Beyond 'Bright Lights': Jay McInerney Reveals The Trials Of A 'Perfect Couple'

Aug 1, 2016
Originally published on August 1, 2016 7:28 pm

Writer Jay McInerney became famous in the 1980s for Bright Lights, Big City, a semi-autobiographical novel about a young man who parties in the cocaine-dusted clubs of Manhattan, but the drama in his latest book is more domestic in nature.

Also set in New York City, Bright, Precious Days is the third book in a trilogy about married couple Russell and Corrine Calloway. McInerney tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross that he began the Brightness Falls series with an idea of the "perfect couple."

"I think [when] we're in our 20s we all know that couple ... They're smart, they're good-looking, they got married young, they seem to have solved the romantic riddle early in life," he says. "That was the initial notion of Russell and Corrine Calloway — but, of course, it's an entirely unrealistic one."

During the course of their marriage Calloways face crises and infidelity — but somehow manage to stick together. "As someone who was already on his second marriage when I conceived [of] this first book, I was intrigued by the idea of a marriage that survives," McInerney says.


Interview Highlights

On being identified with cocaine because of Bright Lights, Big City

There was a problem in that after I published Bright Lights, Big City so many people wanted me to be that character, and it became a kind of badge of honor to party with Jay McInerney and do cocaine with him. ...

When I was sort of researching Bright Lights — not that I realized I was researching it — I could barely get into these night clubs and I had to go with my cooler friends, and suddenly after Bright Lights, I was welcome at all of these places, and everywhere I went people were slipping me grams of cocaine or inviting me into the bathroom to share with them, so they could tell their friends that they had done it. ...

It became a problem. It was very hard to shake that image. ... When the time came that I felt I should stop, it wasn't easy. I felt like I partly had created a scene which had then engulfed me and kind of trapped me.

On his career as a novelist after the success of Bright Lights, Big City

Before Bright Lights, Big City I really just had been hoping the novel would lead to say, a teaching job, or a job in journalism or something. I had actually worked at Random House and I had seen many first novels published to no acclaim, virtually no feedback whatsoever, so I was shocked by the acclaim and the attention that Bright Lights, Big City received.

And you know, for quite a while, I guess I was disoriented by it. I think it would've been hard to know what to expect after that, except that I realized that it was a very hard act to follow.

You know, a novel that becomes a kind of cultural touchstone and sells hundreds of thousands, well, millions of copies around the world, and I suppose I struggled to live up to the expectations created by that novel, and some might say I failed.

On aspiring to join the circle of esteemed literary giants in New York

I think [when] you're in your early 20s, you're not quite smart enough or not quite humble enough to realize that this is a very tall order. I guess I somehow imagined taking my place among them. I was fortunate, in fact, in having a lot of these people adopt me to some extent. A lot of these older writers did take me under their wing, often without much evidence that there was any reason to.

The New Yorker [where McInerney worked in the 1980s], on the one hand, was a very daunting place, a place where fact-checkers weren't really supposed to talk to the editors and the writers, though in fact I did find some nurturing spirits there. Later, after I had been fired from The New Yorker and sent packing, I sent a short story to George Plimpton [co-founder of The Paris Review], who I'm very grateful to say found something in it, and he didn't publish that story, but he did publish a subsequent short story. I suddenly found myself welcomed into the fold, I found myself attending a cocktail party amongst these literary giants.

On being fired early in his career from his job as a fact-checker for The New Yorker

I was a very bad fact-checker. I wasn't very interested in facts. I didn't want to be a fact-checker so much as I wanted to be in the pages of The New Yorker as a short story writer. Fact-checking is a very methodical, not to say tedious profession. ... Very important, I just wasn't very good at it.

The final straw was that my less-than-impeccable fact-checking of an article about the French elections back in the early '80s — I had somewhat foolishly put fluency in French on my resume as one of my qualifications, when in fact I wasn't fluent in French. To check this particular article I had to call France and often speak to people who didn't speak English, and so the fact-checking suffered. When the article came out, certain errors were discovered and I was exposed and very quickly asked to leave the magazine. ...

I think subsequently I could brag about it. The legend is I was the first person ever fired from The New Yorker. ... It's a bit like the Ivy League: Once you're in they work hard to keep you in.

On writing economically and writing rhythmically

I don't think they're necessarily in conflict. I mean, Hemingway was one of our most economical writers and he had an extraordinary sense of rhythm. I think my point, sometimes, when I'm discussing my prose with my editor, is that I have tried to be economical, but I've also tried to create a sentence which has its own internal logic and rhythm. Saving three or four words, at the expensive of disassembling the sentence and putting it back together, you may be losing something that I felt very long and hard about.

Once in a while I say, "It's not my job to save trees." But on the other hand, [short-story writer and poet] Raymond Carver was my mentor, so I'd like to think that I'm not insanely prolix. In fact, I try to trim my own work even before I show it to my editor.

On receiving writing advice from Carver

Carver used to go over my stories with me in his office and he would really go through them line by line. He was not someone who had an overarching theory of fiction so much as he had a great intuitive feel for the process. One of the things I remember most distinctly was Ray turning to me one day and saying, "Why are you using the word 'earth' here? What you really mean is dirt. Why don't you just say 'dirt?' You're seeking a grandiosity that you don't need." He said, "Say what you mean and say it in the most direct way that you can."

And you know, I felt for many, many years afterwards as if there was a small Ray Carver standing on my shoulder whenever I reached for this sort of $15 word, gently admonishing me and saying, "Dirt. It's dirt."

Copyright 2016 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest Jay McInerney became famous in the '80s for his semi-autobiographical novel "Bright Lights, Big City" about a 24-year-old who works as a fact-checker for a magazine in New York and spends his nights partying in the cocaine-dusted clubs downtown. It was adapted into a film starring Michael J. Fox.

McInerney's new novel "Bright, Precious Days" is the third in a series that follows the story of a couple, Russell and Corrine Calloway. The new novel is about marriage, fidelity and middle age. It's also about writing. Russell is an editor and publisher. "Bright, Precious Days" is set in New York between 2006 and 2008, allowing McInerney to continue to write about a subject that fascinates him, how New York is constantly changing.

Jay McInerney, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Let's start with a reading from the very beginning of your new novel.

JAY MCINERNEY: (Reading) Once, not so very long ago, young men and women had come to the city because they loved books, because they wanted to write novels or short stories or even poems or because they wanted to be associated with the production and distribution of those artifacts and with the people who created them. For those who haunted suburban libraries and provincial bookstores, Manhattan was the shining island of letters, New York, N.Y. - it was right there on the title pages - the place from which the books and magazines emanated, home of all the publishers, the address of The New Yorker and The Paris Review, where Hemingway had punched O'Hara and Ginsberg seduced Kerouac, Hellman sued McCarthy and Mailer had punched everybody, where - or so they imagined - earnest editorial assistants and aspiring novelists smoked cigarettes in cafes while reciting Dylan Thomas, who'd taken his last breath in St. Vincent's Hospital after drinking 17 whiskies at the White Horse Tavern.

These dreamers were people of the book. They loved the sacred New York texts - "The House of Mirth," "Gatsby," "Breakfast At Tiffany's," et al., but also all the marginalia - the romance and the attendant to mythology, the affairs and addictions, the feuds and fist fights. Like everyone else in their lousy high school, they'd read "The Catcher In The Rye." But unlike everyone else, they really felt it. It spoke to them in their own language, and they secretly conceived the ambition to one day move to New York and write a novel called "Where The Ducks Go In Winter" or maybe just "The Ducks In Winter."

Russell Calloway had been one of them, a suburban Michigander who had an epiphany after his ninth-grade teacher assigned to Thomas' "Fern Hill" in honors English, who subsequently vowed to devote his life to poetry until "A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man" changed his religion to fiction.

GROSS: So Jay, what did New York mean to you when you moved there? And when did you move there?

MCINERNEY: (Laughter) New York meant many of those things. You know, I really believed somehow that it was the center of the literary world. It was mecca for somebody who really cared about literature and wanted to - wanted to create it. There was something else going on at the time, too, though. I had actually been on a fellowship in Japan, and I'd been hearing rumblings and, in fact, music emanating from downtown Manhattan from the Lower East Side, the music that was coming from CBGB's. And I was hearing - you know, I was hearing about painting and the art world sort of being revived in downtown galleries. I was hearing about these, you know, night spots like Max's Kansas City. And this was late 1979, when I moved to the city. And suddenly, I just couldn't wait to get there.

GROSS: What place did you hope to find for yourself in this city that you had dreamed about?

MCINERNEY: (Laughter) Well, I imagined a place somewhere between this sort of - the sort of downtown art scene and the kind of - the slightly more staid quarters of the literary establishment, you know. I think, at that time, the literary establishment, specifically, it was centered in two places, George Plimpton's townhouse in - on 72nd Street (laughter), which was the home of these extraordinary parties where, in fact, eventually, I met people Like Norman Mailer and Gay Talese and Truman Capote and Robert Stone.

This was, in fact, not only George Plimpton's home, but also the offices of The Paris Review, which was a very special magazine to anybody who cared about fiction and poetry? And also there was The New Yorker, you know, which had been, for 50 or 60 years, the voice of New York sophistication and the home of many of the writers that I admired. And, in fact, not long after moving to New York, I got a job at The New Yorker as a fact-checker, and I sort of felt that I'd really arrived.

GROSS: Of course, fact-checking is a part of...

MCINERNEY: (Laughter).

GROSS: ...Your first big novel, "Bright Lights, Big City."

So, you know, people who you mentioned by name, most especially like Norman Mailer, George Plimpton - these are people with, like, big personalities. And The New Yorker - The New York at that time was just filled with mythology about its great writers and its...

MCINERNEY: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Great editor, William Shawn. Did you feel like you can - you could ever inhabit that kind of big persona to be on a level with the people who you so admired and the mythologies around them?

MCINERNEY: Well, I think when you're in your - when you're in your early 20s, you're not quite smart enough or not quite humble enough to realize that this is a very tall order. And I guess I somehow imagined taking my place among them. And I was fortunate, in fact, in having a lot of these people adopt me to some extent. To - a lot of these older writers did take me under their wing, often without much evidence that there was any reason to (laughter). But - The New Yorker, on the one hand, was a very daunting place and a place where fact-checkers really weren't supposed to talk to the editors and the writers. But though, in fact, I did find some nurturing spirits there.

Later when I - after I had been fired from The New Yorker and sent packing, I sent a short story to George Plimpton who, I'm very grateful to say, found something in it. And he didn't publish that story, but he did publish a subsequent short story. And I was - I suddenly found myself welcomed into the fold. I found myself attending a cocktail party amongst these literary giants.

GROSS: Getting fired from The New Yorker, which you just referred to, is not something you put on your resume.

MCINERNEY: Well, it's not - you know, I think, subsequently, I could - subsequently, I could brag about it. Apparently, I was the first person - the legend is I was the first person ever fired from The New Yorker. It's...

GROSS: Way to go.

MCINERNEY: (Laughter) It's a bit like the Ivy League, you know. They - once you're in, they work hard to keep you in. But...

GROSS: So what did you do to earn the honor to earn the honor?

MCINERNEY: To earn the honor - well, I was a very bad fact-checker, you know. I really - I wasn't very interested in facts. I didn't want to be a fact-checker so much as I wanted to be in the pages of The New Yorker as a short-story writer. And fact-checking, you know, is a very methodical, not to say tedious, profession. And...

GROSS: But very important.

MCINERNEY: Very important - I just wasn't very good at it. And I don't think it helped them, though the final straw was my less-than-impeccable fact-checking of an article about the French elections back in the early '80s. And I had somewhat foolishly put fluency in French on my resume as one of my qualifications, when, in fact, I wasn't fluent in French. And to check this particular article, I had to call France and often speak to people who didn't speak English, and so the fact-checking suffered. And when the article came out, certain errors were discovered. And I was exposed and very quickly asked to leave the magazine.

GROSS: What did that do to your career as a liar?

MCINERNEY: (Laughter) Well, you know, in retrospect, I think that it turned out to be a very good thing for my career as a fiction writer, as a novelist because when I was fired from The New Yorker, I was confronted with the challenge of actually making good on my ambition and my dream to become a novelist, and I had to put up or shut up. And...

GROSS: But...

MCINERNEY: Yes?

GROSS: ...Getting back to my question, after you got fired because you'd lied - twice - you lied about being fluent...

MCINERNEY: (Laughter).

GROSS: ...In French. And then you compounded the lie by saying you'd fact-checked things that you actually hadn't really fact-checked. Did that caution you about lying, or did you feel like - well, it worked out OK. And...

MCINERNEY: Oh, no. I...

GROSS: ...I don't know whether lying was - a lot of people lie when they get started in whatever they're doing because they have no experience. So they figure they'll...

MCINERNEY: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Fake their way through their first job. But...

MCINERNEY: No, I was mortified about my, you know, my dishonesty and my mistakes. I was - you know, I was extremely, you know, ashamed and depressed. And I didn't want to - you know, it's one of the real low points in my life. And it was - you know, it was compounded by the fact that my first wife had just recently left me for a photographer. She'd gone to the spring shows in Milan - she was a model - and had never returned. And my mother was dying of cancer at the time, so it was a real low point.

And I felt - you know, I felt ashamed of the fact that I was - at the age of 23, I felt I was a failure and I was washed up. And I had no one to blame but myself.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jay McInerney, and he's written the third in a trilogy of novels. And the new book is called "Bright, Precious Days." Let's take a short break here, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Jay McInerney, who's best known for his first novel "Bright Lights, Big City." His new novel is called "Bright, Precious Days."

The main character, Russell, in your new novel is an editor who started off as a writer but realized he'd never write as well as his best friend. And Russell realizes he'd be more convincing as an editor. He'd be more the Maxwell Perkins-type.

MCINERNEY: Right.

GROSS: So he sees his job as chipping away at excess prose, making it more streamlined and in-focus. And when he hears one of his authors read a story that he's edited and it goes over really well at the reading, he feels so good about it. And he prides himself on doing all this without interfering with the writer's voice. But later, a writer drops him for - because he thinks that Russell is imposing his rhythm and changing the writer's voice. This is the kind of writer-editor relationship you must have thought about a lot in your years as a writer, especially because one of your best friends, your former college roommate Gary Fisketjon, is one of the most celebrated editors in America. And I believe he's your editor.

MCINERNEY: (Laughter) Gary is my editor. He is - he has been my editor from the beginning. He published my very first novel, and he published this one. And it's - you know, I think it's a little unusual, the - you know, the continuity and the longevity of our relationship in the current publishing climate. But, you know, it used to be the norm.

GROSS: One of the issues in your novel is that the editor is editing a book by his best friend, and his best friend dies before the - his best friend has died before the novel's completed. So the editor had to face the question is he going to impose his version of the story on (laughter) this novel that he's editing? Because a couple of the characters in the novel are based on the editor and his wife.

MCINERNEY: And his wife.

GROSS: Now, since Gary Fisketjon is your former college roommate, he must know a lot about you. He must...

MCINERNEY: (Laughter).

GROSS: Seriously - he must know like...

MCINERNEY: He does.

GROSS: ...A lot of like your secrets and stuff, and so it must be interesting and in some ways good and in some ways uncomfortable to be edited by someone who knows you so well.

MCINERNEY: Well, you know, it's funny. Gary does know me as well as anyone, I suppose. But I think that what's great about our editorial relationship is that what we have in common - first of all, is this body of reading. When I first met him at Williams, we started exchanging books. Raymond Carver's first book was the first one that I gave to him. He forced Faulkner on me, someone who up to that point I didn't really appreciate, and so on back and forth. And over the years, we've been reading the same books and corresponding about them and talking about them late at night.

So we have this kind of amazing shared frame of reference, which I think really comes in handy when he sits down to look at my manuscripts. You know, the personal stuff is indeed complicated, although it's sort of - it almost surprised me on this recent novel because it had been a while. And because this is a book that deals in relationships between writers and editors, how strangely professional the whole thing was. I mean, Gary, at no point did he object to, you know, the portrayal of Russell in relation to the writers in the book.

And we never talked about the ways in which, you know, Russell's opinions and Russell's identity might be - what might reflect Gary and - or were the ways in which the writer-editor relationship might be a commentary on our own. I - and I found that kind of surprising. I really wondered if we were going to get into anything personal, and when he first read this book but...

GROSS: Are you relieved that you didn't?

MCINERNEY: He's a pro.

(LAUGHTER)

MCINERNEY: And I - you know, I think he's - I don't know. I think he was probably amused by some of the ironies and some of the sort of veiled forms of communication between us that take place on the pages of the book.

GROSS: One of the conflicts between the editor and one of his writers is the editor emphasizes economy and is always kind of chipping things away and making them shorter, more concise.

MCINERNEY: Yes.

GROSS: And the writer's saying that, for him, it's more about rhythm.

MCINERNEY: Yeah.

GROSS: And it's something he feels like the editor is stifling the writer's voice, and the writer asked, like, why is shorter necessarily better?

MCINERNEY: Yeah.

GROSS: And I feel like I can answer that as a reader.

(LAUGHTER)

MCINERNEY: Please do, please do.

GROSS: Well, if you read as many books as I do for interviews, brevity is to be valued (laughter). But also as a reader, I think so many writers really do go on too long.

MCINERNEY: Yeah.

GROSS: But is this a conflict that you've had with Gary Fisketjon as your editor over economy versus rhythm? Do you see them as in conflict - economy and rhythm?

MCINERNEY: Well, I - no, I don't think they're necessarily in conflict. I mean, you know, Hemingway was one of our most economical writers, and he had an extraordinary sense of rhythm. I think my point sometimes (laughter) when I'm discussing my prose with my editor is that, you know, I have tried to be economical, but I have also tried to create a sentence which has its own internal logic and rhythm. And saving three or four words at the expense of, you know - of disassembling the sentence and putting it back together, you may be losing something that I felt very long and hard about. And, you know, once in a while I say it's not my job to save trees, you know.

GROSS: (Laughter).

MCINERNEY: But on the other hand, you know, Raymond Carver was my mentor, so I like to think that I'm not insanely prolix. And, in fact, I try to trim my own work even before I show it to my editor.

GROSS: Do you remember a specific thing about writing that Raymond Carver shared with you that's stuck with you and helped guide you?

MCINERNEY: Yes. Carver used to go over my stories with me in his office, and he would really go through them line by line. And he was not someone who had a overarching theory of fiction so much as he had a great intuitive feel for the process.

And one of things I remember most distinctly was Ray turning to me one day and saying, you know, why are you using the word earth here? What you really mean is dirt. Why don't you just say dirt? He said, you know, you're sort of seeking it - a grandiosity that you don't need. He said say what you mean and say it in the most direct way that you can.

And I've felt for many, many years afterwards as if there was a small Ray Carver standing on my shoulder, you know. Whenever I reached for this sort of $15 word sort of like, you know, gently admonishing me and say dirt. It's dirt.

GROSS: My guest is Jay McInerney. His new novel is called "Bright, Precious Days." We'll talk more about writing, marriage and how "Bright Lights, Big City" changed his life after we take a short break.

And rock historian Ed Ward will play tracks from the German pop music scene of the '70s and early '80s, a scene that influenced David Bowie and Brian Eno. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Jay McInerney. He's best known for his novel "Bright Lights, Big City" which was set in the downtown Manhattan club scene of the '80s. His new novel "Bright, Precious Days" is his third in a series about a couple named Russell and Corrine Calloway. It's set in New York in the aughts.

Your novel is in part about relationships and more specifically, about a couple in middle-age, who's been married for a long time. They have two twins. They're 49 or 50 through the course of the novel. And so the novel is, in part, about fidelity and whether a marriage in middle-age can hold together after either an affair or after somebody has really seriously considered an affair. And it's about whether you are any more or less reluctant to embark on an affair in middle-age when you've been in a marriage for a long time.

So I'm interested - I should mention you've been married four times.

MCINERNEY: I have been (laughter).

GROSS: (Laughter) And so...

MCINERNEY: It sounds terrible when I say it. But (laughter).

GROSS: So I'm interested in your interest in fidelity and monogamy.

MCINERNEY: Well, I think - I mean, I think the first thing to say about that is that there's no drama and not much story in an entirely faithful marriage. You know, infidelity is one of the great plot engines of literature. So in fact, there - this book is the third in the series dealing with Russell and Corrine's marriage.

And I started the first book "Brightness Falls" with the notion of the perfect couple. You know, I think we're all - when we're in our 20s, we all know that couple or, perhaps, there are two or three. They're, you know - they're smart. They're good-looking. They got married young. They seemed to have solved the romantic riddle early in life. And, you know, they have cocktail parties.

And I knew several of these couples when I was a young man, when I first arrived in New York. And I idealized them, as did their other friends. And that was sort of the initial notion of Russell and Corrine Calloway. But, of course, it's an entirely unrealistic one. And in fact, those - you know, I'm thinking of three couples that I vaguely had in mind when I set out to create Russell and Corrine. And, of course, they all blew up within a few years.

And - but as someone who had already - who was already on his second marriage when I conceived this first book, I was intrigued by the idea of a marriage that survives. And it survives crises, and it survives infidelity.

You know, I had already failed to be that person - to be that husband within a monogamous relationship.

GROSS: Because this couple is middle-age - they're around 50 and their friends - all their friends are about the same age, the...

MCINERNEY: They turn 50 in the course of the book.

GROSS: Yeah. The waning of their sexual passion for each other is part of what you explore in the novel. Cialis has started to enter the picture for some character.

MCINERNEY: (Laughter).

GROSS: And one of the characters - I'm trying to remember - I think it's - Corrine says, we're 50 years old. Where's the romance? So did you want to reflect on the relative importance of sex in marriage during middle-age?

MCINERNEY: Well, yeah, I think that question is at the center of this book. Russell and Corrine have been together for 25, 26 years. And it's hard to sustain passion. It's hard to sustain physical attraction when so much of your relationship is tied up in the mundane realities of domestic life - you know, laundry, taking the kids to school and playdates.

There are many, many virtues to a long-standing, monogamous relationship. And, in fact, this book, I think, celebrates many of them. But I think that the kind of desperate passion and physical desire that characterizes all relationships in the early - their earliest days inevitably fades, which leads to the question do I accept this state of affairs or do I seek that incredible experience of lust, of passion, of sex somewhere else? And that's where Corrine finds herself in the beginning of this book.

GROSS: How has your career as a novelist turned out compared to what you expected after "Bright Lights, Big City" was published and became this, like, huge success and was adapted into a film?

MCINERNEY: Well, before "Bright Lights, Big City," I'd really just been hoping that the publication of the novel would lead to say, a teaching job or a job in journalism or something because I actually worked at Random House. And it was very - I'd seen many first novels published to no acclaim, no - virtually no feedback whatsoever.

So I was shocked by the acclaim and the attention that "Bright Lights, Big City" received. And, you know, for quite a while, I guess I was disoriented by it. And I think it would've been hard to know what to expect after that, except that I realized that it was a very hard act to follow - you know, a novel that becomes a kind of a cultural touchstone and sells hundreds of thousands - well, millions of copies around the world. And I suppose I struggled to live up to the expectations created by that novel. And some might say I failed.

On the other hand, I think that when I discovered these characters Russell and Corrine Calloway and wrote my fourth novel, "Brightness Falls," I think I really found myself as a writer in a way that gave me a second life as a writer. And that, in fact, is my favorite of all my books, and I'm grateful to "Bright Lights, Big City" that it gave me a full-time writing career. I was able, from that moment forward, to do the thing that I loved the most.

GROSS: Because cocaine figured so prominently in "Bright Lights, Big City" - and I'm sure you were doing some at the time that you wrote it...

MCINERNEY: (Laughter).

GROSS: ...Did it make it any harder or easier to eventually give it up? Because it became so...

MCINERNEY: (Laughter).

GROSS: ...You became so identified with that scene...

MCINERNEY: Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: ...And with that drug, which you named Bolivian marching powder.

MCINERNEY: (Laughter). Well, yeah, there was a problem in that after I published "Bright Lights, Big City," so many people wanted me to be that character. And it became a kind of badge of honor to party with Jay McInerney and do cocaine with him.

And I - in the days when I was sort of researching "Bright Lights" - not that I realized I was researching it - I - you know, I could barely get into these nightclubs. And I had to go with my cooler friends.

GROSS: (Laughter).

MCINERNEY: And suddenly, after "Bright Lights," I was welcomed at all of these places. And everywhere I went, people were slipping me grams of cocaine or inviting me into the bathroom to share with them, so they could tell their friends that they had done it.

And it became - yeah, it became a problem. I mean, it was very hard to shake that image, number one. And number two, when the time came that I felt I should stop, it wasn't easy. I felt like I had partly created a scene, which had then engulfed me and kind of trapped me.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jay McInerney. And his new novel is called "Bright, Precious Days." Jay, let's take a short break here, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Jay McInerney. His new novel is called "Bright, Precious Days." You're married now to Anne Hearst, who also has issues with the spotlight because she's from the Hearst family. She's one of the heirs to the Hearst fortune. She's the sister of Patty Hearst. Yeah, so...

MCINERNEY: She's managed to stay pretty far away from the spotlight, except, perhaps, from marrying me.

GROSS: And her name, of course, is...

MCINERNEY: Her name does follow her around but...

GROSS: Right. So if I might ask, what's it - what was it like for you to get to know someone who is Patty Hearst's sister? Because I'm sure you came of age with the Patty Hearst story. And, you know...

MCINERNEY: Yeah, I was there.

GROSS: It's one of, like, the seminal '60s - '60s to early '70s - I forget the year...

MCINERNEY: Seventies, '70s.

GROSS: ...Yeah - stories. Because, you know, she was kidnapped by this, like, bizarre, cultish radical group that had, as far as I can tell, a totally incoherent ideology.

MCINERNEY: They really did. There was, like, seven of them, and they - really, their program was sort of mixed-up and contradictory. And the other revolutionaries didn't even know who they were.

GROSS: So anyway, getting - walking through a door into the mythology of all of that?

MCINERNEY: Yeah. Well, it was - you know, the Patty Hearst story riveted me, as it did the rest of the nation, when I was a young - I guess I would have been a teenager. And so when I met Anne - you know, I had my preconceptions, and I, you know - she had this sort of halo of mythology around her, even if she didn't - even if she wore it lightly. I mean, it wasn't - it's not just Patty, too. I mean, her grandfather was an extraordinary historical figure.

GROSS: William Randolph Hearst...

MCINERNEY: William Randolph Hearst.

GROSS: ...The newspaper publisher, yeah.

MCINERNEY: You know, it was one of the titans of the 20th century. And so, you know, it was curious meeting her. But, in fact, she's, you know, she's a very unassuming and mild-mannered person. And when I met her, she - in 1986, at a nightclub, I might add, she was working as an assistant editor in Town & Country magazine. And, you know, she had a very - you know, she had a very quiet life. And she was then and remains a very quiet and modest person who happens to have this - I guess tempestuous family history.

It's - I think, you know, that, in the same way that my post-"Bright Lights" reputation must be a - is a bit of a burden, I think probably that her family history is a bit of a burden. But she wears it very lightly.

GROSS: So on another note, your book is bookended by two elections.

MCINERNEY: Yeah.

GROSS: So we all remember the John Edwards scandal when he had to remove himself from the primary because of his relationship with Rielle Hunter, who it turned out he had fathered a child with outside of his marriage.

MCINERNEY: What was he thinking? (Laughter).

GROSS: Yes. And if I'm not mistaken, at some point probably before that, you had dated Rielle Hunter, that same woman?

MCINERNEY: Well, I dated Rielle a very long time ago, a year or two after I had published "Bright Lights, Big City." So I guess that would have been '86 or so. And she had just come to New York. And we parted on good terms and, you know, stayed somewhat in touch over the years, so that I was, in fact, you know, still in touch with her and communicating now and then when all of this began. And it was (laughter) quite a thing to watch unfold.

GROSS: What was that like for you to know the person at the center of this, like, huge political scandal?

MCINERNEY: (Laughter) It was - well, it was - you know, it was kind of horrifying because I - you know, I didn't see how it could end well. And I was privy to this secret before it was revealed and...

GROSS: Oh, really?

MCINERNEY: Yes. And as someone who's a great admirer of John - who was an admirer of John Edwards - I was concerned. And, you know, as someone who was always a friend of Rielle, I was concerned. It's, you know - it was one of those great sort of tragedy/farces of recent political history. But it, you know - it has an extra resonance, an extra sting if you happen to know one of the parties involved.

I was dragged into it once things started to unfold because Rielle many years ago had given an interview to Vanity Fair in which she had said that she was the model for the - for one of - for the main character in my novel "The Story Of My Life." And there was some truth to that.

She was certainly a big inspiration for that character. So when the scandal started to unfold, the only public profile that she had was in relation to me and this book. And so suddenly I was inundated, you know - there was about a week there when - or two weeks when this scandal unfolded when I couldn't really answer the phone or leave the house.

GROSS: So I want to end with a quote from E. L. Doctorow that you've referred to, and I know this quote - and I can't remember whether I'd read it someplace or whether he also said it on the show after saying it in other places - but the quote is (reading) writing a novel is like driving cross-country at night. You can only see as far as the headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.

I love that quote because, to me, that describes my life. I can only - I can...

MCINERNEY: (Laughter).

GROSS: ...I'm like don't ask me ever for five-year goals or anything, like I have no idea ever what's in the future. But I could see far ahead enough just to take, like, the next step forward. So what does that line mean to you?

MCINERNEY: Well, I actually interviewed E. L. Doctorow when I was a young writer before I published "Bright Lights, Big City." And I think I elicited that quote. Now - and it may be that he's been using it for many years before that.

GROSS: So maybe I have you to thank for that quote.

MCINERNEY: But I remembered it extremely well and wrote it down, and it meant a lot to me because I felt the same way about writing novels, you know. Writers as diverse as John Irving and Scott Fitzgerald and Bret Easton Ellis have said that they plan and outline their novels and that they have a very elaborate plan before they start writing it. You know, John Irving once told me he wrote the last chapter first, so he knew where he was going. But for me, it's - that's just impossible. I - and I feel that a lot of the most interesting stuff happens along the way at the level of language and is improvised.

GROSS: Do you feel the same way about your life that you can't see any further...

MCINERNEY: (Laughter) Yes.

GROSS: ...Than past the headlights?

MCINERNEY: Yes. I honestly can't say that there's been a master plan, except in so far as I always, always wanted to - I mean, from the age of 13, I wanted to be a writer. Initially, I wanted to be a poet. And then subsequently, I wanted to be a novelist. And I have remained true to that vision, and I've been lucky enough to be able to do it. All the rest would have been very hard to predict, and in any master plans that I have made have been radically revised.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Jay McInerney, thank you so much for talking with us again coming on the show. Thank you.

MCINERNEY: Thanks, Terry.

GROSS: Jay McInerney's new novel is called "Bright Precious Days." After we take a short break, Ed Ward will play tracks from the German pop music scene of the '70s and early '80s, a scene that influenced David Bowie and Brian Eno. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.