Coward, Pomp and Circumstance
I tend to like large books about large worlds that are in the process of disappearing -- a process of which the protagonists, highly intelligent people with no power to affect the course of events around them, are only too aware. Melancholy, regret, and a vinegary appreciation for the folly of human action tend to be elements of the books I love. That takes care of pretty much everything on my list from the Continent and Russia. Otherwise, I love the British mastery of intelligent (but, at least sometimes, forgiving) social comedy, which takes care of Austen and Coward (not "great," to be sure, but no book makes me laugh harder). And Dickens is just Dickens. As for the Odyssey, I believe it to be the greatest work of literature in any language.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?
Russian Ark, To Have and Have Not, A Sunday in the Country, Titanic (great for plane trips), A Room with a View, The Philadelphia Story, The Bishop's Wife (and indeed any Christmas movie except the loathsome It's a Wonderful Life), The Leopard, All About Eve, Brief Encounter, the Star Trek movie about the whales, Steel Magnolias (I love that scene where Sally Field loses it at the funeral) -- basically anything but Citizen Kane, which I find unbearable.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
I like 19th-century Italian opera, 16th-century sacred music, early-20th-century French chamber music, Bach cantatas, Schubert, late Beethoven quartets, R.E.M., Frank Sinatra (whom I listen to all day long on satellite radio), and American popular music of the ‘40s and ‘50s (Rodgers and Hart, stuff like that). I never, ever listen to music while writing -- it's like asking, "What books do you like to read during sex?"
If you had a book club, what would it be reading?
Great classics that I haven't gotten around to reading yet. Do you really want to read the latest hot novel when you still haven't read all of Dickens? I don't think so.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
I give books that I've loved myself to people who I know will love them, too. I prefer not to get books as gifts, since as someone who reviews books more or less for a living, I am constantly getting the books I want through work! I vastly prefer getting extremely expensive clothing, jewelry, and antiques.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
I write in bed, with my laptop on my lap, with the TV on in the background -- something mindless, fluffy, and undemanding, like CNN.
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?
Actually, things happened fairly swiftly and smoothly for me. I left graduate school in the summer of 1994, and within a few months had a contract for my first book. As for my writing as a critic, that progressed very smoothly and quickly, too: Within a year of starting I was writing very regularly for The New York Times Book Review, and a few years later was the weekly book critic for New York magazine, and soon after that began my career at The New York Review of Books, where I've happily been ever since. So I have to say I've been fortunate (translate: worked hard, had great editors, avoided the publishing social scene, and tended to be home on Friday nights).
If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be?
I don't read enough new writing to be able to judge; see above under "book clubs."
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
Stop looking. If you're looking to be discovered, you're not doing what you should be doing, which is working on your writing. Don't "network," don't go to publishing parties, don't ever look at Publisher's Lunch or anything like it, never join a committee or a group of any kind: just study, read, and work.
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