Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
When I read nonfiction, I favor philosophy and social analysis, like Thomas Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas? or Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?
The Seventh Seal evokes a childish terror of death and uses it to expand the viewer's moral compass, to make us more compassionate, more admiring of small acts of courage.
Casablanca is a favorite, even though I don't estimate it enormously highly as cinematic art. What interests me about it is how contemporary is this story of love and courage and sin in a world of increasing horror. It creates a style for dealing with these things which is equal parts cool, humor, and seriousness and which does not feel even remotely dated even though, being upward of 50 years old, it should feel dated and (I hope) someday will.
I love the Matrix trilogy, and discovered that I could happily re-watch these as often as my adolescent son does. What fascinates me in them is the premise that inner (psychological) events can solve outer (social and political) problems -- even though it's an idea I'm deeply skeptical of. The fascination, I think, comes from a real-life sense of helplessness in the face of the things that are wrong with the world.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
I listen to lots of music, especially Bach, opera (all periods), German lieder, chamber music, and rock, old and new. I can't listen to music while I write. It's too absorbing.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading?
I'd like to read Jared Diamond's new book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, which is about how various societies have destroyed themselves through ecological and social irrationalism. I read an extract about Easter Island that was as riveting as a crime thriller. The book sounds like it's full of things we all should know. I'm also a big fan of Alexander McCall Smith, and I imagine that his new book, Friends, Lovers, Chocolate, would be fun to share.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
To intimate friends, I give novels. When I know people's taste less well, I try to give them something brand-new (so I can be sure they don't have it yet) on a subject that interests them -- like gardening or the Civil War or French antiques. I myself love getting cookbooks and novels that some congenial person has already tried and liked.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
First, I go to a stationer's and buy two notebooks, a larger hard-backed one for writing sketches, ideas, and outlines, and a smaller soft-backed one for carrying around with me, in bag or pocket, in case of sudden flashes of thought. They must be narrow-ruled, and I write entirely in pencil -- unless I'm really desperate. I've usually got lots of material into these by the time I sit down to the desk.
On the first day at the desk, it is pristinely neat, with a fresh notepad, sharpened pencils, and maybe even a bud vase with some actual buds. I create a new directory on my computer and update my word processor and consider, again, buying a faster printer. (I always decide not to.) This orderly state of affairs lasts for at least several hours. Then the chaos and irrationality of the process take over, and I don't re-order things until a first draft is complete -- maybe a year later. All these little rituals are poignant aspirations for control and order in a process that is frighteningly uncontrollable, and they are completely absurd.
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 published only in academic journals in philosophy until I was in my 40s, but I had been writing fiction and poetry my whole adult life -- without ever once trying to publish it and rarely letting anyone read it. I burned my first novel, page by page, in a fireplace. A couple of others got thrown into the back of file cabinets and forgotten. My style and motifs changed dramatically from the time of my 20s until 2003, when I first published fiction. When I finally decided to try to publish non-academic things, I was surprised that each book succeeded practically immediately. This still astonishes me. I'm not sure anyone should try to imitate this, as it all happened unplanned. But it should encourage people who are hoping for a late start.
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