I didn’t expect to like The Man in the Gray Flannel Skirt, Jon-Jon Goulian’s memoir about being an androgynous neurotic who struggles against his over-achiever family’s high expectations.
Honestly, I didn’t even want to read it. There was just so much of the kind of pre-publication hype that I find off-putting: a highly publicized, literary-A-list-studded galley-release party three months before the book even came out; numerous articles about what a social butterfly and literary it-boy Goulian was, and how he was famous, essentially, for being about-to-be-famous.
And then there was the whole matter of the reported $750,000 advance Random House paid him. When I hear about books earning crazy sums like that, I get a horrible stomachache, and not for the reasons you might think, such as jealousy. No. Having been party once (as a ghostwriter) to a million-dollar deal that placed unprecedented, mind-fucking pressure on me and everyone else involved, and then went wrong in every possible way a project can go wrong, I find myself anxiously worrying for writers who land those kinds of contracts. I’m afraid to go anywhere near their books; I want to avert my eyes from what seem to me train wrecks waiting to happen. What is the chance of one of those books living up to its pre-release hype? Of earning back its advance? How soon before an accounting is taken, and the author starts getting shit from snotty gossip columns for not moving books?
I’m not sure what persuaded me to give the book a chance. (My curiosity may have been piqued by something as trivial as a tweet comparing Goulian to Stephen Elliott – both are self-proclaimed submissives who tend to eschew long-term relationships, real jobs and standard adult living arrangements, and who generally prefer cuddling over sex.) But somehow or other, I eventually opened it, and that was it. I fell in love with the book, with Jon-Jon as a writer, and then with Jon-Jon the living, breathing, warm-hearted human being when I interviewed him.
Goulian is so eloquently, hilariously candid about everything – his insecurities, his vanity (he is currently between nose jobs number two and three), his wide-ranging ambivalence, his entrenched aversion to conventional notions of “growing up” – that it’s hard not to be engaged, and to empathize, especially if you’ve ever felt out-of-step with societal norms or your age group, or if you’ve ever let your parents down. You can’t help but feel for him as he tries again and again to do what he, the brother of two high-achieving scholar-athletes, thinks he’s supposed to do. He goes to law school. He clerks for a prominent judge – although he can’t bring himself to take the bar exam. He moves on to a job as a revered assistant to New York Review of Books editor Robert Silvers, but he can stick with it only so long before he’s on to other less demanding commitments, such as babysitting.
I especially admired the great humor and sensitivity with which Goulian writes about his parents and his grandparents. They all labor – clumsily, hurtfully – to understand and guide their peculiar progeny, a bright kid who in his teens takes a sharp turn from his passions for soccer and academics, and dons a skirt and eyeliner. I was so moved by this remarkable balance between hard truth-telling and compassion right from the introduction. There, he tells the story of his famous political philosopher grandfather, Sidney Hook, referring to Goulian – his body-image-obsessed, effeminate college-age grandson – as a faygeleh (Yiddish for homosexual), and a few pages later apologizing for that in a sweet, incredibly humble letter. (For the record, Goulian is straight.)
Goulian brilliantly frames the book as a response to a postcard he received when he was 36 from his six-year-old self, thanks to an arrangement he’d made thirty years before with a small-town postal carrier. Six-year-old, soccer-playing, ocean-surfing Jon-Jon wants to know what thirty-six-year-old Jon-Jon is up to. Forty-two-year-old, skirt-wearing, couch-surfing Jon-Jon has a lot to fill him in on.
Goulian and I talked–and talked, and talked–at the Upper West Side apartment of a family friend, who lets him stay in the tiny former maid’s quarters off the kitchen.
The Rumpus: So, you’d never written anything before. After all the various things you’ve done in your life, and years of indecision, how did you decide to write a book–and this particular book?
Jon-Jon Goulian: It came out of nowhere for me. I’d never published a single article or anything in my life. Well, there was an essay I published when I was 17 in the San Diego Reader, which is like the Village Voice of San Diego. I won third place in a contest. I think the question was, “What’s the worst job you’ve ever had.” Between then and now, this was it. And it was torturous. I don’t sit still easily. So I actually stood when I wrote the proposal, with my laptop on this bureau back there [points in direction of maid’s quarters], in four weeks. And then in Vermont [at his late grandfather’s house] I found this other bureau and did the same thing. Because when you’re standing, you can bounce around on the tips of your toes a little. It keeps you moving, and it’s better for your posture. It’s more exercise.
Rumpus: But how did you know this was the particular book you wanted to write? I ask because I’m 45 years old, I’ve been sitting on writing a book of my own for years out of fear, but also out of indecision, because I can’t settle on which story, which angle, is it fiction or memoir, what’s the voice. I cannot zero in on which thing I want to say first. So, after all the things you’ve tried in your life, how do you come to, okay, I’m going to write a book and it’s going to be this exact book, and I’m going to write the proposal in four weeks?
Goulian: The beginning of this book was this: In January 2007, I am living in this maid’s room, doing odd jobs, freelance editing, babysitting for $12 an hour. I’m having lunch with a friend, Kate Taylor, who is now a culture reporter for the New York Times. At the Time she was writing for the New York Sun, but on the side, she was editing an anthology of essays about Anorexia called “Going Hungry,” for Vintage. She had a lot of writers – Jennifer Egan, Joyce Maynard, herself – and she had one guy maybe? She wanted to diversify the voices. So at lunch, she sees me playing with my food, and ordering in the most high-maintenance way possible, and I looked really skinny. She said, “Do you maybe have an eating disorder?” And I said, “Maybe by the loosest definition.” I definitely sometimes starve myself to be deliberately skinny and bony. But hardly is it cause for intervention or hospitalization, or even worry. She said, “Would you write an essay for my book?” So I went home, and standing at the bureau, I whipped out an 8,000-word essay in three days. Then she started to edit it and wanted to put it in her book, but then I thought, The theme of anorexia has over-determined the focus of this essay. I told her, “I don’t feel comfortable being in your book, because all these other stories are about people who were seriously anorexic,” and it felt like my approach was even a little frivolous. So I pulled the essay.
In the mean time, I had sent it to all my friends. And most of my friends happen to be writers. I fell in with this group of writers after I graduated college. I’d had no literary aspirations really then, or even now. Law was going to be my thing. I thought I had to grow up, so I gave all my skirts away and started working as a paralegal. But I fell in with this crew, and I’ve never been able to shake them. And I showed them the essay, and they were like, “You know, there could be a book here.” These people were very encouraging along the way. Because even though I didn’t have any literary aspirations, I used to write these very long emails and tell fun stories. They always said, “You should write something, share these stories with a bigger audience. We get a real kick out of you; other people should enjoy you, too. “ So I sent that essay to Sarah Chalfant at the Wylie agency, and she said, “Yes, you might have a book proposal somewhere in here.” So she took me on as a client in May, 2007, and then I spent the next nine or 10 months just really thinking about my life and taking notes.
At that time, the memoir was going to be more about my eating, and my relationship to food was going to be more of the organizing theme of the book. But then I didn’t have that much to say about it, other than what I have to say about it now, which is that my father raised me on such a rigid diet that I became so self-conscious about what I put in my mouth that consumption in every respect became fraught for me – even sexual consumption. So I spent 10 months, but really just thinking and taking notes.
Rumpus: That sounds like a great exercise–but also like the kind of thing I’d just keep doing and doing without ever completing the thing.
Goulian: Well, it came to a point where I really didn’t know if I was going to do it. I didn’t know if I had enough to say. Then March, 2008 has rolled around and I haven’t really done anything on this proposal. I meet people all the time who say they just can’t sit down and do the writing they want to do. I was talking to this woman the other day, and she has a full-time job, and she’s married, and she has kids, so she’s lucky if she can find a three-hour chunk of time to write each day. And here I was with at least three of those chunks every day! I’d sit down in the morning, and I’d get nothing done, and then I’d get up and run around for a while, and then sit down and try again. And if I didn’t get anything done in the second chunk of time that day, I’d have to start over again later. Sometimes it would be 9 o’clock at night before I had anything on the page. Sometimes you need to have some serious external prod to force you to write something. I remember Mary McCarthy said that when she started going out with Edmund Wilson, he would lock her in a room and say, literally, “You’re literally not coming out until you’ve written a short story.” So, for me, I sent a note to my agent saying, “If I haven’t given you a proposal in three or four weeks, drop me.” My friends knew I had this agent, and they were really supportive of me and the shame of potentially being dropped–for me, that was the external prod. Then I just stood at the bureau, and what came to me was, Hey, instead of food, how about androgyny as the organizing theme? So, I whipped that proposal out.
Rumpus: A full-on proposal with sample chapters and everything?
Goulian: Initially the proposal was about 20,000 words–an introduction, two sample chapters, an outline of the three remaining chapters, then a prologue, which was about the postcard. Which was a great springboard. It organically gave rise to the story, because it’s my younger self writing to me and asking, “Hey, what’s up with you, man?”
Rumpus: That is so perfect.
Goulian: That’s something every memoirist has to answer: Why are you telling this story? And everyone calls you self-indulgent, and narcissistic, and asks, “Why do we care.” And the conceit here is that I had to answer my younger self. He’s reaching out to me and asking me what I’m doing with my life, and I’m saying mom and dad still give me a hard time. So it was just perfect. So, I sold the book, in April, 2008. When I finally woke up from that, it’s around June 1, and I have a book to write.
Rumpus: What kind of a deadline did you have?
Goulian: A very short one.
Rumpus: Like, how short? I’ll tell you that as I ghostwriter, on occasion, I’ve been given, like, seven weeks to write a book – including interviewing time.
Goulian: I had a September 1 deadline. From June. So I went off to the woods, and started going at it. Remember, besides the proposal itself, this is the first thing I’ve ever written.
Rumpus: And you’ve got this huge advance.
Goulian: Which I don’t want to say much about–actually, which I don’t want to say anything about!
Rumpus: But, that’s some pressure! So, did you write it in the ten weeks?
Goulian: Yes, I wrote it in the ten weeks, and it was chronological as I’d proposed. And then I sat down with my editors at Random House, and we all agreed that the chronological approach wasn’t really working, primarily because my life, chronologically, doesn’t lead up to any crisis of action or revelation. I’ve hung out here, I’ve hung out there, I’ve stared at the ceiling here, I’ve started at the ceiling there. The book was losing momentum. So they suggested and I agreed that I structure the book more thematically. They said, “Maybe if you gathered the material on various themes and you put them in baskets. Put the bits about your adorable Granny Shammy here, and the bits about your grandfather Sidney here, and the bits about food here.” And then I went off for six months just thinking about structure, and trying to come up with an outline for the book that would work for me. I sat in that maid’s room back there, and I had every scene of the book on a sticky note.
Rumpus: So you were storyboarding.
Goulian: Yes, like people who write screenplays. And I would start with a number of baskets, and then I started wondering which basket should go first, and it drove me a little batty. The word that finally made everything gel for me was–and I don’t know where I even heard it–“imbricated.” It refers to the overlapping of tiles on a roof–the way they overlap like that, that’s called imbricated. For some reason that word meant a lot to me. I thought, why don’t you think of these chapters as “imbricated”? So that each chapter will overlap both over the one preceding it and over the one that’s yet to come.
Rumpus: I’m really fascinated with this “imbricated” concept, and the storyboarding idea. I’ve thought about doing that. What I do to myself is, I get an idea about what I think my book should be, but then I start obsessing, thinking, Okay, which details belong in here at all, and which ones should go first, and which part should I write first? And what if I outline? But what if I outline wrong? And then I just can’t do anything. I’ve got lists and lists and lists all over the place, on paper, in my computer, of stories and ideas. They’re just all over the place. Maybe I need to sit down and storyboard them, and give myself time to just outline. Was that really helpful to you?
Goulian: Yes, but remember, I had that gun to my head. I had people expecting to see things, and I had these tight deadlines. Without those, I’d probably still be outlining in that back room. I finally came up with an outline for the second draft that I was happy with. Each chapter starts a little later in time than the one preceding it, but also roams around. Because when you think of your life, you don’t think about it in strictly chronological terms. You’re swimming in it, and I was trying to bring to life that aspect of life – that one swims constantly. And you’re hanging out in the mind of a neurotic, someone seriously neurotic. And that’s where the narrative takes place. A lot doesn’t happen, in the conventional story sense, in this book.
Rumpus: It’s all character-driven–all emotional.
Goulian: And perception-driven. It’s about self-perception. Then Random House said, great, let’s move ahead with it. So then I went back to Vermont, and stood at the bureau writing. And in two months, executed it, with this outline reigning me in. And the second draft was also about 120,000 words. Including stuff that didn’t make it into either draft, it would have been about 400,000 words.
Rumpus: That’s like four-and-a-half books.
Goulian: I have enough outtakes for a few more books.
Rumpus: Do you think you’ll do that?
Goulian: No. Actually, a lot of the outtakes and a lot of the stuff from the first draft that didn’t make it was about my sex life from my 20s and early 30s. In the book now, the chapter on sex and food, called “the Vegetable Monster,” that’s a joint chapter because my anxieties about food, from the rigid diet I was raised on, tainted my relationship to sex.
Rumpus: I can see that. I mean, I was raised with a weird relationship to food, and one parent who was a compulsive over-eater, who was always alternating between that and crazy diets and health food. It made me very self-conscious about weight and my body and body fat, and uncomfortable about showing my body to people.
Goulian: Well, that, too. But also, sex literally involves consumption of fluids – kissing and whatev. It made me think of the health implications. This was also the age of AIDS. And my dad’s a hematologist, and he was seeing the earliest cases of AIDS. So sex in this chapter ends when I’m 21 and I’ve been broken in by “Stevie,” who, by the way, came to my reading in the Castro, and who agreed to that name.
Rumpus: So you changed people’s names?
Goulian: Yes and I say as much in the author’s note. If someone was involved in sex stuff, and if I thought there was a risk of embarrassing them.
Rumpus: But then there are people who are obviously your family. Did they know you were writing this book, and how did they feel about it?
Goulian: I didn’t tell my parents until I sold the book. I didn’t even tell them I had an agent before then because of the classic Jewish mother thing. When you’re working on something and you’re a kid who’s been floating as long as I had, to even talk about having an agent would have made my parents say, “Yeah, we’ve heard about these things you work on…” And in the past I’d worked on screenplays and other things. The day I sold the memoir, the first call I made was to them. They were obviously very excited that I’d finally done something. Also, they were a little wary of what this kid’s gonna say. I remember saying, “Don’t worry, I’ll be fair.” I was incredibly anxious about how deeply I could go into my family’s characters and their lives, because I kept asking myself, Why do I have the right to violate their privacy? And I don’t. So my response to that was largely to stay away from them in this book. I mean, what I say about them is accurate. But if my family were dead, this would be a very different book.
Rumpus: I feel you treat them much more kindly and sensitively than they treated you when you were growing up. I feel like you were very fair. But fair or not, you’re still revealing things about people. That’s a huge risk.
Goulian: Although, not that much. In fact, in the review in the New York Observer, he gently criticized me for turning them into superheroes, and he referred to the book as a love letter to the folks. Again, if they were dead, I would have psychoanalyzed them maybe more. I might have gone into factors in their lives that might have affected the way they brought me up. My mother’s relationship to food as a girl, for instance, was fraught, as was her mother’s. I stayed away from that because I didn’t think it was my business. The richer characters in the book are the ones who are dead. My grandfather, my granny Shammy, my high school teacher Mr. Carey, sort of a mentor to me in high school, those are the ones that are richer. A fair criticism of the book is that the parents and the brothers are stock characters. In fact, my brothers are referred to simply as the oldest and the middle brothers, so all you take from that is that they’re archetypes, and I’m the youngest in the birth order and how that might have affected me. Even though they are thinly drawn, arguably, I don’t really know them that well. Boys – we are not emotive with our folks. You come home from school, and you’re like, “Hey, what’s up? School’s fine…” It’s largely small talk, the substance of conversations. I don’t go deeply into my feelings, they don’t go into their feelings.
Rumpus: Although, your father tries to engage you with this question of what’s going on with you, and what are you doing with your life.
Goulian: Yes, he does, and I don’t really engage with him on it.
Rumpus: And you’re not even revealing anything shocking about that by telling about it. That’s his role. That’s what a father will do. I mean, I get the call all the time – “What are you doing? Are you writing something finally?” In my case, there’s a subtext there of, “Are you writing about me?” So did you give them a chance to read it first before it was published, and to make changes?
Goulian: I waited until the last possible second to show them the book. It was last December, two weeks before it was going into galley. One approach was just never show it to them and wait until it came out in stores. But I showed it to them, for two reasons. First of all, I needed my dad’s legal permission to publish those letters he sent me. And, two, so they could correct biographical details about their lives, because this is now going to be published, and in a bookstore. So if I say my dad got his tonsils out when he was six, but he got them out when he was four, he could correct that. I was terrified. It was still a manuscript. I doled out each chapter, first to my mom. I did not show them the sex chapter, though – the one on sex and food.
Rumpus: Yeah, you sort of apologize to them for that chapter in the opening of the book.
Goulian: It’s more about my body than they need to know. Although, when I think about it, there’s a lot about my dad in there – about the diet he raised us on – but I didn’t show it to him. And my mom read it really quickly. And this was true of both my parents: they were too busy preparing themselves for the next awful revelation that never came to really enjoy the book. It had been two-and-a-half years since I’d sold the proposal, and they just had no idea what to expect. Does he turn us into monsters? Does he blame us for things? There are so many memoirs out there turning parents into monsters.
Rumpus: I know – my mom asks me all the time, “Are you writing a book about a bad mother?”
Goulian: My mother told me something about Erica Jong’s parents, as a way of reassuring me. Basically, they were so happy that their daughter published a book, that they didn’t care what was in it.
Rumpus: I wish that were the case with mine. I published a Modern Love essay a few years ago in which I revealed things about my parents’ relationship and their divorce, and the editor made me tell my parents what it was about, and get their permission to go ahead with it. I didn’t have to show it to them, just tell them about it. And so I tell my father, “I got a Modern Love accepted, and I have to tell you that in it, I have you sitting at the piano, singing ‘Let Me Try Again,’ with tears streaming down your cheeks as mommy is making dinner and ignoring you and we’re playing in the living room…” and the only thing he heard was that I’d had a Modern Love accepted. He was so excited. And then it came out, and he was really upset and hurt, and it still bothers him. And I’m completely traumatized by having upset him in that way. So were your parents okay with what you wrote?
Goulian: They were relieved. Not only wasn’t it as bad as they imagined, they come off really well.
Rumpus: It comes across that you have a really good relationship with them.
Goulian: They’re just really gentle, relaxed people. Part of that is also that they were workaholics, wrapped up in their own working lives.
Rumpus: You reveal your dad to be an orthorexic – someone who is hyper concerned about healthy diet.
Goulian: Yes, but remember that I didn’t show him that chapter. He did say to me, “Why don’t you show me the other chapter?” And I said, “No, not doing it.” And he said, “Well come on, I’m going to read it when it comes out. This is your hang-up, not mine.” And I said, “Fair enough. You can read it when it comes out. But I’m not showing it to you.”
Rumpus: Has he read it?
Goulian: I don’t know. I just saw my mom, and she said she has not read that chapter. My book was there, and she said, “Oh, by the way, I haven’t read that chapter.” In the New York Times Styles profile of me, they mention boy-on-boy experimentation, and it referred to me taking ecstasy to explore my sexuality. They read that piece, and they’ve never said anything to me about it. I mean, my parents are very fair-minded, accepting people.
Rumpus: I wish I could just ask my parents not to read certain things. I published an essay once that was partially a funny look at my sex life, and I asked my father not to read it. He later totally lied and told me he didn’t read it, but said he’d heard about it, and he told me he wrote me this ten-page letter about what a disappointment I am, but his therapist wouldn’t let him send it to me, because his therapist knows how defensive I am.
Goulian: Oh, my god.
Rumpus: All this to say, I understand your fear of your parents reading about your experiences with sex!
Goulian: You need to see that letter!
Rumpus: Some day. I don’t think I could handle it right now. So, your parents didn’t give you any kind of a hard time after they read the book?
Goulian: Oh, no. Not at all!
Rumpus: And, your fears and anxieties that you had about what your parents were going to think – are they now gone?
Goulian: One-hundred percent. The other fear was about my Uncle Ben’s reaction. He’s my grandfather’s son, and the literary executor of his estate. I had to get his permission, legally, for the letters from my grandfather to me. I was a little worried, even though he has a very laissez-faire approach toward giving rights. He’ll give rights to people he knows are writing very negative books about my grandfather. My grandfather was a controversial figure. I was worried that Uncle Ben was going to demand to see the book first before giving permission to use the letters, which was not going to happen. But, boom, he signed off immediately. I actually would like to see his reaction to that chapter, because my grandfather comes off as a little rough.
Rumpus: The chapter where he flat-out asks you, “Are you gay?”
Goulian: Yes. He apologizes in there, too.
Rumpus: I thought that was a beautiful, very self-aware apology. I was touched by that.
Goulian: Me not responding–you can understand that. You’re embarrassed by it. You just want it to go away. So when my uncle signed off about the letters, I was relieved. And also my dad – he could have said, “Those were very personal private letters I sent you, and I don’t want them out there,” and they are so crucial to the book, and here I am two weeks before the book goes to galley.
Rumpus: That was so supportive of him to let you use those. It seems like you are really close with him, and the rest of your family.
Goulian: We’re very close. My refusal to grow up in a sense and do all the conventional things that people expect of me causes such concern and worry and anxiety in the people in my family, that it really brings us together in a sense. I love them, and they give me a reason to love them, so I don’t bolt from them. We’re in constant contact because of it – them worrying, me trying to deal with their worrying. It had the opposite effect from what you might expect.
Rumpus: I so relate to that part of your story about people wondering when you were going to “grow up,” and pick a lane and stick in it. In many ways, I feel like I’ve never launched. I don’t know – haven’t written a book of my own, I’ve only written other people’s books. I’m so afraid to commit to one idea. I also live a fairly unconventional life. I mean, I’m married, and somehow I am a homeowner, but I don’t have kids, mostly by choice. I live in this bohemian little town where there are a lot people sort of floating too, and where I’m friends with people who are in their twenties, and people who are in their sixties. I’ve just always had to do things my own weird way – maybe I was fucked up by Free To Be You And Me – and so I found it kind of comforting to read about you. Even though it seems you are still struggling, emotionally, with your lack of direction.
Goulian: Well, that’s part of the tension of the book. It’s not that I’m this rebel saying, “Fuck you” to his community. This is someone who clearly is tortured by it. It’s not a book about a rebel. A rebel as I define it is someone who asserts his individuality when faced with the pressure to conform. This is a book about someone who wants his family and friends to love and accept him, and wants to fit in, but can’t do it because he just doesn’t really want to. There’s nothing he wants to do, work is problematic for all the reasons I mention in the book, everything is fraught, he never seems to be able to stick with anything, his grandfather is giving him a hard time for not sticking with anything, law is problematic for him. So I can’t seem to “get my act together” in that conventional sense.
The underlying irony of the book is that through writing this book about how I can’t get legitimized, I get legitimized. Although you do get a sense that outside of that, nothing changes. Notwithstanding the book deal, I’m still here, and living out of bags. I’m still going to be eating my nuts and berries, still worrying when I go to restaurants what they’re doing to my food, still crashing here and there. My mother often asks me, “Have you thought of getting your own apartment, and a lease, and putting something on a wall…” I mean, I’ve never bought a piece of furniture in my life, and I’m 42. But the book changed my life in the sense that in the eyes of my parents and most of my friends – and I hang out in a pretty bourgeois crowd – although they were tolerant and accepting, I have been legitimized in their eyes. And I have to admit, it feels good.
Rumpus: Do you feel like, with this book, you’ve explained yourself to your parents? And do you feel like that’s your job?
Goulian: I don’t think we’re supposed to explain ourselves to anyone. That’s where my memoir is a little different. There isn’t this definitive self-appraisal. I mean, I explain why I did a few things along the way, but it doesn’t end with, “Now I know who I am and why I do what I do.” I’m still and oddball to me, and to most people around me, I’m still confused. There’s no dramatic breakthrough at the end where I’m a new person who understands these things.
Rumpus: I’m really glad about that. So…what’s next?
Goulian: My dad finally asked me that a few months ago. I got a three-year reprieve from the folks. I sold the proposal for the book in April, 2008, and from then until a few weeks ago, it was all good. Like, Yes, he finally did something. We don’t have to worry.
Rumpus: And now?
Goulian: I don’t consider myself a spiritual person or a new agey person, but I put on this new agey vibe and I said, “Dad, it’s not about what’s next, it’s about what’s now. What’s now is wrapping up this.” September it’s a fair question, I suppose.