Jenji Kohan's Husband Reveals Plus-One Etiquette, How Not to Be a "Federline"
Christopher Noxon, author of the just-released novel 'Plus One,' shares his guidelines for the less famous half of a couple.
This story first appeared in the Jan. 30 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Christopher Noxon attended the Golden Globes on Jan. 11 on the arm of his famous wife, Orange Is the New Black nominated creator Jenji Kohan. Noxon — a former journalist whose work has appeared in the pages of such publications as The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Details and Playboy — has gotten used to arm-candy status as his significant other's career has skyrocketed (from Weeds to OITNB) along with her star power, cemented with major fashion statements like her Globes look: red lips, wavy lavender hair and signature cat-eye glasses.
He may be used to it, but as a writer, Noxon wasn't going to let the "plus one" experience transform his life without harnessing its potential for literary inspiration. He's got a new book, courtesy of Prospect Park Books, fittingly titled Plus One. The novel, his first, centers on a mid-level marketing executive named Alex Sherman-Zicklin, who transitions to a "house husband" role after his wife wins a best comedy Emmy after a string of pilots that never got made. Sound familiar? It should.
"A lot of the characters in the book are similar to people I know, but they're not," explains Noxon, who knows a lot about successful TV writers — his sister is Marti Noxon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Girlfriends Guide to Divorce). "The guy in the book is similar to me, but he's not me. The woman is similar to Jenji, but it's not Jenji. It's a hall of mirrors."
During a chat with THR, Noxon was equally reflective, dishing on his creative process, his wife's success and the proper Hollywood party etiquette for that lucky extra guest.
Congratulations! How does it feel to have your second book out?
I'm excited and relieved. You write a book, which takes a couple of years, and then there's a year between the time you finish it and the time it comes out, so I've had time to sit and brew and stew. Now that it's out, I'm relieved and excited that people are reading it and reacting.
What has the response been from friends or colleagues or family?
My last book, Rejuvenile, was a nonfiction, heavily researched, quasi-sociological survey of what it means to be an adult. … It had a big scope, and it was a work of journalism. It got me on the Colbert Report and the Today show and CNN, and I did a bunch of consulting out of it. But the one thing that I was sad about was that nobody picked up that book and was like, 'I loved it.' No one wanted to turn to the next page to find out what the next egghead scientist had to say about what it means to be a grown-up. This is a read. You dive into the world and you want to see how it unspools. I've gotten a few emails from people who said they couldn't put it down. Right now, it's still pretty fresh.
When you decided to write, did you go to your wife and run the idea by her, or did you just start writing?
I shared everything I was writing as I went, though she was really busy and I didn't know if this book would ever be published. I did this entirely on spec. I felt pretty certain this wasn't a therapeutic exercise because I had outlined it pretty strictly. But I didn't go to her and say, 'Is this OK with you?' The book itself is kind of about finding yourself within a relationship. Every relationship has a power dynamic. I was interested in when the traditional power dynamic of a relationship gets shifted — men are in the support role, women are the breadwinners. What happens to the relationship?
I would imagine that creates friction. Was it a fluid transition for you? Were you ready to be her support?
Look, I love my kids so much. Obviously every dad does. But I really love my kids and I really love my wife. I was super gratified, and I felt like it was an incredible opportunity to spend time with my kids. I was not resentful. But I recognized all these social and biological factors that seemed to conspire against me. Friends ask, 'So, you're balls-deep in Cheetos by 1 p.m.?' It's devaluing of the homemaker. It's especially hard for men because you're emasculated and you're not quite a man, and there's this assumption that you're threatened.
Whether or not Jenji is married to me, I love her shows. I love her voice. I'm a fan. So when she gets acknowledged, I'm psyched, both as a fan and as her husband. But then you get these questions and you start to second-guess yourself, like am I OK? Sometimes you are, and sometimes you're not, and sometimes your blood sugar is shitty. If anything, the tensions we've had are around the yearning to trade places. She feels sad that I have that primary role with the kids, and I feel sad that she has this great office to go to where everyone will go and get her sunflower seeds or option a book — whatever it is. All of those tradeoffs are in the book.
Most people immediately spark to the perks of the plus-one lifestyle. Can you identify what the perks are?
A few years ago — maybe six or seven years ago — Jenji got invited to the New Yorker Festival. It was during the production of her show, and she didn't want to go. I looked at the lineup, and it was all of my literary heroes, like [Jonathan] Franzen and George Saunders and Miranda July. I said, 'We gotta go!' We went and it was great because we got to go to this party at the Chelsea Hotel … and it was incredible to see these heretofore fictional characters there.
But the thing about it is — and it continues to be true — people come up to Jenji and say hello and then look at me like, 'Who is this?' So I get to shake the hand, but I'm the one jumping up and down. They couldn't give a shit about me because I don't matter. So it's fun, but it's also really sad. You're kind of an imposition because people have to pretend to be nice to you when they really don't give a shit.
There's a lot of interesting etiquette that goes into that. Tell me what you've learned.
The main piece of etiquette is knowing when to get out of the picture frame. Like at events, people want to get pictures of Jenji, and sometimes they will want a couples shot but really they don't. Couples shots very rarely run. So you're there, but you need to hang back unless she needs a breath mint or needs to be extricated from some agent or needs to be moved along. There's this dance that you do. I gotta say it can make you crazy. That selfish, childish part of yourself is like, 'What about me?' And then when people in the industry come up and in that celebrity way say, 'I love your work, I love your work,' you can't geek out. You have to be cool and make friends with the other plus ones. That always helps. I also remind myself that it's a lot nicer to go to one of those events and not work. All I have to do is stand there and kind of look presentable and drink free drinks and enjoy the show. That's pretty awesome.
And not be too flashy, right?
The worst thing you can be is a Federline. That would be really cheesy and rude. There's a guy in the book who does act out. He's Alex's best friend, named Huck, and he's married to the lead actress on the wife's show. He's sort of a professional plus one. Where Alex is much more conflicted about it, Huck is all in, like 'I'm going to be an expert manscaper, a gearhead chef. I'm going to be the drill sergeant with my domestic helpers. If people are going to call me a pussy, I'm going to be the alpha pussy. I'm going to hit this hard.' And I have met guys like that.
Can you offer any advice to people who approach talent and ignore their plus one? What's that etiquette?
This is sort of manipulative, but it's totally true. You're going to get more attention and satisfaction from the talent by approaching the plus one. If we were walking along and someone wanted to meet Jenji, and they came up to me first and said hello, then she's interested because that's unusual. Forget the fame stuff, if you saw a couple, you wouldn't just talk to the husband — or the wife. You would talk to both. That's basic civility and just good manners. If you really are interested in having a real relationship with someone, talk to the people they are closest to because it will help you.
What's your hope for the life of this book?
I'm working on a TV pilot based on it. ABC optioned the book, and I'm turning in a draft to the network. I never imagined this novel as an ABC half-hour family multicam. But that's what they want out of it, so that's what I'm giving them. I don't know if they will pick it up, but I'm going through the process and trying to enjoy the ride.