Joe McGinniss Jr.
Dirty VegasInterview by Brandon Tietz
To say that the debut novel of Joe McGinniss Jr. delivers would be cliché and about as clever as an episode of Wife Swap. His book, aptly titled, The Delivery Man, does more than that.
Fresh off reading Imperial Bedrooms, a novel that Ellis hints at being his last, I was left with a few misgivings—most notably, the fact that I had devoured the thing in no time. Amongst my gripes about how I’ve possibly seen the last of one of my favorite authors, along comes our book club guy talking about McGinniss Jr.
“He reads a little bit like Bret,” he said.
A few Amazon clicks and days later, The Delivery Man is in my living room and I’ve done a little research in the interim. His father, Joe McGinniss Sr., was a New York Times bestselling author. Subsequently, he would go on to teach a young Bret Easton Ellis right around the time he came out with a little novel called, Less Than Zero. Regarding McGinniss Jr. and his tale of twenty-somethings behaving badly in gritty Las Vegas, I didn’t expect much. The bar felt too high. I was too busy looking up at the impossible standards set by his predecessors to see the kick in nuts coming. The Delivery Man is that good.
Joe recently took some time out to talk with me, the topics ranging from ignorant Amazon reviewers to why we hate vampires, and of course, that city of sin known as Las Vegas.
BT: You’ve got some literary blood in your veins. As some may or may not already know, your father, Joe McGinniss Sr., is also a writer and managed to land on The New York Times bestseller list at the age of twenty-six with his first book, The Selling of the President. How much of an influence did your father’s writing career have on you becoming a novelist?
JMJ: Not much. My mother raised my older sisters and me. We spent weekends with my father and I lived with him for a year when I was in middle school (when he was writing Fatal Vision). I never wanted to be a writer. It seemed tedious. I just remember him on a typical day during the year I was living with him: shuffle around the kitchen making just enough noise to wake me up, walking upstairs, closing the door to his office at some ungodly hour, seven or eight, turning on the typewriter, that hum I can still hear, pounding away until lunchtime, then back to the kitchen, then back upstairs until five or six. Every day. Sundays off. Dreadfully dull. No appeal at all to a thirteen-year-old. I was into politics and thought writers were simply people who observed and reported what other people, important people, did. So his writing career, of which I couldn't be more proud and in awe of, had zero impact on my desire to write. If anything, it kept me from considering writing for much too long.
BT: I’ve read pretty much every blurb and review I could find on The Delivery Man for this interview. There’s a ton of praise, but there’s also those people whose expectations are completely out of whack. This one was probably the most ignorant (from Amazon):
“I had high hopes for this book as I have been a big fan of Joe McG, Sr. This is not his father's book. I can't believe anyone really liked it…”
JMJ: An Amazon reader review? Ruh-roh...
BT: Hold on, though…let’s put that logic into a more ridiculous context:
“I had high hopes for The House Bunny because I’m a big fan of Bruce Willis and the Die Hard movies, but Rumer Willis is not her father. I can’t believe anyone really liked it.”
JMJ: Rumer Willis? Sweet Jesus, I'm old...
BT: How do you respond to something like that? Is it a common occurrence that people expect to be reading a carbon copy of your father’s work?
JMJ: Good question. Generally speaking, no. He wrote almost exclusively non-fiction, one novel called The Dream Team about horse racing and a young successful author (what a reach!) who goes off the rails with his newfound success (another reach). Anyone who reads my father's work is usually the parent or grandparent of my typical reader. So the idea that they'd be disappointed that my novel about teenage sex-workers in Las Vegas wasn't a carbon copy of my father's devastating portrayal of sociopathic green beret surgeon who murdered his wife and two daughters or his account of Richard Nixon's television media campaign engineered by Roger Ailes, is no surprise. But it's uncommon. Most readers of books tend to be more intelligent (Left Behind series aside), so they know what they're getting into if they pick it up.
BT: The Delivery Man often gets compared to Less Than Zero quite a bit, and in a way, I can see how those two dots are connected. There's a scent of Ellis in the writing. How your book largely differs is that where Ellis gives us the privileged and wealthy in characters like Clay and his group, whereas you give us characters who have to hustle for their money, and on top of that, are living well beyond their means. What made you decide to take on that particular demographic of twenty-somethings?
JMJ: Partially because I don't know the wealthy, privileged life. I do relative to the way my wife grew up. But my mother was all blue collar, father worked at GE Plant in Pittsfield, Mass and she raised us alone on a nurse’s salary (and alimony). But there was a real middle class thing going at home. So Chase and Carly and their mother came easier for me. As well, I didn't care about the young trust fund fuck-ups. I mean, so what? They're bored. They're unmotivated. They're doing crazy shit. They're in and out of rehab. They score a reality show. They kill someone. I cared about kids who couldn't afford the chances they were taking. I met so many sad, young women in researching this book who were from all sorts of sad little places, flying around the country, staying in nice hotels in DC, NYC, Boston, Dallas, LA, booking appointments with men via Craigslist, putting their lives on the line, literally. (Through my source, when she was in Washington, DC on 'business,' I was introduced to a very nice young woman, gave her a copy of the novel, who tragically, was subsequently murdered by someone dubbed "the Craig’s list killer" in a Boston hotel, an appointment my source booked). They wanted the wealthy lifestyle, the Audi, the nice house, the life that otherwise seemed out of reach but was now, thanks to the Internet, within reach…walking the tightrope without a net.
BT: So I’ve got to ask, in your research process regarding a “profession” where time (company) equate to money, were you required to pay for this information or were these women openly willing to share? Also, what attached you to the idea of sex trade in the first place as a basis for the novel?
JMJ: I did, in one instance, pay $100 in cash to “MaryBeth” for breakfast with her and her “colleague” after picking them up from their Bethesda Marriott and driving them to the Omni Shoreham in DC. She needed the cash and I needed time with them to hear stories. I paid for breakfast, too. Got some great little nuggets that went directly into the novel (see: Aubrey from El Cajon – suburb of San Diego). It wasn’t so much the sex-trade as it was the exploitation of younger and younger women in the popular culture, the blurring or erasing of boundaries and lines that used to exist, the Internet and Craigslist and American Apparel catalogues and MTV and the Real World and “sluttiness” and greed and Paris Hilton and how far do you take it? How far do vulnerable, self-conscious wannabe celebrity teenage girls take it? Fiction often does and maybe should exaggerate to make a point. That’s why I chose younger girls and sex for money.
BT: I think most authors that I've spoken with have that definitive day in which they started taking writing seriously. "Seriously," as in: this isn't casual anymore and I want to write and sell a book. Was this the case for you? If so, what do you think was the catalyst?
JMJ: Yes. I was in graduate school, getting my master's in public policy. In the mornings, debt piling up, I wrote what I thought was a novel. It was a mess. But I LOVED doing it. I'd tired of politics/policy after pursuing it since high school and creating a fictional world was a means of escape. It was the only thing about grad school that brought me pleasure. I would spend most of my time in class sketching character traits or scenes instead of taking notes. I was an idiot too. I was SURE I was writing a novel and that it was good. Why? Because it was coming so easily and because it was so much fun and because I had just picked up Less Than Zero and Play it as it Lays (from my mother's bookcase -- original hardcover printing -- killer picture of Joan Didion on the back looking so f-ing cool), and man, it read so easily, it must have been so easy to write and since my "novel" was practically writing itself, I was going to be a writer!
I made the mistake of sharing this "news" with my father. Actually, in retrospect, it was the best thing I could have done. At the time though, he couldn't have been more opposed to the idea. I was twenty-eight and he had no control over my life, wasn't paying for school, barely keeping his own writing career going. He wrote these blistering emails warning me that it was the biggest mistake of my life -- thinking I could make a living writing (he may be right). But he told me: STOP! Do NOT proceed. Find a career that brings you satisfaction, maybe work on a novel over years, in your spare time, but no matter what you do, how hard you try, writing will never bring you one ounce of the satisfaction you think you deserve. And it's not enough to want it...you have to need it, more than money, more than love. And even then, forget it.
That scared the shit out of me. I read those emails over and over. Printed them. Highlighted the most damning sections. He hadn't read a word of what I was writing, (which, by the way, I threw out). He just knew it was an impossible course to navigate and, as my father, felt it was his responsibility to warn me. Those emails would become the greatest motivation.
BT: This is actually doubly bad because it’s coming from your father who is already in the field you’re trying to get into. I can see how that would fuck with you a lot more than some random person saying you’re going to fail. You can shake it off because they more than likely have no idea what they’re talking about, but from a guy who’s been doing it for years—it’s hard not to listen. What’s interesting to me is that he didn’t have the foresight to see you’d rebel. So tell me this, how did it feel when you inked your book deal for The Delivery Man? Cathartic? And what was your dad’s reaction?
JMJ: My father never stopped rooting for me, and worrying, and fearing the worst. Ha! But he knew the game. He answered his calling and made it big time, then suffered a long stretch of anonymity, great books that didn’t sell, then broke through again and had an amazing run, then went through hell, then worse, then back again, maybe. So coming from him, it meant too many things to go into, boring psycho-literary crap that no one cares about. The real “Holy Shit” moment and catharsis/elation moment came when I got an email back from ICM saying that they would be calling. January 12, 2007, 3-ish in the afternoon. Agents were EVERYHING to me when I didn’t have one, as they are with every aspiring writer. How to get an agent? And once you have one, you think you’re there. And in many ways you are. And my father was beyond proud and relieved and just plain thrilled.
BT: So, in the vein of your work not being like your father’s...when you wrote yours, did you have particular group of people in mind or are you a write-for-yourself kind of guy?
JMJ: It's all about emotion for me...and using writing and the novel to channel it. I never set out to write for people other than in the most general sense, i.e., I want people to read words on a page and FEEL something. But it's not about specifics or demographics...something lights a fire in me and compels me to write…whatever turns me on: vibe-wise, tonally, character-wise. Okay, it's much simpler and I'm rambling, but I write what I want to read. Period.
BT: What is that feeling that you were going for? I gotta say…I couldn't shake this sensation that I had no control. I always felt like your characters were playing too fast and loose to get away with it (sex trade) forever...always on the brink of that one wrong move that would fuck everything up for them. I'm mostly referring to your female lead, Michele.
JMJ: Good...that's the goal, right? When you were writing Out of Touch wasn't there something that you couldn't shake or that you at least felt the reader wouldn't be able to shake as they read...some sensation, whether dread, fear, some tension, the uninterrupted dream that fiction can create. Michele is this completely manic, broken woman...and her beauty and drive are hopefully keeping the reader turning the pages. She's relentless as though she was promised....something...and goddamn it, she was going to get what she was promised.
BT: It was like I was trying to see something deeper in perpetually shallow people with mine. And it's weird how that came off more like a feeling to me than a character study. Regardless, I couldn't shake it and continue to think about it still. I know Michele is technically your second lead in book, but she's got such a hold on Chase that she's essentially pulling the strings.
JMJ: Yes. She's the one.
BT: And I liked that fact that he was conscious of this, yet continued to let it happen. That came off more real to me. I've seen guys let that happen. Fuck...I've been that guy before.
JMJ: Haven't we all? Most of us…some. Okay, a couple of us.
BT: The few "lucky" ones, yes.
JMJ: But yes...sometimes people need an excuse. For stasis. I'm not putting this or my work or characters in the “Leaving Las Vegas” category but I just watched that movie again.
BT: I watched The Hangover today.
JMJ: (laughs) Great flick! Actually love that opening…the shots of Vegas…really well done.
BT: I gotta ask...having never been to Vegas myself, I've pretty much gauged it how it's presented to me in movies and whatnot: a place where everything is dunked in glitter and deep-fried, prostitutes and slot machines everywhere but no clocks. Seriously, is Vegas basically like a fun nightmare?
JMJ: Sure...if that's what you go for...it's everything you expect and less, but if you go with your eyes open, then it's really quite something. Ten miles off the strip and you're in some of the most beautiful desert landscape in the world. Red Rock Canyon, Spring Mountain, and if you look around with your sociologist glasses on, you see something so fundamentally American taking place. People who live there...it’s mostly because it's a last resort kind of place, and a place where anyone willing to work can make a living. I should say, work HARD because there don't seem to be a lot of easy jobs in Vegas.
BT: I know you went over there to research for this book. Two years, was it?
JMJ: Oh no…not that long. I spent probably (combined) about a month or so over a few years. Most research was reading and interviews with Las Vegas natives.
BT: Flying back and forth from D.C.?
JMJ: Yes...or L.A. I was there with my wife for a while before we got married…went there for a few days on our honeymoon, too...because of the book. She's amazing. It was July in Vegas.
BT: Oh Christ, I don't know if my girlfriend would let that fly. You're a lucky man.
JMJ: Beyond lucky. Only reason there is a book is her…not an exaggeration. She'll never read this (no offense, she's a consultant and mother, no time)...so I'm not kissing her ass.
BT: Are you like me where your significant other is always the first person to read your new stuff?
JMJ: YES! And she grew to DREAD IT...and I was TERRIBLE and so damn immature about it. I grew up...but yeah, she's the bullshit detector. The tension when I knew she had some pages and was waiting for a reaction?!?!?! Brutal. I hope you were better about it.
BT: Oh, she doesn't automatically love it?
JMJ: (laughs) No.
BT: Okay, mine does. Then I throw my stuff down in workshop and wait for my asskicking. Or at least a few jabs.
JMJ: What kind of workshop?
BT: Chuck’s Writers' Workshop.
JMJ: Sweet. Wow, that's got to be rough...no matter how polished and kick-ass your stuff is.
BT: Well, you have to go through a very long system of critiques and reviews in order to get it in front of him. I've only had my stuff read by him once. That's one more time than most people, so I feel lucky.
JMJ: Big time. How was it? What kind of feedback did he give?
BT: I wrote this piece about Robert Pattinson (pale dude from Twilight) buying conflict diamonds. Half of it was some generic praise and recommendations. The other half was him telling me I can't write about Robert Pattinson and how I'm going to get sued. A book like Glamorama makes you think you can use any celeb name you want.
JMJ: Oh man...does that make you wish you'd submitted something else? So you'd get the full critique and not legal advice?
BT: Nah, not really. I needed to hear it. Robert Pattinson, as big as he is right now, will soon become a dated issue. I changed the name and plan on using him as a main character in something else later. It worked out better that way.
JMJ: No question...his last movie tanked. He seems to be riding the vampire wave, which baffles and disturbs me to this day. I mean, what the hell is it with vampires?
BT: (sarcastically) You know, if you ever get stuck on your new book...just add vampires. That'll fix it right up.
JMJ: Are we all like, 9 years old again?
BT: I don't know...it's like being emo but with fangs. I guess it's fashionable? My sister is all into the shit. I seriously can't stand Meyer's writing.
JMJ: Wait, who's Meyer?
BT: Stephanie Meyer...the author.
JMJ: Has she written anything else? Or did she start with vampires? Was checking Amazon...
BT: No, she started off with those four books and then she did a spin-off of it. Then she did a sci-fi thing about aliens or Mormons or something.
JMJ: That's one brilliant woman...I hate her.
BT: I hate her money.
JMJ: Meaning, I respect the hell out of her…for nailing it the first time out.
BT: So what kind of writer do you classify yourself as? Is the term "transgressive" a complete turn-off?
JMJ: Shit...I wrote one novel...I don't qualify for a "class" or "school" or "style" yet. Seriously, I write what I like to read. If it's not fun, then there's no point.
BT: You don't do this for eight or nine years and it NOT be fun.
JMJ: It's brutal, but yes, must be pleasurable to endure the pain.
BT: What's your process or approach to writing? Do you need four cups of coffee just to get the synapses firing?
JMJ: When I'm into a story...it's usually about reading pages or notes from the previous day, listening to certain songs, looking at images of settings, maps of locales, some good coffee. I'll read other books too...that always helps. There are a handful of authors whose prose gets me fired up. Richard Lange, (Dead Boys), Ryan Harty (Bring Me Your Saddest Arizona), Joan Didion, Bret Easton Ellis, et al.
BT: The Delivery Man was recently optioned for a film adaptation. What details can you share about this?
JMJ: Oooh…want to talk about it but can’t yet. Soon. Happy though. Very, very happy.
BT: Regarding film adaptations, some authors just see it as another paycheck while others see it from the marketability standpoint of being a big advertisement for the book. Which side do you fall on? Do have any reservations about Hollywood filmmaking now that it’s being applied to your work?
JMJ: Both? It’s pay for writing that’s already done. Hard to argue with it. Hollywood, since the demise of independent film, the rise of animatronic 3-D franchise mega-pixel crap, is fucked. We’re all losing because of it. Where are the Paul Thomas Andersons and Tarantinos? Miramax and New Line and all of these great indie companies succeeded when films were profitable, when distribution was doable, when there wasn’t as much competition for people’s attention and entertainment dollar. Now, it’s bottom line in a way that is killing art. Period. Studios bought up/co-opted the most successful indies or started their own brands—Paramount Vantage, etc…then folded up shop because their films were getting killed or not even getting distribution, going straight to DVD. Could "Pulp Fiction” get made today? We’ll see. It’s brutal. And sad. Because the best movies, the most intelligent, moving films are all independents: “Boogie Nights,” “Magnolia,” “Bully,” “Jesus’ Son,” “You Can Count On Me,” “Pulp Fiction,” “Sideways,” “28 Days Later,” “Election,” “Bodies,” “Rest and Motion,” “Rodger Dodger,” “Swingers,” “Run Lola Run,” “In The Company of Men,” “Queens Boulevard” (oh wait, that wasn’t real, was it). Could go on and on. This is like the 80’s all over again in Hollywood. Nothing but shit coming out. Maybe The Delivery Man will help turn the tide. The screenwriter – the brilliant artist Creighton Vero – believes it will. I’m rooting for it.
BT: It’s horrible because—as a viewer, you have to wait through things like “Marmaduke,” “Old Dogs,” and a series of unnecessary sequels about pants that travel in order to get to something like “Inception” or “Moon” or “District 9” (I could also go on and on). I think as non-casual moviegoers, our tastes are so refined that the movie industry can’t relate to that since it’s all about target markets and numbers to them, and the artistic side sort of goes out the window or is outright neglected.
For instance, Craig Clevenger is getting his novel The Contortionist’s Handbook adapted to film, starring Channing Tatum who was in “G.I. Joe.” Now we love us some Clevenger around here, but as soon as we heard about the casting, there was a lot of negativity circulating over the use of this guy because (and I’m being nice about this) he’s not really appropriate for the role. Inappropriate, like if Justin Beiber were cast as Tyler Durden.
Okay, it’s a little bit of an exaggeration. I guess my question is: how much of an involvement are you going to have with this process? Do you feel a responsibility to contribute to the film since you came up with the source material?
JMJ: I hear you. As far as level of involvement: it’s not up to me. I want to read the script. If they ask for feedback, I’ll provide it. If they bypass me, that’s their call. I’d like to contribute as much as possible if it improves the project. Do I want them to whitewash it and make Julia white and Michele a blonde from El Segundo instead of El Salvador, of course not. Might they? Who the hell knows. As far as responsibility, I feel a responsibility to my wife and son. Period. Get the best deal possible so that we can get a little closer to some financial security. If my son can have some money put away to help pay for his education, doesn’t matter if they turn it into an animated musical. I’m a bit of a cynic. If they make it, which they won’t because 97% percent of optioned material goes nowhere, it’ll disappoint because it always does (except Jesus’ Son, which was a spectacular adaptation). I know very little about Hollywood but what I’ve seen is ugly. What they produce is often rancid. So if they want to pay for my son’s education, fine. But that’s where I have to learn to draw the line as far as involvement. I have another book to write and college to pay for.
BT: Good deal. So what’s the word on your second book? Is it in any way similar to your first or are you going in a completely new direction? I know you said you're not prolific by any means, but just give me an idea.
JMJ: A title...and a setting. A situation. A young-ish married couple with a young child
moves to a fictional town in southern California, and it's tonally similar to The Delivery Man, edgy, hopefully tense and fast, but is still very early on...they're looking to cut corners, cash in on real estate at just the wrong time...take a year for themselves...to do what so many of my friends complain they never did...move somewhere fun or cool or just different to start over. I like the idea of young, basically good-natured people taking risks with their money, their marriage, their lives even. I keep reading A.M. Homes and she's so fucking amazing (and she knows it too...)
But I can't help it. I love her work...all a little white, but still so much fun and ruthless. My dream team collaboration: Joan Didion, Bret Easton Ellis, and A.M. Homes.
Ten Moderately Hard Questions with Joe McGinniss Jr.:
1) Let’s play a game of word association. I’ll give the word and you say the first thing that pops into your mind: Twilight
BT: Not the answer I was expecting.
JMJ: Cineplex is not a good thing.
2) Who’s the author you love to hate?
JMJ: Just one? okay...can I give initials?
BT: (laughs) I know this. He recently made a list of overrated writers on the New York Times or something. I forgot. I'll have to look it up.
JMJ: Yes...and he and his wife keep getting named to the New Yorker's Best Writers Ever list, like every year...whatever...he does good things with his money.
3) What’s it like living next to the Obamas?
4) What’s your guilty pleasure?
JMJ: Asking my editor how other books are selling according to Bookscan (he has the raw numbers).
5) Better movie about Vegas: "Casino" or "The Hangover"?
JMJ: “The Cooler.”
BT: No way is "The Cooler" better than "Casino."
JMJ: It's my answer...sorry. Honestly, I didn't see “Casino.”
BT: Your favorite movie about Vegas is "Showgirls" starring that chick from "Saved by the Bell."
JMJ: That's my guilty pleasure.
6) What’s the strangest stripper/escort name you’ve ever heard?
BT: That sounds oddly masculine.
JMJ: She was smoking hot though.
BT: Like, in a buxom way?
JMJ: Facially -- the whole thing -- but who knows -- it was dark in there…according to people who went.
7) Favorite alcoholic beverage?
JMJ: Don't drink. No, not recovering either.
BT: So it's NyQuil by default then.
JMJ: Liquid codeine.
8) Someone (a fan) gets your signature tattooed on their body: creepy or awesome?
JMJ: Awesome! Are you kidding? People reading fiction and liking it enough to do that? Sign of hope for the future. People are still reading...books, not just tweets.
BT: Ugh...Twitter...don't see what the big deal is.
JMJ: Sad, really.
9) What's the big deal with Twitter?
JMJ: People just feeling the need to connect, manically, and to have the latest bit of information or "news" no matter how trivial...it's killing our culture and politics, by the way.
BT: I have one but I never use the thing.
JMJ: Just tried to open one because I thought I had a good nick-name for the Miami Heat's new Big Three (some ESPN guy was asking people to tweet them) and I just kept posting to myself...very confusing.
10) Lindsay Lohan in jail: sad or hilarious?
JMJ: I want her in The Delivery Man...she can actually act! Sad for her...sad for the media because they treat it like news...hilarious because Jon Stewart has material to work with.
Stewart does the best media bashing of anyone....and LiLo is their new low.
BT: Yeah, he needs to stick to the political stuff. Leave her to TMZ.
JMJ: But when he unleashes on the breathless "breaking news" on CNN about LiLo it's priceless...vapid media culture…what passes for "news." So Lindsay Lohan...she's the bastard child of O.J. Simpson. It all started with a white Ford Bronco and a low-speed chase in 1994.
BT: I'm sending The Parent Trap by FedEx so you can remember her in a positive light. She might not do much work after Machete.
JMJ: (laughs) She's got a bright future if she puts her mind to it.
Brandon Tietz is the author of "Out of Touch" and the upcoming "Vanity" collection. He enjoys well-poured vodka tonics, the musical stylings of Röyksopp, and carbs.
Follow him on Twitter at: twitter.com/