Austin, Obsessive Research, and Self-Destructive Characters: Brian McGreevy On Writing “The Lights”


When I first heard about Brian McGreevy’s newest novel, The Lights (out now from Rare Bird Books), I was told it was a book about a woman in an MFA program. Immediately, I had my ideas about what this book might be about, what I might find in this book. Scenes that take place in workshop, definitely. Discussions of the publishing industry, probably. Maybe some talk about agents and debut novels. But when I sat down to read The Lights, I quickly discovered that McGreevy’s book isn’t really about a woman in an MFA program. The narrator, Leda Galvan, is, yes, a gifted writer who is getting her MFA at a prestigious MFA program in Austin (you can guess which one), but McGreevy isn’t concerned with workshop or manuscripts. Instead, The Lights is about how Leda’s self-destructive habits define her years in Austin. I spoke to McGreevy over the phone about why he chose to set this novel in an MFA program, how he decided on the epistolary form, and how he created the voice for Leda.

I’d like to begin by talking about voice. Leda’s voice is so specific and unique. Can you speak a bit about her voice and how it come to you.

Sure. I mean, I didn’t really…it didn’t really come to me. It was just pure mimicry. (laughs) It was based highly on one person, but over the course of a number of years it became a conflation of certain young women I knew who had certain personality commonalities. So, in the same way the book addresses that these hyper-masculine, neo-Hemingway sort of dudes have these ways of expressing themselves—in my experience—the young, really smart, really sensitive—but in certain ways undeveloped and insecure—female writer also has certain commonalities of expression. It was me trying to express that with as much as accuracy as I could.

Why was that something that interested you? What drew you to that personality type?

Well, experience. To me, it was a very compelling personality type. It’s something that I was deeply attracted to both interpersonally and romantically. Something that makes compelling fiction or drama in general is a charismatic personality in conflict with itself. And, so, that was something that just drew me in.

Can we talk about setting the book inside an MFA program? I know you went to Michener—where the book is pretty obviously set—and you’ve spoken highly about the experience in past interviews. What about the MFA environment—or the Michener environment in particular—that drew you in?

You know, it’s funny. If I could have done any sort of fucking gymnastics to not set it in the environment of an MFA program, I would’ve. There was literally a time where I was like, Do I make these people astronauts? I’m really disinterested in general in the idea of the academic novel. There’s a reason why you never see these people in a classroom. If professors are even mentioned, it’s sort of like the parents in Charlie Brown. What Michener has is a template that I had not seen replicated anywhere else in my professional experience. You probably do get it in the Silicon Valley. What I’m referring to is an incubator of people who are intensely brilliant, intensely high-functioning in certain ways. But people who check those first two boxes also tend to have violently self-destructive tendencies that don’t necessarily benefit from, number one, having that much free time, and, number two, benefit from being put in this fairly gilded environment with members of their own species.

Yeah, I did notice that despite the book being set in an MFA program, they’re never in workshop. You see them in bar after workshops, but it’s not like there are huge conversations about their thesis or anything. In some ways, the program doesn’t play a huge role in the book and yet these people are clearly artists, are clearly not working nine to five jobs. They could only be in this circumstance if they were in this program.

Correct. Which is why, you know, if I could have fabricated some Willy Wonka reason why these people would all be drawn to Austin—for very specific reasons to me, it had to take place in Austin—I would have loved to develop that conceit in a positive way. I know that intrinsically once you use the three letters MFA people start rolling their eyes, which, fair enough. I do, too. There’s a reason why the protagonist in her own narration makes a joke in her own expense. There’s a reason the program in the book is consistently referred to as Hogwarts. I guess I just have to own it. I’m still so ambivalent that the MFA is the conceit that brings them all together. To my thinking, it’s really not about the program. It is about Austin. Austin does tend to be a city where it’s a pocket in people’s lives between where they were coming from and what they actually do with their life. I hang out in New York and LA all the time and I’m constantly surrounded by people that either I knew from my time in Austin or people who lived in Austin at some point, either for school or just as likely when they were sort of arbitrarily trying to figure out where to hang out while they were figuring out who am I and what am I trying to do in the world.

You even write at one point—from the perspective of Leda, obviously—that basically these people’s dart landed on Austin instead of Portland or Brooklyn.

Right. And, also, just as frequently you see a fair amount of rotation among those cities. If you go to Austin now and you look at the signs—the realtor signs for housing—it’s often 917 numbers.

That’s so crazy. Yeah, I had a friend who was thinking of moving out of Brooklyn and to Austin and someone was like, Well, if you’re going to just do that, you might as well stay in Brooklyn. Which is not to say those cities don’t have their own identities, but…

Yeah, we shot the new series which I’m involved with in Austin last summer, so I was talking to locals and they were so incensed that people from New York had driven rent up so much. Like, a one bedroom in city center is $1600 a month. Like, Oh, yeah, guys. That’s really rough. (laughs)

I want to return to something you mentioned earlier, that Leda came from this one women and then other women. Throughout the novel, there are all these conversations about gender. I’m really interested in hearing about your experience writing Leda’s perspective on gender. Leda will make these generalizations about men and about women. I’m thinking specifically of when she gets the job at a fashion magazine and says that, as a girl, she liked the perks.

The fashion magazine stuff was pure journalism. I knew I was completely out of my depth even conjecturing what that experience would be like. I had a couple of different sources for that one. Let’s just say there’s nothing there that came from my imagination. If it sounds like something a woman would plausibly say or think about that experience, it’s because it is directly taken from interviews I did of people who will remain nameless.

So, when you were writing this book you conducted interviews?

Oh, absolutely. It was one of those things where…we live in kind of a peculiar time where identity politics often hijack conversations about art. You know, I’m ambivalent about this myself. On one hand, I get it. We need to be trying harder. Everyone needs to have equity of opportunity. There are difficulties—some that I’m aware of, some that I’m not aware of—for people who are not straight, white men like me. I am absolutely on board when it comes to correcting these historical inequalities. However, on the other hand, I do see these conversations going kind of crazy. And, so, to me, the question of how can you write from a female perspective as a man….people have been writing from the perspective of the opposite sex as long as fiction has existed and it ultimately comes down to you write what you’re interested in. For me, when it comes to this particular book, I don’t see it as a question of me writing about women. I see it as a question of me writing about this character that I’m deeply interested in. If there was someone who seemed like a viable model for this character, yeah, I would conduct interviews. I wouldn’t trust myself to guess. But I was fundamentally motivated by wanting to deepen my understanding of this personality type.

So, what did those interviews look like? I think there’s this—often incorrect—idea that nonfiction writers conduct interviews and fiction writers sit at a desk and pull things from their brain. Maybe that is true for some writers. I’m sure it is. But I don’t think it is for everyone, so I’m really interested in the process of conducting interviews, especially for a book that takes place in a setting you’ve experienced.

Well, okay, so, I really get off on research. I research everything I do fairly autistically. If it’s about a werewolf tearing shit up, that’s what I’m going to be researching. If it’s about a young woman who is very strong in certain ways and very fragile in other ways, that is what I’m going to be researching. Now, where this becomes ambiguous is that to a certain extent, anyone who’s writing fiction about relationships is doing research in just who they’re fucking. (laughs) At that point it’s just about paying attention.

(laughs) True. Okay, let’s talk about the form. The novel is written as a letter, which is something I would often forget. Then the “you” would come back, and I’d remember and have to consider why she was giving these details, why she was telling the story in this way. Then, at the end, when the letter form really came back, it made me consider those things even more. How did you settle on the epistolary form? What did it allow you to accomplish?

So, you know, on one level it was that I really am just tickled by framing devices myself. I love those 19th century books were someone will start talking to someone on a train and that person will start telling a story and then it’s 200 pages of that person’s story. Not in some, like, you know, dildo-postmodernist way of, like, Stories commenting on stories. I still like stories. The story that is being told, in my personal opinion, should satisfy your reader with some traditional form of emotional catharsis. Otherwise you’re just giving dry hand job that you’re not even finishing. But I do like playing around with the deliberate artifice of storytelling, because it personally just makes me happy. So, that’s thing one. Thing two is that without really getting into story points if anyone’s reading this who hasn’t read the book, there is an incredible double-standard when it comes to how female characters are judged versus how male characters are judged. For this particular character, if I’d gone close third or just out-and-out first, it would mean addressing some of her behaviors head on that would make it very difficult for some readers to sympathize with her, but she’s someone who…she’s the child of a narcissist. And she’s someone who is very linguistically gifted and someone who learns from a young age how to alternate between going on the charm offensive or leveraging sympathy in her behavior to make sure that basically, whatever her given audience is, she’s in the most favorable possible position with that audience. So, with regards to this book taking the form of the amends letter, she’s failing spectacularly in what an amends letter is supposed to be doing. All she’s doing is fucking talking about herself. And, so, for me, that was an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone in the sense of, to me, it was completely in keeping with this character that she would be seducing and charming the reader, even while she’s being kind of obnoxious and selfish in the way that she’s interpreting what is supposed to be a selfless, spiritual gesture. But then, also, in her telling this from a certain perspective, she’s spinning it the entire time. You can’t rely on almost anything she says up until the very end. It’s not that she’s being necessarily dishonest in the what of the substance. It’s that she’s characterizing it in a way that does not honestly admit her culpability in what was happening the entire time until the end. If you just gave a timeline of the things she was doing, she comes off as kind of a monster, which is something I find interesting. I find that human. And it’s, to me, irritating—I’m sure for women it’s much more horrible—that you could write a man straightforwardly making those decision and he’s Don Draper. But, you know, I didn’t want my readers judging this character, because I don’t judge this character.

The dialogue in this book is so strong. Does dialogue come naturally to you? I know you have your screenwriting background. Let’s begin by talking about how that background has influenced you ability to write dialogue in prose or vice-versa.

To me, that’s a chicken and egg argument. One of the reasons I became interested in screenwriting in the first place is—and that’s a disingenuous way of putting it—I was always interested in it. I was five-years-old watching The Ninja Turtles, and a part of my brain was like, How do I get in on that? Dialogue just happens to be a tool in my tool kit. It’s like how if you talk to actors, some actors can do dialect, some can’t. You either have an ear for it, or you don’t. For whatever reason, I was born with an ear that is fairly capable of storing and then recreating the rhythms and cadence of how people communicate with each other. Probably this is something I have instead of what my failings would be as a fiction writer that I just choose not to think about. (laughs) And I also believe that what’s great about dialogue is that people say things that are often times completely full of shit, which I find deeply interesting. Dialogue is, number one, very entertaining. Number two, you can be poetic with colloquialisms in a way that you can’t to the same extent with formal prose. I believe the art form I excel at most is sending text messages. I mean, I literally think you could collect them in a book, although it would…I mean. It would Henry Miller look fairly tame. (laughs) But then you also get to create this fundamental tension between what this character says and what this character means, which is something that is completely familiar to anyone with even the most fundamental background in dramatic writing, because it’s just a little thing called subtext. To me, the principles that apply to dramatic writing equally apply to writing compelling fiction.

I want to return again to something you mentioned earlier on. There was this one person who inspired Leda—

I mean, there was always a version of Leda. She was the most important element the entire time. Ten years ago this was somewhat less of an ordeal than it is now, but it does feel to me that it is complicated to be allowed to write a female character this messy and this self-contradicting. What you see a lot of this days—and you see it with female public figures, as well—that an individual also has to function as a symbol. That’s something I just find artistically to be a nuisance.

How so?

If you look at a show like Girls, there’s this situation that no matter what Lena Dunham’s character does—this is also true of her in real life—someone’s going to be fucking mad about it. If she makes a decision that’s too shitty, that’s failing women. If she’s too virtuous, that’s failing women. Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. For whatever your setup options are, there is not an option that is not going to be quite vocally distressed that you did not adhere to what their political argument is. To me, from an artistic perspective, doesn’t make a lot of sense. For me, this book is so widely different from my first book, and the only point of doing it was, alright, I’m going to excavate this character in a way that I believe is as honest as possible to the unique person that this character is.

I know we don’t have a lot of time left, and I know you have an interview after this. So, first off, thanks for your time. But was there anything else you wanted to touch on?

Well, I managed to answer all your questions without referencing Camille Paglia, so, uh, I surprised myself there. (laughs) But, you know, honestly—this is going back to thinking about readers—there were times that I was. For instance, if you look at the scene between Leda and Jason in the cemetery when he’s in kind of a fucked up, self-destructive mood and she’s leading him on just because she wants to see how he’ll react, there was a part of me that was concerned about how certain people would respond to that, even though I am one-thousand percent convinced that it is an honest representation of a certain psycho-dynamic that emerges between people. In those moments when I would be concerned about what the reaction would be, I would just imagine this floating Camille Paglia on my shoulder saying, Don’t be a pussy.

Yeah. The unlikable protagonist—and I use that in air quotes—that phrase has never made sense to me. Whenever I hear people say, She’s so terrible—and it’s usually she—I’m like, You either lie to yourself about what you do and who you are or you’re a far better person than I am.

Yeah. And what nonsensical about that is that it’s well-known, at least currently in the TV industry, that the character you end up liking the most is the character that entertains you the most. My experience of these young women–and, like I said, I’ve known a few—who are hard drinkers, who are harder partiers, and are so dazzlingly precocious and charismatic in certain ways, but are almost stunningly unqualified to make emotionally responsible life decisions. When they enter a room, they often do effortlessly just claim the spotlight and everybody is paying attention them.

Yeah. I’ve known those people. That kind of women. I’m not that kind of woman. I’m not a woman like Leda. I felt this sort of envy for her, despite knowing how destructive her choices were.

I would say that’s very standard. When I was in my twenties there were guys that I would know who were just fucking human wrecking balls and all these girls would fall over them. They would have these series of compelling disasters in their life. When I was 22, I thought that was really cool. When I was 24, I was like, Oh, wait. That’s fucking sad as shit. Chaos is certainly compelling in art, but if you have too much of it in you life you’re absolutely going to turn into a redemptive or cautionary tale. There’s not a lot of middle ground.


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