How do you organize your books?
My office is always in disarray, but my books are in order. My fiction is alphabetical. I’m a lapsed public librarian, and I can’t imagine it any other way. My nonfiction is broken up into the following categories: memoir, essays, poetry, plays, biographies of comedians, biographies of other Hollywood types, comic books/strips/graphic novels, assorted books about Elvis Presley, art books, assorted books about tattoos, cunningly small books, burdensomely large books. Then there are the piles, which are arranged in three categories: shelve, donate, and books I will never read again and don’t really want but which are inscribed to me by the author.
What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?
I have a lot of oddball books on my shelves, many of them presents from my brother, Harry, including a book of candy recipes written by the comedian ZaSu Pitts.
Who is your favorite fictional hero or heroine? Your favorite antihero or villain?
The Wolf in Catherine Storr’s “Clever Polly and the Stupid Wolf” is a spectacular character, intent on devouring Polly but always outsmarted. I suppose he is stupid, but mostly he’s just driven by hunger. Every time I reread it I’m struck by how dear and awful and filled with carnal longing he is. New York Review Books reprinted all the Polly and the Wolf stories recently; my children love them. I feel a kinship with the Wolf, who wants things and is so filled with intentions even he cannot tell whether those intentions are good or bad.
What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?
I grew up in old house whose ceiling was mostly held up by bookcases built by my father, or perhaps the bookcases were kept upright by the house. The books I remember reading fit mostly into four categories: books my parents loved — Nora Ephron’s “Crazy Salad”; Calvin Trillin’s “Alice, Let’s Eat”; a quantity of Wodehouse (my father loved Wodehouse though my mother didn’t); creepy books of all sorts, including “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” and New England ghost stories; reference books, both ordinary (Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable) and outré (The People’s Almanac, The Book of Lists). Comic books, which belonged to my brother: I particularly loved an enormous anthology of Superman comic books, and still prefer the surreality of that world to any other superhero’s — Lois Lane with a cat’s head! The Bizarro World! Jimmy Olsen as the Turtle Boy of Metropolis! — but I also loved old collections of Crockett Johnson’s “Barnaby”, Walt Kelly’s “Pogo,” Al Capp’s “Li’l Abner” and a wide variety of Harvey comic books (particularly Little Dot and Little Lotta) bought at Mac’s Smoke Shop down the street.
If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be?
The first draft of his ghostwritten prison memoir, in his cell. Totally fine if it’s in bullet point form.
You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?
Anyone who’s met me knows these two things: I don’t believe writers should have the right to free assembly, and I will do nearly anything to avoid meeting my literary heroes. (Recently I sidestepped a chance to meet Edward P. Jones, probably my favorite living writer.) Myself, I’m not such a great conversationalist, so I’d like to invite people for their company. I’ve always been fond of Lord Timothy Dexter, author of “A Pickle for the Knowing Ones, or Plain Truth in a Homespun Dress,” who in his second edition printed a page of punctuation for readers who felt there wasn’t enough in the body of the book. Then Julia Child, who was a wonderful writer and perhaps would put to use her other skills — culinary, conversational — as well. Kathleen Hale, the author and illustrator of the Orlando the Marmalade Cat books, whose splendid memoir “A Slender Reputation” makes me think she’d be a good dinner guest. Finally, I’d give my own place at the table to my mother, Natalie Jacobson McCracken, who died in November, a fine writer who loved a good party and would gleefully take my seat. Also, I’m going to be honest, and I know I’m stretching the guest list, but I would invite Kelly Link, who is not only a thrillingly great writer and charming and present and hilarious and an author whose name I shamelessly drop to consistently fine effect, but also is to date the only person who has mentioned me in a By the Book. Fair’s fair. Give her Lord Dexter’s seat. (But only if the dinner doesn’t interfere with her finishing her novel.)
Whom would you want to write your life story?
I don’t even like having my photograph taken. If somebody must write my life story, let it be in rebus form.