Acclaimed author Jay McInerney is most noted for his many novels, including Bright Lights, Big City and The Last of the Savages, but he is also the wine columnist for The Wall Street Journal and has published three collections of essays from the column, including The Juice: Vinous Veritas, which will be released next week in paperback. Legendary Knopf editor Gary Fisketjon was a classmate of McInerney's at Williams College who later revolutionized the publishing business with the creation of Vintage Contemporaries, which published the first trade paperbacks. In addition to McInerney, Fisketjon has edited a host of internationally acclaimed authors, including Raymond Carver, Annie Dillard, Richard Ford, Patricia Highsmith, Cormac McCarthy, Haruki Murakami, Richard Russo, Donna Tartt, Gore Vidal and Tobias Wolff.
Prior to this week's appearance together at the Nashville Public Library, McInerney and Fisketjon spoke by phone — Fisketjon from his part-time home in Leiper's Fork, McInerney from his home in the Hamptons.Have you agreed to what stories you won't tell about each other?
McInerney: God knows there's a lot of them. First we were at Williams together, and then we traveled across the country together in a Volkswagen after we graduated. So we go pretty far back.When you were working on Bright Lights, Big City, how did the friendship — and the editing process — work?
McInerney: The editing process worked really well because ...
Fisketjon: We'd had a lot of practice by then.
McInerney: We had been trading books and taking the same English courses. When I discovered something I liked, I'd give it to him and vice versa. And he'd been reading my stories for quite a while before I handed Bright Lights, Big City to him. So that was pretty natural. What neither one of us could have predicted was the phenomenon of Bright Lights, Big City after it was published. Kind of disorienting, I think, for both of us. But the editing process has always been pretty good. We fight a lot about stuff, but in a good way.
Fisketjon: I think we both adhere to the rule that when there's a disagreement, the writer always wins because it's his book. He gets a loaded vote.
McInerney: We can be sitting down in front of a manuscript, and he can start saying something, and I can just say, "Yeah, you're right," before he's even finished.
Fisketjon: All an editor does is read something more carefully than anybody else, than any other sane person would ever contemplate, because that's the job. It's not so much that the writer sets the bar, but the book sets its own bar. If you get into the DNA of a book, you'll understand how it works and what it does best. So it eventually turns into a long, kind of neat conversation with me scribbling all over the pages and then sending it off. I get all of my say.
McInerney: He's not shy.
Fisketjon: Every writer's different, and I don't, certainly, have a style of editing, because a good writer dictates the style, and all you do is buy into it.A couple of your more recent acquisitions, Adam Ross and Martin Clark, are two of my favorite new writers. What is it like to find a new voice?
Fisketjon: I don't know how many new writers' work I look at over the course of a year, but hundreds and hundreds and hundreds. And 99 times out of 100 you're going to say, "Thanks, not for me." When you can actually say, "Yes, this is for me," it's quite a wonderful feeling. I think in almost every instance the people I've published have become friends to one degree or another. Jay's the most longstanding of any friends I've got, but it's a very close deal.You were roommates for a while in New York, weren't you? Was there a quirk that bothered you intensely about the other person?
McInerney: Well, Gary's quite neat, and I'm quite messy.
He could trash an apartment all by himself in a matter of an hour.
McInerney: So there was that friction. But otherwise we had a lot of good times. Fortunately, we kept the same hours, which were night-owl hours, and we had some really good parties at this loft that Gary had on East Fifth Street. Summers when I was in graduate school, I would be in residence at East Fifth Street, and we would have some crazy parties. And in fact, that apartment was where I wrote the first page of Bright Lights, Big City. I came home one night about 5 in the morning, and I just jotted down those lines that survived intact and that I found again later in a drawer. This was ... what was this, Gary? Like '81 and '82?
Fisketjon: Yeah, along in there. It was a good time to be coming to New York. I came in '78 and Jay a little bit later, but it was still kind of an affordable place back then in comparison to what it's become. There were just all sorts of interesting people passing through then, and clubs where you could hear people you really liked for not much money at all.
McInerney: And there was this whole explosion in terms of painting and people. We had Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring in the apartment at some point. It was just a great time, but it was a much grittier time. New York was dirty, and it was dangerous, and there was a heroin epidemic and ...
Fisketjon: And a lot of people who had been put out of asylums.
McInerney: Yeah, there was that big wave of deinstitutionalization. Back then, when you heard someone talking to themselves on the street, it wasn't because they had a cellphone.So what does the city feel like now with so much of the creative energy moving over to the Brooklyn area?
McInerney: The whole idea of a bohemia is that creative energy is sort of centralized somewhere. And the trouble with Brooklyn is that Brooklyn is a little bit of a diaspora. There was a moment when Williamsburg seemed to be the center of it all, but I'm too old to move to Brooklyn.
Fisketjon: Yeah, we're way too old for Williamsburg.How has your work changed over the years?
McInerney: Well, I still spend the majority of my time in Manhattan, or at least half my time, and I still love it. I still write about Manhattan, and I still write about life there, but my characters have gotten older, they've had children, they've done the things that me and my friends have done. Bright Lights, Big City is around 200 pages, and that was pretty much everything I knew about the world up to that point. I put all my best stuff in, and that was it. Now I think I know more, and I know more about people, and I'm wiser in a way that may show up in my next novel.And when might we expect the next novel?
McInerney: I'm hoping to give Gary something in probably June. Then Gary gives me his thoughts, and I let it marinate for a while, and then I go back and I inevitably will write another draft.Gary, how does working out in the sticks agree with you?
Fisketjon: For serious editing, I'm bound to try to do as much of that as possible in Tennessee because people aren't coming by the office, and you don't have to take people out to lunch. Distraction is an editor's biggest foe, really, because you have to put yourself into the world of each book you're working on and stay there.
To read an uncut version of this interview — and hear a podcast of it — please visit Chapter16.org, an online publication of Humanities Tennessee.