Jonathan Baumbach Kicks and Screams in ‘Dreams of Molly’

Here, Mr. Baumbach sounds something like the philistine-hating father in his son Noah’s semi-autobiographical film, The Squid and the Whale, but he assured The Observer he is not a snob.

“I made a mistake in writing an essay called ‘The Pleasures of the Difficult,'” Mr. Baumbach said. “I sort of tarred myself as difficult. I’ve always thought, despite the fact that I’ve run through publishers, that my books are very entertaining.”

Mr. Coover, another writer saddled with the adjective “difficult,” calls Mr. Baumbach an “entertaining risk-taker.” Messrs. Coover and Baumbach have been friends for more than 30 years, supporting each other’s work, if not directly influencing each other. “Writers working at the edge quickly establish a natural rapport,” Mr.Coover wrote in an email. “The singular ‘influential’ effect is to stiffen resolve through mutual encouragement to stick at it. Not necessarily expressed encouragement. Just exhibited in the writing’s ambition and tenacity.”

When I spoke to Mr. Baumbach, he was recovering from hip-replacement surgery in his Brooklyn home, a large Victorian duplex on Prospect Park South. When asked if the house served as a model for the writer-father’s dilapidated house in The Squid and the Whale, Mr. Baumbach bristled.

“Noah chose a run-down house on the same block as mine for the sake of a better joke–he exaggerated everything for the sake of humor,” he said. “I’m not the same prick as the father in The Squid and the Whale.

Mr. Baumbach has little patience for those who try to find autobiographical parallels between his life and his son’s films. In his own fiction, Mr. Baumbach tries never to draw from life, but often plays with details from his autobiography. His narrators sometimes share his initials, his romantic history (he’s been married four times) and his profession. He’s twice collaborated with his children to write novels, and in B and YOU he uses the conventions of confessional memoir to invite speculation about what is remembered and what is imagined.

“He’s never written about me, thank goodness,” said his wife, Annette Grant.

“Not that you know of,” Mr. Baumbach said.

Mr. Baumbach and Ms. Grant have been together since 1985, the longest of Mr. Baumbach’s romantic relationships. They met at a dinner party arranged by a mutual friend, who hosted the party in the hope that the couple would meet and fall in love. Ms. Grant, a former New York Times editor and sometime writer, is an avid reader of her husband’s work. During a conversation about his upcoming projects, she prompted him with the title of a recently completed manuscript and then provided a summary.

“It’s very funny, like all of Jon’s books,” Ms. Grant said. “It’s about a middle-aged blocked writer who lives alone and has terrible nightmares of being accused of a crime he hasn’t committed. He goes to a psychiatrist for treatment, and the psychiatrist tries to draw him back into the real world. This leads to him starting a romance with his neighbor. … Everything is left open in the end, as to whether or not he solves his problems.”

“That’s not how I would describe it,” Mr. Baumbach said. “Go away, you’re giving a better interview than me.”

Although Mr. Baumbach and Ms. Grant think of themselves as New Yorkers, they now prefer to live in the Berkshires, where they have a country house. Mr. Baumbach still commutes to the city to teach the occasional writing or literature class at Brooklyn College, but for the most part he has retired from the college’s creative writing program. When asked if he will ever retire from writing fiction, Mr. Baumbach shook his head.

“Jon often writes about writers who are blocked,” Ms. Grant added, before leaving the room. “But he himself is never blocked.”

editorial@observer.com

 

Jonathan Baumbach Kicks and Screams in ‘Dreams of Molly’