Novelist Stephen McCauley Embraces Life On A 'Small, Everyday Scale'

May 17, 2019
Originally published on May 21, 2019 9:10 am

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. Today's guest, Stephen McCauley, is the author of the novel titled "My Ex-Life," which just came out in paperback. When it was first published in 2018, our book critic Maureen Corrigan described it as a smart comedy of manners about McCauley's signature subject - namely, the disconnect between erotic desire and intimacy and the screwball paths that people take on the way to finally arriving home.

Stephen McCauley is the author of six previous novels, including "The Object Of My Affection," which was adapted into a film comedy starring Jennifer Aniston and Paul Rudd. McCauley's new novel centers around two people, David and Julie, whose brief marriage ended when he came out. Thirty years later, they're brought together when Julie and her second husband are divorcing, and their seemingly unambitious daughter isn't moving forward with her college applications.

David's business is counseling students on how to get into college, so Julie calls him for help. When they meet again, they find they still have a deep connection, but one with sexual intimacy out of the picture. There's a lot of comedy and perceptive writing about gay and straight relationships, friendships and marriages, college application essays and the kind of trouble an insecure teenage girl can get into through male flattery and her own desire to be daring. Terry Gross spoke to Stephen McCauley last year.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: Stephen McCauley, welcome back to FRESH AIR. I love the novel, and I want to start with a reading from the very beginning of it. Would you read the beginning of "My Ex-Life"?

STEPHEN MCCAULEY: I'd love to.

(Reading) No, it was not the happiest moment of David Hedge's life. Soren, his partner of five years, had left him. He'd gotten fat. And somewhere in the midst of that, he'd woken up one day and realized he was no longer in his 20s or his 40s. The last person he expected to hear from was Julie Fiske. He and Julie had a history, albeit an ancient and complicated one. They hadn't seen each other in almost 30 years, hadn't spoken in more than 20, and David assumed that their story, like a few other things in his life - his desire to visit Petra, his vow to study the piano, his sexual relevance - had ended. This didn't diminish her importance to him. His memories of her lingered, faded by the years in flattering ways. In his mind, they were still best friends.

(Reading) He heard of Julie Fiske infrequently through a few mutual friends and an occasional late-night computer perusal when he was feeling maudlin. Oh, Julie. He'd pieced together scraps and had come to the conclusion that she had a happy life, a husband or second, a teenage daughter, a large house on the ocean north of Boston. She taught art at a private school for kids with learning problems - not what she'd imagined for herself in her younger incarnation, but who was he to judge?

(Reading) It appeared things had finally gone well for her. He was delighted. There had been years when he worried that she'd been set on a path of bad choices and bad luck by the mistake of her brief, misguided first marriage to him.

GROSS: That's Stephen McCauley reading for the opening of his new novel, "My Ex-Life." Of course, Julie's life is nothing like what David imagines. Her marriage is ending. Her home by the ocean is falling apart. She wants to buy out her husband's half and can't afford to. (Laughter) It's, like, everything is a mess in her life.

So when they come back together again because he's going to help her daughter with her college application, they redevelop the closeness they had when they were married, but without the pretense of a sexual relationship. What made you think about an ex-marriage becoming a different sort of partnership, one of deep friendship that is in some ways even more comfortable and enduring than the romantic, sexual loves that they've had in their lives?

MCCAULEY: You know, I think there were several things that made me think about that. I mean, one is just that it seems to me all relationships evolve as time goes on, even for people who stay together as a couple and even if the relationship remains sexual, essentially, that as you get older, needs change. Needs for intimacy change and companionship change. And I wanted to have these people begin to re-examine what really worked in their relationship - the friendship, the closeness - and try to adapt it for, you know, needs later in life that are maybe less restless, less hormonal. And...

GROSS: Are you saying less sexual?

MCCAULEY: Less sexual, yes.

(LAUGHTER)

MCCAULEY: But also, you know, several years ago there was a - and this is kind of a - but maybe a funny source of inspiration for a novel that's essentially comic, and I hope it comes off as being optimistic in tone. But several years ago, there was a piece in The Sunday Times Magazine about a woman who - and this is as I remember, and I may be getting some of the facts wrong. But she was in her 60s, and she was diagnosed with Alzheimer's.

And it was very important to her that she control the last years of her life, and also that she be absolutely in control of the means and the timing of the end of her life. And in order to negotiate all of that, she had to call on friends. And the person that she called on was her ex-husband, who - they hadn't spoken to each other for many years. He was gay.

And I was really struck by - I mean, you know, there's no Alzheimer's in my book. There's no end-of-life issues. There's a lot of middle-of-life issues. But I was really struck by the incredible friendship and trust that must have been between these two people despite all the years of distance, and despite disappointment, and I'm sure a lot of anger and so on. And I found that really moving, and I wanted to explore it in a completely different context.

GROSS: Do you see there being certain burdens of a relationship that are lifted, like, when they come back together not in a marriage relationship, but just in a deep friendship relationship?

MCCAULEY: I think so. I think one of the struggles, for me, personally throughout my life with close relationships has been this fear of losing a piece of your identity because you're making - you know, it's inevitable that you make compromises when you're in an intimate relationship. And I think that's a good thing, but it also can be very frightening. And I don't think they need to do that in this case. There's a sense that they're - they can continue pursuing other relationships if they want to and that they're not as bound to each other by this - the demands of kind of sexual intimacy.

GROSS: And there's a certain type of jealousy that will not be a part of their relationship.

MCCAULEY: In theory.

GROSS: (Laughter).

MCCAULEY: You know, I don't know if you can ever get rid of that entirely.

GROSS: Yeah.

MCCAULEY: You know, there's a scene in the novel where one of them - I can't remember, actually, which one it is, but I think it's Julie - goes off to see someone who she may or may not be having an affair with. And, you know, David is completely supportive of this, and he encourages her to do it, and - but at the same time, he's kind of waiting for her to come back from this date. And, you know, he experiences a little bit of jealousy that's a bit more amorphous than it might be if they had a sexual relationship but nonetheless is there.

GROSS: Since the premise of the novel is a marriage that ended 30 years ago because the husband came out as gay, then these two people reunite as very close friends and teammates, you know, partners in a different kind of way, do you know a lot of marriages that ended because one partner came out?

MCCAULEY: I do. I know a surprising number of marriages that ended that way. At one point - I can't remember - it was probably 20 years ago, I was in a running group, you know, that would meet twice a week and go for a run around the river in Boston. And I forget how many men there were in it. But at a certain point, you know, someone came out and said, well, I had been married 20 years - and this was a gay men's running group, by the way. And someone said, oh, I had been married earlier.

And, you know, it was like there were at least a dozen people in that group who had had that experience. And I'm not sure what the connection was and why there were so many in this particular group, but there it was. I think it's not at all uncommon in my experience.

GROSS: Were these people of different ages?

MCCAULEY: There were people of different ages. Mostly they were, you know, somewhere in the 35 to 55 range, I would say.

GROSS: I'm wondering, you know, if it's easier for couples like that to stay friends afterwards because the divorce wasn't necessarily based on, like, you hurt me or you wronged me or I can't get along with you. It's like, oh, I realize I'm gay. You know? So I could see the door remaining more open in a situation like that. And I know relationships where the door has remained very open and the couple has remained friends even though the marriage dissolved, you know, where one partner came out as gay.

MCCAULEY: Right. My observation is that that's often the case. And this group that I'm talking about, there were a number of people who had remained extremely close friends with their ex-wives. There is the other experience, which is that a lot of times the wife - or I suppose the husband - feels betrayed, that, you know, you should have known this sooner. You should've told me sooner. And those can be incredibly acrimonious separations.

GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Stephen McCauley. And his new novel is called "My Ex-Life." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is novelist Stephen McCauley, who's probably best-known for his novel "The Object Of My Affection," which was adapted into a film that Jennifer Aniston starred in. His new novel, "My Ex-Life," is about a couple who had been married 30 years ago until he - the husband, David - came out as gay. Now, for several reasons, they've come back together but this time as good friends and as allies. And what's brought them together is that he's a college adviser, and he's been asked to help the daughter, Mandy, with her college application and her college essay application.

So the daughter in the novel, Mandy, is one of the girls who thinks that she's not really attractive. She's not popular. She has a lot of doubts about herself. And one of the characters speculates, like, this is the kind of girl who gets herself into trouble. And this is the kind of girl who a boy or a man can exploit. And that turns out to be true. What can you tell us that you feel comfortable giving away about how she is taken advantage of?

MCCAULEY: Well, Mandy, as you describe her, is someone who feels that - as many of us do, I think - that somewhere within us, we have this undiscovered talent and quality that makes us unique and makes us stand out. But she doesn't know what it is. And so when a man who is in his late 20s comes along and tells her that, you know, he sees something in her that other people don't, she's very susceptible to that. And she gets involved in something that has the potential to be dangerous and have dire consequences for her involving the Internet.

I mean, you know, right there - that probably tells as much as you need to know. And so she becomes - was very vulnerable to his attention.

GROSS: So have you had experiences with students or young women who - or your friends, or the daughters of your friends who've done that and have - or have nearly - gotten themselves into trouble, or into a dangerous situation or, you know, been exploited in a way that, you know, was really damaging to them?

MCCAULEY: You know, one of the things that is attractive about it to Mandy is that it allows her to be a different person when she is chatting online with anonymous men. It allows her to enter into a different kind of character, to be confident, to be sure of her body and so on.

And I - many years ago, I had a student who was an incredibly bright, talented young woman. And I had her over to my house for dinner with a few other students who I was working on honors projects with. And she began talking about the job that she'd had the previous summer, which was working on a phone sex line, which tells you how long ago it was.

And it was all very funny. And she felt that it somehow was a creative endeavor, and it allowed her to take on this other persona and so on. And for a while, it seemed to be that way. And then - I don't know - maybe a year or so later, I heard from one of her other friends that it - doing this had had dire consequences for her because she had kind of crossed the line between, you know, being an anonymous person and meeting one of these guys that she was talking about.

And that risk is in the novel for Mandy. And I think it's kind of a risk in general with social media, where the lines between what is considered, even by mothers with their daughters, empowering and body positive - to post pictures of oneself in a bathing suit or some kind of skimpy attire and, you know, without thinking about the consequences that might have when you put it out and is available essentially to millions of people - and when it becomes dangerous, when it becomes inappropriate and pornographic.

GROSS: You know, some of the men who chat with Mandy on the Internet, they want to talk about their illnesses...

MCCAULEY: (Laughter).

GROSS: ...With diabetes being at the top of the list.

MCCAULEY: Yeah (laughter).

GROSS: Where did that come from? Have you heard that that happens a lot?

MCCAULEY: You know, I've heard - well, I heard from this student who worked on a phone sex line that a lot of times, you know, men just wanted to kind of talk about their problems and their issues and, albeit in a occasionally inappropriate way or sort of, you know, crossing into something that sounded more lecherous, but that they wanted to reveal the thing that they were most ashamed of about themselves or most troubled by to her and have - and be accepted by her as this character on the other end of the phone.

And somehow, when I was writing those scenes with Mandy, it just felt like, well, that probably happens a lot, that people begin talking about their lives and their problems with someone who's willing to listen and be supportive and caring.

GROSS: Another issue in your novel has to do with renting out rooms. (Laughter) Julie wants to buy out her husband's half of the mortgage on their big, rambling, falling-apart, 19th-century home that was allegedly built by a sea captain, and she wants to rent out rooms. And the book jacket - the author bio on the book jacket of your novel "My Ex-Life" says you have several properties listed on Airbnb (laughter) in New York and Massachusetts. So what's your situation?

MCCAULEY: (Laughter) My situation is changing because regulations around short-term rentals are changing in Massachusetts, for example - in certain cities in Massachusetts. But, you know, I was very lucky. A few of my novels were turned into movies. And in a couple of instances when I got an unexpected influx of cash, I bought a piece of property, thinking that I was going to use this as a place to go, right? And because - it seems as soon as I consider someplace, you know, my domain on some level, I'm incapable of writing there. The writing retreat aspect of it just faded into oblivion, and I began renting out properties short term.

And I'm just - I'm fascinated by - I feel as if we're living in a time when people are obsessed with privacy because there's so much that people put online at the same time they're obsessed with privacy. And I was driving with a friend around Boston - I don't know if this is true across the country, but around Boston, I've noticed that in the last few years people rarely use their directionals when they're driving and it makes me crazy.

And I was with a friend who wasn't using his directionals. And I said, why aren't you using your directionals? And he said, you know what? It's nobody's business which direction I'm turning.

GROSS: Whoa (laughter).

MCCAULEY: And so there's that attitude. And at the same time, people are renting out rooms in their houses to complete strangers and sharing their most intimate spaces with them - their kitchens and their bathrooms. And, you know, they put them in their bedrooms. And they go and sleep on the sofa in the living room. And I just find this dichotomy just incredibly interesting. And from a writer's point of view, of course, it gives you the opportunity to be bringing new people into the scene constantly with new problems and new pleasures, perhaps.

GROSS: Of course, the reverse of that is true, too. The people who rent are putting themselves - especially if they're renting like a room in a family's home while the family is there - you're putting yourself in the hands of these people you don't know.

MCCAULEY: Yeah. No. I mean, and that's the way I travel, actually, because what's so crazy is that I bought this real estate to use it as a place to go write. Then I can't write there, so I have to rent it out. And then I go rent random places elsewhere to, you know, to write. And you never know. Although, I mean, I have to say, honestly, both as a renter and as a landlord, I've had very few really negative experiences.

GROSS: Why can't you write in a place that you're familiar with like your home or one of your properties?

MCCAULEY: I know. I wish I knew, Terry. You'll have to talk to my shrink about that, but I don't think he knows either because he isn't able to help me. But I don't know. I think I have a very nice study in the place where I live. And it's very quiet. And it's got a great desk. And it's perfectly set up to write. And I can not write a sentence there. I think I just associate the place where I live with other things like obsessive house cleaning and, you know.

GROSS: (Laughter).

MCCAULEY: But just, you know, I like having a separation between where I work and where I kind of relax, I suppose.

BIANCULLI: Author Stephen McCauley speaking to Terry Gross in 2018. His latest book, titled "My Ex-Life," has just come out in paperback. After a break, we'll continue their conversation. Also, rock critic Ken Tucker will review "Father Of The Bride," the first album in six years from Vampire Weekend. And I'll review Hulu's new miniseries adaptation of Joseph Heller's "Catch-22," which premieres today. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF GILAD HEKSELMAN'S "DO RE MI FA SOL")

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross, back with more of Terry's 2018 interview with author Stephen McCauley. His latest novel, called "My Ex-Life," has just come out in paperback. His earlier novel, "The Object Of My Affection," was adapted into a film comedy starring Jennifer Aniston and Paul Rudd. Stephen McCauley co-directs the creative writing program at Brandeis University.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: The first time we talked in 1996, we talked about how one of your characters - your main character - always felt like he was either too young and then he felt like he was too old. And he never felt like he was the right age. And you talked about how when you started teaching, you felt like you were too young to be an authority figure. And then at some point, you felt like you were too old in the sense that you had kind of bypassed the common reference points that you used to have with your students. Where are you now?

MCCAULEY: I'm at the I-don't-care phase, you know, which is kind of a great phase to be in. I mean, I feel as if I actually feel - I mean, Terry, I hate to be so positive, but I feel as if I do have something to say to students. And I think in the same way that, you know, I stopped trying to be Tolstoy or Flaubert, whoever - that, as a teacher, I just feel like, OK, I have something to offer. And I'm going to offer it in a very authentic and - way that is true to me. And I don't worry about that kind of attitude quite so much.

GROSS: So you came out in the 1970s, when you were in your late teens.

MCCAULEY: Yes.

GROSS: And there are so many issues relating to, like, sexual orientation and gender identity that have changed over the years in terms of how they're expressed and how people identify themselves. And you're seeing that not just as, like, a person in the world but also as a professor at a university. And having been at universities for years, you've seen, like, you know, generations of students come and go and define themselves in different ways.

There's a character in your new book, who's a college student, who goes by the name D - the letter D - and wants to be referred to as the gender-neutral they instead of he or she. That's a relatively new phenomenon - and, you know, the idea of, like, gender-neutral names and gender-neutral identity, and I'm wondering how you're processing that.

MCCAULEY: That's a really good question. Its a really big question right now in academia, especially...

GROSS: I know.

MCCAULEY: Yeah. I mean, I guess, you know, for me as a teacher, I am really happy to call my students whatever pronouns they want to be called by. I had a student recently who wanted to be called it. And I said, OK, I'll try it, you know? And, you know, whatever makes people feel accepted and seen the way they want to be seen is fine with me.

At the same time, I find it a little bit confusing sometimes when people talk about the binary - the gender binary - because it seems to me - my experience of coming out in the '70s was that the joy really of coming out as gay was that you didn't have to think in terms of strict male and female roles - that you could define yourself as a man in any way you wanted to. And I never had any interests that were particularly traditional in terms of masculinity.

And when I began reading particularly feminist writers like Betty Friedan and Germaine Greer, it was very liberating. It was like, well, you can define yourself as a man and still be a man but have the interests that you want in, you know, 1920's music instead of rock ’n’ roll or whatever it happens to be. And I guess my - the students that I'm seeing now take a different approach to that where they are embracing it more as being gender-neutral. And so I'm trying to understand it more and be sympathetic to it.

GROSS: So in addition to your novels written under your name, Stephen McCauley, you've written a couple of yoga novels under...

MCCAULEY: (Laughter).

GROSS: ...The name Rain Mitchell.

MCCAULEY: Yes.

GROSS: I've seen them referred to as yoga novels. I'm not sure what a...

MCCAULEY: Yeah (laughter).

GROSS: ...Yoga novel is. Is the main character a yoga instructor?

MCCAULEY: That's it. That's what makes it a yoga novel. There are two novels and - that Rain Mitchell wrote. And they're set at a yoga studio in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles. And most of the main characters - in fact, all of the main characters either teach yoga there or practice yoga there.

And it was a project that was brought to me by an editor who wanted to publish these books. And she knew that I did and do a lot of yoga as she did and does. And so it seemed like a good fit. And the novels came - there was something incredibly liberating to me about writing under a pseudonym. In certain ways, it was the most fun writing experience I've ever had.

GROSS: Why is it more liberating?

MCCAULEY: There's a complete lack of self-consciousness about anyone reading it and judging it, even though I knew that, you know, some people would know that I had written it. And - I don't know. I think I just kind of tapped into a different persona somehow when I was using that pen name.

GROSS: Was it also...

MCCAULEY: One of...

GROSS: Yeah, go ahead.

MCCAULEY: Well, one of the things that I always struggle with is that I kind of resist writing big events in my novels - you know, deaths and big actions. I like to keep things on a very kind of small, everyday scale. And in those yoga books, you know, I've got people jumping out of windows. I've got people dating...

(LAUGHTER)

MCCAULEY: ...People who are like, you know, dating a stand-in for Derek Jeter...

GROSS: (Laughter).

MCCAULEY: ...I mean, you know, auditioning for a Beyonce video. You know, and I just kind of went into this, you know, without any hesitation. And it was really fun to do. And when I finished that project, I tried to bring some of that spirit into my own work. And I'm not - I didn't go that extreme with this novel, but I think, for instance, it helped me have the confidence to imagine myself into the mind of a, you know, 17-year-old girl who is about to graduate high school.

GROSS: Why did you choose the name Rain Mitchell as your pseudonym?

MCCAULEY: (Laughter) I think because - well, first of all, the publisher wanted something that could be male or female. And...

GROSS: Wait. Wait. Why was that important?

MCCAULEY: I don't know - because, very quickly, they changed it to, OK, Rain Mitchell is a woman. And, you know, I had to write all these blog posts as Rain Mitchell...

GROSS: (Laughter).

MCCAULEY: ...And about her experiences and her life. And she kind of had like the ideal family life and the supportive mother who encouraged her to...

GROSS: (Laughter).

MCCAULEY: ...Write and to read. And so, you know, basically everything that I didn't have, you know, I gave to this character, essentially, that I was creating. And I've always been a huge fan of Joni Mitchell, so Mitchell comes from that. And the Rain is just sort of like new-agey (ph), I suppose, sounding or something.

GROSS: What are the covers like?

MCCAULEY: They vary greatly from, you know, like, someone doing yoga in high heels on a yoga mat because the idea behind the books was "Sex And The City" at a yoga studio. You know, five women in a yoga studio.

GROSS: So I want to end with some music. I'm always interested in the music that your characters like in your novels. I remember talking about - talking with you about Lee Wiley, the jazz singer from the '30s through, I guess, the '50s, who one of your main characters from an earlier book really loved. And in your new novel, "My Ex-Life," one of the main characters loves French singers including Francoise Hardy. I thought we'd end with something from her.

My introduction to her was in the film "Moonrise Kingdom," the Wes Anderson film because the two kids who are the main characters from that movie run away together. And there's a scene on the beach where they have a portable record player, and they're playing the Francoise Hardy song "Le Temps De 'Lamour."

And as they play it, they dance and then kiss. And they've never really kissed before, so it's a really - it's a lovely scene. What's your favorite Francoise Hardy track that you'd like us to end with?

MCCAULEY: I think my favorite is called "L'amitie," which is - means friendship. And it has some of those same qualities of kind of being wistful and melancholy but at the same time joyful. And because it's about friendship, you know, that's really what my novel is about. So maybe that's appropriate.

GROSS: Good. Let's end with that. Stephen McCauley, it's been great. Thank you so much.

MCCAULEY: Thank you, Terry.

BIANCULLI: Author Stephen McCauley spoke to Terry Gross last year. His novel, "My Ex-Life," has just come out in paperback.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "L'AMITIE")

FRANCOISE HARDY: (Singing in French).

BIANCULLI: Coming up, rock critic Ken Tucker reviews "Father Of The Bride," the first album in six years from the band Vampire Weekend. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF VAMPIRE WEEKEND'S "M79") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.