What books are on your night stand?
Nothing on the night stand — I keep my going pile on my kitchen table. I’ve got a recent reissue of Edith Wharton’s “A Son at the Front,” and an edition of “The Forsyte Saga” as well as some biographies of Émile Zola.
What’s the last great book you read?
C.V. Wedgwood’s “The Thirty Years War.” It’s sprawling and masterly and has the feel of a great novel with so many brilliantly drawn characters. I can’t get enough of it.
Are there any classic novels that you only recently read for the first time?
Most classic novels are classic novels I’ve only read recently for the first time. But one in particular is “Anna Karenina.”
Can a great book be badly written? What other criteria can overcome bad prose?
I find bad prose unforgivable, to be honest. Like, bad prose isn’t the same thing as prose that isn’t brilliant or good or whatever. Bad prose, to me, is bad thinking. It is the result of some critical failure on the writer’s part and cannot be gotten around at all. So if the prose is bad, the book is bad, there’s no way through it for me.
Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).
The only thing I need is time. Right now, that’s the thing I’m craving most.
What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of?
Rebecca West’s “The Court and the Castle.” It’s this fascinating book of lectures she gave at Yale in the 1950s about the relationship between the individual and authority as read through literature from “Hamlet” up through Kafka, I believe. It’s just so funny and right even when it’s wrong. If there’s any justice in the world, some publisher will reissue it.
Also, Leslie Fiedler’s sublime cycle of books “Love and Death in the American Novel,” “What Was Literature?” and “Waiting for the End” should be mandatory reading in all classrooms of serious literature. Totally mind-shaking stuff.
Which writers — novelists, playwrights, critics, journalists, poets — working today do you admire most?
Jeremy O. Harris, Jordan Tannahill, Will Arbery, Vinson Cunningham, Jennifer Wilson, Lauren Michele Jackson, Doreen St. Félix, Derrick Austin, Parul Sehgal.
What do you read when you’re working on a book? And what kind of reading do you avoid while writing?
Usually, I have a large history book on the go when I’m working on a book. Sometimes works of literary or social criticism. I find it difficult to take in contemporary fiction when I am writing, so it’s a lot of Henry James and Edith Wharton and Jane Austen rereads for pleasure.
What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently?
I was reading Claire Dederer’s “Monsters” and found out that Jenny Diski was Doris Lessing’s foster daughter! I was so shocked, I stopped reading “Monsters” and went to look it up. Amazing.
Which subjects do you wish more authors would write about?
I wish more people would write about evil people. I understand why many Americans don’t. Toni Morrison said that great thing about how goodness is more interesting and that evil is boring, and I respect her tremendously, but on that score, we diverge sharply.
Or maybe it’s just that when I read contemporary fiction, I don’t feel that it’s taking place in a moral universe where evil is even remotely possible, and that makes the books boring. In the absence of evil, goodness means nothing.
Have you ever changed your opinion of a book based on information about the author, or anything else?
Never not once not even a little bit.
Finding out things about authors mostly just means I can’t tell other people in public that I’m reading them, but it changes nothing about my own ethical stance on the work.
What moves you most in a work of literature?
Do you prefer books that reach you emotionally, or intellectually?
I don’t know that I can separate the two or want to separate the two. Brilliantly argued work excites me. Brilliantly evocative work makes me think. The two are coupled, always coupled.
Which genres do you especially enjoy reading? And which do you avoid?
My two first loves are big books on European history and romance novels. Indeed, the two have a lot in common! The only two things I avoid are military history and American history, both of which I am sure are very important but which I find a total snooze fest.
How do you organize your books?
My best attempt at alphabetical.
What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?
For some reason, people always seem surprised that I (or anyone) is reading Sigmund Freud — I don’t get why that is surprising because everyone should be reading Freud — so I guess I have to say, the entire series of Freud’s writings as reissued by Penguin Modern Classics.
What’s the best book you’ve ever received as a gift?
I received a beautiful set of Jane Austen novels from my British publisher when my first book was a finalist for the Booker Prize. They’re in this cute little case and they have beautiful painted pages. The books themselves are rather small, so sometimes I take them out and pretend I’m in a Regency sitting room.
What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?
My family was not big on books or reading. As a result, the only books really on hand were textbooks and my aunt’s home nursing manual. Then somehow, I got my hands on a romance novel and kind of taught myself to read using that. As a result, I kind of skipped the usual kid’s book fare. Nobody was reading to anybody in my neighborhood. But I did love those early romance novels quite a lot and as a result, I have this intense loyalty to Kathleen E. Woodiwiss.
You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?
I would invite Mavis Gallant because she is my favorite writer and I feel like she’d have really cutting and sly things to say about the party after everyone left. I’d also invite Elizabeth Bishop because she’d absolutely hate it, and I feel like she’d be funny to watch hate a party I was throwing. And probably Laurie Colwin because she’d probably be funny and kind, and I want to ask her about her strong coffee opinions.
What books are you embarrassed not to have read yet?
At the moment, the stack of galleys on my desk waiting for blurbs. But as for books I can say, I have not read “Villette” or “Agnes Grey,” which are only embarrassing to have not read if your friends are mostly homosexual poets.
What do you plan to read next?
I am in the midst of reading all of Émile Zola’s Rougon-Macquart novels, and after I finish “La Bête Humaine,” I will read “Germinal.”