Back before we relocated to Southern California, the wife, kids and I lived a house on a street that could easily be named Media Lane.
Across the way was an MSNBC producer. Down about eight lots was a local weatherman. A CNBC reporter named Sharon Epperson was nearby, as was her husband, Christopher John Farley, at the time an editor at the Wall Street Journal.
We all had our quirks and nooks and crannies, but Chris … well, he was a different bird. First, he always wore black. Always. Second, his musical knowledge was off the charts—and always delivered in all-black attire. Third, you’d spot him jogging through the neighborhood at random times of day—always in black. Fourth, truly, he was an extremely bright, extremely warm man. Would ask about the kids before anything else. Curiosity out the wazoo. Pinpoint memory. Although we didn’t know one another, Chris and I actually spent years in the same building—he at Time, I at Sports Illustrated. I was familiar with his byline, particularly because he shared a name with a late SNL comedian.
I digress. Chris’ career has been spectacular. He is the former music critic and senior editor for Time, a former senior editor for the Wall Street Journal, the author of four novels—“Game World,” “My Favorite War,” “Kingston by Starlight,” and “Around Harvard Square.” He has penned a large number of nonfiction books, including “Introducing Halle Berry” and the national bestseller “Aaliyah: More than a Woman.”
Now, Chris returns with “Around Harvard Square,” a well-timed novel about race, class, privilege and admissions in the Ivy League. One can visit Chris’ website here, and follow him on Twitter here.
Christopher John Farley, you are the 404th Quaz …
JEFF PEARLMAN: Chris, I’m going to lead with a sorta lame one, but a question I have long wanted to ask you. Namely, you share a name with an uber-famous late comedian who, two decades post-death, still maintains a larger-than-life persona. How has that impacted your life, your personal branding? And does that explain the “John” in bylines?
CHRISTOPHER JOHN FARLEY: Funny story about Chris Farley, or as I call him “You-Know-Who” and “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.” When I was living in the village in the 1990s, someone mistakenly sent me his copy of the script for the big-screen movie of “Coneheads.” I nearly contacted him to warn him not to do the movie because the script was terrible. Another time, I was supposed to meet Chris Rock on the set of “Saturday Night Live” and the guard wouldn’t let me up after I gave my name. He thought it was some sort of sick joke. Which it kinda was, but I’m not certain who it was on.
J.P.: You’re the author of a new book, “Around Harvard Square”—the fictional account of a Harvard freshman who arrives on campus and engages in all sorts of craziness. Obviously you’re a Harvard graduate, but where did the idea come from? And why?
C.F.: I started writing “Around Harvard Square” when I was an undergraduate at Harvard more than thirty years ago. Then I put it aside because I needed more distance from what I was writing about. I would rewrite the manuscript from time to time but a few years ago I realized the moment had arrived and I had developed a vision to pull off the story I wanted to tell. The book is about class, race and admissions on campus and it anticipated the whole college cheating scandal–there’s even a plotline where a rich family fakes pictures to get their kid into Harvard. As for why I spent 30 years working on the same book, I think the Wu-Tang Clan said it best: Dolla dolla bill y’all! You know every literary author is secretly in it for the money. Don’t hate the player, hate the game.
J.P.: Are there traps one faces when he/she writes fictionally about a real place from life—even if it’s a real place from three decades ago? Were there things you had to avoid? Reconsider? Approaches you perhaps chose not to take?
C.F.: I think the real traps come when people try to write memoirs based on memories from thirty years ago. I think many memoirs are really novels by people who are either lying to their readers or themselves or both. I just don’t believe that most people can remember sweeping details, and pages of conversations that took place decades ago when they were teenagers. The good thing about writing a novel is I can just make stuff up.
J.P.: So I opened up your book, and on the first page there’s a sentence that ends with “balloon animals fucking.” And I said to Catherine (the wife), “I don’t think I’ve ever heard Chris curse.” And as I read more of the book I was truly amazed/impressed how little the dialogue of Tosh Livingston sounds like the real-life dialogue of Chris Farley. How in the world did you do that?
C.F.: The real “Harvard Square” is me. I don’t curse (except when I’m reading my work), I don’t drink, I don’t do drugs. I have no moral issues with any of those things necessarily, I just like to keep my focus. I think really good fiction writing is already a kind of madness–you go out of your head to enter the mind of another person. That kind of transformation is why I do it. Everyone talks about how we’re increasingly living in our own private bubbles but people don’t talk enough about how we can break out of our self-imposed solitary confinement. Part of the problem is that, from a young age, we teach kids to stay in their lanes with the literature they read. Fewer than 6 percent of kids books are written by black writers. So black kids are often denied a chance to read about their own experiences and white kids and kids of other races are denied the opportunity of transcending their backgrounds through reading. It may just be a small step, but reading across cultural lines is one way of getting people to understand each other more. YA literature is on the front lines of getting people to burst their personal bubbles. That’s why it was so important for me to write “Around Harvard Square,” which is that rare YA book featuring a multicultural cast of characters that’s also written by a black writer.
J.P.: Fiction strikes me as an extremely difficult genre to promote. As I said to you on the phone, sports and political books come with built-in endorsement tools. Fiction, generally, does not. So how does one go about promoting a work of fiction?
C.F.: When I was working on my first novel “My Favorite War,” I wrote John Updike for help and he actually wrote me back a two-page hand-typed letter offering me advice. I later lost the letter in a flood, but I can still paraphrase one line in which he told me not to worry if my book didn’t turn out well because “Some very smart people write very bad books.” I still don’t quite know what he meant by that, but one of my takeaways is that I try not to be a prisoner of the marketplace or the literary establishment. There are very few black book critics, and, partially as a result, relatively few black books get covered or reviewed. And certainly my novel, which is about a super-smart Jamaican-American Harvard freshman fighting the powers-that-be, isn’t something that’s going to find legions of champions in the world of homogenized literary criticism. So I just give every book I write everything I’ve got and I don’t worry about what Babylon thinks. “Around Harvard Square” has gotten great support from top authors like Marlon James, Walter Isaacson, Andy Borowitz, Victor LaValle and Gish Jen. It was cool that the Jamaica Gleaner gave it a splashy, positive rave. But it’s not just about the big names. The good thing is, these days, everyone can be a critic. I would ask anyone who likes this interview, or likes my books, to spread the word on social media. The power to change the book world is in your hands.
J.P.: So you’ve had this really long, impressive career at big-name print media outfits—Time, then the Wall Street Journal. And recently you made a huge transition to Audible, where you’re an executive editor. Why?
C.F.: I love books, and I love tech, so working for a tech company that puts out books is the perfect situation for me. Audible has long been known for producing recorded versions of print books, but my job is helping us find, fund, develop and release original works that only exist in audio. Print books are sometimes seen–wrongly, I think–as relics of the past. The great thing about audio books is that they fit seamlessly with the architecture of modern life–you can drive your car, microwave your dinner, run on the treadmill or whatever all while still listening to your favorite audio book. We’ve found a way to make 21st century life richer and smarter and more literate.
J.P.: Should we at all be worried about podcasts serving as the final death knell to long-form print journalism? Perhaps I’m just being paranoid, but it feels like with fewer and fewer people reading, the deep-dive podcast series is nudging print out of the way. Yes? No?
C.F.: Podcasts and journalism aren’t mutually exclusive, and they shouldn’t be positioned as competitors. I think it’s a good thing that people are finding a way to absorb journalistic output in a deep way, and to get the informational tools they need to take on the many systemic problems that are out there.
J.P.: So you’re the author of Aaliyah: More Than a Woman. And as one who really struggled when it came to writing about the death of an icon (Walter Payton), I was wondering what it was like for you to, specifically, chronicle the death of an icon. Was it emotional? Depressing? How deep did you dive? How much—if at all—did it impact you?
C.F.: I’ve interviewed a lot of stars who are now dead–Whitney Houston, Amy Winehouse, Aretha Franklin, just to name a few. I remember attending Nirvana Unplugged, walking up to Kurt Cobain after the show, and then deciding I’d just wait to talk to him when I set a formal sit down–but then he died first. I had confirmed an interview with Biggie Smalls but the day we had planned for the talk ended up being the day of his funeral. With Aaliyah, I had spent a lot of time with her–I had met her mother, and she had met my wife. So writing her biography was more than just another assignment–it was personal. Music superstars who respected her work were in shock about her passing too–I remember when I called Beyonce to talk about Aaliyah for my book, she called me back almost instantly. It was as if she wanted to unburden herself about Aaliyah’s passing as well.
J.P.: In 1998 you wrote a lengthy piece for Time about Lauryn Hill headlined, “Songs in the Key of Lauryn Hill.” At the time I absolutely loved Lauryn Hill. A. I wanted to date her. B. I wanted to listen to her album all day. C. I thought she was the next Stevie Wonder/Otis Redding. And, well, I was wrong. What happened?
C.F.: Twenty years after the release of “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill,” people are still talking about the album, and people are still copying the album. Amy Winehouse and Adele both told me that album was hugely influential on their work. Cardi B, Drake and Kanye West all turned Lauryn Hill samples into hit songs. She wasn’t the next Stevie or Otis but she was the first Lauryn Hill and that was plenty. I still hold out hope she’ll record another studio album, but even if she never does, that one album was more than enough. It changed hip-hop and soul and pop music and it changed the way pop culture saw black women. One great album is better than a career of mediocrity. She had her moment of greatness and twenty years later we’re still in that moment.
J.P.: Greatest moment of your career? Lowest?
C.F.: When the Lifetime movie adaptation of my biography of Aaliyah came out and the top trending topics on Twitter that weekend were all about how much people disliked the movie. The film was actually the second most-watched cable film of the year, but the audience numbers were so high because critics and fans hate-watched it. The people who worked on it did their best, and Alexandra Shipp (who played Aaliyah in the movie and Storm in the X-Men franchise) was excellent, but I wished I would have been allowed to write the script myself. But I wouldn’t even call that a low point–just having a book turned into a movie is a privilege and a pretty cool adventure. So basically my entire career has been an extended high!
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH CHRISTOPHER JOHN FARLEY:
• Rank in order (favorite to least): The Temptations, Hydra Flask bottles, Noam Bramson, Visa cards, Frank McCourt, Domino’s Pizza, “Us,” Chris Paul, Yale: I think ranking and top-ten lists and the like are a patriarchal machismo thing and I’m not going to play your little game. That said, Noam Bramson is a great guy and Frank McCourt gave me a generous quote for my novel “Kingston by Starlight” and was a terrific storyteller and ally.
• You attended Harvard. Would it be worth the extra $500,000 to pay my kid’s way in as opposed to her winding up at, oh, Delaware?: Cheating to get into a school cheats the kid and the school and all the other kids at the school. Delaware’s a great college and a great state. Did you know Bob Marley lived in Wilmington, Delaware and worked in an auto plant before he made it big in music? True story–it’s in my book “Before the Legend: The Rise of Bob Marley.”
• One question you would ask Buddy Bell were he here right now?: I don’t like baseball. Years ago, I was in the Yankees clubhouse when they won the World Series and I couldn’t tell you what series they won or what year it was or why I was even there. The whole experience was wasted on me.
• Seven all-time favorite movies: My top movies are always changing, but for now let’s say Ang Lee’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”; Hayao Miyazaki’s “Kiki’s Delivery Service”; Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X”; Julie Dash’s “Daughters of the Dust”; Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s “All About Eve”; “Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” and Euzhan Palcy’s “Sugar Cane Alley.” Honorable Mention: Perry Henzell’s “The Harder They Come,” which has the best movie soundtrack of all time, The Wachowskis’s “The Matrix,” and Zora Neale Hurston’s cultural heritage short films from the 1920s and 1930s.
• In exactly 16 words, make a case for the Hollywood Walk of Fame worthiness of Reginald VelJohnson: Nah.
• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: We’re all about to die in a planet crash unless we stop global warming.
• How did you meet your wife: We both went to Harvard together. She lived in North House and I lived in South House. I used to eat at her dorm all the time. The funny thing is we never met at college, even though she knew my younger brother, who was also at Harvard at the time. We met a few years later. So Harvard either kept us apart or allowed us to meet at just the right time. Poetically, we met at Time magazine.
• Is there any way our grandchildren get past the awfulness of climate change? Or are they, and their peers, simply screwed?: As Joe Hill once said in a telegram, “Don’t waste any time mourning. Organize!”
• Five words you use too often in writing?: Said, but, and, is, asked.
• What are your emotions as a book signing event approaches?: Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. BTW, I’ll be reading from “Around Harvard Square” at Harvard Book Store, 1256 Massachusetts Ave, Cambridge, MA on April 30 at 7pm. But I’m still in denial.