To the fantastically successful family in Jonathan Dee's The Privileges, failure is foreign, and money is not money. Is this perilous? Perhaps.
Where did you get the idea for Adam Morey—a man who, to his peers, appears incapable of failing?
A hundred years ago, there was an Adam Morey; and there will be an Adam a hundred years from now. It takes a certain kind of character to succeed in his world, and I knew about six years ago that I wanted to write about that particular kind of success upon success. What is the legacy of a life like that? I actually tried to take away as many things that would tie the story to a specific historical landscape. And I didn't want to write a morality tale. That would be too simple.
How do you maintain such remarkable empathy for your characters, even when they do bad things?
You never want to be in a position where your reader feels like you're passing judgment on your own characters. Any novel where you feel like the author is talking to the reader over the characters' heads is in a bad place. When I'm composing a scene for the first time, I try to imitate my character. The less critical distance the better—particularly when they're acting badly.
There's a lot of accumulated wealth in this book. Were you writing about greed?
I think that to somebody like me, the Moreys would feel very greedy [in real life]. But part of the key to being Adam is that he doesn't really think of money as money. So in that sense, no, he's not a greedy person. What does money mean to Adam? It just means freedom. Adam and Cynthia Morey are very conscious of time. They think you have one life that has to be lived to its maximum potential, and the way to do that is to make sure that nothing comes between your reality and your fantasies. And for them, the key to preventing that is acquiring more.
Do you think that this nuanced notion of materialism could have played out as effectively in any other cultural context?
In a lot of ways, Adam and Cynthia are all about their relationship to the past, and the selectivity with which they think about things like time and history. I do think of that as being very characteristically American.
What are you working on now?
I am working on another book and am fairly well into it. I've been teaching a little bit, doing some magazine writing. It's nice to have something else going on when a book comes out so you're not just sitting by the phone, waiting for things to happen. You don't want to be the guy Googling himself all day.