And which children’s book authors do you especially admire? Any you’ve especially enjoyed reading with your son?
Let’s just pause for a moment to light a candle for Zilpha Keatley Snyder, a tremendous writer, recently deceased, who almost single-handedly enchanted my childhood. My son, meanwhile, likes to read to me from Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales, a series of historical graphic novels, which works out well: I get to tell him that the K in “William Knox” is silent, and he gets to tell me who William Knox is.
Your new novel is about pirates. What’s your favorite pirate story?
“A High Wind in Jamaica,” by Richard Hughes, narrowly beats out Sabatini’s “Captain Blood.” It adheres to a theory of mine that putting children in a genre piece makes it more interesting. (Lemony Snicket and I have made a little hay with this theory.)
What books might we be surprised to find on your shelves?
A heap of poetry. I started out as a poet, and although I’ve strayed, it’s poetry that I find the most nurturing and the best source of tricks to steal.
What’s the last book you read that made you laugh?
“Hughson’s Tavern,” by Fred Moten, has some razor-sharp lines — it’s nervous laughter, but it’s real.
The last book you read that made you cry?
I got teary when I hit these lines in Mary Ruefle’s collection “Trances of the Blast”:
“I hated childhood / I hate adulthood / And I love being alive.”
The last book you read that made you furious?
I get slightly angry when I finish any good book — I’m miffed that I’m not reading it anymore, and that I’ll never be able to read it again for the first time. The last good book I read was Emily St. John Mandel’s “Station Eleven.”
What kind of reader were you as a child? Your favorite book? Most beloved character?
I was a voracious and constant reader. I have a clearer memory of where I was when I read “A Perfect Day for Banana-fish” than any birthday party. My favorite book was, and sort of is, Dino Buzzati’s “The Bears’ Famous Invasion of Sicily,” a fairly obscure book. But my favorite character was everybody’s: Harriet the Spy.
If you had to name one book that made you who you are today, what would it be?
“The Blue Aspic,” by Edward Gorey. It was the first book I bought with my own money, and it opened up a curious and shady world — you know, the one we all live in — I am still exploring.
If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be?
“Nochita,” by Dia Felix. I don’t know why, really, but it’s a really fun book, and it would really be hilarious to know he was reading it on my orders.
Politics and religion. Any books to recommend on these subjects?
Amos Oz’s “How to Cure a Fanatic” is somewhere in the Venn diagram where politics and religion meet. And it’s short, so I can recommend it to people without seeming preachy.
You’re hosting a literary dinner party. Which three writers are invited?
I’m never good at the hypothetical dinner party. I keep imagining the reanimated corpse of Nabokov saying, “Wait, so I was raised from the dead so you and me and Raymond Chandler and Ida B. Wells could share a Cobb salad?”
Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?
I won’t name names, but for the life of me I am mystified by the appeal of novels showing us the Way We Live Now. I am interested in the Way We Lived Then. I am interested in How Some Other People Live, and I am interested in the Way We Might Live Some Other Time. But most of all I am interested in the Way We Don’t Live Now, a book with the essential strangeness of great literature. The strange illuminates the ordinary. But somebody tell me, please, what the ordinary is supposed to illuminate.
Any book you completely regretted reading?
I write a column for The Believer magazine, about the Nobel Prize in Literature, and spent some thick, dreary weeks reading Johannes V. Jensen’s series of novels “The Long Journey” (suggested alternate title: “Molasses in January”), only to decide I would write about another work by the laureate instead.
What’s the one book you wish someone else would write?
An encyclopedia of cooking-ingredient substitutes, to be consulted when I’m halfway through a recipe and realize I’m out of something crucial and need to swap it out.
Whom would you want to write your life story?
Ronald Firbank. It would be ridiculously inaccurate, of course, but it would be loopy and short.
What books do you find yourself returning to again and again?
Everything by Judith Martin, a.k.a. Miss Manners. She’s an extremely useful philosopher, and I consult her frequently, in order to behave better.
What books are you embarrassed not to have read yet?
I haven’t read any Proust. It’s mortifying. There are episodes of “The Golden Girls” I’ve seen a dozen times, and I haven’t cracked open Proust. I’m trying to start a Dive Bar Proust Club, where we meet regularly at dive bars to discuss Proust, but the people I invite keep asking, “Do we have to meet at dive bars?” or “Do we have to read Proust?”
What do you plan to read next?
“Notebook of a Return to the Native Land,” by Aimé Césaire. I’m in the mood.