The Rumpus Interview with Pulitzer Prize Nominee Jonathan Dee

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Google tells me there are many Jonathan Dees. One is an “authority” on practical astrology, color therapy and Feng Shui for the garden. Another was a doctor, an alchemist, had the largest library in England, came up with the idea of the British Empire, and was Queen Elizabeth’s advisor.

But the Jonathan Dee who sits across from me is the author of a novel, The Privileges, for which he was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. He is handsome, with round spectacles and a nice head of hair, and speaks with a kind tone and dry humor.

Dee is also a staff writer for The New York Times Magazine, a Guggenheim fellow, and a former senior editor of The Paris Review. He teaches in the graduate writing programs at Columbia University and the New School. He is a parent and, in that vein, just might be found in a bar (on his own time) talking to an undergraduate about her future concerns, along with the story behind his book and writing career.

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The Rumpus: The book begins: “A wedding! The first of a generation….” yet we come to find it isn’t truly a first. This seems to reference something else, setting up a phantom childhood: a poof into existence. This theme echoes another great love story where the protagonist’s name is Adam.

Jonathan Dee: Well, what I meant was that it was the first wedding of Adam and Cynthia’s “generation,” i.e. their own post-college social circle, wherein 22 is very young to marry. But it’s certainly true that the wedding represents a Pol Pot-like Year Zero to the bride and groom themselves: the whole purpose of it is to consign to irrelevance everything that happened before it. (I still worry that the fact that the husband is named Adam and that he occasionally addresses his wife as Cyn was maybe a little too on-the-nose, as they say, but I suppose it’s time to let that worry go.)

Rumpus: Part of the core of this book is very Wall Street/finance heavy. What kind of research did you do?

Dee: I’m always researching more for tone than for facts, and so I read a number of books about insider-trading schemes and market crashes of the past—James Stewart’s Den of Thieves was a particularly good one. Apart from that, I relied on what you might call “back-end research,” which is to say I showed the finished manuscript to a friend who manages a hedge fund and asked him if I’d gotten anything wrong—which I had, so kudos to him for helping me to look smarter than I am.

Rumpus: Susan Sontag was a big fan of the opera. Are you a fan of opera/classical music? You noted young Jonas’ fondness of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of The Bumblebee.”

Dee: My father was a huge opera buff, which may explain why I am not; I probably know just enough about classical music to fake knowing a lot more than I do. “Flight of the Bumblebee” has an instant appeal for kids, kind of like “Peter and the Wolf.” And of course its salient aspect is its speed, which was a motif I tried to keep alive throughout the book.
Rumpus: You have such seamless viewpoint transitions, often within the same paragraph. Is that something that you had to work at or did that come naturally?

Dee: It took me a while to work that out as a technical solution to writing the long wedding-scene that opens the book. The idea in a nutshell is that what gives the scene its shape is not unity of perspective but unity of time—no matter how fluid the point of view, the clock in that scene never stops ticking forward. (Cf. DeLillo, Woolf, Garcia Marquez, and numerous other writers much better than me.) I thought briefly about trying to keep it up throughout the entire book, but it didn’t take long for me to realize that it was untenable, at least by me, for anything longer than a set piece.

Rumpus: Did you start out writing in one character’s point of view and find yourself switching?

Dee: Mercifully, I have forgotten what the earliest drafts of that wedding scene looked like. I’m sure they’d horrify both of us.

Rumpus: Were any of the characters really your favorite? I’m quite partial to the Jonas in his “penny man” stage.

Dee: I probably found Jonas and Cynthia easiest to write.  I wouldn’t say that made them my “favorites,” but they did lighten my load a little.

Rumpus: Did you originally set out to do the span-of-time stages?

Dee: I wanted the novel to cover a substantial period of time (about twenty years, as it turned out) in as short a space as possible. I never did get it as short, or as fast, as I wanted it, but hey, novel-writing is pretty much the art of the compromise. I also wanted to write a novel with no flashbacks in it, not because I hate flashbacks, but because they seemed antithetical to the Moreys themselves, whose lives are founded on their ability to look only forward. So what I wound up with were four long chapters with gaps of five or six or seven years in between them.  In each chapter, the present-tense portrait of the family has to stand in for what happened in the preceding gap.

Rumpus: Are any of the characters based on an actual person? I feel like I have met several of them: Josh, The Journey Tribute Band? And I think I dated Devon.

Dee: I don’t think I’ve ever based a character on an actual person, unless by “based on” you mean “wildly extrapolated from.” People whom you met, or saw, maybe two or three times at most make the best raw material, in my opinion. (My condolences on your Devon, I can see where he would have made a horrendous boyfriend. I’m sure I got swamped by a few Cynthias back in the day.)

Rumpus: What was your original idea or “thesis statement” behind the book that compelled you forward?

Dee: I didn’t have one. I mean, I had ideas, of course, but nothing like a thesis.  One spends years writing a story not to prove or demonstrate something, but to learn something.

Rumpus: How long did it take to write the novel and what was the process like?

Dee: A difficult question. Probably about six years passed between the time I started the book and the time I finished it, but it would be inaccurate to say I spent six years writing it.  The unliterary life kept intervening, principally in the form of my daughter, with whom I stayed at home for many years. I still stay at home, actually, but she is fifteen now and leaves for long stretches.

Rumpus: What sort of audience did you have in mind when writing the novel?

Dee: I hope it won’t sound arrogant to say that I never think about an audience when I’m writing. When the book is done, and I hand the manuscript to somebody to read, I care to the point of agony what they will think about it.  But when I’m working, the question of how other people, real or hypothetical, might react to it doesn’t enter my head.

Rumpus: I’ve been wondering what this foreshadows:

“As for Adam, when he was lying speechless in some hospital bed after his third coronary, everybody would think he was thinking about one thing, but he would be thinking about something else.”

Dee: I actually thought of it not as foreshadowing, but as the closest Adam ever comes to a flashback (since what he is referencing here is the death of his own father, something he otherwise makes a point of not talking or even thinking about). This passage comes at a kind of darkly epiphanous moment for Adam, when he’s realized that the solution to his perceived problems lies outside the imaginative box, otherwise known as the law. Those things, we flatter ourselves: we have deeply and intentionally suppressed, often turn out (in moments of high emotion) to be about half an inch below the surface. I wanted this to be one of those moments for Adam: less about grief over his father’s death than about the enduring, competitive need to show him up in life.

Rumpus: Jonas was in a band, at one point called “The Privileges,” and got very into bluegrass. What music/bands do you enjoy?

Dee: I hope he plays the banjo. I love bluegrass, though I don’t binge on it anymore the way I did when I was writing this book. Just the classics, the older and darker the better.  Nothing terribly surprising: the Stanley Brothers, Bill Monroe, Jimmie Martin, the Carter Family. All the emotions are so outsized; it’s as much like opera as it is like rock and roll. Flatt & Scruggs – I love me some Flatt & Scruggs. They were so cheerfully commercial, and yet I have a whole theory, best saved for bars, about how all of speed metal and half of punk owe their lives to Flatt & Scruggs.

Rumpus: Jonas gets himself into a bit of a pickle researching an “outsider” artist. This is an interesting movement in art: Henry Darger and his Vivian Girls, for one, have become very popular. But this term ,“outsider,” is not about popularity. Darger had no formal training.  He wasn’t part of any kind of intelligentsia or aesthetic movement, but it goes beyond that. Can you speak to this movement a bit and how you found your characters interested in it? Are you a collector?

Dee: Often it happens, at least to me, that you have what you think are two ideas, and only after work and long reflection do you realize what you should have realized in the first place: which is that the two ideas are actually one idea. I’m fascinated by the rise of Outsider Art, and for the longest time I thought, “You know, I really ought to find some way to write about all that once I’m done with this novel I’m working on.” Then, one day, the scales fell from my eyes and I understood that there was a good reason why I was thinking so much about this strangely desperate aesthetic category while writing in particular about Jonas and his geeky-but-vital teenage pursuit of the grail of authenticity, in art as in life. It’s the logical end to his search, the idea that, if the artist is no longer powerful enough to withstand the mediation of the world, the last bastion of purity might be found in the work of men and women who are so psychologically, or mentally, damaged that they lack the capacity to be affected by that mediation in the first place. And then, of course, their work winds up transformed by it anyway. As Jonas’s art history professor says, “what comes after that?” Every year, there’s an Outsider Art Fair here in New York, and I urge everyone to go. Some of the art is beautiful to look at, some of it isn’t, but in any case the real show is not on the walls.

Rumpus: Congratulations on both your Guggenheim Fellowship and your Pulitzer Prize nomination. How did it feel to get those phone calls?

Dee: Neither came in the form of a phone call, actually, but of course both those days felt like pretty good days at the office. The Guggenheim is something you have to apply for, so I had some sense of when the thumbs-up/thumbs-down was coming, but the Pulitzer news was very much out of the blue. And both my fellow runner-up (Chang-Rae Lee) and the winner (Jennifer Egan) are old friends and excellent writers, so that made the day even sweeter.

Rumpus: Two nominees for the Pulitzer this year, both The Privileges and Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, featured one of the main characters’ having the interesting habit of collecting “found” (stolen) items of others—not goods from stores, but odd, arbitrary trinkets. How do you think this characterization from both authors could have happened? Is it a possible there is a tinge of this in the background of today’s social milieu and you both happened to pick up the threads of its energy?

Dee: I loved that chapter of Goon Squad. In my case, I was just trying to find an initial, unobtrusively childish way for Jonas to strike what eventually becomes the dominant note in his character, which is his obsession with the past, with lost time. I try very hard not to let thoughts about symbolism, etc., creep into the writing. Particularly when dealing with figures like the Moreys, you don’t want them to bloat into archetype.

Rumpus: The Paris Review, what was that like?  One of my professors is Elizabeth Gaffney, who is a shining gem of a lady.

Dee: Elizabeth arrived as a college intern when I worked there, and she was smarter than all of us from the day she walked in. I started there at age 22, and stayed about five years.  It was an ideal first job, for which I had no qualifications, and into which I pretty much fell ass-backwards. The paid editorial staff consisted of four people, and that’s using the term “paid” somewhat loosely, but we were all in our twenties and we all wanted to be writers; and looking back on it, that was the thing I needed most at that point in my life – just to be around other people who took seriously what I took seriously, who were excited by the same things I was excited by. I’m not sure I would have become a fiction writer at all if it weren’t for my years in that job; I think I might have let the relentless discouragement nudge me onto some other career path.

Rumpus: Fellow author, Elissa Schappell, tweeted from the Tin House writing conference: “Jon Dee read new work from novel—and crowd was rapt—so clever, surprising. If John Updike and Cheever had a son, who was babysat by Dawn Powell, he’d write like Jon Dee.” Well that’s hella nice to say. Thoughts? And how was it up there, from your point of view?

Dee: I once went to a reading by David Foster Wallace and William Vollmann, at which the former had an anxiety attack and the latter fired off a gun; and I once went to a reading (at lunchtime, no less!) whose four participants were Donald Barthelme, Salman Rushdie, Claude Simon and Mario Vargas Llosa. To that list, I can now add the seven straight nights of outdoor faculty readings at the Tin House conference, where every night the non-existent roof got raised a little higher: Dorothy Allison, Luis Urrea (who flamboyantly dropped his book on the ground and recited it from memory), Steve Almond (whose podium was crashed by a tripping local teenager), Jim Shepard, Joy Williams . . . Every morning I would tell my workshop students that they shouldn’t get spoiled, that most writers are actually not performers by nature and thus most readings are cripplingly dull. As for Elissa, she is good people, and I cannot wait to read her new book.

Rumpus:  Me too! Blueprints for Building Better Girls. It’s getting great reviews. What would be a privilege to you and/or what is privilege?

Dee: Maybe Adam and I aren’t so different in that we consider a privileged life to be made up of days spent doing what you want, at no one else’s behest. My wants are just a lot more monastic than his.

Rumpus: What’s next?

Dee: I’ve finished a new novel about a woman who goes to work, relatively late in life, in the branch of public relations known as Crisis Management. She becomes something of an accidental star in this world because of an almost priestly gift she has – which others learn to exploit – for getting powerful men to apologize. When I say “finished,” I suppose I mean something more like “reached the end of,” because I’m still touching it up and will be for several more months. It also needs a title. But at least it won’t be eight years between books for me this time.


Jennifer Sky is a former model and actress. Her first e-book is forthcoming from The Atavist. Her writing has been featured in a number of print and on-line publications, including The New York Times, New York magazine’s The Cut, Tin House, Salon, and The Daily Beast. She is also a Contributing Editor for One Teen Story and lives in Brooklyn. You can find her online at jennifersky.com and Twitter at @jennifer_sky. More from this author →