It’s not easy to get in touch with jet-setting author and Commencement speaker-to-be Jay McInerney ’76. After weeks of phone tag, a trip to the Caribbean (his) and a possible drunk-dial (his), I finally got to speak with the original man about town.
Did you know that there’s still a photo of you in Carter House? It says you were social chair.
Oh really? Well, yes, I was social chair. Carter was an all-male house at the time, and it had a very bad reputation; it was alleged to be a party house. But I was a good student. When I was at Williams, there weren’t a lot of slackers. People partied, but they also worked hard. I was a philosophy major, and I put in the hours at the library. But I also spent a lot of time at the Purple Pub.
How was life at Williams, before Bright Lights, Big City?
I edited a magazine called Pique, I wrote for the paper … I started the Williams Action Coalition, too. We brought left-wing speakers, and that made me a little bit controversial. I was involved in a lot of literary magazines.
And you’re from Pittsfield, originally?
No, I actually moved to Pittsfield during high school. I was born in Hartford[, Conn.,] and spent most of my time in Vancouver. My father was a kind of corporate gypsy, and he took a job at Crane Paper in Pittsfield when I was in high school. I probably wouldn’t have gone to Williams if I grew up in Pittsfield; I think I would have wanted to get out of the Berkshires.
People see Bright Lights, Big City as a book that really captured the excess of the ’80s. Do you think young people today can still relate to it when we’re just coming out of a recession?
To tell you the truth, Bright Lights was written in ’82, which was also a recession. I was writing about New York struggling out of the recession. People always make it out to be this very hedonistic book, but when you really read it, it’s very gritty and tragic; he loses his wife and his mother. Actually, Josh Schwartz, who created The O.C. and Gossip Girl, is planning on remaking the film, so I think that means it is still relevant.
How do you think you have evolved as a writer since Bright Lights, Big City?
Well, my latest book How It Ended got the best reviews of my career, but Bright Lights is still the most well-known. Bright Lights is a book only a young person could write. There’s a lot of partying, a lot of cocaine … It sounds like a paradox, but there’s a certain wisdom granted by the young.
Do you have any advice for the graduates who plan on going to the big city?
I would say follow your dreams and not somebody else’s. My father wanted me to be a lawyer and my mother wanted me to be a professor. Everyday people come to the city with different dreams and ambitions.
Aside from the fact that you were able to write Bright Lights based on your experience, do you regret the wild nightlife of your youth at all? Obviously, it was harmful to the narrator of Bright Lights.
Some of it was just fun. Nobody starts out as a drug addict; they started out having fun, and you don’t always see that, particularly in movies. I definitely enjoyed the hedonism in New York nightlife.
When I interviewed Katie Couric a few years ago, her advice to graduating seniors was to skip the kegger to focus on work. Somehow, I don’t think you would agree.
[Laughs] And I’m sure she did skip the kegger. But I say do both. When you’re confronted with choices, pick both doors. I’ve always believed in living the good life in every sense, but I also believe in balancing work with pleasure.
You’re still in the press a lot in New York – I read in Page Six about how you were in a fishing contest with Roger Waters [of Pink Floyd]. How do you deal with all of the scrutiny?
Oh yeah, that article was a [New York] Post writer’s invention. I mean there was a grain of truth to it, as there often is, but a lot of the stuff – you don’t even know where they’re getting it from. It hasn’t been as bad, though. In ’85, ’86, ’87, right after Bright Lights, they would just follow me everywhere. I’m not behaving as badly these days, so the gossip has toned down. It only bothers me when the things they write are hurtful to people I care about. If they wrote that I was making out with some waitress, for example, that would upset me because it would really hurt my wife.
You were all over the newspapers recently because of Rielle Hunter.
Oh yeah, I had to not answer my phone for six weeks. She didn’t want her friends talking to the press.
How do you feel about the media’s portrayal of her? She’s been making the rounds on Oprah, GQ …
I thought it was kind of elegant – well, I don’t know if that’s giving her too much credit – but I thought it was admirable that she wasn’t talking in the beginning. The latest episodes strike me as being kind of sad. If I were her, I would have kept my mouth shut.
I find it incredible that when the scandal broke out, she was seemingly a no-name, but it turned out she had dated another famous person and even had a book written about her.
[Laughs.] Well, she’s a very charming woman. I met her when she was only 21 and I wrote a book about her and her group of friends. We’ve stayed on good terms, and I wish her well.
What projects are you working on now? It seems like you’re very busy.
I’m finishing a novel right now. I also write a wine column for The Wall Street Journal, and I write about politics for The Guardian in the U.K. and Corriere della Sera, an Italian newspaper. American politics are, understandably, utterly incomprehensible to Europeans, so I write to try and make them a little more accessible.
And you were on Gossip Girl.
Yeah, that was fun. They called me and asked me to do it; it was my daughter’s favorite show and I had to.
Is that how you met Josh Schwartz?
No, I had already met him at the Tribeca Film Festival a while ago, and he approached me and said that he wanted to remake the Bright Lights movie. He was a big fan of the book and always wanted to make a better version of the film.
Who do you think should play you in the film?
Someone much younger and much better-looking than I am. My daughter thinks it should be that guy from Across the Universe and 21 – Jim Sturgess. It’s delayed right now because MGM is having financial problems, but I am told it will happen. I actually have to run, I’ve got a speaking engagement at the New York Public Library …
Just one more question: Since you’re the wine columnist for The Wall Street Journal, what champagne would you recommend celebrating graduation with?
[Laughs.] Well, that all depends on the budget.
Highbrow and lowbrow.
Veuve Clicquot is always good. That’s your sort of Brooks Brothers blue blazer, standard champagne. But if your parents are buying, ask for the Dom.
Too bad – I was hoping for the Old Navy of champagnes.