Book Talk: Marriage, Mortgage, Crisis

’s ‘Carousel Court’ follows a marriage on the brink of disaster.

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Author Photo by Beowulf Sheehan, Courtesy of Simon & Schuster

It took him seven years to write it, one chapter at a time. Today, Joe McGinniss Jr.’s second book, “Carousel Court” (Simon & Schuster), is on store shelves and in our heads. The character-driven novel centers on Nick and Phoebe Maguire, a young married couple in Los Angeles struggling to make it in the wake of the mortgage crisis, torn apart by financial troubles, prescription pill abuse, infidelity and shattered dreams. Equal parts page-turning thriller and faithful portrait of contemporary life, “Carousel Court” brings to mind both Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl” and Richard Yates’ “Revolutionary Road.”

Washington Life: What prompted you to write this book?
Joe McGinniss Jr.: I wanted to write a book about marriage. Especially the starting out phase — not the honeymoon but the plateau. It seems like half the weddings I went to that have ended in divorce ended during that plateau; friends who got married in their late twenties were divorced by 34 or 35. When maybe you aren’t conquering the world like you thought you would, or you’ve lost some of the passion for the career of your dreams that attracted that person to you, and now are settling into this other kind of role that you never thought you’d settle into and it’s not really lighting your fire. It’s just a question of if you are really in sync and can adjust. [In “Carousel Court”] I wanted to apply a different kind of pressure to the married couple and test them in a way they never thought they would be tested.

You’ve said that like your father (the late author Joe McGinniss) you want to help break down some of today’s biggest facades. With this book, it’s the housing bubble. What did you mean by that?
The facade of home ownership as a symbol of stability. We were sold that. That property values always rise has been an American truism since the ’40s and ’50s and unfortunately we got to a point where it was all BS. The people I interviewed for this book in southern California, middle class couples with no safety net, put in everything and lost it all because they were convinced by the market and the powers that be that it’s a no- lose proposition. This is going to leave an impression. Like Hurricane Katrina and to some extent 9/11, there are certain events that leave permanent scars. The mortgage crisis is going to be one of those indelible imprints, and I wanted a novel that brought it to life.

What do you want readers to take away from the book?
I want them to be thinking about it for a few days later. That’s all. I can’t forget the Wheelers from “Revolutionary Road.” I can’t forget Bigger Thomas from “Native Son.” There are certain characters who just haunt me in a great way.

Do you have a reader in mind when you’re writing?
Oprah Winfrey [laughs]. No, but I definitely want it to be gender neutral in terms of appeal or accessibility. I love strong women characters and I also want men who are trying to do their best, stumbling but earnest and trying to figure it out as they go.

Why did you decide to write the book in 97 very short chapters?
Pacing. It felt right for the story and I happen to like that style. And I did it for my mother because she doesn’t like long chapters. She was thanking me at the end.

Is it true your father advised you not to become a writer?
Yes, he said that no matter what you do, you’ll never get one ounce of the satisfaction that you deserve. It is a brutal life. And he said this to me at the height of his success. Of course that motivated me, because any time a parent says you can’t do something, you want to prove them wrong.

Was he happy when you did follow in his footsteps?
The happiest. I found the sweetest thing after he died. In the basement of his old house he had a stack of about 50 copies of my first book, “The Delivery Man” that he had ordered from Amazon to support me.

This interview appears in the September 2016 issue of Washington Life.

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