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John Warner on Frederick Exley

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It’s April. Yeah, the cruelest month and all that. Football season is long gone. Frederick Exley is desperate for fame, so he needs to forget. But down at the bar, trying to take the edge off, no matter how tightly he ties one on, the thirst for recognition is unquenchable. The big book. That’s the one he’ll write. And, eventually, he did.

So now we’re back, talking Exley’s A Fan’s Notes, with a novelist who loves this book. He lives for it. He gets shitfaced on Friday nights and reads the first chapter again and again. Well, I haven’t checked my sources on that one, and with his workload, I doubt it’s true.

I can say that the sobering facts about John Warner are that he writes books, edits others, and is Managing Editor at McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. And then he also teaches college classes, often four at once. The Funny Man, his debut novel, arrives this fall, and it’s one I’m looking forward to. But long before Warner imagined a comic protagonist so messed up he performs live stand-up with a fist stuck in his mouth, he wrote humor books like So You Want to Be President? and helped edit McSweeney’s titles such as Created in Darkness by Troubled Americans: The Best of McSweeny’s, Humor Category. And so, with John’s kind help, here’s the next installment of writers on A Fan’s Notes.

Alex: What does A Fan’s Notes mean to you?

John:  It means a lot. It’s one of my favorite books. It’s one that gets re-read, dog-eared, written on, mused over. Most books are brief affairs. A Fan’s Notes is a lifetime relationship.

Alex: To what extent is it an influence on your own writing?

John: Probably to an embarrassing extent. One of the things in A Fan’s Notes that I respond to most strongly is the notion of a well-meaning person doing all the wrong things because this seems to me to be the essential pattern of life. We try our best, but so often we fail. But the result isn’t purely tragedy. As we well know, A Fan’s Notes is hilariously funny and sad at the same time. That mix of tones, the serio-comedy, is something I’m always striving for in my own work because I think it’s just reflective of the world we live in.

Alex: Do you have vivid memories of reading this novel for the first time?

John: Honestly, no, which is strange. I remember the sensation of it, the feeling that I’m reading one of those books that’s going to stick with me, but I don’t even recall the first time I read it. I’m going to blame this on having reread it so many times.

Alex: How many times have you read it?

John: In total, probably seven, but I’m often diving back in for partial reads of specific passages or sections. I must’ve read the opening chapter hundreds of times.

Alex: Have you ever pushed it upon your friends or other writers?

John: Often. And every time they don’t report back having loved it, it wounds me deeply. More often, though, I recommend it to someone that I think would like it and they’re already a member of the tribe, so we exchange the secret handshake.

Alex: Do you have a favorite scene from the book? Or several that you’d like to share?

John: For me, it’s the opening, at the bar in the New Parrot Restaurant. That first paragraph with its commas and asides is like slipping into someone else’s story. I think it’s the perfect opener.

Alex: Have you ever taught A Fan’s Notes in a class studied it as part of another teacher’s syllabus? If so, what was that experience like?

John: I haven’t, probably because I’m too emotionally invested in the book. I think teaching the books you love irrationally often leads to a negative experience in the classroom for both the students and the teacher. The last thing I want to signal to my students is that it’s not okay to react critically to something in a book, and with the books I really love I tend to take any criticism personally.

Alex: I’m guessing that Exley didn’t find getting published to be easy, but do you think it would be easier or harder for a novel like A Fan’s Notes to get published in America in 2010? Do you ever wonder if it would get published at all?

John: I actually think A Fan’s Notes would have an easier time getting published today since we still seem to be in the age of memoir and confession. There would be a few changes for the sake of marketing probably. For one, they’d remove “fictional” from the subtitle, “a fictional memoir,” since James Frey showed that, in the marketplace anyway, these distinctions are unimportant. The title would also probably change, something like Looking for Gifford sounds about right.

Alex: For your first novel’s publication, you will be close to the age Exley was when A Fan’s Notes first came out. My hunch is this could have been relatively old for a novelist of Exley’s generation and yet it can seem perfectly common, perhaps the expected event, for first novels to appear during a writer’s middle years.

John: I hadn’t thought of this. Personally, In a lot of ways, I feel like I’ve been very slow to get to this point, given that I’ve been trying to write creatively for better than fifteen years, and doing it at least semi-competently for just over ten. On the other hand, I’m not certain what I could have done to get here more quickly. Was all that time working on short stories during my MFA program (and beyond) wasted? Should I have passed on some other opportunities to publish in less “respected” (but still fun) forms? Sometimes I feel like publishing novels is for either the very young, or the middle-aged and older. When you’re still young, you have access to the high temperature emotions of rapid self-discovery. Everything seems to matter and the stakes are high. For me, my 30’s was just a long evolutionary process of truly growing up. I think I needed some greater measure of maturity to write a book that was, first of all, interesting to me.

Alex: Please provide some recommendations of other novels that fans of A Fan’s Notes might enjoy.

John: The Water Method Man by John Irving, Home Land by Sam Lipsyte, The Lecturer’s Tale, by James Hynes, The Frank Bascombe trilogy by Richard Ford, The Funnies by J. Robert Lennon, Blue Angel by Francine Prose, The Dog of the South by Charles Portis.

Alex: Thank you, John, for providing some excellent responses. I look forward to reading The Funny Man this fall. Exley enthusiasts, please do get in touch.

I’m very thankful to have John Warner help us continue this series of Exley interviews. If you are a once or future novelist who’d like to talk Exley with me, please do get in touch.

Alex Kudera's Fight For Your Long Day (Atticus Books) was drafted in a walk-in closet during a summer in Seoul, South Korea and consequently won the 2011 IPPY Gold Medal for Best Fiction from the Mid-Atlantic Region. It is an academic tragicomedy told from the perspective of an adjunct instructor, and reviews and interviews can be found online and in print in The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Inside Higher Ed, Academe, and elsewhere. His second novel, Auggie's Revenge (Beating Windward Press), and a Classroom Edition of Fight for Your Long Day (Hard Ball Press) were published in 2016. Kudera's other publications include the e-singles Frade Killed Ellen (Dutch Kills Press), The Betrayal of Times of Peace and Prosperity (Gone Dog Press), and Turquoise Truck (Mendicant Bookworks). When he's not reading or writing, he frets, fails, walks, works, and helps raise a child.

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One Response to “John Warner on Frederick Exley”

  1. yes, i agree that it could be May.

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