It was lunch time at Nice Matin on Amsterdam Avenue-a little slice of Great Neck plopped down on the Upper West Side, with pairs of middle-aged women comparing notes on their blow-outs while stay-at-home moms in Theory trousers walk toddlers in fancy sweaters up and down the aisles-and Davitt Sigerson was explaining why Trish, a central character in his forthcoming novel Faithful , is keen on anal sex.
“I think her sexuality is tainted with a lot of her own issues of safety and control,” the husky, balding, bearded Mr. Sigerson said smoothly as he polished off a croque-monsieur. “I’m not saying she doesn’t get off on the anality, but I think her pleasure is in the giving and getting. It’s power, to give pleasure like that to someone else.”
Anality? Power? Giving and getting ? At a moment in which weary members of the publishing food chain usually toss galleys of the latest “hot” novel onto a pile with a resigned sigh, Mr. Sigerson’s book-coming out this month from the eminently literary Nan Talese-is raising more than eyebrows.
First there’s Mr. Sigerson’s singular path to the ranks of published fiction writers. He’s a 46-year-old former record-industry big shot: a professional songwriter and musician who recorded two albums; a producer for Tori Amos and the Bangles; named, at age 33, the president of Polydor records, then president and chief executive of EMI and Chrysalis Records, where he broke acts like the Neptunes and D’Angelo, eventually ending up as the chairman of Island Records.
And second, there’s his novel’s sexually unfettered female protagonist: Will readers find Trish-a gorgeous, responsible London professional with a boundless sexual appetite and a fondness for … anality, who’s capable of brain-teasing infidelities (are you cheating when you sleep with your husband, whose child you’re pregnant with, after you’ve left him for another man?)-believable?
“I have to make one thing clear right up front,” Mr. Sigerson said, his cornflower-blue eyes shining behind rimless oval glasses. “I love Trish! She’s a decent person who’s trying to do the right thing in a difficult situation.” The idea that some readers might find Trish and her situation a little too far on the outré side hit a nerve. “Of course there are women like Trish! Thankfully, I’m not married to one, but we all knew them in college, for example,” he said. “The idea that there aren’t women who do those kinds of things is bizarre to me.”
Discussing Trish’s erotic repertoire, Mr. Sigerson grew reflective. “In the 70′s, blowjobs were a big deal. Maybe we needed a new transgressive thing, and it’s anal stuff, butt-fucking.” Although, he pointed out, “there is no actual butt- fucking in my novel.”
Whether Mr. Sigerson has pulled it all off will be for readers to decide when Faithful arrives in bookstores this month. There’s no question it’s an impressive debut, a cut above the workshopped snoozers that make up the majority of first novels these days. But will it catch on? Will it be the next In the Cut , the darkly sexy 1999 Susanna Moore novel (turned Jane Campion movie) that sold and sold in several editions, or another Rapture , Susan Minot’s 2002 “blowjob novel” that went pffft ?
The book’s fate may be a referendum of sorts on the ability of the current literary-fiction regime to pick a serious, well-written book that’s also a commercial winner: Just days after Mr. Sigerson’s agent, David Gernert, submitted the manuscript, Faithful was bid on by a trifecta of publishing powerhouses: Nan Talese at Doubleday, Gerald Howard at Broadway and Daniel Menaker, then at HarperCollins and now editor in chief of Random House.
The author chose to work with Ms. Talese because, he said, he had great conversations with her. “I offered Davitt a two-book contract, because I think he is a real writer,” Ms. Talese said. “You sail along on the prose, and then it hits you that there are lots of other levels underneath what he’s saying.”
For Mr. Sigerson, the stakes are high in the way they can be only for someone who doesn’t need the money. He’s already done the worldly-success thing-the private planes, the hanging out with famous people. Now he’s after something more exquisite, and much more elusive: the chance to be acknowledged as a legitimate artist. In a way, his position is all the more difficult after years of having the power himself to make or break artistic careers.
“When I look at the trajectory of my life,” he said, “I was moving away from being the judged to being the judge. There was a security in that.” (Later, he admitted he’s been in psychoanalysis for the last three years: “three days a week, on the couch.”)
When Mr. Sigerson gets on the subject of his writing, there’s an unself-conscious glow about him. You have to love a novelist who talks sincerely about his characters like they’re real.
“I was writing in my journal one day, and these people just appeared ,” he said. “I go, ‘I know, I think her name is … Trish!’” He is willing, however, to give his people some tough love, in particular the divorced parents: “If I could sit them down in a room, I’d give them a talking to! I mean, Trish did what she had to do, and I think she felt she took her medicine for it, but I don’t feel at all it was the right thing for the child in the situation. She got a raw deal.”
In stark contrast to the erotic and familial disarray of his characters, Davitt Sigerson lives with his wife and their two young daughters in apparent domestic bliss. They occupy the kind of spacious, immaculate Riverside Drive apartment that most fiction writers enter only when they’re invited to a dinner party by their agent, or maybe their editor (if she happens to be married to a Skadden, Arps partner). It’s furnished in low-key expensiveness-artfully mismatched upholstered dining chairs, cheerful throw pillows on subdued sofas, smallish modern paintings here and there on serene white walls. The place looks rigorously edited. On an afternoon in February, there wasn’t a cliché in sight as a cook prepared the family’s dinner-lamb stew, it smelled like. Outside an ample row of uncurtained windows, the half-frozen Hudson laid itself out in long, languid strips.
“I don’t talk about money,” Mr. Sigerson said, sitting back on a sofa to reluctantly chronicle those years as a music executive. He’s what his analyst might call “well-defended”: confident, sanguine, able to turn his potential minuses to his own advantage. As he crossed an ankle over a knee, his large belly hovered in front of him like a soft shield. “I am so done with the music business,” he said. “It’s all been fun. It was great and wonderful and made possible this stability. I know my family is secure. But in the end, it’s just playing games with numbers.”
Mr. Sigerson spent his early childhood on the Upper West Side, a block from where he now lives, and for elementary school went briefly to Hunter, then Dalton. When he was 13, his father-a science writer who founded magazines for doctors-sold the business, and the family moved to London. Mr. Sigerson, the only child of his parents’ marriage (his father’s fourth, his mother’s second), attended St. Paul’s and then Oxford, where he came back to London on weekends and made his way around the club scene, producing records and even doing a cover of an old O’Jays tune, “For the Love of Money,” that became an underground hit.
“To see the dance floor at your club get flooded with people when your record comes on,” Mr. Sigerson recalled, “you feel like you made a contribution to their psyche.”
He had aspirations of making his own record, and eventually was signed for his first album, called Davitt Sigerson . In the tidy study of his apartment, Mr. Sigerson produced a copy with great embarrassment: The black-and-white cover image is a just barely recognizable version of the older man, a smooth-faced, sensual-lipped youth with a head of dark glossy hair.
“How red is my face?” he asked as he put the record on a turntable and turned the volume up loud enough that he had to yell to be heard. It wasn’t bad-Mr. Sigerson sang with conviction, if not great vocal depth. It sounded like an undepressed Elliott Smith. You got the feeling the guy who wrote and sang these songs wouldn’t take it all that hard if he didn’t get the girl. And, in fact, he took it in stride when his albums didn’t do well, Mr. Sigerson said. “I was really such an unlikely character to be doing this anyway. I just thought it would be neat to try.”
Writing had always been a more comfortable fit for him. While he was still at Oxford, Mr. Sigerson submitted an article on spec to Black Music magazine, then became a regular contributor and found other places to publish his music journalism. It was all going swimmingly enough, but after Oxford he came back to New York. “I didn’t want to become some American house-guest character,” he said, “bouncing from country house to country house.”
Then came the years of writing “weird rock songs” for bands like Kiss and Eddie Money (“I learned a lot from Gene Simmons,” he said, primarily that “we don’t laugh at our audience-they pay the bills”), then record producing, (“All of a sudden, everybody wanted me-I worked nonstop for 11 years”). Eventually, the lack of real control he had as a producer got to him. An incident involving someone at Atlantic foisting a drum machine and synthesizers onto the deliberately spare Tori Amos record he was working on became the last straw.
“My feeling was, it was an obscenity. I just thought, ‘If these people don’t get the Tori Amoses of the world, I have to have more control,’” he said. When he saw an opportunity to make a seemingly crazy power move, he took it.
In 1990, a friend arranged dinner for Mr. Sigerson with Alain Levy, then the head of Polygram, now at EMI Recorded Music. Ninety minutes into the dinner, Mr. Levy asked him if the friend who had arranged the dinner had a specific business purpose in mind.
Mr. Sigerson replied that he thought he might run one of Mr. Levy’s labels.
According to Mr. Sigerson, Mr. Levy at first feigned surprise at his forwardness, then said, with a Gallic shrug and wave of his hand, “Eh, Polydor? You want to run Polydor?”
“I said, ‘Sure, where do you want to go with it?’” Mr. Sigerson recalled. “And he said, ‘I don’t know-you make it what you want it to be.’”
Mr. Sigerson was 33 at the time, and this was his first real job.
From the start, he was able to adapt the ruthless reality of running a music company to the rounded edges of his own personality. His first move was to drop 19 of Polydor’s 22 acts, but he was determined not to be seen as an ax-wielder.
“I dropped them on the basis of thinking, people deserve to be loved,” Mr. Sigerson said. “You have to go into it with the belief that you can work for these people with passion.”
All along in his music career, working with women seems to have been Mr. Sigerson’s specialty. “When I produced the Bangles, their nickname for me was the Benevolent Manipulator,” he said. He once tried to convince Susanna Hoffs, the Bangles’ lead singer, to sing naked (though Mr. Sigerson was eager to point out that it was originally Ms. Hoffs’ idea) by telling her that Olivia Newton-John had done it for him, which wasn’t true. When Ms. Hoffs called Ms. Newton-John to ask her about it, the truth came out-but she did it anyway, Mr. Sigerson said. “It worked-she sang really well,” he added.
Now, with the music business behind him, he will need to manipulate women in a different sort of way for his dream of being a writer with a real audience to come true. Because while records may get a boost from the buying power of adolescent boys, the vast majority of readers of literary fiction these days are women. Here may lie a roadblock for Mr. Sigerson, at least with Faithful : He may, in the end, love women-starting with that hot little number, Trish-a little too well for his own good as a writer. Male readers should find her a fun object of fantasy. (“If she’s too drunk to fuck, you can fuck her. She likes you to get it in. She likes the taste of come.”) But her uninhibited sexual virtuosity may play quite differently with women readers. (The secret of In the Cut , after all, was that the frumpy, utterly average female character got it on with the dangerously sexy cop, and so too, vicariously, could frumpy, utterly average women readers.)
In short, Mr. Sigerson may have made one of the few tactical errors in his charmed life so far by leaving out a comparably appealing male lust object. While he’ll score points with women for the book’s truly touching portrait of a divorced dad’s anguish and devotion, Trish steals the book. It’s perhaps an omen that Mr. Sigerson notes she has no close women friends.
Ms. Talese seemed to have registered the conundrum of Trish’s sexual power as well. “The ones who really fall in love with the book are men. Women are made uncomfortable,” she said. “And yet, women are readers …. “
One trusts, however, that while Mr. Sigerson is eager for Faithful to be embraced, he will not be deterred if it ends up where most novels end up these days: respectful mixed reviews, then remainder city. He’s already overcome astoundingly steep odds to sit down at a desk every day and make a fiction writer of himself. Now he’s at work on another novel, “with a whole new crew,” he said of his next book’s cast of characters. Already they’ve become happy fixtures in his life: “One day they just walked in the door and said, ‘We’re here! It’s us!’”
Surely, they could not have chosen a more devoted author.