by Jerry Waxler
When Jon Reiner’s life seemed to be slipping away, his doctors told him that the best chance for survival would be to stop eating. Sent home with an intravenous feeding machine, he attempted to live without food. The morbid premise put me off at first, until I started thinking of the possibilities for insight, as well as marveling at the seemingly endless variety of life experience accessible through memoirs. In my previous posts, I wrote ten reasons why I was glad to have read the book, The Man Who Couldn’t Eat by Jon Reiner. In this two part interview, I ask the author about writing it.
Jerry Waxler: When you were working in your career as a marketing executive, you were pitching gloss, convincing people of the marketing spin rather than the underlying truth. In this memoir, you have gone to the other extreme, conveying your gritty truths. You have done an amazing job of portraying yourself as an edgy, vulnerable, barely surviving victim of your disease.
When did you realize the guy you were writing about was flawed and didn’t behave like a prince or hero? Was it disturbing to write so honestly about these aspects of yourself, showing yourself so crushed, with all this dismal truth?
Jon Reiner: Have you been talking to my mother? You’ve made an insightful observation contrasting marketing writing and literary writing (and you’re the first interviewer who’s commented on my office career. You have been talking to my mother.) In the former, depicting perfection is the writer’s objective. In the latter, the writer’s exploration of imperfection is essential to compelling storytelling. My literary training and orientation is as a fiction writer, and it was natural for me to apply that method to writing The Man Who Couldn’t Eat. For memoir writing, however, there’s another element in the equation that’s uniquely important — personal honesty, something that was impressed upon me at the start of the writing. My agent, Mitchell Waters, who had worked with other memoirists, advised me that I would need to be brutally, even painfully, honest in the storytelling if I were to write a compelling memoir. I held myself to that in portraying the arcs of the characters over the one-year-period that’s depicted in the book — but it’s a tricky business. Emotionally, writing a memoir was much more difficult than writing fiction.
I had no reluctance to show my character flaws — I’ve been aware of them for a long time, and I believed they would make “Jon Reiner” a fuller, more interesting character in the story. But as I dug into the belly of the book, I was also conscious of the risk of exposing or violating the trust of the people who were closest to me and were required to be in the story. Fiction provides the writer with the devices to draw from reality with less likelihood of causing personal damage, or at least provides the camouflage that enables eventual repair. You can write fiction with greater freedom, unburdened by the conflict inherent in telling a true personal story. The memoir forces you to stand naked. Mining one’s life for material is impossibly tempting, because that material is so available, like it’s been delivered expressly for your use, but I still wanted to have a wife and friends after the book was published. There’s a difference between the examined life and the exposed life on the page. I had my wife, Susan, read the manuscript when it was finished because I knew she would be a better editorial protector of our family than I, since I was drunk with writer’s arrogance. She requested only that I delete one sentence. We’re still married, and I still have friends.
Jerry Waxler: How did you feel about including your wife in this radical honesty? Did you negotiate, discuss, cajole?
Jon Reiner: Though she may have preferred it personally, it would have been impossible to tell this story and exclude Susan’s role as spouse, mother, provider, companion, cook, and emotional counterweight. When I received the offer from Simon & Schuster/Gallery, Susan and I both understood what would be required of me, but, by that point, we had survived the most severe stresses on our marriage, so, the opportunity didn’t seem like it would be our undoing. The decision to include Susan — in terms of narrative dimensionality — was validated by my editor, Tricia Boczkowski, in her comments on the first-draft manuscript. In Trish’s meticulous, Eames-like block print, she penciled the note “MORE SUSAN” on the back-cover page. It was an agreeable note for me to absorb and execute. We’ve been married for 15 years; I have plenty of “More Susan” in me.
Jerry Waxler: Your writing voice is lovely, full of life, spontaneity and depth, and it’s fun to read. How did you evolve your voice?
Jon Reiner: What can I say? ‘Lovely, full of life, spontaneity and depth, fun to read’ — guilty, as charged. It’s been particularly gratifying to me for the book to receive reviews that have singled out the quality of the writing. I’d been a struggling, unpublished fiction writer for 25 years. The memoir was my chance to get published; however, one of my anxieties was that it would be ghettoized as an “illness” story and evaluated solely on its emotional value with no consideration for the writing. As the Joe Gillis character says about the movies in Sunset Boulevard — and the same could be said about certain types of memoir — “Audiences don’t know somebody sits down and writes a picture; they think the actors make it up as they go along.” Like all writers, my voice is a reflection of all the outsize influences that have excited me in literature, drama, poetry, music, popular entertainment, oratory, spoken word, conversation, the works. I grew up with my father telling us wild Baron Munchausen stories around the fire in Maine, and I’ve never forgotten them. You soak all that in, you admire it, you envy it, you copy it, and then you find your way. Some writers are lucky; they discover their voice when they are 25. I took a little longer to find mine.
Jerry Waxler: What do you like to read that reminds you of or inspires the voice you write in?
Jon Reiner: Actually, I do the opposite. As I mentioned, there are certain writers that have had a terrifically profound influence on me stylistically, from all over the waterfront — Fitzgerald, Delillo, Updike, Chekhov, Williams, Joyce, Capote, Cheever, Ian McEwen, Richard Ford, Woody Allen, Groucho, somebody stop me before I get completely unbearable. I loathe interviews where writers flood the page with their reading — leave it in grad school — and I feel the same way about novels or memoirs that rely too heavily on citing other writers’ works. I want to read your story. If I want to read Proust, I’ll read Proust. Which gets me back to your question. There are a number of favorite writers whose work I deliberately avoided when I was writing The Man Who Couldn’t Eat. I needed to be free from the influences I love.
Jerry Waxler: Can you describe your writing process? For example, do you write a whole draft straight through? Do you write in various parts of your book and then knit them together later? I’m fishing here for some comments about how you work your craft.
Jon Reiner: I’m the stay-at-home dad of two school-age boys, so their schedule is my schedule. I can work roughly between 9:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m., and then perhaps late at night after homework, dinner, lunch making, showers, and clean up are done. There are plenty of days when I have to stop in the middle of a groove at 2:00 p.m., and I really would like to keep going, but those are the rules. I hate writing outlines, so I never start with that. Generally, I begin by writing notes, thoughts, sentences that come to mind, the larger thematic ideas, and then I finally get to it. I try to write the narrative sequentially, but it’s foolish not to follow your instincts, and they don’t need to follow the linear narrative. I didn’t know the ending of The Man Who Couldn’t Eat when I started writing the book. During the course of writing the first draft an event happened during a vacation at our friends’ country house, and in bed that night while I was writing some notes it became emphatically clear that the story’s ending had been presented to me. The ending had found me. It’s an exhilarating feeling when that happens. When I’m actively writing or thinking about a story, my mind opens itself to a more acute sense of observation and interpretation and, for weeks at a time, it can seem that everything around me is communicating some new detail or understanding of the story. It’s more than just “being in your own head.” It’s also being in everyone else’s head.
–To be continued–
Click here for Jon Reiner’s Home Page
Click here for The Man Who Couldn’t Eat on Amazon
To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.
To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.