My apology. It’s raining, and my son’s soccer practice was cancelled so I had to pick him up earlier than planned, and then the express train ran local downtown.
I’ve been waiting a long time.
I told you what happened, and I apologized. My publicist warned me that you were impossible.
Let’s leave personalities out of this, shall we. In the interest of time, I’ll get straight to it. You’ve described yourself as a “25-year overnight sensation.” Putting aside the hyperbole of that statement, what took you so long?
Ah ha, I see where this is going. ‘Late,’ ‘waiting a long time,’ ‘so long.’ There’s a theme. You’re a clever bugger.
Guilty, as charged. But, tell me, how do you account for the last 25 years?
You make it sound like I was living in my parents’ basement at the foosball table. I once heard Norman Mailer say in a reading that he’d worried about the downside of becoming a literary sensation when he was 24 and The Naked and the Dead was published. He was concerned that he became a published writer before he’d gone through the experience of living or, as I remember his words, “knowing what it’s like to work for a man I hate.” That’s what I’ve been doing all this time.
So you’re saying you’re a better writer than Norman Mailer? People do read this site, you know. Who do you think you’re talking to? This is not just an advertisement for yourself.
You really take pleasure in stirring the pot, don’t you? What I’m saying is that my writing has benefited from my adult struggles and triumphs in a way that only time and experience could have allowed. I was an ambitious young writer, not untalented, but I didn’t have anything to say. John Berryman put it well: “The artist is extremely lucky who is presented with the worst possible ordeal which will not actually kill him. At that point he’s in business.”
Is that what you ‘have to say’ now? That the years of writing and failing to get published were a good thing? I don’t recall you being so philosophical about failure at the time – or ever, for that matter. The cynic in me would say this is a lofty position you’ve fabricated for an interview, but that has no basis in reality, certainly your reality – you were all worked up about the downtown express not running.
This is how things have worked out in my case, and there may be a point to it. For years I worried that since I hadn’t been a 24-year-old literary sensation the window had closed for me. Of course that isn’t the only path to success – with publication being one measure of success – but I’d put my marbles in that basket. Ignorance before enlightenment.
Thank you, Dr. Pangloss. It’s very curious; you’re more attractive in person than in the book.
Really? I rather like my author’s photo.
I’m not talking about the picture. I’m referring to your temperament. The Jon Reiner in The Man Who Couldn’t Eat is a deeply flawed character – selfish, depressed, useless, not worth a damn as a cook, father, husband or provider. Frankly, I thought your wife would have been wise to throw you out. Which Jon Reiner are you?
Like St. Augustine, I selected my sins in the story in order to heighten the drama of my reform.
Please refrain from answering my questions with literary allusions or I will end this interview. Nobody likes a show off, and it makes you sound like a parody of Dick Cavett: “Woody Allen once said to me at a party for Noel Coward . . .”
My agent, Mitchell Waters, who had worked with other memoirists, gave me some essential advice when I started writing. He told me I would need to be brutally, even painfully, honest in the storytelling if I were to write a compelling memoir. I held myself to that in portraying the arcs of the characters over the one-year-period that’s depicted in the book – but it’s a tricky business. Emotionally, writing a memoir was much more difficult than writing fiction. As I dug into the belly of the story, I was also conscious of the risk of exposing or violating the trust of the people who were closest to me and were required to be in the story. Fiction provides the writer with the devices to draw from reality with less likelihood of causing personal damage, or at least provides the camouflage that enables eventual repair. You can write fiction with greater freedom, unburdened by the conflict inherent in telling a true personal story. The memoir forces you to stand naked. Mining one’s life for material is impossibly tempting, because that material is so available, like it’s been delivered expressly for your use, but I still wanted to have a wife and friends after the book was published. There’s a difference between the examined life and the exposed life on the page. I had my wife read the manuscript when it was finished because I knew she would be a better editorial protector of our family than I, since I was drunk with writer’s arrogance. She requested only that I delete one sentence. We’re still married, and I still have friends. By the way, have you ever seen the sketch on the old SCTV where Rick Moranis plays Dick Cavett interviewing himself? It’s priceless.
Canadians are very funny people. I’ll see anything with Eugene Levy in it.
Finally, something we agree on. I cried when John Candy died.
You won the 2010 James Beard Foundation Award for food writing when “The Man Who Couldn’t Eat” first appeared as a story in Esquire. Isn’t that a bit ironic? Like Dick Cheney winning a Nobel Peace Prize?
It is a bit surreal, I grant you. I’m the anti-food food writer, a niche with only me in it, though not so unique if you look at the underlying motivation. Deprivation provided the perspective and urgency to tell a story of recognition for something essential that had been lost. My existential crisis in the story – is this a life worth living – could be told through the absence of food and the craving for something I couldn’t have. All of the elements of rich storytelling – psychology, identity, personal relationships, history, sociology, culture, health, life and death – emerged on the page through the prism of wanting food. Food, craving, eating, hunger, can propel a story literally and metaphorically. It goes back to the John Berryman quote, “The artist is extremely lucky . . .”
That’s enough! I warned you about using literary references in this interview, and I meant it! Apparently, you choose to disregard the rules. What are you, eight years old? I will have no more of it. This interview is over. Say goodbye, Mr. Reiner.
‘Goodbye, Mr. Reiner.’