Fortune Favors the Bold: An Interview with Jonathan Dee, author of THE PRIVILEGES

Deephoto Jonathan Dee is the author of four previous novels, most recently Palladio. He is a staff writer for The New York Times Magazine, a frequent contributor to Harper’s, and a former senior editor of The Paris Review. He teaches in the graduate writing programs at Columbia University and the New School.

Provocative and Prescient

The Privileges grants readers a swift and deep plunge into the private life of a fictional Wall Street couple from their wedding day through middle age. Cynthia and Adam are likeable for their witty repartee and ardent love for one another. Adam plugs away at Morgan Stanley for four years while Cynthia elects to stays home with their two young children, but neither of them discovers the deeper satisfactions they had expected from life. Adam moves on to a smaller firm run by an independent maverick investor who loves Adam like a son from the first day. Cynthia’s spirit, however, flags as their good fortune rises. “…she had fallen into the underworld of women with nothing special to do…”, which provokes Adam’s fateful decision to step across the moral boundaries of financial commerce.

It wasn’t enough to trust in your future, you had to seize your future, lift it up out of the stream of time, and in doing so you separated yourself from the legions of pathetic sullen yes-men who had faith in the world as a patrimony. That kind of meek belief in the ultimate justice of things was not in Adam’s makeup. He’d give their children everything too, risk anything for them. He knew what he was risking. But it was all a test of your fitness anyway. The noblest risks were the secret ones. Fortuna favet fortibus.

One Hour, Two Cappuccinos

Randolyn Zinn: When Lehman Brothers folded, where were you in the process of writing The Privileges?

Jonathan Dee: I was nearly finished. The timing of the book’s release was absolutely accidental. It’s kind of been a double-edged sword. I’m conscious of the fact that it helps me out, in that readers have an interest in these figures that they might not have been a few years earlier. But the reason that they have an interest in those figures is that they want to see them vicariously punished. Punished for their greed and punished for their presumed moral inferiority.

RZ: Well, that’s the Dickensian model, the TV drama model. The guilty must be punished.

JD: Sure. Sure. I can definitely understand that desire, not only on the artistic level. I’m capable of reacting viscerally in real life to people like that. RZ: But your aim as a novelist is different. JD: Yes. I feel like…to create imaginary figures in order to join the reader in looking down on them…and to punish them for their moral inferiority to you, just doesn’t seem like a very grown-up exercise. I don’t like reading books like that and I certainly don’t want to spend years writing a book like that.

RZ: I thought about (Milan) Kundera while reading The Privileges, his idea of the novelist’s moral responsibility.

JD: Right. I hadn’t thought of that, but yeah. The novel as realm where moral judgment is suspended, I think was his phrase. You can write a book about people like this without suspending moral judgment but it’s going to be a poor, simplistic book.

RZ: Because in that case the author would be standing outside the characters instead of entering them fully. I think we do admire your Adam because he does what he does for the love of his wife.

JD: Kundera also said the only truth in a novel that’s worth anything is to be discovered by the reader. If you set out when writing a novel to demonstrate principles that you already know to be true, that’s going to be a dead thing. I read that a long time ago, but you learn it slowly over the course of writing several books. If you’re not opening up any critical space between you (the writer) and the characters, then they generate their own morality. In The Postman Always Rings Twice, for instance, what’s so compelling about those characters is that in real life most people would describe them as amoral; when they are, in fact, highly moral. It’s just that they create their own system. In the case of that narrator, it’s his intense passion for the woman that winds up creating its own kind of moral system. So that’s how I think of it.

RZ: It does seem that you’re interested, not only in the private world of people searching for purpose, but the underpinnings of culture and capitalism, how they can steal the individual’s sense of purpose.

JD: Yes, and questions of – obviously, you know, these are not new questions, they’ve been around since Walter Benjamin – the notion of authenticity as it pertains to culture and capitalism–less a study of that, although I do have a weakness for dragging that into the drama — but how that’s reflected in people’s uncertainty of the authenticity of their own experience and even of their own feelings. That’s what Jonas (Adam and Cynthia’s son) goes through in this book. In fact I read one review of this book that posited that Jonas was really the only one in the whole book who was kind of a Jonathan Dee character.

RZ: Jonas is saved by art. He’s looking for the pure. JD. Right, he’s looking in art for what is or isn’t authentic about his own life. He has this strange nostalgia for a time he never knew but he romantically assumes…

RZ: …that it was safer

JD: Safer, yes, and more pure, when things meant what they said and were uncorrupted. He feels he’s starting out from a position of corruption, which in some ways is true. He gets into the realm of outsider art, the perfect sort of land of no corruption for a romantic student such as himself.

RZ: Although you don’t present a romanticized view of being saved by art, in this case, outsider art that is practiced by people psychologically damaged and marginalized by society.

JD: Absolutely. I think the big penny dropping moment for Jonas comes, ironically, when he asks his boss, How much do you think he wants for it? refering to a work he’s trying to return to a gallery owner. He’s not perfectly attuned – who is? — to his own non-academic way he’s been corrupted by his own past and experience.

RZ: Jonas is saved, but April his sister isn’t.

JD: He is, that’s true. At the end of the book what do you think has happened to him?

RZ: Well, you’ve given him a brush with death that wealth can’t protect him from.

JD: Jonas is looking for something without knowing entirely what it is. What he finds in the strange experience in the apartment with the artist is terror, pure and simple. What it does, ironically, is open his eyes to what’s good about being so rich. He wants to be safe. His instinct, at least in this moment of post-concussion, is to go back home, go back to those things he fled, and pull up the drawbridge behind him. He got more authenticity that he bargained for. At the end of the book he talks about renaming himself, starting the cycle all over again. His parents are sentimental about family, but the key to it is that they’re year zero, interested in the family that comes after, not before them. Jonas rings that bell in the last couple of lines of the book.

RZ: Let’s talk about that stunning first chapter, which is a tour de force.

JD: Thank you.

RZ: It’s like a Flaubert set piece, the carnival scene in Madame Bovary. Your prose has become more concentrated since Palladio. Was that something you were working on?

JD: The formal problem the whole way was basically speed.

RZ: And as a consequence, it’s funny. It’s got the rhythms of comedy.

JD: It covers 20-plus years. It originally was shorter, but some things had to be added. I wanted it to move fast enough so that the characters didn’t have the leisure of looking back.

RZ: You collapse time with concision. The opening of Chapter 2, for instance.

Time advanced in two ways at once: while the passage of years was profligate and mysterious, flattening their own youth from behind as insensibly as some great flaming wheel, still somehow those years were composed of days that could seem endless in themselves, that dripped capriciously like some torment of the damned.

Dee cover
Jacket Photograph: © Simon Marcus / Corbis

RZ: Were you always going to begin with the wedding and move chronologically?

JD: Yeah. Accompanying this idea of moving fast meant no flashbacks. It was hard to solve that problem and I’m not sure I solved it perfectly, but I settled on this structure where there are the big chronological gaps between chapters but no flashbacks to fill them in.

RZ: I also thought of Jane Austen in your supporting characters because each is a perfect poisoned teacake. And how is it that you so render adolescence so well?

JD: (laughs) Ring true to you?

RZ: Spot on. How did you go about doing that?

JD: I don’t know what to say. Maybe my own adolescence made that big an impression on me and I never left it behind completely.

RZ: I had a thought this morning about one of the effects of that first chapter. Because it introduces us to an array of characters at the wedding of Cynthia and Adam, it raises the expectation that the following action will be populated with extended family and friends. In fact, the opposite is true.

JD: It settles down.

RZ: With a sense of isolation for Adam and Cynthia. Are you implying that the limited contact with extended family makes it easier for Adam to step into the taboo territory of financial crime?

JD: For both Adam and Cynthia, a big part of the momentum they carry into their adult lives has to do with putting their own families behind them. And not for bad reasons, really, in each case.

RZ: But the children suffer for that.

JD: Yes, they do, they do. It seems not all that extraordinary, self-invention. I know a lot of people who do that. Self-invention is a crucial part of who they are and how they move through the world Self-invention begins at home. They have to dissociate themselves from what came before and to break the sense of connection from what came before, which they both do quite ruthlessly.

RZ: Writing the opposite sex can be tricky. How do you approach it?

JD: Um, I never think of it as that challenging, honestly. I think of other challenges as bigger. Writing as a teenager is harder. Writing as a very old person is harder. I think one thing that might have helped me out practically speaking…somebody was saying the other day, oh that part in the book where Cynthia is at home with the kids and adrift, how did you get so perfectly? Well, you know, I was home with my child — which is not to say that I felt adrift — but there was a long period of time when I was living in this world of women. Even on the Upper West Side of Manhattan where you think there would be a high number of stay-at-home dads at the playground, the pediatrician's office…? No. I spent a lot of time in proximity with women in situations similar to Cynthia's. You pick things up even if you’re not aware that you’re picking things up.

RZ: Molly in your previous novel Palladio and Cynthia in The Privileges serve as muses for the men in their lives…which is an age old literary tradition.

JD: Well, yes. Sometimes that serves a passive or objectifying role in art. I hope not in these cases. I hope they’re full-fledged characters on their own who happen to strike a kind of awe in the men around them.

RZ: Do you enjoy writing?

JD: (laughs) Well….no. I mean, yes, I feel engaged by it in a way I don’t feel engaged by anything else. I’m not really conscious of feeling happy when I do it. It’s difficult and, you know, consuming. But like I say, there’s no other kind of work I’ve ever done that makes me feel as engaged.

RZ: How did you begin writing?

JD: I always wanted to do it. When you’re young, there’s wanting to be a writer and then there’s actually wanting to write something and discovering that those are actually two different things. So even when I was in high school and college it’s what I wanted to do, although I didn’t have a whole lot of faith that it would work out.

RZ: And then you went to work at the Paris Review.

JD: Right out of college. That was nice because in a lot of work environments, if you have a secret wish to be an artist of any sort, you might feel that you have to cover it up for any number of reasons. At the Paris Review, everyone was in the same position: working for no money; we were all in our 20s and going home to work on our novel or first book of poems. It was a nice sense of camaraderie.

RZ: Who inspires you?

JD: Flaubert, Forster, and more contemporary people. The last thing I read was a story collection In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by a Pakistani writer Daniyal Mueenuddin, which was fantastic. Another story collection by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby, also outstanding. And I just got the new Joshua Ferris book and I’m excited to begin that.

RZ: Do you carry around a little notebook for scribbling random impressions when you’re out of town doing a magazine interview, say?

JD: No, but when I’m really working, I’ll have stray pieces of paper in my pocket and I will think of things and have folded index cards…

RZ: There is a fair share of disappointment in the writer’s life. How do you cope with disappointment?

JD: There are certain things that are a shock the first time around that you get used to, especially if you write novels. One is that there are very few signs of incremental progress. If this book took five years to write, the first four and three quarters years of that, there was really nothing to show for it other than how many words and pages I had. And then everything happens at once. I tell my students all the time that going through it the first time, it’s very hard to stay patient because you keep thinking there must be something I’m doing wrong. But when you’re doing it the fifth of sixth time, you’re used to it and psychologically it’s less dangerous.

RZ: But that’s more about keeping yourself encouraged.

JD: Yes, there’s professional disappointment. And there’s also disappointment in the writing. I often feel that nothing is ever as good as it was the moment before you started writing it. When you finish it’s more like you’ve wrestled it to a draw. Maybe resignation is a better word than disappointment. The other thing is…in fiction…that you go from having complete control to the complete reverse of that when you’ve submitted to publishers, wondering who is reading your work, that someone is reading it on the subway…and that’s hard to get used to.

RZ: Thank you Jonathan Dee, so much.

JD: Thank you.

Find The Privileges (published by Random House) at Amazon