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In our interview, Rowell shared some funny, fascinating facts about himself:
"My first job was as an usher/ticket taker at a movie theater the summer I was 14. We ran The Deep all summer long -- I must have watched it 35 times. All the teenage boys who worked at the theater would know instinctively when the scenes with Jacqueline Bisset appearing in a wet T-shirt or topless were happening in a given showing. It was like clockwork -- they'd be behind the concession counter, cleaning the grease in the popcorn popper, or rehooking the carbonation line to the soda machine, and then they'd just all of a sudden drop everything and run inside the theater for three or four minutes and then come back and resume their task. This happened every day, all summer long. We also showed Walking Tall, Part Three for half the summer. Buford Pusser was big in North Carolina."
"What inspires my writing? I'm southern, so of course I'd have to say my early inspiration came from overhearing the conversations of funny, colorful, eccentric people, even, perhaps especially, in my own family -- I'd say that's true for many writers, probably, but almost certainly true of southern writers. Falling in love with the way people behave, the way they talk, the turns of phrase they use. I imagine anyone who reads my stores will be able to glean that -- there's a lot of dialogue in several of the stories. It's so simple, really, what a writer's inspiration comes from, so basic -- just watching, observing and listening, and remembering what you watch, observe and hear -- and preferably from an early age, which I did. The mechanism, as it usually is, was in place before I was even aware of its existence or function -- it was saving it all up for me, like a silent computer file, for me to claim it and use it later. That's one of the divine gifts that writers get early on, before they know they're writers. It served me when I was an actor, too, which I was for many years."
"I haven't been unwinding lately -- the book came out at the same time I was preparing to finish up my M.F.A. program at Bennington, so I was out doing readings and signings in all these cities, and then I'd come back to my hotel room to work on my graduate lecture and thesis. It was kind of maddening, but, I guess, maddening in a good way. So now the book is out, and I have my degree, so I probably should think about unwinding, now that you mention it! Though I know my own workaholic nature, so I'm starting to get serious about my next project, which is a novel."
"I live in New York, and have a gig as a theater critic, so I go to the theater all the time, which is fun. Other than that, I do what everybody else does -- go to movies, read books, read magazines, obsessively check email, obsessively write email, surf the Web, go out for drinks. New York offers up endless distractions -- good and bad. It's always a balancing act living here -- how many distractions today am I going to a) indulge in or b) pass up? Sometimes it's a wonder I ever get any work done, though I'm learning to be more disciplined.... I think."
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In the summer of 2004, we asked authors featured in Meet the Writers to give us a list of their all-time favorite summer reads, and tell us what makes them just right for the season. Here's what John Rowell had to say:
The Complete Stories by Dorothy Parker -- To me, Parker remains one of the finest and most inventive prose stylists in American letters, and this vastly entertaining, witty and surprisingly humane collection is the proof. Her indelible portraits of early twentieth century New York society ladies -- in all their cracked glory -- are models of full-bodied characterization: satiric, poisonous, and hilarious.
Here Is New York by E. B. White -- White's brief, classic, niche-of-its-own little book about New York conveys more about the city and its people than volumes ten times its length. Part memoir, part travelogue, White's extended essay was written during a sultry, pre-air conditioned Manhattan in the 1940s, which makes it perfect for summer reading -- in your own blissfully air-conditioned living room, of course. What makes the book miraculous to me -- apart from White's peerless skill as an essayist/raconteur -- is that, even some sixty years later, his trenchant and idiosyncratic observations of city life still seem remarkably relevant and contemporary.
Crash Diet by Jill McCorkle -- Summertime and the American South just naturally go together -- The weather is hot, the people are hot -- everything and everybody is hot! So turning to southern writers in the warm months of summer just seems like the thing to do, and McCorkle is one of the most southern of writers. And this collection, which lays bare the hopes, desires, schemes, plans, thoughts, conversations, machinations, manners, foibles, mistakes, triumphs and tragedies of a cast of contemporary southern women -- all bursting with talk and personality -- is one of this great storyteller's personal best.
The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde -- One of the greatest plays ever written, and perhaps the most perfect stage comedy in existence. Though it's a given that Wilde's witty masterpiece is meant to be performed, of course, it is an equally joyful experience just to read the script for yourself, staging the play in your own mind's eye, interpreting the marvelous characters as you wish, and putting your own personal spin on some of the funniest dialogue (Oh, the madly merry put-downs! Oh, the sweetly acidic rejoinders!) ever committed to the page. (Fun tip: read it out loud.)
The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh -- Waugh, a literary descendant of Wilde's, wrote what is easily one of the meanest and funniest satires -- concerning the comic grotesqueries of the California funeral home business -- of all time. Even when read with a pitcher of gin and tonics close at hand, it would be impossible to dull the impact of reading this scalpel-sharp riot.
28 Barbary Lane by Armistead Maupin -- This omnibus collects the first three of Maupin's indispensable Tales of the City novels, about life, love, sex and scandal among a group of friends and apartment dwellers in San Francisco of the 1970s. Thirty years after first being published, these novels remain not only the flawlessly funny straight/gay comedies of manners they always were (with a pacing that makes them impossible to put down) but also wonderfully rich social documents of America in one of its most tumultuous yet fabulous decades.
Diary of a Mad Playwright by James Kirkwood -- Kirkwood was the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of A Chorus Line, and a few years after that, he penned a stage comedy called Legends! which starred Broadway divas Mary Martin and Carol Channing, and which instantly became an infamous, notorious legendary flop. Kirkwood's harrowing (and hilarious) experiences of being on the road with his ill-fated show eventually led him back to his acid-keyed typewriter to compose a theatrical memoir that is forty times funnier than his play probably ever even hoped to be. Diary -- Kirkwood's resulting backstage tale of the whacked-out behavior, shenanigans, fits, feuds, backstabbings, miscalculations, and myriad of misunderstandings that engulfed the production -- makes All About Eve look like Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm.
The Object of My Affection by Stephen McCauley -- McCauley's tender, funny, touching, offbeat romantic comedy -- his debut novel from the mid-1980s -- about the relationship between a couple of underachieving young New Yorkers, a gay kindergarten teacher and his lovable, kooky, female roommate -- is now, impossibly, almost 20 years old. Which means it has deservedly entered the pantheon of classic New York fiction.
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain -- Because no American boy's, girl's or adult's (boy or girl) summer should go by without reading them -- or re-reading them.
In the summer of 2003, John Rowell took some time out to answer some of our questions about his favorite books, writers, and interests.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer -- and why?
It's tough to answer with just one book! But, if I have to cite one work that I feel has been tremendously influential, it would be Truman Capote's collection A Tree of Night and Other Stories. First, the settings of the stories include both the South and New York City, which are also my own. Capote's stories are funny in a dark and rueful way, which is a kind of writing I'm attracted to -- humor that doesn't come just for the sake of jokes, humor that comes from the deepest and darkest aspects of the characters. It's a brilliant book.
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?
I feel like my list changes all the time. It also depends on what I've gone back and reread lately, books that I loved at a certain time in my life that I've revisited to see if I still feel the same way about them. And, you know, sometimes you do, and sometimes you don't, which is fine; I think the experience you have of reading books is often very much predicated on where you are in life, how old you are, how you're feeling about yourself at the time, things like that.
So, then, in my mind, some of my favorite books are actually books that I loved in childhood, books that first ignited my passion for reading and introduced me to the joy of storytelling. I'm talking about those mid-20th-century children's semi-classics like the Beverly Cleary books, such as Henry Huggins and the other series, Eddie and Betsy -- books like that. However, I was also reading Reader's Digest Condensed Books at the same time -- I remember plowing through Love Story in one day when I was nine! And I remember sneaking peaks at The Valley of the Dolls in the local bookstore, going in there and just reading random sections of it as slyly as I could. So that's me at age nine -- Henry Huggins in one hand, and The Valley of the Dolls in the other!
I don't know if children still read those Cleary books; they probably don't, sadly, but I loved those books enormously at a young, impressionable age, though I probably wouldn't include them on a current list (though it might be a fabulously retro thing to do -- and maybe encourage people to revisit them!). So, for me, returning to the original question from which I've shamelessly digressed, my ten-favorite-books list is always changing and evolving, but here it is at the moment:
Complete Stories by Dorothy Parker -- Unbeatably witty, brilliant stories of New York and New Yorkers in the early 20th century.
Too Far to Go by John Updike -- A spectacular example of linked stories working up to the full impact of a novel; I think it's one of Updike's best -- ruefully funny, deeply emotional, and the prose is so lucid, so sharp; nothing wasted. The impact of these stories on me as a reader and writer is enormous.
The Joyous Season by Patrick Dennis -- Hilarious sketch of precocious New York children in the late 1950s. Dennis was both a major stylist and a fabulous storyteller. This is a little-known gem, and an obscenely entertaining read.
The Stories of John Cheever -- I turn back to it all the time. For the sentence-to-sentence power, the emotional canvas, the depth of feeling, the element of surprise, the reversals. It's hard to beat.
The Stories of Eudora Welty -- For southerners, and for anybody who cares about language and character-driven stories, it's one of the all-time greats. She was astonishing. I don't think there's a story in the whole collection that doesn't knock me out.
Breakfast at Tiffany's by Truman Capote -- People who know only the movie are surprised, I think, when they read Capote's original novella; it's an utterly different experience. Another brilliant evocation of New York in a glamorous era, told from the viewpoints of characters who are sometimes beneficiaries of that glamour and sometimes victims of it, which was, of course, one of Capote's great themes. Sad, funny, endearing; I've read it and reread it many times. I wish someone would actually go back and film the original novella!
The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh -- Black comedy, scathing social satire -- nobody did that like Waugh, and this little book is a small masterpiece of the genre. Grotesque and hilarious.
The Object of My Affection Stephen McCauley -- A book of my youth; probably the first novel I had read about a young gay man that I could really relate to; George, the lead character, isn't prone to drug taking or disco dancing, isn't sex-crazed, miserable, etc., but he is sardonic, sensitive, obsessed with friends, in love, and hurting -- all those wonderful youth things. Also, the time is the early 80s, which is also when I first got to New York, so all of that is why the book spoke to me so deeply. Wonderful characters and dialogue, a deeply personal book for me, though I never knew anyone who read it who didn't love it. Too bad the movie was such a misrepresentation of the novel.
Like Life by Lorrie Moore -- Well, she's a contemporary master, and we all know it -- every writing student, every M.F.A. candidate at some point gets seduced by Lorrie Moore's work -- you can't help it. The way she weaves the deepest psychological underpinnings into the hilarity of everyday life, and into everyday, contemporary circumstances, thereby rendering every character and story extraordinary. She is a craftsperson of the highest order, but you can't see the work on the page. You can only take it in and experience it in a completely personal way, and that's her genius -- you read a Lorrie Moore story and it stays inside of you. All of these stories are great, and I've read them and reread them. Pure inspiration.
Three More Novels by Ronald Firbank -- More people should read Firbank; I'm always telling people to read his work. It's now a century old, almost, and yet the prose still sparkles and dazzles and jumps off the page. Highly theatrical dialogue -- he and Oscar Wilde were kindred literary spirits -- though in some ways, I think Firbank was the braver, more experimental writer. Firbank writes with a foppish gay abandon that is completely fearless! No apologies, ever, for any of his horribly mannered society people and duplicitous climbers. He was a huge influence on Waugh and Noël Coward. These short novels are laugh-out-loud, scathing, black, satirical -- and what style! I'm in awe of Firbank -- he isn't read nearly enough.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?
One of the stories in my story collection, "Spectators in Love," looks at four periods of a young man's life at different ages between 4 and 40, and each section is built around his seeing a certain film that seems to define his life at that particular age. And Mary Poppins is the first one, which is pretty autobiographical, since I was obsessed with it too -- with Julie Andrews and The Sound of Music, also, at that early age.
As an adult, I've always been deeply susceptible to All About Eve -- arguably the greatest dialogue ever put into a film. It's just unbeatable -- the bon mots, the repartee -- it just flies out of the characters' mouths, so deeply witty, funny, and the movie is ageless. The combination of the script and the characters and the performances -- it kind of defines classic to me.
But then there's The Wizard of Oz, which made a huge initial impression on me, as it does for most children, both in positive and negative ways -- so much has been written about all that.
There are so many; I love classics like Sunset Boulevard, Chinatown, Casablanca, Gone with the Wind, The Women, Stage Door, Klute, of course, but so does everybody else.
There's a little-known Barbara Stanwyck movie I'm quite fond of called Christmas in Connecticut, and two of my other favorite obscure films are Martin Scorsese's After Hours and The Out-of-Towners (which was written by Neil Simon) for their funny/nightmarish views of New York; also, I love all those sort of slight New York movies of the early to mid-‘60s, breezy Madison Avenue comedies like Pillow Talk, Sunday in New York, Barefoot in the Park, Any Wednesday -- I realize three of those star Jane Fonda, who was also one of my early obsessions. Those movies have that romantic period look and view of New York as a clean (?!), exciting "Fun City" -- that Pan Am stewardess, martini, space-age bachelor pad period; these were the first views I had of New York, which made me fall in love with it from a distance, as I was growing up in North Carolina, and it was replicated in TV shows like That Girl and The Dick Van Dyke Show too. Breezy, vibraphone-laced music, glamorous clothes, and careers in writing and acting and television! I'm still obsessed with it.
And, for a grittier view of the city, Midnight Cowboy, a few years later. Still an amazing film. And I'm obsessed with a movie called Who Killed Teddy Bear? from 1965, which is a cheapo oddity, this deeply lurid and exploitative black-and-white thing, but effortlessly campy and divinely trashy, with a great B-cast -- Sal Mineo, Juliet Prowse, Elaine Stritch, Daniel J. Travanti. It's kind of the dirty flip side to That Girl -- Juliet plays a young, innocent, swinging-'60s wannabe gal who comes to New York to be an actress -- just like Marlo Thomas's Ann Marie, except Juliet's character gets a job working as a "record spinner" in a "discotheque" -- and then Sal Mineo, who plays a waiter or busboy or something at the discotheque, develops a creepy Peeping Tom obsession with her, and Elaine is the rough, tough lesbian proprietress who falls in love with her, and so poor Juliet enters into this web of sick, underground, sleazy people and behavior. It's absolutely one-of-a-kind, and it always sells out when they show it at the Film Forum in New York.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
I love all kinds. I love old ‘60s, Top 40, pop stuff from the ‘50s, and of course, standards from the ‘30s and ‘40s; my book is full of references to music, with characters who are deeply susceptible to music -- to the old standards as well as latter-day pop tunes. It's actually a running motif through the collection, which is why the story "The Music of Your Life" became the overall title of the book. I love jazz, too -- that's what I mostly play in my apartment, though not when I'm writing. It doesn't work for me to have music on when I'm reading or writing -- the only sounds I can have, ironically, is the rushing, honking traffic outside my window -- I live on a busy avenue in New York. I know that's very neurotic and Woody Allenish, but it happens to be the case. So, no music when I'm working but traffic sounds -- yes! I don't know how I'll get any writing done if I move to the peaceful countryside.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading -- and why?
I love novels, but I currently feel very crusade-ish about the short story -- for obvious reasons, I guess! But there are many of us who love short stories, and those of us who do can't figure out why more people don't. Because the story is how we are first introduced to reading as a child, so, at least for me, the impact of that initial experience really stayed embedded. So, if I had a book club, I would recommend story collections -- maybe it would be a book club devoted solely to the reading of the short story! And we'd read the stories of Katherine Mansfield, Katherine Anne Porter, Cheever, Updike, Evelyn Waugh, certainly P. G. Wodehouse, Capote, Flannery O'Connor, Fitzgerald, Dorothy Parker, Saki, Eudora Welty; and then the modern story masters of the story, Alice Munro and William Maxwell, of course, and contemporaries like Lorrie Moore, Allan Gurganus, Lee Smith, Jill McCorkle; of course Ray Carver, some of John O'Hara. You could fill years of a book club's existence with stories alone! It's a thrilling idea, actually.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
Well, I love to give my favorite writers to friends who I suspect haven't read them yet; that's always exciting when a friend likes one of your favorite writers. I try to tailor the gift of a book to what I think may be the person's interest. I love getting books of any kind, it's always a thrill to me when someone gives me a book, so, basically, anything. In terms of getting, the more expensive the better, of course!
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
I do love ritual, though I'm not wedded to anything particular with regard to writing. I mostly have to write on a computer; I think most writers do now. I like to be surrounded by paper and pens... and a coffee cup. I can write both in the morning and late at night, and I've gotten good work done at both times. I tend to be up late and also up fairly early, so I'm flexible about that. I try to get notes down whenever I get some kind of idea, or a thought that feels like it may eventually lead to something I want to write.
What are you working on now?
I've begun my first novel -- it's in the infancy stage, that "gestation period" you always hear writers talking about. And I've written other stories since the publication of the book, so hopefully those will find homes -- journals and magazines -- at some point. I tend to get lots of ideas, and make notes about them, and I'm always carrying a few blueprints for stories and novels around in my head. So I know I have to get to them, to at least try to get them typed out, at least into some kind of semblance of a first draft. You know what Dorothy Parker said when someone asked her what she liked best about writing. She said, "Having written." Amen.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
I don't think I qualify on either count: an overnight success or a survivor of rejection horrors. Of course, many things I've sent out have been rejected, many things, though some of them were rejected in a thoughtful way, as though it pained the person to reject them, so I found that to be oddly comforting. Of course I've seen the same old form letters everybody else has seen -- the old "this isn't right for us at this time, but good luck" kinds of things.
In terms of inspiration, well, I was very fortunate to have two amazing people in my corner -- Jill McCorkle and Susan Cheever, and, truthfully, I wouldn't be answering this questionnaire today without either of them. I was in a workshop they were team-teaching at Bennington College -- it was my first day there in the M.F.A. program. And both of them pulled me aside after that first workshop -- separately, they hadn't discussed it -- and Jill said, "John, I think you should call my agent in New York," and Susan said, "Well, you need to call my editor at Simon and Schuster." I was overwhelmed, and truly thought it was just about the nicest day I'd ever had, to be given that kind of encouragement, but I truly did not allow myself to believe that anything would come of either recommendation.
So I just did what Jill and Susan told me to do, and, well, this is the fairy tale part of this, I guess, it turned out that the agent -- Leigh Feldman at Darhansoff, Verrill, Feldman -- did call me after reading my work, and so did the editor -- Chuck Adams at S&S -- and so I ended up with both of them, which has just been wonderful on both counts. I know how fortunate I am to have had it happen that way; it does sound a little Cinderella-ish in the telling, though, honestly, up to that point I'd always felt more like one of Cinderella's stepsisters, or, perhaps, even like one of the anonymous party guests -- an extra -- at the Prince's ball, hoping someone would ask me to dance, since I had been writing for years with absolutely no success whatsoever, no publication of any stories, and, you know, I was in my middle/late thirties, so it certainly wasn't an overnight kind of thing.
If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be -- and why?
Now there's a question that could get me into trouble. Wow. I have so many extremely talented writer friends, so I know it will just be a matter of time before they're published in prominent ways -- I was at Bennington College with some amazing writers -- we'll be hearing from a lot of them, I'm absolutely certain. But I can't single one of them out. My brother, David, who is an editor at the Washington Post Magazine, is a fabulous fiction writer. I'll single him out, actually! Though I can't exactly claim to have discovered him -- he published stories long before I did.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
I'm a huge believer in getting into workshops. I know workshops and M.F.A. programs sometimes get a bad rap -- we've all heard someone's work dismissed as "a workshop story," and I know what they mean by that -- there are certain earmarks, habits and affectations to be discouraged.
But the best workshop leaders and teachers will encourage writers to be true to their own voices, and that, more than anything I can think of, is the trick -- be true to your own voice, which I think is a much better thing to say than "Write what you know," which I don't like, because I think young writers misunderstand that advice and end up just transcribing events from their life without the propulsive power of imagination, which is vital, vital for fiction. I was lucky to be in New York where there are great teachers, but there are good teachers in lots of places. Find them, I say. Study. Read. Allow anything and everything to change your work. Get yourself in places where you can read your work out loud, so you can hear how it sounds, and listen to the feedback you get. And filter that feedback -- take what speaks to you, and reject what doesn't.
Someone said once, I think it was the playwright Peter Stone, the audience is individually stupid but collectively smart. I think that's good advice. And I do believe in M.F.A. programs, incidentally, but it's important to investigate them thoroughly, find out about the faculty and how they teach. For me, Bennington was the right place at the right time -- the faculty is pretty stellar. And I think young writers should send work out without fear of rejection slips. You'd be a freak if you didn't get rejection slips. Learn to embrace the rejection slip!
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