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At Work

Taylor Plimpton and ‘Notes From the Night’

August 11, 2010 | by

Photograph by Landon Nordeman.

Notes From the Night is a memoir about Taylor Plimpton's many years frequenting New York night clubs. (His father is, of course, George Plimpton, a man of many hats—illustrious New York personality, founding editor of The Paris Review, pioneer of participatory journalism.) Despite or perhaps because the club scene might be, in Plimpton's words, “the worst place in the world" to look for life's answers, the after-hours arena of dreams, excess, and potentialities turns out to be the perfect place for him to begin.

How would you describe your book?

It’s partly a memoir of my life out in the New York night, and partly a guidebook on how to live that life as best as one can: how to avoid its pitfalls and savor its sweetnesses.

You once described your book as “the kind of book moms don’t like.” Would you endorse that statement?

Not at all. On one hand I understand, to hear about your son or any kid destroying himself out at night is not something a mom wants to read about. But it’s a fact of life, in your late teens and early twenties, that’s just what people do: they go out. But I wanted to give people the tools to recognize the nonsense and look past it toward the things that do matter.

Were you concerned with creating your own style, your own distinct voice?

I wanted it to read like I was writing a letter to a good friend—as open and honest and natural as possible. I feel like that’s my duty as a writer, because in memoir, if you’re not being honest, what’s the point? I guess the hope is that if you’re really honest about your own madness, it actually turns out that other people can relate to it, too. In terms of being influenced by other writers, I love the long rambling sentences of Kerouac, and of some of Marquez—the three-hundred-word sentence that rushes on.

How long did it take you to finish writing?

About six years. Part of the reason it took so long was that I needed a little distance from that life before I could fully capture what it was about. Trying to write about it while in the midst of it was good for research, but it wasn’t good for finishing it—

Right, for clarity of mind—

—Very little clarity of mind. You know, you go out and you have a good time and take some good notes, and then you wake up the next morning and you’re utterly hung-over—the last thing in the world you want to do is sit in front of a computer to write.

So is the book fiction or nonfiction?

Everything that happens in the book actually did happen. So in that sense it’s nonfiction—it’s all true. But I used certain fictional narrative techniques to make the narrative flow. For instance, the night described in the book takes place in twenty-four hours, from one dawn through to the next. But in reality that single night is a compilation of—

Six years!

On some level yes, of six years. The scenes in the book are from two or three big nights combined with episodes from throughout my life in the night. One of the reasons I ended up writing it that way was because it’s actually how I remember it: not as a multitude of individual nights, but as one long, crazy blur of a night. For me that’s closer to the truth than if I’d tried to nail five or six different individual nights exactly as they happened, because my memory of each individual night out is—I don’t know….

Not very dependable.

No, not dependable at all.

Then how trustworthy are your notes?

The notes were very helpful for remembering what I was actually feeling, for sensations, bits of dialog, visuals. For example, one note said something like, “The girl in the white skirt doing her sweetness-bunny-hop.” So the next morning it helped me remember the whole scene of this girl dancing around, emanating good vibes and all smiley and kind of melting you when she came close. Some of these one-liners ended up in the book. Sometimes whole paragraphs or sections were structured around a single note. The book was as much of an editing project as a writing project—it was built from the smallest blocks on up.

Did you ever have trouble deciphering your notes?

There are literally scrawls that I still cannot decipher. Sometimes it was a little disheartening because you never knew—theoretically that illegible scribble could have been the key to it all.

Did going into a club with a notepad change your relationship to what was going on around you?

When you completely lose yourself in a club, you’re not thinking; you’re just existing, living, loving, dancing. There’s almost no way to record that exactly as it is, because it’s just pure existence at that point. If you have a pad out trying to record it, you’re already one step removed.

Do you see the book as a form of participatory journalism?

My dad was the ultimate participatory journalist. The ironic thing is, as much as I tried to steer my life in an alternate direction, I ended up doing participatory journalism, too. I don’t think my dad would have been comfortable talking about himself in that kind of personally revealing way. He really respected other people’s privacy, and his own privacy, too. He had very strict, almost moral boundaries on what he would report on. When it comes to reporting on myself, I guess I don’t have those same boundaries.

The book is dedicated to your father. Do you feel that your dad’s influence has been purely positive? Do you fear his shadow, his legacy?

There are obvious advantages to being my dad’s son. It gives me that initial opening that’s so crucial for a young writer: people will actually give my work a chance. And ninety-nine percent of writers don’t get that chance. Then the flipside is that there will be some who say, “It only got published because he’s his dad’s son,” And there will be plenty of room for people to criticize it more than they might an unknown writer’s stuff.

But there were so many other more important ways that my dad influenced me. He was a great enjoyer of life, whether it was night or day. He loved being surrounded by people, new people, all sorts of people. He was endlessly curious about everyone. And he loved staying out late, because he never wanted to miss anything. That was passed onto me: not wanting to miss out, wanting to stay up until there’s nothing left.

The book begins the morning after a long night out; it also ends the morning after a long night out. Why?

Some of my all-time favorite moments are from the morning after a long night out. If you’ve stayed up all night to get there, there’s something totally different about the morning. It feels like an ending and beginning all at once.

I think it’s best described as the feeling of being all dreamed out. You’ve been pushed forward into the night by all of these possibilities and all this potential for future magic and you’re rushing toward it. Then you get to the morning and none of those things are there. But it’s satisfying somehow. It’s like being happily tired after seeing a great concert or running a marathon—that kind of bone-tired happy exhaustion.

It sounds like writing the book has been a long journey, a marathon effort. How do you feel now that it’s done?

I read through the book today to have it fresh in my mind and there were still little things that I wanted to change. But that’s normal.

It’s funny, I discovered a beat-up first edition of Paper Lion out in Long Island not too long ago. It has my dad’s notes in it. Even after the first edition was printed he was still crossing out lines and writing in little things—it wasn’t finished for him. He still wanted to make it better. So there’s that weird difficulty in letting a book go as an editor and as a writer.

But it feels so good to have it done. It's relatable to the feeling you get the morning after a long night out: there’s nothing left to dream for, nothing left to reach for; you’re just where you are and kind of like, “Oh well, time to plan for the next night.”

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