Interview: Jay McInerney, Author
Jay McInerney, literary chronicler of New York City, stood in his large window struggling with a broken shade. He wasn’t actually paying attention to the view–he’d seen it many times before: the wide expanse of water towers and fire escapes, the blossom of Wall Street, and the Twin Towers lurching out of the sea. Focusing on the errant shade, he glimpsed a flash of red-orange on the North Tower of the World Trade Center.
“God,” he thought. “That almost looked like a plane hit there.” He returned to the window shade. And then his phone rang.
“When I turned on the television, I was looking at the same view that I was out my window,” he says. For the next two hours, he watched the catastrophe through his window pane. In the following weeks, McInerney volunteered at a soup kitchen feeding policemen, iron workers, and rescue personnel. But the haunted scene from that window and the sensation of that red-orange flash drove him from the apartment. He moved two months later, unsure if he would ever write fiction again.
Bright Lights, Troubled City
With the 1984 publication of Bright Lights, Big City, a novel with an original cover design featuring the Twin Towers, McInerney staked a claim as the ultimate New York writer. Or, perhaps it’s more appropriate to say he became the pre-eminent observer of Manhattan glamour since McInerney’s neon New York is dramatically different than Richard Price’s gritty boroughs and Andrew Vachss’ dangerous whisper stream streets down in the Zero. He did depart the metropolis for 1985’s Ransom, a novel set in Kyoto that stands at odds with his larger body of work in both plot and location.
With 1988’s Story of My Life, McInerney returned to Manhattan socialites, models, limousines, and Bolivian Marching Powder. In 1992, he documented the heady merger-and-acquisition days of the late eighties, a time when a literary editor could mount a takeover bid of his publishing house in Brightness Falls. The writer married a daughter of the South and began featuring Dixie settings in his work with 1996’s The Last of the Savages, but his writing remained that of the quintessential Manhattanite. A story collection, Model Behavior, followed in 1998 and then McInerney pursued his wine passion in 2000’s Bacchus and Me.
So intrinsically connected to New York City, in both his literary and personal lives, the 9/11 attacks drove McInerney to question the very future of his fiction. “For months afterwards, I just thought that I frankly couldn’t quite imagine the fact that I would ever write fiction again,” he says. “It sounds melodramatic but I talked to a lot of writers who felt the same way. It just seemed frivolous: inventing stories in this time of crisis.”
However, that time of crisis was also an extraordinary period of emotional experience. “There was this great sense of communal spirit and shared tragedy and charity,” McInerney recalls. “But there was also a terrible sense of loss, and sadness, and paranoia, and grief, and a general derangement too. But good and bad, as we came out of it, I realized what a strange and interesting time it had been and I thought I ought to write about it. Not about 9/11 itself, but about the way it affected the community.” The expression may be a cliche, but it is a truth of humanity and catastrophe that each person must carry on in their own way.
“There finally came a point where I felt, I gotta go back to writing fiction,” he says. “It’s what I do. Ultimately, I think it’s more important than ever. I think fiction can answer certain emotional needs and create narrative shapes and myths that ultimately help us understand our times better than journalism, better than nonfiction. I strongly believe that.”
Thus, McInerney began working on the novel that would become The Good Life, his examination of New York’s response to the catastrophe. McInerney’s best work tends to chronicle the end an era. And with the September 11th attacks, and the crisis period immediately following, the author had two conclusions to examine.
The attack itself was “the end of a certain kind of innocence,” he says. “It was the end of another one of these ridiculous bubbles that New York experiences every decade or so.” The economic, technology, housing, and stock market booms created a situation where “the nineties made the eighties look like small change in terms of the wealth that was created, the scale of life in New York, the luxury that became almost standard,” he says. The other conclusion examined in the novel was the end of the post-attack era when everyone’s ears were hyper-attuned to the pitch of airplane engines overhead and when they struggled to improve their lives.
The Good Life documents the three month period when the entire city stumbled through the days of rebuilding, and re-evaluating, in a state of heightened consciousness. The novel introduces the empty existence of Corrine and Russell Calloway, a couple McInerney first introduced in Brightness Falls. A writer who creates miniature biographies of his characters, Corrine and Russell seemed to stick in McInerney’s mind more than some of his less-developed characters like Alison Poole.
“I always knew I’d go back to Russell and Corrine,” he says. “It just took me longer than I thought it would.” Russell is a literary editor and Corrine once worked in high finance and now raises the young family’s two children. The couple, and their friends, “interest me and I sort of think that’s my equivalent of John Updike’s Rabbit books,” he says. Added to the Calloway’s circle is Luke McGavock, who walked away from his highly-compensated business career to write about samurai films and who struggles to keep his family together. As with any McInerney work, the cast of characters is fleshed out with celebrity chefs, debutantes, famous writers, prestigious artists, and social leeches of all kinds.
The novel has received largely positive reviews, with some negative comments scattered around. The Village Voice called the book “a triumph” and it currently stands at number sixteen on the New York Times hardcover fiction bestseller list. Although he was frequently apprehensive about the book while writing it, McInerney now feels like “I pretty much achieved what I wanted to,” with the novel. And, although it might be surprising to many critics, that achievement is the result of agonizing hard work.
The Good Life Fueled by Hard Work
The public perception of Jay McInerney is that of the modern day F. Scott Fitzgerald. He graces the gossip pages, he shows up to dispense culinary judgments on television’s Iron Chef, and he frequents the best restaurants while enjoying a nice 1928 Chateau d’Yquem. He’s seen as a literary dandy prancing through publishing parties in bespoke suits with the elegant air of a vineyard family scion. Imagine Bryan Ferry with a typewriter and the best narcotics. However, these stereotypical images of McInerney ignore a middle-class, Irish-American, Catholic background. And most importantly, the perceived cavalier elegance does not allow the singular truth that he possesses a distinctly blue-collar work ethic. Fine wines aside, any serious examination of McInerney must consider how hard he works on his fiction. And that his level of effort and determination was mentored by the American literary giant least likely to visit a Saville Row haberdasher or cruise on a Mediterranean yacht.
McInerney’s initial literary idols were the modernists: Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, and Joyce. Later, he discovered Raymond Carver’s short stories. “When I first read Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?, it was a lightning bolt for me,” he says. “Everyone was saying realism was dead and with this one book, Carver just destroyed that idea. Boom. He didn’t even answer the question. He made it irrelevant by example.”
Studying with the man that rejuvenated the American short story was a highly influential experience for the young writer. “He was a wonderful teacher,” McInerney recalls. Carver interacted with his students the way a great editor works with his authors. “He was not someone who sat down and told you what to write about,” he says. Instead, Carver went through each story, line by line, word by word, editing dialogue, excising extraneous description, eliminating anything unnecessary. And the short story master also demonstrated a work ethic that made a sizable impression on McInerney.
“He didn’t believe in drunken inspiration, he believed in hard work and rewriting,” McInerney recalls of Carver. “He felt that the real work of writing didn’t come until the second draft.” Carver frequently re-wrote his stories and poems dozens of times, honing them down to their barest essence. “I’ve done as many as twenty or thirty drafts of a story. Never less than ten or twelve drafts,” Carver said in a 1983 interview with Mona Simpson and Lewis Buzbee. Observing this level of dedication was “very instructive to me,” McInerney says. “I sort of though that if it didn’t come easy then it probably wasn’t any good. Genius was a question of these lightning flashes of vision and that can be a very destructive idea to have as a young writer.”
The lesson of rewriting served McInerney well these many years later when he toiled over The Good Life. He normally goes through three drafts of his books and this current novel was no different. However, with his earlier work, the drafts were simply fine-tuned refinements of the same basic idea. “The first draft of Bright Lights, Big City, which I wrote in six weeks, was pretty recognizably the book,” he says. “It was just a little shorter and rougher and I think there was a chapter that came in later.”
The new novel, however, was unrecognizable in the early drafts. The original plot began with a terrorist bombing at a movie premier and there was no love story at all. McInerney turned in that first draft to his editor at Alfred A. Knopf in the hope of identifying something worthwhile. “He read it and he had no idea what to think because it was really unfocused and sprawling,” McInerney says. “I didn’t know what to think either; I was just sort of hoping he’d see something that I didn’t.” In the end, McInerney just went back and started all over again. Rewriting, polishing, reshaping, embellishing, and refining because it all boils down to how well a story is executed.
Authors frequently spend their lives in search of the perfect idea, the perfect plot, that flash of a concept that will catch the publishing world’s attention. But, “there’s no such thing as a good idea or a bad idea,” McInerney says. “There’s good execution and bad execution. Saying ‘yeah, I’ve got a story about twenty-four hours in the life of an Irish Jew who wanders around the city and doesn’t do much of anything’ doesn’t sound like a good book. But if it’s Ulysses, it’s a good book.”
One of the biggest struggles in the execution of The Good Life was establishing the correct tone and balance. “It was tricky because my previous writing about New York would have been really inappropriate to the aftermath of this event,” he says. The perfect balance was also needed to do this novel justice. It would have been easy to give into being overly reverent, to create our own version of the “Greatest Generation” folklore where every person is pure and every act is one of selflessness. “There were cliches of response to that event that we had to get past,” McInerney says. “Not everybody was wonderful. Not every fireman is a saint. People did not suddenly become saintly overnight as much as we might all have wanted to change and even tried. We remained human.”
On the other hand, the novel did have to portray that valiant struggle so many New Yorkers experienced in trying to recover. Even though they remained human, with all accompanying faults and weaknesses, it was true that “most people had this sense of wanting to be their best selves, wanting to be better people, wanting to be more aware of everything, more aware of why they were doing what they were doing,” McInerney says.
Achieving that balance of positive and negative, the equality of skepticism and romanticism, was one of the trials of completing The Good Life. The high personal subject matter to a New Yorker was another great challenge. With an event as cataclysmic as the September 11th attacks, “it’s hard not to have the event itself not overwhelm the fictional narrative,” he says. In the end, this novel was “a very hard book to write, very painful. It was a struggle.”