MJ: One section of the book, which I like to call The Flight of the Parrot, consists of a single 12-page sentence!
MC: [Laughs.] I couldn't stretch it any longer. That's where I ran out of steam. Otherwise I would have done 16. I wanted to have a chapter that would check in on all the characters—kind of a tracking shot like the opening of Touch of Evil or that famous tracking shot from The Shining—where I was swooping in and out of the characters at this moment in the story. Well, who could do that besides the author? And I thought, well, a parrot could do that if the parrot got loose. It just felt like the right way to approximate that was one single uncut sentence.
MJ: Who have you been reading lately that you're into?
Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire "is still probably the single most amazing book I've ever read."
MC: I'm back into Vladimir Nabokov for the 11th time. I just reread Pale Fire—again. And then became completely obsessed with it, again, because I've been obsessed with it before. It's still probably the single most amazing book I've ever read. Now I'm reading Speak, Memory, Nabokov's memoir.
MJ: Anything more contemporary?
MC: The last new book I read—just completely burned through, adored—the Patrick Melrose novels by Edward St. Aubyn. It's a quintet about one character, tracing him from when he's five years old, and then you check in with him every 10 to 15 years or so. He just published the last in the series. It's fantastic.
MJ: In Manhood for Amateurs you wrote about starting a comic book club as a kid. And nobody joined, and that's when you started to feel like a failure. Do you really feel like a failure?
MC: Oh, yeah. Every single day. If nothing else, it's a habit.
MJ: In your work? I mean, as fathers we all feel that way.
MC: Right?! And that's something I contend with every single day. In my work, sure, absolutely. Nothing ever comes out they way I hope it will. That first vision, that initial vision you have of a book, what it's going to be like when it's done, it begins to go wrong the second you start to write.
MJ: C'mon. You must have had some experiences where a book came out better than you'd imagined—what, never?
MC: No. Because when I imagine it, it's perfect!
MJ: Unlike your sophomore novel, Fountain City, which you abandoned to start Wonder Boys. What was that period like?
MC: Long. Dark. Frustrating. Unfulfilling.
MJ: So was your early success a mixed blessing?
MC: I don't think that success was really the issue. I mean, it may have somewhat increased the feeling that I wanted to do something bigger, better, and different than what I had already done. But I would have had that impulse anyway. Other than that, it was just purely aesthetic. The truth is, I think I just wasn't ready.
MJ: And you didn't tell anyone you'd abandoned Fountain City for Wonder Boys.
MC: I kept it a secret. And, thank God, this other book just flowed so easily. I hit on the voice of Grady Tripp, the narrator, instantaneously, magically. I was like, I'm gonna try something different. I opened a file on my computer, started typing, and the words came out: "The first real writer I ever knew was a man who did all of his work under the name of August Van Zorn." It just came out like that. I didn't know who was talking yet or anything, but I trusted that voice. I don't know where it came from. I just followed it. I wrote a first draft of the book in seven months. It was completed in a year and a half, and that was very restorative, salutary experience.
MJ: So I gather you were one of those rare kids who actually knew what you were going to do when you grew up.
MC: I was very lucky. I had parents who loved to read fiction, who talked about it at the dinner table. I learned how to read at the age of four and immediately took with it, and was constantly reading. At a certain point I just had that fan-fiction impulse: You get so much pleasure from the primary work that you want to create a secondary work of your own to have it keep going. When I was in sixth grade, my English teacher assigned us to write a short story. I was in the throes of a deep infatuation with Sherlock Holmes and Arthur Conan Doyle and The Seven-Per-Cent Solution by Nicholas Meyer, which is a really great pastiche of Sherlock Holmes. And that really kind of gave me the clue that, wait, I could make my own Sherlock Holmes stories? How cool would that be? And I loved doing it. I loved imitating the voice of Doctor Watson and telling the details right. And I got an A and my parents gave me praise and that was it. I knew what I wanted to do.
"When I'm writing solitude feels very good. But when I'm not writing it feels lonely... Having a big family solves that problem."
MJ: You've described yourself as a solitary kid, and you chose a solitary profession. What possessed you to have four children?
MC: [Laughs.] Well, when I'm writing, solitude feels very good, but when I'm not writing it feels lonely. And then, I'm kind of shy and not super social naturally—that's a learned behavior. Having a big family solves that problem. For my wife and I, it's going to be a good 27 years of having people in the house, so I'll never have to worry about feeling lonely. I always have a whole crew around and they're into cool things and doing cool stuff and they like watching the same kind of movies and read the same kinds of books. We have our own little fan club going. My family ended up sort of taking the role I was unable to fulfill when I tried to create the Columbia Comic Club.
MJ: How do two bestselling authors, and prolific ones at that, manage a quartet?
MC: Well, that's why school was invented—to give your parents some peace and quiet during the day. I'm mostly working at night and so it's nice and quiet.
MJ: And you're nice and groggy in the morning.
MC: Exactly! I don't get up, usually. I get up two mornings a week, early, to be with them, and sleep in the other five.
"I'll go anywhere I find that is quiet, has no internet. I have a big internet problem."
MJ: And then you go off on little writing benders.
MC: Yeah. Routinely. I'll rent a place, borrow a place—my speaking agent has a little cottage that he loans me, up in Petaluma. I'll go anywhere I find that is quiet, has no internet. I have a big internet problem.
MJ: Do you wish all this technology would go away?
MC: Well, no. It's because I love the internet and it has been incredibly useful and I have made discoveries that have been immeasurably crucial to my work—things I don't know how I ever would have found out otherwise, that are perfect, just what I need for whatever I'm doing. And with that very truth is the pretext for all the bad stuff. Because I have gotten so much out of it that I can always justify or rationalize it to myself. I'll think, "Oh I'm just going to take three minutes to find out who made the spark plugs that were used in Mustang airplanes that they used during World War II." Two hours later, I'm, you know, looking at the Partridge Family fan site or something like that, and listening to "I Think I Love You."
MJ: [Laughs.] It's called procrastination.
MC: It's more insidious, because you're being incited to it. Procrastination is something you do yourself. You know: "I gotta sharpen these pencils before I start. I got 20 pencils, they're looking kinda dull." Well, the pencils aren't calling you and alluring you and inviting you and offering you anything. They're just sitting there. You're the one who's procrastinating. The internet is actively trying to get you to stop working.
MJ: [Laughs.] You mentioned a speaking agent. As this shy, socially awkward person, how do you feel about public speaking?
MC: That's different. That's a performance. That's easy. I have a hammy side of me that enjoys that.
MJ: Has anything else in your career come close to Fountain City in terms of disappointment?
MC: No, I've never had to abandon anything major and significant.
MJ: I guess this is the moment to ask about John Carter, whose script you helped revise.