By the Book: Writers on Literature and the Literary Life from The New York Times Book Review

By the Book: Writers on Literature and the Literary Life from The New York Times Book Review

by Pamela Paul, Scott Turow

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Overview


Sixty-five of the world's leading writers open up about the books and authors that have meant the most to them

Every Sunday, readers of The New York Times Book Review turn with anticipation to see which novelist, historian, short story writer, or artist will be the subject of the popular By the Book feature. These wide-ranging interviews are conducted by Pamela Paul, the editor of the Book Review, and here she brings together sixty-five of the most intriguing and fascinating exchanges, featuring personalities as varied as David Sedaris, Hilary Mantel, Michael Chabon, Khaled Hosseini, Anne Lamott, and James Patterson. The questions and answers admit us into the private worlds of these authors, as they reflect on their work habits, reading preferences, inspirations, pet peeves, and recommendations.

By the Book contains the full uncut interviews, offering a range of experiences and observations that deepens readers' understanding of the literary sensibility and the writing process. It also features dozens of sidebars that reveal the commonalities and conflicts among the participants, underscoring those influences that are truly universal and those that remain matters of individual taste.
For the devoted reader, By the Book is a way to invite sixty-five of the most interesting guests into your world. It's a book party not to be missed.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781627791465
Publisher: Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
Publication date: 10/28/2014
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 342,516
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Pamela Paul is the editor of The New York Times Book Review and the author of My Life with Bob, By the Book, Parenting, Inc., Pornified, and The Starter Marriage and the Future of Matrimony. Prior to joining the Times, Paul was a contributor to Time magazine and The Economist, and her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Washington Post, and Vogue. She and her family live in New York.

Pamela Paul is the editor of The New York Times Book Review and oversees books coverage at The New York Times. She is also the host of the weekly podcast, Inside The New York Times Book Review. Prior to joining the Times, she was a contributor to Time magazine and The Economist; her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Washington Post, Slate, and Vogue.

She is the author of My Life with Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues; By the Book; Parenting, Inc.; Pornified; and The Starter Marriage and the Future of Matrimony.


Scott Turow is the author of worldwide bestselling novels including Presumed Innocent, Innocent, Ordinary Heroes, The Burden of Proof, Reversible Errors and Limitations. His works of nonfiction include One L, his journal from his first year at law school, and Ultimate Punishment, which he wrote after serving on the Illinois commission that investigated the administration of the death penalty and influenced Governor George Ryan’s unprecedented commutation of the sentences of 164 death row inmates on his last day in office. Ultimate Punishment won the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award. He lives outside Chicago, where he is partner in the firm of SNR Denton (formerly Sonnenschein, Nath&Rosenthal).

Read an Excerpt

By the Book

Writers on Literature and the Literary Life from the New York Times Book Review


By Pamela Paul, Jillian Tamaki

Henry Holt and Company

Copyright © 2014 The New York Times Company
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-62779-146-5



CHAPTER 1

David Sedaris


What book is on your night stand now?

I was a judge for this year's Scholastic Art and Writing Awards, so until very recently I was reading essays written by clever high school students. Now I've started Shalom Auslander's Hope: A Tragedy. His last book, Foreskin's Lament, really made me laugh.


When and where do you like to read?

Throughout my twenties and early thirties — my two-books-per-week years — I did most of my reading at the International House of Pancakes. I haven't been to one in ages, but at the time, if you went at an off-peak hour, they'd give you a gallon-sized pot of coffee and let you sit there as long as you liked. Now, though, with everyone hollering into their cellphones, it's much harder to read in public, so I tend to do it at home, most often while reclining.


What was the last truly great book you read?

I've read a lot of books that I loved recently. Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, by a woman named Barbara Demick, was a real eye-opener. In terms of "great," as in "This person seems to have reinvented the English language," I'd say Wells Tower's Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned. What an exciting story collection it is, unlike anything I've ever come across.


Do you consider yourself a fiction or a nonfiction person? What's your favorite literary genre? Any guilty pleasures?

I like nonfiction books about people with wretched lives. The worse off the subjects, the more inclined I am to read about them. When it comes to fictional characters, I'm much less picky. Happy, confused, bitter: if I like the writing I'll take all comers. I guess my guilty pleasure would be listening to the British audio versions of the Harry Potter books. They're read by the great Stephen Fry, and I play them over and over, like an eight-year-old.


What book had the greatest impact on you? What book made you want to write?

I remember being floored by the first Raymond Carver collection I read: What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. His short, simple sentences and familiar-seeming characters made writing look, if not exactly easy, then at least possible. That book got me to work harder, but more important it opened the door to other contemporary short story writers like Tobias Wolff and Alice Munro.


If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be?

I would want him to read Is There No Place on Earth for Me?, Susan Sheehan's great nonfiction book about a young schizophrenic woman. It really conveys the grinding wheel of mental illness.


What are your reading habits? Paper or electronic? Do you take notes? Do you snack while you read?

I sometimes read books on my iPad. It's great for traveling, but paper versions are easier to mark up, and I like the feeling of accomplishment I get when measuring the number of pages I've just finished — "Three-quarters of an inch!" I like listening to books as well, as that way you can iron at the same time. Notewise, whenever I read a passage that moves me, I transcribe it in my diary, hoping my fingers might learn what excellence feels like.


What is your ideal reading experience? Do you prefer a book that makes you laugh or makes you cry? One that teaches you something or one that distracts you?

Yes, all the above.


What were your favorite books as a child? Do you have a favorite character or hero from one of those books? Is there one book you wish all children would read?

There was a series of biographies with orange covers in my elementary school library, and I must have read every one of them. Most of the subjects were presidents or founding fathers, but there were a few heroes thrown in as well: Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett. I loved reading about their early years, back when they were chopping firewood and doing their homework by candlelight, never suspecting that one day they would be famous. I wish all children would read Is There No Place on Earth for Me? That way they'd have something to talk about when they meet the president.


Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel as if you were supposed to like, and didn't? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?

Boy, did I have a hard time with Moby-Dick. I read it for an assignment ten years ago and realized after the first few pages that without some sort of a reward system I was never going to make any progress. I told myself that I couldn't bathe, shave, brush my teeth, or change my clothes until I had finished it. In the end, I stunk much more than the book did.


What's the funniest book you've ever read?

The staff of The Onion put out an atlas that gives me a stomachache every time I read it. I can just open it randomly, and any line I come upon makes me laugh. For funny stories it's Jincy Willett, Sam Lipsyte, Flannery O'Connor, and George Saunders. Oh, and I love Paul Rudnick in The New Yorker.


What's the one book you wish someone else would write?

I'd love to read a concise, nonhysterical biography of Michael Jackson. I just want to know everything about him.


If you could meet any writer, dead or alive, who would it be? What would you want to know? Have you ever written to an author?

I'm horrible at meeting people I admire, but if I could go back in time, I'd love to collect kindling or iron a few shirts for Flannery O'Connor. After I'd finished, she'd offer to pay me, and I'd say, awestruck, my voice high and quivering, that it was on me.


If somebody walked in on you writing one of your books, what would they see? What does your work space look like?

When stuck, I tend to get up from my desk and clean, so if someone walked in they'd most likely find me washing my windows, or dusting the radiator I'd just dusted half an hour earlier.


Do you remember the last book that someone personally recommended you read and that you enjoyed? Who recommended you read it, and what persuaded you to pick it up?

My sister Amy and I have similar tastes in nonfiction, and on her recommendation I recently read and enjoyed Tiger, Tiger, by Margaux Fragoso.


What do you plan to read next?

I'm looking forward to the new Michael Chabon book. I loved The Yiddish Policemen's Union.


David Sedaris is the author of Me Talk Pretty One Day, Naked, When You Are Engulfed in Flames, and Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls, among other books.

CHAPTER 2

Lena Dunham


What book is on your night stand now?

Right now I'm looking right at Mary Gaitskill's Bad Behavior; the new Diane Keaton autobiography; Having It All, by Helen Gurley Brown (research); and The Consolations of Philosophy, by Alain de Botton — all in various states of having-been-read-ed-ness.


When and where do you like to read?

On the big couch by sunlight in the afternoon when I should be working. While I get my hair and makeup done on set. In bed. Always in bed.


What are your reading habits? Paper or electronic? Do you take notes? Do you snack while you read?

I loved my Kindle, but then I broke it, so I am back to my first love, paperbacks. And you know what? I don't miss that little machine, even though it was saving me pounds in my luggage. That leaning tower of books by my bed pleases me to no end to look at and rearrange. I snack while I do most things. I like gluten-free crackers and soy cheese, even though I'm not allergic to the traditional version of either.


What was the last truly great book you read? Do you remember the last time you said to someone, "You absolutely must read this book"?

I am obsessed with The Private Diaries of Catherine Deneuve, in which we learn intimate details about working with titans of the French New Wave and she talks smack about Bjork. Her prose is elegant and defiant and very, very French.


What's your favorite literary genre? Any guilty pleasures?

I love biographies and autobiographies, especially of famous (and famously complicated) women. Barbra Streisand, Leni Riefenstahl, Edna St. Vincent Millay. Minor Characters, by Joyce Johnson, with all that Beat generation gossip told from the eyes of a sweet 'n' sour teen. Spiritually leaning self-help is obviously my guilty pleasure (not that guilty: I like Ram Dass, Deepak Chopra, and especially Mark Epstein's Buddhist psychology books). I also like extremely speculative books in which psychics explain what happens before we're born / after we die (Sylvia Browne, master psychic). I have to read Eloise once a month or I'll perish.


Have you ever read a book about girls or women that made you angry or disappointed or just extremely annoyed?

I don't have a taste for airport chick-lit, even in a guilty-pleasure way. Any book that is motored by the search for a husband and/or a good pair of heels makes me want to move to the outback. If there is a cartoon woman's torso on the front or a stroller with a diamond on it, I just can't.


And what's the best book about girls you've ever read?

Catherine, Called Birdy, by Karen Cushman. Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov.


If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be?

The Guide to Getting It On! seems like it would have something to offer anyone, although if Obama's singing is any indication he's got it covered.


One of the movies you included in your BAM film festival is Clueless, which was based on Emma. What's your all-time favorite movie based on a book? The worst?

The Group is a favorite adaptation. It's gaudy and sexy and a mess in the best way. I can't watch the Eloise movie or I will also perish.


What book makes you laugh?

Without Feathers, by Woody Allen, makes me giggle like a baby. Holidays on Ice, by David Sedaris. How to Have a Life-Style, by Quentin Crisp.


What were your favorite books as a child? Do you have a favorite character or hero from one of those books? Is there one book you wish all children would read?

I have tattoos from children's books all over my arms and torso. The biggest one is of Ferdinand the bull, which Elliott Smith also had, but his was a different page. What a good message that book has! Just be yourself and don't gore anyone with your horns if you don't feel like it.


Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel as if you were supposed to like, and didn't? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?

This question is so up my alley because my history is dotted with shameful unfinisheds. The Great Gatsby? I put it down in eighth grade and haven't picked it up again. Should I not be saying this? Will I be sent away somewhere awful? I often don't finish books, even ones that I like.


Would you like to write a book? If you could write a book about anything, what would it be?

Who doesn't want to write a book? I wish it were a mystery novel set in a quietly seething college town, but alas it would likely be memoir.


What's the one book you wish someone else would write?

I wish my mom would let me type and edit her journals from when she was my age, but she doesn't trust me that they're a fascinating account of the inner life of a young artist in 1970s SoHo. I also wouldn't mind reading Bill Murray's memoirs or an instructional guide to getting dressed by Chloë Sevigny.


If you could meet any writer, dead or alive, who would it be? What would you want to know? Have you ever written to an author?

This is not exactly an answer to your question, but I wonder fairly often how Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath would be doing in the age of better living through chemistry. I love both their work dearly. I wrote a letter to Nikki Giovanni in middle school, care of her publisher, using many different-colored pens. I didn't hear back but do not hold a grudge.


What do you plan to read next?

I am woefully unread in the areas of history and politics and have a grand plan to read A People's History of the United States, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, and some other books that might hack away at my ignorance. I am also looking forward to David Stockman's upcoming book on the financial crisis, because I met him at a party and thought he was a very compelling character. I am going to go back and read The Triumph of Politics: Why the Reagan Revolution Failed (I am not a libertarian, but I will read a book by one). I just pre-ordered Sheila Heti's book How Should a Person Be? and Love, an Index, poetry by Rebecca Lindenberg, because I read excerpts of both and found them stunning in different ways. If you couldn't tell, I mostly like confessional books by women.


Lena Dunham is the creator, producer, and star of HBO's Girls and the author of Not That Kind of Girl.

CHAPTER 3

Neil Gaiman


What book is on your night stand now?

There are a few. My current audiobook (Yes, they count; of course they count; why wouldn't they?) is The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick deWitt. It was recommended by Lemony Snicket (through his representative, Daniel Handler), and I trust Mr. Snicket implicitly. (Or anyway, as implicitly as one can trust someone you have never met, and who may simply be a pen name of the man who played accordion at your wedding.) I'm enjoying it — such a sad, funny book about family, framed in a Wild West of prospectors and casual murder.

My "make this last as long as you can" book is Just My Type: A Book About Fonts. It's illuminated a subject I thought I understood, but I didn't, and its chapter on the wrongnesses of Comic Sans came alive for me recently visiting a friend at a Florida retirement community, in which every My "make this last as long as you can" book is Just My Type: A Book About Fonts. It's illuminated a subject I thought I understood, but I didn't, and its chapter on the wrongnesses of Comic Sans came alive for me recently visiting a friend at a Florida retirement community, in which every name on every door was printed in Comic Sans. The elderly deserve more respect than that. Except for the lady I was visiting, widow of a comics artist. For her, it might have been appropriate. On the iPad there are several books on the go, but they are all by friends, and none of them is actually published yet, so I will not name them.


When and where do you like to read?

When I can. I read less fiction these days, and it worries me, although my recent discovery that wearing reading glasses makes the action of reading more pleasurable is, I think, up there with discovering how to split the atom or America. Neither of which I did. (I clarify this for readers in a hurry.)


What was the last truly great book you read?

The Sorcerer's House, by Gene Wolfe, amazed me. It was such a cunning book, and it went so deep. A foxy fantasy about a house that grows, with chapters that are the Greater Trumps of a tarot deck.

The latest graphic novel I read was Dotter of Her Father's Eyes, by Mary M. Talbot, drawn by Bryan Talbot. I have known the Talbots for thirty years — Bryan drew some Sandman comics — and admired Bryan's work for almost forty years. (How old is he? How old am I?) I wasn't expecting such a beautiful, personal mingling of biography (of Lucia, James Joyce's daughter) and autobiography (Mary's father was a Joycean scholar) told so winningly and wisely. It's short but is, I think, truly great.


Are you a fiction or a nonfiction person? What's your favorite literary genre? Any guilty pleasures?

My guiltiest pleasure is Harry Stephen Keeler. He may have been the greatest bad writer America has ever produced. Or perhaps the worst great writer. I do not know. There are few faults you can accuse him of that he is not guilty of. But I love him.

How can you not love a man who wrote books with names like The Riddle of the Traveling Skull? Or The Case of the Transposed Legs?

I get into arguments with Otto Penzler, of the Mysterious Bookshop in New York, when I say things like that. "No, Neil!" he splutters. "He was just a bad writer!"

Otto still takes my money when I buy Keeler books like The Skull of the Waltzing Clown from him. But the expression on his face takes some of the fun out of it. And then I read a paragraph like:

For it must be remembered that at the time I knew quite nothing, naturally, concerning Milo Payne, the mysterious Cockney-talking Englishman with the checkered long-beaked Sherlockholmesian cap; nor of the latter's "BarrBag," which was as like my own bag as one Milwaukee wienerwurst is like another; nor of Legga, the Human Spider, with her four legs and her six arms; nor of Ichabod Chang, ex-convict, and son of Dong Chang; nor of the elusive poetess, Abigail Sprigge; nor of the Great Simon, with his 2,163 pearl buttons; nor of — in short, I then knew quite nothing about anything or anybody involved in the affair of which I had now become a part, unless perchance it were my Nemesis, Sophie Kratzenschneiderwümpel — or Suing Sophie!


(Continues...)

Excerpted from By the Book by Pamela Paul, Jillian Tamaki. Copyright © 2014 The New York Times Company. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Foreword by Scott Turow xiii
Introduction by Pamela Paul xvii

David Sedaris 2
Lena Dunham 6
Neil Gaiman 10
Mary Higgins Clark 16
Drew Gilpin Faust 20
Carl Hiaasen 24
John Irving 28
Elizabeth Gilbert 32
Richard Ford 36
Colin Powell 40
Dave Eggers 44
Sylvia Nasar 48
Ira Glass 52
Junot Díaz 58
Joyce Carol Oates 64
Nicholson Baker 70
Emma Thompson 74
Michael Chabon 78
Jeffrey Eugenides 82
J.K. Rowling 86
David Mitchell 90
John Grisham 96
P.J. O'Rourke 100
Anne Lamott 104
Ian McEwan 108
Lee Child 112
Arnold Schwarzenegger 118
Francine Prose 122
Jared Diamond 126
Alain de Botton 132
Dave Barry 136
Katherine Boo 140
Marilynne Robinson 144
Sheryl Sandberg 148
Caroline Kennedy 152
Isabel Allende 158
Anna Quindlen 162
Jonathan Franzen 166
Hilary Mantel 170
Walter Mosley 176
Khaled Hosseini 182
Jeannette Walls 186
Dan Brown 190
Dan Savage 194
Christopher Buckley 198
Curtis Sittenfeld 202
James McBride 206
James Patterson 210
Jonathan Lethem 214
Jhumpa Lahiri 218
Richard Dawkins 222
Sting 228
Andrew Solomon 232
Malcolm Gladwell 238
Scott Turow 242
Donna Tartt 246
Ann Patchett 250
Amy Tan 254
Bryan Cranston 260
Michael Connelly 264
Neil deGrasse Tyson 268
E. L. Doctorow 274
Chang-rae Lee 280
Gary Shteyngart 286
Rachel Kushner 290

Acknowledgments 295
Index 297

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