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Meet the WritersImage of Steve Kemper
Steve Kemper
Good to Know
In our interview with Kemper, he shared some fun facts about himself:

"Until my mid-20s, I had never written anything except academic papers and the usual sophomoric poetry. I expected to become an English professor and to spend my life reading and teaching, but academia became more and more suffocating. I'm so relieved that I escaped into the world."

"I don't do well with bosses. I was fired from summer jobs twice and have never had a regular full-time job."

"The things I need: my family, books, music, friends, good food and drink, travel, stimulating work. On the second tier: movies and basketball. Dislikes: ideologues, moral zealots, fear-mongers, power-abusers, bullies, cynics with small experience, conformists, cowards, vulgarians, and liars. Oh, and peas and Brussels sprouts."

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In the fall of 2003, Steve Kemper took some time out to talk with us about his favorite books, authors and interests.

What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?
I spent my young adulthood reading and teaching great literature, and my favorites reflect that pleasurable time:

  • Moby-Dick by Herman Melville -- I first read this as a boy, skipping the encyclopedic cetacean bits to get back to the story -- and what a story! I've read it at least a dozen times, always with awe at Melville's powers of language and narrative.

  • Light in August by William Faulkner -- I don't think I've ever gotten over this book, another one that I've read a dozen times. I could say the same thing about Absalom, Absalom! and Go Down, Moses, but it's not fair to give Faulkner three spots on the list.

  • All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren -- The best novel ever written about American politics, and one of the best American novels, period. It's got everything—mystery, scandal, murder, corruption, history, family drama, politics, exotic locale, unforgettable characters, mesmerizing writing. The moral questions explored here could keep philosophers busy for decades.

  • The Sun Also Rises and The Complete Short Stories by Ernest Hemingway. No one interested in writing can escape Hemingway -- Some never do. A master at limning action, situation, and character with a few brush strokes.

  • Henderson the Rain King and Humboldt's Gift by Saul Bellow -- Such exuberance of language and imagination. Henderson is one of my guiding figures, often popping to mind.

  • The Complete Shakespeare -- Complete indeed, and bottomless (except for Bottom). If I were ever forced to choose one book for company on a deserted isle, this would be it.

  • Walden by Henry David Thoreau -- A touchstone for me; chiseled writing about nature and independent living and thinking.

  • The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen -- I read this soon after taking my first baby steps into freelance journalism, and it opened vistas of possibilities. I've been grateful to it ever since. It stands up to repeated readings.

  • Coming into the Country by John McPhee -- Ditto my comment about Matthiessen. When I was learning how to write and report, I studied and parsed and dissected everything by McPhee, learning the craft of literary journalism at his knee.

  • Up in the Old Hotel by Joseph Mitchell. A master with an eye for the odd. He never fails to entertain and inform, my twin goals.

    What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you? I love movies and see too many, but I'm afraid I don't remember them as vividly as books.

    From youth:

  • Casablanca -- Foreign intrigue, ambiguous characters, doomed romance, Bogie and Bergman, that last scene.
  • Last Tango in Paris -- It stunned me and hence opened my eyes. People in the world acted like this?
  • The Godfather, Part 2 -- No explanation required.
  • Hiroshima, Mon Amour -- It rearranged my concept of "truth."
  • Taxi Driver -- Raw Scorcese.
  • Chinatown -- Great story, atmosphere, and narrative voice, with Nicholson in top form.

    More recently:

  • U-Turn -- Oliver Stone's underrated, powerful parable about fate, sex, and desperation.
  • The Fast Runner -- A hidden world revealed.
  • The Pianist -- Horror without heroism.
  • Rodger Dodger -- The pathetic empty underside of male insecurity and cynicism.
  • Best in Show -- I howled.
  • Traffic -- Beautiful control of several strong narrative strands.

    What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
    My father loved jazz, so I grew up saturated with Basie, Ellington, Brubeck, Fitzgerald, and other giants before getting rocked by the Beatles, Stones, Tempts, Tops, Marvin, and Jimi. Jazz and blues are still my favorites, though I also listen to a lot of Latin and African music. I'm too susceptible to listen while writing, but I do all the peripheral tasks to music, often via an Internet radio station that offers a few dozen categories, which I skip between according to my mood.

    If you had a book club, what would it be reading -- and why?
    The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton, because it's the most recent book that invigorated and provoked me.

    What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
    Good ones.

    Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
    My ritual, if I'm not out doing legwork, is to screw myself to my desk for at least 8 hours, which leaves me only two choices: work or boredom. As the Tom Waits song says, "You gotta get behind the mule in the mornin' and plow." When I'm busy on a project, my desk is too messy with books and notes to leave room for talismans. But I do keep small rocks from favorite places on top of my monitor, and my bulletin board, where I tack up notes and indexes and outlines, is bordered by photos, kids' drawings, and art reproductions that matter to me.

    What are you working on now?
    Are you trying to trigger an anxiety attack? I'm looking for my next book. In other words, I'm chasing smoke and a bit on edge.

    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've been a full-time freelance journalist since 1980, and had been preparing for the chance to do something like Code Name Ginger for many years. In fact, I had been offered two or three other book contracts over the years, but the advances were too pathetic to consider. Like all grizzled freelancers, I get rejected constantly, from all quarters. Sometimes I even deserve it. It's part of the life, but a lot of good writers can't bear it and give up. I remind myself that even the best major-league hitters fail two-thirds of the time.

    If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be -- and why?
    Instead, I propose a rediscovery: Moritz Thomsen (R.I.P.). His great book, The Farm on the River of Emeralds, about his attempt in middle-age to carve a farm out of the Ecuadorian jungle, should be widely known but is out of print. His other books are also excellent companions.

    What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
    Just do your work. Writers get "discovered" when they're busy discovering.


    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 Steve Kemper had to say:

    For me, summer brings a craving for comedies and travel books. I can't say that these are my favorite summer books of all time, but they're all excellent companions for the season.

  • Reuben, Reuben by Peter DeVries -- He wrote some of the funniest comedies of manners ever, and this is one of his best.

  • I Don't Know How She Does It by Allison Pearson -- Her wisecracking heroine will make you laugh out loud.

  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain -- the story of a boy growing up one summer on the Mississippi, told in an irresistible voice. If you haven't read this in a while, you're depriving yourself.

  • The Polish Officer or Red Gold by Alan Furst -- Noir reminders that summers end and shadows deepen.

  • Collected Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges -- Invigorating trips through mirrors and labyrinths.

  • Water Music by T. C. Boyle -- A picaresque romp through 18th century Africa with ill-fated explorer Mungo Park.

  • A Short Walk In the Hindu Kush by Eric Newby -- A delightful example of British travel writing, in which all miseries are treated as larks.

  • In Trouble Again by Redmond O'Hanlon. Hilarious, alarming account of O'Hanlon's journey between the Orinoco and the Amazon.

  • Fast Company by Jon Bradshaw -- Wonderful profiles of six "master gamblers," including Minnesota Fats and Johnny Moss.

  • The Most of S. J. Perelman by S. J. Perelman -- Pyrotechnical wit and comedy.

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  • About the Writer
    *Steve Kemper Home
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    *Code Name Ginger: The Story Behind Segway and Dean Kamen's Quest to Invent a New World, 2003
    Photo by Marion Ettlinger