on being a novelist
interview by OLIVIER ZAHM
OLIVIER ZAHM — How did you meet, you two?
JAY MCINERNEY — We met here, at Allard [Alain Ducasse’s restaurant in Paris]. Frédéric was interviewing me for some magazine. And then Frédéric said, “This restaurant sucks.” We had a long lunch — I think I missed my next interview.
FRÉDÉRIC BEIGBEDER — And now, every time I come to New York, I see Jay. He comes to stay at my place in Paris, and vice versa.
OLIVIER ZAHM — But you met before in New York, at The Beatrice Inn?
FRÉDÉRIC BEIGBEDER — Yes. Some time ago. And he broke his leg that night.
JAY MCINERNEY — It’s true! My ankle. I was walking home from the Beatrice, and I broke my ankle.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What happened?
JAY MCINERNEY — I don’t know.
FRÉDÉRIC BEIGBEDER — I am a bad influence.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Speaking of the Beatrice and nightlife in New York…
JAY MCINERNEY — What year was that? It was 2005 or 2006.
FRÉDÉRIC BEIGBEDER — You know, nightclubs are a good way to date things. It’s like carbon-14. If you were at the Beatrice, you know that it was approximately 2006. If you were at Le Baron in Paris, you know that it was the beginning of the 2000s.
JAY MCINERNEY — The Beatrice is in the book.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Because your new novel is set in 2007 and 2008, right? In the middle of the financial crisis.
JAY MCINERNEY — Yeah, and the election of Obama.
OLIVIER ZAHM — That’s when my magazine almost died. I lost half of the advertising in one month.
JAY MCINERNEY — That was why I chose this period. It felt like the economic system was melting down. And people were terrified. In some ways it was like the…
FRÉDÉRIC BEIGBEDER — Like the 9/11 of finance.
JAY MCINERNEY — It wasn’t as sudden as 9/11, but yeah. I mean, the day that Lehman Brothers closed, you could feel it. And suddenly we find out that we’re all connected to the financial world. Even people at the Beatrice!
FRÉDÉRIC BEIGBEDER — Scott Fitzgerald wrote many stories about the 1921 crisis.
JAY MCINERNEY — Right.
FRÉDÉRIC BEIGBEDER — And I thought, since he’s your master… Well, you have James Salter and Scott Fitzgerald as maybe your fathers. Or Raymond Carver.
JAY MCINERNEY — Spiritual fathers.
FRÉDÉRIC BEIGBEDER — And so talking about 2008, if Scott Fitzgerald were still alive, what would he say? It’s about that. The interesting part is that we had the same in France. We had some banks that were really close to closing. But in France we chose to not let them close. Barack Obama did that incredible thing, which was to punish Lehman Brothers. Which I agree with totally.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Because we saved the banks in France with public money.
FRÉDÉRIC BEIGBEDER — Yes, exactly. With debt. With public debt.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s crazy.
FRÉDÉRIC BEIGBEDER — We borrowed like €500 billion to save the banks in France.
OLIVIER ZAHM — We don’t speak about that anymore. It’s a real political scandal.
JAY MCINERNEY — It’s strange, because some of the banks they let fail and others they saved. But ultimately, one of the things that disappointed me about Obama was that he never pursued any of the people that were responsible. And I think that was a mistake. But my book kind of ends with the election of Obama.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So it’s a very short period in time.
JAY MCINERNEY — But it was an incredibly hopeful moment. And the image that I started the book with is these people during the election in November 2008, watching the first African-American get elected. These are New Yorkers, so they’re happy. But at the same time, people were losing their homes and their savings, and people were scared shitless. It was an wierd moment.
FRÉDÉRIC BEIGBEDER — Jay has been following a married couple for 30 years. And he chooses the tragedies, like 9/11, and writes about how they cope with this moment of their lives. And then the crisis in 2008, and again, how does it affect their marriage? I think this is very Balzac — to take on history, big history, in a particular destiny.
JAY MCINERNEY — When I wrote the first book, that was my model — Balzac’s La Comédie Humaine. I love the way he captures his period in French history, in Paris, with these recurring characters and stories that cross. And I wanted to do that in New York.
OLIVIER ZAHM — But the thing is, what happens in New York resonates everywhere.
JAY MCINERNEY — And now Trump is resonating.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Does a writer today have to alert readers about how the world is getting darker and darker?
FRÉDÉRIC BEIGBEDER — Books don’t have a mission, I don’t think. But… well, you can say many things in your magazine. But maybe, for example, because of advertising, you cannot criticize your clients.
OLIVIER ZAHM — I love my clients.
FRÉDÉRIC BEIGBEDER — You see?
JAY MCINERNEY — Kiss ass!
FRÉDÉRIC BEIGBEDER — If you think about it, the only place where you have no pressure of any kind, and you can really say whatever comes to your mind, is literature.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you like to be seen as a “dark” writer?
JAY MCINERNEY — I don’t think that literature necessarily has a program except to be beautiful and possibly to entertain. But if you look at my first novel, Bright Lights, Big City, I’m not particularly talking about history or catastrophe…
FRÉDÉRIC BEIGBEDER — Yes, but you’re in the middle of the ’80s, and you talk about your generation. About what New York was like in that period. Very cynical and very selfish.
OLIVIER ZAHM — A city of monsters.
JAY MCINERNEY — Yeah, it’s a little harsh.
FRÉDÉRIC BEIGBEDER — Proust said that asking a writer to talk about his novel is like asking a duck to talk about his foie gras. You don’t know how you did it.
JAY MCINERNEY — That’s very good!
FRÉDÉRIC BEIGBEDER — So, to answer about disasters, I don’t think happiness is very entertaining. When you tell a story, there has to be a murder or a rape. A catastrophe. Otherwise, it’s boring!
JAY MCINERNEY — Tolstoy said, “All happy marriages are alike.” The marriage in my books is ultimately successful, but it’s very dramatic because I think that if you remove the subject of infidelity, then 70% of all novels would probably disappear.
FRÉDÉRIC BEIGBEDER — I like when Russell goes to lunch with a young girl who has a blog, and she eats her hamburger and says, “Oh, it’s very good! Do you want to taste?” And she puts her fingers in his mouth, during lunch.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Is this autobiographical?
JAY MCINERNEY — No, actually. I remember inventing that scene. I liked the idea, but it’s never actually happened to me. This is what we call fiction.
FRÉDÉRIC BEIGBEDER — This is why we write novels.
JAY MCINERNEY — We’ve been talking about all these serious things, but sometimes writing a novel is like masturbating. You know?
FRÉDÉRIC BEIGBEDER — But I’m sure, Olivier, girls put their fingers in your mouth. That’s happening on a daily basis in your life.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Both of you are public figures. Is it a good or a bad thing as a writer to be under the spotlight, in the media?
JAY MCINERNEY — I was thinking about this today, and I remembered something that Norman Mailer once said to me. I was complaining about some bad press, and he said, “Jay, you should be grateful that you have a persona and a mythology. Fitzgerald had persona, Hemingway had mythology — most writers will never achieve both. Don’t complain!”
OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you want a public sculpture like Balzac on Boulevard Raspail?
JAY MCINERNEY — Well, yeah… An interviewer said, “How does it feel? You’re like this larger-than-life character.” And I said, “Well, you know, some of the writers that I like the most had these powerful stories — like Kerouac, like Fitzgerald, like Hemingway, like Dylan Thomas. They were characters!
FRÉDÉRIC BEIGBEDER — Even Salinger, who wanted to disappear, he had a character.
JAY MCINERNEY — He created a kind of negative myth.
OLIVIER ZAHM — He’s the Martin Margiela of literature.
FRÉDÉRIC BEIGBEDER — Exactly, exactly — the Daft Punk of literature! But I am still complaining because I think that it’s reducing my extraordinary work to just anecdotes of “coke addict,” “sex addict” — which is, of course, not me! [Laughs]
OLIVIER ZAHM — Would you take the risk of writing a book under another name, like Romain Gary? In France, he wrote a book, and it got a second Prix Goncourt with another name.
FRÉDÉRIC BEIGBEDER — Émile Ajar.
JAY MCINERNEY — Wow.
FRÉDÉRIC BEIGBEDER — You know, we would love to be judged only on our work. But, if I think about it now, I never read like that. Because when I read F. Scott Fitzgerald or Bret Easton Ellis, or anybody, I always know who the writer is! The author’s face, how he looks, how he dresses, where he goes out. And I enjoy that. I wouldn’t love Truman Capote that much if he hadn’t gone to Studio 54.
JAY MCINERNEY — You know, there was one time that I wished that I had published under a pseudonym, and that was my third novel, Story of My Life. It was written from the point of view of a young party girl, and I think it was one of my best books. It became very influential over the years. But a lot of people just couldn’t deal with the fact that Jay McInerney had written this book from the point of view of a woman.
FRÉDÉRIC BEIGBEDER — But which name would you choose? Veronica? Corinne Calloway?
OLIVIER ZAHM — Your editor wouldn’t have let you do that.
JAY MCINERNEY — Well, they would be afraid of the sales implications.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Let’s talk about Paris and New York. On this planet, where people read less and less, these two cities are the symbols of literature.
JAY MCINERNEY — Well, I think literature matters more in France than it does in the United States.
OLIVIER ZAHM — But maybe not in New York. Literature still matters in New York. You studied writing, which in France seems very American.
JAY MCINERNEY — I find it amusing that the French find it so strange. I mean, people study composition, people study painting; why shouldn’t they study writing?
OLIVIER ZAHM — Arthur Rimbaud never studied anything, and he was…
FRÉDÉRIC BEIGBEDER — He was a genius.
JAY MCINERNEY — So what? There are always geniuses, but even they could save time by learning certain skills.
FRÉDÉRIC BEIGBEDER — It’s totally absurd how the French study writing. We study the history of literature. We analyze texts, intertexts…
OLIVIER ZAHM — Subtexts, metatexts.
FRÉDÉRIC BEIGBEDER — Post-literature, “post-novels,” “new novels.” But we don’t actually have creative writing — well, it’s starting now.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You should start a school together.
FRÉDÉRIC BEIGBEDER — I don’t know if many people would attend.
JAY MCINERNEY — They might attend for the wrong reasons.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Are you still confident about Paris as a place for writing?
FRÉDÉRIC BEIGBEDER — I fight to maintain this dream of Paris as a literary city, but it’s more and more difficult. Fewer people are reading, and literature is like the Titanic — we are still playing music, the boat is sinking, and the iceberg is called Instagram. Or Facebook. Or maybe the iceberg is called Zuckerberg.
OLIVIER ZAHM — The iceberg is Zuckerberg, and Instagram is the ocean.
FRÉDÉRIC BEIGBEDER — Anyway, this metaphor sucks, but the truth is…
OLIVIER ZAHM — That reality sucks even more.
JAY MCINERNEY — And television, you know. Television is becoming the dominant narrative medium of our time.
OLIVIER ZAHM — TV series, you mean?
JAY MCINERNEY — I’m working with Amazon right now to make this trilogy into a television series, even though to me the novels will always be…
OLIVIER ZAHM — He’s already on the other side.
JAY MCINERNEY — The novels will always be what’s important to me. But I realize that if this is made into a series, far more people will experience my ideas because an unsuccessful TV show reaches more people than a successful novel.
FRÉDÉRIC BEIGBEDER — True. It’s very Fitzgerald to fight lost battles, you know.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Writing is maybe like one dimension, then cinema and TV are two dimensions of the same story, and Instagram is the third dimension.
FRÉDÉRIC BEIGBEDER — I would say maybe that it’s the opposite; when you read a book, you are the director of your own film in your head. When you go to the cinema or watch a TV show, you don’t decide anything — they decide the music, the design, the casting. But if you read Jay’s books, you have to do the casting yourself. You imagine Corinne! And everybody will have fantasies of a different married woman cheating on her husband.
JAY MCINERNEY — Michael J. Fox, when we were working on Bright Lights, Big City, once said to me, “It must be so amazing — people feel so intimately connected to you,” and I said, “Are you crazy? Every time we go out in the street, all these people mob you; they feel like they know you.” And he said, “Yeah, but there’s no real intimacy. All they know is some role that I play on the screen, on the surface. But when they read your books, they get inside your head.”
FRÉDÉRIC BEIGBEDER — It’s deeper.
JAY MCINERNEY — “It’s like they’re having sex with you,” he said.
OLIVIER ZAHM — I think you two are still optimistic about the future of literature.
FRÉDÉRIC BEIGBEDER — Optimistic, I don’t know. I think we are lucky.
JAY MCINERNEY — We’re lucky, yeah. Would I want my son to be a novelist? I’m not so sure.
OLIVIER ZAHM — But you don’t want him to be a banker, either.
FRÉDÉRIC BEIGBEDER — If you’re a banker, you can become president of France. If you’re a writer, you’re just unemployed and poor and lonely.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Don’t forget that Macron was the assistant to…
FRÉDÉRIC BEIGBEDER — Paul Ricœur, it’s true. He was.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And it gives him a certain credit. Even though no one knows who Paul Ricœur is.
FRÉDÉRIC BEIGBEDER — But you know what, Macron, for me, it’s more than that. He’s very literary, in the sense that he is a character in a novel. He looks like Rastignac or Julien Sorel in Le Rouge et le Noir.
OLIVIER ZAHM — He’s totally Julien Sorel. Julien Sorel with a haircut.
FRÉDÉRIC BEIGBEDER — The hero from a small town in the countryside, fucking the married woman from the bourgeoisie, then she leaves her husband for him, they go to Paris, and they conquer France. And I think that people will want to watch him for five years or 10 years because of that.
JAY MCINERNEY — So you met him?
FRÉDÉRIC BEIGBEDER — Yeah, and he is like that. He’s very nice and charming.
JAY MCINERNEY — Well, I’m encouraged that he studied philosophy. Our president has a fake library in his apartment. It looks like books, but it’s wallpaper. There’s nothing behind it — that’s what his mind is like!
FRÉDÉRIC BEIGBEDER — Yeah, it’s true, and he’s proud of it!
JAY MCINERNEY — He once said he didn’t have to read books.
FRÉDÉRIC BEIGBEDER — Yeah, he said that to a journalist. “I don’t need books in my life,” or something like that.
JAY MCINERNEY — Yeah, he already knows everything. It’s incredible.
FRÉDÉRIC BEIGBEDER — Obama was a good reader.
JAY MCINERNEY — He’s also a good writer.
FRÉDÉRIC BEIGBEDER — Yeah, he writes amazing speeches. And he has good taste in literature; he loves Lauren Groff and Joseph O’Neill.
OLIVIER ZAHM — In a way, literature is connected to power. As writers, you have an obsession with power and money.
JAY MCINERNEY — But we have to examine the people who have influence on society.
FRÉDÉRIC BEIGBEDER — I think Trump is a symbol of the emptiness, the vulgarity, the narcissism of our time. He’s a real metaphor of everything that is sold in the media.
JAY MCINERNEY — You know, if a novelist had tried to write the story of Donald Trump becoming president, I think people would’ve…
FRÉDÉRIC BEIGBEDER — Not believed it.
JAY MCINERNEY — They would think that it was a really stupid premise for a novel.
FRÉDÉRIC BEIGBEDER — Jay, in your book, you say at one point that Russell and Corinne had to choose between art and money, and they chose art — but they speak about money all day long.
JAY MCINERNEY — Russell divides the world into two opposing teams: the art and love team, and the power and money team. And it’s kind of a cliché, but it’s sort of true, hmm?
FRÉDÉRIC BEIGBEDER — Many of my friends, when I was a student, chose money. And now they are very rich. But what do they talk about when they have dinner? They talk about artists — cinema, writing, painting. So it’s funny — when you choose art, you have no money, but you are the topic of conversation of the rich. It’s sad, it’s good, I don’t know.
OLIVIER ZAHM — But it’s the place where you can influence people.
JAY MCINERNEY — It’s not the influence of a president or someone who runs a media empire.
OLIVIER ZAHM — I like how Americans are realistic.
FRÉDÉRIC BEIGBEDER — I agree totally with Jay’s pessimism, but I would say that if you think about the past…
For example, do we talk about Georges Pompidou a lot? Or do we talk about Jean-Paul Sartre, Françoise Sagan, Camus…
You see what I mean? When you talk about the 19th century, you don’t remember the name of the presidents, but you remember Balzac, Stendhal, Flaubert, Baudelaire.
JAY MCINERNEY — In the 1920s, our president was named Herbert Hoover, but we talk much more about Hemingway and Fitzgerald.
FRÉDÉRIC BEIGBEDER — So, you see, there is hope!
OLIVIER ZAHM — I think you guys win the discussion!
FRÉDÉRIC BEIGBEDER — The only problem is that we win after we are dead.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Fifty years later!
FRÉDÉRIC BEIGBEDER — It’s the revenge of the writer. We’re like zombies, you know. The walking dead.
[Table of contents]
Frédéric Beigbeder and Jay McinerneyRead the article
Viviane SassenRead the article
AA BronsonRead the article
Duncan HannahRead the article
Purple 25 Years 25 covers
text by Olivier Zahm
Emanuele CocciaRead the article
Mark GrotjahnRead the article
Roberta SmithRead the article
Martine RoseRead the article
by Daniel Pinchbeck
Age of Anesthesia
by John Jefferson Selve
Glenn O’Brien on the death of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy WarholRead the article
by Richard Prince
by Jeff Rian
by Karley Sciortino
Betony VernonRead the article
Mei KawajiriRead the article
Cactus StoreRead the article
Adrián Villar RojasRead the article
Robert StadlerRead the article
Harumi Klossowska de RolaRead the article
JacquesRead the article
Ludo LefebvreRead the article
by Sven Schumann
by Olivier Zahm
by Jeff Ryan
Guinevere van Seenus
by Inez and Vinoodh
by Inez and Vinoodh
by Inez and Vinoodh
by Takashi Homma
by Juergen Teller
By Pierre-Ange Carlotti
by Terry Richardson
by Anuschka Blommers and Niels Schumm
by Sandy Kim
Saskia de Brauw
by Colin Dodgson
by Viviane Sassen
by Roby Rodriguez
by Anders Edström
by Casper Sejersen
by Katja Rahlwes
by Wolfgang Tillmans
Best of Men’s F/W 2017 Fashion
by Andreas Larsson
by Jeremy Everett
Hollywood Kids The Next Generation
By Sandy Kim
Gio Ponti Furniture Re-Edition Molteni&CRead the article
Luigi Serafini CodexRead the article
Xerophile Cactus ExpeditionsRead the article
Betty Woodman New York / FlorenceRead the article
The cineama, said André Bazin, substitutes for our gaze, a world in harmony with our desires
by Georgina Graham
Frédéric Mitterrand Olympic Cinema 1971Read the article
Concrete CocoonsRead the article
by Giasco Bertoli
by Alain Badiou, Mehdi Belhaj Kacem, Dodie Bellamy, Nicolas Bourriaud, Emanuele Coccia, Tristan Garcia, Chris Kraus And Hedi El Kholti, Bernard-Henri Levy, Paul Mccarthy, Jean-Luc Nancy, Paul B. Preciado, Ariana Reines
An ’80s Slice of City Life
by Jeannette Montgomery Barron
Desire Caught by the Tail
John KayserRead the article