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‘A foot in two different worlds’

Talking with Joe McGinniss Jr., author of the upcoming Las Vegas novel The Delivery Man

Scott Dickensheets

How did the novel [due out in December] come about, and why did you set it in Vegas?

The Vegas part of it was the most important part. That came along a little later in the process of learning how to write fiction. I started writing another story, which will never see the light of day, and at a certain point the main character was from Las Vegas. And that happened to coincide with a time when I was reading a friggin’ fantastic book by David Littlejohn, a Berkeley journalism professor; he and a bunch of his students had gone out and reported on “the real Las Vegas.”

That’s right; I remember that book.

Oh, it’s fantastic. So I was looking at that book, because I was always fascinated by Las Vegas. But at the same time, I was like, wait a second, this has to happen in Las Vegas. That is getting at everything I want to get at, tonally, theme-wise. So the story changed, evolved—it was a very exciting time creatively, because I just hadn’t considered it. So it was like, here we go.

Tell me about the book.

It’s the story of Chase, who’s a 25-year-old struggling artist and recently fired public-school teacher. It’s a sort of twisted love story, with his childhood friend Michelle, who is basically beginning an online teenage escort service in Las Vegas with her on-again, off-again boyfriend, Bailey, who’s also a Las Vegas native. Chase finds himself, instead of moving to California with his business-school girlfriend, Julia, who is visiting for the national black MBA conference in Las Vegas—rather than move on with her, for all sorts of reasons he ends up delaying and staying in Vegas for the summer to help Michelle begin this business. He ends up serving as her driver-slash-protector. And he ends up falling deeper and deeper into a kind of murky, messy situation.

He has decent intentions, but he just doesn’t understand how to put it all together. He doesn’t have the tools inherent to do that. And there’s something about Las Vegas, in terms of being a city from nothing, a sort of patchwork place where people come for all sorts of reasons—wonderful and compelling and twisted, and they end up sharing the same space. But never for very long because they come and go, and come and go. Sort of living on the fly.

Did you do a lot of research on Vegas?

Oh, God, yes. I went out there a few times. But for the most part it was hour upon hour of interviewing Las Vegas teenagers, once their parents gave me permission and it was all clear that I was writing this novel. So I had these e-mails back and forth; I learned a little about instant messaging in the process. It was fascinating

How did you find these teenagers?

The web. I found a couple of people on this Las Vegas-based community online. Las Vegas teenagers who hang out and talk to each other. I was like, Hey, I’m writing a novel, will you ask your parents if it’s okay if I ask you these questions?, and I would forward them a whole bunch of questions and got the go-ahead. And it just went from there.

How hard was it to get that go-ahead? As a parent of Las Vegas-area teenagers myself, I could see I might be a little skeptical.

It was a piece of cake.

Really?

Oh, yeah. They went, Oh, cool, sounds good.

So no one thought you might be an online predator or something like that?

Well, that never came up. I sent them examples of my work and all my contact information and let them know everything.

What was the germ of the story? Where does someone like Chase come from?

It’s this notion of having a foot in two different worlds. I grew up with my mother, and she’s a registered nurse. She raised me and my sisters after my father left many years ago. She’s from Western Mass, very blue-collar; my grandfather worked in a plant—just a very working-class mind-set. At the same time, I knew I had a father who was wildly successful as a writer [Joe McGinniss, author of Fatal Vision, Going to Extremes, The Selling of the President 1968 and others].

And so I had this weird balance—my father’s stories and all the stuff he was doing and it was always really cool; and the day-to-day life I was living. Chase is very similar because he’s got a foot in each world. He went to NYU but couldn’t cut it there and ended up back at UNLV and finished there. Now he’s teaching and trying to get his art career together. Meanwhile he has this amazing girlfriend who’s talented, but he couldn’t make that work. He couldn’t find a comfort zone in either world.

So there’s an element of at least emotional autobiography in there for you.

Yeah, definitely.

How long did it take you to write?

Four, five years. Once I set it in Vegas, four years.

How was it, making the leap from journalism to fiction?

It wasn’t that tough because I’d been working on this fiction stuff all the while. Trying to read as much as I possibly could, try to write what I liked to read. So it wasn’t that tough. I always wanted to write fiction. The journalism along the way, that was always a means to an end.

By the way, I should mention that the other book that was really amazing at opening up Las Vegas for me was by Hal Rothman, The Grit Beneath the Glitter. Oh! Amazingly helpful. Just learning a little bit about what’s going on there, who these people are.

Of course, this novel is one side of it. Las Vegas attracts people for so many reasons, for so many great reasons—they want to get a job, provide for their family, get a house. All the right reasons. But there are trade-offs. This focuses on some of those trade-offs.

As someone who isn’t from here but who has boned up on the city more than most, you’re ideally placed to kind of see what’s real and what’s not real about how the city is portrayed in the culture at large.

Oh, yeah. I cringe, and I’m sure you do, too, when I see some of the crap put out there about it. But I don’t think people want to pay attention; they don’t want to know what’s beneath. Which is good for the economy, I suppose.

I wonder if people think that if they get to know the “real” Las Vegas, they’ll be disappointed to learn how much it’s like where they’re from.

That probably has a lot to do with it, yeah. It’s a lot more to play with, you can have fun with it if you keep it as a playground in your mind. Whereas, if you go to Summerlin or Green Valley, you’re, “Well ... okay ...”

But at the same time, come on—that 311 Boyz stuff. Jesus! Of course, that could happen anywhere. But there was something about it that, at the time, made me go, Wow, that’s it. What are these suburban kids so angry about?

It’s lent a little something extra by happening in Las Vegas.

Exactly! And then you get to say well-off, upper-middle-class white guys gone wild. For kicks. And that’s all you gotta say. And if you put that in Eugene, Oregon, well, so what? But it’s in Vegas, man. What’s going on in Vegas? That place is so wild. And I just bought that hook, line and sinker.

I gotta tell you: I was writing this in 2003, 2004—I used to be really into politics and policy, and I was, really, you know, disappointed. It seemed like a very two-dimensional time, culture-wise. But at the same time the gravity of things couldn’t seem greater, with a war and all sorts of obscenity going on. And I was pissed off; I was very angry at the time. I spent a lot of time on political blogs, sent money to certain candidates, and just sort of raging, but there didn’t seem to be a lot you could do.

Vegas, at that time—fastest-growing city in America, such a very typical mainstream American place, or at least that’s how it marketed itself. And it just seemed like, Wow. This could be a place to channel energy into the novel.

What’s it like to conduct a writing career with a father who, as you say, has had such a successful writing career?

I’d say, emotionally and psychologically and internally, it’s been a challenge. Of course, I’ve saved all the e-mails he sent saying, “Whatever you do, don’t be a writer.” This was back when I was in grad school, saying I wanted to quit this and just be a writer. And he was saying, “Don’t do it. Just find a job that satisfies you and work on a novel over a period of years and see what happens.” He was right, of course. But back then, I was like, I’m writing a novel.

It was tough. But the nice part about the way it turned out was, this past Christmas, when I was getting ready to send the book out to some agents. He hadn’t read it. At my sister’s house, outside of Philadelphia, he was visiting, and I went to Kinko’s to print it out because he wanted to read it.

He took the box [with the manuscript], walked outside, to her porch, in the cold. Comes back about half an hour later, gives me a big thumbs-up and a tight-lipped grin, and I’m like, Holy shit. That was the moment. Because he hadn’t read a word of this. And he didn’t have to say a word; that was it. After all these years of swearing me off, it was like, thumbs up. That felt pretty good. He’s now on board.

Mark your 2008 calendars now

Joe McGinniss Jr. will read from and sign copies of The Delivery Man on Friday, February 8, at 7 p.m. at the Barnes & Noble at 8915 W. Charleston Blvd.

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