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Beyond 'Bright Lights': Jay McInerney Reveals The Trials Of A 'Perfect Couple'

Jay McInerney is the author of four books, including the 1984 semi-autobiographical novel, <em>Bright Lights, Big City.</em>
Michael Lionstar
Jay McInerney is the author of four books, including the 1984 semi-autobiographical novel, Bright Lights, Big City.

Writer Jay McInerney became famous in the 1980s for Bright Lights, Big City, a semi-autobiographical novel about a young man who parties in the cocaine-dusted clubs of Manhattan, but the drama in his latest book is more domestic in nature.

Also set in New York City, Bright, Precious Days is the third book in a trilogy about married couple Russell and Corrine Calloway. McInerney tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross that he began the Brightness Falls series with an idea of the "perfect couple."

"I think [when] we're in our 20s we all know that couple ... They're smart, they're good-looking, they got married young, they seem to have solved the romantic riddle early in life," he says. "That was the initial notion of Russell and Corrine Calloway — but, of course, it's an entirely unrealistic one."

During the course of their marriage Calloways face crises and infidelity — but somehow manage to stick together. "As someone who was already on his second marriage when I conceived [of] this first book, I was intrigued by the idea of a marriage that survives," McInerney says.

Interview Highlights

On being identified with cocaine because of Bright Lights, Big City

There was a problem in that after I published Bright Lights, Big City so many people wanted me to be that character, and it became a kind of badge of honor to party with Jay McInerney and do cocaine with him. ...

When I was sort of researching Bright Lights — not that I realized I was researching it — I could barely get into these night clubs and I had to go with my cooler friends, and suddenly after Bright Lights, I was welcome at all of these places, and everywhere I went people were slipping me grams of cocaine or inviting me into the bathroom to share with them, so they could tell their friends that they had done it. ...

It became a problem. It was very hard to shake that image. ... When the time came that I felt I should stop, it wasn't easy. I felt like I partly had created a scene which had then engulfed me and kind of trapped me.

I struggled to live up to the expectations created by that novel, and some might say I failed.

On his career as a novelist after the success of Bright Lights, Big City

Before Bright Lights, Big City I really just had been hoping the novel would lead to say, a teaching job, or a job in journalism or something. I had actually worked at Random House and I had seen many first novels published to no acclaim, virtually no feedback whatsoever, so I was shocked by the acclaim and the attention that Bright Lights, Big City received.

And you know, for quite a while, I guess I was disoriented by it. I think it would've been hard to know what to expect after that, except that I realized that it was a very hard act to follow.

You know, a novel that becomes a kind of cultural touchstone and sells hundreds of thousands, well, millions of copies around the world, and I suppose I struggled to live up to the expectations created by that novel, and some might say I failed.

On aspiring to join the circle of esteemed literary giants in New York

I think [when] you're in your early 20s, you're not quite smart enough or not quite humble enough to realize that this is a very tall order. I guess I somehow imagined taking my place among them. I was fortunate, in fact, in having a lot of these people adopt me to some extent. A lot of these older writers did take me under their wing, often without much evidence that there was any reason to.

The New Yorker [where McInerney worked in the 1980s], on the one hand, was a very daunting place, a place where fact-checkers weren't really supposed to talk to the editors and the writers, though in fact I did find some nurturing spirits there. Later, after I had been fired from The New Yorker and sent packing, I sent a short story to George Plimpton [co-founder of The Paris Review], who I'm very grateful to say found something in it, and he didn't publish that story, but he did publish a subsequent short story. I suddenly found myself welcomed into the fold, I found myself attending a cocktail party amongst these literary giants.

On being fired early in his career from his job as a fact-checker for The New Yorker

I was a very bad fact-checker. I wasn't very interested in facts. I didn't want to be a fact-checker so much as I wanted to be in the pages of The New Yorker as a short story writer. Fact-checking is a very methodical, not to say tedious profession. ... Very important, I just wasn't very good at it.

The final straw was that my less-than-impeccable fact-checking of an article about the French elections back in the early '80s — I had somewhat foolishly put fluency in French on my resume as one of my qualifications, when in fact I wasn't fluent in French. To check this particular article I had to call France and often speak to people who didn't speak English, and so the fact-checking suffered. When the article came out, certain errors were discovered and I was exposed and very quickly asked to leave the magazine. ...

I think subsequently I could brag about it. The legend is I was the first person ever fired from The New Yorker. ... It's a bit like the Ivy League: Once you're in they work hard to keep you in.

On writing economically and writing rhythmically

I don't think they're necessarily in conflict. I mean, Hemingway was one of our most economical writers and he had an extraordinary sense of rhythm. I think my point, sometimes, when I'm discussing my prose with my editor, is that I have tried to be economical, but I've also tried to create a sentence which has its own internal logic and rhythm. Saving three or four words, at the expensive of disassembling the sentence and putting it back together, you may be losing something that I felt very long and hard about.

Once in a while I say, "It's not my job to save trees." But on the other hand, [short-story writer and poet] Raymond Carver was my mentor, so I'd like to think that I'm not insanely prolix. In fact, I try to trim my own work even before I show it to my editor.

On receiving writing advice from Carver

Carver used to go over my stories with me in his office and he would really go through them line by line. He was not someone who had an overarching theory of fiction so much as he had a great intuitive feel for the process. One of the things I remember most distinctly was Ray turning to me one day and saying, "Why are you using the word 'earth' here? What you really mean is dirt. Why don't you just say 'dirt?' You're seeking a grandiosity that you don't need." He said, "Say what you mean and say it in the most direct way that you can."

And you know, I felt for many, many years afterwards as if there was a small Ray Carver standing on my shoulder whenever I reached for this sort of $15 word, gently admonishing me and saying, "Dirt. It's dirt."

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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