Literature : Interview

Down and Out in Austin, TX

by Jack Palmer

Kevin Quinn, the protagonist of James Hynes’ latest novel Next, is anxious. He is fretting about his life, his job, his girlfriend and to cap it all, the threat of terrorism. These are fears that affect us all, growing keener as we age. Hynes identifies middle-age as a time when it “takes more to delight or astonish you.” Next confronts these fears, and in doing so, locates more than enough to delight and astonish.

Next is set on a single day, modelled on Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, as Hynes discusses in our interview. The author introduces Kevin as he lands in Austin, Texas, far away from his native Ann Arbor. Finding himself with free time before a mysterious interview, he starts following the girl he sat next to on the plane–named Joy Luck for the novel he noticed her reading–and begins his journey around Austin. He follows her because she reminds him of an old flame, and here lies the real direction of Kevin’s journey: into his memory. The possibility of such a large upheaval in his life forces Kevin to carefully examine his life, to decide what he wants to do next.

Hynes is a brilliant and comedic writer, and Next is an extraordinarily powerful and emotional novel. I recently interviewed him via email.

Jack Palmer Where did the idea for the novel originate?

James Hynes I don’t remember any specific moment of inspiration, but I do recall that from the start, I was interested in doing two things: writing a day-in-the-life novel about an ordinary guy at a crossroads in his life, and writing about everyday life in the post-9/11 world. The first thing was mostly a matter of professional curiosity: my previous four books had been serious novels (at least, I thought they were), but they all had elements of genre fiction in them—of the thriller in my first book, and of supernatural fiction in the next three. I wanted to see if I could write a straight, uninflected literary novel about an ordinary man, more or less in the manner of Updike or Richard Ford, with none of my usual genre touches—magic or ghosts or zombies—and still make it entertaining. As for the Age of Terror theme, I didn’t want to write a 9/11 novel per se, but wanted to look at how the continuing, overhanging threat of sudden, arbitrary violence might affect an American character five or even ten years after the original attacks.

JP Recently there has emerged a focus on work in fiction, and Next addresses the issue strongly. Kevin is in Austin for a job interview and throughout the book he strongly sympathises with those in dull retail jobs. Was it your intention to create ‘recession literature’?

JH Not as recession literature per se. Bear in mind that I started the book in 2004 and finished it in the spring of 2008, long before the worst of the current recession. The recession started earlier in Michigan, where much of the novel is set, but even there, I had to add a few paragraphs during the editing process to reflect how much worse the Michigan economy had become since I started the novel.

That said, I’ve always been interested in writing about work, especially dull jobs; I’ve had more than a few of those myself. When I was starting out as a writer in my twenties, Orwell was a huge influence on me; I read all of his books and essays, and was particularly impressed by Down and Out in Paris and London. No doubt under his influence, the first novel I ever attempted to write was set in the kitchen of a restaurant in a small Michigan town and followed the lives of the young cooks, waitresses, and dishwashers who worked there.

JP Kevin is a proficient fantasist throughout the book and his two main subjects are women and terrorism. Was there any authorial desire to associate the two, or are they just the particular themes that dominate his day? Perhaps Kevin’s constant flirtation excites the same element of risk that the prospect of being so close to death also touches upon?

JH The main answer is a personal one: I started writing this book shortly before my 50th birthday, and only a few months after my 85-year-old father died. So Kevin’s preoccupations with death and sex (or, as an academic acquaintance insisted on calling it, Thanatos and Eros) were, right from the start, no doubt a reflection of my own midlife preoccupations: loss of loved ones, fear of my own mortality, loss of youthful vigor, nostalgia about past relationships, all balanced by increasing regret, melancholy, etc.—the whole depressing litany of middle age. Fear of terrorism is just a few extra pounds added to the weight of anxiety people my age already carry around every day. In fact, here’s a telling story: for the first year or so I worked on the book, I conceived of Kevin as a 35-year-old, until finally my agent, Neil Olson, told me that he seemed more like he was 50. Which was Neil’s gentle way of saying, you’re not fooling anybody, Jim.

In terms of the story though, I figured that since this was an unusual day for Kevin—he was in a strange city, contemplating a complete upending of both his personal and professional life—it was plausible that he would be more inclined to reflect on his past history. And, given that he was contemplating leaving his current girlfriend, it seemed to me that he was more likely to be sexually attuned to the women he sees or meets, since he already sort of thinks of himself as “looking” (as they say on Facebook). This would also help explain why he spends much of his day reviewing his romantic and sexual history.

JP I am intrigued by Next’s relationship to Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, which you quote in the epigraph along with an excerpt from Woolf’s diary that was later worked in to Mrs. Dalloway. Both books are set on a single day, focused around a culminating event—a party, an interview—with a protagonist reflecting on their life, particularly their past loves. Was Woolf’s book a model, an inspiration or is it a matter of coincidence?

JH I very much had Dalloway in mind as I was writing Next; I read it twice during the four years it took to write the book. So it was both an inspiration and a model, not just of a day-in-the-life novel, but in the way the narrative shifts in an instant, often mid-sentence, from the present to the past and back again. I can’t claim to have hit Woolf’s level, of course, though maybe my book is a little funnier. Dalloway is one of the definitive high modernist novels, after all, while mine is more modernism lite.

Several other writers and novels were influential. I already mentioned Updike’s Rabbit books and Richard Ford’s Frank Bascombe novels, with their laser-like focus on the minutiae of a man’s day-to-day, and often moment-by-moment, experience. And I was also inspired by reading another modernist classic, Italo Svevo’s Zeno’s Conscience, which is the detailed, and not entirely reliable, reminiscences of a not particularly likable guy.

JP What was your approach to writing about terrorism? In Next, Kevin’s fear of terrorism becomes almost comic—was there a desire to demystify it? Were you nervous about addressing the subject?

JH I wanted to look at it head on, but as part of the gritty, grainy texture of everyday life rather than as a more synoptic, political view that took in the roots, context, and consequences of terrorism. My first novel, The Wild Colonial Boy, was structured as a thriller, but it was also an examination of the roots of terrorism from the point of view of its practitioners, as something that grew partly out of real oppression, but also out of a sentimental and largely unreflective culture and mythology (Irish, in that case). It dealt in some detail with the politics of a terrorist group and climaxed with an IRA bomb going off in an art museum in London; in Next I wanted to reverse the angle, to ignore politics and write about what it felt like to be an ordinary citizen who has to live with the thought every day that, for example, a bomb could go off in my local art museum. As I said in my earlier answer, Britons and Europeans in general have lived with that for years, but it’s still pretty new here. I live in Austin, Texas, and the city’s downtown is right under the flight path to and from the local airport, and nearly every day I see planes crawling slowly over the skyline, and every time I’ve seen one in the past nine years, I can’t help but think of 9/11. I ended up giving a moment like that to Kevin, in the book. Did it make me nervous to write about it? Every freakin’ day.

JP Kevin is preoccupied with racial profiling and the identifying of things as foreign. Yet he, as a Midwesterner in Texas, feels utterly out of place. Is his fear really a terror of the unknown? Does a single American identity exist?

JH I think much of his fear comes, again, from being middle-aged, when he’s entering that time of life when a person’s psyche becomes a little more crusted over and a little less flexible, when it takes more to surprise you, but it also takes more to delight or astonish you. There’s that fear of mortality again—take it from me, it hits you hard when you wake up one day and realize you have much less time ahead of you than you have behind you—which gets coupled with a fear and resentment of all those young people treading on your heels, ready to take your place. It makes you anxious (there’s that word again) and grumpy and a host of other geriatric emotions. It’s something I detect in myself on a daily basis, and which I struggle to suppress, with varying degrees of success.

Does a single American identity exist? In a word, no. I’m a Michigander who’s lived in Texas for 15 years now, and it still often seems like a foreign country to me. (And within the last year, the governor of Texas expressed some sympathy with the idea of secession, so apparently a lot of Texans feel like it’s another country, too.) Clearly there are all sorts of American identities now, so many, in fact, that you begin to wonder what, if anything, they have in common that can mark them as uniquely American. It doesn’t necessarily break down by race or gender, though; once Kevin hears the Asian-American girl Kelly speak, he instantly identifies her as a fellow Midwesterner, and when he sees her walking away from him, her body reminds him of a (white) lover he had many years ago. So she seems instantly less foreign (and more attractive) to him than, say, the middle-aged white Texas woman he meets in Starbucks, whose cultural background (probably evangelical, probably Republican) seems more foreign to him than Kelly’s.

Next is out now from Little, Brown and Company.

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Fiction
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