I enjoy almost all biographies, many autobiographies and some memoirs. I like soft terrestrial science fiction, but nothing set in outer space. Alternative histories and nonfictional conspiracy literature. Epistolary novels. I tend to prefer character studies to plot mechanics, and I don’t like any literature classified as “hard-boiled.” Crime fiction, for example. I know a lot of smart people who love crime fiction, so it must be better than I realize. But why does it always seem like the author is trying to consciously caricature the worst tendencies of normal writing?
How do you organize your books?
I put them on shelves, wherever they fit. The sequence is random. Except for the hundred or so books I keep in my office — for some reason, I organize those chronologically.
Who is your favorite fictional hero or heroine? Your favorite antihero or villain?
I have the same answer for both questions: The unnamed narrator from Padgett Powell’s “The Interrogative Mood: A Novel?”
What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?
When I was a little boy, there was a set of battered encyclopedias stored underneath my twin bed. The books were there before I was. The illustrations were watercolor paintings, which I can still see in my mind. These were very old encyclopedias — Pluto was not included in the solar system. All the dinosaurs were coldblooded and dragged their tails on the ground. I think the most recent major event was World War I. But these were the books I read, pretty much every night. Which feels fitting, since I’ve kind of become the human incarnation of an outdated encyclopedia.
If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be?
The “Spin Alternative Record Guide.”
You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?
I have a lot of issues with this question. I realize the purpose of the hypothetical is to reflect some deeper insight into the subject’s aesthetic sensibility, but I can’t help but take it literally. First of all, I have several friends who have coincidentally written books, and some of these friends I haven’t seen in years. I would obviously prefer having dinner with three old friends as opposed to three famous strangers, regardless of how talented they were as writers. Over the past 20 years, I’ve often found myself in professional situations where I’ve had to have dinner with arbitrary collections of random authors, many of whom were nice and a few of whom are brilliant. Yet the experience itself is almost always uncomfortable. It seems like the first half of dinner involves everybody trying too hard to be overly complimentary to everyone else at the table, and then the second half of dinner is just people complaining about how they don’t sell enough books or make enough money. It never feels like a real conversation unless everyone at the table is drunk. Moreover, the fact that this proposed scenario involves the possibility of selecting guests who are “dead or alive” really forces my hand. It seems insane to pick any living person if dead people are eligible. There is no author alive who’s a fraction as compelling as any dead garbageman, and there’s no theoretical discussion about the craft of writing that would be half as interesting as asking “What was it like to die?” to someone who could respond authoritatively to that query. The only problem is that dead people might not understand what was going on, why they were suddenly alive, or why they were being forced to make conversation with some bozo at a weird dinner party. They might just sit there and scream for two hours. And even if they kept it together, I’m sure they’d be highly distracted. If I invite Edgar Allan Poe to dinner, it seems possible he’d spend the whole time expressing amazement over the restaurant’s air conditioning.
Whom would you want to write your life story?
This is complicated, because the kind of person who’d do the best job is probably the person I’d least want to do it. If, for example, I found out Janet Malcolm was writing a book about my life, I’d be flattered for 15 seconds and then terrified and depressed for the next 40 years. When you’re the subject of a biography, the best-case scenario is a polarizing biographer who loves to do research but isn’t taken seriously by the vast majority of people who will actually read the book. Albert Goldman would have been ideal, although he’s unavailable and also dead.
What do you plan to read next?
“Howard Stern Comes Again,” by Howard Stern, and “The Fifties,” by David Halberstam.