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.
One thing that stood out for me as I read FATHERMUCKER was the absolute devotion that Josh Lansky has for his children and his wife. His life – as flawed as it might be – and as far as it might be from what he imagined – becomes ever more precious to him as he realizes it might be slipping away and you do a fabulous job of portraying his shifting emotions with humor and angst. How do you see the character of Josh Lansky and his relationship with his wife and kids?
His family is his identity; without them, he’s a totally different person. He’s not in New Paltz, he’s still employed, he’s twenty pounds heavier, and he doesn’t have the theme song to “Max & Ruby” in his head.
Where do Josh and Greg separate?
He likes the Stones more than I do, and because his father owned an auto body shop, he knows a lot about cars, which I could give two shits about. Also, Josh is a true SAHD, and I’m not. As a work-from-home freelancer, I’m in the gray area. Like the old Jake Johannsen joke: “My girlfriend is a vegetarian, so I’m eating less meat. There’s no name for what I am.”
Speaking of the Stones, in TOTALLY KILLER and now FATHERMUCKER, music runs through your novels as almost a secondary character. How important is music to your everyday life?
I love music—I only turned to writing when it became clear, in high school, that rock stardom was probably not a sustainable career choice—but I’m not like one of the record store clerks from High Fidelity, or even Sean Beaudoin or Joe Daly. I have a few informed friends who keep me hip to what’s out there, and I’ve found that the last few years have been very good for pop music.
It’s funny you were conscious that the idea of rock stardom as career was probably NOT going to happen, yet you gave another equally, perhaps harder profession of writer a chance.
For one thing, I wasn’t even the best guitar player in my house. My brother is secretly an amazing guitarist, in the Randy Rhoads style. But you mean why did I decide to become a novelist? It was that or screenwriter, and because it’s more demanding to crank out 80,000 words than 120 mostly-blank pages, I went with the former. I figured there were fewer novels written than screenplays, so my chances are better. Ah, the sweet naivete of youth.
The kids in the book also have specific play lists. Do your children share your passion for music?
They do—I’m writing about their tastes in my “Book Notes” entry over at Largehearted Boy, actually. Dominick walks around the house singing his own songs into a tape recorder, and Prudence cops dance moves from Lady Gaga and Ke$ha. They have much more musical talent than I do; they take after their mother.
Can you talk about that a little: two creative people, although different disciplines raising children and also trying to find time for their distinct creative outlets. I don’t know about you but I think writers might be the worst of all creative people to live with. Perhaps this is a better question for Steph. But seriously, how does it work? How does it surprise you?
I think it helps us, that we’re both creative people. She’s a musician, not a novelist, but she’s still a good writer and a really good editor. She helps me when I get stuck. It was her idea, for example, to write something new—which Fathermucker is—than revisit old ideas. It was also her idea to work on Totally Killer rather than another idea I had, when the orginal novel that won me my agent was passed over by every house in town.
Similarly, I’m a writer, not a musician, but I’m musical. I play some instruments, though none very well. I help her edit her music, I think, in the same way she helps me edit my novels. I wrote the keyboard part I play during the intro to her song “Chariot.”
As for the rasing childen part, that’s a hard balance to achieve. She’s just now getting back into the swing—or rather, the rock—of things. She has this one song she’s been working on, on and mostly off, for six years. It’s her best song, and I’m so excited for her to record it and share it with the world!
Who makes the better play list, you or Steph?
That’s usually my job, but Steph makes good ones, too. You can tell it’s hers if Luscious Jackson is involved.
iPod or vinyl?
In a perfect world, vinyl. But who has time for that? I’m all about iTunes. In Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life, Steve Almond points out that most people these days have huge catalogs of music available with a few mouse clicks…and we listen to those songs on the shittiest speakers known to man. Like the scene in I Love You, Man where Paul Rudd plays Rush on his Macbook and it sounds so pathetically small.
For me, vinyl is romancing the days of my youth. (!) The pop and hiss of the needle as it hits the album, the slight hesitation before the first song plays, the smell of a record played on repeat, warm to the touch, a great release of static electricity. Those things are lost now – even though we have a record player in the house, we almost never use it. But still, I think, iTunes, as fabulous as it is, has somehow taken the romance out of music. Or maybe that’s me being wistful.
No, no, I agree with you. Like the Led Zeppelin song, “Hey Hey What Can I Do,” which is a great fucking song, one of their best—it’s not on any of their LPs. It was a B-side to some other track. If you didn’t own the 45, you could only hear it on the radio. So when it came on, man, it was special. That sort of thing doesn’t happen anymore.
In FATHERMUCKER you manage to use music to convey romance for the times before Josh became a dad,before he had obligations. Yet, there is also a sweetness to the soundtrack he plays in his new life. I can imagine having a conversation with him, sitting in his minivan, listening to the radio.
Thanks; I never thought about it that way, but I think you’re right. The other day, Dominick asked me what the radio was. He didn’t know! And this is a kid who’s six and makes his own iTunes mixes. There’s something magical about the radio that will be lost on his generation.
FATHERMUCKER is treading some pretty close to home territory for you. I hate to draw any parallels – but — was your life a jumping off point?
Hey, now. FATHERMUCKER is a work of fiction. But seriously, yes, of course, a lot of what I think, feel, observe, love, loathe, and deal with is in the book. I put all the ingredients in a big literary blender, and much of what you read is invented.
Yes, that is a bonehead question – but one you will be asked multiple times when you are on tour for this book! So think of it as a warm-up. I guess what I really want to know is: was it hard to write about subjects so close to home? I mean, Totally Killer, while accessible, probably wouldn’t be mistaken for your life.
That’s what everyone thinks! Little do they know that the Asher Krug character is totally me. But seriously, it’s always dicey when you write about your life, when you write about characters who have similarities to people you know. I’m very sensitive to that, because the first novel I ever wrote revealed some personal information about a friend of mine, and this friend stopped talking to me for years. And that was a novel maybe a dozen people read, none of whom knew her! That said, if you don’t write about your own experience, what’s left? Dragons and orcs and shit? I’m not interested in that.
Even if it wasn’t, as a father and writer, while you were working on FATHERMUCKER, was there a sense of the lines blurring?
Yes and no. Josh is a true SAHD, on day five of his wife’s business trip. Stephanie works from home, too, and neither of us are in the position of being the sole provider for long, and that makes a big difference. Our life is chaotic, too, but not quite as chaotic as his. I have a much better deal than Josh does.
You have achieved a balance that works for you, despite or maybe because of the chaos. But one thing that definitely rings true, your understanding of the nuances of a long day spent weaving in and out of kid world while trying to keep a toe in adult world. It’s exhausting and exhilarating at the same time and I think you have conveyed that beautifully.
Thanks for saying so. It’s very hard, in real life, to achieve the balance between the G-, R- and X-rated worlds. One way I’ve coped is to banish all “kid’s music” from our collection. When Prue was a toddler, we all went, at the behest of my brother-in-law and his family, to a Dan Zanes show at Bardavon Opera House in Poughkeepsie. After listening for a few songs, she got on the floor and crawled out of there. I was so proud of her!
You also did a wonderful job of not editing the really true commentary that ran through Josh’s subconscious while he attended to the needs of Maude and Roland, which is where I think the true triumph of the novel occurs. It would be very easy to give the narrative over to the children, and while they play a huge role, you never feel like you are manipulating who they are for the sake of the plot. Certainly, the frame of the novel, occurring in the span of a day (possibly the longest day on earth) provided you with a definitive beginning and ending. How hard was it to stay in Josh’s head? Did you try and write this book any other way?
No, Josh was always the narrator, the protagonist, the prism through which we view the world. I think fulltime parents have the most active interior monologues going, because they have to suppress so much of what they think, and there are so few people who really understand and appreciate all the (literal and figurative) shit they have to deal with. This book is an attempt to convey that interior monologue, to plumb that absurdity. The business about his wife maybe cheating on him—that was, at least initially, a plot device, a way to shoehorn all the stuff I really wanted to talk about into a narrative, a way to keep the reader (I hoped) interested. Along the way, the idea of infidelity became more significant; as it stands, Fathermucker is as much, if not more, about marriage than it is about parenthood.
FATHERMUCKER is loaded with a cast of characters who could have devolved into stereotype but don’t. You treat each of them with respect and tenderness. Among this very character driven novel — was it a challenge to propel the narrative with so many diverse personalities?
Thanks for saying so. This isn’t a plot-driven book, like the first one, and I was a little concerned about that. I took comfort in the comment made by Sam Lipsyte, in the interview done by Sean Beaudoin, who noted that it’s not plot that you need in a novel, but rather momentum. I think he’s exactly right. But to your question, in a way, the 24-hour framework of the book made that simpler. There are characters who are discussed and alluded to often (Cynthia Pardo, Soren Kundsen) who never appear. Yet you’re left with a good idea of who they are and what they’re like.
The pacing is so quick and the story so compelling that the book is a very compulsive and quick read… the research must have been a blast. Did you learn anything about the parenting world that surprised and or frightened you?
Thanks. One of my friends (who shall remain nameless; don’t want her eighty-sixed from the mommy community) kept feeding me information I didn’t know: the cleanse some of the characters are doing in the book, the breast-milk yogurt. Otherwise, the only research I did was on autism and Asperger’s. This was hard for me—obviously it’s a sensitive topic—but I learned a lot that I really needed to know and had been avoiding.
That pain, that not wanting to look but forcing yourself to look comes across beautifully on the page. Was that a struggle to fictionalize something too close to home? Did you ever think of writing the character of Roland any other way? Or did he come to you fully formed?
It’s always a struggle, because I’m sensitive to the fact that my kids will probably read the book someday. Hopefully they’ll read it as a time capsule and a valentine.
I don’t deny the idea of inspiration. Yet, I’m not really a writer who sits around and waits for inspiration – and I don’t think that I really believe we get hit by a lightening bolt and start to write.
I think it was Wilson Mizner who said, “I only write when I’m inspired. And I make damn sure to be inspired at nine o’clock every morning.”
I wrote most of Totally Killer during Dominick’s naps. Now, they’re both in school, so that makes it easier to schedule time to work—and time to be with them.
The first book was something that existed in many incarnations going back a number of years. This one sprung up out of necessity. My agent didn’t care for my vault of old ideas, a book I’d written got turned down, and I needed something new. I read Jess Walter’s book The Financial Lives of the Poets, and I thought, “Shit, was that good. I want to write something like this.” And my wife encouraged me to write about the present, about what we were dealing with as parents. So I began with that. But I sold the book as a proposal, so I had to make a detailed chapter-by-chapter synopsis. I always work from a rough outline, but I don’t usually get so detailed before I begin to work. But mapping it out really helped. I didn’t really stray from the proposal at all. I gave them exactly what I said I would.
So the adage write what you know really worked for here. But I think in truth, the book is so much more. A love song to parenting and loss of self and finding new joy as well as pain. I don’t know that any drama that occurred in my life pre-children can be compared to the pain I’ve felt as a parent muddling my way through. There is also, thankfully, much beauty in the small daily triumphs as well, that’s for sure.
There was some study recently that found that on the whole, married couples without kids are happier than married couples with kids…but the latter experience “moments of transcendence” that the childless couples will never know. I think what this means is that having kids is like doing heroin.
What was the driving impetus behind FATHERMUCKER (beside writing the dreaded sophomore book)?
I wanted to talk about life as a parent, as a father, as a resident of a liberal community. I wanted to talk about Asperger’s and marriage and financial ruin. I wanted my friends who think I’m lame for not coming to the city more to know why I don’t. “Greg, why don’t we ever see you?” “Here, read this.” I wanted to dig deep. The first book has its moments, I think it succeeds with what I was trying to do, but it doesn’t bare all like this one does. And I wanted to do better. It sounds dorky, but I wanted to write the best book I could possibly write. I didn’t want to be at a TNB event with you and Gina Frangello and Jessica Blau and Susan Henderson and be the guy who wrote the gimmicky thriller. However this book is received, I know in my heart it really is the best I can do.
Oh, you mean the “gimmicky thriller” currently being published in France? I don’t think anyone ever thought of you like that – certainly none of the people you mentioned above.
By and large, Totally Killer was ignored here (in the US, I mean; not at TNB, thank goodness) to such a degree that it made me insecure. The French publication has really breathed new life into the book. When I went to France, so many people had read it and enjoyed it, and made a point to tell me so. And it’s gotten good reviews there in places like Rolling Stone and GQ. I don’t know what’s better: that the book has found an audience, or that the audience is French. Both make me enormously happy and even more enormously grateful.
FATHERMUCKER takes place in a day…which is a fabulous and also terrifying structure for a writer. Did you find it a challenge to stay present in the day while you told Josh and Stacy’s backstory?
No, I think the framework helped. It’s funny, but as I was developing the plot—which as you know revolves around a guy spending a normal day about town dealing with the knowledge that his wife might be untrue—I had the urge to re-read Ulysses. (This is proof that my subconscious brain is much smarter than the conscious one). And I read it, and was like, Oh. Duh. But reading it again really opened my eyes, because I saw how Joyce integrated Dublin into the narrative, and I decided that I wanted to do the same thing with New Paltz; make New Paltz sort of a character in the book.
Sidenote story: while re-reading Ulysses and wondering why the hell Joyce did so many crazy stylistic things, I had a dream. In the dream, our own Richard Cox explained Joyce to me. He said, “There are no rules to writing a novel, Greg. You can do whatever you want.” And the dream Richard was right, as the real one so often is.
That’s a crazy dream… Richard Cox, seriously? Wow.
Coxsie is a wise man.
By the way – you handled it brilliantly and seamlessly. There wasn’t a moment for me that I wanted to scream: get on with it, Olear.
Thanks. I should do a shout-out here to my editor, Jen Schuster, who helped with the backstory stuff quite a bit. Good editors are like good fashion photographers—they make sure you show only your best angle.
Do you have different expectations for FATHERMUCKER since the publication of TOTALLY KILLER? And I don’t mean like cracking the NYT Bestseller List or hey – even getting a mention in the Times, although let’s face it that would be fabulous and I think well deserved. What feels different this time around?
I’m more excited for people to read it. I feel like a missionary with this book—I just want everyone to read it. This is the best thing I’ve ever written, and if it winds up being the best thing I ever write, well, I’m good with that. I love the first book, but I didn’t feel that way about it.
What happens when Dominick or Prue or both come to you one day and say: Hey dad, I think I want to follow in your illustrious footsteps and become a writer.
I tell them to go to law school.
What’s your advice for aspiring writers?
Don’t give up. Don’t look back. Don’t quit your day job.
Was there someone who was a significant influence on you or did you just jump off the cliff with both feet?
There were people who helped along the way, of course, but I’ve never had a mentor per se. I think it was Cynthia Ozick who said that writing can’t be taught, and that all aspiring writers really need is encouragement. I’ve been the beneficiary of a lot of encouragement.
Is writing a pleasure? Or do you struggle with that page until you’ve beaten it into submission? How would you describe your relationship with the written word?
It can be a pleasure—especially when you post something at TNB and immediately get flooded with comment love—and also a torment. I’ll defer to one of my first favorite writers, George Orwell, for my answer: “All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.” But seriously, it’s a pretty good gig, as far as jobs go. I just wish we had dental.