David Duchovny on writing a “rom-com with meat” and the mythical underground of “Miss Subways” | Spanlish


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Friday, May 18, 2018

David Duchovny on writing a “rom-com with meat” and the mythical underground of “Miss Subways”

Getty/Kevin Winter

Getty/Kevin Winter

David Duchovny is best known for his Golden Globe-winning portrayals of FBI agent Fox Mulder on "The X-Files," and novelist Hank Moody on "Californication." But since the publication of his first novel, 2015's "Holy Cow," he's been steadily building his literary reputation, too. His third novel “Miss Subways,” is an eclectic New York City love story loosely based on the Irish mythology-inspired Yeats play, “The Only Jealousy of Emer.”

Duchovny stopped by Salon's studio earlier this week to talk about books, Yeats, writing female characters and what working in TV taught him about literature that his PhD coursework didn't. This transcript has been edited for length and clarity. 

One could argue that maybe at a certain point in your life, it was likelier that you would end up as a literary novelist and maybe a teacher of writing a literature than double in acting.

That was the plan. I was in graduate school. I was working towards getting a Ph.D. so that I was probably . . . I envisioned teaching at a college level and getting college-level vacations, which are like three months, four months a year, in which I would write. That was kind of the long-range plan that I was looking at in my early 20s.

Watch our full interview with David Duchovny

A Salon Talks conversation with "The X-Files" star and novelist

Yes. Both of my parents were English professors, so I think we could have a long conversation about how interesting that . . .

What did you do with your summer?

We went on long road trips all over the place, I saw every Civil War battlefield as a kid.

I mean, it’s a wonderful job. Aside from teacher being a wonderful vocation, it is a good job in that way. You do get quite a bit of time to yourself or to raise your family or do your own work.

What was your field? What were you going to get a Ph.D. in specifically?

English literature. When I sat my orals, I went through my hour and a half of grilling on the history of English literature. Then they ask you, pro forma, they ask you what is your dissertation on, and mine was on magic and technology and contemporary American fiction and poetry. Which might lead you to believe that I would then get a job working as an actor on “The X-Files,” which just made perfect sense.

It does fit together in a certain way. And it also feeds into “Miss Subways,” I could say…

Well, actually, the idea of my thesis, which was never written — I might have written a chapter, I don’t remember — I was discussing certain authors, I was discussing Robertson Davies, a Canadian author; James Merrill, a poet; Thomas Pynchon, Ishmael Reed, and maybe Norman Miller. I think. I was discussing these and I was saying that my theory or the topic was that magic is a primitive technology — in a sense, that magic makes shit happen. Like if you took a caveman and you showed him an airplane, he’d be like magic.

Of course, yes.

You’d say, “No, technology.” As magic, it’s a field of both good and bad magic. There’s black magic, white magic. Technology, we don’t say "good" and "bad" technology — we have an A-bomb, we have an H-bomb, we know that they’re dangerous, but we don’t say "bad."

To discuss technology in terms of magic, which is what I said that these writers were doing, they were kind of trying to ascribe a magical, moral field onto technology.

Isn’t this actually a major point of discussion in the technology world now?

I was ahead of my time.

I wish I had written it, I blew it.

Now that you’ve explained all that, there’s a lot of stuff in “Miss Subways” that kind of . . . 

Thank you for bringing that up because I really haven’t put it together myself. It’s good to know that I finally have written my thesis in a fictional form.

In the form of a very entertaining, funny, and I thought consistently surprising novel.

I was actually, today, reading this on the subway which is kind of perfect on a meta level.

The book does refer at least to the Miss Subways Pageant, the famous part of New York’s past that we can get to. In the first couple of pages, you have a joke about Paul Manafort and explanations about the man-spreading phenomenon on the New York subway, which was a big thing, and references to George Elliot, one of my favorite subway reading authors actually. Strangely, she writes in fairly short pithy paragraphs.

Was she serialized, is that why?

Maybe. Yes. Nietzsche, who you don’t mention, is also fairly good for the subway because he writes this tiny little epigrams.

Nietzsche comes at the end. And it's not short, though. It’s one of the longer ones. It’s a beautiful piece of Nietzsche. But, yes, anybody who writes parabolically like that, like Nietzsche or Jesus or. . .

Yes, Jesus is good, too.

I love me a parable. Twelve-step programs, they’re good with slogans and sayings.

Yes. I don’t necessarily believe however that they actually had a quote from Kafka’s "Metamorphosis" on the wives, which also occurs in page five or something.

Yes. Well, that’s the first one. That kinds of sets the whole train running. I really do think that that was the inspiration. One of the inspirations for the book was sitting on a subway and seeing that. That’s what I tell myself. I think I did see that, that quote in the subways.

Which does seem fabulously misguided to have something about a guy turning into a giant cockroach.

I know, on the subway.

Where you’re likely to see a giant cockroach at almost any moment.

You’re likely to see a human-sized cockroach at any time.

This is true. Tell us a little bit more about this book, the genesis for it. It does refer to Miss Subways, it is set in New York, it is partly about the subway system, but not just that.

Well, it uses the subway system metaphorically as an underground, mythologically as a place where things are hidden, a place where things lie fallow, a place where maybe your power is lying dormant, as opposed to up top, above ground. It kind of uses that. It also uses the subways as this magical connector of human beings of where it takes a human from one place to another, and it randomly might intersect them.

You observe that the social rules on the subway are kind of different from the daylight.

Yes. People act . . . I think they act worst on the subway than they might [above ground]. I think they feel like they can’t be seen so well. At least that’s always been my experiences as a writer.

America is an immigrant nation, that is, all these waves of immigrants who came from all the countries of the world over the past few hundred years, they brought with them their gods, their customs, their mythologies as they assimilated, for better, for worse, more or less — some cultures have assimilated more than others, some remain somewhat standoffish — but that these mythologies and these gods have remained and yet they’re kind of bored and angry that they’ve been thrown under the bus for Jehovah or the Judeo-Christian God. They still have their certain amount of power and they still have games to play. They still have their mythological power to flex. They’re still around.

In this book, there’s Filipino, Irish, Chinese, African, Asian, there’s all different kinds of different mythologies from our melting pot of a nation that are still here. That’s kind of the world that exists in the book.

I actually don’t see any clear relationship, but I couldn’t help thinking of Neil Gaiman’s “American Gods” in reading this. And it might be fair to say that people who enjoyed that universe might also resonate in this one.

Well, I have to say that that was a scary thing because when I was writing it, I think I told somebody . . . maybe I had even written a draft. I told somebody basically what I told you. They said, “Well, have you read ‘American Gods’?” I was like, “No.” I was like, “Shit.” Then I went and I read it and I was like, “Oh, thank goodness. It’s a completely different conception.”

Then I even went beyond that. There were ideas floating out there that even precede Neil Gaiman’s execution of this particular idea of other gods being on this soil. I was like, OK, it’s kind of an idea. In the public domain, they’re good.

To get back to the literary scholarship. We don’t want to give people homework, I promise. . .

Nobody wants homework.

There is no homework required to read this book. It’s very enjoyable on its own terms. I know there’s a famous in its time — not famous now — verse play by William Butler Yeats . . . 

That sounds like homework to me.

Maybe the greatest poet ever —  one of them, anyway, who makes the shortlist — that plays a role here. Explain exactly how that works. What’s that play about and what it grabbed you about it?

Well, when I was in graduate school at Yale, a friend said, “Come out and see.” I’ve got a friend who’s performing in a play. I said, “OK.” Then I sit down and it’s a verse play. Verse play, it’s a different time and a place. It’s a different pace. Let’s say, it’s a different time and a pace.

That’s fair.

It’s like watching a poem on its feet. It’s not exciting and not a lot happens, it’s about the language, so you’re watching language and I’m falling asleep. I stayed awake long enough to understand what the terms of the play were which was. It was about the Irish king Cú Chulainn and Emer his wife. Cú Chulainn's in a frenzy because he’s found out he has murdered his own son in battle. He’s now fighting the waves which he's going to lose because you don’t beat the waves.

Yes, famous metaphor.

You don’t beat the waves. A demon of some kind called the Bean Sidhe — banshee, we say — it comes with omens of death, comes to Emer and says, “This is what’s going down with your husband. You can save them. But if you save him, he will not know you. He’ll wake up in a concubine’s bed. He won’t know that he had children. He won’t have any idea that you ever existed and you can’t ever know him again.” She has to give up her hope of an old age with this man in order to save his life. That stuck with me.

That was like 1980, probably, 1984, 1985. It’s always been in my mind, like, I would like to see a fucking ballsy pagan rom-com like that, you know, all rom-coms are so toothless and weak. “Oh, I have to give up coffee, and now we love one another.” I was like, this is a rom-com with meat.

I thought, well, I would like to write a rom-com like that. This is my version of a romantic novel with true pagan stakes of nasty life and death.

You have this kind of a literary device that’s almost science-fictiony, like a sliding doors, alternate universe kind of thing, where there are forks we can take in our lives that create different world.

Depending on her response to the wager which the demon gives her. She can choose to live her life as it has been and he dies or she gets a different, slightly different life minus him, and that’s the second part of the book. It was also about a woman developing her own agency as a person and as a writer. When we meet her, if it’s the sliding doors business, when we meet her, she’s more of this man’s assistant, more helping him, propping him up. When he disappears from her life, she becomes more of the writer of the story. Then the third iteration, she is truly the owner of her own story.

It takes probably a certain amount of courage in this era for a guy, which is how I perceive you, to write a story for the most part with a female protagonist, female narrator at points, that is very much oriented to her consciousness. Did you feel like you had the sort of reality check yourself, or get outside the input in order to get that right, or did you just rely on instincts?

I just relied on instinct. As an actor and as somebody who has written screenplay, teleplay, I’ve had to write female characters. When I did that, I didn’t shy away and go, “Oh, my God. Who am I to try to write a female character?” No, there’s women in my work. I’m going to write it. I know that people talk about appropriation and I do a lot of appropriating in this book, not just a female voice, but also of other mythology. I’m of the school that what appropriation really is, is imaginative empathy. It’s like I’m trying to write as a woman. I’m trying to make these story serve my own story. I’m not saying this is how women think. I’m not saying I’m better at being a woman than a woman is. I’m not saying this is how this mythology should have gone. This is a better rewriting of the actual mythology.

I’m just merely mixing everything together and making a new story, that’s not in any way authoritative of anything else, except as an exercise in imaginative empathy, I think.

Well, I think I wouldn’t know how a female reader receives this, but I never felt like it was either patronizing or trying too hard, if you know what I mean, the two pitfalls that you see there that you were trying to think through this person who has flaws and virtues.

Well, it’s a voice. When I write, I write to a voice. In the first book, it was a cow, female cow.

I certainly appropriated that. In the second one, it was the voice of the son of Ted. Then in this one, it’s Emer. I’ll write until I can hear that voice and then that’s when the novel really starts for me. It’s less about sex, male-female sex, and more about a voice. I think it’s a human voice before it’s a male or a female voice. I think that that’s why I hope it’s recognizably human before it’s recognizably female or male.

You absolutely don’t shy away from kind of contemporary, political references in here. Nobody is going to read this book and conclude, for example, that you’re sweet on the current president.

Paul Manafort is mentioned on approximately the third or fourth page.

I heard that you actually had decided to take out stuff about Bill O’Reilly. I read that in a previous interview with you. Were you trying to strike that balance between “I want this to feel contemporary and I don’t want to be sort if somebody reads it six months from now,” it feels outdated?

Well, yes. I mean what happened was I had a discussion between . . . I think it was Emer and her dad. No, it was Emer and Con, her boyfriend, because he himself wants to be kind of the right wing’s spokesperson. He is saying at one point, that I cut out, “Do you think Bill O’Reilly is really the asshole that he portrays himself to be? No, he’s playing a part.” Emer says, “No, I actually think he’s an asshole.” Then this stuff happened and then I was like, “I can’t do it.” The real news eclipsed whatever point I was trying to make between these two characters and it wasn’t structurally important to the book, so I could just kind of excise it easily.

There’s a danger any time you name check stuff that’s happening in the news. But, again, it was very important, and one of the reasons I said out to write in the first place was, it was during the Trump stuff with the [border] wall, and it was Trump saying, “Protect America from these immigrants.” In many ways the first iteration of the idea that you . . .of this idea of immigrant ideas coming into America is of a guy going, “Keep him out.” It’s Con’s version of it, saying, “No, the American stuff is better. The Judeo-Christian heritage, what we’ve created here in America is strong. We got to keep it safe and pure.”

By the end when Emer controls the story, it’s, let them all in and let the best ideas fight. Let the strongest ideas fight and the best ideas, like animals, have, Darwin in evolution and the survival of the fittest sole ideas. It’s way more inclusive. Not that you can build a wall to keep out ideas, although that’s what they’re trying to do.

Some people would like to do that.

That’s what they’re trying to do.

I want to ask you about the title really quickly. I know you grow up in New York. You still live here at least part of the times.

Yes, most of the time.

The title refers to and I guess you could call it a beauty pageant of sorts that existed in the city’s past, Miss subways, but especially for reads who aren’t familiar with this aspect of New York history, what was Miss Subways and what role does it play in the story?

Well, when I was a kid, the advertisements in the subway were cardboard and we used to steal them quite a lot.

You were one of those kids.

Peter Max was a big one that you wanted to get. Especially off the back of a bus. But yes, we stole a lot of this stuff. Anyway, I guess it’s all electronic now, obviously, but it used to be just like a cardboard and they post it in there. Miss Subways was, I don’t know if you call it a beauty pageant, because they weren’t really judged.

It was a contest. The contestants had to . . . I say in the book, they had to be single and ride the subway. Basically, that was all you needed to do to make yourself a contestant of Miss Subways. As a kid, going to high school every morning half asleep, I would be looking around for something to look at or read and I’d see these . . . they were always quite attractive women and it was kind of just like, “Wow, Miss Subways, what a weird . . . Who would really want to be Miss Subways?”

I don’t know. It was just so New York and so small in a great way that it always just stuck in my mind. It was Joe DiMaggio doing Bowery Bank. What I loved about that was it would say, “Joe DiMaggio” and it would have it in quotes. You get seven and a half percent at the Bowery. I get it. They were telling you what your interest was going to be, but I just couldn’t imagine that Joe DiMaggio actually came up with that on his own one day. It’s like, “Don’t quote me,” but that seven and half percent of the Bowery is like . . . I loved that it was in quotes.

There is something very old advertising about that kind of expression. It’s funny. I almost feel like they could do the Miss Subways pageant now if it was open to anyone regardless of gender or orientation or age or anything, you know.

Yes. It did make a comeback, I think, in the early 2000s. But what is true and what is also interesting about Miss Subways was that they were open to women of color, to other nationalities besides White Anglo Saxon Protestant Americans, and so many of them were Jews. It was way more inclusive before Miss America was ever going to be inclusive. It does have that in its corner.

I will throw in one obligatory question about “The X-Files,” but related to this book. You said somewhere that working on that show for all those years actually did teach you a lot about story, which then you applied to your writing career. What kinds of lessons did you draw from that?

Well, coming out of graduate school and, well, say, studying a verse play . . . not story-driven, language-driven, or even a modern and 20th century novels, and postmodern contemporary, whatever you want to call those, movements. Not plot heavy, you know — thought heavy, language heavy, surreal heavy. That’s really what I cut my teeth on, and that’s what I thought was great writing. I was like, plot? That’s like so 19th century. That’s so Dickens. That’s so Elliot. Who needs a plot? All I need is language. And I was wrong.

Most people really like plot, right?

They were human who liked stories. As much as we like language, we like stories. Working on “The X-Files” and just being in a plot-heavy, any kind of dramas better be plot heavy. Especially television, it has to be plot heavy.

It’s a story medium.

I’m going to watch my stories. I’m going to sit here and watch my stories. I just kind of ingested [that] and it stripped away that, let’s call it a pretension, but it stripped away that pretension of art-for-art sake or language-for-language sake, or a novel as a language experiment, or some kind of you know, Wittgensteinian conception of language. Like, “Eff you, David, give us a fucking good story.” I was, OK, well, I’m going to write stories and I’m going to bring my love of language into it, for sure. I’m going to make sure that I’m telling a story that’s worthwhile and the people like to turning the page, like, “I want to know what happens to those people. I’m interested.”

Source: David Duchovny on writing a “rom-com with meat” and the mythical underground of “Miss Subways”

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