The Tourists, the debut offering from young novelist Jeff Hobbs, is a book about four college friends at Yale who, seven or so years removed from New Haven, find themselves reconnected in New York City. The tie that binds them is lust and longing, and also a certain “how did I get here?” melancholy. The permutation of sexual pairings among these four individuals is at the heart of the plot – an unlikely twist since the ratio is three-to-one in favor of the men. These relationships, including an ill-begotten marriage of college sweethearts, are governed by power and not love. It’s a vision of fading youth, punctuated by the tastelessness of the characters’ successes, the inevitability of their failures, and the rank indulgences with which they attempt to stave off their despair. But the book is not without humor, and it is full of observations about the interaction of personality, choice, and consequence. Though things do fall apart, the center, embodied in the unnamed narrator, does his best to hold, and is the one character largely unchanged at story’s end (though we are left wondering if perhaps he himself is the most manipulative of the bunch). Recently, the Millions tracked down Jeff Hobbs for an interview.
The Millions: Greetings, Jeff Hobbs. Thank you for answering some questions from the Millions.
Jeff Hobbs: Thanks so much, Noah. I am completely, sincerely flattered to be included on your site.
TM: First of all, I couldn’t not mention this: in the acknowledgments of your book you thank your dog, Noah, for the many hours he spent curled up at your feet as you wrote. My ears pricked up at this revelation: I have the same name as Jeff Hobbs’ dog. I’ve always felt that we need more Noahs in the writing world…
JH: Thanks for the shout out to my dearest friend, but he would make an incredibly dull character in a book: ever loyal, ever loving, ever ready to lick your face in the morning to get your ass out of bed so he can poop.
TM: Now, The Tourists. On the back cover of your book there is a blurb in which someone uses the term “a generation at loose ends” to describe the group to which the characters belong. Is this a fair assessment? Talk a little if you would about these characters: why do their choices lead them away from self-satisfaction? What rolls do talent and privilege play in their “real world” difficulties?
JH: I would call them a “generation flailing” – flailing for success, for wealth, for some small measure of renown, and for – like everyone, always – happiness. About eighty percent of current college students list either “wealth” or “celebrity” as their number one goal going into the “real” world. Our particular generation was raised to believe that we can – we should – achieve everything we want in life, and now we find ourselves suddenly deposited in towns and cities without the basic infrastructure to know what we do in fact want (i.e. what will make us happy) or the nose-to-the-grind attitude that our parents and grandparents largely had. With this book, I tried to depict four young people flailing in their own distinct ways. David has wealth but is unhappy with where it’s landed (or cornered) him. Samona has financial and domestic security but feels inconsequential in the world around her. Ethan has achieved wealth and fame, he can sleep with anyone he wants – but he’s still melancholy and alone. The narrator has achieved exactly nothing that he was aiming for on his first idealistic train ride into the city, and so he lives vicariously through the others. Without giving up too much plot, their interplay is all about people trying to change each other – and in doing so, change themselves – in flailing attempts to angle themselves toward elusive fulfillment.
TM: Sex: in The Tourists the characters clack together like billiard balls, then drift away only to be thrown back in with each other when the next game is racked. The only romantic love depicted in the story is between the protagonist (or antagonist as the case may be), Ethan, and the narrator. They had a relationship in college before the narrator realized that he himself was not gay, and therefore could not return Ethan’s love. Ethan’s unrequited feelings for the narrator seem to be at the heart of his coercive sexual practices thereafter. What was your approach to the portrayal of such complex, and, for many readers I suppose, unfamiliar sexual relationships? (You artfully describe Ethan’s seduction of another man, one who is not gay, in one of the books strongest – and arguably most implausible – passages.) What if any are the differences between homosexual and heterosexual relationships, beyond surface anatomy? In what ways does a character’s sex life add specific depth to their personality on the page?
JH: Another notable difference between this generation and others (at least as far as I can tell, judging from how appalled my family was upon reading this!) is a rather casual approach to sexuality. Sexual fluidity is a firmly rooted part of the culture at this point, at least in urban centers, and I worked hard to approach sexual encounters and relations this way in the book. (Perhaps going a little overboard; a reader of an early draft once advised me that, unless these people are carrying around industrial size jars of baby oil, some of the scenes are physical impossibilities.) Setting off to write a story about whether or not one person can change another person in any relationship, sexuality felt like a solid metaphor.
TM: You have an understated writing style, straightforward, almost journalistic (indeed, the narrator portrays himself as simply reporting the events of the summer – with some details filled in, of course), and you are not prone to flights of fancy verbiage. But your observations can be acid, viz. descriptions of the world of high finance and those that populate it, or your sketch of the David Taylor character – how his dream of becoming a prep school teacher and coaching track yielded to spreadsheets and stop-loss orders. The ironies that you present are big ones, such as the narrator, who enjoys no financial security, possessing the largest account of self-awareness and principle of all the characters. I know you have a connection to Bret Easton Ellis; I hesitate to use the word protege without really knowing. Tell us a bit about the development of your writing. How has Mr. Ellis helped you along? What other authors have influenced your work? What are your core literary values when it comes to spinning a yarn?
JH: Bret is tremendously insightful, well-read, and he possesses the keenest intellect and (more importantly) instinct of any writer I know (admittedly few, but…). He treated the first draft of the book the way an editor treats it, slashing words and paragraphs that were imprecise or didn’t belong, streamlining dialogue, and recommending books that could be useful. I will always feel indebted to his generous aid. I love Michael Chabon, Andre Dubus, Toni Morrison, Lethem, Faulkner. As far as development goes, you just sit alone in a room all day thinking, and you write under the knowledge that ninety percent of what comes out is garbage, and you keep piling up those ten percents until you have a book that feels right. “Spinning a yarn” begins with the structure, which is not to be confused with plot. If your structure doesn’t work, then you could have the most majestic prose of anyone, ever, but the book as a whole won’t stand. In The Tourists specifically, I felt the book called for a stark, sharp, journalistic voice because it is built as a mystery, and the story and characters are so isolated. So you start with scribbled thoughts and outlines and lots and lots of notes, and you create the structure – and everything else, the voice and style and POV, etc, stems from that first roadmap. So every book should have a different voice, I believe, depending on the fundamental structure the author decides to use for that book.
TM: You used to live in New York, and your book is set here, but you now make your home in Los Angeles. A Brooklynite myself, I would like to know, what’s up with that?
JH: NYers are so snarky about LA; it’s really not so bad out there! My wife is a born and bred Brooklynite (Fort Greene), and our heart is and always will be on S. Portland Avenue, but we went west for her work. The people and atmosphere made me pretty miserable and whiny at first (for instance, Rebecca didn’t know how to drive – a not-minor problem), and then I snapped out of it by thinking: why are you taking yourself so seriously? You live in a nice little cottage with a lemon tree in the back yard, and you can walk out your door and be on a mountaintop an hour later, and all you need to work is a pen and paper and the a corner of a room. We have very good friends who love to BBQ. And the Philadelphia Eagles can break your heart just as deeply watching them at the Rustic Tavern in Los Feliz as they can at the Dakota Roadhouse in Tribeca. Meanwhile, the dog is very, very happy to be inhabiting a place larger than 300 sq. feet.
TM: I’ll stick with New York for a minute. DeLillo’s Falling Man and a host of other recent works of fiction have sparked a dialogue about “the 9/11 novel.” You touched on 9/11 in The Tourists, albeit very briefly. Do you have any thoughts about the implications of 9/11, and the course that America has navigated since then, for writers of fiction? Do you think a young writer like yourself necessarily considers the subject from a different perspective than a writer of an older generation?
JH: 9/11 is so tricky for fiction because of what feels like an obligation to address that event in any contemporary story, and especially one set in or around Manhattan. It is so much a part of the national consciousness because it is so visually apocalyptic and globally far reaching. The more successful novels dealing with 9/11 and its effects have been the strictly metaphorical ones, such as The Road – books that explore the primal fear and loss embodied by that day rather than the physical event itself – mainly because it is such a stretch for written words to depict the actions and sensations that we all saw and felt that day. I think this happened with the Holocaust as well: no prose, no matter how riveting, can precipitate the same gut reaction as seeing a photo of a mass grave or going to the Holocaust Museum in D.C. and standing over the room filled with abandoned shoes. Books can take a person away like no other medium can, but horror of this scale can quickly expose the limitations; the visceral impact does not compare. As far as being younger, I can only generalize, and I do not presume to speak for anyone other than myself. Those of us in our twenties are perhaps more removed from the political, economic, etc, implications of 9/11; we as a generation are much more inclined to live day to day, without excess forward thinking, and it is easier to shut out our basic, latent terror that way. Thinking ahead to what the world will be like in fifty, twenty, ten, even five years is enough to drive anyone crazy – and especially those of us in our twenties who are still largely unestablished and insecure. We are friends and siblings with soldiers, not teachers and parents, and it feels hard to conceive of doing anything heroic on the homefront, and so we occupy ourselves by simply getting by. So while we are perhaps well-suited at dealing with the short-term implications – and perhaps to write about them if driven to – we might be less suited down the road, when the long-term implications become more clear and we find ourselves lacking the foundation needed to deal with them. I can say for certain that my attitude and all my sensibilities have changed now that I have a little family of my own. Whereas before, when all I had to worry about was myself, food, and rent, it was so easy to maintain that layer of distance to people and news and, essentially, reality. Now, married and thinking of having children, the fundamental urge to hold loved ones close – to protect and endure in a precarious universe – underlies every single day.
TM: Okay, last question. You went to Yale, studied English and Literature, won some writing prizes, etc. And so, Jeff Hobbs, I ask you: who makes the better slice, Sally’s or Pepe’s?
JH: At risk of cutting my already modest readership in half, I’d take the train down to Philly for a Gino’s cheesesteak over either, anytime.