Friday, December 21, 2012

Q&A with novelist Stephen McCauley

Stephen McCauley's six novels include The Object of My Affection, True Enough, and Insignificant Others. He lives in Cambridge, Mass.

Q: Your novels have been described as "comedies of manners." Do you like that description, and why or why not?

A: It’s always helpful to have a shorthand way to describe your books, and I suppose “comedies of manners” is as good as any other, even if it’s not entirely accurate.  None of my books has the solidly happy ending the genre demands.  I’m able to get my characters to a point of change in their lives that has in it the seeds of happiness, but that’s about the best I can do for them.  I find books and films that end with a little ambiguity underneath the happiness, a little bittersweetness, to be the most truthful, memorable, and satisfying.  When I’m writing, I just focus on telling the stories of some specific individuals without thinking about a genre other than--to borrow a phrase from my friend Anita Diamant--“entertainment for adults.”    

Q: One thing about your characters is that, despite--or perhaps because of--their flaws, they are extremely likeable. In your own reading, does your enjoyment of a book depend on how sympathetic you feel toward the characters, and who are some of your favorite authors?

A: The characters I find the most likeable are the ones who strive for some form of good behavior or self-improvement but are constantly undone by the weaker sides of their own natures.  I find this sympathetic.  Good intentions but mixed results.  Larry McMurtry is a master at creating flawed yet completely loveable folks. They can be reckless, unfaithful, untruthful, and--in the case of Aurora Greenway from Terms of Endearment, probably his greatest creation--insufferable.  But we love them despite it all because they have a core of decency and they’re fun and interesting to watch.  If you don’t know your characters well enough to at least understand their flaws and see behind their defenses, you end up with cartoon villains, and that’s rarely interesting.  Lately, I’ve been reading tons of Anthony Trollope.  He’s a master at creating sympathetic characters.  You feel he sees into people, knows and understands their flaws but doesn’t judge them.  I find it comforting to know I’ll never live long enough to run out of Trollope novels.   

Q: In addition to your books written under your own name, you are writing a trilogy of novels featuring yoga devotees, under the androgynous pseudonym Rain Mitchell. How did this come about? How does your writing style compare with that of your alter ego?
A: Around the time I was finishing my sixth novel, Insignificant Others, an editor I had worked with years earlier asked me if I was interested in writing a series of novels set at a yoga studio in Los Angeles.  I was eager to try writing in a different style than I’d been writing in—less personal, a little more plot-driven—and this seemed like the perfect opportunity.  Plus I love assignments and I’d never before been given an assignment by a book editor.  I’ve been an avid yoga practitioner for decades, so I know the world fairly well and, best of all, I’d have an airtight justification for the time and money I spend taking classes.  

I suppose Rain and I share a certain comic attitude toward the world, but Rain is much more sentimental about true love and children and happy endings than I am.  Rain has stellar work habits and sits down daily, eager to see what the characters will do next.  Rain worries less about the way every sentence sounds than I do and just gets to the point.  I think Rain must have grown up in a more supportive environment than I did, one that promotes confidence and high self-esteem.

Q: Do you have a favorite among your characters, or among your books?

A: I love Jane Cody from True Enough.  She’s tries to do her best, but needlessly complicates her life by refusing to look at herself honestly.  I found her very funny and sympathetic.  Unfortunately, I’m not sure a lot of other people felt that way about her.  I guess if I had to choose a favorite novel, it would be that one.  Unlike my other novels, it’s written in third person.  First is more intimate--like talking directly to the reader--but it’s more difficult to sustain, and it can get claustrophobic being inside one character’s head for years.

Q: What are you working on now, and will it be as Stephen McCauley or Rain Mitchell, or perhaps someone else?
A: I took some time off writing my own novels to write Rain’s (Tales from the Yoga Studio and Head Over Heels).  A producer in New York commissioned me to turn a short story I’d written (“The Whole Truth”) into a play.  That’s been a fun learning experience and I’m still working on rewrites of that.  I teach writing at Brandeis University, and I’m working on a novel.  Under my own name, although I’m trying to channel Rain’s discipline and confidence.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I’m obsessed with the singer Lana Del Rey and I recently gave up coffee.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb


  1. Delighted to learn Stephen McCauley's pseudonym! I was at an author panel years ago where he mentioned he'd been writing "women's fiction" under a different name, which he refused to reveal, and I've been wondering about it ever since. I'm a big fan of McCauley's, as is a good friend of mine. Just ordered "Rain Mitchell's" first novel, for me and for her. (I'm also a longtime yoga practitioner and have always thought a yoga class would be a great setting for a novel.)

  2. Natalie, thanks so much for your comments! I'm a big fan, too, and was glad to learn about the pseudonym and have the chance to read more books by a wonderful author!
    Hope you're doing well, and happy holidays,