What moves you most in a work of literature?
Compassion. The sense that the writer is not poking fun at his or her characters, but instead is genuinely curious about their lives and the particular straits in which they find themselves. There are so many writers who work in this way, I’m happy to report, and one of my all-time favorites is Elizabeth Strout.
Which genres do you especially enjoy reading? And which do you avoid?
First, I believe that this whole notion of “genre” is more of a marketing category for publishers than anything else; a well-written book is a well-written book. That said, I tend to gravitate toward what we call literary fiction, which may simply mean character-driven stories, ones where we sense the writer has worked really hard on his or her sentences, and of course, it has to be the kind of work that seems to be trying to illuminate truth in some way, no matter how ugly. I’m not proud of writing this, but I do avoid nearly all forms of fantasy. That’s not to imply that there are not great works out there in that form, only that I tend to lose interest just as soon as magic of any kind enters a story, for this strikes me as escapist, as a denial of the mortal hand we’ve all been dealt, and I prefer to read those works that confront our reality and limitations and thwarted longings head on.
What book by somebody else do you wish you had written?
“Ironweed,” by William Kennedy.
How do you organize your books?
In our house are nearly 12,000 books, a third of which my sister-in-law, the children’s book author Theo Heras, alphabetized for us in our living room shelves. (She’s a retired librarian from Toronto.) But the rest are hopelessly stuffed into various shelves around the house, or else stacked in piles behind furniture, and it always takes a very long time to find a particular book. One of my carpentry chores this winter is to build more shelves.
What’s the last book you recommended to someone in your family?
I tend to read a lot of galleys for publishers, and one of the central pleasures of doing this is discovering the first books of gifted writers, most of which I then push into the hands of my wife, grown children and immediate family. Some very recent gems are: “An Imperfect Rapture,” by Kelly J. Beard; “The Concrete,” by Daniel Abbott; “How Are You Going To Save Yourself,” by J. M. Holmes; “Wrench and Other Stories,” by Wayne Harrison; and “Lucky You,” by Erika Carter. In terms of more established writers, I just gave to my oldest son, Austin, Denis Johnson’s incredible short novel “The Name of the World,” and I recommended to his younger brother, Elias, Anthony Doerr’s masterful “All the Light We Cannot See,” and I gave to my daughter, Ariadne, Ann Hood’s lovely novel “The Obituary Writer.”
What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?
I’m afraid I’m pretty predictable in that department. My shelves are filled with poetry, memoirs and character-driven fiction. Though the Quran is in there, too. I’m not a religious man, but I read it cover to cover twice in partial preparation for writing my 2008 novel, “The Garden of Last Days.”
Who is your favorite fictional hero or heroine? Your favorite antihero or villain?
I tend to stay away from books with villains in them as I do not believe in the notion of good people versus bad people, and so I shy away from work that depicts human beings in this way. I live by this line from Tom Waits’s “Heartattack and Vine”: “Don’t you know there ain’t no devil, there’s just God when he’s drunk?” So many fictional characters over the years have lodged themselves in my psyche, but one that has never quite left me is Hemingway’s wounded and cruelly fated Jake Barnes, from “The Sun Also Rises.”