Monday, December 22, 2008

It's About Damn Time: The Jancee Dunn Interview


Here it is, in all of its unformatted glory...Enjoy!

Of course, the interview appeared in the December issue of ICON and is reprinted with permission.

The cool thing about the interview is that Trina, the editor, actually used my initials in the interview, instead of ICON. I thought that was a nice touch, like I'm David Frost or something.

Also, I'm amazed that what I sent Trina was used, all of it. If you get the issue on the stands, it looks something from The New Yorker. Lots of text and barely a picture or a dog cartoon to break up the sweet, sweet text.

By the way, another author interview is planned for ICON with an author who has written one of the best books of 2009. That's right, it hasn't even been published yet, but Brad Pitt has optioned it.

That's me...A real mover and shaker.

After Jancee Dunn's memoir, But Enough About Me, was released in 2006, fans wanted more.

Not about her days as an intrepid, frequently jittery staff writer at Rolling Stone (1989-2003), where she interviewed celebrities galore, but about her days growing up during the 1980s in Chatham, NJ.

Dunn, who was a veejay for MTV and a sex columnist for GQ, has responded to that demand with a terrific and critically acclaimed first novel, Don't You Forget About Me (Random House, $24.00).

In the book, recently divorced NYC thirtysomething Lillian Curtis moves back to her childhood New Jersey home (and with her parents) to regroup, and drifts back into her Rick Springfield-loving past. An imminent high school reunion and the return of her first love don't help matters.

Affable and disarming, even while preparing for a trip to London, Dunn, 42, chatted with ICON in June about the suburbs, the danger of delving into the past, and strip club buffets.

ICON: Your bio in Don't You Forget About Me says that you were "a chronically nervous" reporter while at Rolling Stone. Can we add chronically nervous novelist?

Jancee Dunn: Oh, yes, indeed. I'm nervous 24 hours a day; all the time. Now I'm nervous about failure and readings, 'cause last time I had a weirdo rush the stage when I did a reading in New York. He was scratching his back against the wall, never a good sign. And it's not like they have security at these things. I ain't Stephen King, right, so who's going to save me, my Dad? And he jumps up on the stage, but he was running past me to get to, I'm not kidding, the personal growth section. So, it's good that he kept going, but now I have a whole new set of paranoias pretty much.

But 'wah, wah' as they say in Jersey, right?

ICON: Why do you still feel nervous? After doing writing for some 20 years, I would think your fears would be in check at this point.

JD: My mom asks me the same question. I think it comes from a deep-seeded unease that started in college, when I went to a state school [The University of Delaware], performed in a spectacularly mediocre way and never graduated. I don't know. It may be that suburban Jersey chip that I have on my shoulder of never thinking that I've quite arrived. I had no connections, my Dad worked at JCPenney. I just never felt quite like I'm the inside. Maybe that's a good thing; maybe it fuels creativity, right?

ICON: Could be. Maybe it makes you work harder

JD: Never once, have I thought, "Ah, I've done it [laughs]." I guess it's this combo in me, I guess, of ambition, insecurity, an inability to fully relax. I don't know. I'm getting dark on ya. I have to go fun and upbeat [laughs].

ICON: How did your background as a journalist help you in writing a novel? Did it hinder you in any way?

JD: Being a magazine writer was a tremendous help in that I'm so used to not having much space, so I really have to pick telling details to set a scene rather than these long, florid descriptions and I'm also used to writing for readers with a short attention span. So, I really was cognizant of those [aspects]. In even the best novels, there are sort of those boring stretches, at least there are for me, and I'm used to saying, "Whoops, eyes on the page. Hey, back here," that I really tried to make my writing vibrant, which I'm trained to do for my magazine writing.

It hindered me in that it was a really odd thing to completely be my own boss. I'm so used to having 50 editors all over everything that I do, particularly with women's magazines, that it was really odd to think, "I guess this is OK." The odd thing about writing a novel also is that your editors are generally very hands off, and I had envisioned lots of check-ins and stuff, but they really just sort of trust you to go forward. And it was such an odd feeling, but liberating, too.

ICON: Were there any novels that you took for inspiration?

JD: I tried to follow the conventional advice to write a novel that you wish you could read. The older lady in there [Lillian's boss and friend, Vi] I wish that I knew her, so I dreamed her up. And it was the sort of book that I wished I could read in the summertime. I happen to love 80s details, and it was very fun to excavate them all. As for influences, I also follow other conventional advice, which is to read really good books and so I tend to read a lot of Dickens and novels like that which you can't even detect the tiniest hint of in my writing, but I hope in some kooky way that it filters in there somewhere. I don't know. I surround myself with writers that are way, way better than I am in the hopes that osmosis will do some work.

Prep [by Curtis Sittenfeld] is a perfect example…I don't think I moved when I read it. I think I took a whole weekend and just read it one big gulp, so something like that was definitely a big influence. I definitely liked how in Prep her protagonist wasn't someone that you embraced wholeheartedly and loved. It was really hard for me to have somebody who was really flawed because I'm used to trying to get people to like me, so I thought why not be brave like Curtis was and have someone that isn't necessarily 100% likeable.

ICON: I like that there are unanswered resolutions in your book; not everyone comes away clean.

JD: That's exactly what I wanted, and I fought against all the romantic comedies that I've ever seen in my life to tie up everything with a bow…I don't know anyone who didn't have a messy high school time, and it extends to adulthood.

ICON: In the book, Lillian goes deep into her high school past, sometimes with disastrous results. How much digging around of your high school past did you for this book, or just on your own?

JD: I did a fair amount. It was right there in front of me because not only did I have my own reunion, I keep in touch with a bunch of my friends from high school. And I also had a diary, or as I called it a journal, because when you're 16 that's what you call it. There was a scene from the book that did happen in my life, where I looked at my journal for the first time in 15 years or something. I was one of those freaks that had a great time in high school. Everyone makes fun of me because everyone I know was bullied or couldn't wait to leave. (Peppy voice) I had a great time. I looked at this diary [and] I thought maybe there's some good stuff in here.

My rose-colored memories of that time: what a shock. My diary was filled with hatred and pain. And seeing some of the things I went through as a kid with adult eyes and reading between the lines of, like, thuggish boys that I went out with and just seeing it all with adult eyes and how dark it really was, was a huge shock to me. So, that was a good research tool.

ICON: One of the book's themes is that some events and people in the past should remain there. Is there any part of the high school experience that you want locked away?

JD: There have been times when I've really gotten nostalgic and my sister Heather has said to me, "Let it go; keep it where it is. Don't go back there." Or I'll want to get in touch with a long-lost high school friend and my sister will say, "I can see the bio on this person and maybe you shouldn’t. It's going to disappoint you. Just leave her alone."

Recently, our house we grew up in Chatham in high school was up for sale, and my sister Heather and I called the realtor and we were going to pretend we had different names, just on the off chance that she might know my name, which is ridiculous and she wouldn’t. But we were going to take a tour and pretend that we were going to buy it. And we stopped ourselves at the last minute because it's like, "Quit trying to go back there, you can't." We cancelled on the poor realtor, which would have wasted her time. That's a good example of, "Just let it go, for Chrissakes."

ICON: As a reporter you're naturally curious, and with the Internet in general there must be a temptation to go deeper in exploring your high school days.

JD: The past is more tangible now than it ever has been before. It's radically different even than 10 years ago. You can track 90 percent of the people that have been in your life so easily. Especially as a reporter you can go even a little deeper, and you know a few tricks. It's just not healthy because at this point I have tracked so many different people that now I'm even at the people I didn't care about in the first place. And that's when you know you should just quit. Like some distant person in your science class that you worked with in 1991, who cares? It's bad, yeah.

ICON: Don't You Forget About Me has a lot of references to the 1980s, even the title. How aware were you to not blindly cash in on the endless wave of nostalgia for that decade and actually write a book with resonance?

JD: I was extremely conscious of that because I definitely loaded up on a lot of 80s details and I would think sometimes, "Am I going overboard? Am I pandering?" …I was definitely aware and I'm not sure if I succeeded. I think I may have gone a tiny bit overboard because I got so caught up. I used my friends and my family as helpers a lot, and we just threw it all in there. But I wonder if I go back and read it, if I’m ever that much of a loser that I sit and read my own books, if it might tweak me a little. It's a good point. I'm not really sure.

ICON: Do you feel like you had enough perspective to write a book like this?

JD: Seeing my diary and what the reality was, and how much my mind had softened over the years was a real jolt, so that gave me personal perspective. Cultural perspective, I can’t help but be nostalgic for the collective experience that we all had then…There was something really goofy about that time period that I’m attracted to, and it’s just funny how you get stuck in one era. I think there’s a danger in romanticizing any decade. It always drives me crazy when I hear when something was a more innocent time. I don’t think in human history there’s been an actual innocent time. That happens a lot with the 80s and I think, "Really, with everything that was going on politically." I want to be careful of that and want to be current. The one thing that appeals to me is the playfulness and the goofiness that I don’t see now. I think now it’s a little harder and a little more knowing.

ICON: I think the big difference is in the music.

JD: In that way, there really was some pure, silly, fun pop. It was so perfect for summer and driving around. I just don’t see it now. It all sounds like stripper music to me. I'm just old.

ICON: Then again, you had Motley Crüe.

JD: It’s still playing at a strip bar somewhere right now.

ICON: Sure, at 11:30 in the morning on a Saturday. I guess it’s like 5 o’clock somewhere, so someone must be drinking. Someone must be getting a lapdance.

JD: (Laughs) Checking out the steam table, with the chicken wings.

ICON: In your two books the theme of personal growth is pretty strong. How important is that for you? And do you think some people think that they can’t learn and grow in certain ways?

JD: I have a personal horror of being stuck, and because of my job I always have to take in a lot of information and I just have a natural curiosity and a kind of horror of being stuck in any way. I have very forward thinking parents that are always in motion, mentally and physically, the sort of parents that you just want to sit and read a book and they just can’t stand that you’re not doing something, so I’ve always been sort of in motion. I travel a lot, and Lord knows I work at Oprah magazine, so there’s a lot of self-examination and growth is their ethos. But I always have it in my head, how can I do better…That’s a huge theme of my life. I love that you said that. It makes it seem that I have more coherent plan than I actually do.

ICON: It’s sort of like sharks, when they stop moving, they die. Is that how you feel?

JD: Yes, completely. I just never understand people who aren’t excited about something or curious about something. This is the Pollyannish side of me coming out, but there are so many things to be excited about and there are so many different worlds to explore and books to read and places to go, I just can’t imagine being a different way. I think I’m never going to get do everything that I want to do. I’m packing to go to London; I just got back from Mexico and Japan. I just love having this kind of life, so my horror is getting stuck.

ICON: Throughout the novel, Lillian’s high school friends are settling down and having kids, like it’s a suburban requirement. You just turned 42, you’re married, and you have no kids. You mentioned in But Enough About Me that you never had maternal instincts. Is the pressure to have kids still a big presence in your life?

JD: It is. It sure does come up a lot. And I get a lot of pressure, funnily enough, from men who tell me how great parenthood is. I’m not against having kids, I guess, I’ve just always been doing other things and suddenly I turn around, and I’m 42. I can hardly believe it. I guess realistically time is running out for me, and my folks have stopped asking, which is a key signifier that maybe they’ve accepted that I might not. I’m not against it, but I guess I'm in a certain amount of denial about my age because I still am debating the idea with my husband [writer Tom Vanderbilt]. It’s like, "Look, babe, you’re 42. That ship may have sailed." I still can’t figure out why I was not really into having kids. I had a great childhood, I really did. My two sisters have kids, and they’re the nicest little kids…You know what it’s been like. It’s been like, "OK, I’m going to go on this trip to Japan and then I’m going to think about kids," or, "I’m going to write this book and then that’s it, I’m thinking about kids." So, something is clearly up where maybe I don’t necessarily want them so much.

ICON: The other prevalent theme in Don't You Forget About Me is the disconnect between people who live in the suburbs and people who live in city, especially people you've known a while. Why do you think that is?

JD: I see an understandable defensiveness from my friends in the suburbs that they think city people look down on them. And then I completely see the perspective from the suburbs of, “Why would you wear with yourself down with all that concrete and noise and hostility.” And so I really can absolutely see both sides. And, you know, the lure of the suburbs is so strong for me. I know I’m going to return there.

ICON: Really?

JD: I’m here [in Brooklyn] because of my job. I’m here because my editors need me at a moment’s notice sometimes to come into the office, and all the interviews I do take place in the city, and I’m constantly having to do something here in Manhattan. So, that’s why I live here, but oh do I love the suburbs. And I go back to see my folks every chance I get, and go to those nice big box stores. It drives me crazy when city people think there’s no character in the suburbs. There are all kinds of pockets of weirdness; I mean, read Weird NJ magazine. Everywhere you go there are pockets of character and weirdness that would sustain me just as much as the city does.

ICON: But creative types in the Jersey suburbs flee to the city. Do you think there’s some creative juice in the city that you can’t find in Chatham or Princeton?

JD: If you’re fueled by tension, as I am, then the city really does work as a good writing tool and I can only compare it to when I go on vacation. I went up to Vermont last year and stayed in the middle of the woods by a lake for two weeks, and my husband and I said, “Oh, we’re going to get a lot of writing done.” And our minds went blank and we didn’t write a word. So, I’m wondering if maybe the dose of hostility I get from one subway ride can kind of fuel me all day. There might be something in that.

You mentioned Princeton. I went there a few weeks ago and looked around thinking, “Ooh, I could live here.” So, I’m taking the steps. I think maybe you could replace the people bumping up against you all the time here and your irritation, which could then fuel a mean sense of humor, and instead channel it more positively. I hope you can get that creative tension anywhere, but I don’t know. What do you think?

ICON: I’ve never understood why people think of cities as being these creative factories, because it’s the person.

JD: It's true. The onus is on you to take it all in…If I couldn’t get going in a place other than New York City, then it is I who has failed.

ICON: How confident that you feel you can write from anywhere? If you moved back to Chatham today, could you write another book and your pieces for The New York Times and Oprah?

JD: Oh, sure. Especially now, it’s such a writer-friendly atmosphere. You can listen to your kooky radio stations that you like from anywhere and you can do Internet radio and there are tons of weird magazines coming in. We can completely be mobile anywhere. All the little things that you like are still here. And that’s the thing also: It’s not like I’m going to Broadway plays every night, I’m really not. I’m here in my apartment, so why shouldn’t I live anywhere else?

ICON: You’ve written a variety of things. What do you want to do next, and please don’t say another version of Marley & Me?

JD: (Laughs) I like the sales of Marley & Me. My dream is to keep writing books because it’s been the most gratifying experience of my whole life. I never thought it could be this fun, and the happiest moments of my entire life were when I was writing those two books when I could sit down in the morning and begin. It was just heaven, and if I could keep doing that, that’s all I’ve ever wanted. When I was a weird child of eight years old, I would dream about living in some cottage somewhere and just writing books all day and then taking country walks at night. This is when I was, like, eight. What was wrong with me, right?

If I could realize that dream, that would be it. Really, the magazine stuff isn’t as important. I mean, it’s really fulfilling and writing for the Times is lots of fun…But aside from that, it’s all about books. I swear to you, and this isn’t me just pandering to Random House. If they keep renewing my contract, I’d be the happiest person who ever lived.

1 comment:

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