tag: i love you beth cooperjessica anya blaularry cooperolive interviewsummer of naked swim parties
Welcome to my very first (but hopefully not my last) olive interview. William Conescu, author of Being Written, graciously offered to answer some of my questions. Being Written is the story of a man who knows he’s a minor character in a book and the lengths to which he’ll go to win a bigger part. It’s about both the artistic and the general life ennui of a bunch of characters in their late 20s, but it’s also a thriller. (I know, a thriller about ennui sounds strange. And it is—in a wonderful way.)
After you read the interview (and the book), check out the reading group guide—William is available to call in to book club meetings and answer your own questions, too. (You can contact him by clicking on his linked name above.)
And by the way, I particularly sympathize with William’s answer to question 5.
1. Daniel desperately wants to be a major character in the novel that he thinks is being written. What made you decide to center your novel on someone who has to work so hard to make an impact, someone who is so much of an outsider?
I was interested in writing about artistically-minded people in their twenties and thirties struggling to figure out how best to live their lives, and then I had this playful idea about a minor character who can hear the author’s pencil scratching when other characters are “being written” nearby. There are parallels in these struggles. Daniel is also figuring out what to do with his unique ability and what role he might play in his universe. So I combined the two ideas: Daniel hears a story being written about these artsy twenty/thirty-something-year-olds, and he works his way into their lives and their story and ultimately hijacks their book.
2. Daniel believes that nothing matters unless it’s “being written.” With constant blogging, constant Facebook and twitter updates, and reality tv, do you think our society is headed toward sharing that belief? Can that impulse to have yourself documented for posterity be controlled?
I hope the impulse to have yourself documented can be controlled! When you believe that being documented—“being written,” like the characters in my novel, or being on reality television—is the one thing that will give your life meaning, then you might make decisions differently from, say, the average rabbi or elementary school teacher.
3. Is Daniel crazy?
Or is he the only character in the novel who understands how his universe works?
4. Daniel uses a writing manual to try to gain some insight into the author’s plans for him, and to try to manipulate the course of events—and of course, things don’t go nearly as well as the manual might have led him to expect. Even though you satirize them, do you think those kinds of books can help writers?
I think books about writing can be helpful or validating, as long as they’re not too prescriptive. Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird is a wonderful book, and I’ve taught workshops using Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction. But Daniel has found a by-the-numbers book on how to write a bestseller, and he’s treating it like a self-help manual for the aspiring protagonist.
5. Graham and Delia are experiencing a post-college slump, where they’ve rejected typical career paths and yet still aren’t successful at pursuing their art. Did you ever experience anything similar? If so, how did you snap out of it?
I did experience something similar, and that was part of the inspiration for this novel. I wrote a lot in high school, college, and my very early twenties, but then I kept putting it aside. I’d switch jobs or move to a new city, and I’d tell myself I needed to settle into things and then I’d write again. But that kept happening, and I realized one day that the story of my life was in-progress. I wasn’t “waiting to get started.” So if writing fiction was important to me, then I needed to make it a regular part of my life. So I did! I wrote Being Written, and I’ve been writing regularly ever since.
6. This was your first book. What about the process of getting published was different from what you expected?
The whole process has been very exciting. I think I was most surprised by how many times I’ve thought, “This is it, the moment I’ve been waiting for.” The day I started working with an agent, or sold the novel, or saw the advance copy, or had my first hometown book reading or New York book reading. The excitement is dispersed.
7. What is the book/publishing/writing scene like in Chapel Hill?
There are a lot of writers living in or near Chapel Hill, in part because of the universities and in part because this is a beautiful part of the country. I moved here from New Orleans and was excited to discover that there are three seasons other than summer.
8. What are you working on now?
I recently completed a first draft of my next novel. It’s not a work of metafiction, but it has its own flavor of strangeness to it.
9. What kinds of cats do you have? (I noticed in the PS that you mentioned your cats being around while you work.)
I have two terrific cats: a calico and an orange tabby. They’re littermates, and they’re big-boned and tall—and tall sideways too.
Harper Perennial brings people together. As you’ll see in the interview below, Jessica Anya Blau (author of Summer of Naked Swim Parties) and Larry Doyle (author of I Love You, Beth Cooper) would never have become friends were their books not published by Harper Perennial. Well, maybe they would have, but it would have been less likely. So here’s part 1 of Jessica’s interview with Larry; part 2 will appear tomorrow.
(Larry Doyle hates having his picture taken)
Harper Perennial sent my book, The Summer of Naked Swim Parties, to Larry Doyle to see if he’d blurb it. He did and it was surely one of my favorite blurbs, and the one that ultimately ended up on the front cover. When I first read his blurb, I said to my editor something like, “Who is this guy? I love him!” She told me two things: he wrote and produced The Simpsons, and he lives in Baltimore. She also sent me his novel, I Love You Beth Cooper. I looked Larry up on myspace. Turns out he’s done much more than produce and write The Simpsons (as if that isn’t enough for one life). In addition to his hilarious novel, he writes regular pieces for The New Yorker, he’s written many screenplays, and he’s been a staff writer at several magazines. I sent Larry a note thanking him for the great blurb, telling him that I, too, live in Baltimore and asking him if he’d be my friend. Well, maybe I didn’t say, “Will you be my friend?” But what I did say was something like, “Will you have coffee with me?” We set a date for coffee after the holidays and then I read his book. It couldn’t have taken me more than two sittings to read I Love You Beth Cooper—it’s a wildly funny, sharply written romp of a story that mostly takes place in the night following the high school graduation of a slightly neurotic, utterly charming boy named Denis Cooverman.
By the time I met Larry for coffee, I already liked him. It’s now a year later and not only is Larry my friend, but so is his wife Becky, a charming woman who’s a mean Scrabble player and whom Larry calls his “foxy wife.”
On December 15th, Larry and I met up at The Evergreen Café in Baltimore where he answered the following questions:
You’re a very funny person. Everything you write is hilarious. Do you try to be funny? Do you realize you’re funny or are you surprised that people think you’re funny?
What a sad life you would have if you were funny but you weren’t trying to be funny. You’d be really pathetic. I imagine there are some people like that, Crispin Glover perhaps. I try to be funny. Part of it’s craft and part of it’s a certain sensibility. People ask that question a lot, are you naturally funny. You can be naturally funny and not write funny stuff. And you can certainly have all the tools of being funny and what you write won’t be funny. At least it won’t be original or interesting. It seems to me like eighty percent of newspaper humor columnists aren’t funny. Maybe that’s because they have to do it so much, they write on fumes on something. You know how people have that fear of being a fraud? My big fear is that my writing’s all craft and not inspired.
So you don’t fear not being funny?
I know how to make things funny. I worry about there being an art to what I’m doing as opposed to craftsmanship. And I hope that there would be some genuine sensibility and genuine feeling behind that stuff. But I am confident that I can manufacture a joke.
Your piece in the December 15th New Yorker is very funny (I laughed out loud when I read it) and terribly depressing. Is the dark point-of-view of the piece yours, or is it simply the point-of-view for the purpose of humor?
People often say I have a dark sense of humor. [Larry assumes Dude voice] It was just a joke, man.
The idea [behind the piece] was that a lot of people are complaining about how horrible everything is. So it was just a kind of exaggerated “things could be worse.” There could be zombies.
Do people always try to crack you up—do they want to prove to you that they’re funny, too?
Since you know my general demeanor you know that people don’t really warm up to me very much. [This cracks me up!] That happens occasionally at a party, but not anyone who really knows me. I have to constantly explain to people how and why I’m not very funny. You know most funny people aren’t very funny so . . . I can be funny when I want to. Certainly when I hang out with a bunch of comedy writers I can be funny. But I’m not a performer. So.
You seem to have a tremendous scope when it comes to what you know. I think we can be pretty sure that you know more than I about politics, world history, pop culture, movies, books, television, cartoons, and maybe even medicine. Did you spend your adolescence reading?
No. It’s a cool trick to make it look like you know more than other people. You don’t necessarily have to know more, you just need to be able to steer the conversation to things you do know. Of that list, the only thing I thought I know more than you is medicine. I got my undergraduate degree, in premed. And I was a medical reporter for four or five years.
You write for The New Yorker, you write screenplays, novels, you’ve produced and written The Simpsons, Looney Tunes, and you’ve been a staff writer at several magazines. Which of these jobs has been the most gratifying for you?
Writing The New Yorker pieces are very gratifying. But would be more gratifying if . . I always wanted to be one of those regular New Yorker writers, with a little cubby hole. And I’ve never been accepted there that way. I don’t know how much of that is because they don’t do that anymore, or I haven’t gotten to that level. I always feel apart from that. Writing the book [I Love You Beth Cooper] was almost all pleasant. At least my memory of it. And the process of turning it into the movie [Larry also wrote the screenplay for I Love You Beth Cooper] was only half-aggravating, which makes it a thousand times better than anything else I’ve done with movies. The making of the movie went very well, compared to what one normally expects to happen. I’m most gratified when I’m actually writing and most unhappy when I’m not writing. As you know, the last six months I’ve had a difficult time making myself write.
What are you doing when you’re not writing?
Reading. Looking for anything on the internet to distract me momentarily. Being surly around the house.
Is the internet good or bad for you?
I don’t know if it’s net positive or negative in terms of productivity. I use it for a tremendous amount for research. And just for memory, trying to find out why the moon looks larger on the horizon. As I’ve gotten older my ability to conjure up my vocabulary has diminished. So I’ll often go hunting for words on the internet.
So you use it to avoid writing?
Are you in that relaxed place where you can assume that anything you work on will be bought, or picked-up, or optioned? Or do you still worry? Or maybe you never worried?
I still worry about it. I’ve got a number of years left that I have to make a living and I’ve been technically dead in Hollywood for almost a decade. I’m well past the age range of employability in Hollywood. So it’s only through sheer luck that I continue to get work in Hollywood.
Come back tomorrow for part 2!!!
It’s time for part 2 of the olive interview between Jessica Anya Blau, author of Summer of Naked Swim Parties, and Larry Doyle, author of I Love You, Beth Cooper. Let the shenanigans begin! (Jessica’s questions in bold, see yesterday’s post for part 1 and a cute photo of the two of them.)
Tell me about what you’re working on now?
I’m working on an unnecessarily complicated second novel, which has also been sold to the movies. So I’m doing the screenplay and the book simultaneously. [The novel/film is called Go, Mutants! and already has an A-list director attached to it.]
Do you enjoy working on several things at once, or if you could control everything in your world would you pare it down a bit?
If I didn’t have to make money, I would never write another screenplay again.
Because when you write for the movies, you’re not the author of the movie.
Director or studio. Even these days a lot of directors can’t put their stamp on it they way they want. But the director is considered the author of the movie.
In the next few months see how many times you see the phrase, “Chris Columbus’ I Love You Beth Cooper.”
That must be strange.
It’s a little odd. Especially odd because I wrote the book first. But that can be good and bad. I Love Your Beth Cooper looks to be a good movie, so his getting authorship is a little strange. On the other hand, I really don’t mind that they call it “Danny DeVito’s Duplex” [referring to the movie Duplex, written by Larry and directed by Danny DeVito.] ‘cause in a lot of ways it is his Duplex and certainly not what I had in mind for that movie.
If I were in a position to write and direct, that might be something I’d want to do. But I’m not sure I would. It’s really hard to make a movie. I like movies, I like watching them. Maybe if I had absolute freedom to do what I wanted, I would. But it’s not an easy way to make a living. It’s a hard way to make a great living. Virtually none of the people who try to do it manage to make a living out of it. The percentage of people who want to write and direct movies versus the people who do it, it has to be smaller than any other profession. Unless you count little girls who say they want to be a veterinarian. There might be more people becoming princesses than being working writer-directors.
What’s your writing day like? Do you have a particular thing you wear, or eat, while you’re writing?
Eat coffee. I wear same thing every day. Jeans, tee shirt. And in colder months, a button down over the tee shirt. I change my underpants every day.
Is there anything in the writing process that you don’t like? Anything you’d hire out if you could?
The writing. No. I like the writing part. All of the publicity stuff that comes afterward. It would be dishonest I know, but I sure wouldn’t mind having an assistant who blogged for me. You know you’re supposed to blog every day and I just don’t do that and won’t ever do that. [Larry’s referring to the common wisdom handed down to writers who are promoting a book that you should blog every day to keep people interested in your work.]
What’s the worst thing you’ve ever written?
I’ve written so much it would be really had to pick out one thing as terrible. I can think of whole eras that were terrible. I wrote the Pogo comic strip for a couple years when it came back in late 80s. I wrote and Neal Sternecky drew it, and I’d say on the whole I really botched it. It wasn’t good. That’d be two years of work, all terrible.
What do you think is the best thing you’ve ever written?
I like the way I Love You Beth Cooper turned out. Although when I reread it for the paperback, I ended up changing it a lot. I removed stuff I didn’t like and added a bunch of new stuff. In the movies, the thing I like best is a screenplay based on a New Yorker piece I wrote called “Life Without Leanne.” Miramax bought it but then it died. I handed it in a week after Duplex, which was a huge bomb. I’d like to get it back. That would be the kind of thing that, if I could, I would direct.
Who’s the most interesting person named Beth Cooper to have contacted you since the publication of I Love You Beth Cooper?
I’ve heard from a bunch of Beth Coopers. There’s a page of their pictures on the book’s website. There’s a famous dollmaker, an architect, a painter, a couple of actresses and real estate agents, and a ghost tour guide. There’s even a Beth Cooper who is a high school varsity cheerleader, which sent a shiver down my attorney’s spine. Each and every one of them was the most interesting. I picked the name precisely because it was common, that she could be anyone. There are more than 1,600 Beth Coopers in the United States alone, according to some website [howmanyofme.com]. I recommend titling your book after a common name, by the way. I’m sure I sold a couple hundred just as gag gifts.
After all the interviews you’ve done over the years, what’s the one great question no one has ever asked you?
That one. That question.
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