Interview: Joe McGinniss Jr., Author
It was hard to be objective with this one. I first learned about Joe McGinniss Jr. through the much discussed news item on Publishers Marketplace announcing the sale of his novel to Grove/Atlantic. Then a personal and obviously time-consuming email appeared in my inbox from McGinniss. As opposed to most of the pitches I get that are spewed to some massive list to anyone who has a blog and mentions the word “book,” McGinniss actually seemed to have read Slushpile.net and figured out some things we have in common prior to clicking send. So maybe I was buttered up from the beginning.
But The Delivery Man is the real thing. Bleak but incredibly gripping, the novel examines the inertia and desparate lives of young twenty-somethings in Las Vegas. Chase, an aspiring painter who makes the deliveries referenced in the title, is torn between escaping Sin City with his ambitious MBA girlfriend or staying on the Strip with his prostitute childhood friend. Chase’s struggle involves physical violence, sexual degradation, and explorations of the grimy side of Las Vegas glamour. For people who read this novel, there’s a feeling they’ll get when they look to the west. And it ain’t pleasant.
The Delivery Man was selected as an “editors’ choice” by The New York Times and their review said “in McGinniss’s terse and memorable final sentence, Chase utters two words, and the cycle of violence powers up again, some teeth missing but with dread to burn, the snake fitting its mouth around its tail and biting hard.”
Having just returned from a string of booksigning to packed houses, McGinniss was kind enough to discuss the Bret question, the determination it takes to succeed as a writer, and just how screwed up kids really are today.
Slushpile: This question simply has to be asked – although I’m sure you’re tired of fielding it – but how much is The Delivery Man influenced by the work of Bret Easton Ellis and how much is it a conscious homage? Even the cover image points to the eighties with the large wayfarer type sunglasses. And of course, your novel begins with the line “Find Yourself Here” while Less Than Zero prominently features “Disappear Here.” Were you proudly showing your influences? Or consciously engaging in an allusion to Ellis’s work, almost signaling that yours is the Less Than Zero for a new generation?
McGinniss: Great question. I love Bret. I love his work, his independence, his toughness, his willingness to take chances and write without apology about certain soulless segments of American society. I read Less Than Zero for the first time when I was about 14. I read it right after reading Native Son by Richard Wright. Very different books. Suffice it to say I was blown away by both, terrified and saddened by the vision each offered. I picked up both multiple times through the years as well as Didion and John O’Hara and Richard Yates.
What appealed to me most about all of those writers was the accessibility they offer, the spare, powerful language they use to tell stories or satirize an era or an ethic. I remember clearly trying to write something too sentimental, too sappy. I found myself wanting to make Chase more conventionally sympathetic, Julia to be an even brighter light in his dark world, to default to three-dimensional “traditional” characters. But they didn’t fit, no matter how hard I tried, into the two-dimensional world I was describing.
As far as a conscious homage – not really. Bret did something brilliant at 19 or whatever, about the soullessness of materialism and excess in the Reagan 80’s in LA. I wrote about characters who didn’t have the luxury his had – the ability to fuck around and nearly kill yourself, listless and nihilistic, always with a parental safety net of trust funds and huge houses to catch you when you fall out of rehab. I don’t know that world. He observed it and even knew it to a degree from what little I know about his early years. I know middle-class life. I know something about the African-American experience. I observed, studied as much as I could the Latino experience. My characters don’t have the safety net to catch them when they fall. They can’t afford the risks they’re taking. Yet they take them just the same. Which is, I think, more representative of more people’s experiences. There are far more black, brown and working class white kids screwing around and wasting their lives than trust-fund babies.
I love the way the “Find Yourself Here” lines up with “Disappear Here.” That was dumb luck. Summerlin, the master-planned-community I spent too many hours studying, researching, visiting, has a slogan, “Find Yourself Here.” I had to use it. It was perfect. And I realized of course, idiot, that’s an answer to the Less Than Zero question, where do you end up if you “Disappear here?” Well, twenty years later in Las Vegas staring at brochure for a cookie-cutter housing development in the suburbs, battered, bruised and broken.
The cover was an image the art director at Grove found combing the internet for images. She’s 18, lives in Wisconsin. Her 16-year-old sister took the picture in the backseat of their mother’s car. They were excited when the publisher approached them. They got some money and some books. We got a kick-ass cover
Slushpile: The story of your father’s involvement with Ellis is well-documented. But how did Ellis become a champion of your work?
McGinniss: When I wrote something I thought was ready to be read by objective readers, I did a number of things. I enrolled in a graduate fiction workshop led by author Richard McCann at American University (where I received my masters in public policy – don’t ask.) I submitted a sample and he invited me in. It was incredible. Reading other work, reading and listening to multiple critiques of mine. I needed it badly. It went by too fast. I revised some more, finished another draft, thought I was ready again.
I wrote to a bunch of writers asking if they would read some or all of my “novel.” I wrote to people whose work moved me the most. I explained why I was approaching them in particular. I was pleasantly surprised to get reads from most. One read 25 pages. One read 100. Bret read it all. When a writer as brilliant as he is says yes, I’ll read your manuscript, you overnight it. Which I did to all three. One said no, they didn’t read unpublished work. So I got reads from most and they were all helpful. (Yes, I’m returning karmic favors, reading a young guy’s work from England who contacted me.)
Writers are solo-artists, needing to make their own breaks, taking advantage of any and every opportunity. And even that doesn’t guaranteee shit. This process has been utterly mindblowing. Every fucking step of it. I can’t believe books even get published, much less read.) And I owe Bret my second child. After a few drafts – rewrites that were always driven by just the right questions from Bret and the other readers (a trademark I learned of really thoughtful editors – asking the tough questions, large and small) – I knew I nailed it. I finally had a story that worked. I had the posterboard and glue sticks and multi-colored index cards charting each act, each characters storyline, each movement so that nothing was out of synch. I sent him a draft that I knew was ready. It was the first time I was right. He offered then, for the first time in the three years I’d known him, to show my novel to his agent. It was of course a nice moment, one I talked about with my wife all the time, but never with him. Will it ever be good enough for him to put his name on the line?
Slushpile: You’ve said in other interviews that “with a novel, one is free to exaggerate to make a point. In fact, if one doesn’t, it won’t make much of a novel.” Is there a way that new writers can figure out how much exaggeration is too much? Where is the line between making a point and crossing over into absurdity?
McGinniss: Excellent question. AM Homes has her suburbanite smoking crack and burning down their house for kicks. Absurd? Of course. But it works. Bret has kids gangraping 12 year old girls and sociapathic Wall Street traders committing the most heinous acts. But it works. With Homes – it’s wickedly playful – they’re destroying themselves and the language and story surrounding the acts supports the absurdity. With the brutality in some of Bret’s work, the ethic of greed and materialism is so effectively rendered that the acts – savage exaggerations – do their job. I think the line is wherever your story and the world you’re exploring tells you it is.
And it depends on the comment you want to make about it. If I’m writing about the paralyzing lack of self-esteem inherent in kids coming of age in contemporary Las Vegas and a society that crams the sexualization of teenage girls down their throats, then I’m going to make a lot of the girls prositutes. Shit – teenage girls are saying “This is what they want, for me to have two-dimensional aspirations, to be a sex object at 13 and 14, to dress like a slut, then I’ll just sell my body and make the money I need to get ahead, or at least live like the celebrity I’ll never be.” Or something like that.
Slushpile: You’ve mentioned that you did a tremendous amount of research for The Delivery Man, even going so far as to videotape neighborhoods in Las Vegas. At what point did you feel like you understood the environment enough? How did you know when to stop the research and start the writing?
McGinniss: This was one of those typical learn from your mistakes, naïve first-time novelist kind of things. When I decided the story had to be about someone from Las Vegas, born and raised, the novel took off. (Prior versions involved the city but weren’t centered there. But those versions weren’t novels, they were something else entirely). But of course, being an outsider, I hit a wall. I knew only so much about the place from reading countless books and Mike Davis articles (City of Quartz and Ecology of Fear et al…though most of his work is about LA, he wrote some great stuff on Vegas.)
But the characters needed better voices, they needed authentication that only interviews and conversations could provide. In order to write instinctively about life there from the perspective of Chase or Michele or Bailey, I had to have so many hours of conversations, hours and hours spent reading and rereading transcipts from interviews, every Las Vegas Review-Journal story about the 311 Boyz (group of rogue overprivileged white boys who spent a summer videotaping horrific beatings they administered to other kids in parking lots and on playgrounds). I had to know reflexively where the kids in the story spent Friday nights, where they ended up at the end of a night of parties, where they spent weekends with the family, which waterslide and which radio station and which neighborhood they avoided. The research never ends. There is always something else that can help give the story a more authentic feel.
I wrote a last scene – an early flashback with Carly and Bailey and Chase going to a shooting range with Bailey’s father instead of school – very late in the process. I knew there had to be more with Carly and Bailey and Chase and there had to be some activity that would seem germaine to the place. A shooting range, obviously. Why? Because one girl who I interviewed would post these online diaries about her life. One entry was about a perfect day: her father let her skip summer school, took her and her little sister to a shooting range. Then to Hot Topic, bought some clothes. Then to Del Taco. Then home to watch some John Travolta movie. She was stoked. It was the best suburban Las Vegas day. And some of that made it into the book at the last minute.
Slushpile: The Delivery Man depicts youth culture gone wrong. There are tales of teenage prostitution, animal abuse, rampant drug abuse, etc. Do you think that the so-called MySpace Generation is objectively over the line in terms of behavior? Or, is it just the passage of time that makes every older generation seem leery of youth. In other words, is something “really” wrong with kids today or is it just the same thing that made our grandparents scowl at Elvis Presley shaking his hips?
McGinniss: There’s something wrong. Big time. Kids are exposed to SO MUCH MORE than ever before. When I was 12, to get porn we had to find a magazine fluttering down the highway in our backyard (it was called Twosome or something typical like that and it was pretty gross) or we had to jiggle the cable box buttons so that the Playboy channel would come on all grainy and shaky.) My god, today, what teenager hasn’t seen the most explicit kinds of stuff on the internet? Maybe the Amish. But that’s it. And it’s not even Internet porn. It’s friggin’ MTV with Super Sweet 16 that glorifies disgusting levels of spending and greed. And it’s cable news that makes no distinction between celebrity worship and real issues. Back in the day – you’d have to watch Entertainment Tonight to get celebrity news. Today, turn on CNN or Fox News.
It’s a celebrity culture. It’s a porn culture. It’s a violence culture. It’s a visual age and everyone wants to be famous and every girl is a sex object. Open an American Apparel catalogue the next chance you get. Child porn. Period. Is it tougher for kids today – hell yes. If you thought about being a hooker, making some money selling your body and you lived in the suburbs in the 80’s, you couldn’t do it. Today – you can get ten responses in an hour from ten different men after posting your ad for free on Craigslist. You can be in some man’s hotel room in an hour. You can be 18 or 17 or 15 and find yourself somewhere very scary. And it’s so, so easy. And I don’t blame the youth. They reflect us, society, what we value, or what corporate America values (which inherently is nothing, other than the bottom line) so it’s scary because we know what sells – and if that’s what’d dictating social and cultural norms, kids are really, really in a tough spot – left to filter out the trash, to make sense of it all. But there may be hope around the corner. Look at the level of youth participation in certain political campaigns. Signs of hope.
Slushpile: The kids in The Delivery Man all seem to suffer this inability to escape from their hometown of Las Vegas. The main character, Chase, returns to Sin City from school in New York and constantly talks of leaving but never seems to accomplish that goal. Do you think this is indicative of hometowns in general? Or is there something specific to Las Vegas that sucks people in?
McGinniss: I feel much sypmathy for Chase and all of the characters in this story. They all suffer from the same thing: a paralyzing lack of self-esteem. That’s one trait that seemed present across the board in all of my interviews and reading about the kids and twenty-somethings in Vegas. The inferiority complex. If you’re an artist in Vegas: you feel like shit because the art scene is nothing compared to LA or NYC. If you’re a teenager in Vegas: you feel like shit because your hometown is the butt of jokes anywhere you go, produces nothing of value, is known for what? Sex? Gambling? Toxic waste? Nuclear testing? Brothels? The mafia? Theme casinos? The desolation of the desert? Smog? Insane heat? Paris Hilton? So there is a unique sense of emptiness at the heart of the place that afflicts the people from there.
On the book tour, I did an interview on KNPR. That night, some 30-somethings came out to my reading in Summerlin – the master-planned suburb of Vegas. They all said the same thing, “You nailed it.” They had heard the interview in which we talked about the hold Vegas has on people from there. And the way it fails to prepare residents for life beyond – where you afford not to pursue education, don’t need even a college degree to make $60k-$85k a year to deal cards, park cars, manage a restaurant, bartend.
The people who came out that night to Barnes & Noble told me they were still living in Vegas – after leaving for school – for reasons they couldn’t place, aside from family still living and working there in the casinos. They were the children of Colombian immigrants. Their parents worked for decades in the casinos. They had kids of their own. They were “always on the verge of leaving.” But they were still there. That’s true of a lot of places of course. But there is something like the old mill towns or Detroit or Pittsburgh – where everyone just knew what they’d do – work on the assembly line or at the steel mill, make union wages, benefits, buy a house, raise a family, maybe if they’re lucky have a football star son. Similar story in Vegas. Just more glittery and dangerous, but equally depressing.
Slushpile: So how does it feel to have your first novel reviewed in The New York Times?
McGinniss: Relief. A review doesn’t have to be fair, intelligent or thoughtful. Ed Park’s was. And to be named an Editor’s Choice (self-promotion, apologies) the next week felt pretty damn good too. And for a book like mine – a bit edgy, non-traditional, one that doesn’t take the conventional route – to get fair treatment by another young, very smart guy like Park is simply a thrill. Humbling. (Another of my favorite writers, Rich Lange, got great treatment in the Times too with his collection Dead Boys. [ed: see the Slushpile.net interview with Lange here.] So I’m okay with the Times – though they did endorse Hillary over Obama, so there’s room for improvement).
Slushpile: You’ve mentioned years of writing that were “a painful slog filled with self-doubt, no money and more stress than I can bear to think about.”What kept you going during those difficult periods?
McGinniss: My wife.
Slushpile: What is your most common mistake in your writing? Is there something that you always have to remind yourself to correct?
McGinniss: Focus. How does THIS move the story FORWARD? I wrote so much from mood, sense of place, tone. That’s self-indulgent. The reader doesn’t have time for that. Get to the point. That’s my biggest mistake. That’s what took me so damn long with this rather slim book. Teaching myself to get to the point. Easier said than done. I may outline the next one. See if that saves me a few years.
Slushpile: You wrote some articles for Las Vegas Weekly during the time you researched the novel. But had you published any other fiction before the book came out?
Slushpile: You mentioned that you initially wrote some highly autobiographical work that was barely readable. What was the first lightbulb moment where you thought you understood, or at least knew how to progress, with a good novel?
McGinniss: I’m hard on myself. It was readable – just wasn’t a novel. Lightbulb moment: there were many – but the clearest was when I thought I understood what made certain novels I loved work. I devoured Play It As It Lays – trying to break it down – identify plot-points in a plotless story. Progressions, anything that moved the story forward in an otherwise eliptical novel. I did the same with Less Than Zero and Revolutionary Road. And finally when I broke out the posterboard and notecards and glue stick and the black Sharpie to hammer out and chart the storylines of each character. That was the ultimate breakthrough – when the story finally came together.
Slushpile: What is your single-best, most-important, can’t-live-without writing tip you would offer to aspiring authors?
McGinniss: Don’t quit. Be true. Write what you love to read. Don’t write for markets that you think are hot. Be bold. Don’t be safe. Push boundaries. Do it a lot– like almost every day if you can. And write the novel, or anything, that you HAVE to write. Not one you want to write. You must NEED it. (I’m stealing my father’s advice to me – when he pleaded with me not to become a writer, knowing how brutal it can be.)
Slushpile: What is your single-best, most-important, can’t-live-without publishing tip you would offer to aspiring authors struggling to break into print?
McGinniss: Be bold. Take chances. Get into some kind of workshop. Get readers you trust to be objective about your work and do them favors, buy them dinner, groceries, whatever in return for reading your work. It’s hard to be a reader. It’s harder to offer thoughtful edits. Show appreciation for the favor they’re doing you. Then, when you think you’ve got something, reach out to people who are on the inside. Whether agents, other published writers, whoever.
Try and try and try. If you NEED it – you’ll do it. But not everyone can afford the retreats or conferences. I couldn’t. But if there’s an angle available – utilize it. You’re all alone out there. No one else will do it. You must get help to get a career started. As Roland Merullo says, “No one writes a novel alone.” You have to make your circle grow. And you only make that happen by reaching out when you have something you KNOW is kick-ass. And even then you have to get lucky.
For more information about Joe McGinniss Jr., check out his website.