Sophie's Choice by William Styron -- Everything about this book from the prose to the characters to "the choice" is haunting. It's so utterly engrossing, and so horrifying and beautiful at the same time, that the story is something you feel rather than read.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?
I'm a child of the ‘80s, so like everyone else, I love all those classic, formative movies -- Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Pretty in Pink, Sixteen Candles, Dirty Dancing, etc. with St. Elmo's Fire and The Breakfast Club existing on a separate, slightly higher plane.
In the opposite end of the spectrum, I see a lot of independent and/or foreign films. In the last couple years, the ones that especially stand out are City of God, A Time for Drunken Horses, Born Into Brothels, and August -- also movies about Brazil, Iran, India, and Israel, respectively.
And of course it goes without saying that anything with Clive Owen, especially Closer and Croupier are instant favorites.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
I have a whole iPod full of exceptionally bad music, truly awful stuff including a disproportionate number of one hit wonders from the early 80's and lots of hair bands. I find it utterly impossible to love a song until I know every single word, so listening to live music or new bands is pretty much out. I tend to like anything with a catchy refrain that has hit the top 40 list at some point, so there are plenty of options. I'll occasionally listen to classical music when I'm writing away from my apartment, and every now and then I'll download a "cool" song from iTunes someone's recommended, but mostly I stick to my standbys.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading?
I do belong to a book club, one we just started a couple months ago. So far we've read A Million Little Pieces by James Frey and John Irving's Until I Find You (whose verbosity set us back by a few weeks).
I just got back from the International Festival of Authors in Toronto, where I gathered a mile-high stack of books I plan to recommend for group reading. First up is The Wonder Spot by Melissa Bank -- the excerpt she read at the Festival was hysterically funny and I adored Girls' Guide. There was a whole crew of obscenely young, talented authors with new books I'm really excited to read including The Third Brother by Nick McDonell, On Beauty by Zadie Smith, War by Candlelightby Daniel Alarcon, and The Loss of Leon Meed by Josh Emmons. As long as our book club doesn't pick another 800-pager, I might even get to all these.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
I actually love to receive photography books as gifts, probably because I don't often buy them myself. My collection isn't huge, but it's eclectic. There are the bold, gorgeous photo-essay books of various countries I've gotten from travel partners, anthologies of photos from Life and National Geographic, and a bunch of design and architecture books with an emphasis on hotels and resorts. I love giving books as gifts, too, especially first edition or signed copies of their favorites. When you know what someone loves to read, it can be the most intimate gift in the world.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
Sadly, the only constant in my writing environment stems from some inexplicable need to listen to the news. CNN loops over and over in the background from the time I wake until the time I finally, blessedly, fall asleep.
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?
Thanks entirely to two amazing mentors, an aligning of the timing stars, and a tremendous amount of luck, my story tends to fall into the "overnight" kind.
I was working at Departures magazine as an assistant editor, learning how to write and assign and edit -- in addition to answering phones and faxing -- when I decided I wanted to take some sort of writing class. When I mentioned this to my boss, editor-in-chief Richard Story, he insisted that I take a class from one of his oldest and dearest friends, a write and teacher named Charles Salzberg. Charles has the most devoted students I've ever seen, a group of talented writers who take his workshops over and over again, semester after semester, year after year. On Richard's recommendation, Charles accepted me into his group and from there, never stopped teaching, suggesting, and encouraging.
Having just come from a stint at Vogue, I was working on a story about a young girl's first job at a fashion magazine. I turned in fifteen or so pages every couple weeks, and after a few months of this, Charles kept saying, "This is going to be a book. You need to start showing this to people; there's a book here." Naturally, I didn't believe a word he said -- I figured he was just saying it to be kind and supportive -- and so, in a demonstration of infinitely poor judgment, I ignored him. It wasn't until I'd been taking the class for almost a year that I finally listened to the man and showed it to some agents. It was sold within two weeks of that fateful day, and I owe it all to Richard and Charles.
If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be?
I'm thinking of one friend in particular, someone who currently writes for a magazine. She has hands-down the best sense of humor I've ever encountered. Every word out of her mouth makes me laugh -- she's the type of person who can keep a table crying with laughter for hours. If she wrote a book that was even half as funny as she is, it would be an instant bestseller.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
It's all about setting aside just a little time to write each week. I know it seems impossible when you're working full-time and trying to maintain something resembling a social life, but it's the only way anything ever gets written. It should be a realistic time, a slot you can actually stick to each week. Monday nights always seem good -- who wants to be doing anything outside the home on a Monday night? As soon as I accepted that I'd rather stay in on Saturday night than wake up even seven minutes earlier on a workday (how people get up and write before work continues to astound me), I became much more productive. Figure out what works and make it completely non-negotiable.
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