“Being funny is not only hard but perhaps the most powerful thing of all,” says the author, whose latest book is “Why I Don’t Write: And Other Stories.”
What books are on your night stand?
That would be sprawled on the floor. “Elvis and Gladys,” by Elaine Dundy; “Three of a Kind,” novellas by James M. Cain; “The Paintings of Charles Burchfield”; “The Lost Pianos of Siberia,” by Sophy Roberts; “Abroad: British Literary Traveling Between the Wars,” by Paul Fussell; “100 Years of the Best American Short Stories,” edited by Lorrie Moore and Heidi Pitlor; “The Hat on the Bed,” stories by John O’Hara; “An Alphabet for Gourmets,” by M.F.K. Fisher; “Light Thickens,” by Ngaio Marsh; “Marilyn: Norma Jean,” by Gloria Steinem. I am not at my usual bedside because of the pandemic, but permanently there are the essays of Montaigne, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, plus Laozi’s “Tao Te Ching,” all excellent for steadying reference.
What’s the last great book you read?
Have read a few. “Caste,” by Isabel Wilkerson, which shines a stunning light on racial issues from a new angle; “Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest,” by Wade Davis, which tracks the extremes of human behavior; “A Judgement in Stone,” by Ruth Rendell, a briskly and entertainingly told story of the evils of illiteracy masquerading as a murder mystery.
Are there any classic novels that you only recently read for the first time?
“Can You Forgive Her?,” by Anthony Trollope (I listened to the audio), where I was delighted to find some metafictional narrative intrusion in an otherwise conventional narrative.
Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).
Holding in my hand a good book made out of paper. Anywhere.
What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of?
People may have heard of it, but not enough: “Lives of the Saints” (1985), by Nancy Lemann, about hapless romantics in New Orleans in the 1970s by a daughter of the South. Nancy Lemann is an underappreciated comic genius.
Which writers — novelists, playwrights, critics, journalists, poets — working today do you admire most?
Poet and essayist Anne Carson, playwrights Annie Baker and Kenneth Lonergin, short story writers Amy Hempel, Lydia Davis, Mary Gaitskill, Elizabeth Strout, Karen Russell, essayists Adam Phillips and Mark Epstein, poets Nick Laird and Sarah Paley, anything written by Lorrie Moore, Bob Dylan, Jenny Offill, Zadie Smith. Tobias Wolff, Helen Simpson, Jane Gardam, Charles D’Ambrosio. Annie Proulx. George Saunders. Hilton Als. Jonathan Ames. I could go on …
Do you have any comfort reads, or guilty pleasures?
One should never be guilty about reading! It’s a tyranny to make readers believe there is anything they are supposed to read or not read. As Faulkner said, Read! Read everything!
As far as comfort is concerned, I know I will always find the pleasure of laughter when I read David Sedaris. As a writer, he gets better and deeper. Other excellent comic writers always guaranteeing pleasure are Patty Marx and Sloane Crosley. Being funny is not only hard but perhaps the most powerful thing of all.
What’s the last book you read that made you laugh?
“The African Svelte: Ingenious Misspellings That Make Surprising Sense,” by Daniel Menaker. With drawings by the excellent and inspiring Roz Chast. Blunders in language are always delightful to me — unintentional poetry! I also weep as I laugh because this was written by my friend and editor who died this fall and one I hadn’t read when he was alive and it is so hilarious that I wish I could tell him. And also weep as I laugh.
The last book you read that made you cry?
Dorothy Gallagher’s “Stories I Forgot to Tell You.” A slim memoir (love a slim book!) which is a meditation of writing, loving and grief, spoken to her husband Ben Sonnenberg, after his death.
Has a book ever brought you closer to another person, or come between you?
I like Henry Green’s description of prose as being “an intimacy between strangers.” So I am brought closer to every author I read. And yet neither of us ever knows it.
What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently?
That in 1923 wild animals in Tibet approached humans because they were not hunted. That in 1966 Elvis Presley recorded Bob Dylan’s “Tomorrow Is a Long Time” before Bob Dylan released his own version. That in 1914 the chances of a boy in Britain between the ages of 14 and 24 surviving the coming war were one in three.
Which subjects do you wish more authors would write about?
Women’s experience. That is, their real experience. Then we would find out if Muriel Rukeyser was right: “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.”
What moves you most in a work of literature?
The soul speaking.
How do you organize your books?
Books I’ve had for a long time are loosely organized first by type (fiction, poetry, travel, biography, plays), then within that by geography (i.e., country), then by era.
All the rest of my books fill up empty shelves in the order that they enter the house, and are then piled in stacks all over the place, usually with most recent arrivals on top.
What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?
Self-help, parenting, how-to books? But is that surprising?
What’s the best book you’ve ever received as a gift?
So many! But the first that comes into my head: “Warriors: Life and Death Among the Somalis,” by Gerald Hanley. A beautiful stark book. It helped that I loved the man who gave it to me.
How have your reading tastes changed over time?
I know faster what I like. And listening to books is a big change, one I avoided, thinking it a lesser experience of a book. Then I thought of how oral tradition is the original form of storytelling and now I “read” twice as many books.
You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?
I wonder intensely about the social manner of Emily Dickinson, Marcel Proust, Colette, Michel de Montaigne, William Blake, Abraham Lincoln, Zora Neale Hurston, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Raymond Chandler, Samuel Beckett, Martin Luther King Jr. — but I’d love to lay eyes on them.
If we dispense with the obvious scintillation and awe of Virginia Woolf, Oscar Wilde and Leo Tolstoy, I’d ask Sappho and William Shakespeare, two people mysteriously unknown by history, and Anton Chekhov because he’s my favorite, hoping we could hurdle our language differences and possibly flirt.
Or dinner alone with Rumi.
Why do people sometimes choose Jesus? I don’t think he ever actually wrote a word.
Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel as if you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?
More than half of the books I pick up I do not read to the end. It’s not always because I don’t enjoy them, but because I like to graze. As far as rating books go, there is no accounting for taste.
What books are you embarrassed not to have read yet?
I believe I have freed myself from the tyranny of reading expectations.
What do you plan to read next?
“Blackballed: The Black Vote and U.S. Democracy,” by Darryl Pinckney. His is a brilliant mind which can make simple the complicated, then show how complex the simple.
Plus more in those books on the floor by my bed.
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