You capture the mixed blessings of adolescence— as well as the environment of a small town
—perfectly in The Book of Joe. You grew up in Riverdale, New York, which is very urban. How did you come to understand small town life so well?
Riverdale is actually a strange mix of urban and suburban. And while, on it's own, it doesn't seem like a small town in the classic sense, there are sub-communities, built around schools or synagogues or churches that function exactly like small towns; You see familiar faces wherever you go, and in many cases you know more about them than you should, thanks to the gossip mill, and in many cases they probably know more about you than you would like. Everything you do is colored with this awareness of the audience of your community, and that is the essence of small town life. Small towns are a vital staple of popular fiction, from Stephen King to Richard Russo, and I think the reason the concept is so universal is that we all live in small towns of our own making.
Which character(s) in The Book of Joe do you identify the most with? How much— if any—of the book is autobiographical?
The Book of Joe's story and all its characters are completely fictitious. Obviously, there are certain things Joe is going through that originate from my own storehouse of anxieties and neuroses. He's discovering as he gets older that the things he thought would fulfill him are leaving him empty, and the things he was adamant about not needing are suddenly the only things he really wants. That being said, I also relate heavily to the character of Jared, Joe's nephew, who is angry over things he can't quite articulate, and wants to be regarded differently than he is, but has no idea how or why, and instead retreats into an ironic sulk. I think a lot of him comes from my own teenage years. So Jared and Joe both have aspects of me from different times in my life, and only at this moment has it occurred to me that both of their names start with 'J', just like mine. Go figure.
Much of The Book of Joe alternates between the present-day storyline—Joe returning to his hometown because of his father's condition—and the "past" storyline that shares what happened when Joe was a teenager. Did you write the "flashback" scenes first or were you writing in the sequence that we are reading?
It probably would have made sense to write the back story in one sitting and then break it up, but that's not how it happened for me. This story unfolded very organically, with only a flimsy outline, so while I had a basic idea of what had happened back in 1986, I only fully realized it as I wrote each flashback. However, once the book was completed, I did go back and reconfigure the flashbacks, moving some parts around where I though they would balance out better with the events happening in the present, or to better maintain the level of suspense as the story moved forward.
The Book of Joe has a strong voice. You mastered a conversational style, which makes the reader feel as if he/she is hearing the book, rather than reading it. Have other people told you this?
Yes. It's been very gratifying, actually, because I've always been very character driven, and the fact that people respond to Joe's voice mean that he's coming across as a very real person.
We know that Tom Cavanagh, the star of the television show, Ed, is the narrator on the audiobook of The Book of Joe. His voice is perfect. What did you think when you heard he was going to do this reading?
Tom was actually my suggestion. 'ED' came out while I was writing The Book of Joe, and at first I was upset because it sounded so similar to my own premise that I was worried people would think of it as a knock-off. But the show had great writing, and Tom has this great delivery, ironic without any nastiness, quirky, sensitive and funny as hell when the moment demands it. I was thrilled when he agreed to do it, and he did a fantastic job. One of the most surreal moments of the whole Book of Joe experience was walking into the recording studio while he was doing it and hearing my words being spoken in his voice. It sounded exactly like I pictured it would.
Peer pressure, family relationships and self-confidence are all major themes/issues in The Book of Joe. What do you want readers to take with them upon finishing the novel?
I'd like them to simply think that it's never too late to make positive changes in your life, or in yourself. It sounds kind of hokey when I say it like that, but there it is. Joe goes from being a sullen, selfish loner, a self described asshole, to suddenly seeing the value in caring for others. We all carry around a certain degree of anger or resentment toward members of our family, and letting go of it is never easy, but infinitely rewarding. I actually heard from a sound engineer on the West Coast who worked on the audio book, and when he was done he called his father for the first time in over four years. So I think forgiveness is a big theme in this book too; seeking it and giving it.
In The Book of Joe, Joe finds himself having trouble with his second manuscript. Did you find this to be the case in your own life after your first novel, Plan B, was published?
Actually, I did take much longer with the second book. Once I'd become a published novelist, the opportunity for failure seemed that much greater. Now it was mine to lose, and what if the first time had been a fluke. Thankfully, The Book of Joe has gotten a fantastic reception in the industry, but that only serves to make me crazy with the book I'm writing now. I'll always find a reason to worry and struggle. It's the curse of every novelist, I think. If I were happy, I'd be miserable.
The relationship between Joe and his agent is an interesting one. How much does this mirror the relationship between you and your own agent?
My agent is only like Owen in that he's extremely sharp and blunt. He'll tell me in a flash what he likes and hates about whatever it is I've just written, which makes him a great gauntlet to run before I show anything to the publisher. So I do count on him to tell me the truth, even when it's painful. However, we're both family men, so there's not a whole lot of wild drinking and partying going on, and all the more colorful aspects of Owen, the arrogance and debauchery, are purely fictional.
The Book of Joe has recently been optioned for film adaptation by Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston. Are there any updates you can share with us about this?
Miguel Arteta (The Good Girl) has signed on to direct, and Doug Wright (Quills, I am My Own Wife) is in the middle of writing the screenplay. I'm thrilled that Warner Brothers has attracted such immensely talented artists to the project, I think it bodes well. Beyond that, I pretty much try to stay out of their way, although I do think Tom Cavanagh would make a great Wayne and I suggested that to one of the producers.
You received a master's degree from the creative writing program at NYU. When did you begin writing?
The first story I remember writing was in 4th grade, a sci-fi thing that was a blatant rip-off of Jason of Star Command. In college I began writing short stories and won some contest, but never really admitted to myself or to anyone else that it was what I wanted to do. instead I just wrote these snide little articles for the undergraduate newspaper. I wrote my first novel while I was in the NYU program, and it was pretty incoherent, but there were sections that were really good, and I saw that I could maybe make a go of it. A year or so later I was on a flight from LA to NY and saw Robert Downey, Jr., and the idea for Plan B hit me. I wrote it in about eight months, and landed an agent a few months after that.
What writers have influenced you?
Richard Russo, Jay Mcinerney, Brett Easton Ellis, Tom Perrotta, Tim Sandlin, Kurt Vonnegut, Joyce Carol Oats, Stephen King. In more recent years, Jonathan Lethem, Michael Chabon, Dave Eggers, Alice Sebold and Augusten Burroughs.
What are you working on now and when can readers expect to see it?
I'm finishing a novel about a long absent father who attempts to reinsert himself into the dysfunctional lives of his now grown children. It's funny and sad and, I hope, ultimately uplifting. It is scheduled forSpring of 2005 from Delacorte.