Toby Young is not a positive role model. And in this interview he essentially agrees with that assessment. Instead, reading his memoir is a bit like watching a show like Jackass – you get to live vicariously through him as he performs antics that you may secretly want to do, but avoid because of your inhibitions.
Young is not stopped by any inhibitions, though. He is shameless in his attempts to get media coverage. If that means he is photographed in the nude, so be it. If that means he is interviewed about his interest in porn videos, so be it.
This reader found himself cheering Young on, hoping he will continue to try new things, but at the same time cringing, knowing his projects will again go down in flames. But it’s a beautiful thing to watch.
In a recent email interview Young was as forthcoming and open as you would expect. Put another way, I think his real persona is the same as the one in the book, which is bloody terrifying yet fascinating.
In his first book, How to Lose Friends & Alienate People, he describes his failed attempts to schmooze with celebrities and work at Vanity Fair, among other adventures. In his new memoir, The Sound of No Hands Clapping, his adventures include making the first book into a play, acting and being hired by a famous Hollywood producer – who he dubs Mr. Hollywood – to write a biographical movie about a famous music producer, also unnamed, who has no redeeming qualities.
Young also describes becomng a father and says all the terrible things a father and new husband thinks but knows better than to actually say about the situation.
SB: You seem to have made a success out of failing. Your first book detailed your failed attempts to succeed in magazines and schmooze with celebrities. I had some trepidation with your new book, wondering what drama you can mine next. I am happy to see you have had many new failures. What’s it like to have people reading about your failures and saying how happy they are to read about that?
TY: I guess it depends why they’re happy. If they’re happy because it means I have more material to entertain them with, then that’s fine. But if they’re happy because they just enjoy the spectacle of me failing, that’s not so good. The truth is, it’s probably a bit of both. However well disposed people are towards me, they’ll always take a certain amount of pleasure in reading about my suffering. This is particularly true of my best friends. It’s human nature.
SB: In a review, The New York Times put it this way: “Failure is Mr. Young’s calling card. It works for him.” Is that a fair description of your life and work?
TY: I wouldn’t quibble with that. I’m a professional failure. I'm in the odd position of only being able to pay the mortgage so long as I remain unemployed. The moment I'm perceived to be even a tiny bit successful, my career will go down the pan. Fortunately, I’ve experienced no difficulty in sustaining this career. Failure just seems to come naturally to me.
SB: That review also suggests your franchise is now over because you are happy as a father. Say it ain’t so.
TY: That’s a gross libel. How dare he suggest I’m happy? Doesn’t he realize my livelihood is at stake? I’m going to sue.
SB: Reading this I was reminded of a New Yorker article about Lucinda Williams that delved into the question of whether someone who specializes in writing sad songs can be happy in their personal life or if that is a recipe for problems. Ultimately, if I recall correctly, she ended a good relationship because it was getting in the way of her songwriting. Have you had any successes that you’ve had to torpedo – or not write about – because it would screw up your reputation as a failure?
TY: I don’t set out to fail. The sad truth is, I genuinely want to succeed. When I first joined Vanity Fair I thought I’d be the editor-in-chief within five years. Instead, I ended up road-testing sex toys for a third-rate men’s magazine. My career as a professional failure has been foisted upon me; it’s not one I’ve chosen for myself. I wish I could say I’ve had a string of successes that I’ve been concealing from my readers, but, alas, it isn’t so.
SB: My only criticism of this book is that you didn’t name names. To me it was frustrating to read about your dealings with a Hollywood producer when you wouldn’t give his name. Similarly, it was difficult to read about your concern about writing an uplifting biopic about a music producer without knowing the name. Do you have any regrets about not naming names? If I suggested the names are Joel Silver and Phil Spector would I be close? Have any reviewers correctly identified the two and, if so, have there been any reprisals?
TY: So far, no reviewers have correctly identified the movie producer or the record producer, though I live in constant fear that it will happen. When it does, the only way I’ll be able to escape Mr. Hollywood’s wrath is by changing my name and moving my family to Mexico. As to your attempt to guess who they are, I plead the Fifth.
SB: In this book you talked not only about your professional life – such as it is – but also about your personal life, especially regarding marriage and fatherhood. How do you decide who gets to read it before it is published?
TY: I’ve written quite a bit about my wife in the latest book and, obviously, I submitted it to her for copy approval before sending it to my publisher. She asked me to change one thing – a tiny thing – but apart from that she was fine with it. She’s remarkably tolerant, though it helps that all the best lines in the book belong to her.
SB: This is what the New York Times said: "By the end of 'The Sound of No Hands Clapping,' twin specters loom: success and happiness, with no celebrities attached. Mr. Young loses interest in Mr. Hollywood, and in Hollywood. He likes staying at home with his kids. The franchise is finished." You're saying you're not happy?
TY: I feel happier than at any previous time in my life, but I wouldn’t say I was happy, no. I’m far too ambitious for that. I want to write a book or a play or a movie that will endure – at least for longer than five minutes. Until I’ve done that, I’ll never be completely satisfied.
SB: Why are you so scared about repercussions from the producer? You seem throughout both books to show no fear at doing things that, no offense, make you look like a jerk and/or idiot. Why stop short of naming names?
TY: The truth is, Mr. Hollywood made me promise not to write about him as a condition of meeting me for the first time and, because I was so desperate to go to Hollywood, I agreed. I’ve broken that promise, obviously, but my way of rationalizing it is by not actually naming him. That way, I can tell myself that I’ve only half broken the promise; I’ve kept to the spirit of the deal, if not the letter. If he calls me on it, which I fear he will, I’m going to say that the character is a fictional composite.
SB: What has the reaction been of friends and family to your books? I'm not talking so much about your wife as people who you quote in the books who might not have realized you were going to quote them. From my own experience as a columnist, as well as other writers I know, sometimes people get those "oh, god, he's going to quote me" willies and beg not to be quoted on this or that topic. Do you encounter that at all?
TY: I used to get that a lot, but my track record is now so bad that people expect me to quote them and aren’t surprised when they open my books, turn straight to the index, and find their names there. Indeed, it’s gotten to the point that I get more complaints from people who’ve been left out than from people I’ve put in.
SB: So what's next for you? Please tell me you're not going to write a book just about your family because I, like many readers, love living through your career blunders. You are like a one-man literary reality show.
TY: Don’t worry. I’ve already chalked up a few disasters since I finished the last book. For instance, I co-authored a play recently — a sex farce about the British Royal Family — that was universally panned by the critics. “Few shows of such embarrassing, authorial ineptitude can have hit the London stage since the Blitz,” concluded one old curmudgeon – and he and I both work for the same paper! I wish it was otherwise, but there’ll be no shortage of disasters to entertain readers with for the next volume.
SB: Speaking of reality shows, what area of the media are you going to try next? I figure you've done books, magazines, plays, and movies. Should we expect a television variety show? A rap album?
TY: I’ve been invited to appear on a British reality show called I’m A Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here, which involves spending three weeks in the middle of the Australian jungle performing a series of humiliating tasks. Everyone I’ve asked about it has strongly advised me not to touch it with a bargepole — “It would be a career suicide” –so I’m strongly tempted to do it, obviously. I’d almost certainly be the first to be kicked off the show, but I could get a great magazine article out of it, at the very least. How can I go wrong?