I’m no Ann Patchett nor Russell Banks nor Donna Tartt nor EL Doctorow — all of whom I adore — but so what. Let’s pretend we’re being interviewed for this weekly column by The New York Times, but without the pressure to seem “literary” and calling it like we really see (read?) it.
What’s the best book you’ve read recently? This is such a tough choice because it depends on the reason I’m reading. I loved the very long and very dug-in THE GOLDFINCH, but if we’re talking about the books I enjoyed the most and could not wait to get back to at the end of a day, I have to go with Lisa Unger’s thriller HEARTBROKEN and David Rosenfelt’s DOG TRIPPING. And I just downloaded Howard Norman’s I HATE TO LEAVE THIS BEAUTIFUL PLACE, so I’m looking forward to that.
When and where do you like to read? The nook in my couch. The bathtub. I read in bed, always, but that’s a routine fantasy because I rarely last more than a few pages.
What books do you find yourself returning to again and again? Jane Smiley’s A THOUSAND ACRES, Wallace Stegner’s CROSSING TO SAFETY, Mary Karr’s LIT, Joan Didion’s THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING, William Styron’s SOPHIE’S CHOICE, and Judith Guest’s ORDINARY PEOPLE. I would be embarrassed to tell you how many times (dozens??) I’ve read these books and how many times I’ve listened to them on audio. I’m learning, and these are my brilliant, priceless teachers.
Which books might we be surprised to find on your bookshelves? At least 3 entire shelves about slavery and the Holocaust. Larry McMurtry’s LONESOME DOVE is one of my favorite books of all time, and I don’t care for westerns. If I could read the Diana Gabaldon OUTLANDER series over and over again, and still get the surprises, I would totally do it — I have never been more in love with any other series of big fat books, ever.
Which novels have had the most impact on you as a writer? Every essay Joan Didion ever published. Dorothy Allison’s BASTARD OUT OF CAROLINA and Rick Bragg’s ALL OVER BUT THE SHOUTIN’ — I felt like I knew every character in these stories, and that the writers helped me know them better than I ever could on my own.
If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be? I would ask the president to read one poem every night before bed. Especially poems by Richard Wright and Anna Akhmatova and Tomas Transtromer and Nikky Finney. Like Nikky Finney’s “Dancing with Strom”. Just fucking brilliant.
What does your personal book collection look like? Do you organize your books in any particular way? Of course I do. And if I find out yours aren’t, I might have to come over and organize them for you! My books are meticulously arranged by category — first editions, memoir, history, biography, classics, poetry, short stories, French, mysteries/thrillers, fiction — though not by author. I have to draw the crazy-lady-line somewhere, right?
Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing? I refuse to comment on living writers, but if I try to read anything by Hemingway I just want to poke my eyes out. I don’t get it. I just don’t. Blech. So there.
How would you answer honestly all — or any — of these NYT questions? Come on, commiserate.