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Aug 22, 2016

How Bestselling Author Jay McInerney Writes: Part One

The bestselling author of 11 books, including the eighties defining Bright Lights, Big City, Jay McInerney, took a break to chat with me about his new book, the writing process, and some timeless tips from his mentor, Raymond Carver.

Vanity Fair called Mr. McInerney “Our modern-day Fitzgerald,” and his most recent book — Bright, Precious Days — is described as “… a sexy, vibrant, cross-generational New York story — a literary and commercial triumph of the highest order.”

The author is a renowned short story writer, screenwriter, and actor, who has lived in New York for three decades and rubbed elbows with a laundry list of literary lions, including his mentors Tobias Wolff and Raymond Carver.

In addition to fiction, Jay writes a highly regarded wine column for Town & Country magazine, and has written several essay collections on wine.

The author most recently joined the Prince Street podcast as a culinary and arts correspondent and has interviewed director Francis Ford Coppola, author Stephanie Danler, and celebrity chefs including Eric Ripert, to name a few.

Join us for this two-part interview, and if you’re a fan of the show, please subscribe in iTunes to automatically get new interviews, and help other writers find us.

In Part One of the file Jay McInerney and I discuss:

  • Why It’s Not a Bad Thing to Be Compared to Your Betters
  • How to Incorporate Your Passions into Your Writing
  • Why You Need to Sit at Your Desk Every Day and Listen to the Voices in Your Head
  • The Author’s Process of Discovery at the Level of Language
  • How the Right Soundtrack Can Inspire Your Writing

Listen to The Writer Files: Writing, Productivity, Creativity, and Neuroscience below ...

The Show Notes

The Transcript

How Bestselling Author Jay McInerney Writes: Part One

Kelton Reid: The Writer Files is brought to you by StudioPress, the industry standard for premium WordPress themes and plugins. Built on the Genesis Framework, StudioPress delivers state of the art SEO tools, beautiful and fully responsive design, air-tight security, instant updates, and much more. If you re ready to take your WordPress site to the next level, see for yourself why over 177,000 website owners trust StudioPress. Go to Rainmaker.FM/studiopress right now. That s Rainmaker.FM/studiopress.

These are The Writer Files, a tour of the habits, habitats, and brains of working writers from online content creators to fictionists, journalists, entrepreneurs, and beyond. I m your host, Kelton Reid, writer, podcaster, and mediaphile. Each week we ll discover how great writers keep the ink flowing, the cursor moving, and avoid writer s block.

The best selling author of eleven books, including the ’80s defining Bright Lights, Big City, Jay McInerney took a break this week to chat with me about his new book, the writing process, and some timeless tips from his mentor Raymond Carver. Vanity Fair called McInerney “Our modern-day F. Scott Fitzgerald.” His most recent work Bright, Precious Days is a novel that’s described as “…a sexy, vibrant, cross-generational New York story a literary and commercial triumph of the highest order.”

The author is a renown short story writer, screenwriter and actor, who’s lived in New York for three decades and rubbed elbows with a laundry list of literary lions including his mentors Tobias Wolff and Raymond Carver. In addition to fiction Jay writes a highly regarded wine column for Town & Country Magazine and has written several essay collections on wine. The author recently recently joined the Prince Street podcast as a culinary and arts correspondent and has interviewed director Francis Ford Coppola, author Stephanie Danler and celebrity chefs including Eric Ripert, to name a few. Join us for this two part interview, and if you’re a fan of the show please click “subscribe” to automatically see new shows and help other writers to find us.

In part one of the file Jay and I discuss why it’s not a bad thing to be compared to your betters, how to incorporate your passions into your writing, why you need to sit at your desk every day and listen to the voices in your head, the author’s process of discovery at the level of language, and how the right soundtrack can inspire your writing.

We are rolling today on The Writer Files with an especially special guest, that sounds terrible as an intro, but Jay McInerney is here, the esteemed author of eleven books now it would seem. Best selling author, short story master, screenwriter I guess you could put on your resume as well.

Jay McInerney: Yeah, yeah. Done a few of those.

Kelton Reid: Wine columnist and now podcast interviewer I understand.

Jay McInerney: Yeah, I’ve been participating in a podcast called Live From Prince Street, which is supposed to be food and wine centric, although actually I’ve ended up interviewing Francis Ford Coppola, Stephanie Danler the novelist. Veered more in the direction of the arts than food and wine.

Kelton Reid: It’s really cool to hear, actually I’m a big fan of the show, at least your McInerney minute there when you are rapping with, it seems like it’s like some of your friends, some of your peers from both the culinary and the arts world, which is really fantastic to hear.

Jay McInerney: Yeah, it’s nice. It’s a nice medium.

Why It s Not a Bad Thing to Be Compared to Your Betters

Kelton Reid: Yeah, yeah. I’ll put that in the show notes so that listeners can seek that out as well, but we’re really here to talk about your latest, which just arrived yesterday as of this recording. The new one, which is Bright, Precious Days, is getting a lot of buzz, a lot of amazing, amazing press. Do you find it intimidating at all that Vanity Fair has compared you to one of your, I think, favorite authors? Do you know who I’m talking about?

Jay McInerney: Yeah. I think you’re talking about F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Kelton Reid: Yeah.

Jay McInerney: Yeah, that freaked me out a little bit. In fact that comparison came up quite a bit when I published Bright Lights, Big City, probably because, I guess because I was relatively young, because the book was wildly successful, and somewhat in the manner of Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side Of Paradise. It was about young people going wild essentially, and I don’t know, I guess we’re both Irish-American writers. It was funny because I was not that much of a Fitzgerald fan at the time. In college I really gravitated toward Hemingway, potentially for The Sun Also Rises. Then I started to really re-read Fitzgerald and found that I really did love his work, and yet it was a comparison that was a little hard to live up to. Not many people write a novel as great as The Great Gatsby. It s a little, you know, you don’t want to necessarily compare yourself to your betters. On the other hand I am a great admirer and I actually think that he did somewhat influence my later work.

How to Incorporate Your Passions into Your Writing

Kelton Reid: That’s really cool. Our modern day Fitzgerald, a title that you are kind of in awe of. It’s really cool to see the response to the latest one. It’s amazing to me that you’ve had this career and you’ve done so many different things, that seemingly incorporate your passions, which between the wine and the culinary world, incorporating into this New York world, which obviously you paint very vividly. It’s really cool to see. Actually you mentioned Stephanie Danler who I also had on the show recently, and of course she’s a huge fan of yours as well. She kind of pays homage to you actually in the first paragraph of her latest, which is amazing. I found it interesting that she’s almost a different point of view of that same time frame, 2006/2008 in Manhattan.

Anyway, great stuff. The newest one, Bright, Precious Days, just came out, a really amazing read. I’d love to dig in your process a little bit. I know you’ve had some amazing mentors in your past, Raymond Carver coming to mind as one of the antecedents of your writing career. As you look back on bigger projects like your latest, I’m not talking about your wine columns, how much time per day do you think you’re taking to research or read or remember that time in history, that world?

Jay McInerney: I don’t do that much conscious research, that is to say I tend to write about relatively contemporary history and specifically New York history. This book is set in the … As you mentioned, the year is 2006, 7, 8. These years form the center of the book. I was in New York for that period and I guess mentally I’m always taking notes, and then I would research specific things.

One of the characters in the book is a retired private equity guy, and that’s not a world that I spend much time in or thinking about. I research somewhat in terms of specific professions, things that fall outside of my ken, but most of this work is just drawn from my experience living in New York. Which is not to say that this latest novel is particularly autobiographical. There’s no figure that really represents me and my specific experience, but all of the characters are drawn from the world around me that I’m observing every day.

Kelton Reid: We will be right back after a very short break. Thanks so much for listening to The Writer Files.

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Why You Need to Sit at Your Desk Every Day and Listen to the Voices in Your Head

Kelton Reid: It seems a little bit different than the wine writing and the culinary writing that you do because that seems incredibly detailed in its research when you’re talking about something specific as like how rosé came to be so popular. Ok, so before you … when you’re working on a novel, before you get started do you have some pre-game rituals, some warm ups?

Jay McInerney: I’m always, especially when I’m between novels, I’m always hoping that something springs into my brain, springs forth from my brain, I’m not sure which. It’s a process that, you have to be ready, I think, for inspiration. One of the things that Raymond Carver taught me was that you need be sitting at your desk virtually every day. You need to be in front of your, at that time it was a typewriter but now, in front of your computer, and you have to be trying. If you aren’t there, you aren’t trying, the muse is less likely to visit you if you’re just taking your dry cleaning downstairs or trying to flag a taxi.

It’s about showing up every day and it’s about trying and it’s about being ready for the muse. Some days I sit down and I can’t seem to really get anywhere, but I have to keep doing it until something occurs to me, a sentence, a voice, a memory that sparks a flight of imagination. Frankly I’m not sure what I’m going to do next. I’m going to be pretty busy talking about this book for a little while. I’m hoping that I’m going to hear a voice, or even overhear an anecdote at the dinner table that sort of sets my mind.

The Author s Process of Discovery at the Level of Language

Kelton Reid: That’s cool. Are you a morning writer? Are you an evening writer?

Jay McInerney: Yeah, I’m not a morning person but for some reason I find that when I wake up I need to have copious amounts of coffee and then immediately get in front of the computer. Somehow if I don t get going, if I’m not doing it by noon I just feel like the day’s getting away from me, I get discouraged and I don’t seem to be able to start up. I sit down about 9:30 in the morning and I try to stay there until I get really hungry. Obviously when I’m in the middle of a novel, this process is a little easier and I am often aware of what I’m going to be doing for three or four hours because I’m in the middle of a chapter or story. Other times I’m struggling to figure out the next sentence, the next paragraph, the next turn of events.

It’s always great once you’re in the middle and you know to some extent where you’re going. I seldom know more than a chapter or two ahead where I’m going. I think that there are those writers who outline and who know what they’re doing in advance but for me it’s always a process of discovery. I think a lot of the interesting stuff happens at the level of language. I can never I’ve never sat down with an entire book in my head, beginning, middle, and end. I’m always kind of improvising.

Kelton Reid: Right. Yeah I’ve heard you talk about this before, improvisation over planning. I think it’s another author called it kind of writing into the dark, which I like that idea a lot.

Jay McInerney: Yeah, it’s good.

How the Right Soundtrack Can Inspire Your Writing

Kelton Reid: You’ve written about at least your process while you were writing Bright Lights, Big City, one of my favorites, honestly. I always thought of a soundtrack while I was reading it, that ’80s sound. I read that piece that you did where you’re talking about Joy Division which I loved so much. Do you still like to crank up the stereo to inspire yourself?

Jay McInerney: Yeah I do. You’re right, Bright Lights, Big City really did have a pretty distinct period soundtrack, some of which I actually put into the novel like the Talking Heads and, I don’t know, The Cure, I guess, and bands that were contemporary. With this novel I was listening mostly to jazz and blues. Blues has been a really big passion of mine for many, many years. In fact Bright Lights, Big City comes from a Jimmy Reed song.

Kelton Reid: That’s right.

Jay McInerney: Lately I’ve done something I never thought I would do, which is I’ve got interested in jazz, or at least I’m a fledgling in jazz. Somebody gave me a set of these Blue Note reissues, right about the time that I was starting to write this book. I found Miles Davis, John Coltrane, I found it kind of conducive to the tone of this particular book. Along with my usuals, like Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson and Skip James, the blues guys.

Kelton Reid: Absolutely.

Thanks so much for joining me for this half of a tour through the writer’s process. If you enjoy The Writer Files Podcast please subscribe to the show and leave us a rating or a review on iTunes to help other writers find us. For more episodes or to just leave a comment or a question you can drop by WriterFiles.FM. You can always chat with me on Twitter @KeltonReid. Cheers, talk to you next week.