a conversation with Jenny McPhee      


Bold Type: Is The Center of Things your first novel?

Jenny McPhee: Yes, I wrote lots of short stories before I sat down to write a novel.

BT: When did the original hardcover edition publish?

JM: July 2001.

BT: That turned out to be a tough time in which to publish a book...

JM: There's never a "good" time to publish a book. The way I look at it, the stars align perfectly, align somewhat, don't align at all and what contributes to that alignment is a mystery. I was very happy my book was published and I think it was published very well.

BT: And now Ballantine is publishing the paperback in October 2002...

JM: I'm so excited. I love that my book will have a new life.

BT: So how was your experience with publishing a novel? I know you did Girls (a nonfiction book, with two of your sisters, Martha and Laura) and I know that you've written short stories...

JM: The weird thing about publishing a novel is that before it is in print, you have an idea of what you have written. Once it's published and you have, one hopes, a number of readers, the book becomes a different book for each of them. I find that both a wonderful and scary experience. Talking to people about my book often frightens me initially because I'm not sure they will have read what I think I have written. But after I overcome that first fear, I, through them, discover the most fascinating things about my book.

I have done a fair number of readings, which always fill me with trepidation because I have pretty severe performance anxiety. Nevertheless, of all the elements associated with the publication of my book, I think readings and the Q&A afterwards is my favorite aspect. I have also been to talk with a number of book groups. There is no high like sitting around with people who have read and thought about and enjoyed your book.

BT: How did writing a novel, instead of short stories, affect your style?

JM: In my short stories, I felt the pressure to get it all as near perfect as I could in a short amount of space. In the novel, I kept telling myself, "Go ahead, you can fix it later." I felt more free to make mistakes, to explore, to have fun — and in fact, my style did change. For example, there is very little humor in my short stories.

BT: I found Marie, the main character, really compelling. A lot of people write books with so-called "plain" female protagonists. Marie is described as "plain" in all the marketing copy for the book, the book description, etcetera. But, really, she's extraordinarily complex. So why give her what some people may think of as a "stereotypical" plain appearance?

JM: Marie sees herself as "plain." I actually see her as extraordinarily beautiful. I am interested in perspective and how our perceptions of ourselves and our world can vary so radically from moment to moment and from person to person. Marco also can be perceived as either a homeless guy in the library or a radical-chic library lounger with an independent income. It all depends on who is looking (...and here Marco would find a parallel with quantum mechanics and the observer question.)

BT: Speaking of Marco — I think some readers will think a character like Marco is completely unlikely — some really strange, well, stranger with whom Marie forms a sudden, expected relationship — in a public library no less! Did you find making Marco believable a challenge?

JM: The seed for Marco's character came from an actual encounter. I was taking a course at the New School and I was in their reading lounge. This guy came up to me and started to talk to me about the book I was reading. I wanted to get rid of him because I got this strange vibe about him, but I wasn't rude. Eventually, he left — but not before giving me his card which indeed had his name and next to that "Freelance Intellectual."

Marco for me is, on one hand, very real — if I had to pick one character I feel myself to be most like it is Marco. But, on the other hand, he is also very much an ideal, in that he apparently doesn't suffer from the trappings of real life — a past, a job, a family. I didn't feel the need to make Marco real in the sense of, "Could such a person really exist?" I think the glory of fiction is that we are allowed to play with the real. But I did want him to be utterly absorbing as a character. To really answer your question: there was nothing not challenging about Marco.

BT: The three subjects that you use to frame the story are really a unique combination — quantum physics, tabloid journalism and film noir. How did you ever think to pair these three subjects in a novel?

JM: One of my main interests in writing is to throw disparate things together and to see what emerges. Of course you never know — the project could have just fallen flat. But I took a leap of faith and enough sparks flew to keep me, and I hope others, interested.

BT: How did readers react to all the quantum mechanics in the book?

JM: Many people told me they just skipped the science parts. Many others told me that it was the science that they found particularly gripping. As I said, everyone takes away something different from a book. As a writer, you just hope they find something to like in there.

BT: It's actually fascinating how well the physics eventually ties up the story. I admit — I was sort of dubious about how quantum mechanics could illuminate Marie's journey. But, in the end, even I was convinced of its integral place in the story! Did you know how well the physics would segue with the ending — or was it a surprise to you?

JM: The whole experience of writing a book is a continual surprise to me. The way things connect during the entire project is just flabbergasting. Things that seem so entirely obviously connected in the final draft were not even considerations in the first draft. I know it's been said ad nauseum, but it is really true that the unconscious is finally what makes art.

BT: And Nora's sister, Maud. You mentioned the story about Nora and Maud came from a real-world experience. Do tell!

JM: Another seed from autobiography inspired the story of Nora and Maud. My fabulous grandmother, author of the line in the book that people like most to repeat — "The more I get to know other people, the better I like myself" — came to New York City from Ohio to go to nursing school in Brooklyn, posing as her older sister. Her sister had been accepted at nursing school but was unable to go because her father became sick. My grandmother took on her sister's identity, changed her name, and lived a life that was at first intended for her sister. I have four sisters and my identity is very much tied up with theirs in such fascinating ways. I loved the idea of exploring the relationship between sisters through an actual identity switch.

BT: A lot of Bold Type readers are aspiring writers. Tell us about how you came to being a writer. And then, how you write.

JM: Well, of course, my father is a writer so it was in the air, in the genes. And my mother also is a writer, although by profession she is a photographer.

My first love is probably reading. I get such an immense pleasure out of reading. I love to write, too, but there is a lot of angst involved with it. You feel so very exposed all the time, even when you're alone in front of the computer. Then, once the book is actually published — Oh my god! What exposure! It's really hard.

How I write: I'll quote John Berryman once again — "Most of life is wasted time." I waste a lot of time. I procrastinate much of the day. I don't actually write that much but I do it every day. I have found after a lot of trial and error that the only thing that will ever work to actually get a book written is consistency. If you write even just a little bit every day eventually you will have a book. One more process point is being able to throw out whatever doesn't work, no matter how brilliant you think it is. As I was writing The Center of Things, I had a junkfile. By the end of the book, the junkfile was longer than the book I turned in.

Being a writer takes an enormous ego. As people often say to me, "Who needs one more book?" No one needs another book, but I need to write books. I want to write books. That is what I have chosen to do, so I do it as best I can. It's a pretty weird (and wonderful) thing to sit around trying to mine your imagination for a living.

BT: How important is the editor in the process? A lot of people wonder what exactly it is that editors do. Can you explain it to us?

JM: As a former editor myself, I know that an editor is crucial. At a certain point, you can no longer see what is working or what isn't. My editor, Amy Scheibe, took my book when I thought it was as done as I could get it and made a pretty good book a much better book. She really transformed it. She did that with both subtle and radical suggestions. One example is how she changed Rex's name. His name was Rick. Of course, now I can't imagine that his name could ever have been anything else. And changing his name from Rick to Rex made him into who I wanted him to be — an aging teen idol that Marie thought she was in love with.

BT: I almost hate to bring this up, because I imagine you've answered about a billion questions about your father throughout your lifetime. But, I noticed that every review of The Center of Things includes a reference to "Jenny McPhee, daughter of John." How do you deal with that association?

JM: In college, I almost died when the college newspaper came to interview me for a story they were doing on "famous people's children." (The story centered on me and Victoria Price, Vincent Price's daughter.) I never really thought of my father as that famous. Now, Vincent Price — how I loved his films! For so many reasons, I found the whole thing entirely humiliating. I went underground for a long time after that. I never told anyone I wrote. I used a pseudonym when I submitted stories. But after a long time resisting the unavoidable, I finally realized I was expending way too much energy denying something that I am actually very proud of. After all, he is my father, he is a fabulous writer, he has taught me a lot about writing either directly or by osmosis.

BT: Is it hard having 5 sisters who are also writers?

JM: I love it that I come from a family of writers. There are a lot of aspects about writing that, if you don't do it, are hard to explain. It's nice to have sisters that understand exactly what I'm going through when I say I spent the whole day on the telephone and got nothing done. They understand that what happened to me was not simply lazing off, but that work is not going well — I am avoiding my work, unable to tackle something difficult and so on. They automatically understand. When I get a bad review, they know what it feels like. When I get a good one, there is some envy but mostly there is just joy because they knew what it took to even produce a book that could be reviewed.

BT: In a few weeks, you and one of your sisters, Martha (who also wrote a novel, Gorgeous Lies) are heading out on an author tour together. What is that like? Are you anxious about having two very different novels to talk about in each venue?

JM: As for two very different novels, as I said, when you put disparate things together something interesting is bound to come out. What we're curious about is where our work actually intersects. I love going on tour with Martha. We did it for the Girls book and it is sheer fun. You are not lonely. You can decompress and dissect the whole experience afterwards with someone who was seeing the whole thing from a similar vantage point. (We often have different interpretations of exactly what happened, which makes the whole thing even more entertaining.) Also, the hardest work has been done — the writing — and there's really nothing you can do about that now except enjoy the experience of the book.

BT: Do you write full-time now?

JM: No, I have a job at The Italian Academy for Advanced Study at Columbia University curating their film program. A dream job which allows me time to write.

BT: What's next?

JM: Work #2. The dreaded second novel.

- Interview by Allison Heilborn

author's page
Bold Type

Bold Type
Bold Type
    Photo credit: Pryde Brown Photographs