Interview With… Christopher Buckley
Christopher Buckley, author of many well-known Washington satires – Thank You for Smoking , Little Green Men , and the forthcoming Florence of Arabia – recently sat down for an interview with Doublethink editor David Skinner. The debriefing covered Buckley’s writing habits and influences, his experiences with Hollywood, his role in Washington society, the current glossy magazine scene, and much else.
Doublethink: Are you a conservative writer?
Christopher Buckley: Well the answer is probably no. In the sense that I don’t think I am identifiable as a conservative writer. A conservative writer would be David Frum or anyone on the masthead of the Weekly Standard or National Review . I would be a little bit of a duck out of water in those pages. I am conservative to a degree, but libertarian in many things. But I don’t think I have a definable political voice. I write satire, which I think covers left-, middle-, and right-hand positions. I’m not even sure I’d want to be known as a conservative satirist because that’s limiting. . . What Woody Allen said about being gay is that it doubles your chances of having a date on Saturday night.
DT: You’re pretty prolific. You turn out a novel every couple of years. A few thousand words in every issue of Forbes FYI , which you also edit. You have stories and articles and humor in other magazines of course. My question is how do you get all this done?
CB: Well, I used to think I was prolific, then I look at someone like David Brooks. I just got the bound galleys of his new book. He writes a twice-weekly column for the New York Times . He’s in every issue of the Atlantic Monthly . Then he’s on the TV show, and he gives speeches on the side. So, I think I’m less prolific than some people think I am. I just finished my eleventh book and I edit a quarterly magazine. And I had a short story in the current Atlantic Monthly . A previous one is actually up for a National Magazine Award.
But I just finished this novel about ten days ago. And I found that when you’re working on a novel, it becomes obsessive and compulsive. You tend to sort of push other things to the side. I normally contribute stuff to the New Yorker , the Wall Street Journal . I stopped because I found that was just too much of a distraction. And those little pieces in their own little way take time. I think part of the – I use the word joy advisedly – part of the joy of working on a longer project like a novel is it becomes a world unto itself and anything that takes time away from it you look at as a trespass. I’m now 51, and I’ve become better at, as Nancy Reagan would say it, just saying no to “Could you drop everything and do a piece for tomorrow on Iraq?”
You finally get to a point when some things are just more important than others. But if you want to think me prolific, I’m happy to be thought prolific. Well, I’ve written eleven books. That’s okay, by some definitions prolific.
DT: Do you write for a set number of hours? Do you have a word-count goal for every day?
CB: For a writer, word count is probably the greatest invention since the internal combustion engine. If you study the lives of writers, almost all of them are obsessed with their daily output. Hemingway, I think, used to count each word and he considered a good day, you know, 600 or 700. I think Nabokov, I may be wrong on this, but I think Nabokov was so precise he would only write X number. And it wasn’t very many. It might have been as few as a hundred and eighty words a day. But they were perfect. They were cut in glass. Each word was a fragment of a stained-glass window. I consider a good day a thousand words. What I usually do is I start each day by rewriting what I wrote the day before and that usually takes about an hour or so, more if I was especially un-brilliant the day before. And then, by the time you’ve rewritten the previous day’s stuff, it’s sort of like doing calisthenics. You’ve limbered up, and you’re ready to go. There’s a famous story about Thomas Wolfe, whose editor was the great Maxwell Perkins of Scribner’s. Wolfe used to deliver his manuscripts to poor Max Perkins, literally, in trunks. There would be 50,000 pages. It would be up to Perkins to sort it out. There’s a famous story of Perkins being woken in his New York apartment at four in the morning by this voice down in the street screaming up at his window, “I wrote ten thousand words today.” Think about it. The book I just finished is 85,000 words.
DT: So why weren’t you done in 8.5 days?
CB: Well, you know who used to write his books in 8.5 days? Georges Simenon, the great Belgian mystery writer, the inventor of Inspector Maigret. He wrote a thousand books. They were mainly police and detective stories, but he would go into a kind of trance. Before he started out on the book, he would go to the doctor, and the doctor would check his blood pressure and all that. Then Simenon would essentially close himself in a room and go into a kind of trance. He would take naps, because obviously you can’t stay up for eight or nine days. But he would essentially write the book in eight or nine days.
You know, I remember everything about the moment when I finished my first book. I’ve never had such exhilaration, except for maybe at the birth of my first or second child. It’s a great feeling, and I’ve had it now eleven times. I had it ten days ago. And you know it’s coming. You know you’re on the second or next to last paragraph. I got up at four in the morning, and I was thinking, ‘I could finish it today.’ And unlike most days of writing, when it’s some form of torture, where you’re getting up every ten minutes to ‘I’ll go check my email,’ ‘I’ll go make another cup of coffee’ or ‘I really need to clean the closet.’ All those distractions seem delightful. This time I didn’t. I basically stayed at the desk from four in the morning till one o’clock in the afternoon, until I typed, “The End.” It’s a grand feeling. A grand feeling.
DT: Do you see yourself as writing in a tradition, say, that of Wodehouse and Waugh or another one?
CB: I would be leading with my chin if I answered that question and said, yes, I see myself in the Waugh-Wodehouse tradition. It would seem very presumptuous. I will say they are more or less my two favorite authors, and it’s probably inevitable that one, consciously or not, emulates the writers one admires. If you were a painter and your favorite painter were Van Gogh, inevitably there would be echoes or shadings of Van Gogh in your work. But I do love their stuff, so I suppose, maybe a little bit in that tradition. Although my tastes are frankly anglophile, one rebels a little bit against that, because one after all wants to be American. I don’t want to just be some second-hand or even second-rate imitation of Evelyn Waugh or P.G. Wodehouse. What you strive to be is your own person. You strive to be unique, not unique in a grand sense, not ‘O my God, he is absolutely unique,’ but sui generis, your own person, so that there’s a signature, there’s a DNA, an identifiable DNA, which I guess is what you would otherwise call a style. And that evolves. It’s taken a long time to evolve. The flip side is that you get so trapped by your own literary persona. Mutatis mutandis, it’s like a comic actor appearing in a non-comic role. There is a very real risk the audience will not want that. A couple of years ago, I wrote quite a few thousand words of a quote serious novel , and it was shit. I’m stuck with this other stuff. But there it is.
DT: What was your serious stuff like?
CB: Well, it grew out of a footnote in one of my novels, a novel called Little Green Men . A Jane Fonda type, an American antiwar activist who had gone over to Vietnam and had married Ho Chi Minh. I became intrigued by ‘What if Jane Fonda had married Ho Chi Minh, and then she comes back after he dies?’ I thought, wow, that’s a great premise. And I wrote it from the point of view of the jilted boyfriend. The college student whom she had dumped for Ho Chi Minh. Anyway, it sucked.
I am doing a series right now of a Washington, on-the-make PR guy [Rick Renard]. If you’re interested, it’s in the now-not-current Atlantic Monthly . I’m really having great fun with this guy. I think he’s a very American type. The tone was kind of Wodehousian. He’s hapless, things happen, he gets himself out of scrapes, he never quite succeeds. But he also never quite fails. Well, actually, he does fail, but he fails amusingly. He fails up.
As a matter of fact, there’s been the usual Hollywood stuff, but Buckley’s first law of Hollywood is ‘Nothing Ever Happens.’ Mel Gibson has owned the rights to one of my books, Thank You For Smoking , for eleven years. I finally got tired of hearing, “Oh, this is going to be Mel’s next movie.” On the other hand, Mel seems to be doing quite well.
DT: Did you take the rights back?
CB: No, he owns the rights. . . They paid the full purchase price, which I thought was quite a triumph, back in 1995. The option was about to expire. Very breezily, on a Wednesday, I got a call from the agent saying, well, they were willing to renew the option. Then I said “No.” There was a sharp intake of breath because agents in Hollywood, moguls, are not used to hearing that word from writers. They said, “What do you mean, ‘No’?” I said, “No.” I said, “I don’t think they’ll ever do anything with it. All they’ve done is produce two rotten scripts. Meanwhile I’ve had a number of inquiries from very serious people, so I think I’m in the mood to resell it.” Well, twenty-four hours later I had a check for the full purchase price.
CB: At the time I thought it was nice, but then it just went into the whited sepulchre that is development. And nothing has ever happened. Their mentality, even though other studios have tried to buy it, their attitude is ‘It’s our ball and you’re not allowed to play with it.’ They also get to the point where they’re worried that someone else might come along and make it into a good movie and then make them look like idiots. So this book will probably never be made into a movie for those reasons. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard “This would make a great movie.”
DT: Does that worry you? Obviously, a movie might introduce you to a really big audience.
CB: Sure. It gives you pangs. I won’t pretend I’m above commerce. I’m right down there in the sty, wallowing around in it. I am a little calmer than I used to be, because I’ve come to expect that nothing will ever happen. For instance, on Friday, I got a call from the agent saying a very leading producer with a real track record wants to option the Rick Renard story. I said, “No.” First of all it wasn’t fancy money. I just knew in my heart of hearts that nothing was going to happen. Not only did the agent say the producer very much wanted to have a conversation with me. I said, “No.” Because nothing will come of it. All he’ll do is make love to me over the phone, tell me how brilliant I am, how brilliant he is.
Why? Because the amount of money was so insignificant. Five years ago, I would have taken the call. But you learn. I had a call two weeks ago. Another book of mine has been re-bought. They’ve written a script, two Brits. John Malkovich is seriously interested. Would I like to read the script? I said, “No, I don’t want to read the script. Call me when the project has been greenlighted, then I’ll read the script, but otherwise I have absolutely no interest in spending a day or two reading a script that’s probably never going to be made into a movie.”
I hope none of this sounds arrogant or blasé. Six of my books have been bought, none has been made. So my attitude is borne of that rough and tumble.
In the end, I also understand. Making a movie, even not a big-budget movie, is a major economic decision. A low-budget movie costs five million or six million, never mind a Hollywood movie, which probably starts at thirty. You can build an office building for that. I’ve decided the best way to deal with Hollywood is let your agent deal with Hollywood. It’s lovely if a check flutters down out of the empyrean onto your desk. It’s found money. And when it happens, I welcome it with open arms, but I’ve long since stopped listening to the siren song.
DT: Your novels require a lot of research. Tell me about your method of reporting. And how is it different from regular reporting?
CB: It’s different in this sense. I started out as a reporter and an editor. I was okay, but I was also, in some ways, abysmal. Seeing the big picture, taking good notes, getting facts. Fiction is a very good profession for people who couldn’t get their facts quite straight, because in fiction it doesn’t really matter. I do research. For the smoking book, I spent about six months researching that. I went and hung out with the sin lobbyists. And I was pleased by the result. You know, I got a lot of feedback, saying ‘Boy, you really got us.’ So, that’s gratifying. The next one is called Florence of Arabia . It’s a Middle East comedy.
DT: Did you hang out with any dictators?
CB: Good question. It would have been fun to hang out with dictators, but the answer is no. I’ve talked to some interesting people. I’ve gotten gratifying reactions from the expert people. When that happens, you’ve gotten it right or struck a nerve.
It’s my way of commenting. I would never be a terribly good straight commentator. My views on almost any subject would be utterly banal. I couldn’t do what David Brooks does. I would sound like someone trying to be David Brooks and doing a rather bad job of it. But the one thing I have to offer. It’s a small thing. I’m acutely aware of the paucity of what I bring to the table. But the one thing I have is I can give it the English. I can hit the cue ball slightly to the side and make the thing look funny.
DT: Where do you come down on the Tom Wolfe question: Is reporting an essential ingredient to a good novel, or is that just journalism?
CB: We talked of Wodehouse and Waugh as being my north and south stars and I would have to add another W.
DT: You seem to be stuck in the W section of the great writers phonebook.
CB: And my other guy would be Melville, who’s an inverted W. I’m a big, big fan of Tom Wolfe. His research is, well, huge, inexorable. You ask, “Is it necessary?” It’s necessary if you want to be the great novelist of your time. His great model is Balzac and, to some extent, Dickens. And they wrote essentially reported novels. In a way, it’s a testament to the primacy of fiction. If you wanted to know what life was like in London in the 1860s or ’70s, you could read Dickens and you would know. And it would be more fun to do that than to read a history of England in the 1860s. Similarly Balzac. Balzac puts you right in there. So, fiction can do things that straightforward reporting and history can’t. And I’ve never heard anyone dispute Wolfe’s facts. They say you can judge a man by his enemies. He certainly stirred up the nest with his attacks on literary minimalism. His great theme was ‘Get out there, don’t sit there sucking your thumb and talking about your feelings. Get out there and tell it like it is.’ Now, I’m not that kind of, I don’t have those skills. I don’t have that particular arrow in my quiver, but I do do reporting. But I don’t do it in the volume that he does. My books are quite clearly more quirky and premise-driven. You know, what if a George Will-type character thought he were being abducted by aliens? What if the Hillary Clinton character actually killed her husband?
DT: You’re a member in good standing of Washington high society, and yet your books make fun of these same people. Was George Will, for instance, flattered?
CB: No, he got pissed off. I’m sorry he got pissed off because I respect him. And he had been a fan. He had actually written me an unsolicited blurb for the previous one. But I don’t think I’m his favorite person. And I understand. As a matter of fact, I feel rather badly about it. I think I gave him the impression that that character was him. It wasn’t. The character resembled him in some ways. But only in superficial ways. I understand why he interpreted it that way, and I feel badly about it.
As for the rest of Washington society, I am and I am not. I’m not a player at all in Washington society. I don’t really have anything to offer Washington society. I have no power. I have no particular skills. From time to time I find myself at a Washington dinner table and I try to be a pleasant dinner companion, but I’m not a player. I’m a father of a 16-year-old and 12-year-old whose idea of happiness is staying at home, cooking dinner for my family, playing catch, and helping my kids do their homework.
DT: In both your last novel and your forthcoming novel, Florence of Arabia , the action revolves around a female character. Is there a reason you’re steering towards feminine points of view?
CB: Actually it’s an interesting question. I feel a little bit like Bush at that press conference. Gee, now that you mention it . . . maybe. What can I say? The central character in these last two novels have indeed been women.
But what drove the new novel was the title. Now it’s not particularly original, but the epigraph is the quote from Noel Coward to Peter O’Toole. It said, “If you were any better looking, you would be Florence of Arabia.” So the whole idea literally cloned out of that and I conceived the idea of the wife of the Saudi ambassador trying to defect – she doesn’t want to go back to that horrid country – being caught, and executed. And of this young foreign service officer with the State Department trying to help her and being terribly dismayed by what happened to her. And that compels an initiative, a private initiative to try to change things in the Middle East by empowering women, which I still think is probably a good idea. [The foreign service officer] is very much the main character. She assembles … in a lot of my novels, the main character ends up having a posse, but she assembles an ex-CIA guy, a gay State Department desk officer named George, and an on-the-make Washington PR guy. Sound familiar? And they become her team. And each of those is deficient in some human area. She looks at them and thinks, tin man, scarecrow, lion. And that just happened sort of organically. I hadn’t planned that. By the end of the book, one gets a heart, one gets a head, one gets a brain.
DT: Let’s talk about speechwriting.
CB: Sure. I was a speechwriter for George H.W. Bush from 1981 to 1983.
DT: Now what is the difference between speechwriting and other writing?
CB: Well, where do I begin? Speechwriting for a politician is an attempt to persuade. Writing a novel is, well, but they’re similar in the sense that Sherwin Williams colonial white is similar to burnt sienna oil paint. They both cover a wall, but one is generally applied with a small brush in an attempt to paint something more beautiful. They’re very very different forms of writing. It was a great adventure. Very exciting thing to do when you are your age. Actually, I was about your age when I stopped doing it. It’s probably a young man’s job, it requires so much energy. I was his only speechwriter and he gave a lot of speeches. As an artistic form, speechwriting is very frustrating. I don’t mean I had nothing left to learn when I left, but I had pretty much exhausted the artistic satisfactions. When you start to wake up in the middle of the night, saying “It’s great to be back in Ohio!” I think it’s probably time to move on. Plus, if you look at the record, not that many people remain in speechwriting very long. Andy Ferguson, Peggy Noonan, Peter Robinson, Josh Gilder, these are all people I knew, worked with, and they move on. You might come back. I read the other day that Landon Parvin wrote Schwarzenegger’s inaugural speech. Landon was a Reagan speechwriter. He now does most of the humor for the Gridiron and Alfalfa sketches. He’s probably a little older than I am, about 55.
But the other thing about speechwriting is that it’s secondary. You’re doing it for someone else. In a way, mutatis mutandis, it’s like writing a script. The frustration of writing a script or a play is that it’s not a complete work. Someone has to produce the movie. Someone has to act the play. You’re just supplying the text. The joy of book-writing is that you are substantially your own boss. Sure you have an editor. Other people read it, but the difference between writing a novel for one editor who you trust and like – I have had a longtime relationship with a guy named Jonathan Karp at Random House – and writing a movie script where a hundred people are going to want to come and piss on it first is, well, it probably doesn’t need elaboration.
DT: What about the current Bush, your old boss’s son? He’s said to be a terrible rhetorician, at least when he’s speaking off the cuff. Do you think he could be doing anything more to get his message across and make it more appealing?
CB: Not talking to Bob Woodward. I’ve heard him give some good speeches. And I’ve heard him give some not-very-good speeches. The press conference doesn’t seem to be his natural métier. I would not give Bush very high marks as a communicator. I think his father was better.
DT: Writers often lead weird lives, doing some public work, some not-so-public work as ventriloquists. Have you done any ghostwriting?
CB: Mmm hmm. I ghostwrote David Stockman’s book [ The Triumph of Politics: Why the Reagan Revolution Failed ]. This was before your time, but in 1985 there was a guy named David Stockman, who was Reagan’s former director of the budget. And he got a contract for a book and he got a huge amount of money for it because the publisher had some notion this was going to be a kind of a new Iacocca book. Lee Iacocca, the head of Chrysler, had written an enormous bestseller. They thought this was going to be in some ways a motivational book. Anyway they paid him an Olympian sum of money. And then very late in the game my phone rang. And it was the sound of a very scared editor at Harper Collins, saying A) this is very confidential and B) Help! And the money was too good to turn down. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have done it. But I was at that point writing a novel and that doesn’t pay very much. So I took this on and I had sixty days. And it wasn’t as if I was coming up with the ideas, really, but I was putting David Stockman’s thoughts, record, memoir, trying to put it into English and it was a real marathon. So the answer is yes. It’s lucrative work, but that’s the only reason to do it. I wrote a rather well-received Gridiron speech for John McCain. I know him. The first thing he said was “Chris, you’re really going to regret taking this call.”
DT: You’re a prominent editor. There’s a magazine in your family. Did you ever want to be editor of National Review ?
CB: No, no. I love National Review and I respect it. And I love my dad and respect him. I guess I wanted to sort of be doing my own thing. You know I grew up with a certain amount of being in the shadow of William F. Buckley, just as Bill [Kristol] grew up in the shadow of being Irving Kristol’s son. But my inclinations were always quite different. I mean look at what I do. It’s really quite different from what Rich Lowry does. I’ve written for National Review . I read National Review . I like National Review , but I never aspired to be Bill Buckley Lite. I don’t think that’s a big enough goal. To be a pallid imitation. And how could I be anything but a pallid imitation? No, Bill Kristol is not a pallid imitation of Irving Kristol. He’s very much his own guy. My gosh, what a brilliant career he’s carved out for himself, but he’s got skills I don’t.
DT: The trend in magazine publishing these days is laddie magazines, like Maxim and Stuff , and others that are making inroads into a reading public of sorts. Do you have any thoughts as an editor and a writer on these publications? Are they good products?
CB: No, I think they’re shitty products. They obviously do what they’re supposed to. I picked up Esquire not too long ago and I was just appalled. I opened it at random to a sex column and I won’t even quote what was being discussed. It was something out of “Sex and the City.” This was the magazine I started at. It was founded by Arnold Gingrich, edited by Harold Hayes, for which Tom Wolfe and Gay Talese had written their seminal pieces. And it’s become a tit book. Now, listen, nothing against tit books, [but] I think it’s a part of the great dumbing down. If someone wants to read Maxim , that’s fine. The trouble with the Maxim -ization of the culture is that it’s like Gresham’s Law. I think the bad is inevitably going to drive out the good. To the extent a publisher sees Maxim succeeding, they’re going to want Esquire to be like Maxim or GQ . It becomes the thing to imitate.
I guess the great general interest magazines now are the New Yorker , the Atlantic is very fine, Vanity Fair has some awful good stuff in there amidst the Tom Cruise profiles. I reached a liberating point about fifteen, twenty years ago where I decided I wasn’t going to read any more profiles of actors. And it saved me an enormous amount of time. It was really quite liberating. I’ve just decided I no longer care about Tom Cruise’s formative years or much less Nicole Kidman’s. I’ll go to their movies. They’ll get my money, one way or the other. But I’m not going to give them that time. I’m going to read Melville or Tom Wolfe or Joseph Epstein. You know I just don’t care about Sean Penn’s feelings about Iraq.
David Skinner is assistant managing editor of The Eeekly Standard and editor of Doublethink.