Q&A

Christopher Noxon on being a 'domestic first responder' and 'Plus One'

Christopher Noxon channels his life as a 'domestic first responder' into the fictional 'Plus One'

L.A. writer Christopher Noxon bears more than a passing resemblance to the protagonist of his first novel, "Plus One" (Prospect Park: 288 pp., $24.95).

Both Noxon and his fictional counterpart, Alex Sherman-Zicklin, have beards and wear glasses. Both also happen to be married to successful TV writers. Noxon's wife is Jenji Kohan, creator of "Weeds" and "Orange Is the New Black." Alex's wife, Figgy, writes a runaway cable hit called "Tricks," about a suburban prostitution ring.

Both men, consequently, serve as primary caretakers for their children; Noxon and Kohan have three; the Sherman-Zicklins have two and are in negotiations about a third. Neither likes the term "house husband." (Both prefer "domestic first responder.") But whereas Alex considers himself "a bit of a Federline" in his marriage and flounders comically on the way to discovering a rewarding identity beyond being the perpetual plus one, Noxon was a successful journalist before turning to fiction. His 2006 book, "Rejuvenile: Kickball, Cartoons, Cupcakes, and the Reinvention of the American Grown-up," earned him spots on "The Colbert Report" and the "Today" show, and he's working on a "Plus One" pilot for ABC.

Both Noxon and Alex prefer east L.A., venturing west only for the doctors — but Noxon had a dentist appointment in Beverly Hills, so he agreed to meet at a nearby cafe to talk about life, art and guy lit. Noxon will be reading at Skylight Books in Los Feliz at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 5.

After reading "Plus One," I feel as though I know a lot about you.

You might. Or you might not.

Right, because it's a novel. But there are so many hilarious moments that I have the urge to sit here and ask you, "So, did this really happen?" How autobiographical is this book?

It's tempting to play the game of what's true and what's not. My hope is that it all feels true. So 100% emotionally true. Factually, I have no idea....

I had written a nonfiction book, and that was incredibly gratifying and got me a lot of the kind of ego biscuits that I was looking for as a journalist. Meanwhile, Jenji's show ["Weeds"] had just taken off. And the money that I was making as a freelancer didn't make any difference in our lives. And so I started to look after the kids more. I planned trips, and I handled doctor's appointments, and I did carpools, and I started cooking, and I became the domestic dude. And it was great.

But at the same time, I was feeling these pangs of weird insecurity and just-concealed aggression. This weird biological sludge would kick up in the back of my throat, and I would be like, "Why am I peeling out in a minivan at carpool?" That happened. "Why am I mowing down kids at the laser tag birthday party?" I was having conversations with people where they'd be like, "What do you do?" And that was a tough question to answer. I didn't know. So I started writing about it.... And I sort of spun out all my anxieties and insecurities and worst impulses to the places where I felt like the story was. And then all kinds of stuff started to happen in the plot that I didn't plan on.

Why did you turn this material into a novel rather than, say, essays?

I did write a few essays about these themes. And then I looked at them and I thought, "I don't want to read a book of unresolved essays. I want to read a story." I don't know where that advice comes from: "Write what you want to read." But my own experience didn't feel dramatic enough to make for very good reading. My wife and I lead a fairly stable, humdrum existence. We're not that interesting. And I wanted to get really juicy. I wanted to get under the skin, to get real. So I had to inhabit that space and imagine what it would be like emotionally for a man who has to play the support role. What kind of social pressures does a guy who's looking after the kids encounter.

Also, my then publisher said to me, "Unless your name is Sedaris, we're not putting out a book of your essays." So that helped me.

Although they're going through a rough patch, Alex and Figgy have a remarkably egalitarian marriage. What does your wife think about "Plus One"?

She was initially a little worried that everyone would read it as an expose. She's a private person, and I really struggled with not wanting to bring her any discomfort. I gave it to her when I was done and said, "Look, anything in here that feels too close, too private, too familiar, it's out. No questions." She read it and said, "It's fantastic. Go." That was really gratifying.

Is this a growing trend? Are there a lot of male plus ones out there?

As women assume more positions of power and success, men are easing off the professional pedal and learning how to play the support role, and that can be a really difficult transition for guys. Men are coming to terms with something that women did in the '60s and '70s, finding your own identity within a caretaking role. Certainly in Hollywood, women are kicking ass, and somebody's got to help. The question is how to be a supportive husband, a good father and a righteous man. I think the first step is coming to terms with the fact that it can be hard; it's acceptance. And that's what the book's about.

How do you, as a busy husband and father, carve out time to write?

I am, like one of my heroes, Jennifer Weiner, a drop-off-to-pickup writer. I have three kids in three different schools. So between about 8 and about 2, I hole up at the library. I can't work at home. There's always something happening.

So Jennifer Weiner is an influence?

I just adore her writing. The books that I modeled mine after are really fun, engaging, fast reads that have a kind of thorny depth to them. They're about something, and the characters feel realized and detailed, and there's this satirical edge that I delight in. I also love Allison Pearson, who wrote "I Don't Know How She Does It." Smart, good, unhinged domestic stories: that's what I was trying to get at. Meg Wolitzer is also a big influence: I did a workshop with her last summer, which was amazing. I also read Nick Hornby and Tom Perrotta and Jonathan Tropper. I don't know what it's called: guy lit?...

I don't think this book is for men. It has a man at the center, but I think it's a family book, it's about a marriage, and hopefully, that'll appeal to both.

I have to admit that it reminds me of chick lit, except it's about a dude. He even gets a makeover...

Yeah, the scene with the jeans. That was very intentional. I was thinking, "What are the chick lit tropes, and how can I throw him in and see what happens?"

As two creative people mining the same material, do you and your wife have any ground rules?

Well, I'm mining our home ground, and Jenji's mining Litchfield Penitentiary. My sister [writer Marti Noxon] is also living with us right now while she's redoing a house. Her show, "Girlfriends' Guide to Divorce," just premiered. It's very autobiographical, and there's a brother on the show who's sort of modeled on me, except he's gay. So it's a house of mirrors. All of us are having fictional versions of ourselves and real versions of ourselves.

What advice would you give to a friend whose wife just sold a pilot?

Don't assume that you're not OK. Sheryl Sandberg ["Lean In"] once said, "When a woman is married to a successful man, everybody comes up to her and says, 'Congratulations!' When a man is married to a successful woman, everybody comes up to him and says, 'Are you OK?'" There's this assumption that men are threatened by the success of women.

I am nothing but happy for my wife's success. But there are all these messages about it somehow being an emasculation. And then it becomes emasculating. So know there will be a lot of questions about your manhood and how it's perceived in relation to what's happening to her. Just be a fan. Just be on her side.

Gray is a writer who lives in Los Angeles.

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