Episode 6: Stephen McCauley
[Sarah] Hi, everyone, I’m Sarah, an English UDR.
[Rachel] And I’m Rachel, and I’m also an English UDR.
[Stephen McCauley] And I’m Steve McCauley, and I am Co-Director of Creative Writing.
[Sarah] Thanks so much for joining us today. Our first question that we have for you is: What’s exciting to you about the current literary scene? As a writer who directly contributes to the scene as a novelist, what do you expect to see more of in the future?
[Stephen McCauley] You know, I think there are actually a couple of exciting things going on in the world of books and publishing right now, and for me, one of them is the resurgence of popularity of independent bookstores. In 2008, between the financial crisis and the emergence of e-books and the ascendancy of amazon, the conventional wisdom was that by 2019, independent bookstores would be quaint cultural artifacts like a manual typewriter or something. And in fact, the opposite has happened. There are new bookstores opening up all over the country, many of them are doing very well, and they’ve figured out ways to navigate the retail landscape to make it work, most effectively by banding together. So, some small bookstore in Belmont, where I just was two minutes ago, or, not two, has no power or influence in the industry, but when they all get together, they have much more collective power. So that’s exciting to me because independent bookstores can make books accessible to readers that larger concerns wouldn’t be able to do. They really establish relationships with their readers and their customers and so on.
And the other exciting thing is that I think publishers are making a genuine commitment to diversity in the kinds of books that they publish. There are way more African writers being published right now by American publishers. There’s a publisher called Europa Editions which publishes translations – you know, English translations – of European novels, and novels really from all over the world. A friend of mine is an agent and she just represented this book that she’s describing as a Muslim Pride and Prejudice that’s getting a huge amount of attention and interest from not only the publishing world but also tv and movies and so on. And my publisher, which is a very commercial publisher, a few years ago published the first young adult transgender novel written by a transgender author. So, all of those things are really exciting, and I expect that there will be more of that, at least for the foreseeable future.
[Rachel] That is so exciting. So, I’m assuming you’re someone who frequents bookstores, then, and enjoys reading. Is there a book that you’ve reread or would choose to reread just because?
[Stephen McCauley] I am in a phase of my life where I’m doing a lot of rereading, and I love rereading. Because you see things you didn’t see before and compare your understanding of the book now with the way you interpreted it ten years ago or twenty years ago. I think the book I’ve probably read more times than any other is The Great Gatsby because I used to use it in my workshops, and I would reread it at least once a year, sometimes twice a year.
But in terms of books that I haven’t taught, I think the book I’ve reread the most is Madame Bovary because Flaubert is just such an amazing writing teacher in a sense in that novel. Every paragraph contains something about point of view or voice or use of detail that is incredibly useful and exciting to writers, and just beautiful to readers.
[Sarah] Yeah. Going off that, what’s a book that you want to write? Maybe next, or in the future?
[Stephen McCauley] In general, I would say a hugely successful one, but since that’s not something you can control and doesn’t seem very likely … you know what, I was thinking about this, when I first began writing, what I really wanted to write was a suspense novel, kind of like a thriller. I’ve had nine novels published now, and they’re all more or less the same genre, which is kind of comedies of manners. They are intended to be comedic in tone, they’re about relationships and so on. Maybe about four or five years ago, whenever I got frustrated working on the novel that I was writing, I began writing in this beautiful – I have a little fetish about notebooks, I love really nice notebooks. I have this beautiful notebook from Turkish airlines that I began writing this suspense novel in, and I’ve been working on it for four years just making notes and chapters. And last summer, I sent probably about 35 or 40 pages of it to my editor, along with 35 or 40 pages of something else that I was working on. I said, “You choose, what do you think I should write?” To my shock, she said “I think you should write the suspense one.” And then two days later she called me back and said “You know, I’ve shown this around at the publishing house to different editors and marketing people and so on, and I’m gonna change my mind, I think you should go with the other one.” But my plan is to write, after I finish what I’m working on now, I’m going to write that psychological thriller. In my mind, it’s like a Patricia Highsmith kind of novel. She wrote The Talented Mr. Ripley and other books. Of course, it’s not nearly that good, I’m not that talented, but I think it’ll be my swan song to publishing. There’s something about, when you think about it, horror and comedy that are actually linked in the sense that both of them depend very heavily on surprise. So maybe it makes sense.
[Rachel] I’m really excited to see that.
[Sarah] Me too!
[Rachel] If you weren’t teaching, what would you be doing? And, actually, we’d like to hear about your sort of unconventional career.
[Stephen McCauley] I don’t really know what I would be doing if I wasn’t teaching. I never had a plan B, which kind of makes it sound like I had a plan A, but I didn’t really have a plan A either. I live my life professionally in somewhat the way I write novels, which is to say intuitively and just seeing as far ahead on the road as you can see in the headlights and figuring out the rest as you go along. About, I think it was around 2003, I hadn’t been teaching for a number of years, and I wasn’t eager to get back into it, but I needed to figure out something to do with my life. I began looking into nursing programs because when I was a kid, my ambition was to be a doctor, and then a number of things came about that made that highly unlikely if not impossible. I don’t know if I actually would have gone through with that, but maybe that’s one thing? The other thing, I enrolled in a bunch of psychology programs after I graduated from college, thinking that I was going to go into some form of psychotherapy, and I did go into some form of psychotherapy, but as a patient, not as a clinician.
As for my career path, I’m not sure it’s been that unconventional. I feel as if it’s been a lot of luck in certain ways. I had random jobs to make money and get by when I was younger. Then someone told me about MFA programs, which I didn’t know anything about. And I enrolled in one, and I wrote my first novel there and I was very lucky to get it published, and that led to a teaching job, and one thing has kind of followed after the next. Not because of any plan, but that’s just been the way it’s worked out, so I feel very lucky.
[Sarah] Going back to before you were a writer, what you were like in college?
[Stephen McCauley] Brilliant, talented, extremely popular, ha ha. I was very unhappy in college. I liked the academic stuff, but a number of things happened to me in the middle of my college career that were difficult, and it left me very estranged from my family and a little bit more on my own than I expected to be at that point in my life, and I made a lot of really bad decisions. That shaped a number of years of my life in an unfortunate way. But what’s good about that is that I have a lot of friends who look back on their college career and they say “Oh, those were the best years of my life” and look back with nostalgia and longing, and I never do. I feel very fortunate to have gotten through that period in whole, and it’s all been uphill since, so that’s been kind of great.
[Rachel] That’s good to hear.
[Stephen McCauley] Yeah
[Rachel] Let’s see, at that point of your life, in college, could you have foreseen where you are today?
[Stephen McCauley] No, I couldn’t have, because coming from the kind of background I came from, it was impossible to imagine making a life of writing and teaching. So that was not something I could foresee. But on the other hand, if I think about a life that I might have designed for myself at that point, it would probably look very much like the life I have. It’s amazing to me to have been published as I have been and to have been able to make a life of writing and teaching. Again, I feel very lucky and very grateful.
[Sarah] Yeah, that’s great. What’s something that you enjoy doing outside of work?
[Stephen McCauley] Um, let’s see -
[Stephen McCauley] Who’s there?
[Elizabeth Bradfield] It’s Liz.
[Stephen McCauley] Oh, hi, Liz, I’m doing an interview!
[Elizabeth Bradfield] Okay, I just wanted to say I’m here, come find me!
[Stephen McCauley] Okay, great, thank you!
[Rachel] I think we should leave this in.
[Stephen McCauley] So, something I enjoy doing outside of work, I mean I enjoy doing pretty much anything other than working is the truth. But some things I really like to do – I love to ice skate. It feels like a very rare pleasure these days because I especially like skating on ponds, and the conditions just have to be perfect, and they almost never are anymore. I play the ukulele, really badly, and I do a lot of yoga. I really take a lot of pleasure in that. I have been doing it since I was a teenager, and those were the days when you could only find a yoga class in a church basement somewhere. There were no things like yoga studios the way there are now. That’s been a real source of pleasure in my life.
[Rachel] That’s fantastic. Okay, this is our last question: Could you tell us about the most interesting place you’ve ever been?
[Stephen McCauley] Yeah, well, when I was in my 20s, I worked at a travel agency for about six or eight years. It felt like an eternity, but I think that’s what it was. In those days, travel agents got incredible benefits. You got 80 percent off any airline ticket to anywhere you would go, and you frequently got upgraded to first class, which wasn’t nearly as nice as it is now, but coach wasn’t as bad as it is now, so it all balances out. But these tour companies would give you these amazing trips like two weeks in Egypt for 200 bucks, with the idea being that you’d then go back and sell the trip to your customers. So, I did a lot of traveling in those days and went to a lot of interesting places, but I discovered in the midst of that that I don’t really like travel that much and that I hate being a tourist. I mean, I really hate being a tourist. I find it alienating at best and creepy at worst.
So, I think the most interesting place – there was a period of about nine years where I rented this little cottage on a 500-acre estate on the eastern edge of the Adirondack park in New York. It was a very remote area, and it was this amazingly beautiful estate that had been in one family for generations, and there were these massive pine trees and ruined rose gardens and overgrown tennis court on the banks of Lake Champlain, pretty much, and gazebos with the roof falling in, and so on. You know, there was no tv, there must have been a landline, but I don’t remember, there were no cellphones, and there was no internet. I would go there for three months. I think it was so interesting to me because it was very romantic. I thought of it as this Chekhovian estate with all of this history behind it somewhere. And also, because when I was there, all I was doing was reading and writing for months at a time because there weren’t many other options. It was the inner activity that made the place so interesting to me
[Sarah] Sounds amazing for a writer’s life.
[Stephen McCauley] Yeah, it was nice. Then it got too isolated, and I was like “What, get me out of here, I’ve had nine years of this, I think that’s enough!”
[Rachel] Well, thank you for telling us about that and thank you for sharing all these wonderful things. I feel like I’ve learned so much about you, and I’m sure our listeners will feel the same way.
[Sarah] Thanks so much for being a guest on OpenBook.
[Stephen McCauley] Thanks for inviting me.