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In our interview, Coyne shared some fascinating facts about himself:
"I started working at 14 at the local library and later graduated to driving a bookmobile."
"I started a newspaper when I was 22 and just out of college; it lasted less than a year, but it got that impulse out of my system so I don't have to do it again.
"I live in the same town where my family has been living since before the Civil War, and I serve here as both a councilman and as the town historian, which means I occasionally visit the grammar schools and embarrass my children there by trying to interest their classes in a bunch of old stories."
"I have three beautiful children who, if they ever choose to become writers themselves, will be fully aware of both the joys and consequences of their choice."
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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 Kevin Coyne had to say:
My first instinct here is to load the list up with thick -- the good-for-you doorstops that you should read before you die, and that you often need a summer to get a running start into. The last summer before the first of my children was born -- the last summer, that is, where I had the chance to spend significant time alone with books in a hammock or on the beach -- was the summer I finally read War and Peace. It was a memorable stretch of reading to be sure, but I'm not sure that it represents the essence of summer reading. For that, I think it's better to start with books that capture some of the essential elements of summer -- romance, baseball and rock-and-roll:
Alice McDermott's Charming Billy and F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby are both set on New York's Long Island, and both explore the tenuous, elusive call of love as it plays out over fragrant, unforgettable summers.
Roger Angell's The Summer Game is the most transcendent of his collections of baseball writing, and Ring Lardner's classic You Know Me, Al is the greatest book ever written about the game.
Peter Guralnick's two-volume biography of Elvis Presley (Last Train to Memphis and Careless Love) is the definitive account of the birth and growth of the music that shaped so many summers, and Greil Marcus' Mystery Train is a lyrical, eloquent exploration of the meaning of that music.
Two long books that don't have much specifically to say about summer itself, but that I spent so many pleasant summer hours reading that I have come to associate them with the season, are: John Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany and J. Anthony Lukas' Common Ground, the book that set the standard for narrative non-fiction writers like me. I also kept myself cool one summer by reading John McPhee's book about Alaska, Coming into the Country.
And because so much of summer is about trying to recapture the dreamy timelessness of childhood, I'll end here with the book that captures that state more perfectly than any other I know, Steven Millhauser's Edwin Mullhouse.
In the summer of 2003, Kevin Coyne took some time out to talk with us about 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 John Updike's Rabbit, Run for a class in high school -- a story of a guy who lived in a small town that looked a lot like my own, written by a guy who grew up in a small town that seemed much like my own, and it made me realize for the first time that lives like my own were worthy of writing about and that people who lived lives like my own were capable of writing them. And when I was a young newspaper reporter I read Common Ground by J. Anthony Lukas, which showed me just how deep a nonfiction writer could go and made me want to make the same journey.
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?
For the reasons cited above, Rabbit, Run and Common Ground.
I'm by no means an Anglophile, but if I had to pick my two favorite writers they would be Graham Greene and George Orwell, whose works demonstrate a clarity of prose and thought that remind us why our language is called English -- and that it does belong to them, after all, and we're just borrowing it. If I had to pick one Greene, it would be The End of the Affair, or maybe The Quiet American For Orwell, any substantial collection of his essays.
William Trevor is almost in the same category, for the same reasons. For economy's sake, I'd pick his hefty Collected Stories.
And while we're on heft, Robert Caro's The Power Broker his massive biography of Robert Moses, who shaped New York City more than any other single figure. Like Common Ground, it shows that the best nonfiction is not just about information, or even history, but about ideas as well.
John McPhee's Coming into the Country -- I could read McPhee on anything -- even his dense geology books -- because his prose always manages to burrow into my ear with more vigor and authority and inventiveness than almost anyone else's, but when he went to Alaska for this book he seemed to find his perfect subject., a place as large as his own ability.
I learned to write by working for newspapers, and my hero among newspaper writers was always the great Jimmy Breslin. The World of Jimmy Breslin is a collection of his early columns, including his classic "It's an Honor," about the man who dug John F. Kennedy's grave -- the first thing I ask my journalism students to read. The second thing I ask them to read is Ernie Pyle's column "The Death of Captain Waskow," so I'd also like to sneak any collection of his work in here, too. And also, any collection of columns by Meyer Berger, Murray Kempton, or Pete Hamill.
Alice Munro's The Love of a Good Woman -- or any of her other short story collections, for the same reasons as Trevor and Greene.
The collected works of Bruce Springsteen are recorded rather than printed, but they add up to one of the most important novels of the last three decades. I admit to some bias here -- I grew up on the same block as him, ten years later.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?
The Grapes of Wrath -- not just because it's a great movie but because it allows me to slip another book onto my list. And The Best Years of Our Lives -- the one movie poster I have hanging in my office -- because it was the best movie to come out of the Second World War and because it was an important inspiration for my own book, which was originally titled, The Best Years of Their Lives. I wanted to explore what happened to veterans like the characters in that movie, and to a hometown like theirs, in the decades after the movie ended.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
Well, there's Bruce Springsteen, of course, not just because of my hometown loyalty but because his work moves me deeply. Beyond him, almost anybody and anything. I'm particularly fond, though, of musicians whose songs show that they're writers as well, like Richard Thompson.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading -- and why?
The book I just read with my class was Alice McDermott's Charming Billy, and it paid back all the close attention we gave it. I also just read Ian Frazier's Family, which ranges so far afield that almost anybody in any given group would find something of worth in it.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
Novels that the recipient has not yet encountered -- Graham Greene is usually good for this, and also John O'Hara. I prefer to receive nonfiction or American history -- especially the kind of weighty books I might have waited to get in paperback if I were paying myself.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
I wrote my first two books on an old Royal manual typewriter, which came from the accountant's office where my mother worked as a bookkeeper for many years. For book No. 3, my editor -- weary of manuscripts made unwieldy by Scotch-taped corrections and paper-clipped insertions -- insisted on a computer. I still keep the typewriter near my desk, though.
What are you working on now?
A historical narrative, set in America in the first two decades of the 20th century, that weaves together the disparate subjects of baseball, war, and philosophy.
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 was a newspaper reporter who was seized by the irrational ambition to write books instead, so I simply left one day and started. My wife had a steady paycheck, and we didn't have kids yet, and our rent was $425 a month, which all made it possible. The first one I tried didn't sell, but it got me an agent, who managed to sell the next one.
If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be -- and why?
Three of my former students will be publishing books within the next couple of years, and they are all worthy of discovery -- Liel Leibovitz, Holley Bishop, and Jonathan Englert.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
Live cheaply, drive used cars, have a spouse with health insurance, be willing to go nine years without a vacation, have a lot of friends who aren't writers, don't weaken.
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