What books are on your nightstand?
“Chilean Poet” by Alejandro Zambra. The rest of my nightstand is currently given over to children’s books, including the entirety of Graham Oakley’s “The Church Mice” series, a witty and nearly out-of-print 1970s British collection I loved when I Was Young, and Jack Gantos and Nicole Rubel’s “Rotten Ralph” books, about a house cat whose sarcastic misbehavior is a refreshing change of tone from most children’s books.
What’s the last great book you read?
“Notes on your sudden disappearance” by Alison Espach, published in May. Despite its tragic subject matter – the grief caused by the death of a teenage brother – it’s somehow very funny between heartbreaking passages. I have read the last page, profound and moving, several times in recent months.
Can a great book be badly written? What other criteria can overcome bad prose?
In August 2005, I arrived in St. Louis to pursue a master’s degree in fiction writing, with a number of books of quiet, serious, literary short stories, the kind that I, a sensitive young man, perfectly attuned to the untold melodies of the human condition, hoped to learn to produce myself. Deep in my luggage, I also stashed “The Da Vinci Code”, which I thought I would not read or reveal in my possession to anyone in my program. (I ended up telling a classmate and got a scornful look.) Missouri greeted me with 90-degree misery and an apartment with no hot water, clogged kitchen sink, and wiring exposed. As I adjusted to my new surroundings that first week, I picked up Dan Brown’s novel and couldn’t put it down, no matter how good its prose. So, if satisfying a strong need for escape is one of the criteria of a great book, then “The Da Vinci Code” is a masterpiece.
Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).
It would be when: I would return between the ages of, say, 16 and 21, when I read fiction as a malleable aspirant hoping for an earth-shattering experience rather than a critical practitioner unearthing technical advice; when the distant land of publishing had, for me, an aura of mysticism, as opposed to my current insider knowledge of industrial sausage making; when every professional fiction writer looked like a prophet and a sage (I unfortunately turned out to be neither); and when I considered certain literary works as quasi-sacred texts, a veneration that I find it more difficult to maintain now. This is not to dismiss my more sophisticated engagement with mature books that weren’t obtained in my youth, or to suggest that I’m completely disillusioned with the craft of writing having become an author of work, but my purest teenage relationship with reading. Maybe I’ll find a little innocence in my later years.
What’s your favorite book that no one else has heard of?
No one has heard of it because it doesn’t exist as a book, at least not yet. A retiree from the advertising industry named Judith Lichtendorf has taken eight fiction workshops with me in New York since 2016 through the 92nd Street Y and the Center for Fiction. I wish I could take credit for her virtuosity, but she came to me fully formed. Her story “Death of a Stepdaughter,” in Post Road Magazine, is representative of her work: incisive, dark, and funny gems delivered in terse, cutting prose. If there is justice, a publisher will take their other fiction and make a collection of it that a lot of people will hear about.
Which writers – novelists, playwrights, critics, journalists, poets – working today do you most admire?
I most admire anyone who writes without seeking undue attention or expecting external reward – and especially those who are unaware that no attention or reward is coming and who nevertheless pursue their craft with passion and diligence. As for the people I always pay attention to at work, I’ll watch any fiction by David Szalay, essays by Zadie Smith, journalism by Zeynep Tufekci, plays and screenplays by Kenneth Lonergan, graphic novels by Nick Drnaso and humorous pieces by Simon Rich.
What do you read when you are working on a book? And what kind of reading do you avoid while writing?
Along with any non-fiction research, I try to find novels that have parallels in theme or sensibility to what I write, in the hopes that their magic will rub off on me. For the novel I’m currently working on, I re-read “The Talented Mr. Ripley” for a reminder of how Patricia Highsmith uses the third-person perspective and describes a very specific emotion I’m aiming for at the end. .
What topics would you like more authors to write about?
It’s not a subject, but I would like humor to be more regularly present in literary fiction. Almost every fiction writer I know has a good sense of humor in person, but once they’re seated at a desk, a disproportionate number render the world without an ounce of comedy. I need at least a little, for fun and to maintain some optimism about the human experience.
How do you organize your books?
This summer, my wife and I are moving for the sixth time in as many years due to various circumstances, some within our control (babies, poor decision-making), some not (pandemic, greedy landlords). While we stupidly live in a Brooklyn that’s too expensive and too tightly spaced, 95% of our books have been stored in the last two years, arranged alphabetically in wooden crates, which come in handy for stacking in unlikely configurations. in small apartments, an annual relocation and feeling like a freshman. when you’re ostensibly adults with young children. So I organize most of my books, I’m sad to admit, on a Kindle.
What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?
A more than three-decade-old copy of “Are You There God?” It’s me, Margaret.
Who is your favorite fictional hero or heroine? Your favorite anti-hero or villain?
To quote a character from a writer’s workshop in Noah Baumbach’s “Kicking and Screaming” (and I’m paraphrasing myself here), “the main character has a little Holden Caulfield crossed with Humbert Humbert.”
How have your reading tastes changed over time?
As a teenager, I primarily sought emotional identification and solace in fiction; in college, cerebral stimulation and maximalist pyrotechnic prose; in graduate school and for a while after, an expertise in craftsmanship that would enhance mine; and now I’m looking for a narrative momentum carried by elegant sentences that communicate an intimate understanding of pain that has been extensively worked on, but whose vestiges remain powerful in the mind of the writer – especially when it is a mind that situates sadness in comedy and vice versa.
What book would you recommend for the current American political moment?
Yascha Mounk’s “The People Against Democracy: Why Our Freedom is in Danger and How to Save It” is a good introduction to the issue that should dominate everyday headlines. I would not recommend any account of palace intrigue by a political journalist who has saved, for a well-paid book, damning quotes and information about, say, an attempted self-coup that should have been reported responsibly in periodic months or years ago.
Disappointing, Overrated, Just Not Good: Which Book Did You Feel Like You Liked and Didn’t Like? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?
My tastes are often at odds with those of the literary establishment, and advice I heard a few years ago that life is too short and there are too many good books to finish the ones you you do not like, stayed with me. But rather than highlighting the Emperor’s new clothes, I’ll highlight a few new early novels I’ve read that I’m afraid aren’t getting the attention they deserve. Conner Habib’s “Hawk Mountain,” about a man’s encounter with his high school bully, is a crunch story about the repercussions of repression. In Ashley Hutson’s “One’s Company”, a woman wins the lottery and recreates the microcosm of the TV show “Three’s Company”. The premise is reminiscent of Tom McCarthy’s “Remainder,” but it’s a quirky, evocative, and beautifully written metaphor for artistic loneliness.
What do you plan to read next?
My wife, Kate Greathead, is finishing her second novel, which I’ve read piecemeal and will soon consume in its entirety, provided we don’t store the Word document.