August 2008

Jeanne Sager

features

An Interview with Jancee Dunn

The true first in Jancee Dunn’s debut novel is her subject matter. The former MTV veejay and long-time Rolling Stone reporter stepped out of the shadows of the famous people she’s always interviewing for Don’t You Forget About Me to answer every ‘80s child’s biggest question: Can you go home again?

On paper Lillian Curtis is a success as she prepares for her 20th high school reunion. The producer of a TV talk show, she loves her boss -- Vi Barbour, an aging movie star who treats Lillian like the daughter she has to teach to be young again. But when Lillian’s husband suddenly announces he wants out of their marriage, she opts for a vacation in the comforting bosom of her New Jersey hometown. Settling in, Lillian mixes the comforts of old in a bedroom that still sports a Squeeze poster on the wall and rubber bangle bracelets hanging from the mirror with the dirty pleasures of today -- tracking her old classmates online on her parents’ computer. Driving every trip back to the keyboard and each slow roll around town, the volume pumped on Rick Springfield or the Cure, is Christian, THE boy, the one who got away. Will he come to the reunion? Will his mother recognize her on a visit to CVS?

Lillian’s slow to realize that moving back in with her parents at 38 requires taking a bottle of Windex to the lens through which she’s been remembering her high school days.

This is Dunn’s first book after her successful memoir, But Enough About Me: A Suburban Jersey Girl’s Adventures Among the Absurdly Famous helped her bridge the gap from rock journalist to author. She treats fiction with the same self-deprecating sense of humor and nostalgic edge, penning a story that makes readers laugh, shrug and nod again and again saying, "Yup, I’ve been there.” We recognize ourselves in Jancee in But Enough About Me, and we see ourselves in Lillian in Don’t You Forget About Me -- and neither we nor New Jersey ever seemed so eminently likeable.

Preparing for the novel’s debut on July 29 -- the same day husband Tom Vanderbilt’s book hits shelves -- Dunn talked to Bookslut from her home in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn.


Did this really take you down memory lane?

It did because, you know, I don’t know how skilled I actually am as a fiction writer. I definitely based some things on real events that happened. I really needed a realistic framework to hang on. My 20-year reunion was a few years ago. It was equal parts pain, horror and fun. And my sister opened up a restaurant and then it didn’t do too well and then she had to end up moving in with my folks for awhile, and she’s in her mid-thirties. So I said you know, take notes will you? And she said yes, definitely. She’s used to me exploiting her by now. The whole family’s used to me exploiting them for stories. So she took notes of my parents’ endearingly kooky behavior and then she would quietly call me and report to me at nighttime. Some of the interactions with my folks that she had definitely made it into the book! It’s one thing when you’re 22 and living with your parents. It’s another thing when you’re in your mid- to late-30s and you’re living with your parents!

Was it easier this time not having to write about yourself? Not having to be 100 percent true or at least as close as you can to make it memoir?

I loved writing fiction. I felt so lucky. I thought, I can not believe that I have a book contract. It sounds so gee whiz, but it’s true. I couldn’t believe I got a contract to write. You know I live half the time in my own head anyway, and I’m constantly making up these fanciful stories and I wonder if I’m losing my mind. To write fiction and to get paid for it, it’s a dream gig! And I loved every second of it. It was enormously freeing. With the first book, it is a memoir, but I found it extremely hard to write about myself -- which I know also sounds annoyingly disingenuous. But it’s true. I’m used to hiding behind my interview subjects. Just having fiction as a framework, it was so really exciting.

You talk about a lot of this coming out of your family, but how much of this was your ‘80s childhood just with the music and the funky hairstyles?

What was wholly absolutely fictional was I conjured up Vi. I’m not answering the right question, but I’ll get to the point! I conjured up Vi the old lady out of nowhere because basically I wished I knew somebody like her and I don’t. When I moved to New York, I always thought I’d have friends who were different ages. When, in fact, they’re all my age and they’re all cronies that work in the magazine business. I thought I would have this crazy kaleidoscope of all these different kinds of friends, different ages... And I haven’t. Everybody looks a little like me and it’s depressing! I love old lady culture and she’s this sort of can-do senior. It’s way more optimistic than 20-year-olds who don’t have aches and pains. It’s just that generation -- they’re in their 70s now, the greatest generation I guess. But I just love that age and I wished so much that I had that sort of person. So I just made her up.

In terms of the '80s stuff, some of that was just completely made up. It’s such a weird moment in culture right now where you can just live in that if you want to. You can go on chat rooms, and it’s all right there. You can still buy all that stuff. If you want to immerse yourself in the ‘80s, it’s at your fingertips in a way that it hasn’t been before. I kept thinking of that concept of "What if you really wanted to go back in time? Can you just live in that era if you wanted to?" You can Google people and spy on them and keep in touch with them in a way that you never could before. My mother was saying that when I went to my 20-year reunion. I said, "Oh yeah I basically know what all my classmates are doing," and she said, "That is so weird to me, I left high school and I never found out what happened to anybody." Now they’re right there, and they have blogs.

And they talk about high school on them!

Laughs. Yes! They talk about high school on them! So it was very easy to immerse myself in that. Sometimes I would call up my friends and say, "Take me back there. Let’s go, come on. Let’s just go together." They would start reminiscing about various moments.

Now what were you like in high school?

I was the class clown. I wished I was Jill Shores who was voted best legs. She’s still beautiful. So I was kind of on the periphery, so I know what that’s like. I know it’s become a cliché when people talk about high school because no one’s going to cop to being the king of high school, but in fact I was not the king of high school, I was on the periphery! I clowned around.

Well this character, Lillian was sort of on the periphery too. She was sort of on the tail end of the popular girls, she didn’t seem like she was the IT girl.

I was definitely an observer and very watchful. I missed nothing and it probably set me up for life as a writer. I really paid attention. There was an inordinate amount of good-looking people in my school for whatever reason, and I really paid attention to what they were doing. I identified with that feeling of obsessively watching.

Was there a boy senior year? Or was this 100 percent fictional?

Laughs. It was a composite of a couple of different boys from my high school that were very removed from me. It was sort of mushed together of a couple. What made me think of doing it that way was that even now, when I drive through my hometown, there are certain guys’ houses that I drive by in my hometown and my neck snaps back as if I’m going to see them outside raking their lawn like they used to when we they were 16. They’re not there! I still crane my neck, and I’m 42-years old! The idea is the last time I drove on the way to the Short Hills Mall with my sister, we drove through our old town and we looked at this one lawn where there were brothers -- one in her grade one in mine -- and we both snapped our necks and it was pathetic! I said to her, "Why do we look?" She said, "Maybe they’re visiting their parents and they’re there with their kids, you never know!" And that kind of gave me an idea for a scene in the book. You know, the inner high school person is always there, let’s face it.

Not only were you in high school, but you were in Jersey high school. Jersey plays into your role in your first book but also in this book too. Did you consciously do that?

Why do I keep going back to New Jersey? What is so evocative about it? I still don’t understand! Yes, it’s where it was raised, but I live in Brooklyn now in Carroll Gardens in a converted church among all kinds of eccentric people. Yet this whole New Jersey thing... I’m still puzzling it out and wondering -- am I going to make a whole career of this? I feel that kind of mean sense of humor that Jerseyites have, but I don’t quite know. I still haven’t figured out why after two books I’m doing this!

Do you think it’s because Jersey people growing up want to get to New York City, and all they think about is getting out of Jersey?

It’s true! All they think about is getting out of Jersey. It’s so funny because New York City when I was growing up was so remote. We NEVER went there. As a family we went there once a year to Chinatown, and then we left! I think I went to see the Wiz one year, you know we had the nosebleed seats. We were a 45-minute drive from the city and it might as well have been London. It was really remote. I remember walking down the street and thinking someday I’m going to live here. It’s ironic that now I live here and all I do is write about New Jersey.

And your character goes home to New Jersey and gets stuck there, is exiled...

It’s almost easy for a writer because New Jersey has some strong characteristics. Let’s face it, there are nail salons in every state, but there really are a ton of nail and tanning salons in New Jersey and they do have the best names of any state. It’s just easy pickings! The easiest are the Sopranos clichés, but if you move beyond that, there’s some texture there for sure.

Would you say that you still love Jersey?

I always will have such a soft spot for my home state. My best friend Julie asked me the other day, "Do you feel like a New Yorker, you’ve been here for 15 years?" We were trying to figure out what makes you be an actual New Yorker. Is there a moment? For me it was when you go to another city and you say "It’s nice, but it’s not New York." But I really have such an affection for New Jersey. My friend called me the other day and they were at the shore, at Point Pleasant -- you know, where I puked many times -- and I got such a pang of homesickness and longing. And in fact, Point Pleasant isn’t that great, but it’s the softening through the years of the things you went through.

Getting back to Vi, you said you didn’t know anybody like her, but is she kind of like a conglomeration of the old people that you’ve met? She’s really a fireplug. You’ve met all these pretty famous celebrity -- for lack of a better word -- fireplugs, otherwise they wouldn’t still be around!

I really have an affection for actresses age 70 and up. Whenever I see one being interviewed on like a TCM I just tune in. I’m a real sucker for big jewelry and big glasses.

You are from Jersey.

It probably is all tied into Jersey! When I’m walking along in Manhattan and see this certain sort of intrepid old gal that really dresses up to go to Duane Reade and is just head-to-toe, that to me is the end of an era. When I’m a senior God knows I’ll be wearing sweats. There’s just something about that old gals who sort of put on their clothing and make-up as armor to face the day. It is based a little bit on my grandma. She had three thousand pairs of shoes and a million different lipsticks. She did this thing where you put the spot of lipstick in the middle of the cheek as rouge. I collect autobiographies of gals. I love the autobiographies of these actressy types. They tell themselves certain things about their characters and their lives so many times that they start to believe them. They just juj up their lives. They put a little extra color and sparkle into it -- so much that they believe it. It’s that sort of optimism that I really like. I also collect beauty books by actresses of a certain age because I love them too.

Talking about that and make-up, what is your relationship with CVS or your obsession?

After I wrote that chapter, I wondered, is this going to look like I’m making a play for CVS, like I want them to stock my book! I thought later, what the hell was I doing, this looks like product placement! I was in CVS today. I really have a connection to CVS. CVS is actually a sad commentary on modern culture because to me that really comforts me in the way that for previous generations probably the smell of hay and the farm comforted them. For me it’s all about that chemical smell of Bonnie Bell Lip Smackers at CVS. When I was in college there was a CVS near my school. The Hall & Oates music really comforted me. There was just something womblike about CVS that really soothed me. It’s like a really sad version of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. For me, my Tiffany’s is CVS.

When it comes to people picking up this book do you want them to think, "OK, I’m putting the memoir aside and this is a totally new book, this is a totally new character, this is not Jancee?" Or do you want them to come at it saying "I loved that, so I’ll love this"?

All I ever wanted to do my whole life was write books. I knew my ticket in the first time was the celebrity stories. Like it or not, that was what I had to sell. That’s what people wanted to hear. I was really so hoping I could do a departure this time, show people I could do something more. I’d love to write another fiction book. I hope I can. I just wanted to push myself and to see. It’s mostly a reflection of me in that nostalgia can be really deadly and you have to watch it. You look back on that time and you know, high school was brutal, it was terrible. And the older I get, the more I romanticize it. It’s sort of a wake-up call even for me. If I could write another fiction book, I’d love to.