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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

McCauley on ‘Insignificant Others’

Published: August 27, 2010
Section: Arts, Etc.

Professor Stephen McCauley’s new novel “Insignificant Others,” released by Simon and Schuster over the summer, is a darkly witty and funny tale of a man who attempts to uncover what and who will make him happy.

The novel’s main character, Richard Rossi, specializes in hearing other people’s problems. As a human resources representative at Connectrix, a quirky software company that capitalizes on the fact that no one is quite sure what it does, he listens to his co-workers’ petty dramas. When he isn’t at work, he’s exercising at an exclusive gym where he listens avidly to his trainer talk about his soap operatic love affair. Richard is able to provide a sympathetic ear because these people are on his periphery, what he terms as “insignificant others.” Yet, when he confuses the personal with the professional at his job and his affair with a married man complicates his long-term relationship, Richard must, for once, take a closer look at his own problems and decide what matters most to him

McCauley is the author of several novels, his last effort, “Alternatives to Sex,” was published in 2004 and received positive reviews.

McCauley answered several questions for The Brandeis Hoot via email.

The Brandeis Hoot How do you balance the roles of being a Brandeis professor and a writer? Is it difficult to find time to write? How does teaching affect your writing and vice versa?

Stephen McCauley: I’m not especially adept at multi-tasking, so I have to divide my time carefully. Last fall, I had a large writing project to finish and was teaching two classes and working with three thesis students. I devoted four days each week to teaching. At the end of the fourth day, I’d lock my school papers in the trunk of my car. I spent the next three days writing. At the end of the third day, I’d lock my laptop and notebooks in the trunk of my car. And so on. The system doesn’t leave much time for a social life. Probably a good thing in my case since I have social anxiety.

BH: How would you describe your writing process?

SM: I write everything in notebooks, usually illegibly. When I transfer it to the computer, I rarely look closely at what I’ve written. Most of it I can’t read anyway. Then I go through many drafts in the computer. I try to make the prose sound as conversational as possible, which turns out to take a long time. Also, when you write in a mode that’s intended to be comic, the timing of the sentences is important, and choosing the right words is sometimes a process of elimination.

BH: Your books have short, titled chapters—does that reflect your writing process? Do you write in chronological order, or skip around?

SM: I like to digress in my novels—give background information on the characters’ lives or comment on their behavior or some political trend. I began breaking up scenes into short sections so the digressions would have their own life and equal weight rather than coming off as parenthetical interruptions. At the same time, it’s important to me that the novel appear as a running narrative and rather than having numbered chapters.

I break up the book into sections late in the process, not while I’m writing the first few drafts. Usually I write chronologically, but in the most recent novel I did so much rewriting, I probably ended up skipping around a lot.

BH: “Insignificant Others” and a few of your other works take place in the Boston or Cambridge area. What is it about that area that inspires you? How do you think it influences your stories?

SM: Boston’s a city full of contradictions—politically liberal, but socially and culturally conservative; filled with students from all over the world, yet very traditional. There’s always a lot of conflict and comedy to be found in contradictory attitudes and behavior.

BH: Why does the book take place during the Bush administration? What is it about that time period that interests you?

SM: I wanted to set the book at that moment in the second Bush term when people were still doing well but had a sense that