Mea Culpa, Kiddo

Seven years ago, my feud with 17-year-old wunderkind Nick McDonell was all over the tabloids. But with his new book, An Expensive Education, I’ve made peace with the lit world’s It Boy.

Ulf Andersen / Getty Images

Nick McDonell apologizes for postponing our appointment—by three and a half hours—due to an unheard alarm clock.

“It’s understandable,” I say, having already apologized to him for significantly worse offenses. “Revenge is a dish best served cold.”

In 2002, Nick’s novel Twelve —now in production as a Joel Schumacher film starring Kiefer Sutherland, Emma Roberts, and 50 Cent — hit bookstores amid a torrent of publicity and A-list blurbs that praised the 17-year-old author as a literary spokesman for our generation. I went crazy with envy (being an adolescent writer without a book deal at the time) and condemned Twelve in the New York Press as “self-serving swill from a rich kid with connections.” (Nick’s father Terry, the editor of Sports Illustrated, is friends with Morgan Entrekin, the chief of Grove Press, which published Twelve and Nick’s two subsequent novels.)

Nick refused to counter my outbursts: “I care zero—I also have no interest in shit talking,” he wrote me in an email.

The media took notice: My screed appeared in New York magazine and on various gossip blogs. Over the next few years I continued to wage a self-righteous war against this act of nepotism. Meanwhile, Nick refused to counter my outbursts: “I care zero—I also have no interest in shit talking,” he wrote me in an email.

Recently Nick and I crossed paths at a publishing event. I offered a mea culpa for my juvenile behavior, he graciously accepted, and we agreed to sit down for an interview upon the release of his new novel, An Expensive Education, which follows a Harvard alumnus who inadvertently facilitates the massacre of an African village while working for the CIA. (“There is a connection between the intelligence community and these elite American institutions—Harvard, Ivy League—and it’s bad news for countries we are involved in,” says Nick, who went to Harvard himself. “This manifests itself in horrifying ways in foreign policy.”)

Our two-hour conversation, while amiable, was painfully awkward at times, but not for the obvious reason — Nick was a class act about placing our water under the bridge. The discomfort came from my sheer inability to figure him out. Shyness in writers is normal—most of us prefer the written word to the spoken—but Nick resists vocalizing self-reflection; he emphatically wants the work to speak for itself. “It’s a spy novel,” Nick says dismissively of An Expensive Education, as if his book were a mindless, mass-market Bourne clone. “It’s a thriller. I want it to be entertainment.”

Pressed to go deeper, to convey a message, to make some kind of impact, he reluctantly concurs.

“That’s true,” he says, but does not elaborate. “I would have to think about that. I don’t know exactly… I don’t mean to be flip… I feel like you keep looking for something more… I don’t know what to tell you.”

At another point in the interview, however, Nick sounds like a completely different person: “I’m interested in illuminating the enormous disparity between vast poverty and the tiny upper class. … This vast inequity is unfair by definition, and I am interested in illuminating that and, where possible, changing that. When the revolution comes, there may be some trouble—”

“When the revolution comes?” I ask. “Which revolution are you talking about?”

“Any of them,” he says with a straight face.

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“So there is a message?”

“I was making a joke,” Nick backpedals. “I think it’s a spy novel.”

Perhaps Nick believes he can better convey his ideas with a narrative than a lecture, or that big statements require understatement. Or perhaps his lackadaisical modesty is a mask for grander ambitions that he declines, out of decorum, to acknowledge. Growing up around media sovereigns has surely made Nick cautious about the trappings of publicity. He considers his words carefully before speaking (few “uh”s or incomplete sentences escape his mouth) and keeps personal details—relationship status, childhood memories—off the record. He is concise and precise with language.

He shrugs off the potential embarrassment of showing his formative writing to the public (“I remain proud of the work I have done”); shrugs off whether he is happy or unhappy with his reputation (“I’m not sure exactly what my public image is”); shrugs off the charges of nepotism (“I was placed in an extremely fortunate position, and I tried to work hard”); shrugs off bad reviews (“Do I care? Not that much”). He shrugs off the notion that he has any regrets whatsoever.

“In some of my [ Twelve] interviews I sounded like a pretentious little twat,” Nick admits when pushed. “A degree of self-awareness is extremely valuable… I hope I have that going forward.”

I do not mean to imply that Nick is a hypocrite or even inarticulate—I am done uttering negative things about him—but merely an enigma: Much of the time he makes it sound as if his writing is an amusing hobby (his new book is just “a thriller”); at other times he sounds as if it’s his reason for walking the earth, as if he aspires to make a significant impact on the course of the world. I left our interview disturbed by the question: Was I getting the real Nick, or a guarded, savvy operator who plays his cards incredibly close to the vest? Does he even know?

When Nick discussed his work as a foreign correspondent, however (certainly not what the bestselling author of Twelve is known for) he truly came alive. He stiffens when you ask about his fiction technique and literary ambitions, but unmistakable passion flashes in his eyes when he gets on a roll about geopolitical hot spots. He admits it’s all he wants to talk about, all that “preoccupies” his attention. Nick McDonell comes across as a journalist—perhaps a great journalist—who has been erroneously marketed for years as a novelist. His foreign correspondence for Harper’s and HuffPo is tremendous. It took years to compose his 8,000-word Harper’s piece on Sudan, and it shows.

“[Journalism] is a very complicated thing,” Nick says. “You need time around an issue to get it right… I feel a deep loyalty—to those whom I interview—to present the world as it is.”

Piecing together a series of quotes from throughout our interview, none of which are particularly revealing on their own, makes it abundantly clear that Nick feels his true calling is nonfiction. “In the beginning of college I wanted to be an English major, but then I became interested in international relations. … I’m not trying to write fiction now, or do experimental stylistic work… I wrote [ An Expensive Education] in hotel rooms while researching the other project… I look at [my novels] as a trilogy—it’s a unit, and that unit is now over… I’m just trying to look at the world and report on it for now.”

He is an observer, a chronicler, not necessarily a dramatist; I suspect he knows this but hesitates to say it outright while promoting his third published work of fiction. He expects to spend the next “five to eight years” researching a treatise on the international criminal-justice system, which has already taken him from Rwanda to Kashmir. The results—if he fulfills the promise of his Harper’s report—could be astounding.

“The more I have written, the less it has been about exploring myself, and the more it has been about exploring the world around me,” Nick says toward the end of our conversation. “All of this stuff falls away, Marty… for you and me and [other young authors] all of this stuff will fade away, and it will just be about the work.”

Marty Beckerman is the author of Generation S.L.U.T. (MTV Books) and Dumbocracy (Disinformation). He has written for Playboy, Discover, Radar and Huffington Post. His Web site is