A month or so ago, I got a Facebook friend request from someone named Dan Zevin.  I’d never heard of him before, and we did not seem to have many friends in common.  But since I view my Facebook page as the 10-watt red lightbulb in a vast virtual De Wallen in whose dim scarlet glow I shamelessly pimp my  wares—and since Dan appeared to be a “Daddy Lit” writer and not a pedophile—I accepted his request, and promptly forgot all about him.

Some time later, this message appeared in my Facebook inbox:

Twenty-eleven was a good year, one might even say a banner year, for Greg Olear.  The proverbial bouncer whisked me into the proverbial club in many instances when, in the past, I would have been left waiting behind the proverbial velvet rope.

Among the lists I’m proud to have made in 2011: American writers published in the French by Editions Gallmeister; American writers interviewed on French TV; speakers at the Quais du Polar festival in Lyon; authors in the signing booth at BEA; guests at the Authors Guild cocktail party; New Paltz homeowners (and Hudson Valley Magazine feature subjects); novelists noted on the “Hot Type” page of Vanity Fair; guys who have made out with Snooki; novelists noted on the “Full Frontal” page of Penthouse; writers interviewed on the Other People pod (you can’t spell Listi without L-I-S-T); and of course, Los Angeles Times bestsellers (Fathermucker was #15!).

EDITOR’S NOTE:

Another year has come and gone, and it’s time once again to present The Nobbies, the official book awards of The Nervous Breakdown.

Below you’ll find this year’s winners, our picks for the best books of 2011.

Congrats to the victors, and their publishers.

And thanks, as always, for reading.

-BL

It was 4:30 p.m. by the time we got on the road. Me, Melinda, and Jane.  The sky over the southern San Joaquin Valley was heavy with rain clouds. I drove. The road was slick.  The San Emigdio Mountains were topped with snow.  “You sure are quiet,” I said to Jane. Normally she was ruling the conversation. She called it a “Janeopoly.” I figured she was plotting out her novel, Puro Amor.  Not long ago she told me she could write entire paragraphs in her head and remember them for transcribing later.

An hour or so later we zoomed down the Hollywood Freeway, took the Highland Avenue exit and headed west onto Hollywood Boulevard, on our way to Book Soup. We were nearly late for the reading.

The bookstore was small, cramped, packed floor-to-ceiling with shelves. The reading area was an aisle essentially, a few folding chairs leading to a podium.  Bunched in the crowd were some writers from TNB, several of whom I’d never met. Kimberly M. Wetherell, filmmaker and writer, wore black glasses, her red hair a fire of loveliness. She mentioned that I was no longer two dimensional—no longer just words on a screen. I said something about being a figment of her imagination.

Duke Haney, author of Banned For Life and Subversia, stood in a corner wearing a black newsboy cap and a leather jacket. He was talking to Rachel Pollon, another TNBer.  She stood about half his size and got shy when I asked her to talk on camera.  “Meet Hank,” Duke said, pointing to another tall guy.  Hank stepped forward and handed me a photo of a face with the word “awesome” on it.

Lenore Zion had long, curly hair—different than when I last saw her.  She looked younger.  She asked what I had been up to. I mumbled something about 2010 being a year to write off and later bought her book, My Dead Pets Are Interesting.

Greg Boose came up and offered me a friendly hello.  He was taller than I expected, and handsome. His wife, Claire Bidwell Smith, was taller than expected, too. Both have striking eyes the color of the sea.  Greg asked me how long I was staying in town. I wanted to say a week. I wanted to say I had a suitcase and was looking for a nice padded bus bench.  “Probably headed back tonight,” I told him.  “Though maybe I’ll just stay and find my way back in the morning.”

Joe Daly, TNB’s music editor, came over and introduced himself.  His hair was shaggy, he was unshaven, he looked like rock and roll.  For some reason I had expected his hair to be short.

I met Ben Loory, too.  He has a gentle soul and a contemplative smile. Later, when he read a story of his called “The Well” and said he might cry, I almost started crying myself.

I didn’t get to meet Victoria Patterson. She read an essay about farts in literature, and her hands were shaking as she read.  It was hilarious.  Everyone laughed and held their gas.

Then there was the master of ceremonies, Greg Olear, author of the new novel Fathermucker.  A dark sweater covered his “Brave New World” T-shirt.  He gave me a guy hug and we made small talk.  I met his wife, Stephanie, too—not a writer, but a ferocious singer.  Steph was all hugs. She talked to a college friend from Syracuse, and they laughed about old times.

 

 

WATCH: GREG OLEAR/TNBERS AT BOOK SOUP

VIEW: JANE HAWLEY PHOTOS FROM BOOK SOUP

 

After the event, many of us headed over to Mirabelle, a nearby bar and restaurant. Brad Listi carried a sack of books and asked what I was up to and where I’d been. I didn’t want to dish out my sob story right then, so I just talked opportunities, my new book of poetry, the interest of an agent in my novel Anhinga, and so on.

Inside the bar, Jane came suddenly to life. She talked and talked and I grew quiet as she and a new friend walked to where Ben, Duke and the others were hanging out. Greg was at the bar drinking a beer. He ordered me some water.  I listened to Stephanie and her friend talking about their college days. I was content.

Melinda was quiet. She used to write (Lenore recognized her from her defunct blog), and she does have a voice. But now, for the most part, she just comes to my Random Writers Workshop, where I prod people like her to write novels and dream big. Jesse from the workshop was there, too. He downed a few drinks and talked shop with Ben Loory.

We were there for about an hour before heading home.  Jane fell asleep in the back of the car and began snoring. Rain poured over Interstate 5, turning into slush as we hit the Tejon Pass, the hump over the San Andreas Fault that marks the downward slide into the Central Valley.

“You okay?” Melinda asked. She could tell I couldn’t see the lines on the road.

“I’m fine,” I told her. “Just gotta see the lanes. I don’t mind driving in storms.”  I was smiling a little, eyes  straight ahead. I felt strangely at ease, like I was passing through a kind of personal storm, releasing it, washing it away on the rain-slicked desert road.

As we rolled back into Bakersfield, Jane woke up. By now it was one o’clock, and still raining.  I pulled into Melinda’s driveway.  We got out.  Jane said a quick goodbye, ran to her car, and drove away.  A pile of leaves in the neighbor’s gutter had caused a flood in front of Melinda’s house. I grabbed a hoe from the garage and started moving the pile. Melinda watched me briefly, then went inside, to bed.  I stayed outside and pushed and pulled and hacked at the pile of leaves and branches until a stream was created.  I stood alone in the rain and watched the water flow down the street.  Rain came down against the lawns and streets of Bakersfield in the night.  It was quiet otherwise, no signs of life, and I stood alone in the rain, content to know that the flood was gone.

 

Full disclosure: I read FATHERMUCKER (HarperCollins 2011) the first time around in installments. As Greg wrote, I would receive these amazing sections in my inbox — smart, compelling, raucous, heartbreaking and wholly original. I would tear through those pages, enthralled by Josh Lansky’s stream of consciousness, his riffs on parenting, popular culture, love, sex, his wife and children, all set to a playlist ranging in taste from Zeppelin to the Magnetic Fields. As soon as I finished I would send Greg e-mails that contained only one word: MORE. The voice felt entirely fresh and new, unlike anything I had experienced before in contemporary fiction, and definitely not from this perspective. Josh Lansky, while a devout husband and father, was still a guy, and he held nothing back in what would surely turn out to be one of the longest days in his life. Experiencing FATHERMUCKER will leave you breathless and wanting more of what goes on inside Greg Olear’s head; thankfully, he agreed to answer a few questions.

A novelist of your acquaintance, an affable fellow named Roger Gale, has written a second novel, a follow-up to his highly unsuccessful debut, The Lap of Uxory. This sophomore effort, which concerns a stay-at-pyramid father who raises a young Egyptian prince, is called Pharaohmaker, and the “pub date” is fast approaching.

…but then there was this group called the Nomadic Theatre troupe, and I kind of felt like okay, I can jive with these guys, so I auditioned for some plays and I played Azolan, the servant in Dangerous Liaisons, was the first thing I had done…

—Bradley Cooper, NPR’s Fresh Air, May 25, 2011

 

 

 

I discovered Bradley Cooper.

Really, I did.

I cast him (or rather we cast him—my friend and co-director Brian Rath and I) in the first play he ever did, a Nomadic Theatre production of Christopher Hampton’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses, staged in the spring of 1995 at our mutual alma mater, Georgetown University.

I’ve been loath to disclose this piece of Greg Olear trivia because a) discovering the actor who played Face in the A-Team movie is not in quite the same strata as discovering a new planet or the cure for cancer; b) unlike Jessica Anya Blau’s full-frontal encounter with Smurf-schlonged Hollywood Leading Man X (who had, at the time, about the same Q rating Cooper does right now), there’s not much to the story; and c) as Ouisa so eloquently puts it in Six Degrees of Separation (written, incidentally, by John Guare, another Georgetown alumnus), “Let’s not be starfuckers.”

But the situation has changed. Bradley Cooper’s sudden and unavoidable ubiquity has forced my hand. I can’t seem to escape him. Consider:

>> Last weekend, The Hangover II established a new box office record for live-action comedy, and has now grossed some $200 million—or about $200 million more than our play grossed.

>> My father-in-law’s therapeutic herbal remedy company, Herbasway Laboratories, wrangled a tie-in with the aforementioned film to promote one of its signature products, the “hangover helper” Last Round (it really works, by the way; if your ambition is to be a literary lush, I recommend you give it a whirl), so even he has been singing the praises of said bohunk.

>> Cooper has once again dished about his formative experience in our play, this time to NPR, and thus his celebrated name has been a constant in my Facebook feed.

>> I found, while packing up the old house two weeks ago, photographic evidence of our association (see below).

The time has come to tell the tale. Starfucker I must be.

 

* * *

 

Let me set the stage.

Georgetown is known for producing politicians (Bill Clinton) and NBA centers (Patrick Ewing). But my alma mater is, and always has been, a sneaky arts school. Among its notable alumni are The Exorcist author William Peter Blatty, Guare, Arrested Development creator Mitchell Hurwitz, Fugazi guitarist Guy Picciotto, and acting legend John Barrymore.

Overlapping my time on campus were the Memento screenwriter Jonathan Nolan; the Emmy-winning director Michael Sucsy; my friend Dave Berman, who plays the assistant coroner on CSI (and who would have been in the play if he weren’t studying abroad that semester); comedian Mike Birbiglia; Vertical Horizon’s Matt Scannell; and the playwright/TV writer/comic book writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, my friend and sometime mentor, who was hired a few months ago to re-work the script of Spiderman: The Musical.

For a school of nascent lawyers and diplomats, not too shabby.

In 1995, there were two drama companies on campus: the venerable and stuffy Mask & Bauble, and Nomadic Theatre, the young upstart known for breezy comedies like Dracula: The Musical (in which I played Van Helsing my freshman year). The two enjoyed a friendly rivalry, and it was our ambition crush M&B and establish Nomadic as top dog. To do this, we needed to stage an ambitious play, and stage it well.

Les Liaisons Dangereuses fit the bill. A demanding and difficult play, it is three solid hours of precise dialogue, ornate costumes (which we avoided by setting the action in the 1920s; men in tuxedos, women in gowns), and swordplay. The lead, Valmont—John Malkovich in the movie—is on stage for most of those three hours, almost never stops talking, and dies after an extensively choreographed swordfight. It’s not an easy part to pull off.

But we had the man for the job: our friend Bandar al-Hejin, a gifted actor who was also stunningly handsome. He’d smoldered his way through a production of Rope the year before, establishing his bona fides theatrical and heartthrob. We selected the play with Bandar in mind.

Madame de Merteuil, the Glenn Close part, is critical to the success of the show; for the play to succeed, we had to find someone who could go toe to toe with Bandar. Fortunately, we did: despite having to audition with a talentless schmuck in leather pants who handed out headshots, and who made it clear that he was the son of some Hollywood director we’d never heard of and therefore the Second Coming of Brad Pitt—as soon as he left the room, Brian tore up his headshot and screamed, “Fuck him!”—Lucy Ellenbogen dazzled in her try-out, and only got better as the play went along.

Rounding out the talented and attractive cast were Lucy Barzun Donnelly (who won an Emmy and a Golden Globe last year for producing Grey Gardens), Noelle Coates, Destiny Lopez, Maggie Kemper, Alexia Paul, Roman Kindrachuk, and Brady Richards, one of my best friends (who, among his many other talents, fashions Beer Buckles).

Azolan, a secondary part, is Valmont’s valet: his servant, but also his confidante, his comic straight man, his partner in crime. A fin de siècle DSK like Valmont, we decided, would employ someone young and handsome as a wingman. That’s what we were looking for at the audition.

We narrowed it down to two actors: Oliver, a Mask & Bauble veteran who delivered the lines with saucy aplomb; and a sophomore transfer student who’d never been on stage before in his life. He was a bit wooden, the newcomer, a bit stiff, but we liked that; we didn’t want Azolan upstaging—or, worse, trying unsuccessfully to upstage—Valmont. We felt a guy this raw would deliver the lines, many of them jokes, without acting like a stand-up comic.

Plus, he was a good complement to our lead. Bandar was dark and handsome, slender and on the short side. The new guy was tall, more filled in, and blonde. And he was good-looking. Fantabulously, jaw-droppingly, pinch-yourself, hot-as-all-get-out good-looking. So we went with him.

Our decision proved prudent. The new guy was the perfect Azolan. He did indeed deliver his lines well, never attempted to upstage Bandar, and remained as fantabulously, jaw-droppingly, pinch-yourself, hot-as-all-get-out good-looking as he’d been at the audition.

The new guy’s name, as I’m sure you’ve guessed, was Bradley Cooper.

 

* * *

 

The spring of 1995 was only Cooper’s second semester at Georgetown. A sophomore, he’d transferred from a school in Pennsylvania with his girlfriend, who was just as comely as he was (in my recollection, she looked a lot like a young Courteney Cox—curious, given his recent not-so-dangerous liaison with Jennifer Aniston), and, it seemed to me, more worldly.  They reminded me of the Bulgarian couple in Casablanca: attractive, optimistic, decidedly un-jaded.

As for me, I graduated in December of 1994, a semester early, and was only hanging around to direct the play, forestall gainful employment, and prepare my liver for the graduation week of drunken debauchery known as Senior Disorientation. So I did not know Cooper well.

He struck me as pleasant, quiet, polite, and shy (I realize this is not unlike how neighbors describe serial killers). He had a certain wide-eyed quality that was endearing, but he was also a bit aloof, perhaps because I was older and, as a director, something of an authority figure (one who threw good parties and made rehearsals fun, but an authority figure just the same).

In his recent NPR interview, he hinted at another reason for his aloofness:

“I also didn’t feel at all comfortable with the theater crowd when I was in high school. I never felt any connection to those students and so too was it true at Georgetown,” Cooper said. “I had nothing in common with them. Maybe I was intimidated by them.”

So we’ll go with that. He was intimidated by me (and probably by Brian even more, Brian being the “bad cop” of our directorial duo).  Because, you know, I’m so intimidating.

I saw him only once after that semester, at a theatre event for students and alumni a year or two later. He showed up with Eric Chase Anderson, Wes’s kid brother (Bottle Rocket was out by then) and eventual art director, who had cast him in a student film called, if memory serves, The Ant Colony, and coaxed a nuanced performance out of him that hinted at what was to come. Cooper wore a purple-and-blue pinstriped three-piece suit, and his hair was slicked back like Pat Riley’s. Gone was the wooden gait that had gotten him cast in Les Liaisons Dangereuses; now he strutted like John Travolta, not arrogantly but confidently. In other words, like a movie star.

He’d gone as Hollywood as it was possible to go within the collegial confines of the Healy Gates. He would wind up going all the way there.

We watched with interest as he guested on Sex in the City and was sodomized in Wet Hot American Summer. We shook our heads every time Alias came on.

When he nabbed the “Ralph Bellamy” part in Wedding Crashers, we were astonished. A guy we actually knew—a guy Brady still traded emails with; a guy I once implored to project—was in a major role in a major comedy!

But it didn’t stop there: The Hangover, Renée Zellweger, He’s Just Not That into You, Jennifer Aniston, The Hangover II.

It hasn’t stopped yet. It just keeps on going.

The A-Team? Try the A-list.

It’s kind of amazing.

 

* * *

 

Would Bradley Cooper have made it this far if we’d opted for Oliver as Azolan—if, in other words, we were lesser casting agents and directors? Of course. Much as we’d like to believe otherwise, he does not owe his success to us, his intimidators. We’re not like the guy from the Human League song.

Would he make a good Asher Krug? Absolutely (although it must be said: Bandar would, too).

Would it kill him to note that the play responsible for exciting his acting bug was co-directed by a novelist who has a new book out in the fall? Evidently. Or, more likely, this pesky detail has escaped his matinee idol’s attention. Can’t say I blame him.

Nevertheless, it’s refreshing to hear that, unlike that fateful night in Vegas—and now, one night in Bangkok—Cooper hasn’t forgotten his time in our play.

 

Word count: 94,794

Page count: 352

Cover price, in USD: 13.99

In Canadian dollars: 15.99

Du Point G

By Greg Olear

Travel

A week from today, I’m traveling to France to support the release of the French-language edition of Totally Killer (or, as it’s called en françaisTotally Killer).

In Paris, in addition to the usual dinners with booksellers and bookstore appearances, I’m being interviewed for France 24’s TV program « Le journal de la Culture », Radio RFI’s show « Littérature sans frontières », and Radio France Culture’s show « A plus d’un titre », where the other guest will be acclaimed French screenwriter and novelist Odile Barksi.

Then it’s off to Lyon, to the Quais du Polar Festival International (polar is how the French say noir, noir being, to them, plain old black), where I’ll sit on two panels with the likes of Sylvie Granotier, Marc Villard, Peter Robinson, Arne Dahl, Dominique Sylvain, and my fellow American Megan Abbott.  Oh, and I almost forgot: another TV interview, for Lyon 1ère.

All this, despite the fact that a) my Q rating can be roughly calculated by subtracting Barack Obama’s Q rating from Kim Kardashian’s Q rating, and b) my French, despite nine years of classes in junior school, high school, and college, can charitably be described as un peu. (There will be a lot of ça va-ing and pissing into violins).

I’m going into detail here not to brag (although it is pretty fucking cool, no?), or to hawk the livre (same imprint and same translator as Tom Robbins; yours for the low, low price of €22,90), but rather to explain how I came to visit Amazon.fr, and how this visit confirmed something I’ve long suspected—namely, that France is way cool. (Or, as they say in French, cool).

* * *

Totally Killer is one of those novels that straddle genres. In the U.S., it was decided to shelve the book in the Mystery section of Barnes & Noble, although the book is not a mystery, in the Agatha Christie sense of the word. Gallmeister, my French publisher, is marketing it as a noir thriller—a distinction bookstores make in France that they don’t tend to here.

For the French release, I was hoping for one of those classic noir covers featuring a pair of shapely gams. The main character in Totally Killer, after all, is a sexpot assassin, the 23-year-old Midwestern love child of Lady Brett Ashley and La Femme Nikita; why not stick her, or some close approximation, on the jacket in a short denim miniskirt?

Instead, Gallmeister went with that other noir staple, the gun. And when I say they went with it, they really went with it. The cover shows a handgun pointed directly at you. It’s kind of jarring, until you realize, as my wife pointed out, that it sort of looks like a parking meter. The cover is arresting, yes, but I was really jonesing for something sexier…until my visit to Amazon.fr, when it became clear that my publishers are all genius.

* * *

I visited the site (as we authors tend to obsessively do, Skinnerian rats that we are) to check my sales ranking. On release day, the book checked in at a healthy 5.089 (which is how they write 5,089 in French; the comma/period switcheroo is one of those cute Continental things they do, like put a slash through the 7 and eat snails). For a guy who never hit four digits on this side of the Amazonian pond, not too shabby.

Next to my own ranking, I was given the option to Voir les 100 premiers en Livres. So I voired. The number one book in France was a 30-page political pamphlet called Indignez-Vous!, by the former French resistance fighter and longtime advocate for human rights and peace, Stéphane Hessel. (The number one Amazon book in the U.S. that day? That would be Harry Potter: A Pop-Up Book: Based on the Film Phenomenon. This is why the terrorists hate us.)

Scrolling down the list of French bestsellers, I noticed a slender volume at No. 25 entitled Qui a peur du point G ? : Le plaisir féminin, une angoisse masculine. On the cover is an erotic yet tasteful black-and-white photograph of a naked woman, her pudenda partially obscured by the sort of shapely gams I wanted on my own jacket. Customers who bought that—and there were plenty—also purchased, the site informed me, a little tome entitled Le secret des femmes. Voyage au coeur du plaisir et de la jouissance. The naked woman in the erotic yet tasteful black-and-white photograph on the cover of that book has nothing obscuring her pudenda—and an impressive tuft of dark pubic hair.

As I browsed through the books, I realized why Gallmeister went with the violence over the sex. Unlike here, where we conceal our bodies but proudly flaunt our firearms, in France, every third book has a naked chick on the cover. So Totally Killer totally stands out!

Upon closer inspection, I noticed something else: Qui a peur du point G ? : Le plaisir féminin, une angoisse masculine is loosely translated (by me, and therefore possibly wrong) thus: Where is the G-spot? The woman’s pleasure, the man’s anxiety. Again, this book, by an OB-GYN named Odile Buisson, was ranked No. 25 overall on French Amazon, and it appears to be a guidebook for men on how to propel their women to more profound and satisfying orgasms!

Needless to say, this is not the stuff of a U.S. best-seller. If American males are moved to read a book at all—and they’re generally not, marketing studies have found; they’d rather watch golf, NASCAR, or Fox News on a 52-inch plasma TV—the cover photograph would not involve a sexy, nude female body, but rather a bloated, pink male head, usually one belonging to a Tea Party zealot who insists Obama is a Kenyan-born Muslim.

Furthermore, the very notion that American men need some sort of sexual GPS system to satisfy their lovers is, ahem, un-American! (It reminds me of an old joke:  French guy, Italian guy, American guy having breakfast. French guy says, “Last night, I made love to my wife five times, and in the morning, she said I was the best lover on earth.” Italian guy says, “I made love to my wife nine times, and in the morning, she said there was no lover like me in all the land.” They ask the American guy how made times he made love to his wife last night. “Once,” says the American. They ask what she said in the morning. “Don’t stop,” says the American.)

The inconvenient truth is, we live in a country whose residents tend to scoff at the French because they’re too busy making love and drinking fine wine to focus on important things, like warfare and Charlie Sheen. But France has a lot to teach us. To wit: There’s nothing shameful about naked bodies. Labor unions are good. Everyone should take off the entire month of August. Oh, and I almost forgot: a travers son témoignage, le docteur Odile Buisson révèle ainsi certains mystères du point G, la fabuleuse anatomie du clitoris ou encore l’incroyable complexité de l’orgasme.

Couldn’t have said it better myself.

Awards season is upon us, that time of year when we stave off the winter blues by watching befrocked Best Actress winners weep and neglect to thank their husbands.Since the line between movies and real life has become so blurry—as D-listers everywhere vie to keep up with the Kardashians, and cable channels and tabloid magazines swim with celebrity spawn—it’s high time we recognize the famous and flawed moms who make us mortals feel better about our own parenting.

Thelma Adams is the film critic for US Weekly and, come to find out, my neighbor in upstate New York.  She’s also the author of Playdate, a hilarious new novel about a weatherman-turned-stay-at-home dad (or SAHD, for the uninitiated)-cum-Girl-Scout-cookie-distributor whose marriage may or may not go up in flames — flames, it might be added, that are being fanned by the Santa Ana winds (the book is set in Encinitas).

She was gracious enough to answer questions on her new book, her day job, and her guilty pleasure movie of the year:

 

(Adams, her novel, and Bari Nan Cohen)

 

 

Inveterate readers of TNB know that I’m a big fan of, and subscriber to, US Weekly.  Before we talk about the book, please give us outsiders the straight poop: are stars really just like us?

 

They’re just like us in that they are the same species, Homo sapiens. They’re just a lot more high maintenance.

 

I knew it!  You are now a published novelist, which means that you have a day job.  Yours is one that Belle Ramsay, the daughter in Playdate, would have had better luck talking about on career day: professional film critic.  How did you get such an enviable gig?

 

I was a self-sacrificing saint in a past life. And, in this life, I was never satisfied reading the existing film critics because I didn’t hear my voice, my point-of-view in their writing, however wise or witty. So I was relentless in getting my voice out there, first for college papers as a lark, then for Manhattan neighborhood rags, and then at the newspaper I always carried under my arm: The New York Post. The jump from a newspaper to Us Magazine when it went weekly was a millennial shift, the product of being at the right place at the right time with the right skills and a hand-up from a terrific mentor.

 

Who is your mentor?

 

In that case, it was Rolling Stone film critic Peter Travers, although he would scoff at being termed my mentor. He’s too modest; entourage, maybe. He’s the greatest.

 

Do your kids dig your line of work?

 

Yes; it’s meant a lot of free stuff over the years and meeting celebrities from Melissa Leo to James Gandolfini to Robin Williams to the entire cast of the Narnia movies.

 

Tell us your “guilty pleasure” movie of the last few years—something you wouldn’t necessarily rave about, but like in spite of yourself.

 

Oh, this is easy and recent: Burlesque! I went on a weekday night to the Roosevelt Cinemas with my eleven-year-old daughter and one of my best girlfriends and the only thing that marred the evening was my daughter shushing us when we got overenthusiastic.  She couldn’t hear the music.

 

You must have been very overenthusiastic, because Christina Aguilera isn’t exactly quiet.

 

No one has ever accused me of being quiet, either.

 

I love it when somebody like Jessica Simpson is all over the magazine for weeks, in advance of some desperate flick like Private Valentine, and then your review comes out and you pan it and give it half a star.  Do you ever feel pressure from the editors or the celebrities themselves to be kinder in your critiques?

 

We go for the sin of omission. Sometimes, in reviews, if we don’t have any thing nice to say we keep silent.

 

Until now, you’ve been the one offering criticism on someone else’s creative endeavor.  How has it been for you, now that the tables are turned?

 

The process is scary. I try not to cry. Some days I’m more successful than others.

 

It can be really brutal.  You just have to accept the praise and tune out the negative stuff—easier said than done, of course.  But hey, at least Paris Hilton isn’t on Goodreads.  I could see her wanting to hurl rotten tomatoes at you.

 

Well, in Paris’s case, I’m not sure she could string the biting sentences together to really slay me.

 

Playdate centers around Lance Ramsay, an erstwhile weatherman who, when the success of his wife’s business compels the family to quit Barstow for Encinitas, quits his job and becomes a househusband.  I’m wondering about the impetus for the novel.  Are you, or have you ever been, a stay-at-home dad?

 

No. Never. However, Lance does have a daughter. I do, too. His wife Darlene had trouble with breastfeeding and so did I. And, like their daughter Belle, I had an autocratic elementary-school teacher named Mr. Baumgart who had a buzz cut and dandruff.

 

He was based on someone real?  Oh, man.  He’s a dick.

 

Mr. Baumgart, if you are still alive, I toss a chalkboard eraser at your head.

 

Lance is viewed as both loser and lover, hero and heel.  I find that there is this duality about stay-at-home dads, which I write about extensively in Fathermucker—our patriarchal society is not quite evolved enough to accept them wholesale.  You delve into this during the (highly awkward) dinner scene, in Robin’s speech:

[SAHDs] face social prejudice just for being who they are.  Even as America becomes more aware of their presence — like people with disabilities in the nineties, gays coming out in the eighties, or the civil rights and women’s movements of the sixties and seventies — these men are still rare enough to be considered a Jay Leno punch line.  And, like anybody else who works, like any stay-at-home mother, they want respect for what they do.  They want acknowledgement that raising kids is important, even if they don’t get that paycheck validation.

What do you think?

 

I think parents are underappreciated in the professional classes, and that goes double for dads because they can no longer define who they are by what they earn. On the other hand, if a father of triplets takes his kids to the grocery store, the other customers ooh and aah. Less so a mother with squalling toddlers. So like the loser-lover, hero-heel duality, SAHD’s get extra props for doing things mothers have done for centuries, but they also face a different wall of social criticism.

 

Well said. Lance’s wife owns Darlene’s Diner, an eatery whose popularity is based on the fact that it’s extremely kid- and mom-friendly.  I love this idea (the Barstow version, anyway).  Is this based on anything in reality?

 

Not that I know of although I’m sure that they are in the works. It came from my fantasy of a place to take my kids that was better than the ball pit at the Burger King.

 

The one in Highland?  That’s a damned fine ball pit!

 

And I’m sure it’s also a great place to contract chicken pox.

 

Yeah, it’s pretty much a CDC lab in there.  But there are some great diners in upstate New York.  Have you been to the Eveready?

 

I love the Eveready. My favorite diet meal: scrambled eggs and sweet potato fries.

 

My favorite diet meal: cheeseburger, onion rings, and large Diet Coke.  I don’t want to give anything away here, but there’s, like, a lot of sex and sex-talk in your book.  Is there really an Idiots’ Guide to Tantric Sex?

 

Yes!

 

I bet Sting has a copy. Your book’s greatest strengths, I think, are the plot (snappy, with a big finish) and the dialogue (witty, with a number of zingers).  This, plus the aforementioned sex, means that Playdate has all the elements of a Hollywood movie.  Did you approach the novel cinematically?  Did you have that in mind when writing it?

 

My first impetus was to write a script that crossed Shampoo with Mr. Mom. I’m the rare writer that was too lazy to write a screenplay and wrote a novel instead.

 

Last question: if they made a Playdate movie, what would happen when it came time to review it for Us Weekly?  Would you have to recuse yourself, like a Supreme Court justice?

 

Yes. I take my job as seriously as if I was a Supreme Court justice, and I spend almost as much time sitting.



Although Jess Walter’s been churning out top-shelf fiction for almost a decade—he’s a National Book Award finalist and an Edgar Award winner, for Pete sake—I was turned on to his work fairly recently, when his fifth and most recent novel, The Financial Lives of the Poets, came out last year.

“Buzzed about” are words used so frequently in Book Land that they have lost their meaning, but Financial Lives was buzzed about so incessantly that it managed to attract the (generally deficient) attention of Yours Truly, who, at the time, had been living for a good five years under the contemporary-fiction rock so many bitterly unpublished novelists occupy.

Nick Hornby tweeted that Financial Lives was the funniest novel he’d read that year. Unsurprisingly, I found that Hornby was right.  But it’s not just the humor, sidesplittingly LOLZ-infused though it is, that blew me away here. Walter’d managed to write a novel that was so current it seemed like it was written two hours ago, if not two hours from now. Twitter novels feel less immediate. And no amount of joviality and wit can adequately soften the blow of the grim realities he’s writing about. Financial Lives is, like the pot the protagonist Matt Prior smokes, some serious shit.

Reading backward through his catalog — and feeling like a dolt for having not been hip to him before now — I found that Financial Lives was no fluke. The Zero, 2006’s National Book Award finalist, is the best piece of “9/11” fiction I’ve yet encountered, but classifying it as such does the book a disservice.  Citizen Vince won the Edgar for best mystery novel in 2005, but to confine it to the “mystery” genre is misleading; how many mystery novels devote entire chapters to the interior monologues of Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan?  And Over Tumbled Graves and Land of the Blind, his first two novels, are much more than well-told tales of cops and criminals.

 

 

Walter is one of those novelists who defy, if not outright thumb their nose at, genre classification. Clearly “literary,” his work tends to revolve around law enforcement and crime, and thus tends to baffle those who seek to label fiction books.

“I think suspense should be like any other color in a writer’s palette,” he remarked in an interview with Playboy literary editor Alice Grace Lloyd. “I suppose I’m in the minority, but I think it’s crazy for ‘literary fiction’ to divorce itself from stories that are suspenseful, and assign anything with cops or spies or criminals to some genre ghetto…When the newspapers every day are filled with stories of surveillance, torture, and suicide bombings, I don’t think it’s in the novelist’s best interest to ignore these things or make them backdrops to some domestic story about middle-aged rich people coming to terms with their mortality (‘The parties that season were especially grim.’).”

Or this nugget from the “P.S.” section of Citizen Vince: “I find it odd that literary writers can go slumming in the genre ghettos, but the gate so rarely swings the other way. A few years ago, McSweeney’s did a couple of really cool anthologies with literary writers doing horror and detective stories, but where’s the anthology with Dean Koontz and James Patterson writing New Yorker-style stories in which a husband quietly seethes over his wife’s flirtation with her therapist?”

Instead of Patterson-as-Franzen, I’m pleased to present an interview with Jess Walter:

 

 

*   *   *

 

G.O.: The first chapter of your first novel, Over Tumbled Graves, is set, appropriately, in Riverside State Park in Spokane, Washington, your hometown and current place of residence, a city you put on the literary map. Let’s clear this up once and for all: spo-CAN, or spo-CAIN?

J.W.: It’s Spo-CAN, after the Spokane Tribe, the interior Salish band displaced by missionaries and settlers onto a reservation a few miles north of the city. They referred to themselves as Spokan, which meant “Children of the Sun,” and the town was first named Spokan Falls but someone Frenched it up and dropped the “Falls” in the late 1800s.

From your descriptions in the various books, Spokane reminds me of Buffalo—second-largest city in the state; unappreciated and underrated; set in a place of great natural beauty, near a prominent waterfall; cool architecture; lots of snow; poised for a comeback. Ever been to Buffalo? I really like it.

Buffalo is a good call, although I’d argue Spokane has slightly better weather, and has already staged its comeback (but is too humble to realize it.) Spokane has classic second-city self-esteem issues; it lives in the shadow of Seattle, and is constantly waiting for external approval, for some up-scale chain to indicate that we’ve finally made it (If only we can get a Trader Joe’s …) I’ve taken to liking this second-city humility, its quick-to-please grounded ease, which, combined with the city’s natural beauty and matter-of-fact northwest funkiness (bike lanes everywhere!) have sparked a burgeoning art, music and writing scene. So maybe rather than Buffalo, Spokane will become Seattle’s Brooklyn.

 

 

 

Which character in the Jess Walter catalog is the closest to the real you? Besides Randy Weaver, I mean.

I love how Marilynn Robinson answered the question, Are any of these characters you? “Yes, all of them.” I feel like I’ve infected all of my characters with bits of my anxiety and world view. Matt Prior, from Financial Lives, and Clark Mason, from Land of the Blind, share some external qualities with me—I live in Matt’s house, for instance—but I think people sometimes focus too much on that stuff. I actually feel closer internally to Vince Camden and Brian Remy, especially Remy’s hapless good intentions and Vince’s sense that he may have been raised in the wrong world.

Speaking of Vince Camden, I’m convinced he cast his vote for Anderson. Am I right?

Yes. Or no. Or … I honestly imagined that I was turning my back when Vince voted for president, giving him the same privacy we’re all afforded. I get a lot of emails asking that question, and suggesting all three possibilities, that he voted for Reagan because John Gotti convinced him to and he’s at a crossroads in his life the way America was; that he voted for Anderson because he promised the woman out canvassing that he would and because he would reject both parties; and that he voted for Carter because his own journey—a kind of failed decency—mirrored that of Carter. When a woman argued about it with me at a reading once I said, “You know, I made the whole thing up so it can be whatever you and I think,” but this was a very unsettling answer for both of us.

Whose head was more fun to get inside, Jimmy Carter’s or Ronald Reagan’s?

Oh, Carter’s! I loved the idea that half the country thought Reagan was crazy and was going to lead us into a third world war and they STILL didn’t want Carter. That sort of complete rejection spoke to me … hell, as a novelist, it SANG to me … and I was fascinated by what that would mean to someone personally to be so roundly rejected. Reagan, on the other hand, was someone without much self-doubt … a tough character for a true doubt connoisseur like me to find much purchase in.

 

 

 

Elmore Leonard, in his rules for writing, says to leave out the parts that people skip. In The Zero, you do Leonard one better; you turn leaving parts out into a plot device. How did this idea develop? (The novelist in me wants to believe it was a clever way of avoiding writing transitions).

Ha! No. It was really a thematic device from the beginning, trying to find some way to indicate my country’s slippage from reality. I spent a few weeks at ground zero beginning five days after the attacks (same day the novel begins), and I kept asking myself, “How did we get HERE?” When I arrived home, I saw a sign at a furniture store, “God Bless America; New Furniture Arriving Every Day,” and I felt like I’d missed some national address in which the President said, Now we will all be crazy for a while. So I got the idea of skipping, losing the cause to my effects. I’ve written scripts and a lot of times, you’re looking for ways to truncate scenes, to get out as soon as you can. I knew it would start working when it started to feel not like a response to 9/11, but the way life feels like sometimes.

“The Zero” is what Ground Zero was called by municipal employees in the wake of 9/11. What was it like, to publish a novel about such a hot-button topic, just five years after the attacks?

Actually, I never heard anyone call Ground Zero the Zero. It was something I invented to create knowing shorthand that also contained distance from the real event.

You fooled me!

I was playing with the idea that what happened was “unspeakable,” that—at the time I wrote the novel—our reverence was such that just questioning our irrational, jingoistic reaction could get you all Dixie Chicked (the novel was published five years after, but I began working on it not long after the attacks). It’s obviously set in New York, but I never used the words New York, 9/11, World Trade Center, etc.

Right. Giuliani is never mentioned by name, nor is the since-disgraced police chief.

I did this to give the whole a dreamy inexactitude, to match Remy’s dissolution. I knew it was a tough topic, but I didn’t think of it as “hot-button” … I tend not to think at all of the reception as I’m writing. Writing is hard enough without trying to imagine what people will think of it.

 

 

 

The Financial Lives of the Poets is one of my favorite titles of all time—although when I first heard about it, I assumed it concerned Byron, Shelley, and an early-19th-century Ponzi scheme. What’s the story behind the title? How was it received?

So glad you like it, Greg. People seem to love it or hate it. Writers like it, but it’s tough for a lot of readers, for whom “poet” and “financial” are as alluring as “oral surgery” and “corporate tax code.”  The title refers to Samuel Johnson’s The Lives of the English Poets (many of the characters are named after Johnson’s old English poets, like Matthew Prior) and my idea was that news reporters were the poets of the 20th century. I liked the ironic faux-seriousness of it, the Masterpiece Theater quality, and also the rhythm of it. People warned me it would be a tough sell, but once something gets named for me, it’s like changing a kid’s name. When a poet friend heard the title, he said, Well, I know how that one ends.

In The Financial Lives of the Poets, Matt Prior says that while he’s always loved the form, modern poetry leaves him cold. “MFA’d to irrelevance,” I think was the line, if memory serves. Does Matt’s opinion mirror yours? How do you feel about poetry? Who are your favorite poets?

I love poetry, although I do feel as if the move away from narrative toward “language poetry” has alienated non-practitioners and dullards like me. My favorite poets, off the top of my head: Emily Dickenson, Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop, James Tate, Pablo Neruda and Robert Hass. The northwest seems to me to have an inordinate number of great poets working now, including some of my friends, and there a couple of books of poetry I’m really excited about: Chris Howell’s Dreamless and Possible and Robert Wrigley’s new collection Beautiful Country.

Although there are some common themes from your earlier work—the presence of law enforcement, for one—The Financial Lives of the Poets, to me, represents a departure for you, Bob Dylan picking up an electric guitar. It’s the only story told in first person, for starters, and while crime is involved, it is not a crime novel. Do you see it as a turning point, or just a natural progression of your writing?

I can just about guarantee that’s the first time I’ve ever been compared to Dylan! I don’t think of it as a departure. I think people generally assume writers are working with more purpose than they really are. I really just write the next book I want to read. As for first person, my second novel, Land of the Blind, is mostly first-person, and a lot of the short stories I’ve published are domestic, comic or experimental. I write everything, and to me, voice is more important than plot … I’m just a writer, and when I’m all done I hope to have contaminated the whole damn bookstore.

 

 

 

On your website, you write haiku book reviews. What would the haiku review of The Financial Lives of the Poets look like?

You don’t own this book?
The fuck’s your fuckin’ problem
Don’t like to laugh, yo?

When I read The Financial Lives of the Poets, I thought to myself, “Wow, is this good. I want to write something like this.” Your novel was very much the inspiration for Fathermucker, my second book. What inspired you to write Financial Lives? (The Jess Walter fan in me wants to believe it was because you wanted to take it to Jonathan Franzen).

Wow, thanks so much, Greg. That’s really flattering and humbling. Honestly, the biggest inspiration was a phone call from an elderly reader who mistook 9/11 in The Zero for 7-Eleven. It seemed funny to me, and apt. So I was messing around with voice and just started with this riffing character inside a 7-Eleven. And I loved the voice. After that, it was the fastest book I’ve ever written; I just sort of let it go. I think we all carry around a thousand books every time we sit down to write, and I found myself echoing little bits of Ginsburg’s Howl (waiting in line at the 7-Eleven with the “starving and sorry, the paranoid, yawning with fear”) and the overheated self-reflection of Saul Bellow’s Herzog, but there were no literary axes to grind, I’m sorry to report. Like most writers, I think my loathing tends to be healthily self-directed.

Last question: what are you working on now? (Before you answer, I should point out that a formula for runaway bestsellerhood goes something like this: Washington State + vampires = $$$$$$).

Washington vampires? Please, give me some credit. I’m writing about zombies. I’m also pulling together short stories for a collection (and there actually is a zombie story in there, along with some crime things and more than a few boring old domestic lit’ry pieces.) I’m also working on the next novel, a big comic, epic romance set in Italy, Hollywood, Edinburgh, Scotland and Sandpoint, Idaho.