Interview: Jonathan Dee
To the left: a handwritten page from Jonathan Dee’s The Privileges
Where is your favorite writing spot?
It’s at home. I have good friends who need some kind of external stimulation to write, who leave their apartment and sit in a cafe to write. But, I’m exactly the opposite; I really have to have no stimulus at all. It took a little while – I was a stay at home father for many years, so it took a long time for me to get back to the point where I’m at now, where everybody clears out of the apartment and I have the place to myself. It’s virtually the only place where I can work actually. Everything needs to be as unstimulating as possible.
What is your writing regimen like?
The key to what motivates me as a writer is that I need to set myself unrealistic goals that I can then punish myself for not meeting. I try very hard if I’m working on a novel, which I usually am, to write all morning every day. And most weeks I fail, but somehow the failure is important. Robert Stone once said, “the reason writing fiction is hard is that nobody cares if you do it or not.” So, you have to set these little unrealistic goals for yourself, because no one else is really going to set them for you. You have to create these hoops to jump through, and I’m very good at that unfortunately.
What word processor do you use?
For fiction, for longer work like novels I actually still hand-write everything for the first draft. So the place I usually work is a chair in my living room. For the initial burst I’m just sitting in a chair in the corner with a legal pad. For The Privileges, that had to be six or seven hundred long-hand pages, and now I’m partly into a new book.
What do you think of the iPad and eBooks?
As a piece of technology I feel that the paperback book can hardly be improved upon. The movement or the direction of eBooks is inexorable. I have no problem with it, or contempt, or fear, but in terms of my own personal habits, when I try to read on a screen – and I can’t – I don’t find that it reproduces the comfort or the ease of a book.
What advice do you give your grad students about going into publishing?
They tend to think too much about it. They tend to try to get in the system and figure out what it is that publishers want them to write. A lot of them who are story writers will completely unprompted try to make themselves give up writing stories because they feel that publishers only want novels.
The advice that I give them mostly is about patience, because the thing about writing, particularly writing fiction, is that there are very few incremental measures of success along the way. You feel like a failure for a very long time and then suddenly everything tends to change in the course of about a week. Somebody notices what you’ve done and they want to publish it and everything looks different to you. It’s very hard to make yourself not panic, frankly. I guess I am just barely old enough to remember in the early to mid 80s when they used to say that it was a good time to be publishing fiction, but ever since then all you hear is about how this is such a really bad time to be publishing fiction. And the reasons change but the outlook never changes anymore.
How do you start a new project?
I used to be, when I started out, a really compulsive outliner – I knew the end, I knew the last line, I knew the last scene, and even more than that I wouldn’t begin writing an individual scene unless I felt like I knew everything that was going to happen in it. And ever since then for me it’s been a process of trying to get further and further away from that idea and to make myself start writing sooner, to make myself start writing before I know everything that’s going to happen. The genesis of each novel has been a little bit different; with The Privileges, it really began with the idea of my trying to write my way into the characters of Adam and Cynthia. If there was a first scene that was a genesis of a lot of what came after, it was the scene that begins part II, where Cynthia – the young mother who is at wit’s end and is teaching her kids how to play poker by covering their faces – that’s a story I actually filched from real life, not my life but somebody else’s
What rule in fiction writing do you hate to see broken?
This may not qualify as a rule, but one thing that I see most often on a graduate level is that people get infatuated with the idea of omniscience with their own writing. They realize that they have the imaginative capacity and the technical skills to change POV within scenes and within paragraphs, and they just go where they want to go when they feel like going there. They are right, you are allowed to do that, but I would say the thing is that 99% of time it’s probably a bad idea. And its not really because I hate it, but I feel most frustrated that I can’t convey to students the degree in which they should exercise restraint in terms of POV, which is vitally bound up with the reader’s experience of caring about what they’re writing about.
What do you think is the role of the novelist today?
I remember reading a quote from Don Dellilo, where he was saying that he liked the idea that the novel was dead. The way he saw it – that if the novel was dead then that turned him into a ghost with all the ghost’s privileges. And it’s true, I think that as the novel becomes less and less central to our culture, there’s less and less of a responsibility attached to it – and I think that that’s actually kind of freeing. I don’t think I would enjoy the burden that would come with being a novelist at the red-hot center of the culture, to whom people were looking at to take the moral temperature of the times.
The novel and poetry are maybe the last of the great art forms that are valuable precisely because they are not collaborative, because they’re the pure product of one consciousness. I think the less sway that the novel has over culture as a whole, the more that this idea takes hold. I read now because I want to be transported in that way. And pretty much almost every other work of art that you come across is self-consciously collaborative now, including collaborative with its audience. And that idea just leaves me cold. I feel like the novel is the guardian or one of the last guardians of the idea of having a work of art that is the pure product of one head – one set of eyes – one way of seeing the world – and that’s more and more worth protecting, even if it makes the novel itself antiquated in some way.
Was there a specific commentary that you set out to make about wealthy civilization in The Privileges?
I wanted to inhabit the characters convincingly rather than comment. In one of Milan Kundera’s books, he says that the novel is a realm where moral judgment is suspended, which is an ideal that I’ve always found appealing and that I’ve pushed on my students a lot. I feel like what hopefully makes these characters compelling is when you are figuring out who they are as you read an ad for the book, or on the jacket copy – after your first thought about the characters – you’ve already made up your mind about these people – I already know who they are and I already know how I feel about who they are. So, then the object of the book is to try to frustrate that initial judgment and to try to get the reader to suspend that, at least until the book is over and possibly even beyond that. In my real life, I can be just as judgmental or maybe more so than anybody else about greed, and about power, and about all these things. But, in this case, characters present themselves to me as interesting or not. And especially as I get older, what makes them interesting to me is how different they are from me. I know plenty of people like the Moreys, and the idea of being able to inhabit them convincingly for the course of a couple hundred pages or the course of twenty years, if you think of it that way – to me that seemed like a really interesting problem. I mean how do people like this move through the world and what is it like to look at the world as them?
What does Madison Avenue represent to you in your novel Palladio?
There was a review of The Privileges that said only of the four characters of the family, only the son seemed like a Jonathan Dee character. I have to admit that I hadn’t thought of it that way, but it was kind of right. If there is one thing that I see in retrospect in several of my books, it’s a question of authenticity in art and experience. It can be kind of simplistic and juvenile to rant against Madison Avenue, but what I see of the central aesthetic of advertising, the principle behind the art of advertising seeps into all aspects of American life, into our political lives, our artistic lives, and our private lives. So to me Madison Avenue, which is kind of an old fashioned term already – the advertising sensibility is about taking what is genuine and reproducing it to the point where you can’t tell what’s genuine about it anymore.
How has being a writing teacher affected you as a writer?
I guess it’s a question of originality. They [my students] tend to bear out for me something that I learned from my own writing teacher as an undergraduate – a long time ago. Even though most of what I am able to teach them in a meaningful way has to do with craft, craft itself isn’t really enough. You get a sense when you talk for a long time of just how many people there still are who want to be writers and of how many of them actually write very well. If you’re reading submissions in a magazine or if you’re teaching in a writing program, someone who strikes you as original, that’s so rare and that’s so exciting, even if they don’t write as well as their peers, it’s so exciting to you in that context that it makes you put more of a premium on it in your own writing. It makes you think more about, ok, what it is that I do particularly well? What is it that I can bring to this whole dialogue that isn’t already there? It’s not just about being able to demonstrate that you can write as well as other good writer’s can write.
Do you remember the moment when you knew you wanted to be a writer?
I remember learning in college that there is a difference between wanting to be a writer and actually wanting to write something. I wanted to be a writer from the time I was in grade school, in 3rd or 4th grade – I used to do something that seems odd now, but when I read a book I liked, I would then sit down and try to rewrite it from memory as if I had written it myself. I was so impressed by good books that I really wanted to be someone that wrote good books. It takes a while before you realize the distinction between wanting to be a writer and actually having something that you want to write. And it wasn’t until the end of my time in college that this dawned on me. And so, I asked myself, well, really, what do I want to write about?Close