The author of “The Grammarians” and other novels favors nonfiction when she’s writing: “I try not to read contemporary fiction, which is often so good it’s discouraging or so bad it’s discouraging.”
What books are on your nightstand?
I work in bed, so my bedside pile is a tower not of Babel but of everything I’m thinking about, working on, thinking about working on, looking forward to reading or rereading, and a few palate-cleanser books to read before falling asleep to remove the poisonous taste of the news of the day. Here is the current list. Even I am not sure which book falls into which category, just that the pile, though not safe for earthquakes, is somehow comforting to have nearby. “The Old Drift,” by Namwali Serpell, “Dreyer’s English,” by Benjamin Dreyer, “Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret,” by Craig Brown, “A Thousand Small Sanities,” by Adam Gopnik, “The Memoirs of Elias Canetti,” “Y Is for Yesterday,” by Sue Grafton, “Gropius,” by Fiona MacCarthy, “The Prodigal Tongue,” by Lynne Murphy, “The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax,” by Geoffrey K. Pullum, “Crampton Hodnet,” by Barbara Pym, “Black Reconstruction in America,” by W. E. B. Du Bois, “The Most of P. G. Wodehouse,” “Selected Poems of W. H. Auden.”
What’s the last great book you read?
“The Puttermesser Papers,” by the insufficiently celebrated genius Cynthia Ozick. It is a masterpiece. The intellectual vigor of her work, the literary and imaginative originality, the confidence and breadth — I mean, she can write about a sex-crazed golem girl with the same propulsive clarity, intensity, intellectual warmth and high good humor she brings to a story about Henry James’s typist. She takes my breath away. She is the darkest, deepest comic writer and the most searingly funny tragedian. Ozick is not, to crib from Walt Whitman, “contain’d between her hat and her boots.” She is magnificent.
Are there any classic novels that you only recently read for the first time?
“O Pioneers!” I assumed for years that I had read Willa Cather. She is considered one of the great writers of the 20th century, so of course I had read her! Except, I had not. And then I picked up a copy of “O Pioneers!” that was lying around. It was a revelation. America! America? Yes, America! The American pioneer experience as an immigrant experience! Nebraska, land of immigrants where everyone speaks a different language! Nebraska, where every neighbor is odder than Dick’s hatband! Beauty and despair are so physical. I have a lot more Cather to read. And I have been drawn into the internet rabbit hole of the mutual disdain Cather and Lionel Trilling held for each other, so I have years of Willa Cather ahead, which is a literary blessing.
What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of?
“Extraordinary Women,” by Compton Mackenzie. It was published in 1928. It’s a satire about the misfits, exiles and lesbians who live, squabble, flirt, fornicate and gossip on Capri during World War I. It’s venomously funny and has one of the best endings ever. I am also an avid follower of the Facebook group called Undervalued British Women Novelists 1930-1960. Everyone from the exalted Sybille Bedford to O. Douglas to Elizabeth Fair.
What book should everybody read before the age of 21?
“The Phantom Tollbooth.” Our teacher read it to us in fourth grade. It changed my life. Words are real!
What book should nobody read until the age of 40?
“Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” This is not a children’s book! This is a great and subtle work of fiction. O.K., you can read it in your 30s. But no sooner. Promise me.
Which writers — novelists, playwrights, critics, journalists, poets — working today do you admire most?
Of course, there are giants like Alice Munro, Marilynne Robinson, Elizabeth Strout: writers to read over and over. And then there is the great Robert Caro. Reading his biography of Lyndon Johnson is like reading Trollope. Or the Bible. Every human frailty is there, every human strength.
What do you read when you’re working on a book? And what kind of reading do you avoid while writing?
I try not to read contemporary fiction, which is often so good it’s discouraging or so bad it’s discouraging. I can read 19th-century fiction, though. Dickens, for example, is distant enough to be inspiring rather than threatening.
And sometimes, when I feel myself getting soft, I read Muriel Spark — a cold-martini splash of quick, uncompromising prose onto my sickly, flaccid writing face. But mostly, I stick to nonfiction. With “The Grammarians,” I read Boswell’s “The Life of Samuel Johnson.” I read Dr. Johnson’s dictionary, too, as “research,” which for me is usually another way of saying joyous, guilt-free procrastination.
What’s the last book you read that made you laugh?
“I Am God,” by Giacomo Sartori, which is raucously thoughtful, masterfully composed and absolutely hilarious. It is a memoir of thwarted love narrated by God, the thwarted lover.
What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently?
Ossip Gabrilowitsch, the Russian pianist and conductor who was one of Alma Mahler’s lovers, married Mark Twain’s daughter.
What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?
The complete works of Albert Payson Terhune. He bred and wrote novels about heroic collies. I reread them every decade or so. I’m a sucker for a collie.
Who is your favorite fictional hero or heroine? Your favorite antihero or villain?
Phineas Finn, hero. Mrs. Proudie, villain. I love Trollope for many reasons, one of which is his heroes are flawed and his villains are human.
What’s the last book you recommended to a member of your family?
“The Puttermesser Papers.” I am currently obsessed with Cynthia Ozick. Clearly.
You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?
Many years ago, as a 30-year-old, I attended a dinner party with a number of well-known New York writers. The talk was fast and witty and allusive and, self-conscious and self-absorbed as only a young person who does not understand that everyone suffers from impostor syndrome can be, I spent an excruciating evening among these very successful, older writers, trying not to spill my wine and wondering if I should pretend I had read “The Bonfire of the Vanities” and tell Tom Wolfe, who was sitting next to me, how much I liked it. I did not, which is a good thing, because I realized when I got home that Tom Wolfe sitting next to me was actually Gay Talese. I have avoided literary dinner parties ever since.
Whom would you want to write your life story?
What books are you embarrassed not to have read yet?
“Anna Karenina.” But I have read “War and Peace” twice. Just saying.
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