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undefinedAt a signing in New York in 1993.

Mark Leyner’s name has been familiar to readers of experimental fiction since 1995, when he published his first story collection, I Smell Esther Williams, but it was his second collection, My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist (with its memorable opening riff: “I was an infinitely hot and dense dot” raised by “huge and lurid puppets”), followed by the novel Et Tu, Babe, that made him one of the most acclaimed and publicized writers of that decade. Profiled in major magazines, Leyner also appeared on late-night talk shows and in a contentious segment of Charlie Rose alongside David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Franzen.

After a second novel, The Tetherballs of Bougainville, was published in 1998, Leyner dropped away from the literary world. He worked in Hollywood, where one of his cowritten scripts, War, Inc., was made into a movie starring John Cusack. Leyner also coauthored a series of best-selling medical humor books beginning with Why Do Men Have Nipples? Hundreds of Questions You’d Only Ask a Doctor After Your Third Martini.

Fourteen years after Tetherballs, Leyner returned with The Sugar Frosted Nutsack, both an epic and the exegesis of an epic. It begins when a claque of gods (with names like Fast-Cooking Ali and XOXO) return from “spring break” to create a universe whose mortal hero is an unemployed butcher in Jersey City. Reviewing The Sugar Frosted Nutsack in the New York Times Book Review, Ben Marcus wrote that Leyner “demonstrates how much is still possible for the novel when tradition is left behind, proving that fiction can be robust, provocative and staggeringly inventive, without for a moment forfeiting entertainment.”

The bulk of this interview took place at the Elysian Cafe, a bistro across the street from Leyner’s home in Hoboken, New Jersey. Born in 1956, Leyner, a self-described “gym rat,” is handsome, smallish, and very fit, with muscular arms that in many lifting circles would qualify as “guns.” He seemed both proud and sheepish about them, the type of contradiction that, as the conversation developed, Leyner revealed as a central tension in his life and his writing.

—Sam Lipsyte

 

LEYNER

Let me tell you about my morning.

INTERVIEWER

Let me ask. How was your morning?

LEYNER

Funny you ask. I had a meeting this morning with my editor, Michael Pietsch. I really like having a breakfast meeting. First of all, it’s caffeine and not alcohol. It’s more what a businessman would do. Otherwise, I just basically wander around in my pajamas.

INTERVIEWER

So you’ve been to Manhattan and back today, back for your lunch meeting.

LEYNER

Yeah. I’m just a dynamo. I’ve done fifty critically important things already today, including this terrific meeting this morning about what my next book should be. I’ve just decided—and this is a huge scoop for The Paris Review, because Michael Pietsch and I just made this decision—I’ve just decided that I’m going to write a book about Mussolini.

INTERVIEWER

About Mussolini.

LEYNER

Yeah. The web of my own life and the web of his life.

INTERVIEWER

Why Mussolini? Have you been thinking about him since you were a kid?

LEYNER

No, that would be too weird. Mom, read me that manifesto. Dad, put on the black shirt again. Sing me that song. But I’m fascinated by demagogues. I’ve seen some of Fidel’s speeches where he’d harangue crowds of people in the blazing Havana sun for seven hours. He’d speak extemporaneously about very technical agricultural issues for hours.

INTERVIEWER

I think of that footage of Mussolini skiing shirtless in the Alps.

LEYNER

You know who has a similar theatrics of masculinity is Putin. He’s always shirtless, hunting in Siberia shirtless or something—Boy, I’m hot!

INTERVIEWER

So this book will be about masculinity, or models of masculinity?

LEYNER

Something like that. I think I have a particular interest in dictators—generally, in worlds of violence and physical prowess, because that’s all so much what I feel I’m not. Then again, there were enormous shelves of books in the houses of my parents and my grandparents, and that, too, seemed completely unattainable, such an exotic, unattainable endeavor, writing a book. Almost everything I do can be analyzed on this grid, as a response to this ambivalence about the sort of man I’m supposed to be. I’ll die with this not reconciled.

INTERVIEWER

You were made to feel not tough enough?

LEYNER

I think I was, for perfectly good reasons. I was a small, sensitive kid close to his mom. This is all textbook, the first child in the extended family, le petit prince.