Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).
I love to read in the tub, but I fall asleep easily and end up with a swollen, soggy creature rather than a readable book. It works well for authors, because I’m always going to buy another copy. I bought and drowned four copies of Jenny Odell’s “How to Do Nothing” – that’s how powerful her message is. Otherwise, I like it to be summer and the breeze, the air scented with spicy flowers, me in a comfy chair or couch with a cup of coffee and a pen to underline.
What’s your favorite book that no one else has heard of?
I will cite three lesser-read novels by well-known authors. I deeply love “The Catherine Wheel”, by Jean Stafford, for its extraordinary and often very funny phrases. It’s set during a summer in Maine in a dusty old town and a house full of old-fashioned objects and habits, but like his work in general, it’s sobering about the nature of desire. “A Handful of Dust”, by Evelyn Waugh, still makes me squirm and I hope I’m not kidding myself like Tony Last. It’s a scathing book that strips away pretensions of class and empire while entertaining with fast-paced, brilliant scenes. ‘The Good Terrorist’, by Doris Lessing, is an in-depth look at London’s radical squatters and what they understand and what they don’t.
Which writers – novelists, playwrights, critics, journalists, poets – working today do you most admire?
Hilton Als and Vivian Gornick. His “White Girls” and his “Unfinished Business: Notes of a Chronic Re-reader” are my favorites. I will always read a review by Merve Emre or James Wood. I recently read “Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments” by Saidiya Hartman and was excited. by his determination to create stories of undocumented lives. The signatures of Roxane Gay and Rebecca Solnit attract me. I like podcasts from Krista Tippet, Miwa Messer and Ezra Klein. Nicholson Baker is infinitely inventive, funny, serious and stimulating.
John Updike chose your short story “In the Gloaming” as one of the best American stories of the 20th century. Are there any writers you particularly admire or do you think more people should know more about?
I am very attached to certain stories and I reread them when I want to remember the exhilarating possibilities of writing. “Camp Cataract,” by Jane Bowles, is a stunner, as is “The Remission,” by Mavis Gallant. I don’t even teach these stories because their magic is inexplicable, at least by me. I teach “Babylon Revisited”, by F. Scott Fitzgerald, “A Wilderness Station”, by Alice Munro, “Lawns”, by Mona Simpson, “Sonny’s Blues”, by James Baldwin, “The Garden-Party”, by Katherine Mansfield, “Good Country People”, by Flannery O’ Connor, “The Embassy of Cambodia”, by Zadie Smith, “Just Before the War With the Eskimos”, by JD Salinger, “The Five-Forty-Eight”, by John Cheever and “Bronze” by Jeffrey Eugenides. I like stories that change direction in the middle and have real endings.