What I did in my holidays There are some things that 17-year-old boys should not be able to do. They should not, say, be able to introduce themselves to girls that they believe they are in love with without their words coming out all together in a madman’s gibber. They shouldn’t be able to walk away from an argument sensibly persuaded of the other point of view. They shouldn’t be able to avoid cutting themselves shaving before big nights out. And they shouldn’t be able to write exceptional satirical novels. Effortlessly.
In their summer holidays. And have them published in nine languages. Nick McDonell, now 18, is the author of Twelve, a smart, sharply written fable of drugs and violence among New York’s gilded youth. Hunter S. Thompson has suggested that he is afraid that with this book McDonell will do for his generation what he did for his. Richard Price, the author of C lockers, has identified in him the ‘Great Gift: the ability to tell a story, in such a way, that once engaged, the reader will find it near impossible to put the book down.’ There have been a few precedents for McDonell’s precociousness: Scott Fitzgerald was 21 when he wrote This Side of Paradise; Bret Easton Ellis 18 when he wrote Less than Zero.
But still. The original date we set for this interview had to be changed because it clashed with the author’s high-school graduation. When I do get to see him he is looking a little bleary having been up for the couple of nights since his prom. He’s chucking a baseball against the wall of his mother’s apartment block, in one of the most exclusive corners of Upper Manhattan, on the waterfront. His hair flops over his brow, he has a teenager’s complexion and he says hi with the slight weariness of someone quickly getting used to press attention. Interview magazine wanted to dress him up in a tweed suit, he says.
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Details wanted him to take off his shirt. The New Yorker describe him as a ‘ruthless observer of clothing: North Face, Quiksilver, Prada and Coach’. I tell him that The Observer is happy for him to wear whatever he likes. We walk down to the river and he points out some of the sights: the 59 th Street bridge on which or about which Paul Simon felt groovy; and the two most expensive – ‘the toniest’ – private girls’s cools in the city. When his parents split up a few years ago and his mother moved up here, he thought it might be good for meeting rich girls, he says with a nice teen sense of priority, but so far it hasn’t really worked out that way. He speaks with a kind of forced assertiveness to overcome some natural shyness, poses not quite reluctantly for some pictures, suddenly drops an empty Budweiser bottle into the Hudson.
We could, he suggests, go up to his mother’s apartment and talk there ‘but it’s a very grown-up kind of place’, not like his dad’s place a few blocks away, where he spends half his time, and which, he guesses, is, like, not so grown-up at all. We go to the park. Nick McDonell was probably born to be a writer. His father, Terry, was a celebrated editor of Rolling Stone magazine, and Esquire, and is currently the editor of Sports Illustrated – perhaps, his son suggests, the best job in the world, at least for getting tickets.
(To prove the point he’s off to see Shaquille O’Neal in the basketball play-off finals after our interview. ) His mother, Joanie, is a novelist and screenwriter. Morgan Entrekin, his publisher, and owner of Atlantic Books, is also his godfather. At the American launch party for Twelve, Entrekin announced that he had known Nick since he was 48 hours old. Hunter S. Thompson, it turns out, is an old family friend, and so are P.
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J. O’Rourke and Joan Didion and Jay McInerney and almost every other writer whose name comes up. ‘So,’ he says, ‘it’s like I’m on top of this monstrous fucking mountain of nepotism. Shoot me now’. We sit in the park surrounded by old men playing chess, and he dwells some more on the difficulties of his privileged position. ‘I’m terrified of getting what I’m not deserving of, feeling that I’ve got something for nothing…
.’ he says and laughs a little wildly, ‘at the expense of brilliant starving writers all over the world. But I have to hope these people who are helping me have integrity. I mean they do. I mean Hunter Thompson would quite happily say “Fuck, I’m not giving you a quote” if he thought the book sucked, and Morgan is not going to publish it just because he knows me or likes me or something. Anyway that’s what I have to tell myself. And my writing has probably benefited from that, from all that guilt…
.’ In fact, McDonell’s book speaks more than eloquently for itself, I suggest; he has nothing to apologise for, but he goes on anyway. ‘Hunter gave me that nice quote, but I don’t like hang out with him, he’s really a friend of my father’s. One of the things that made me do this I guess, that made me give up my summer and write a thousand words a day, and get up every morning at eight and sit down at my desk and not let myself get up until four in the afternoon and have no fun was that very thing. I mean I had the kind of parents who said go ahead and write a novel, and even if it doesn’t get published you know it will be a good experience. But I felt like this ridiculous rich kid sitting down to write a novel, like, who the hell did I think I was, this stupid clich. And the only way to vindicate that was to make it good, you know, to really sweat at it.’ Some of this guilt fuels the violence of his book.
It tells the story of a group of preppy teenagers who spend their ludicrous allowances on the latest narcotics (including the fictional twelve), whose parents are too busy and too wealthy to care much about them, and who fantasize a lot about their street-smartness – there are two wonderful walk-on characters named Timmy and Mark Rothko who employ an incomprehensible rap (‘That’s wack, man. Let’s bigg ity bust’).
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The book is narrated mostly through the eyes of White Mike, a private-school drop-out turned drug dealer, who preys on the habits of his peers, most of whom meet nasty ends. I wonder if he’d surprised himself by how dark his book turned out to be. ‘In the end I was a bit like “Whoa…
.” ‘ he says. ‘I never really thought I had any malice toward anybody, but I guess people in that book are all the people who are not my friends. I don’t like most of the characters in the book. That worries me slightly but also I guess it was a way of justifying the enterprise. All these great writers that I seem to be suddenly compared to like Bret Ellis wrote books about the spiritual debilitation of the wealthy youth. And here I am, like, a wealthy youth.
So partly the book is about not wanting to become a crazy privileged person. And I guess that’s why it got dark. That’s why I killed everybody. To stop myself being crazy. If that makes any sense.’ When McDonell talks he sounds a little like a character out of J. D.
Salinger, one of the overachieving Glass family. He tells me about the genius of his kid brother ‘who, like, took up the harmonica when he was five and is now like a virtuoso harmonica player, and who taught himself to be a brilliant jazz pianist, and is a great painter. I mean I’ve got this book out and so on, but when he finally does what he’s going to do that will be really something… .’ He describes, too, a little abashed, how he is – as well as being a celebrated novelist – also a gifted athlete.
He is part of his family’s thirteenth consecutive all-male generation and is, he suggests, smiling, ‘the fastest white kid in the city’; he can do back flips, and to prove the point gets up and does one on the path; he runs high hurdles in state competitions, plans to concentrate on triple jump at Harvard (where he goes next year).
In fact, he says, it was his sporting life that inadvertently led him into fiction. ‘I played football; I was a running back, and I took a hit and I had a hairline fracture in my leg which no one spotted, and I was playing basketball all winter and it got worse. And then I was long jumping, about 20 feet, and I landed one time and there was this big crack and all the bones were jutting out of my leg. So I was off school for a while, and it changed my athletic career a bit; and suddenly I guess I needed a new outlet for this energy.’ He hadn’t written too much before, though he had always been surrounded by books, just the odd bad short story.
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But he had the idea for his novel in March (he’d turned 17 in February) and he’d finished it by the end of last summer. ‘It just came to me all at once, bam!’ he says, ‘and I wrote the plot down in one go. I hope I still have that piece of paper – it might be nice to look back on someday. It was about all the things I was thinking about a lot of the time, and suddenly I had 80 pages and then I just kept on going.’ One of the things he was thinking about was that other New York, the one where the kids don’t wear school uniforms. He’d been doing an urban history course, at ‘the lefty pinko school that I love so much’ – and where he is president of the student body – and reading Herbert Asbury and had fallen in love a little with that tradition of city legends: ‘gangs like the Plug-uglier and the Dead Rabbits, and Hellcat Maggie the barmaid who kept pickled ears behind her bar in the Bowery.’ His novel is something of an attempt to update that tradition, to show what happens when his Waspish world comes up against the city’s more violent realities. I wonder how much he based Twelve on things he’d seen, how much he feels he exaggerated ‘What I’m proud of is that it’s not autobiographical,’ he says.
‘And no one is directly based on anyone I know. It’s more the myths of these places. There was one story that was excerpted in the New York Post about this kid who goes into a bar and gets in a fight and rips this guy’s cheek right open by just putting his finger in his mouth and pulling. Now I’d heard this story around school, about this fight, and I thought at the time it wasn’t true, but what a fantastic story, something you really remember, so I put that in.
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A couple of days after it came out a girl that goes to school with me, says: “You stole that. I knew that guy.” So it turned out to be a real thing. But it didn’t really matter either way.’ And the drug-dependent culture he portrays, among the children of Wall Street bankers and lawyers, how accurate is that ‘The drugs thing is not made up, not at all. I mean I just came from the prom and there were lots of people doing all sorts of drugs.
And I’ve heard of girls who trade sex for drugs like in the book. If you want coke or whatever, there is always coke to be had. You can always get anything you want. I mean it’s New York City. Every evil-doer in the world comes here to sell kids drugs.’ Is that a world he has been attracted to himself He smiles. ‘No.
Never. And for reasons I can’t really explain. One thing that people who know me say about the protagonist in this book, White Mike, is that he’s clean. He does no drugs and neither do I. I don’t drink either and I never have done. Have never wanted to.
And my family is not strict. Quite the opposite. You know, I grew up around Hunter S. Thompson… .’ Is he consciously reacting against some of that ‘Maybe. I mean a lot of people do drugs to rebel.
I guess I might be not doing drugs to rebel.’ With the attention his book has been receiving in the States, a few people who have been through a similar process have been warning him of the dangers. The New Yorker related a story of Jay McInerney offering him some fatherly advice, promising to take him out for dinner with Bret Easton Ellis and warn him of the price of fame. He hasn’t been yet, he says, and he is not too worried: ‘I mean everyone says there ” ll be all sorts of temptations and stuff. But I’ve seen some of that in my childhood, and I don’t like it, and my book is about how I don’t like it.
You know those guys who write books about how drugs will mess you up and then they do a lot of heroin I’m not like that.’ He thinks some more about this, goes to throw a ball back to a group of boys playing in the park. ‘Everything stops anyway as soon as I get to Harvard,’ he says determinedly. ‘There will be a lot of people there who will have done all sorts of remarkable things. I don’t want to be, you know, “the book kid.” I’m wary when people, Jay McInerney say, tell me I’m going to have lots of women, lots of money, lots of mobility. It certainly hasn’t started yet. Nobody’s stopped me on the street.
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It’s confusing to me. Everyone says fame will screw you up. Why You can just be sort of amicable.’ I ask him if he is planning another book, and he says he has an idea in his head, has it all mapped out, can’t wait to get started. But what he really wants to do, he confides, laughing, is write a screenplay, and better still, direct the movie and have his brother in the lead role. His brother, of course, is a terrific actor, and he’s pretty sure, certain, he’d make a good director.
Maybe, I suggest, he should wait until he’s a bit older, 19, say, or 20, but he’s clearly not convinced there’s any need. ‘I was brought up to believe you should always live the most interesting life you can,’ he says. And then his mother comes out to find him, and tells the novelist that if he doesn’t come in now for his tea, he ” ll be late to meet his friends, and they might not make it to the game in time… Twelve by Nick McDonell is published by Atlantic Books on 27 June, price 9.
99. To order a copy for 9. 99, with free UK p&p, call the Observer Books Service on 0870 066 7989.