The novelist in the fortune cookie

In the March 12th New Yorker, a Talk of the Town piece by Ian Parker on novelist Jay McInerney and his career writing fortune cookie fortunes: in print, “Pithy”; on-line, “When Jay McInerney writes your fortune: The novelist’s new line of fortune cookies are fit for a cynic: “If at first you don’t succeed, try Botox.””:

Caricature by Tom Bachtell

Jay McInerney, the novelist, who lives in a penthouse just off lower Fifth Avenue, recently took a car to Wonton Foods, in Bushwick, to discuss the experience of writing fortune cookies. He was wearing a beige turtleneck sweater, a long gray coat, and loafers. Looking out the car window, he said, “When my wife sees graffiti, as a former Upper East Side girl, she just thinks of urban blight.” (His wife is Anne Hearst, a granddaughter of William Randolph Hearst.) “But I associate it with a period of great urban creativity.” He added, “Basquiat once came to my apartment at one-thirty in the morning to sell me a painting, and, unfortunately, I didn’t have what he considered enough.”

In recent months, McInerney worked on a television adaptation of a trilogy of his novels; a memoir; and a set of eighty-eight New York-oriented fortune-cookie fortunes, commissioned by the midtown branch of Hakkasan, an international chain of expensive Chinese restaurants. As his car exited the Williamsburg Bridge, McInerney quoted from this work, suggesting a special edition of Monopoly from the end of the last century. “ ‘If at first you don’t succeed, try Botox,’ ” he said. “ ‘Your child will get into Episcopal.’ ‘Your nanny is about to leave you for a family that lives at 740 Park.’ ‘Beware of stock tips from strangers.’ ”

He reached Wonton’s factory. Forklifts beeped. James Wong, an adviser to the company and formerly its senior vice-president of procurement, showed him to a small conference room, where McInerney took a seat beneath a framed photograph of a fortune cookie. Wonton dominates the national market in fortune cookies.

A few years ago, Donald Lau, Wonton’s C.F.O., grew tired of the task of writing fortunes, and Wong reluctantly took over. “I kind of fell into the role,” Wong told McInerney. “I do feel the pressure. I don’t know how it is for you, but I’m constantly under pressure. I’m supposed to produce hundreds in a year, so every day I should be writing a few.” He sighed. “But realistically it’s not happening. We’re trying to transition into using someone else. We’re actively looking for other people to write for us.”

He glanced at McInerney, who shook his head. “My fortunes are a little cynical for the mass market, I think,” McInerney said. “More informal than yours. ‘Your ex will be featured in a nasty item on Page Six.’ ”

“We couldn’t publish that,” Wong said. He asked McInerney if Hakkasan had given him guidelines.

“They didn’t seem to want anything involving homeless people,” he said.

“Oh, wow.”

“I had one or two of those rejected.”

Wong said that Wonton Foods made five million cookies a day. “Every day, millions of people read our messages,” he said. “Donald always liked to claim that he’s probably the biggest writer that nobody knows about.”

“The Bible, Agatha Christie, and Donald,” McInerney said.

Wonton has a database of hundreds of thousands of fortunes, going back more than thirty years, but, of these, only twelve thousand are thought suitable for current use. That number, Wong said, was too low. “The repeats — we definitely get complaints,” he said. “We need to add more.”

On the novelist, from Wikipedia:

John Barrett “Jay” McInerney, Jr. (born January 13, 1955) is an American novelist. His novels include Bright Lights, Big City, Ransom, Story of My Life, Brightness Falls, and The Last of the Savages. He edited The Penguin Book of New American Voices, wrote the screenplay for the 1988 film adaptation of Bright Lights, Big City, and co-wrote the screenplay for the television film Gia, which starred Angelina Jolie. He was the wine columnist for House & Garden magazine, and his essays on wine have been collected in Bacchus & Me (2000) and A Hedonist in the Cellar (2006).

One Response to “The novelist in the fortune cookie”

  1. Bob Richmond Says:

    Surely someone besides me has thought of fortune cookies with quotes from Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico- Philosophicus. 7. Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muß man schweigen.

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