May 10, 2012

All You Have to Do Is Breathe. ~ Rebecca Nemser

Jennifer Aniston & Paul Rudd in The Object of My Affection

A Conversation with Author, Stephen McCauley

Best-selling author Stephen McCauley takes his yoga off the mat, and reveals the truth about Rain Mitchell and his tales from the yoga studio.

“Being honest about who you are—that’s what I write about over and over again,” says Stephen McCauley, when we meet in his favorite yoga studio to talk about his work. “That’s the narrative arc of all my books—from self-deception to self-acceptance,” he says. The class had ended with Om Namah Shivaye, a Sanscrit chant that is an invocation of a higher truth.

McCauley, who practices yoga daily, is trim, fit, flexible and does an awesome astavakrasana, an advanced yoga arm balance.

He is the best-selling author of six serious—and often seriously funny—novels, including The Easy Way Out (1992), Alternatives to Sex (2006) and Insignificant Others (2010).

His first novel, The Object of my Affection, caused a sensation when it was published in 1987. “Bittersweet” was the word most often used to describe the sad, funny, poignant romance of George, who is gay, and Nina, who is not. “In Object, it was: ‘I love you and I love our relationship, but I really need to be with this other person because that’s who I am,’” McCauley says.

“The book touched a nerve for many people. I recently cleaned up my office and found a huge bag of mail, real letters with stamps on them, from back then. A lot of them were from women writing to say, ‘I have this kind of relationship. It was so meaningful to me.’”

The Object of My Affection was made into a film in 1998, starring Jennifer Aniston and Paul Rudd. They reunited in the new film Wanderlust, the same name as the yoga festival lightheartedly lampooned as the Flow and Glow Festival in Head Over Heels, the second in a series of books by Rain Mitchell. The series chronicles five women who come together for hope and healing at their favorite yoga studio in Southern California.

Rain Mitchell is Stephen McCauley’s nom de plume, his pen name.

“I found it very liberating to write under a different name,” he says, sitting comfortably in sukhasana, a yoga cross-legged pose.

Stephen McCauley writes very slowly. “I’m an insecure perfectionist,” he says. Rain Mitchell, whose first book was Tales from the Yoga Studio (2011), writes quickly. Head Over Heels will be released on April 24, 2012.

“The project was brought to me by my editor, who knew I did a lot of yoga, as she does. Yoga is an integral part of millions of people’s lives now. I went to the library every day and I literally wrote ten pages every single day, no day off. And it was the most exhilarating and physically challenging experience I’ve ever had as a writer.”

The main characters in McCauley’s novels are usually variations on the charming, ironic, introspective, insecure gay man he put on the map with Object and has been refining ever since. They tend to be kindergarten teachers, English teachers, or people who want to be English teachers. They agonize endlessly—and often hilariously—about the meaning of their lives. They read nineteenth century novels—Charles Dickens and Anthony Trollope, whose Barchester Towers is McCauley’s favorite read of the moment.

The center of Rain Mitchell’s yoga books is Lee, a beloved yoga teacher, and the women who come together in the melting pot of her warm and welcoming yoga studio. The cast of characters includes TV stars, movie directors, athletes, dancers and celebrity yoga teachers.

Stephen McCauley’s novels are set in the relatively refined and contemplative world of Boston and Cambridge, where he lives with writer Sebastian Stuart in a beautiful apartment filled with books and eccentric works of art.

Rain Mitchell’s yoga books are set in Silver Lake, a hip suburb of Los Angeles—a world of sunshine, palm trees, pink bicycles, and designer yoga clothes.

“When I sat down to write as Rain Mitchell, I did feel like a different person,” says McCauley, now in gomukhasna, a twisted seated pose. “I felt like someone who was less inhibited, who didn’t have my self-esteem issues, who actually believed that he could write ten pages a day, and it was a huge relief.”

While Stephen McCauley’s novels are inward and introspective, pulled together at the end with small but beautiful moments of revelation, Rain Mitchell’s books are written with brighter colors, broader brushstrokes and darker themes of violence, crime, betrayal and shocks.

“I am very timid with plot,” says McCauley. “I don’t feel comfortable with deaths and big events. Most of the big things in my own books happen offstage. With the yoga books, plot is everything. Somebody jumps out a window. That would never happen in one of my books.”

One of the darker themes in the yoga books is that of men who are jealous of women’s accomplishments and punish them for their success.

“It’s a huge issue in heterosexual relationships. This whole assault by the Republicans. That’s what it’s about. It’s right back to the 50’s. If you want birth control you’re a slut. It’s men’s desire to control women. There’s tremendous ambivalence about equality of the sexes,” he says.

“There are a great number of male yogis and yoga teachers, but yoga is still something of—like that short story by Chekhov, A Woman’s Kingdom. A world of women. It is a place where the women can go and be themselves and be accomplished without apologizing to men.”

Edendale, Lee’s yoga studio, is a world of women, a sacred space where it’s safe to be yourself. It’s a haven in a heartless world, the family you never had, the place where you can “feel the love”, as David of South Boston Yoga tells his students while asking them to lie on the floor and do one more yogic core exercise one more time.

South Boston Yoga, where we met to take class and talk, is McCauley’s favorite yoga studio—a spotlessly clean, sky-lit loft in a warehouse that once housed a printing press. The studio is owned by a gay married couple, David and Todd, who are both Lululemon ambassadors, the yoga world equivalent of a big literary prize.

“There’s a real feeling of community, a very welcoming feeling,” says McCauley. “There’s a competitive, passive-aggressive vibe in some yoga studios. People come with an attitude. There’s something about David and Todd’s stewardship. It’s clear that that’s not allowed. I think that’s what makes that place so wonderful. It’s just their total comfort with who they are, and it is passed on to the students.”

Todd flies through the air like a Ninja Warrior, levitating from advanced arm balances to handstands and back, all the while explaining the poses with crystal clear alignment cues and an expert understanding of anatomy.

David often begins and ends his classes by singing Om Namah Shivaye or Ma Durga, a hymn to the loving Mother. One of his favorite words is “light-hearted.” He is a former dancer who talks, sings, whistles, plays the harmonium to all kinds of music while leading his classes through carefully choreographed creative flows. Like all great dancers, he knows how to make his partner feel graceful, even when his “partner” is a hundred sweaty people of all ages, sizes, shapes, and colors on yoga mats early on a Sunday morning.

In Head over Heels, Lee falls for a handsome, charismatic yoga teacher named David Todd.

“The real magic kicks in when he starts to teach. He leads the class through one of the most original flows Lee has seen in a long time. He manages to incorporate traditional sun salutations with martial arts kicks and graceful movements that have a touch of Martha Graham in them. At the same time that he’s moving around the room and making people laugh together as a group, he’s offering such exact and detailed verbal cues for the poses that Lee finds herself… slipping into half moon with more grace and ease than she has ever felt…Almost everything he says elicits the fond laughter that comes as much from being adored as it does from being funny.”

McCauley’s books have been translated into many languages and are hugely popular in Europe.

In France, he is a Chevalier in the Order of Arts and Letters. In Brussels, restaurants and B&B’s are named after his books. “I grew up in a family where no one reads, and it was considered weird that I liked to read,” he says. “It made people very uncomfortable. Reading was seen as antisocial and little bit effeminate and sort of subversive. When I came out to my mother the very first thing she said was, ‘I always thought you read too much.’”

True Enough was made into a French film in 2008, (La Verite Ou Presque), and a film of The Easy Way Out (L’Art de la Fugue), is scheduled for release next fall, with Marie-Christine Barrault and the pop stars Benjamin Biolay and Elodie Frage. In the United States, Alternatives to Sex has just been optioned by Showtime for a TV series. The Tales from the Yoga Studio series seems destined to be a movie, too.

There is, in every one of McCauley’s books, an “Aha!” moment, when the irony and illusions fall away. The women in the yoga studio teach each other what the hero of Insignificant Others learns on his long, lonely walks across a bridge:

“Begin with the truth,” I wrote back. “Everything else will fall into place.”

The characters, the style, and the scene of Rain Mitchell’s yoga books are very different from Stephen McCauley’s “real” novels, but the underlying moral universe is the same: “the narrative arc from self-deception to self-knowledge,” as he calls it. The characters are all searching for love, for meaning, for connection, for peace.

“All you have to do is breathe,” Lee says quietly. “Just start breathing, and the rest will happen on its own.”

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Rebecca Nemser is writing a book about mythical women of ancient Greece. She and Stephen McCauley are old friends who share a love of nineteenth century novels, French Pop, YouTube clips of 60’s singers, and yoga.  She can be reached at [email protected].  Check out her website at http://www.rebeccanemser.com/.





Editor: Lara Chassin

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