

Less publicized is Jay McInerney the writer, who prefers to withdraw from the light of celebrity to lay down the early, fragile constructs of his fiction. Readers familiar with the wisecracking protagonists who swagger through his novels might be surprised to find behind them a reclusive writer who tries to “find a tree house and pull up the ladder behind me” when he writes. Or the author who was quoted in Vanity Fair as saying of one novel-in-progress, “Many mornings I woke up and said, This is absolute shit. I don’t know what I’m doing… I was 300 pages and a year and a half into something, and I didn’t even know what it was.”

But with six novels behind him, McInerney has learned to trust his writer’s instincts. Borrowing from E.L. Doctorow, he likens his writing process to driving across country at night—you can see only as far as your headlights, but they’ll get you there. “I envy those writers who outline their novels, who know where they’re going,” he says. “But I find writing is a process of discovery. It’s impossible for me to imagine a story and a set of characters as being distinct from the language in which they come to life, so I don’t really believe in a preexisting schema. The most interesting things that happen in my books are usually the things that arise spontaneously, the things that surprise me.”

One of McInerney’s earliest surprises was the second-person point of view he used so successfully in Bright Lights, Big City. That coming-of-age-in-New-York novel put McInerney on the literary map with his story of an unnamed narrator whose luck can’t seem to get worse. His $150-an-hour model girlfriend leaves him, he loses his job as a fact-checker at a prestigious magazine, he reopens the wounds of his first marriage and tries to lose his pain in an endless round of parties, all while coming to terms with the death of his mother. Carrying a second-person voice through a novel was a risky move, McInerney concedes, but ultimately successful, drawing reviews that called the technique “spectacularly effective” (Vogue), and “coherent and engaging, one that is totally believable at almost every moment of the novel” (The New Republic).

Since Bright Lights, Big City, McInerney has continued to make himself comfortable out on an experimental limb, as in his third novel Story of My Life, told in first person with a Holly Golightly-esque female protagonist, which the San Francisco Chronicle called “powerful” and “disturbing.” With 1992’s Brightness Falls, which drew comparisons to Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities, McInerney set himself up to fuse psychological realism with the techniques of a 19th century social novel, and critics loved it. “Compulsively readable brimming with wit and ultimately quite poignant,” wrote a reviewer for Newsday. “In tone it ranges from the tartly comic to the soberly elegiac. The prose moves with authority… wickedly funny.”

With his current Model Behavior, McInerney continues to test his instincts, this time using an alternating first-, second- and third-person point of view (“it was partly an accident,” he says frankly). In this novel, McInerney uses narrator Connor McKnight, a young writer trying to escape the ennui of his job as a celebrity journalist for CiaoBella! magazine, to explore his familiar milieu of the high-life in New York City. That McKnight’s model girlfriend leaves him is only the first parallel that led some reviewers to criticize McInerney for revisiting the territory of Bright Lights, but many also praised the novel for McInerney’s mastery of style. “He has an effortless knack for the cadences of dialogue and the pacing of scenes,” wrote a critic for The New York Times Book Review. “It would take a room full of MFAs a thousand years to produce a thumbnail sketch as satirically sharp (as one of McInerney’s).”

Now in his third marriage, and a father, McInerney has settled down, relatively, to a more quiet life divided between homes in Franklin, Tennessee, and New York City. He is at work on a seventh novel, in which he’ll return to the big-screen, panoramic approach of Brightness Falls. Fresh off a book tour for Model Behavior, McInerney took time out from family life in Franklin for this e-mail interview to discuss his development as a writer, Raymond Carver’s mentoring, and how he follows the headlights to create his fiction.

Fiction Writer: In college, you were interested in writing poetry, but in your senior year you discovered a number of fiction writers who hit you hard, and convinced you that prose could be as exciting as poetry. Which writers were they, and how did they hit you hard?

Jay McInerney: I’ve been interested in writing and storytelling since I learned to read, but it wasn’t until I read Dylan Thomas, when I was 14, that I became interested in language itself, and saw it as more than a transparent medium for a story. I loved Thomas’s language, the extravagance and color of it, and I started writing poetry under his influence. I started reading all the poetry I could get my hands on. I suppose the enduring influence of my interest in poetry was an interest in the texture of language.

Later, at Williams College, I took a course in James Joyce, and began to think about writing fiction. Joyce used the language like a poet even as he reinvented the strategies of prose narrative. Ulysses, in particular, was like a textbook of narrative strategies. I still return to it for inspiration. I love the way that Joyce synthesized realism and symbolism.

At about the same time—this was the mid ’70s—I started reading a generation of fiction writers who were reinventing realism in reaction to the metafictional postmodern experiments of writers like Barth, Coover and Hawkes. Raymond Carver was especially influential; notably his book Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? I felt as I imagine certain readers of the ’20s felt upon first encountering Hemingway. Carver reaffirmed the possibilities of realistic fiction at a moment when others were declaring it over. At about the same time I discovered Ann Beattie, Thomas McGuane, Robert Stone and Don DeLillo.

FW: How do you measure the impact of such an influential mentor as Raymond Carver on your career?

McInerney: Raymond Carver was someone whose work was tremendously inspiring to me. So I felt very fortunate when I had a chance to meet him in 1980. I was asked to show him around New York City prior to a reading he was giving at Columbia that fall. Instead, we stayed at my apartment and talked literature for six hours, and subsequently began a correspondence.

He convinced me that if I really wanted to write fiction I had to stop hedging my bets with jobs in publishing and journalism and make a real commitment, and the next year I followed him to Syracuse University, where he was then teaching in the creative writing program. If not for that move, I doubt I would be answering these questions today. Carver somehow convinced me to go for it, and convinced me that I had the right stuff—I’m not sure how he could have guessed that at the time, on the basis of a few early stories.

He was also influential in convincing me that the only secret to writing was to put in serious hours every day for years. I’d been under the thrall of a sort of romantic image of the writer as a genius who effortlessly produces masterpieces under the influence of a kind of divine madness. Carver convinced me that writing was 90% perspiration. He used to call me up every day to see if I had been writing. And I used to hear his typewriter every day, down the street, clacking away. That was almost as inspiring as anything he said.

He also reaffirmed my belief that good stories are made word by word; he would sit down with my pages and take each sentence apart, asking me, for instance, why I had used the word earth when the word dirt would do. I still hear his voice sometimes, chiding me for sloppy usage.

FW: Would you describe your three years in the MFA program at Syracuse as a period of serious growth for ye as a writer?

McInerney: Studying with Carver was among the most important aspects of my development as a writer. I was lucky to find such a dedicated mentor. Likewise, I was extremely fortunate to have Tobias Wolff on the faculty as well. If Carver was a very instinctual teacher, Wolff was very cerebral. He was great on structure, and would take apart a story or novel and reassemble it piece by piece. Those two approaches are very complementary.

A creative writing program is only as good as its teachers, and I was fortunate in having two great writers as mentors. On the other hand, I think the environment of an MFA program can be nurturing for a young writer no matter who’s teaching; it’s helpful to be surrounded by like-minded souls when you’re trying to master a craft which the world at large tends to undervalue.

FW: Your work has been compared to that of writers from Fitzgerald to Thackeray. Who would you call your primary influence?

McInerney: I don’t know if I have a single greatest influence. It has varied at different points of my career. I would like to say, for the record, that I am a little tired of hearing that Fitzgerald is my main influence. Jane Austen, Hemingway, Joyce, Carver and Evelyn Waugh have been at least as influential.

When I first started writing, my fiction was an imitation of [a lot of writers]. I have an unfinished novel I wrote in the late ’70s, and you can tell from one chapter to the next who I was reading at the time, because I was imitating them. But that’s all part of the learning process it has to be done.

FW: How did you arrive at the decision to handle Bright Lights, Big City entirely in second person, and were you concerned that such an unorthodox approach might hurt the book’s chances once you began submitting it for publication?

McInerney: Bright Lights was originally intended as a story. The first chapter is pretty close to the original story, which was first published in The Paris Review. Ultimately, though, I felt that the story didn’t adequately answer the question of what was wrong with the narrator—he was far too screwed up for me to have probed his psychosis in 13 pages. And I wanted to keep playing with the voice I had discovered, that highly self-conscious, wired-up second-person riff.

That voice was almost an accidental discovery. In fact, I was at a nightclub one night in a somewhat altered frame of mind and I said to myself, “You’re not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning.” Subsequently, when I went home, I wrote the line down because it seemed curious to me—I mean the fact that I had caught myself speaking to myself in second person, which by the way is what most of us do.

Much later, I found the sentence in a drawer and liked it. I started spinning a little riff out of it. I don’t think I realized for a while that I was writing in the second person. Eventually I thought, what the hell, maybe I can pull this off for 10 or 15 pages. It just seemed to work, and in the best sense the story seemed—on the momentum of that voice—to write itself. When I went back to the story with the idea of writing a novel I thought, “I have to change this to first or third,” but when I did the prose went flat. Something drained out of the narrative, a certain distance and a certain intimacy as well. And somehow, it wasn’t as funny.

Gary Fisketjon, who was to become the editor of the book, said to me when I was halfway through, “Don’t even think about trying to write a novel in the second person.” I was almost fatally discouraged by that comment, but since I was already halfway there I just kept on going. The moral would seem to be: Trust your instincts.

FW: Like Bright Lights, Big City, Model Behavior is experimental in its uses of point of view. What advantages do those shifts give the author, and how do they enhance the novel?

McInerney: In Model Behavior, I alternate between first-, second- and third-person points of view. There’s even one section in first-person plural. Partly it was a technical experiment, but again, partly it was an accident. Going over the first 15 pages of what became the first draft I discovered that I had shifted between first and third. And I found there was a method to that madness.

I don’t want to make this too formulaic, but as a general observation I’d say that the narrative starts in first person and shifts to second or third when I want more distance from my narrator and his understanding of himself. Or more irony. Henry James talked about the “terrible fluidity of self revelation” of the first person; sometimes it’s too transparent. There’s no traction, as it were.

This is in many ways my most self-conscious novel, self-reflexive in part because of the self-conscious-ness of the era, and the media-saturated culture it depicts, is one of its main thematic concerns.

FW: For some writers, novels are inspired by characters, and others are brought about by thematic concerns. How does it work for you?

McInerney: Half of my novels started with a voice, the voice usually being connected with a character. And often it’s the first line that gets me going, as was the case with Bright Lights. Story of My Life and Model Behavior were also voice-driven. In the case of Ransom, my second novel, it was a sense of place that first inspired me—the landscape of Kyoto, Japan, from the perspective of an alien. Brightness Falls and The Last of the Savages arose from more generalized thematic concerns.

FW: You are not the first writer who comes to mind when the subject of comic authors comes up, but critics almost universally praise your satiric wit. Is this an element of your style that came naturally to you, or did it require some cultivation?

McInerney: I’ve never thought of myself as being a comic, although I love comic writing. And speaking of influence, P.G. Wodehouse and Damon Runyon are two of my masters. I think that the humor in Bright Lights was almost unintentional. I’m not sure I realized the book was funny until I started reading it aloud to people. But wit is something I value at this point in my career.

I think wit is an essential form of armor in the social world I write about. It’s also an aspect of the New York sensibility—discourse is usually, in the city, ironic and competitive on some level. Joyce argued in Stephen Hero that the comedy is the highest mode. I think wit—like writing ability in general—can be cultivated, if not conjured from scratch, by reading the likes of Shakespeare, Pope, Wilde, S.J. Perelman and Hunter Thompson.

FW: You’ve been credited with being, like Wolfe or Fitzgerald, a chronicler of your generation. What are the downsides for a writer to be tagged that way? Does it confine your work?

McInerney: Being tagged a spokesman for a generation is mostly a curse, since there will always be people who don’t believe you are speaking for them. I am a chronicler, certainly, of a certain demographic slice of my generation. But I don’t write for that generation alone, and I don’t wish to be diminished with that label.

FW: How has publishing changed in the 15 years since you entered it? Is it more or less open to new voices?

McInerney: I would like to say that publishing has changed for the better. When I was shopping Bright Lights, I heard again and again that there was no market for first novels by young writers, and that’s certainly been disproved in recent years. Cold Mountain and Snow Falling on Cedars are recent, encouraging examples of unlikely success stories.

On the other hand, the ownership of publishing houses and distribution is even more concentrated than it was 15 ago and that seems ominous to me. But I think the novel keeps reinventing itself for each successive generation, and I believe that publishers have a selfish interest in discovering new talent. The reading and writing of literary fiction are fairly elitist and marginal activities in our culture here at the end of the century. But I still believe that the novel remains the best and likeliest medium for conveying the buzz of the way we live now in the context of the accumulated wisdom of the culture.

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