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Meet the WritersImage of Karl Iagnemma
Karl Iagnemma
Good to Know
In our interview, Iagnemma shared some fun facts with us:

"Three true facts: 1. I would choose writing over sleep, but basketball over writing. 2. Lately I've developed a fascination for all things Swedish. 3. Sometimes I dream about robots."

"I spend most of my day running simulations and conducting experiments and writing technical papers, but by 10 p.m. I'm usually at my desk, hopefully with a glass of wine in front of me, tinkering with my characters. I'm not sure which part of my day is more fun or rewarding.

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In the summer of 2003, Karl Iagnemma talked with us about some of his favorite books, authors and interests.

What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer -- and why?
I read Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court when I was thirteen, and the young science geek in me was smitten: there was time travel, and electric fences and gunpowder in the sixth century -- the stuff of science fiction -- and yet the novel was warm and funny, utterly human. The first book I wished I'd written.

What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?
The top ten, in no particular order:

  • The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene -- One of the most honest and wrenching books about internal struggle that I've ever read. A great work of literature, and also a great read.

  • A Flag for Sunrise by Robert Stone -- Robert Stone makes most other contemporary fiction seem watery and pale. His novels are filled with thriller-ish elements, but remain focused on fundamental questions of character. The end of A Flag for Sunrise is both brutal and humbling.

  • Great Expectations by Charles Dickens -- Dickens' greatest strength was that he could flat-out tell a tale. The story of Pip and Joe and Miss Havisham is one of the best in literature.

  • Rock Springs by Richard Ford -- Ford's masterpieces -- "Communist" and "Rock Springs" -- made me want to write short stories. The downside of this is that I wrote Richard Ford knock-offs for the next five years. The stories in Rock Springs stories focus on a particular type of American, yet feel universal.

  • Call it North Country by John Bartlow Martin -- A history of Michigan's Upper Peninsula -- not exactly blockbuster material, but in Martin's hands it becomes vivid and strangely compelling. A book that caused me to reimagine my home state.

  • Italian Days by Barbara Grizzuti Harrison -- A backflip of a book: travel literature as memoir, mixed with art history, leavened with meditations on art and food and family and culture -- often within a single page. Gorgeous and unforgettable.

  • A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce – I first read this book in high school, and even then sensed that Joyce was doing something odd -- breaking rules, writing in ways that no one before him had written. A uniquely perfect novel.

  • Personal Memoirs of a Residence of Thirty Years with the Indian Tribes on the American Frontiers by Henry Rowe Schoolcraft -- A rambling 703-page journal of an Indian agent in Michigan's Upper Peninsula in the early 19th century, who happened to be interested in everything: geology, botany, the Bible, Native American myths, ornithology, etc. One of those wonderful books that you can open at random, and find a thrilling passage.

  • A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway -- I've always loved that Hemingway could tell such a romantic story in such terse, precise language. And of course, that ending....

  • Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald -- The prose! Has any American writer written better sentences?

    What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
    I mostly listen to jazz and blues, some classic rock. When I'm writing, though, I need silence -- otherwise the fictional voices have to shout over the music.

    If you had a book club, what would it be reading -- and why?
    Robert Stone's Bay of Souls, because that's the next book I plan to read, and I've been looking forward to it for months.

    What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
    I nearly always give fiction -- I love choosing books for people, trying to match a friend's character to a book's sensibility. I like receiving books that I might overlook -- obscure histories, or novels by lesser-known foreign writers.

    Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
    Besides a stack of pages currently under revision, the only thing on my writing desk is a ceramic phrenology head, staring at me with a faint, inscrutable smile.

    What are you working on now?
    A novel set in the 1840s about a scientific expedition to upper Michigan, a troubled minister, and his wayward son.

    Many writers in the Discover program 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 sent stories around for several years before I was lucky enough to find a terrific agent, Peter Steinberg at JCA. Since then he's taken care of everything.

    What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
    Seems like the equation for "discovery" contains equal parts talent and luck, so send out your best work, and cross your fingers.

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  • About the Writer
    *Karl Iagnemma Home
    * Good to Know
    * Interview
    *On the Nature of Human Romantic Interaction, 2003