What books are on your night stand?
“Such Kindness,” by Andre Dubus III, “Tom Lake,” by Ann Patchett, “Wellness,” by Nathan Hill, “Art and Fear,” by David Bayles and Ted Orland.
What was the last great book you read?
“Small Mercies," by Dennis Lehane. Think of all your favorite hard-boiled authors (Hammett? Chandler? Ross Macdonald? Robert Parker?) and their tough guy heroes (Spade? Marlowe? Lew Archer? Spenser?). Not one of them could take Lehane’s Mary Pat in a fair fight, and they wouldn’t last a day in his Southie.
Are there any classic books you’ve read only recently for the first time?
George Orwell’s “Down and Out in Paris and London.”
Which writers — novelists, playwrights, critics, journalists, poets — working today do you admire most?
I have a lot of writer friends whose work I love and admire but it’s probably unwise to pick and choose among them, so instead I’ll name only writers I’ve never met. Maggie O’Farrell, Kate Atkinson and Tana French always cause me to stop whatever I’m doing when they have a new book out. A recent addition to that list is Claire Keegan.
What do you read when you’re working on a book? And what do you avoid reading when you’re working on a book?
Well, I’m never not working on a book, so. … When I was younger, I tried to avoid reading books by authors whose voice was very distinctive and different from my own, fearing that it would bleed into or influence my own. At some point I realized that, for better or worse, my own voice had become entrenched and now existed at some sort of molecular level. These days, I read whatever, whenever.
How do you organize your books?
They’re organized? I defy you to show me how. They used to be, actually, but a few years ago my wife and I downsized from a four-story townhouse to a two-bedroom condo, and a good quarter of my books got donated to the public library for resale. Those that remain are divided between our living space, my office and a storage unit downtown. The only thing they have in common is that, at my age, I’m unlikely to read them even if I knew where they were. Some I know for a fact that I’ll never read again, and yet I’m unable to part with them (an almost complete set of yellowing 35-cent paperbacks by John Dickson Carr, a.k.a. Carter Dickson, that I inherited from my mother; a beautiful edition of “Treasure Island” with the original N.C. Wyeth illustrations). Though now that I’ve stated I’ll never read these books again, I have a powerful impulse to do just that.
What’s the best book you ever received as a gift?
That would be a hot-off-the-press finished copy of my daughter Kate’s debut novel, “Super Host.” I know where that book is, believe me.
What kind of reader were you as a child?
Slow, but voracious (like now). Utterly indiscriminate (unlike now). When you become a writer, you inevitably lose your innocence as a reader. You never again dream quite so deeply. Part of you is always awake and on the lookout for what you can use later, the neat trick, the clever structural device. It’s like being given the underground tour of Disney World. Some of the magic dissipates.
Which writers, alive or dead, would you invite to a literary dinner party?
The only other life I contemplated before turning to writing was as a musician, and many of my favorite writers are still musicians, especially the ones who are gifted storytellers. So, obviously, the Boss (“Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse that takes me down to the river, though I know the river is dry?”); James McMurtry? (“Strap them kids in, give ’em a little bit of vodka in a Cherry Coke, we’re going to Oklahoma … It’ll be one great big ole party like you never saw”); Leonard Cohen? (“The last time we saw you, you looked so much older, your famous blue raincoat was torn at the shoulder”); Townes Van Zandt? (“Pancho needs your prayers, it’s true, but save a few for Lefty too, he just did what he had to do”); Joni Mitchell? (“Oh Carey, get out your cane, and I’ll put on some silver, oh, you’re a mean old daddy, but I like you fine”); John Prine? (“Esmerelda and the Hunchback of Notre Dame, they humped each other like they had no shame … Exactly-odo, Quasimodo”). Tell me that wouldn’t be fun.
What do you plan to read next?
Abraham Verghese’s “The Covenant of Water.” (Unless I’m directed elsewhere.)
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