Writers and literary enthusiasts gathered in Griffin Hall on Thursday for a fiction reading and panel discussion titled “A Life Writing.” The event featured a reading by author Jay McInerney ’76, as well as a panel discussion with McInerney, Gary Fisketjon ’76 and Carrie Ryan ’00. Karen Shepard ’87, lecturer in English, moderated the panel discussion, which focused on the challenges and triumphs of a writer’s life.
“Jay McInerney is labeled a romantic. He continually reminds us of the necessity that we teach ourselves by our own mistakes,” said James Shepard, professor of English, who introduced McInerney to crowd.
“Can I get a copy of that?” responded McInerney, the author of several novels and short-story collections, including The Good Life; Bright Lights, Big City; Model Behavior; Brightness Falls; A Hedonist in the Cellar; and How It Ended, among others.
Commencing the reading, McInerney read an excerpt from his first published story, “It’s 6 a.m. Do you know where you are?” which later became the first chapter of Bright Lights, Big City, his first published novel.
McInerney provided the audience with some background information on the story: His publisher had asked if he wanted to send any other writing pieces in addition to earlier submissions. Wanting to submit something “real,” McInerney crafted the story, a 10-page volume, in a night.
“I had scribbled what I had overheard myself saying in the bathroom at the nightclub,” he said. The excerpt that followed captured the book’s Manhattan-based narrator as he tells himself of his unavoidable descent into sex-and-drug induced guilt.
“You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning,” McInerney read. “But here you are, and you cannot say that the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy. All might come clear if you could just slip into the bathroom and do a little more Bolivian Marching Powder.”
The excerpt chronicles the narrator’s meeting with a bald woman in the nightclub, although he, in fact, wants to meet the kind of woman who, like himself, typically would not be caught dead in such a seedy locale.
McInerney explained that his editor had warned against writing the entire novel in second-person style. “I definitely do not recommend it as the most versatile of narrative stances, but tell me not to do something, and I’m there,” he said.
McInerney also read from The Good Life, a follow-up to his previous novel, Brightness Falls. McInerney said he was inspired to write The Good Life, which centers on the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, because at that point, “fiction was more necessary than ever.”
The panel began with Karen Shepard asking, “How do you define a writing life for yourself?”
“I lucked into my life; Jay lucked into his,” said Fisketjon, who is also McInerney’s editor.
In discussing his career beginnings, McInerney said, “I’m afraid that misdirection and improvisation and false starts are characterizations of the early stages of the writing life.”
McInerney had originally tried to begin a career in journalism, then ventured to Japan to teach English for two years. After that, he returned to New York to try to make a living as a freelance writer, which he admitted “proved pretty tough.”
Fisketjon, who graduated from the College with McInerney, procured him a job as “a reader of the slush pile” manuscripts at Random House, McInerney said.
Before becoming a writer, Ryan started an Internet company and worked for a boarding school as a technology coordinator, where she said she spent much time “seeming busy,” while in fact she was writing romance novels on the job.
“It was very difficult to make a living writing, so I needed a backup plan,” Ryan said. “That was law school.”
Ryan described what she dubbed the “10-year plan,” which included reading, writing, revising and submitting to publishers, all the while allowing every rejection to bolster her improvement. She spoke of how her husband encouraged her to “write what you love.”
The panelists then talked about the “absolute bottom of the writing life,” as posited by Karen Shepard.
Ryan discussed the “distraction” that ensues after finishing a book. “There’s a way that you can be a writer and forget to keep writing. Post-publication life can be a trap within itself.”
Ryan said that because she writes for teens, promotional endeavors such as visits to schools, libraries and bookstores are requisite. “I think it’s a very lucky writer who can just focus on the writing,” Ryan said.
“It’s a great act of presumption to become a writer,” McInerney said. He noted that not only do you have to want to live within your own head, but you also have to expect others to want to do the same.
Before the Q-and-A session, the panelists imparted their own words of wisdom to the audience.
“Whatever it is you like to write, figure out who it is that represents what you like to write,” Fisketjon said.
McInerney agreed. “For better or for worse, it seems apparent that the agent is the point of entry for the new writer,” he said. He also cautioned against the “if you work hard enough and do well enough [then you will succeed]” paradigm, one which he believes he and fellow College students may all have in common. “There are no guarantees,” he said. “Supreme self-confidence is kind of a prerequisite.”
Fisketjon added an editor’s note: “If you’re really good, you will get published,” he said. “If you are patient and at all diligent about figuring out how to go about it … If you’re really good at what you do, you will have success … If you’re willing to go the distance, you can make it.”