An Interview with Christopher Noxon, author of PLUS ONE: A Novel
Why did you make the switch to writing fiction?
I grew up wanting to write for newspapers and magazines because I believed non-fiction contained all the truth I could handle – journalism felt useful, outward-looking, practical. Fiction, meanwhile, seemed isolating, self-involved, and anyway way beyond anything I could actually do.
So why’d I switch? Short answer is the story made me do it. Plus One started as an essay about going to the Emmys with my wife and encountering a number of awkward guys trying to figure out how to squire their powerful partners.
I wanted to write a book about the themes that bubbled up in that piece – gender roles, modern marriage and the whole mishigas of Hollywood – but I knew I didn’t want to write a memoir or a book of essays. More to the point, I didn’t want to read a memoir or book of essays about a Hollywood guy and his kinda-funny, mostly uneventful and anguish-y life. I firmly believe in that old writing adage that when deciding what to write, you should first of all ask yourself what you want to read.
And what I wanted to read was a story. One with a beginning, middle and end. One where stuff happened. One that went far beyond and below and inside (insert any preposition here) my own limited and really not-terribly exciting experience.
And so I looked closely at novels by writers I admire: Meg Wolitzer, Tom Perrotta, Kurt Andersen, Nora Ephron, Jennifer Weiner, Nick Hornby, Jonathan Tropper, Alison Pearson and Anne Lamott. These are novelists (many of whom, not coincidentally, also write non-fiction) whose books feel true and real in a way I hoped mine would.
Then I found a table at a public library where I felt good ju-ju and set off, using my own life as raw material and then going far beyond it, drawing on stories I heard from friends and pieces in the news and dinner party anecdotes and anything else that felt like it chipped away at my central themes. Guiding me along was a recurring question, one that helps explain the biggest difference between myself and Alex, the guy at the center of my story: what would happen if I acted on all my most insecure impulses? I wanted to see what it would look like if I unspooled every strand of insecurity I had about being a man in my position to its natural conclusion.
In many ways I had my midlife crisis on the page – so I wouldn’t have to have it in real life.
How did the story develop? Where did it come from?
A few years ago, I came to a crossroads in my career and creative life. I’d published a book, had a piece in the New Yorker, appeared on The Colbert Show and pretty much satisfied pretty much every journalistic ambition I’d ever had. Meanwhile my wife Jenji’s career had taken off and the income I brought in as a journalist was no longer a real factor for our family.
And so I did what many partners of successful spouses do: I got domestic. I handled carpools and home repairs and travel plans. I helped out at school and got serious about diet and exercise. I spent many blissful mornings at a coffee place with a small and exotic cohort of men married to women whose success, income and public recognition surpasses their own.
I was having fun and enjoying my time with the kids, but I found myself dogged by insecurities. I felt embarrassed that my wife bore the burden to support our family. I got twitchy and defensive when people asked what I “did.” I was prone to odd outbursts of aggression – peeling out in the minivan at carpool, mowing down kids at a Lasertag birthday party, getting whiplash after leaping off a rooftop into a swimming pool.
Then I did something really stupid: I considered opening a bead store.
Don’t get me wrong: I like beads. They’re nice. I could wax lyrically about the loveliness of a tub of polymer-glazed beads, as glittering and colorful as fish eggs. For all I know there may be a woeful shortage of retail opportunities in the beading community; it could be that given the right push, a boutique bead outlet would grow into a thriving crafting powerhouse.
But I had to face facts: I had no business opening a bead store. The bead store was my rock bottom, my cry for help.
And so I started writing again. And for the first time in my life I wrote without an assignment or editor, without any idea if what I was writing would be published. I just knew there were funny, true and deep stories to be told about men learning how to hold a house, women who win the bread, what it’s like to be arm candy at the Emmys and how it feels to ease off the professional pedal and settle into a support role. I wrote about men who cook and caretake and sing backup for their front-and-center provider wives.
Along the way, I returned again and again to the question: how do men act out against the societal and even biological pressures that can feel conspired against them?
What were the challenges in going from writing journalism to writing a novel?
My last book was Rejuvenile, a heavily-researched, quasi-sociological survey of adulthood that asked why grown-ups today act so much more like kids than adults of previous generations. When I set out to write a novel, I figured, how different can it be?
Answer: entirely. I may as well have been a cobbler for all the necessary skills I had to write a novel.
That’s not entirely true. To write anything long and lasting you need to first of all keep your butt in the chair and ignore the Internet and your children and the insistent never-ending desire to right now at this very moment get up and eat a cookie. I learned how to do that writing Rejuvenile (notwithstanding the many Mint Milanos).
Everything else about the process was new. The big difference, one that took way too long to recognize but which landed like lightening when I finally did, was the importance of emotion. I had initially outlined Plus One as a series of events – this thing happens, which leads to this thing happening, which eventually leads to a big climax. Only after a few months of churning out surface-y, limp, mostly lifeless prose did I realize that the fiction I love most isn’t built around plot. What happens in the story matters, but what gives it life and energy and propulsion is how people feel. It wasn’t enough for me to outline a series of what TV writers call story beats – I had to dig deeply into how my characters felt and allow those emotions to drive what they did and how they behaved. I had to replace storybeats with what I now –embarrassingly – call emobeats (cue the violins!).
In the end, the process of writing fiction called on more of me – my head, heart, guts – than anything I’ve done before. Writing a novel is part meditation, part performance, part puzzle. Now that I’ve written one I’m just as excited – and intimidated – by the form as ever.
How closely does the story in the book mirror your own? Is there a lot of Christopher in Alex? How much is Figgy based on Jenji?
When I tell people I wrote a book about a guy married to a successful TV writer, the joke comes easily: “How’d you possibly come up with that?”
How indeed? My lead character Alex is an Angelino, the son of lesbians and the husband of successful TV writer. Let’s just say if we met at a party Alex and I would have a lot to talk about.
But it would be a mistake to read Plus One as a straight roman-a-clef. The truth is I took my life and exaggerated and condensed and expanded and re-imagined it. True-life facts and feelings got mixed up with bits borrowed from friends, events that never happened but I wished would have and material I invented whole cloth. It’s fiction.
Alex isn’t me – any more than Figgy, Alex’s wife, is my real-life wife, Jenji. Alex is my attempt to create an agreeable, conflicted “soft man” raised by well-intentioned feminists to “follow your bliss”; Figgy is an ambitious, intense working mother raised to believe she could “have it all.” In those ways, Alex and I are much more alike than Figgy is like Jenji, whose parents weren’t exactly encouraging of her career (her mom famously told her after college that she should go sit on a bench at Cal Tech and meet a nice man to support her).
I could list the many big and small ways the book differs from real life – I was never really into punk rock, I’m not that great a cook and Alex and Figgy’s kids are nothing at all like my own – but I worry about lingering too long on the question of what’s “true.” Doing so shoots the book full of holes and turns the narrative into a guessing game. Let’s just say I hope it all feels true.
How does your family feel about the book?
My wife has some misgivings about the book, worrying that readers will assume it’s all true. In the end, however, she has come to appreciate that I took true-life elements and used them to make fiction, much like she adapted the memoir “Orange Is the New Black” into the fictional TV series.
For their part, my kids seem proud – especially my eldest son Charlie, who reads novels by the bushel and was helpful in talking out the story. My daughter Eliza has been super-nice about the chapter illustrations and is excited to sing and play ukulele at my LA readings. My youngest son Oscar only cares about my writing inasmuch as it affects our time playing baseball and riding bikes.
My older sister Marti, herself a seasoned TV writer who drew heavily on her own life for her new Bravo show “The Girlfriends Guide to Divorce,” has been hugely encouraging; also my brother-in-law David, who has helped me understand the demands of half-hour comedy while adapting the book for TV. In other words, I come from a family that’s lousy with writers, many of them kind of a big deal – so I’m fortunate enough to be surrounded by people who know the exhilaration and terror of producing and releasing a big creative project.
Why do you think we haven’t read more from the perspective of the househusband or stay-at-home dad?
Why haven’t we seen a slew of dad-lit novels? With shifts in the workforce and economy landing more and more guys in support roles at home, where are all raw, deep, complex and funny stories from the front lines? Where’s “Diary of a Mad Househusband” or “Masculine Mystique” for the oughts?
There has been a ton of great writing by and for househusbands, but most of it has been online. The blogs Captain Dad, Dads Behaving Dadly and StayAtHomeDadBlog are just three of the many online outlets for men at home to share stories, gripes, recipes, theories and calls-to-action.
Why so few books? It may be that the wealth of online outlets has kept men from delving into longer, book-length narratives. It could also be that men in support positions are simply too busy with household responsibilities to bother with a book about househusbandry – either to read or write.
It’s also worth noting those outdated, unfortunate biases in publishing and the world at large that work against such narratives. It’s an industry truism that men buy fewer books than women, and they shy away from parenting books or realistic stories of family and marriage. What man, by this thinking, wants to read about a guy holding a house when there are so many spies, wizards and warlords competing for his attention? And what woman, this thinking goes, would buy a book about a householding man? As a network executive recently said to me about the TV adaptation of “Plus One”: America will never root for a guy without a job.
Which books or authors inspired you when crafting PLUS ONE?
I love funny, unhinged domestic stories that entertain and shed hard-earned truth on the lives of their characters. I guess you could say I’m a solidly middlebrow reader. When thinking about Plus One, I looked to novels that captured this middle ground. I closely read the following books for tone, structure and overall awesomeness: Tom Perrotta’s Little Children, Jennifer Weiner’s The Next Best Thing, Meg Wolitzer’s The Wife, Jonathan Tropper’s This Is Where I Leave You, Nora Ephron’s Heartburn, and Alison Pearson’s I Don’t Know How She Does It.
Why did you choose to include your own illustrations to open each chapter? Did these drawings exist prior to writing, or did the novel inspire your artwork?
In an early draft of the book, each chapter was named after an object that appeared somewhere in the narrative: chapter one was titled “Dead Man’s Shoes,” chapter three was “Skinny Jeans,” chapter fifteen was “Monster Head,” and so on. At a certain point a friend suggested I try drawing those objects. I’m a lifetime doodler and avid journal-keeper, but I’d never really been public with my drawings. I went ahead and started doodling images, sometimes dashing them off in a hurry and sometimes getting super obsessive about crosshatching. I’m happy with the results, especially after dumping the titles entirely – now when you read the book, you first see the drawing and then come upon the object in the text, sometimes in a peripheral way, sometimes as the payoff to a scene. It’s a little game I hope gives readers a tiny little payoff as they go.
What is your creative process like? Where and when do you write?
With three school-age kids and a wife who often works long hours, I’m a between-dropoff-and-pickup writer, starting at 8:30 and finishing before 2 for bus pickup. I write all over LA, in coffee shops and restaurants and libraries – anywhere but home (where I’m often interrupted by dogs, deliveries or the telephone). I love the ornate Mediterranean reading rooms at the Pasadena Central Library and the sunny modern stacks at the West Hollywood Library and have even written sitting on park benches and in my car while waiting for pickup at school.
I’m writing a pilot for ABC based on the book which is weird and fun and may or may not result in an actual TV show. Meanwhile I’ve started work on another book about another family; this one is told through the viewpoints of multiple characters, one of whom is a 12-year-old foster kid named Milo. I’m excited about using more drawing and art in narrative and moving further afield from my own experience. The new book is still set in LA though. And there’s a 50-year-old guy who may or may not be a projection of myself (or Alex) in some imagined and not-terribly-complimentary future. In the end I can’t seem to escape myself.