Monday, April 8, 2024

Q&A with Stephen McCauley




Stephen McCauley is the author of the new novel You Only Call When You're in Trouble. His other novels include My Ex-Life. He is the co-director of the creative writing program at Brandeis University.


Q: What inspired you to write You Only Call When You’re in Trouble, and how did you create your cast of characters?


A: I was inspired to write the novel after a friend told me she felt responsible for taking care (financially) of her highly intelligent, capable, and professional sibling.


I couldn't understand why. She explained that her sibling has always rejected professional and financial advice and always made bad investment decisions, which they refused to learn from.


I wondered how I would feel if I were in that position, the position of caretaker. That was the launching pad.


I started with a brother and sister and then discovered the sister had a daughter and the daughter had a boyfriend and the boyfriend had a difficult mother. And so on.


I find meeting my characters and learning about their lives happens organically, as it does when you meet a stranger in real life and learn about their family and friends. It helps that allow myself to write lots and lots of pages that I know will eventually be cut. I mean...hundreds!


Q: The writer Andrew Sean Greer said of the book: “Funny, poignant, joyous, explosive, but most of all affirming of our connections to one another.” What do you think of that description?


A: Obviously, I was extremely grateful to the talented Mr. Greer, whom I've never met. I hope my books are entertaining and make people laugh or at least smile from time to time. But this book also has a healthy dose of age-appropriate melancholy and longing.


I don't write with a message in mind, and I tend to avoid books with messages. It is true, though, that I wanted to make a case for the values of good citizenship and caretaking, even when those things come at the price of self-sacrifice. So the word "connections" was very welcome.


Q: How was the novel’s title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: The original title was The Responsible Party. My editor said she didn't like it. "Responsible people aren't a lot of fun to read about," she said.


We chose the current title from a line in the novel. It suggests the same thing--being the responsible one, the one folks call when in trouble--but it also has a tone that hopefully makes it sound a little more entertaining.


A friend said I should have called it You Only Call When You're Driving and Are Listening to an Audio Book You Don't Like. Guilty!


Q: Another writer, Carol Anshaw, said of the novel, “The author’s rare ability is finding the humor lining sadness to create a complex story with emotional depth.” What are your thoughts about that?


A: Carol is a friend and a writer whose work I admire enormously. Her comment points to something that's important to me--humor only works for me in a memorable way if there's a truth about behavior and a little whiff of melancholy surrounding it.


I don't really go for slapstick or situational comedy, although I no doubt lapse into it unintentionally at times. So I really appreciated her take.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I'm about halfway through another novel. It's set in the 1970s (a reprieve from cell phones and social media!) and is about a young man (the age I was in that period) who gets hired to write the erotic memoirs of an older gentleman.


As per usual in my books, real estate plays a big role. In this case, an extraordinary house on the ocean.


I'm thinking of it as an "erotic thriller," but so far, it's neither erotic nor thrilling, so I'm not sure!


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I finally learned how to make tofu really delicious. I'm embarrassingly proud of that.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Stephen McCauley. 

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