Teddy Wayne on adapting his loner novels for Hollywood
The author talks about “necessary idealism” and his fourth novel, “Apartment.”
Teddy Wayne began recording the degenerating effect of modern culture on American society well before a reality TV star won the White House. The Brooklyn-based author’s debut novel, “Kapitoil” (2010), satirized the moral bankruptcy of finance capitalism. His 2013 followup, “The Love Song of Jonny Valentine,” narrated by a preteen pop idol, was a poignant indictment of celebrity worship. In his third novel, “Loner” (2016), Wayne used the deranged fantasies of a Harvard freshman to examine male privilege and female consent not long before #MeToo erupted.
“Loner” is in development as an HBO series based on a pilot that Wayne wrote, and during our interview he revealed for the first time that another pilot, adapted from “Jonny Valentine,” was recently optioned. I caught up with him at a Brooklyn coffee bar this month to discuss “Apartment,” Wayne’s much-anticipated fourth novel.
Like Wayne’s other protagonists, the unnamed narrator of “Apartment,” a graduate student in Columbia’s MFA writing program, is a loner. He’s been squatting illegally in his great-aunt’s rent-controlled two-bedroom in Stuyvesant Town, the behemoth housing complex in Lower Manhattan, since college. He invites Billy, a classmate from the Midwest on a meager scholarship, to room with him and things devolve from there. Set during the presidential election of 1996, Wayne’s novel excavates a bygone time to trace the stark fissures in our current political landscape.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
When and how did you get the idea for “Apartment”?
In February 2017 I was working on a 500-plus-page novel, still unfinished. I abandoned it one day, with obvious reluctance, and then woke up at 4 a.m. and realized suddenly that I had never written about Stuyvesant Town, where I’d lived on and off for 14 years in my grandmother’s place. Everything was still from 1976, and it had always been a strange place to live, especially as a 23-year-old. I just started writing a description of the living room, where I lived under a shroud of secrecy.
You earned an MFA from Washington University in St. Louis. What was graduate school like for you? How did your experience compare with the narrator’s?
My experience was not at all like the narrator’s; it was very social. The big jolt was living in the Midwest — I ended up staying there for three years — and that had been a shock to the system, but I adjusted. The narrator’s roommate comes from the Midwest, but “Apartment” draws more on the four years I spent in New York before grad school, when I was doing writing and editing jobs over the internet. The online economy was smaller then, and I didn’t interact with my employers or the people I was servicing. There was no sense of daily constant contact, just phone and email. It was excruciatingly isolating.
What made you decide to set the novel in the mid-1990s?
I wanted to write about the richness of a friendship between men — meaning richness in all respects, not just the positive ones. So I needed to set it before the internet came and changed everything. Friendship was more intense back when it wasn’t mediated by screens. The many ways we have of facilitating interaction reduce the intensity of bonds.
I also thought the 1990s provided a way to look at the politics of today through an indirect lens. That was probably the last time that someone from a flyover state (part of conservative America) could plausibly be in an MFA program at Columbia, the last time two guys from the two Americas might be friends in this context. And it was a time when masculinity was very much in flux.
Your first two novels had a broader scope, but both “Loner” and “Apartment” are about men who are deeply alienated. Why has your work taken this inward turn?
I would say the real turn is toward a more pessimistic, bleaker worldview, which is mostly a product of the world around me. In your early books, you tend to want to put forth an artistic vision that your friends and family can be proud of. I’ve become more comfortable exploring the darker crevices, the horrible things that culture can brew.
In “Jonny Valentine,” you wrote about celebrity culture, and then the novel’s success made you into a celeb yourself. Was writing about outsiders a reaction to that?
The extent of fame for a literary novelist is so limited; it’s nothing like what I witnessed when I went to the Grammys back in 2013 as a result of “Jonny Valentine.” That novel, actually, was probably more of a response to the vulnerable experience of having published my first book. In terms of the outsider thing, I don’t do well in any environment in which a large number of people are meant to merge together into a collective. I just don’t feel a part of the body politic. It’s a rough way to go through life, but I think it makes for good art, at least.
You’re working as a screenwriter now. How did that come about, and what’s it been like?
I’d always wanted to adapt my own work, but it’s difficult to do so, and somewhat rare for authors because you have to be willing to let go of certain details. Anyway, an actor-director was interested in “Loner” back in 2017, and I ended up writing a feature-length screenplay, just on spec. I ended up not working with him, but the script got sent around. HBO liked it enough to give me a chance to write the pilot for a series.
Compared to writing and publishing, things can take a while to germinate; there are a lot of people involved. But after what can be the punishing solitude of writing a book, it’s fun to collaborate. And I’ve always liked writing for the screen; I actually started writing screenplays in college.
And now another script of yours has been optioned.
Our son was born a few weeks after HBO bought “Loner.” I’d just finished “Apartment” and went into a bit of a provider panic, so I ended up writing two more pilots, one for “Jonny Valentine” and one for my wife [Kate Greathead]’s novel “Laura and Emma.” And “Jonny Valentine” has been optioned.
If writing for Hollywood is less solitary, how do you think it will impact your fiction? Will you still write about loners?
My wife and I have two small children, so solitude is less of an issue now and more of a fervently desired and seldom achieved state of being. Having children also forces me out of the house more and generally compels me to cultivate optimism about the future. The book I’m currently working on is about a New Yorker on the edges of bourgeois society, critical of everything around him, but it traffics in this kind of necessary idealism.
Are you thinking it too might become a screenplay?
I don’t write with adaptability in mind. Though I think my books do tend to be good natural fits for TV/film: They all have single protagonists, first-person narrators. I generally use three-act structures, mingle scenes of action with lots of interiority. And I favor pithy dialogue. I really try not to have dialogue that just serves expository purposes. In screenwriting, subtext is everything.
Hann is writing a biography of the poet Mark Strand.
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