What books are on your night stand?
“Shrines of Gaiety,” by Kate Atkinson, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “We Should All Be Feminists,” “The Faber Book of Reportage,” edited by John Carey, and around 30 copies of The New Yorker.
What’s the last great book you read?
I loved “Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow,” by Gabrielle Zevin, and I had expected not to love it. I have zero interest in computer games, but it’s about so much more — it’s about creativity, disability, friendship and power dynamics. There is an extraordinary chapter near its climax that made me sob. That rarely happens.
Are there any classic novels that you only recently read for the first time?
No. But the Russian greats hang over me every year, feeling like a gaping omission in my education.
Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).
Probably on a train or airplane; somewhere where there is nothing I feel obliged to be doing for a few hours, and few interruptions. I’d like an accompanying mug of tea, a warm seat and the latest novel by an author I love.
What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of?
“On Horsemanship,” by Xenophon, an Athenian soldier and philosopher around 355 B.C. whose ideas, especially regarding our treatment of and relationship with animals, are pertinent today.
Which writers — novelists, playwrights, critics, journalists, poets — working today do you admire most?
I’m a latecomer to poetry, but right now I find it hits the spots fiction doesn’t always reach. I love Kim Addonizio, Mary Oliver, Jack Gilbert — his “Failing and Flying” was my lodestar when my marriage broke down. Anthony Lane for movie criticism and any column by Marina Hyde — the most biting of modern satirists. Lisa Taddeo’s “Three Women” shows her extraordinary ability to extract secrets, combined with a surgeon’s precision of mind. There are too many novelists I admire, but I’d read Ann Patchett’s shopping list. Depending on my mood, Lee Child, Lisa Jewell, Liane Moriarty, George Saunders, David Sedaris. I’ll kick myself later for whomever I’ve left out.
Have you ever written a fan letter to an author?
I’m lucky enough to be friends with many authors — they make especially good pen pals — so I send them unofficial fan mail all the time if I’ve loved something they’ve written. If I didn’t love it, I just pretend I haven’t had time to read it.
What do you read when you’re working on a book? And what kind of reading do you avoid while writing?
I read almost no long-form fiction when I’m working on a book. The last few — especially “The Giver of Stars” — involved a lot of research, so I was mostly deep-diving into the history of coal mining in Kentucky, or prison life in Appalachia during the Depression. I need to be entirely immersed in that world, and if I read a novel with too strong a narrative voice while I’m writing it can throw off my own.
What’s the last book you read that made you laugh?
“Standard Deviation,” by Katherine Heiney. I was on a plane with my family and laughed so much and so loudly my children slid down their seats and pretended I wasn’t with them. “Lessons in Chemistry,” by Bonnie Garmus, made me laugh too (the fungi scene was a joy).
The last book you read that made you cry?
Rob Delaney’s “A Heart That Works.” A raw, unflinchingly honest telling of the life and death of his baby son. I’m not sure it’s possible to get through it without tears.
The last book you read that made you furious?
I don’t tend to read books that make me furious. There’s enough out there that makes me mad as it is. The last book I hurled across a room was some years ago; a much-lauded literary novel that felt self-indulgent, narcissistic and lazy. Some books I’ll try again at a different stage of my life, but not that one. In fact, I’m angry again just thinking about it.
Have you ever changed your opinion of a book based on information about the author, or anything else?
Unfortunately, yes. I idolized an author and her work and plucked up the courage to tell her so when I met her at a literary gathering when I was newly published. She could not have been less interested and looked past me over my shoulder as I spoke. It’s been really hard to love her work as much since.
What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently?
Some varieties of female duck have internal genitalia shaped into a spiral — making fertilization without “consent” much harder, in the view of some scientists (from “Bitch,” by Lucy Cooke).
Do you distinguish between “commercial” and “literary” fiction? Where’s that line, for you?
Not in terms of my appetite for reading — I read everything from thrillers to literary fiction to comic books. And I’m enjoying the fact that the line appears to have become increasingly blurred between them. If someone I trust tells me something’s good, I’ll give it a go.
How do you organize your books?
I don’t. I let them live randomly on my shelves. But I recently moved house after seven years and am finding all my books being in a different order oddly disorientating. I hadn’t realized that I knew where to find titles without knowing consciously where they were.
What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?
Any book on car maintenance. I am a shameful petrolhead.
What’s the best book you’ve ever received as a gift?
A first edition of “Friday’s Tunnel,” written and illustrated by John Verney, a beloved children’s book that I had lost during a house move.
What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?
I was an only child and a voracious reader. My grandmother called me a bookworm, and it wasn’t a compliment, as my weekly visits to her were usually spent with my nose buried between the pages. The books that have stayed with me are “The Black Stallion,” by Walter Farley, and “The Secret Garden,” by Frances Hodgson Burnett, and, as a teenager, the books of F. Scott Fitzgerald. I was also a compulsive reader of horror — I could not read horror now if you paid me.
You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?
Tennessee Williams, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and David Sedaris. I’d just sit back and listen.
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?
I can never answer these. Just to write a book involves dedication, hope and someone’s entrails. I can’t bring myself to publicly dismiss anything written in good faith.
Whom would you want to write your life story?
Any writer who only writes fiction.
What do you plan to read next?
I’m just starting a new book of my own, so I’ll probably only read New Yorker short stories for the foreseeable.
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