Drugs, Parties Unite Stories In 'How It Ended'

While Bret Easton Ellis was writing the sequel to his seminal 1980s book, Less Than Zero, Jay McInerney was learning about Hollywood's new plans for his trailblazing novel Bright Lights, Big City. He tells host Guy Raz about plans to remake the movie and set it in 2010 — and about how the two authors began sharing characters.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

GUY RAZ, host:

The author of "Bright Lights, Big City" is not Bret Easton Ellis, of course. Jay McInerney wrote the book. It's a story about an aspiring writer who gets caught up in parties and drugs in 1980s New York. A collection of McInerney's short stories is now in paperback. It's called "How It Ended." McInerney exploded onto the literary scene in the mid-1980s, just before Bret Easton Ellis made it big with "Less Than Zero," and McInerney says it's what created a bond between them.

Mr. JAY McINERNEY (Author, "Bright Lights, Big City;" "How It Ended"): In many ways, we have a common enterprise in that we're both, in some sense, I guess, iconoclastic novelists. We also, you know, we went through kind of a maelstrom together that gives us a common bond. I mean, there aren't many writers who were thrown into the spotlight the way that we were, that we're sort of processed so vigorously by the great American dream machine.

And, you know, that gives us a kind of common bond of experience. But it didn't occur to me that we would be so closely identified and so closely yoked together. If I have to be part of a tag team, I'd just as soon have Bret on the other side.

RAZ: So there's this 1985 buzz in the air. I mean, first, obviously with Bret Easton Ellis' new book, and now with news that "Bright Lights, Big City" is being remade by Josh Schwartz, who is a co-creator of the TV show "Gossip Girl." Do you think it sort of fits in today's world?

Mr. McINERNEY: Well, at first, my feeling was that it was a book marked by the time, by the '80s, and that it was silly to try to update it. Then my second thought was that young people still come to New York to make their fortunes. People are still going out until all hours to nightclubs. Dare I say, there's a substance called cocaine, which is still widely used by people who go out to nightclubs and stay out all night. People still have their hearts broken, and they still lose their mothers.

And ultimately, I think "Bright Lights, Big City" is a book that has some pretty universal concerns at its core. And in fact, I think the new version makes a lot of sense. We already did the '80s version, you know?

RAZ: Mmm. I remember how weird it was because it came out at the same time as "The Secret of My Success," around the same time. And Michael J. Fox was in both of those movies, and it was very weird.

Mr. McINERNEY: Well, yeah, it was actually a little bit of a mismatch, although I think he's a very fine actor. You know, he was so famous as a guy named Alex Keaton...

RAZ: Right.

Mr. McINERNEY: ...from the television show "Family Ties."

RAZ: From "Family Ties."

Mr. McINERNEY: And he was a clean-cut, briefcase-toting, Reagan Republican in that show, and it was very hard for people to see him in the role of a sort of jaded, coke-snorting, downtown, would-be literateur. The fact that he did a very good job didn't necessarily negate that.

RAZ: In this collection of short stories that's now out in paperback, it starts with your first published story. It's called "It's Six A.M.: Do You Know Where You Are?" Tell us how that story became your first published story.

Mr. McINERNEY: I was at Syracuse University, at graduate school. I was studying writing, creative writing with Raymond Carver and Tobias Wolff. And I had sent a short story to George Plimpton at the Paris Review. And I got a call one day from George Plimpon, that amazing, fluty voice - and telling me that he had read this story and kind of liked it, but he wondered if, before he made up his mind whether or not to publish it, whether I had anything else in the drawer.

And so I stayed up all night, re-reading everything that I had ever written. And I realized it was all derivative crap, basically, except for one paragraph that I unearthed, that I'd written several months before, after spending the night out in a nightclub. And the first line of the paragraph was: You're not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning - but here you are.

I found this voice strangely compelling. I thought, you know, this is the only thing I've ever written that sounds sort of authentic, that sounds different, that sounds like it might be something like my own voice. And so I sat up all night and wrote this story about a guy in a nightclub who was banging around, sort of lost and forlorn and heartbroken.

And pretty much within 24 hours, I sent it to the Paris Review, and they accepted it shortly thereafter. And that became my first published story. And - but after a few months, I realized I wasn't quite done with the voice and that the story really hadn't ended. I had just paused. And at that point I sat down and in very short order, wrote what became "Bright Lights, Big City."

RAZ: Now, I know there's been a lot of attention focused on a character in one of your previous novels, named Alison Poole. She was apparently based on a friend of yours, the now-infamous Rielle Hunter - who of course, had an affair with John Edwards. One of the short stories in this book is about Alison Poole.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: It reads almost like a diary of Rielle Hunter's affair with John Edwards. I mean, obviously, it's a fictionalized account. What were you hoping to say about that episode that wasn't already said?

Mr. McINERNEY: Well, nothing had been said about - or very little had been said about the episode when I wrote this story. Rielle had just basically gone underground. So I wrote this story as a way of trying to imagine where my friend Rielle had gone, and what she was doing. And when I wrote this story, nobody knew where she had gone or what she was doing - except for Rielle herself and presumably, John Edwards. So it was a speculative exercise.

RAZ: What did she think of the story?

Mr. McINERNEY: She didn't seem to hold it against me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. McINERNEY: She liked the novel, which she and her circle of friends had inspired in many ways, and I just felt like I wasn't quite done with this character. And when she disappeared, I had limited information, and I decided to fill it in with my imagination.

RAZ: Alison Poole was used by your colleague and friend Bret Easton Ellis, in one of his novels. He actually...

Mr. McINERNEY: Two of them, actually.

RAZ: Two of them, right. He actually used...

Mr. McINERNEY: Alison initially appears in "American Psycho," and I was...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. McINERNEY: ...slightly horrified to be turning the pages as she has a date with Patrick Bateman. I was grateful, at least, that he didn't kill her. It was touch and go there for a while.

RAZ: As we've heard earlier, Bret Easton Ellis has revisited "Less Than Zero," the characters now, decades on. Any chance that you would ever do that with "Bright Lights"?

Mr. McINERNEY: I don't think that I will do a sequel to "Bright Lights." I like the open-endedness of it. And I sort of like to think that all of my work is a sequel to "Bright Lights, Big City." You know, each successive novel is a sort of possible sequel, in a way. You know, each of my protagonists could be that guy, that aspiring novelist, that, you know, lost boy in the big city. I just don't know if 30 years later, people want to hear me put on the second person again and revisit the old haunts.

But it's not to say that I don't think it was a good idea for Bret to do so. Actually, I'm glad he did. But I don't think I'm going to, no.

RAZ: That's Jay McInerney. His collection of short stories is called "How It Ended." It's now out in paperback. He joined us from WLIU in Southampton, New York.

Jay McInerney, thank you so much.

Mr. McINERNEY: Thank you for having me.

(Soundbite of music)

RAZ: And for Saturday, that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. Thanks for listening. We'll be back tomorrow.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: