An Interview with Jonathan Dee

Conducted by Adam Kearing, Hannah Langley, and Matthew Mazzella.

Jonathan Dee, a Pulitzer Prize nominated author, has written seven successful novels over the course of his career, including A Thousand Pardons and The Privileges. Originally from northwestern Connecticut, Dee moved to New York City shortly after graduating from Yale University. During his years at Yale, Dee studied fiction writing and learned from some of the best fiction-writing practitioners. Dee writes mostly fiction and he has been very successful doing so. The move to NYC influenced the rest of his career, as Dee spent most of his time working in writing and publishing as a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine andsenior editor of The Paris Review, as well as a National Magazine Award nominated literary critic for Harper’s. His novels revolve around the idea of class struggle and present the trials and tribulations upper middle-class men and women go through and how they cope with everyday problems and struggles. Dee also played a key role in creating the infamous April Fool’s joke about the imaginary baseball pitcher Sidd Finch in Sports Illustrated. He has won several awards including the St. Francis College Literary Prize, the Prix Fitzgerald. He has received several fellowships, consisting of the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation. Dee currently resides in Syracuse, NY, where he also teaches creative writing at Syracuse University. 

Interviewers: At what point did you decide you wanted to become a writer? 

Jonathan Dee: When I was young, maybe nine or ten, I had what seems now like a foreshadowing habit: whenever I read a book I liked (at that age they were mostly books about sports), I would take one of my father’s pencils and yellow legal pads and sit down and try to re-write the book myself, from memory, as if it had been my idea in the first place. I didn’t really get serious about writing until college, particularly senior year when I took a writing workshop with the late, great John Hersey, one of the truly formative figures in my life. (I still catch myself copying his teaching style today.) But even after I knew that a writer was what I wanted to be, all my career “plans” centered around my likely failure; I knew I wouldn’t forgive myself if I never even tried to write a novel and get it published, so I figured I’d try, and fail, and then move on to whatever the next thing was. (The next thing would surely have been something in publishing or academia, some job that still involved spending as much time as possible around books and other people who loved them.) 

I: Knowing your previous work experience at The New York Times Magazine and The Paris Review, what made you decide you wanted to become an English professor at Syracuse University? 

JD: I’d already been teaching for many years – at Columbia, NYU, Brooklyn College – though not full-time. Basically, I just felt ready for a change. New York is great, it will always be my home, but it’s also uniquely exhausting; even the simple things there, like parking a car or sending your kid to school, are ridiculously complicated and expensive. I always say that New York is the ideal place to live if you’re either in your twenties or a millionaire, and I am neither. 

I: Did growing up in New York City inspire any of your stories? If so, what moments or characters did you base off real life experiences? 

JD: I was born in New York City but didn’t really grow up there: when I was five, my family moved to a very small town in northwestern Connecticut. But I moved back to the city after I graduated from college, and stayed there more than 25 years, so it’s had a big influence on my life and my fiction. The little totems from those years that I’ve re-purposed in my novels are too many to mention: the hippo-playground in Riverside Park in the first chapter of The Locals, the incredible penthouse apartment overlooking the planetarium in The Privileges, the gala party on the deck of the Intrepid in The Privileges, etc. etc. Usually places, though, rather than people. The only characters I ever base outright on real people are minor ones, often people who just appear in a book once. In The Privileges, for instance, there’s a scene where April is shocked to discover a friend’s dad alone in his study on the top floor of his townhouse, reading the paper while a bunch of drunk teenagers trash his multi-million-dollar home below. That’s a real guy. 

I: In “The Privileges” and “A Thousand Pardons”, your characters have to make some deep ethical and moral decisions. Was there an instigating incident in your life that inspired the decisions these characters had to make? 

JD: No, there was no one big defining incident, though life is certainly a succession of smaller ethical and moral crossroads of that kind. The instinct to put characters through some kind of moral crucible is probably born more of reading, to be honest, than of living; that’s what’s thrilling, in fiction — to see characters’ mettle tested, to see their response, and to empathize with the humanity of that response whether it’s brave or not, smart or not, moral or not. 

I: Being that you grew up in New York City but now live in upstate New York, do you share anything in common with your character Helen in “A Thousand Pardons”? 

JD: Probably. It’s hard to write a few hundred pages about any character without some of you bleeding into them, and vice versa. Usually, though, the commonality between my main characters and my real life is a matter of small-scale stuff: incidents, anecdotes, lines of dialogue. I’ll give you one example: remember how Helen’s daughter starts skipping soccer to go on little city adventures, and then goes home and gives a fake account of the game? I coached my daughter’s weekend soccer team in Manhattan for years, and one year, one of her teammates did exactly that. (She got caught, though; I accidentally busted her when I emailed her mom to make sure she was okay.) As far as your question specifically about Helen: my brother and his family moved from Brooklyn to Chappaqua many years before A Thousand Pardons was written, and it’s their house I was picturing when I wrote about Helen’s. Please don’t tell him. 

I: In both “The Privileges” and “The Locals”, your characters face tough economic circumstances and decisions? Was any of this based off your own experience or the experience of your friends and family with the stock market crash and recession in 2009? If so, could you briefly explain what happened? 

JD: It’s very much based on my own experience, yes, but it goes back way further than the crash of 2007 – back to my family and the circumstances of my childhood. We were pretty well off, and then over the course of just a few years, as a result of a combination of alcoholism and mental illness, we lost everything. The great author William Maxwell was once asked what made writers become writers and he answered, “Deprivation.” (Maxwell’s own mother died in a flu epidemic when he was a child.) I wrote about this directly only once, in a personal essay called “Pre-Existing Condition” that appeared in an anthology called “Money Changes Everything.” 

I: Being a professor of creative writing at Syracuse University, what advice would you give to any college student aspiring to become a writer one day? 

JD: I don’t have to think too hard about that one, because I give advice of that kind to students practically every day: writing isn’t really even about writing, it’s about re-writing. People think it’s about sitting around waiting for the muse to gift you with a fantastic idea, and it is about that, sort of, but the gap between that moment and an actual good book, or even just a good sentence, is long and workmanlike. A lot of young writers want to give up on a project if it comes out badly the first time, but it always comes out badly the first time – you have to make yourself push through that. (Oh, and read as much of The Paris Review’s interview series, “Writers at Work,” as you can. Those books were graduate school for me.)