Monday, May 7, 2018

The brilliantly funny Stephen McCauley talks about MY EX-LIFE. college personal essays, Airbnbs, why he hates mac and cheese, and so much more.

Come on, who doesn't adore Stephen McCauley? I know I do. I first met him at a book salon, and we bonded over really bad movies. (Cabin on the Lake, anyone?) Subsequently, we stay in touch, I see him at readings and I stalk him on social media. He's a genius writer, hilariously funny, and despite his aversion to it, he DOES make a mean mac and cheese.

He's the acclaimed author of The Object of My Affection (which was made into a great movie starring Jennifer Anniston), The Easy Way Out, The Man of the House, True Enough, Insignificant Others and Alternatives to Sex. 

I absolutely adored his newest novel MY EX-LIFE, about lives coming apart and together, old relationships and new ones, and college personal essays (Oh my God, I LIVED that one.) And I'm not the only one. It's an Indie Next Pick, a Publisher's Lunch Buzz Book, and an Amazon Top 20 books for Spring. Check out these other raves:

“An irresistible doozy of a plot. With My Ex-Life, a heartwarming comedy of manners about second chances and starting afresh, he has pretty much outdone himself...McCauley fires off witticisms like a tennis ace practicing serves... Warm but snappy, light but smart—and just plain enjoyable.” Heller Mcalpin,
“As always, McCauley’s effervescent prose is full of wit and wisdom on every topic—college application essays, Airbnb operation, weed addiction, live porn websites, and, most of all, people. ‘When everything looks perfectly right about a person, there’s usually something significantly wrong.’ ‘All couples start off as Romeo and Juliet and end up as Laurel and Hardy.’ A gin and tonic for the soul.” Kirkus Reviews
“McCauley delights with intimately, often hilariously observed characters and a winking wit that lets plenty of honest tenderness shine through. Readers will love spending time in these pages.” Booklist, starred review

You have this astonishing talent for creating characters we just adore. I truly want Julie to be my best friend, and I want her to bring David along, too.  How do you go about creating character?

I’m delighted to hear you like them. I wrote most of the novel during the spring, summer, and fall of 2016—a traumatic time for someone with my political view of the world. I loved opening my notebooks and stepping out of my universe and into theirs. I give my students lots of craft tips for character development, but the only key I know to creating truly three-dimensional people on the page is to start with an idea of characters in a situation rather than starting with a plot. Once you make characters secondary or subservient to a story, they tend to get a little flat. You can see the marionette wires and the author’s hand pulling them. If I have a good sense of the people I’m dealing with, I take a see-what-happens approach. The main story that drives My Ex-Life emerged directly from David’s career as college counselor, not from a planned and outlined plot. It’s not the most efficient way to write, I know, but I think it has value. Stephen King has a great chapter about this in his terrific book On Writing.

Having survived the college essay period four years ago, I loved reading about it again because it all sounded so familiar to me. (We, two writers, could not really help our son and we hired someone because she showed us this wonderful essay a kid had written about how he wanted to be among wild horses in Montana and “run, run, run.” And his father, of course, despite her please, made him change it to something boring about making a difference in the world of finance. Do you do this work? How do you know so much about it?

I’ve worked on college essays for the children of several friends and also two of my nephews. Doing it, I gained a ton of insight into their families and the kids’ real feelings about their parents. That’s why I chose that profession for my character—indirect participation in the lives of others. I think that explains why you two writers couldn’t really help your son—your participation is too direct! I’ve been teaching at the college level for thirty years, and I’m astonished at how much drama has emerged around what was once a fairly straightforward process. My parents had only a vague awareness of where I was applying. My awareness was probably more vague than theirs, come to think of it. For research, I interviewed an admissions officer at Harvard about the importance of essays (less than most people assume, it turns out!) and novelist Elizabeth Benedict who has created a successful business coaching essays. She gave me some great insights. It’s easier to make things up when you’re standing on a somewhat solid foundation of fact.

Same question re selling and restoring houses, please.

I had the good fortune of having three of my books made into movies. One here and two in France. I used the money to buy two pieces of real estate, both intended as writing retreats. Unfortunately, I found I was too worried about renovations and upkeep when I was in them to get writing done. So I made both short-term rentals. (“Airbnb’s” is the accepted generic term. Like “Kleenex” for facial tissues.) Now I use the money I earn from renting them to rent other people’s apartments in places around the country. I go, burrow in for a couple of weeks and couldn’t care less if the ceiling falls in around me. Julie’s Airbnb operation in My Ex-Life is based on those experiences. Especially her experiences with throw pillows. Airbnb rentals always have way, way too many throw pillows. I usually photograph them as soon as I check in and send the pictures to a few friends to prove I’m not making it up. I turned pillows into a running gag in this novel. I liked exploring the Airbnb world in My Ex-Life because millions of people are sharing their most intimate spaces—kitchen, bathrooms, bedrooms—with complete strangers. It opens up all kinds of story possibilities.

I also absolutely loved the relationship between David and Julie, their deep affection for one another. Do you think part of what stops us from moving on is just plain old terror of the new, and if so, what do we do about it?

I think there’s too much emphasis on the importance of “moving on” as a value in and of itself. Sometimes a more nuanced adaptation to what is is the better solution. I love when people have crazy, complicated living situations with exes or make accommodations for lovers or destitute relatives. When people truly open up about their relationships, their marriages, you discover no one’s life is as simple as it seems from the outside.

Ah, let’s talk about mid-life. What I loved so much about your novel is that it DOES spark second chances. (My mom fell in love for the first time at 93!) which is sort of thumbing your nose at all this societal dictates of who should be doing what at what age. So…as you see it, there are too second acts in American life. Can you talk about this, please?

To be embarrassingly frank, I’m surprised at how desire and even opportunities linger into (and past!) midlife. On the other hand, you absolutely cannot talk about your sex life past age fifty. No one wants to hear. If you don’t want to be celibate, you have to pretend you are. Like wearing a wedding ring, it signals that you’re available. As for second chances, an astonishing number of folks are using social media to look up, investigate, and/or cyber-stalk old paramours, high-school sweethearts, or ex-spouses. They claim it’s totally innocent, but let’s face it, it never is. Exes knew us when we were younger, less wrinkled, less jaded, more firm and fit. They still see the aura of that surrounding us when they look at us. The second chances in My Ex-Life aren’t like the wonderful one your mother had with a new person, but a reconfigured relationship with an old love and best friend. I find there’s tremendous sweetness and tenderness in that.

What kind of writer are you? Do you freak out or panic? You make it seem so effortless.

I used to be a “freak, panic, fall-asleep-for-two-days” kind of writer. Now that I am the age that I am, I’ve calmed down a lot. I care as much about doing good work, but I don’t see my entire life hinging on the success of every sentence. Oddly enough, this has made me work harder and dig deeper. I don’t have the energy for freak-outs and all-nighters. I take my notebooks to the library and remind myself that I’m not Dostoyevsky. Espresso also helps.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

In a literary sense, I’ve been obsessed with Anita Brookner for a couple of years now. Not individual novels but her whole body of eccentric work. As of last summer, 20th-Century Japanese novels. Mishima and Tanizaki especially. In music, I’ve been listening to the droning, unmelodic, electronic music of Loscil. It drowns out the political news, which is what’s really obsessing me, to the detriment of my mental and physical health. 

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?

I don’t know, but you didn’t ask the question you shouldn’t have asked---“What are you working on now?”—and for that, I’m thankful.

And (inside joke) made any mac and cheese lately? There is excellent vegan cheese for that, now. Just saying.

You graciously included me in an article you wrote about mac and cheese for the Boston Globe. I remember something about aged Gouda. I was very grateful, and a bunch of people told me they made the recipe. I guess I can now confess that I don’t really love mac and cheese! Don’t hate me, okay? Even as a kid I didn’t love it. My mother—who was Italian and a fantastic cook—made it out of spite on nights when my father didn’t come home for dinner. She was thumbing her nose at him by feeding it to us. I don’t understand the logic. But I love knowing that this is part of our history. We’ll never have Paris, but we’ll always have mac and cheese!

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