This week I’ve been lucky enough to join Men Like Air author Tom Connolly on the blog tour for his (at times hilarious but mostly beautiful) new novel about 4 men in New York whose lives gradually to come together in complex and touching ways. Today Tom has kindly given me some of his time to answer a few questions I had about the book, including his thoughts on the role of author in the reading process…
Men Like Air felt like a really complex novel that explores multiple themes. What was the impetus for writing this book? Was there one central inspiration or was it a more gradual process?
It is always a gradual process for me. Characters get slowly drawn and as they become clear I begin to try out stories on them. I work on a large number of characters and ideas without grouping any of them together, and if, over time, natural partnerships are formed (these characters belong together, these actions or stories all apply to one character) then I develop that as an idea.
Although complex, there is one central idea in Men Like Air, a group of men and women trying to make sense of their urban lives. The book grew out of a set of characters I first started writing when I was renting a place on the Lower East Side so there was always a good chance the story would be set there. I guess it could have been set anywhere, but I know NYC better than any place outside beyond home, and I have experienced and observed the effect that the place can have, the intensely inspirational gift that it can be and the profound challenge.
I think I have always loved a book that makes me laugh out loud and yet feel deep, complex emotion ever since reading A Prayer for Owen Meany, and I had a desire to write something funny and poignant about people who are stimulated by the city they live in, moulded by it, but also left emotionally isolated by it, as that’s my experience of New York City.
I think Men Like Air has probably tripled any resolve I already had to visit New York. There are numerous passages spent describing the city landscape and your character’s own relationships with the terrain are complex. You somehow draw on the stereotypical hustle and bustle of the Big Apple while also weaving in spots of calm. What motivated your decision to base the novel in New York?
I am very happy the book had that effect on you. I have spent a lot of time there, and perhaps because the city feels so familiar from the moment one first arrives – because of the movies – you quickly learn to appreciate and seek out the less obvious places, the nooks and crannies, the non-extraordinary contours of everyday life, and, yes, the calm.
The characters’ relationships to NYC are complex because they are changing radically within the compass of the book, and also because living in NYC just is complex; it’s a simultaneously nurturing and draining existence. This pulsating, packed metropolis is also a great place to feel more lonely than you’ve ever been. Forgive me for quoting my hero William Maxwell when I do so quite often, but he brilliantly observed that “New York City is a place where one can weep on the sidewalk in perfect privacy.”
One of the more prominent themes in the book is the relationships between the male characters and familial ties. Was this an area of particular interest to you? How did you map out the relationships and the way in which these characters would eventually come together?
I had this thing happen to me in the mid-nineties, when I accompanied my brother, who lived on the Upper East Side at the time, to his girlfriend’s parents house in Connecticut for Thanksgiving. I was quite unwell and hadn’t eaten for a few days and was mistakenly overdosing my cough mixture. When I got to the house just outside Hartford, I was feeling weak and high. I looked a wreck and by the time that big old basted Turkey was put on the table my head was spinning and I fainted on to my plate. The girlfriend and her family presumed I was some kind of a drug addict and were terrified of me when I woke up a few hours later. My brother was in hysterics about it and took great pleasure in not defending my (in truth, spotless) clean-living reputation. You’ll know that a scene very close to that occurs in Men Like Air. So what? The point is that I was thinking about that episode from my life and about how interesting it would be if the roles were swapped and it was the clean-shaven, older brother, with a respectable job and a suit, who unwittingly abuses over-the-counter drugs and falls into his dinner. And if that guy was a control freak and this loss of dignity and control turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to him, that might be interesting. And maybe he’s a man who has carried the weight of the world on his shoulders from too young an age. This is how it works for me. You build up ideas about characters, and those developments become, by definition, events, moments of story. The starting point is occasionally something real, like my unfortunate Thanksgiving, which I then twist and alter and abuse until it works as story. But far more often it’s just stuff a writer makes up. That’s what we do, we make stuff up and put it together and, after a while, the dynamics of made-up stuff and made-up people demands a certain logic or set of rules, and what we are judged on is how well we’ve imagined and then described the rules of the stories we make up. (Even if we are writing fantasy, it has to stack up.)
How does this answer your question? Hopefully, by illustrating that I never – never – sit down with the ambition to write a book addressing the theme of, say, male characters and familial ties: what I do is find myself drawn to a bunch of characters I have usually been working on for years in small doses, and out of these characters the big themes emerge.
The female characters in this novel linger on the peripheries to the main action. How much/what influence do you think they have on the lives of the main male characters?
That is absolutely true, but Joy and Dilly and Amy are at the epicentre of the drama of William and Finn’s stories. And Susan French changes William’s life forever. Leo’s story is consumed by women; women he has loved and lost, women he dreams will step in and change his life. The one woman he doesn’t notice properly, on a daily basis, Astrid, turns out to be exactly the person he most needs but in a totally different way to what Leo presumed he was looking for. And “Men Like Air” is a line from a Sylvia Plath poem, the preceding lines of which are quoted by Dilly as she orgasms on top of Finn. So, you know, it’s not all about the men!
Dilly is such a frustrating character! Is it difficult to write purposefully unlikeable characters?
No, it’s fantastic fun. But only if they are characters who, like Dilly, have a degree of self-awareness (self-loathing in her case). My argument for Dilly in this book is that, firstly, we grow to understand why she is the nightmare she can sometimes be, and, secondly, that she changes within the lifetime of the book. She remains flawed and chaotic, but she develops. Also, I would argue with you that although Dilly is flawed, the bringer of mayhem, sometimes scary, I do not consider her ultimately unlikeable. I passionately believe – and hope – that she earns our understanding and sympathy.
She is the root cause of some of the funniest passages in the book and that’s probably why I love her, despite how damaging she can be.
As a reader it felt like I was getting a really intimate glimpse into the lives of these men and their connection to New York feels very personal. Did you put a lot of yourself into this novel or do you subscribe to theories on the “Death of the Author”?
I guess to the latter. I have no interest in putting myself into my writing. The personal connection is to my characters, first and foremost, and then to the setting. I grow intensely attached to the characters I am writing. I look forward to spending time in their company. I get on a wavelength with them and pour everything I have on that wavelength into the work – but that is not me, it is not my own story, my own events. My Thanksgiving dinner did happen pretty much like Finn and Jack’s weekend with Dilly’s parents happens, but there is nothing of me (or my brother) in that scene from the book. It’s no more than the source of the idea, and no more personally meaningful than those ideas entirely made up.
Both of the novels I have written are fictional, yet both are set in places I have lived and which I know well. All the stories and characters in those settings are made up. I have poured everything I love about the characters, everything I think about them, every idea and storyline I feel appropriate or interesting, into the writing. And in all that ten years of writing, there is only one passage in which I have “put a piece of myself” into the novel, in Men Like Air when Finn looks down on New York City and sees the streets as a sort of circulatory system and he realises that his brother is the only person left in the world with the same family blood as his pumping through him, and he imagines the horror of a day ever coming when his brother is not in the world with him. My brother became ill and died during the time I was writing Men Like Air. The book’s narrative was already established, I had already written the sibling relationship between Finn and Jack, but in a private way I went against my choice never to write about my brother in one passage because at a very late stage of the writing process a moment presented itself in which to express everything I can’t stand about losing him and to do it from the perspective of a man who hasn’t lost his brother, but imagines doing so; it was a moment of fantasy for me, the fantasy of feeling all that pain and then being able to step away from it because the terrible thing hasn’t in fact happened, because it is imagined.
That’s what us writers do: make stuff up.
Thank you again to Tom for this insightful glimpse into the novel and don’t forget to enjoy the rest of the #MenLikeAir blog tour at the blogs below – in addition to my thoughts on the novel later this week. Also thank you to Myriad Editions for having me on the tour!