Behind the Name: Joe McGinniss, Jr. Talks Life, Writing and the American Way

Hardcover, 368 pages
Published August 2nd 2016 by Simon Schuster

Joe McGinniss, Jr. isn’t just his father’s son. Here, the author of The Delivery Man and Carousel Court sheds some light on growing up the son of a celebrated author, his own writing process and, well, the thing he would change about American society if given the shot. After reading and reviewing Carousel Court, I was intrigued at the thought of getting to know more about this author in particular, and now we can. Here you have it folks — Joe lets loose his wry outlook on life and writing in this hilarious but thoughtful interview.

 

Question # 1

Some would say that writing is in your blood, as the son of the late, esteemed writer Joe McGinniss. How did your father’s professional heights, experiences and struggles impact your urge or desire to become a published author?

Great question. So, I watched him from afar; my parents divorced around the time of my birth, and my mother raised my sisters and me. We’d visit him on the weekend and during the summer and, though most of the time we spent with him he wasn’t working, the days he did were the same scene: dad in the kitchen early making something weird for breakfast, then into his office, closing the door and the hum of the Selectra…the paper being spooled in,….then typing….hours of it…until lunch.

 

Question #2

In your 2016 article, “Lessons from My Father” printed in The New Yorker, you gave a poignant account of your father’s life from your own point of view, from your childhood to his death after you’d become a published author yourself. What was it like to write such a telling account of the triumphs, pains and struggles of this man you loved beyond the words we know on his pages, and how does your knack for fearlessly regarding hard truths translate into your own fiction writing?

Oh boy. Kind of draining. But not technically difficult because there was so much emotion fueling the writing of the piece. I felt compelled to get some information out there about his personal struggles, demons if you will. He was loving and supportive and driven and flawed. His vulnerability and isolation haunted me. Something unseen prevented him from fully embracing the moment and those who cared most about him without drifting back into his personal darkness. Depression and drinking were/are a family legacy (both of his parents suffered from it both their entire adult lives. He was an only child. A lonely child.)

 

Question #3

As the author of full-length novels The Delivery Man (2008) and Carousel Court (2016), what is the hallmark of your writing process? Do you follow a particular path from inception to completion of a novel, and how does this process—if any—change as your career grows and morphs?

Initially, for the first two stories, there was a tonal quality that appealed to me. Visceral, spare, propulsive and haunting were all goals and came more readily. As well, so much of what I read that moved me tended to be spare and accessible, if not dark. A sense of place and location also were critical. Las Vegas and the exurbs of Los Angeles had me mesmerized, and I wanted to channel that as best I could through the lens of the story I was architecting. The current novel is less about place or even tone/mood and more character and plot driven (though the first two certainly had what seemed like pretty propulsive stories that one could ideally, if they were into it, race through). 

Dear lord those years. Too many between them from a writing perspective. I was, and am still in many ways, an idiot. I didn’t realize that it kind of doesn’t help one professionally in the writing business to take nearly a decade between books. Yes, I had good reasons (my son was born and my wife worked outside of the home).

 

Question #4

Both The Delivery Man and Carousel Court are phenomenal displays of contemporary literary Realism, written as “shattering indictment[s] of a society.” As a writer, do you start with this at the heart of your novel-writing process—an intuition to dispel myths and expose truths—or do you find it to be a byproduct of the topics you write about?

I’m not that sophisticated. I create what I can and try to convey what I feel and try to make sure it’s interesting. Does the story move and entertain and surprise? Is it boring the reader? Does it feel simultaneously real and dreamlike? I never know, but through the process of rereading and stewing about it, obsessing about how thin and uninspired it might read and is it working, will people want to pick it up and if they do, will they want to read it to the end—and if they do will they post some crap review on Goodreads complaining that the characters weren’t “likable” enough, as though novels and stories now have to provide new bff’s for readers.

 

Question #5

Your 2016 novel, Carousel Court, is written about a street you actually know intimately yourself. Did the actual people you know from this neighborhood shape the direction of the novel? If so, how?

Interesting. So Carousel Court is the name of a random cul de sac (I believe) that I located on Google maps, then zoomed in and did the whole street view thing where I spent hours tooling around the neighborhoods in the Inland Empire east of LA imagining life there. So no, I did not know it well. And the characters who I sentenced to a life there were pulled from the ether and other odd places and shaped into the cast of Carousel Court.

 

Question #6

In writing your novels, what were some of the sections, passages or themes that you or your editors opted to remove from the final drafts of the manuscripts, and why? How does this part of the editorial process shape your writing as a whole? 

Well my esteemed editor – a brilliant bloke named Jofie Ferrari Adler – suggested I write the last chapter in French. So that was awkward.

No not really. There was actually, with Carousel Court, one significant story turn that we didn’t agree on initially but discussed and meditated on and in the end, as always, the editor was right.

 

Question #7

Tell us one thing you wish you could change permanently about the American way or our society.

Public education. Schools should be community hubs, financed like private colleges, tailored to meet the needs and wants of the people they serve. Open year round and paying teachers so much more and training and retraining so that children and their families have an oasis available to them every day of the year every year of their lives no matter where they’re born or their neighborhood’s property values.

Oh and no more “summer vacation.” A few weeks off here and there but wow, like we need to educate and nurture our children less?

 

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Carousel Court by Joe McGinniss, Jr.

Hardcover, 368 pages
Published August 2nd 2016 by Simon & Schuster

          “He was a thirty-two-year-old, college-educated father drowning his family in debt but energized by a simple prospect: proving to Phoebe that he alone, not a New York banker or some handsome young physician, was the winning play still.”           

Oh, my God. I can’t remember the last time I was so satisfied with a read and applauding of its ending! It was so well done; the writing was just phenomenal. It never came off as corny or cliché, over-embellished or melodramatic. Just real. Honest and real. Fearless and foreboding, raw and sharp at the edges, McGinniss’ Carousel Court was like staring into a mirror with no makeup, no fluff.

Nick and Phoebe are the everyman: He remembers when they were both fresh out of college, full of ambition, energetic and in love. Now they’re 32—not old at all—but what has happened to them? So they decide to go for it: “…it seemed that everyone had a house or was buying one…young married professional buying and selling houses for six-figure profits. So why not them? Of course them, finally them…they quickly negotiated an interest-only, zero-down, 125 percent renovation mortgage on the house in Serenos.” And so it began.

The first thing I thought when I opened this one was: The Big Short. Carousel Court takes that to a whole other level, to a personal level that you can feel. It reaches inside of the macrocosm that was our economy in 2008 and pulls out a first-hand story of people who could’ve been your neighbors, who could’ve been your friends.

And if we’re going to get one thing straight, it’s this: McGinniss’ voice is unique, his writing style distinctive. It’s filled with a sort of nervous energy—ideas hopping around but somehow all fitting nicely together—that is magnetically kinetic. It was almost like free hand, jumping from topic to topic and scene to scene sometimes frantically, creating a brilliantly fast pace set in the California suburbs. It was a lens punctuated with short, curt lines that hit home right in the gut and blunt observations that rang so true that they could only be that. Honestly, I found it hard to follow in the beginning—until I didn’t. At some point, a few pages in, I relaxed into the writing style and let it carry me away. If you’re resistant to an unconventional voice, one that’s punctuated with terseness and modern-day, suburban grit (think the movie Closer, 2004) this read might take a second to sink into, but that’s okay. You’ll get there. Keep going. Though I had to re-read some of the passages in the beginning to find my footing with them, somehow, I found it intriguingly refreshing and immersive.

My sole qualm was a minute one: I’m still not sure if it was my own misunderstanding, but I found inconsistencies with Phoebe’s character, which nagged at me but didn’t ruin the read or bog me down with the necessity of clarity: is she fair-haired or brunette, 30 or 32 years old? (I feel like I read all of these about her and wasn’t sure which was correct.) But those perceived incongruences didn’t make her any less appealing to watch or any less deserving of my attention.

I rooted for Nick and Phoebe every step of the way, right up to the very last page. Every wrong move, every fight and sharp remark, every scathing text message furiously tapped out on an iPhone and every feeling of self-doubt—I felt it with them, and it felt genuine. They were people I wouldn’t mind grabbing a beer with, and I know I’d love every second of it if I could. I was behind them the whole way, and I wanted them to win.

            “Fall, Daddy, fall…”

In Carousel Court, McGinnis truly captured the rhythms and fine grooves of our lives, of college-educated, middle classers right on the line of Gen X and Millennial. He tackles the question, without ever explicitly stating it, that we must all ask ourselves from time to time in this day and age: “How did I go from walking the stage, the world at my feet, full of conquering ambition, to this? How did I get here? Can I get back?” If life has ever dealt you a sobering, swift slap in the face, if you’ve ever asked yourself these questions, pick this one up. And if you haven’t, still pick this one up: you might need a little dose of reality. With that in mind, Carousel grabbed a well-deserved, happily-given 5 stars. *****