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McCauley’s library visit sure to include ‘Life’ lessons


SHIRLEY — When Julia O’Keefe moved to town in 2014, it seemed natural to visit the Hazen Memorial Library. She just happened to stop in on a day the monthly book discussion group was meeting.

“It turned out to be a very welcoming group of new friends,” O’Keefe said about the Pizza Book Club, which is so named because weekly sessions begin with pizza slices for members.

During next week’s meeting, scheduled for Tuesday at 6 p.m., the Pizza Book Club will discuss the book “My Ex-Life” and hear from its author, Stephen McCauley.

Billed as an “informal conversation” with the bestselling author, readers, writers and aspiring writers are encouraged to attend. It’s free and light refreshments will be served.

McCauley has scored extravagant praise from critics, writers and other publishing notables for his new novel, his seventh.

Publishing News called the book “hilarious,” among other things. The Los Angeles Times ranked McCauley a “social satirist in the tradition of Evelyn Waugh and Oscar Wilde…” The San Francisco Chronicle called the book “very funny and observant,” and traced the author’s fan base back to his debut novel, penned in 1987. It is a long list, including glowing reviews by other modern writers, such as Elinor Lipman and Anita Diamant. And a “must read” nod from Entertainment Weekly.

For starters, it plays on the title, as the main character, who is gay, reconnects with his ex wife after a long hiatus. Both over 50 now, they find themselves under the same roof — which needs fixing — in a “seaside Massachusetts town.”

Bringing the circle closer to home, McCauley’s favorite writing haunt is the library. He’s traveled the world but settled down close to his roots and now lives in New England. He teaches at Brandeis University, where he co-directs the Creative Writing Department, and often uses the local library — wherever he is at the time — to sit down and write, he said in a recent interview.

Asked about his affinity for libraries, which some have feared would wither in the age of swift sound bytes, social media, and e-books, McCauley sees them as places of growth and change, where old uses and new come together.

“I think they are transforming into something different,” he said, thriving as work spaces and gathering places rather than the hushed and hallowed book repositories of yore.

But as he shared a glimpse of his writing life, McCauley’s somewhat old-fashioned habits tugged at a traditionalist’s nostalgic heart strings.

“I usually leave my computer at home and write longhand,” he said. Most days, he ditches the cell phone, too, “to disconnect” and get down to writing books.

Any lucky charms, perhaps an object or familiar for inspiration or to help him focus when he writes?

He likes a particular notebook, a German brand called Leuchtturm, he said, with perks like nice paper, a smooth glide for his pen, numbered pages, well-spaced, lined sheets, no perforations. Sounds perfect.

McCauley clearly favors the tactile over the digital and it’s a source of wonderment to sense that the new age might be dramatically different as a new generation eschews interactive experience to embrace devices. Or seems to. Like the tots he spotted sitting side-by-side in a stroller one day in the subway. As the ebb and flow of traffic passed, they never looked up from the tablet/phone they held, he said.

But there is no lament in this comment. Just an observation, grist, perhaps, for the writing mill.

Asked if he thinks about his next project much, he said some, when finishing up a book, but often it turns out to be a “half-baked idea” that morphs into something else.

What does he tell aspiring young writers in his classroom when they ask for advice?

Again, an unexpected answer. He doesn’t think most of the undergrads he teaches know he’s a successful author. One who did read one of his books asked if the teacher thought it “weird” to mention it, he said. Anyway, he doesn’t make it a point to tell them. “It’s about them, not me,” he said.

Pressed to come up with a one size fits all advisory, he offered items instead. “Things you need to succeed? Talent, a knowledge of (the) craft, a degree of emotional maturity, self awareness.” All of that comes later, though, and it’s early days yet for his students, he said.