Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).
I like to read in the bath, but I fall asleep easily and end up with a soaked bloated creature instead of a readable book. This works out well for the authors, as I always end up buying another copy. I bought four copies of Jenny Odell’s “How to Do Nothing” and drowned — that’s how powerful her message is. For the rest I find it summery and airy, the air perfumed with spicy flowers, me in a comfortable chair or sofa with a cup of coffee and a pen to underline.
What is your favorite book that no one has heard of?
I will mention three less read novels by well-known authors. I 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 musty old town and house full of old-fashioned objects and customs, but like her work in general, it’s sobering about the nature of desire. “A Handful of Dust”, by Evelyn Waugh, always makes me squirm and hope I’m not kidding myself like Tony Last. It is a scathing book that takes away the pretensions of class and empire while entertaining with fast paced brilliant scenes. “The Good Terrorist,” by Doris Lessing, is an in-depth look at radical squatters in London 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 her “Unfinished Business: Notes of a Chronic Re-reader” are favorites. I will always read a review of Merve Emre or James Wood. I recently read “Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments” by Saidiya Hartman and was thrilled by her determination to create histories of undocumented lives. The bylines of Roxane Gay and Rebecca Solnit attract me. I love Krista Tippet, Miwa Messer and Ezra Klein’s podcasts. Nicholson Baker is endlessly inventive, funny, serious and challenging.
John Updike chose your short story “In the Gloaming” as one of the best American stories of the 20th century. Are there any story writers you particularly admire, or think more people should know about?
I am very attached to certain stories and reread them when I want to remember the exciting possibilities of writing. Jane Bowles’ Camp Cataract is a blast, as is Mavis Gallant’s The Remission. I don’t even teach those stories because their sorcery 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 a real ending.