Good to Know
In our interview, Wilson revealed some fun and fascinating facts about himself, including:
"At the age of 17 I was the fastest Jewish runner in England."
"I covered the 1994 soccer World Cup for The New Yorker. It was the best writing gig I ever had in my life."
"I became a U.S. citizen ten years ago. I got a couple of questions wrong on the test, but they let me through anyway."
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In the summer of 2004, Jonathan Wilson took some time to answer our questions about his favorite books, authors, and interests.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer -- and why?
There is no single book. I have been a voracious reader since I was very young, and I have loved such a wide range of books that it is impossible to isolate one book.
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?
I have hundreds of favorites, and they have changed over time, and, like the lists of great rock songs in Nick Hornby's High Fidelity, they could change again tomorrow. Here are a few off the top of my head:
The Little Virtues by Natalia Ginzburg
The Lost Steps by Alejo Carpentier
Portnoy's Complaint and The Counterlife by Philip Roth
A Way of Life, like Any Other by Darcy O'Brien
Love Poems by Yehuda Amichai
Epistles by Horace
Enormous Changes at the Last Minute by Grace Paley
Lady with a Lapdog and Other Stories by Anton Chekhov
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
All of these books helped me to learn how to write, how to think, and how to live. What they share is an economy of expression. Every one of the above comes from an author who writes with beauty, wit, passion and precision. I am a complete sucker for a superior sentence. And yes, I think Portnoy's Complaint is a beautiful book.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you? Fanny and Alexander -- Like watching a great novel
Fast Times at Ridgemont High -- I love American high school movies, perhaps because I went to school in England
Starman -- I love the scene where Jeff Bridges brings the deer back to life
Truly, Madly, Deeply -- The best movie about loss
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
I don't listen to music while I'm writing. Like most people I'm eclectic in musical taste. I listen to classical, rock, reggae, etc. In 1969 I went to the Isle of Wight festival, but left early because I couldn't handle the crowd and the weather. I first saw Bruce Springsteen live at the Palladium on East 14th Street in NYC in 1975, and I saw him again last year at Foxboro Stadium -- also at the Meadowlands in 1980. I love Bob Dylan, especially Blood on the Tracks.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading -- and why?
Charles Bukowski's Post Office, because it's brilliantly funny and dark.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
Oh, I try to think about the person I'm giving the book to and what they would like -- I enjoy doing that. As to getting, I usually have a list in mind.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
I write in the mornings, mainly. On my desk: laptop, printer, a few books, papers all over, bills, clock, pens, paper, paperclips, and tin with change in it.
What are you working on now?
I'm doing a copyedit of my new book of stories, An Ambulance Is On the Way: Stories of Men in Trouble, which will be out in the spring. I'm working on a mini-biography of Chagall for Schocken Books, and I've got some scribblings of a new novel in the works. And, I've been writing some poems.
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 was a relatively late starter in fiction. I published poetry first -- but couldn't get any humor in the poems so I switched to fiction. I was lucky -- the first story I sent to The New Yorker, they accepted! But I had also served my time -- I was over 40 when the story came out.
If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be -- and why?
I would definitely choose Dudley Young. Origins of the Sacred: The Ecstasies of Love and War is one of the most brilliant, all-encompassing books that I have ever read -- the blurb gets it right: "a revelatory and controversial book that reinterprets our concept of mankind and mythology." It deserves a huge audience.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
Trust your ear and direct your ambition toward a sentence that works.
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