Alert the blogosphere: Greg Olear has been seen outside New Paltz with no kids in tow. The author of Fathermucker (Harper, 2011), a snortingly funny paean to the trials of stay-at-home parenting, is enjoying a midday beer, Palais Burger, and fries at Rosendale’s Market Market. “They have ketchup to die for,” he says, dredging a French fry. “I’m usually a Heinz guy, but this is homemade.” His cell phone rings, and he picks it up, checking the screen. It’s his agent. “I’ll call back later,” he says with a cryptic smile.
This is a heady time for Olear (whose surname, he hastens to clarify, is not Irish and has no apostrophe). His 2009 debut novel Totally Killer, a black-comic take on the cutthroat capitalism of the ‘90s, has been optioned for a TV series; Bret Easton Ellis, whose novel American Psycho epitomized Bush-era rapacity, is writing the pilot. “I’m completely not involved, but he’s the one person on earth I trust to do it,” Olear beams, adding that his personal fantasy cast would include Sharon Stone as the head of a murderous personnel agency. “That would totally make my head explode.”
Olear is wearing a gray t-shirt with a faded Los Angeles logo, cargo shorts, and brown sneakers. With his side-parted hair, retro glasses, and bemused expression, he seems caught in a time-warp where East Village hipster meets stay-at-home dad.
The same could be said for Fathermucker’s hyper-observant, wry narrator. The novel unspools on a single, high-pressure day in the life of Josh Lansky, sometime screenwriter and full-time dad of two high-maintenance preschoolers. At a morning playdate in somebody’s New Paltz McMansion, one of the mothers suggests that Josh’s wife (who’s away on a business trip) may be cheating on him. Before he can ask for details, he’s embroiled in a series of crises familiar to anybody who’s ever changed Pampers. As the long day lurches from meltdown to babysitting disaster to pumpkin patch field trip, Josh tortures himself by imagining screenplay scenes in which every available male becomes her possible lover. It’s the most writing he’s done in months.
Recently, there’s been interest in optioning Fathermucker for television (might this have something to do with the mysterious call from the agent?) Olear says a fantasy cast for this project “may be a bit close to home. Though for Josh, if it’s me, I would want to get the best-looking actor around.”
Is it him? Yes and no. “The novel is a novel—it enables you, by stretching facts and changing things dramatically, to arrive at a different place.” At the same time, he admits, “It’s very close to me. Not the infidelity, but the kids.”
Though most of its characters (including a libidinous mommy who functions as an X-rated Cat in the Hat) are fictional—Olear’s real-life wife, rock singer turned grad student Stephanie St. John, doesn’t crisscross the country on business trips—the Lansky kids are closely based on Olear’s son and daughter. “Often in books the kids are not real. What I was hoping to achieve was to make the kids fully realized characters.”
They certainly are. Three-year-old Maude is “a 30-pound freight train,” strong-willed and prone to theatrics. Roland, the “pre-K sphinx,” is obsessed with architecture, poring over The Field Guide to American Houses and lighting websites; he can rattle off all 50 states in alphabetical order. “There are people who just make good characters, you know?” Olear says. “You meet someone and think, that guy belongs in a book. My son is one of those people. Not because he has Asperger’s, he just is.”
The compassionate insider view of a child on the autism spectrum is one of Fathermucker’s particular strengths. From the novel: “Head in the clouds is the Asperger’s cliche, but with Roland, a better analogy is that he’s underwater, swimming contentedly around the fishbowl of his mind, like one of those large aquatic mammals that only has to come up for air every two hours or so, but does not try to engage, any more than a dolphin would interpose in a conversation between two Sea World employees.”
Olear observes of his “Aspie” son Dominick, “There will be a point at which he knows he has this. Maybe he already does, but we’ve never discussed it. So I’m sensitive to his privacy. But I also want to shed light.” He bristles at misconceptions stemming from Mark Haddon’s 2003 bestseller The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time: “He helped establish and perpetuate an extremely negative stereotype about Asperger’s. He calls this ‘writing fiction.’ I call it ‘being an asshole.’”
Olear hopes that his children, now six and eight, will read Fathermucker when they have kids of their own. “It’s like a time capsule. It’s fiction to some degree, but these are the shows they watched, things they said.” Writing it made him feel closer to his own father, an insurance adjuster who was just 23 when his first son was born. A second followed four years later; their mom taught fifth grade.
The Olear family lived in Madison, New Jersey, surrounded by Slovak and Italian relatives. “New Jersey is the Ireland of the United States—it produces all these people who do great things and then leave,” he says. “Springsteen and Bon Jovi are big in New Jersey because they didn’t leave.”
Olear reports that his parents “love the book, are you kidding?,” though “My mom wasn’t thrilled that I made the mother so naggy.”
Although it won national acclaim and became an Los Angeles Times bestseller, Fathermucker has an extra appeal for Hudson Valley readers. Olear gives good local, and he names names: the Lanskys fled New York for “bluer-than-blue New Paltz, home of Mohonk Mountain House, historic Huguenot Street, and more massage therapists, per capita, than anyplace else on the planet.” They drive a pre-owned Outback from Colonial Subaru, bring their kids to the Hasbrouck Park playground, eat out at The Would. As for the local adulterers, rocker/model couple, and cocky pest control man—well, talk amongst yourselves.
Along with his two published novels, Olear has a formidable web presence. He’s written pieces for the Huffington Post, Babble.com, The Rumpus, The Millions, and Psychology Today online, among others. For the past three years, he’s been a frequent contributor and senior editor at online literary hub The Nervous Breakdown, and he and co-editors Jennifer Kabat and Sean Beaudoin recently launched a new site called The Weeklings. “There’s one piece a day, with a different author each day of the week,” explains Olear, who blogs every Tuesday. “Some sites have so much content it’s impossible to read it all.”
Along with Margaretville writer Kabat (Saturday) and Seattle-based novelist Beaudoin (Wednesday),the starting lineup of Weeklings included Tin House co-founder Elisa Schappell, former Details and Time Out New York editor Janet Steen, Lux Lotus blogger Lauren Cerand, and Booker Prize judge Alex Clark (whose hilarious chapter-by-chapter takedown of Fifty Shades of Grey deserves to go viral). Why would such high-flying writers commit to a weekly gig that won’t pay the rent? The answer, Olear says, is high visibility. The Weeklings’ readership has increased every month since its April 17 launch, and Salon has just started to syndicate pieces.
“People need to know who you are to sell books,” Olear explains, noting that current economics mandate self-promotion. “In our culture there’s a persistent desire to destroy every artistic endeavor by making it virtually impossible for more than a few people to earn a living. The 99 percent-slash-one-percent model holds across the art world.“
He also loves the immediacy of online writing. “I like to write; I don’t like to pitch. If Tom Cruise gets divorced, I need to write about it that minute. Two hours after that, it’s on Salon. Do I get paid? No. It’s an advertisement for yourself. You’re trying to build a following, carve out your share of audience. Publishers used to take out an ad in the New York Times Book Review. That model doesn’t hold anymore. Now the ad is my blog.”
Websites like The Weeklings and The Nervous Breakdown also create a community. “You meet people. It’s a form of networking that’s amenable to me,” says Olear. “We help each other. It’s socialistic, communistic, it’s a collective. I’m creating and building a platform that others can use.”
He expects The Weeklings will get more overtly political as the presidential debates begin, cheerfully asserting that “Romney doesn’t have a prayer. He’s the Republican version of John Kerry, the consensus candidate no one actually likes. He’s a gazillionaire, he’s totally tone-deaf to people who aren’t, and the Mormon thing is going to hurt him. The Christian Right won’t support him, women won’t support him, Hispanics and blacks won’t support him. That’s the election. Demographically, he’s fucked.”
Olear’s cell rings again. From the look on his face—something about cats and cream—it’s the agent again. But he isn’t telling. Instead, he pulls out a copy of The Beautiful Anthology, a diverse collection of musings on beauty just released by The Nervous Breakdown’s print publishing wing, TNB Books. Olear is a contributor, as are fellow upstaters Stephanie St. John and Robin Antalek.
He’s also at work on a new novel, about which all he will say is that “It’s very different from the other two. There’s a first-person male narrator, but the tone’s very dark, more erotic.”
Olear usually writes at home, on a living room table surrounded by books, cats, and “of course the toys.” Though his family recently spent a year in the New Jersey suburbs, he’s glad to be back in his chosen hometown. “The nicest thing about New Paltz is there’s a whole class of people that just doesn’t exist—high-profile lawyers, CEOs, hedge fund managers. Living in the constant shadow of money—in New York, LA, South Beach, anywhere rich people congregate—I just think it’s bad for the soul. If you make $200K anywhere else, it’s a shitload of money. In New York, it’s just ‘eh.’ I didn’t want my kids to grow up thinking they had to have shirts by the right designer. New Paltz is not snotty at all. That’s the best thing about it.”
Greg Olear, Stephanie St. John, and Robin Antalek will read from The Beautiful Anthology at Inquiring Minds in New Paltz on September 21 at 7pm.