Writer–in-residence Stephen McCauley is the comic alternative

The author writes comedies of manners that capture the laugh-out-loud foibles of human behavior

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The following article appears in the fall 2009 issue of Brandeis University Magazine.

In Stephen McCauley’s 2006 novel, "Alternatives to Sex," protagonist William Collins is a forty-something real estate agent addicted to housecleaning and casual online hookups with other men. Living near Boston a year after 9/11 and reckoning with “midlife malaise,” Collins decides there is more to life than dusting and daily dalliances with men you know on a fake first-name basis only.

Into this opening plot line McCauley pours a steady stream of social satire heavily laced with ironic detachment and wry dialogue. Then he gently stirs in a dollop of moral confusion to whip up a comic confection that is both sweet and tart—a wholly fresh perspective on urban, East coast life among the chattering classes after 9/11.

This fall, fifty-something McCauley undertakes his second stint at Brandeis as the Fannie Hurst writer-in-residence, a one-year appointment reserved for writers of “national renown” and held previously by the likes of Saul Bellow and Galway Kinnell. McCauley first filled the endowed position in 1991, then, as now, teaching highly popular fiction-writing workshops. In between these two appointments, he has been writer-in-residence numerous times at Brandeis and held similar positions at Wellesley, Harvard, and UMass, Boston.

Stephen McCauley
           Stephen McCauley
While critical and commercial success has been McCauley’s constant companion for two decades, he grew up in Woburn, Massachusetts, as an outlier in his own family. As a kid, McCauley was the lone recreational reader and writer in a family that wondered aloud why he didn’t just put down his books and watch television with the rest of them. After graduating from the University of Vermont in 1978, he held a series of jobs—kindergarten teacher, travel agent, yoga instructor, house cleaner—all of which reappear in his writing to full comic advantage. 

In the 1980s, McCauley moved to Brooklyn and earned an MFA at Columbia. In 1987, his debut novel, "The Object of My Affection," was published to critical acclaim. The New York Times Book Review called it “surely one of the best books about what it is like to be young in these crazy times.” It was the first time, McCauley says, that he wrote anything in a tone intended to be comic. In the novel, George Mullen, a gay kindergarten teacher, is kicked out by his lover, only to be rescued by sympathetic Nina Borowski, whose apartment and life he readily moves into. Just as the two are settling into domestic bliss (sans sex) she discovers she is pregnant by a suffocating boyfriend who wants to marry her. The book was adapted into a hugely successful film starring Jennifer Aniston and Paul Rudd in 1998.

Between 1992 and 2001, McCauley wrote "The Easy Way Out," "The Man of the House," and "True Enough." The latter is his personal favorite because it departs from his usual first-person narrative. His sixth novel, tentatively titled Insignificant Others, is on the cusp of completion. Though McCauley laments the almost “biblical gap” in publication dates between his novels, his literary output seems quite respectable given the Herculean effort he puts into teaching. To be a teacher who elicits near-reverence from former students is no mean feat.

“He has this incredible sensitivity and observation; he taught me how to structure a story, how to build characters,” says Andrew Slack ’02, who took a screenwriting course with McCauley a decade ago and after graduation gained entrée into the Boston comedy-writing world through McCauley. “He was one of the best teachers I ever had.”

“As a teacher he was delightful and, of course, definitely funny, with his very dry wit,” says Kendra Fortmeyer ’08, an aspiring fiction writer living and working in Durham, North Carolina. She took a fiction writing class with McCauley, who later became her thesis adviser on a collection of seven short stories she wrote. “In class he was very sensitive. He always had a feel for the emotional atmosphere in the classroom; he knew who could take criticism and who needed a gentle touch.”

“I work very hard at creating a classroom atmosphere that is deceptively casual, an atmosphere where people feel comfortable talking—and I’m proud of the fact that students come up to me and say that they never talked in class before,” says McCauley. “It’s not necessary to write a New Yorker-level story to have a successful workshop experience; it’s about learning the craft of writing, and, ultimately, becoming a close, careful reader.”

McCauley’s own literary m.o. is to start with a character in a central situation, then “meet” the character’s friends, spouses, and in-laws. “I follow the characters around to see what interests me; needless to say, this leads to a lot of dead ends. I am an incredibly inefficient writer,” he notes.

His novels are funny and compelling because the main characters possess an irresistible but authentic mix of self-deprecation, dysfunction, and self-delusion. They possess emotional depth, despite hilarious moments of narcissism and near-constant glibness. Mostly gay, they are outsiders, albeit of the most engaging and entertaining sort, like William Collins, who hopes selling real estate in a boom market will supplant his obsession with casual sex.

“When you’re gay, you understand that, no matter how much more accepting the world becomes, you will always be conferred an out-of-the mainstream status,” asserts McCauley. “Far from being limiting, this position is a great one from which to observe the wonderful absurdity of most behavior. Having lived my entire adult life as an openly gay man has given me an opportunity to see and hear things from people I wouldn’t have otherwise seen or heard. I am grateful for that.”

When asked if he thinks of himself as a “gay writer,” McCauley says, “I prefer to think of myself as a struggling writer.”

Reflecting perhaps a universal truth about humanity, McCauley’s characters lie to themselves even more often than they lie to others. In "True Enough," Jane Cody, a forty-year-old Boston-based television producer married to her second husband, keeps multiple to-do lists full of lies. “Jane Cody kept lists—Things To Do, Things To Buy, Bills To Pay, Appointments To Keep—but because she knew they provided the kind of irrefutable paper trail that almost always got people into trouble at tawdry junctures in their lives, her lists weren’t the literal truth. Some inaccuracies were alibis in case the reminders fell into the wrong hands, while others were there to mislead the people who were likely to read them.”

“I find the richest comic possibilities in the lies people tell themselves,” says McCauley. “Everyone has a guiding central fiction about himself. You know it’s false at some level, but you hold onto it, you invest all your energy into that piece of your identity.”

That doesn’t mean McCauley refrains from injecting his version of the truth into his characters on all kinds of subjects—from religion, spirituality, and politics to ironing, housecleaning, and real estate. In Alternatives to Sex, William Collins echoes the novelist’s opinion when he notes, “For the most part, I am baffled by spirituality. Religion, spirituality’s sturdier cousin, has its drawbacks, for example, being the cause of 85 percent of violent conflict in the world. But at least religions have specificity, systems of punishments and rewards that are spelled out in detail. Religions have a narrative drive in them, and they have, in some form or other, God, that main character to end all main characters.”

“One of the reasons I write is that I like putting my opinions and my observations into my novels and into the mouths of these characters who resemble me in some ways but in most ways do not,” McCauley told Terry Gross in an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air.

Critics praise McCauley for his acerbic wit and emotionally nuanced, comically flawed characters. “A gimlet eye for human foibles,” “blunt and funny,” and “shrewd appealing commentary on contemporary manners and morals” exemplify the acclaim McCauley has received. One Los Angeles Times critic wrote, “McCauley is a social satirist in the tradition of Evelyn Waugh and Oscar Wilde—and, like them, he’s a serious writer indeed.”

“That one is embarrassingly unearned,” insists McCauley, whose self-effacing sense of humor seems to find its highest expression in his protagonists, usually a few years younger than McCauley, to give him some emotional perspective, he says.

Critics aren’t the only ones kinder to McCauley than he is to himself. His readership of mostly women and gay men is extremely loyal, if not vast. “My books are quirky; they have strong elements of tension and story and character, but they’re not heavily plot-driven,” he explains. In France, his bons mots are the object of huge cultural affection. There his books are all bestsellers, and True Enough was made into a French-language movie two years ago. McCauley chalks up his popularity there to a higher tolerance among the French for ambiguous, open-ended storylines. The coup: In 1995 the Ministry of Culture named McCauley to the rank of Chevalier in the Order of Arts and Letters.

Here at Brandeis, McCauley’s popularity can be measured by the number of students who must be turned away from his writing workshops. Typically, twenty-five students apply for his fiction-writing workshop, which is limited to twelve. Says friend Anita Diamant, author of the bestseller "The Red Tent," “Steve is a wonderful editor and a great teacher. I’ve seen him teach at Brandeis and he takes it very seriously; he really connects with his students.” Diamant recently collaborated with McCauley on a play titled A Little Work, to be produced this winter in Detroit. She describes it as “The Man Who Came to Dinner meets NipTuck.”

“Like most teachers at Brandeis, Steve genuinely cares about his students, but he stood out because he is so warm, funny, and generous,” notes former student Andrew Slack ’02.

Add to those adjectives ironic and idiosyncratic, and it seems true enough that McCauley is, as one critic wrote, “the secret love child of Woody Allen and Edith Wharton.”

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