Bright Lights, Big City, Jay McInerney’s dazzling début novel of 1984, won the then 29-year-old author heady comparisons to the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald and Dylan Thomas and launched a career that seemingly embraced both serious writing and significantly bad behavior. Five more novels followed-some well reviewed (Brightness Falls, 1992), some trashed (The Last of the Savages, 1996)-plus one nonfiction wine tome and many journalistic articles. Now 51, McInerney is back with his seventh novel, The Good Life, a tender and even romantic chronicle of post–9/11 life centered on two privileged Manhattan couples. Victoria Lautman interviewed Jay McInerney, who spoke by phone from his apartment in New York City.
Q: Out of all the characters from all your novels, you chose to resurrect Corrine and Russell from Brightness Falls. Why?
A: That’s the favorite of my books, and I think they were my most fully rounded and complex characters. I’d always intended to go back and revisit them; it just took me longer to do it. The “plan” was to follow up with them every decade or so-like Updike and Roth have done-because it seems interesting to follow certain characters over time.
Q: You’d been working on an entirely different novel at the time of 9/11 that sounded weirdly prophetic, involving a bomb blast in Manhattan.
A: Yeah, it was odd. The story began with a bomb going off at a movie première. But history overtook me and I just didn’t think I could go on with that novel, so I put it aside. It was a while before I even thought of the book, and a long time before I could even think of writing fiction. It just didn’t seem relevant at the time.
Q: You’ve mentioned that Norman Mailer advised you to wait ten years before tackling 9/11, that it would take that long to make sense of it.
A: He did say that, and I understand what he meant. But I really don’t think he was right. The thing is, the aftermath was such an amazing time, and I felt it was important to record it before it faded from memory. We were all experiencing a heightened state of awareness in New York and were in touch with our best selves for a while. People were much more charitable, sensitive, generous, and community-minded than before-or afterwards. I wanted to capture it while I could still feel it.
Q: Not everyone realizes you have a wine column in House & Garden magazine. That you are, in fact, an oenophile.
A: It’s true. When I was in graduate school, writing Bright Lights, Big City, I worked in a liquor store where we clerks were badly underpaid and so were in the habit of taking home cheap bottles of wine. I also started reading all the wine books lying around. When the book came out, I suddenly could afford good wine, and I’d developed a bit of a palate, so I really began to get into it.
Q: Sounds sort of quaint compared to some of the spicy items written about you in gossip columns over the years!
A: Well, I’m still making appearances in the columns, but it’s pretty tame at this point. No more falling down in nightclubs. And the wine: it’s just a hobby, but I love it. Someone is paying me every month to go to beautiful parts of the world to meet fantastic people and drink great wines. The only thing more fun would be someone paying me to sleep with a different actress every month.
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