Q&A with Jay McInerney: New novel, 'Bright' future

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Jay McInerney, author of "Bright, Precious Days."

In his fiction, Jay McInerney chronicles New York City life. From the coked-up wannabes he portrayed in his now-classic first novel, Bright Lights, Big City, to the titans of various industries who are now a good three decades older in his new and eighth novel, Bright, Precious Days (which is out on Tuesday), McInerney gives us characters and dialogue that could happen only in Manhattan, and we love him all the better for the critical lens he shines on these very particular island inhabitants.

Any Philadelphia connections?

I lived in Media for several years as a child. My father worked for the Scott Paper Co. Back in the '60s and the '70s, it was a huge presence in Philadelphia. I do get back to Philadelphia from time to time. I love the museums and the great restaurant scene.

Are you a self-appointed chronicler of New York?

As a novelist, you have to appoint yourself to whatever job you have. Nobody begs you to write novels.

I wasn't born and raised in New York. When I discovered it in my early 20s, I felt like I was home. I grew up in various suburbs in the United States, Europe, and Canada, and I couldn't wait to leave. I'm an admirer of Updike, Cheever, and people who wrote about the suburbs, but I never wanted to write about it.

Your work is as much about New York as it is about your characters, isn't it?

 

It's been my goal all along to record contemporary life in Manhattan, to create a kind of social panoramic novel of New York City in my time. When I was writing Brightness Falls, I wanted to broaden my canvas and focus, and write a book that encompassed many different characters and different spheres of life in Manhattan: uptown, downtown, the art world, financial world, publishing world. This new book is the third installment in that series.

[Here is a young Jay McInerney in 1992, discussing "Brightness Falls" with TV host Charlie Rose:]

This is the third book in which Russell and Corrine Calloway have appeared. Why did you return to them?

 

They first appeared in Brightness Falls, back in '92, and again in The Good Life, in 2006.

[In this 2008 article for New York magazine, McInerney discusses the late-century influx of young professionals and their impact on culture and writing.]

When I wrote the first, it didn't occur to me that I would be writing a sequel. After 9/11, I was groping for a way to deal with that event. As somebody who writes about New York, I felt I had to write about that, but I didn't quite know how to until it occurred to me to use Russell and Corrine and their circle of friends and write about the immediate aftermath.

I also wanted to write about marriage. As somebody who's been married four times, I'm intrigued by people who've managed to be married and stay married. Of course, Russell and Corinne's marriage is troubled in many ways. I was almost surprised at the end that I managed to keep them together.

How much Jay McInerney is there in Russell?

 

I put some part of myself into probably all of my characters. Russell has some of my characteristics, but his life is pretty different from mine in many ways. He's a more representative character than Jay McInerney is; he's more of an everyman.

Being a novelist is a very strange profession. If I hadn't become a novelist, I think I would have been an editor. Russell [who is an editor] is an alter ego. It's the life not lived. That's kind of fun. I'm exploring my counterlife, as Philip Roth calls it.

You are close with your editor, Gary Fisketjon, aren't you?

 

We were at Williams College together, and after that we took a cross-country road trip together for several months. We stayed close over the years. It's an interesting editorial relationship. What drew us together was reading and writing. He's read everything I've ever written, including the apprentice stuff. It's a great relationship.

Why did you decide to write about the publishing world in this book?

 

Publishing is one of the subcultures of New York. I like the way it gives me an opportunity to write about writers and writing. New York is the main place that has that - it's the center of publishing and of literary culture. That's one of the things that drew me here.

I reread "Bright Lights, Big City" recently, and it felt like a modern "Great Gatsby." Was that what you were going for?

I was much more influenced by Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises. When Bright Lights was published, a lot of people brought up Fitzgerald. It made me revisit him and realize how much I did love his work. But, no, I wasn't really that conscious of any Fitzgerald influence. Of course, it's very flattering. I think Gatsby is perhaps the greatest American novel. I've reread it about 40 times. I collect first editions of Fitzgerald.

In this recent article for the New York Times, McInerney lists his 10 favorite books.

And you own the art from the cover?

 

The Gatsby artist did one for Scribner's and he liked it so much he painted a second one for himself, which is pretty much identical. One is at Princeton. The other one is in my library. The artist's name is Francis Cugat. He was pretty well-known in his day. Now he's known for that iconic cover.

Speaking of famous cover designers, you have one of those in Chip Kidd, who designed the cover for "Bright Lights, Big City" as well as for this new book.

It's quite extraordinary. This new cover was entirely Chip's idea. At first, I was kind of scared of the cover and the way it echoes Bright Lights, which is fairly iconic, as well. This is not a sequel. Chip said: "This is your world. You might as well own it." I fell in love with the image and the way it memorializes the missing World Trade Towers.

You've covered a lot of generations over the course of all your books, haven't you?

 

Yes, there are many literary generations between my first novel and this one. When I first started writing, they said fiction was dead, the novel was dead. That turned out not to be so true. The New York novel is alive and well - lots of writers are writing their first and second novels about New York. I'm happy to say that people keep coming to New York and reinventing the novel. Reinvention and self-invention are the great American narrative.

Lynn Rosen is the Inquirer books blogger and co-owner of the Open Book Bookstore in Elkins Park.

lynn@openbookphilly.com.