Stephen McCauley's My Ex-Life follows David Hedges, a San Francisco man with a plum deal on an amazing carriage house…that’s about to be sold…to his ex-boyfriend and shiny new partner. Meanwhile, north of Boston, his ex-wife (I know, this is getting complicated) is about to lose her home as well, but Julie has bigger problems where her daughter is concerned (and not just her dubious chances of getting into a decent college). David comes to the rescue, but it turns out he could use some saving too; this patchwork quilt of a family needs each other, and you will root for them as they bumble their way out of their sundry predicaments (one of which will make you cringe. A lot). Mr. McCauley recently took time out of his busy schedule to answer some questions for us about this witty and endearing new novel.
Erin Kodicek: One of the protagonists in My Ex-Life is a college admissions consultant. I have a few friends who are professors and they would like to thank you for the sly critique of the oft clichéd personal essay. As an educator yourself, is this also your plea: Please, no more missives about grandparents or cancer, or grandparents with cancer…
Stephen McCauley: As an educator, I don’t usually see the college essays. As a writer, I’ve often been asked by friends and relatives to look at their kids’ college applications. I’m always amazed at the similar topics kids choose to write about, specifically grandparents combined with tragedy. You can see the admissions boards rolling their eyes in here-we-co-again boredom. One of the people I talked with to research this novel was an admissions director at an Ivy League university that begins with an “H.” He said the essays don’t matter as much as people think, at least at his school. But maybe I shouldn’t spread that around.
Generally speaking, when something is going seriously wrong in your life, the last person you should call is your ex. So, I loved the set-up of My Ex-Life--it’s fertile ground for some wonderful comedic moments, but also an interesting way to explore the concepts of home and family. What is the overarching message that you wanted to convey?
I’m a sucker for continuity in life, so the idea of revisiting a past relationship appeals to me. (On the page, that is.) I don’t mean starting up where you left off and making the same mistakes, but rather, cherry-picking the aspects of a relationship that did work and adapting them for the realities of more mature, perhaps less hormonal needs. I think I’ve been writing about characters constructing unorthodox families since my first novel. To paraphrase Tolstoy, all families are unorthodox in their own ways. But some more than others! To me, these “more than others” arrangements represent the triumph of kindness, generosity, and imagination in world that’s increasingly selfish, unkind, and unimaginative. I loved spending time with these people and hoped they’d succeed at finding or making a home.
Julie’s house is almost a character in and of itself. Did you base it on a real house?
I had a very clear picture of the house and the rooms in it. I even dreamed about it while I was writing it. It’s based on several real houses that I blended together in my mind and then roughed up a bit with clutter and delayed maintenance. I’m a little obsessed with real estate and imagining how my life would be different depending on the venue. I also love real estate makeover shows. Who doesn’t? So there are elements of that in the book, too.
Julie’s daughter, Mandy, is a fascinating character and one you really root for. Because of that, and because of the tenor of the rest of the novel, it’s all the more unsettling when her story veers into dark territory. Did that part of the plot develop as you were writing it, or you knew ahead of time the direction her narrative would take?
She has one of the main points of view in the novel, not part of my original plan. I knew she was up to something, but wasn’t sure what. A friend suggested I try writing a chapter from her point of view to see what I could learn. It opened up a whole side of the story that I didn’t suspect was there. I love balancing the comedy and the darker elements. In my mind, Mandy’s story emphasizes that there’s something real and profound at stake for these characters.
I was surprised to learn that you didn’t grow up in a book-loving household. To what do you attribute your love of writing and reading?
I had a teacher in sixth grade who changed my life by recommending books by Steinbeck, Dickens, and Hemingway. They were way above me, but I developed an appreciation for books that had depth, even if I couldn’t get to the bottom of them. In the end, though, I think it’s all about escaping into the lives and worlds of people very different than I am. That’s what’s so magical about fiction.
Is it true that you have Airbnb listings, and if so, what is the worst thing you’ve had to contend with, other than an unnatural appetite for toss pillows? (thankfully not yours).
It’s true that I have several properties I use as short-term rentals. I bought them as writing retreats, but as soon as I own a place, I stop being able to write in it. If you want to know why, I’ll refer you to my shrink. Maybe he knows. I started renting one of them more than 15 years ago. Honestly, I haven’t had any nightmares. What I will say is that if someone claims they’re renting with a work colleague from somewhere else in the country for a conference, there’s a good chance it’s a transcontinental hookup and you’d better allow a little extra time for cleaning.