A writer’s journey from journalism to fiction to television

One of the best books I read last year was the pungent novel “Fleishman is in Trouble” by Taffy Brodesser-Akner. Studded with surgical social perceptions, mordant laughs and vibrating relevance, it’s dubbed a “timely exploration of marriage, divorce, and the bewildering dynamics of ambition.” If you’re married, or divorced, beware: It has teeth.

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I attended a recent discussion and Q&A with Brodesser-Akner, led by one of her editors at The New York Times Magazine and complemented by a full house of admiring readers. The discursive confab was funny, at times boisterous, always sharp.  

The author is well-known for her smart and sassy celebrity profiles in the NYT Magazine. Among her most famous, and infamous, subjects are Bradley Cooper, Tom Hanks and Gwyneth Paltrow. Some interviewees have not been taken by her resulting articles, but, as a one-time celebrity profiler, I had to applaud when she said that she couldn’t care less what her subjects think of what she’s written about them; she cares only what her editors and her readers think. Truth first, feelings second. Or even sixth. 

Brodesser-Akner’s novel — a smash bestseller, award-winner and named a best book of 2019 by numerous publications — is being turned into a TV series for FX that she is writing with utmost fidelity to the source, she says.

With a showy, dimply smile, big laugh and swift, expansive wit, Brodesser-Akner regaled some 100 fans, chatting about her book’s characters and motivations, responses to the novel, the jump from journalism to fiction, family, parenthood, marriage and TV writing.

Some snippets:

 — “I always just wanted to be a writer. I always wanted to make my money writing. I went to film school because I wanted to be a writer and that program had no math or science requirements, which fit my educational criteria. I fell into journalism when I found out after college that they didn’t just hire you to write screenplays. I looked in The New York Times, which used to have a robust jobs section, and there was a job there for a magazine called Soaps In Depth. And I got a job there. A year later, because of my tremendous productivity and my rapport with my subjects [she laughs], I was approached by a larger soap opera magazine.” [From there, she contracted with GQ and the Times.]

About writing personality and celebrity profiles: “You come in with the stakes being pretty low. Profiles have been so done to death that all you have to do is make sure they’re true, and then you can experiment with them. It’s like what they say about chefs and roast chicken: When chefs all get together they make for each other roast chicken, because that’s the thing you’re supposed to show from this place of plainness what you can do with it. And that’s how I think of profiles: the roast chicken of journalism.” 

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On midlife, a looming theme in the novel: “Midlife is pretty shocking. I did not know how confusing it would be at this particular age. It’s like a second adolescence. But at least when I was an adolescent I thought I knew what I was doing. Now I know enough to know that I don’t. And there’s the constant strains of contentment and being distraught being in line with each other. It’s the way I feel about the suburbs. I can walk down the block and think, ‘This is beautiful. Wait, what kind of person finds this beautiful?’ That’s middle-age for me.” 

About turning “Fleishman is in Trouble” into a nine-episode TV series: “I am writing it now, and it is very hard to write television. They want it very faithful to the book, at least for the first season. They talk about a second season because that’s all they can do. That’s all TV executives do. They’re sharks; they can only swim forward. They want it to mimic the book as much as possible, which sounds easy and it is not. What’s hard about it is if you think about what my specific skills are — when there is no story, I can still write a story. I came to prominence on a story about Nicki Minaj in which I went to interview her and she remained asleep for the duration. I wrote 6,000 words about it. It was a rollercoaster.”

On going from magazine to fiction writing: “Magazine to fiction writing was amazing. Because the book was like a profile — that’s how I kept it in my head, it’s just a long profile that I’m making up. The hardest part of it was, whereas I think I’m a decent observer of people, to make people up and then have to observe them is to kind of deny what is so amazing about people, which is that they always contradict themselves and they’re unpredictable. Whereas creating something is to make up a series of predictable things.” 

“When I decided to write (the novel), I had this gut feeling of: ‘Oh, this is the one.’”

Brilliant bite-size books

I might be a tad late on this, but I’ve just discovered the marvels that are the mighty, mini hardbacks of the Picador Modern Classics series. I’ll be brief, out of breathless excitement and, well, what can I possibly add to the unadorned fact that these books exist and that, from what I can tell, there are only 12 titles available in this novel (pun, intended) format?

So, like the books themselves, I will be compact. 

But I repeat, with a shill’s enthusiasm, I am enamored of these brilliantly itty-bitty books, which are about the same dimensions of an iPhone 11 — if thicker, more paper-y, less glassy (and, alas, devoid of Siri’s seductive, dulcet tones). 

At less than six inches tall, the books are made for pockets, but they are still chunky, quality hardbacks, running about $16 list. They’re so adorable and beautifully designed, they’re practically edible, or at least highly collectible.

I just finished Christopher Isherwood’s devastating novel “A Single Man” in the Lilliputian edition. (My review: radiant.) Now I’m re-reading Marilynne Robinson’s lyrical 1980 masterwork “Housekeeping.Rarely do I get the urge to make a phone call on it, as mostly I’m wholly aware it is a book.

Other titles in the Picador collection include Denis Johnson’s masterly, evergreen stories “Jesus’ Son”; Joan Didion’s indelible essays “Slouching Toward Bethlehem”; Jeffrey Eugenides’ breakout novel “The Virgin Suicides”; Michael Cunningham’s shrewd reinvention of “Mrs. Dalloway,” “The Hours”; and Susan Sontag’s landmark study “Regarding the Pain of Others.

That means there are five more worthy titles to check out in the series. Do so HERE.

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Random reflections, part V

A freestyle digest of stuff — anecdotes, lists, thoughts, opinions … 

paul-rudd-headed-to-netflix.jpgIn 2007 I interviewed actor Paul Rudd at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas. He was charming, funny and absurdly laidback. As he answered one of my questions he blurted out a lengthy, earth-rattling burp. “Whoa,” I laughed, “what flavor was that?” Rudd replied: “You know what’s weird? It wasn’t a flavor so much as an actual scent, like a potpourri, a mixture of peppermint and brisket. I went to (barbecue joint) The Salt Lick last night, and I ate brisket. I’ll tell you something: It was very different than my Nana’s brisket.”

51Joc3GzvtL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Ben Lerner’s “10:04” is a breed of intellectual masterpiece, a novel I’ve praised here before. His 2011 debut “Leaving the Atocha Station” is also remarkable, the work of a poetic brainiac with torrents to say, crackling with life observations. His new novel, “The Topeka School,” is his most acclaimed yet — and I’m not sure why. I read fully half of it, and while the writing is pristine, the thinking impressive, I got lost in the choppy, distracting narrative thread. Unmoored, I put it down, migraine emerging. Yet I’m not through with the scandalously young Lerner. I’m taking “10:04” on my 14-hour flights to and from Japan — my third communion with that radiant auto-fiction.

My list of favorite cities has shifted just-so over time, and will likely keep doing so. For now: 1. Paris (eternally tops);  2. Istanbul;  3. Tokyo (this may change after my upcoming visit); 4. New York;  5. London;  6San Francisco;  7. Sevilla;  8Amsterdam.

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Numero Uno

The New York Review of Books is hallowed home to academic think pieces about all things, from politics to poetry, by some of our most prodigious and stylish writers: Zadie Smith, Adam Kirsch, Marilynne Robinson, Jonathan Lethem, Rachel Cusk. Why then do I find the essays gassy, tedious, enervating, as long and dry as the Sahara? Never, not once, have I read more than a third of one. (It’s me, I know.) 246x0w.jpgRightful cult classics, “John Wick” and “John Wick: Chapter 2,” starring a lank-haired, bullet-proof Keanu Reeves, are action-flick orgies, chop-socky pistol poetry of a kind unseen since the heyday of John Woo’s “The Killer” and “Hard-Boiled.” I could barely wait for this summer’s “John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum.” And then, ugh. Grindingly repetitive (though that urban horse chase is nifty), drawn out and mired in its own smug formula — with a wider narrative scope that attenuates rather than expands the affair — this one is all diminishing returns. The film runs 131 minutes. I quit it, bored, fatigued, with 40 minutes left to go. This Wick is no longer lit.

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It’s still hard to reckon, a year after his death, that American novelist Philip Roth never won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Like most awards, it’s a scam, a sham. Roth was one of the greatest, dwarfing most writers who have indeed won the prize. That he received only a single Pulitzer — for 1997’s astonishing “American Pastoral” — is itself a gross dishonor. Every once in a while this pops into my head and I get all rankled. philip-roth-e1545164284312.jpg

Gusty and blustery, a wind storm howls, churning treetops like crumpled paper, flinging acorns that pelt cars and roofs, dropping like small rocks, falling leaves twirling, the house creaking, windows rattling and Cubby the dog, shaking, leaps into my lap, where he curls into a donut, glancing up with fraught brown eyes that say, simply: “Papa.”               This lasts all day. img_0832.jpg

When I wrote about film in Austin, a particular local celebrity didn’t like me. That’s because I didn’t write super stuff about her — one Sandra Bullock. I thought she was a cutesy hack, all dimples and snorts, with dismal taste in roles. Knowing she told a colleague that she wanted my “head on a stick,” I won’t deny a small surge of pride.

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“Ms. Congeniality” —   enough said.

The profundity of art. Or not.

I had long worried that I was incapable of having a profound experience of art and I had trouble believing that anyone had, at least anyone I knew. I was intensely suspicious of people who claimed a poem or painting or piece of music ‘changed their life,’ especially since I had often known these people before and after their experience and could register no change. … The closest I’d come to having a profound experience of art was probably the experience of this distance, a profound experience of the absence of profundity.”

— from the novel “Leaving the Atocha Station” by Ben Lerner

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Random reflections, part IV

This painting kills me. It’s titled “Brave Cone Dog” and it’s by a wry, puckish character named Brandon Bird, who makes very witty pop art. I don’t have much to say about the minimalist image, because it speaks (morosely, piteously, hilariously) for itself. I own a framed print of it, and everyday it stirs in me an emotional milkshake. 

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“Brave Cone Dog”

This I like, from a recent book review: “Walter Benjamin wrote that a truly great sentence is one that’s been burnished to perfection, then sabotaged in some respect. Wounded or weakened just sufficiently to seduce.”

As a kid, I was a quivering hypochondriac. To wit: At age 7 I had a cramp on the left side of my belly that lasted a couple hours. Convinced it was appendicitis, I curled into a ball in my parents’ empty bed and envisioned horrors of surgery and gloom and, yes, death. The cramp subsided and I proceeded to watch TV, tear-streaked. Around age 9 I had a swollen bruise on my knee that I mistook for a malignant tumor. I crumpled on my bedroom floor in a sleeping bag, too distraught to clamber into bed, and imagined losing my leg to certain amputation. Later, I calmed and accepted that it was just a bruise and I watched TV, tear-streaked. I still often misdiagnose myself, hurling me into fleeting, fluttery hysteria. Then I watch TV, tear-streaked. Reader, WebMD is your foe.

In this week’s “By the Book” column in The New York Times, singer-author-badass Patti Smith is asked “What’s the last great book you read?” She replies:

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Recently I was captured by two small, addictive works. “Kingdom Cons,” by the Mexican author Yuri Herrera, floored me. … And “Star,” by Yukio Mishima, is a startlingly modern, hypervisual jewel; it could be a really interesting movie. Both books were mesmerizing, seeming to fall in my hands from an alternative sky.

As I’m doing a semi-immersion in Japanese literature and film in preparation for a fall trip to Japan, I picked up “Star,” which is about a hot movie actor in existential distress. From Smith’s zippy description, I expect glitter and diamonds.

At the cafe today, a 30-something hipster in a wool fedora, four-day stubble and ratty Chuck Taylors sans socks sat next to me, slipped on headphones and went on to loudly tap his feet and roll his head, wearing an imbecilic grin, all but dancing in his seat. I wanted to spill his kombucha. Was I wrong? And: He wore a large thumb ring.

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One of the Japanese movies I’m revisiting before I go to Japan is “Ichi the Killer,” a shock-cinema bloodbath from bad boy auteur Takashi Miike (say: Meek-a). About a kidnapped yakuza boss, his punky minion — a psychopathic sadomasochist whose specialty is baroque disfigurement — and the titular hero, a bullied weakling out for revenge, this notoriously twisted crime comedy was tonic jazz the first time I saw it. Now it mostly plays as an extreme exercise in tedious transgression: How disgusting can we get? Bloated with rape, murder, drugs, gangsters, prostitution, masturbation, self-mutilation, unthinkable torture, disembowelment and ample amputation, the film is set in the sometimes seamy nightlife district of Shinjuku in Tokyo. Which is where I’m staying. 

I‘ve owned pet rats named Phoebe, Becky, Tammy and LaShonda. A friend told me I’d inadvertently given the rats the names of receptionists at construction companies.

The other day I actually saw a guy rollerblading in the neighborhood. That is something you cannot unsee. It’s sort of like seeing someone on a unicycle.

Words I love: blithebloviate, evanescent, loquacious. Let’s add nincompoopery to the list.

Random reflections, part III

“We die — that may be the meaning of life,” said author Toni Morrison, who died Monday. “But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”

I‘ve tried many times to watch “The Princess Bride,” “Stand By Me” and “When Harry Met Sally,” but I’ve never been able to get through any of them. They are ham-handed. They aren’t funny. They clunk. That Rob Reiner directed all of them is strictly coincidental.

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The famous “orgasm” scene, which gets more embarrassing with each viewing.

I swear, Cubby the dog has a perverse crush on the female cat Tiger Lily. He gawkily flirts with her, and her eye-rolling indifference is touching. Such inter-species passion is a spectacle. I sure hope I don’t see a newborn kitten that barks.

I jot in my journal pretty much every day with purpose and the fugitive hope of substance. The author Yiyun Li writes, “How did I forget to start each and every page of my journal with the reminder that nothing matters?” My head nods vigorously.

The last time I went to Japan I got hooked on the sizzling pop art of Takashi Murakami, whose work spans painting, sculpture, fashion, merchandise and animation. It’s fun and whimsical and dazzlingly colorful — and not a little geeky. His subject matter is cute (kawaii), psychedelic and satirical, with well-trod motifs: smiling flowers, mushrooms, skulls and manga culture. Murakami could be the Jeff Koons of Japan. I’m going there soon. My goal is to get Murakami’d, big time.

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My phone’s current wallpaper.

A few years ago I discovered I had an adult-onset allergy to shrimp and prawns. It’s like the second worst thing that’s ever happened to me.

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A fan of novelist Colson Whitehead, I’m deflated by his new, lavishly overrated book “The Nickel Boys.” It lacks energy, momentum and finally fizzles at the halfway mark. So I put it down (I also couldn’t get into his early novel “John Henry Days,” though I’m all about “The Intuitionist” and “The Underground Railroad”) and picked up Haruki Murakami’s “Norwegian Wood.” I’ve read one other Murakami novel, “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle,” and I almost threw it against a wall. The edge is where I live.

Tonight we popped a bottle of Suntory Whisky Toki, “blended Japanese whisky that is both groundbreaking and timeless.” It is silky and smoky with strong, sweet vanilla notes. I think none of us is going to bed.

Quentin Tarantino has made movies. He has made only two masterworks, “Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction.” That was a very long time ago. The rest of his oeuvre seesaws from juvenilia to junk. As critic David Denby wrote on the release of the imbecilic “Inglourious Basterds”: “Tarantino has become an embarrassment: his virtuosity as a maker of images has been overwhelmed by his inanity as an idiot de la cinémathèque.”

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Intimacy is scary. Love is scarier. Someone recently dubbed the phenomenon “the terror of loving.” I like that. Its precision is chilling.

I am typing most of this in the air, row 45, seat G, on United flight 497 to San Francisco. You might say I’m skywriting. Forget I just said that.

Sally Rooney’s growing pains: watching a novelist mature

Sally Rooney’s sophomore novel “Normal People” is soft, stingy with lyricism, psychologically wispy, and not altogether gripping. I like it (I do!), but it isn’t an essential read, and it certainly doesn’t deserve the drooly commotion surrounding its recent arrival. I’d give it an ambivalent B.

Rooney wrote this and her prior, similarly vaunted novel “Conversations with Friends” before she was 28, and both books betray the Irish author’s — here the grizzled elder clears his throat — youth and callow inexperience in love and literature. 

In the latter instance I mean she is a plain, safe, lukewarm stylist, who, while honing a palpable personal voice, lacks the assertive confidence, the prosey musculature of a more seasoned writer. Rachel Cusk she is not.

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Yet the author’s inexperience in tracing the contours of youthful relationships, both romantic and platonic, has also proven her strength, even her selling point. She understands her young characters, their collegiate insecurities and romantic gamesmanship. It has earned Rooney the title of the “first great millennial novelist” from a magazine that should know better.  

“Great” is too strong a descriptive. Rooney’s feathery comedies are decidedly not great. They are good, quite good. Greatness isn’t hers yet. As one publication said of “Normal People,” it is “in some ways like the slightly less impressive follow-up album by a beloved band.” Another called it a rush job.

Still, the sycophantic likes of Vanity Fair imbibe the buzz: “The Church of Sally Rooney started to form around the release of her first novel, ‘Conversations with Friends,’ in 2017. Heralded by everyone from Sarah Jessica Parker to Zadie Smith, Rooney immediately became Someone You Need to Know About.”

It’s the hype-machine in clanking action, unctuous celebrity journalism at its finger-licking gooiest. (Church? Sarah Jessica Parker? “Someone You Need to Know About” in Gen Y caps? Certified bull-bunk.) Elsewhere, some genius crowned Rooney “Salinger for the Snapchat generation.” We can never unsee that.

“Conversations with Friends” and its hasty follow-up “Normal People” are sharp-eyed comedies of manners set in and around Dublin, lightly plotted stories about struggling twentysomethings looking for love, college scholarships, jobs and purpose. Also coming into vigorous play: literature, class frictions, social jockeying and plentiful sex. 

Her dialogue is naturalistic, stripped down, never fiery or memorable, cutting or discernibly clever. The books are light on their feet, fitfully sparking to life with taut passages and startling scenes of social discomfort.  

They are breezy and easy books, eons from the thorny ruminations of Philip Roth or plush poetics and thematic heft of Toni Morrison. They’re more like Anne Tyler lite. 

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Amid stubbornly lean prose, literary beauty is scarce. Two passages in “Normal People” poked me in the eye for their uncharacteristic flair: “The sky was extremely blue that day, delirious, like flavored ice,” Rooney almost effuses.

Only 12 pages later, she again swoons over the amazing azure of the heavens: “The sky is a thrilling chlorine-blue, stretched taut and featureless like silk.”

But she’s just playin’. Her allergy to the florid is concrete. Typical sentences, surgically removed of metaphor, run more like this: “Lorraine covers her mouth with her hand, so he can’t make out her expression: she might be surprised, or concerned, or she might be about to get sick.” That, reader, is on the more colorful end of the Rooney spectrum. 

Last week “Normal People” crashed the NYT bestseller list at No. 3. Maybe it deserves it. I enjoyed it for all my nitpicking. Yet I wonder who reads Rooney with the avidity of Sarah Jessica Parker or Zadie Smith (who at Rooney’s age was already a true literary giant). 

Rooney’s smart little beach reads — people boast about how they gulp her books in one sitting — are crisp divertissements. But they are lacking, in weight, import, poetry, the stuff of lasting literature. I give her a B, for now. Though the promise she shows tells me that grade may rise with each new book. We read and watch. And hope.