A Conversation with Jesse Browner
When and where did you write this novel?
Although I spent a good part of my childhood in Europe, I was born in New York City, as were my children, my father and my grandfather. It was only fitting, then, that I wrote it here in NYC, over the course of about two years. Being a short novel, it took longer than I had hoped because I had a false start and had to throw out the first hundred pages and start again. I do most of my writing between 4 a.m. and 7 a.m.
What was the inspiration for this novel's protagonist, Wes?
I had my heart rather painfully broken when I was Wes's age, and the original version of the story was going to be a fairly straightforward account of that sorry tale. I eventually discarded that version, but in the process I had reawakened memories of myself at that age that had long lain dormant. I had never written about myself, and this seemed like a good opportunity to try. So Wes is largely based on me as I remember myself at 17 – ardent, a passionate reader, an aspiring writer, obsessed with moral ambiguity, attuned to fine nuances but obtuse about the obvious, a bit of a loner yet hungry to belong, to be "normal." But he is also in part modeled on my oldest daughter, who was exactly his age as I wrote the book and was in some important respects very much like me at that time. I observed her quite closely as I wrote, and if Wes comes to life at all successfully on the page, it is her traits more than mine that provided the finishing brushstrokes.
You are an accomplished food writer and in Everything Happens Today food and cooking play a large part in the narrative. Do you consider food and meals a unifying force in the novel? And in your own life?
Food and cooking are what I think about when I am not thinking about my work. As a literary novelist, I do not make my full living from writing and my time is not entirely my own. So when I don't have time to write, I cook, finding some of the satisfactions and comforts of cooking to be adequate substitutes for those I am missing. I do not say that cooking is in any way as difficult or as aspirational or as enrapturing as writing, but they do have important elements in common. Cooking, like writing, is a way of taking complete control of your world, recreating it in your own image, following a few simple, universal rules to an end that only you can dictate. You also have to be very humble as a cook and able to lose yourself in it, because the rules are not of your own making. And since no one likes to read books about writers, in my books I often give the artist's thoughts and outlook to the chef. Conversely, just as some writers go for long walks to clear their heads, I often find that my best thinking happens when I am standing at the stove. And like all great art, great food has a way of coalescing a community around itself. I can never know what my friends and readers truly feel about my books, but I know when they appreciate my cooking.
The protagonist of Everything Happens Today is a teenage boy, but there are several very strong and complex female characters. For example, Lucy is gossiped about and has a reputation, in this case false, for being promiscuous. Even Wes, who seems all too aware of the vast differences between appearances and reality, believes the rumors about Lucy. Could you talk a bit about what you wanted to suggest by having this gossip spread about a teenage girl's promiscuity?
Wes a tendency, not uncommon in young men, to be a little morally smug. He believes that he is different from everyone else, that he has values and standards that set him apart from the vast majority of strutting, rutting teenage boys around him. He feels that his chaste, elevated love for Delia is a living manifestation of that superiority. While it's true that he's a very exceptional person, it was still my job to disabuse him of his arrogance by showing him that he is as susceptible to peer pressure and tunnel vision as the next guy. His thoughtless acceptance of Lucy's reputation as truth is the perfect vehicle for such a mission. As the father of two teenage girls, I know that unfounded accusations of promiscuity are more common than acne in high school. In Wes's case, it's not only that he falls for the same stupid, malicious, banal gossip as every dumb jock in school; it's also that Lucy's maturity and level-headedness in shrugging off the rumors prove to be everything that Wes believed about himself.
There are a lot pop culture references in Everything Happens Today that span several decades from The Beatles to Bob Ross to Dane Cook. And yet the novel is explicitly set in the present day. To what extent, then, do you think contemporary adolescence is different from its earlier iterations? And how does a novelist go about capturing that difference?
I remember very clearly that, when I was a boy, the telephone began ringing the minute my older sister came home from school, and she was on that phone for the rest of the evening. Both my daughters have cell phones, but they rarely ring. The girls have far better and more numerous ways to keep in constant contact with their friends: Facebook, texting, IM, Skype, and probably others I've never even heard of. One of the most important and eloquent characters inEverything Happens Today is Wes's iPhone. It is ever-present, wheedling, cajoling, scolding, seducing, numbing in its silence. It is more than a tool; in some ways it has a life of its own, and its affects can be as shattering or as enlightening as those of one's best friend.
Somewhere in the book, Wes's father points out – much to Wes's disgust – that the two of them share similar musical tastes. When I was a teenager, it was unthinkable that my father and I should listen to or like the same music. But for the most part my daughters and I do – both of them, I think, listen as much to the music of my childhood in the '60s and '70s as they do to that of their own, partly because of how readily available it all is in a way that it wasn't thirty years ago. Wes doesn't want to admit it because of his extremely conflicted feelings about his father, but the generation gap is much smaller today than it was when I was very young, despite the proliferation of so much new technology.
Why did you choose to put the book's title in the present tense?
At one point in the novel, Wes finds himself thinking about Louis XVI's diary entry for July 14th 1789. On the day that marked the beginning of the end for the old regime and himself, Louis made a one-word entry: "Rien" – "Nothing happened today". Having had a very eventful twelve hours himself, Wes feels that, if he kept a diary, his entry for that day would have read "Everything happened today." But the day is not over, nothing is set in stone, and to have titled the book Everything Happened Today would have suggested that some sort of cycle of events had come to a close. By implication, then, by using the present tense in the title, I am trying to suggest that, for Wes as for all of us, everything of importance that will ever happen is happening today, happened yesterday, and will happen tomorrow – that we live out our entire lives every day, over and over.