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 Sherlockholmsian cap; nor of the latter’s ‘Barr-Bag,’ 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!”
And then I do not give a fig for Otto’s expression, for as guilty pleasures go, Keeler is as strangely good as it gets.
What book had the greatest impact on you? What book made you want to write?
I don’t know if any single book made me want to write. C. S. Lewis was the first writer to make me aware that somebody was writing the book I was reading — these wonderful parenthetical asides to the reader. I would think: “When I am a writer, I shall do parenthetical asides. And footnotes. There will be footnotes. I wonder how you do them? And italics. How do you make italics happen?”
These days kids understand fonts and italics, and computers mean that the days of literary magic are done. But back then, we had to hand-carve our own fonts . . . well, more or less. I did have to learn the mysteries of copy-editing symbols, when I was a young journalist.
P. L. (Pamela) Travers, who wrote the Mary Poppins books, made me want to tell stories like that. Ones that seemed like they had existed forever, and were true in a way that real things that had actually happened could never be.
There were a handful of other authors who made me want to be a writer. And I think what they all had in common was that they made it look like fun. G. K. Chesterton, who delighted in painting pictures in sentences, like a child let loose with a paint box. Roger Zelazny, who reshaped myth and magic into science fiction. Harlan Ellison and Michael Moorcock, Samuel R. Delany, Ursula K. Le Guin (although she intimidated me) and Hope Mirrlees, who only wrote one good book, “Lud-in-the-Mist.” But if you write a book that good you do not need to do it again.
If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be?
One of mine. Preferably on a day when he gets asked a really awkward question at a press conference he’d rather not answer. So he’d distract them by going, “The economy? Bombing Iran? Wall Street? You know. . . . I read this really great book the other day by Neil Gaiman. Has anyone here read it? ‘American Gods’? I mean, that scene at the end of Chapter 1. . . . What the heck was going on there?”Photo
Look, J.F.K. made the James Bond franchise by talking about how much he liked the books. I can dream.
What are your reading habits? Paper or electronic? Do you take notes?
I like reading. I prefer not reading on my computer, because that makes whatever I am reading feel like work. I do not mind reading on my iPad. I have a Kindle, somewhere, but almost never use it, and a Kindle app on my phone, my iPad and on pretty much everything except the toaster, and I use that, because I am besotted by Kindle’s ability to know where I am in a book. I’ve been using it to read Huge Books of the kind I always meant to read, or to finish, but didn’t, because carrying them around stopped being fun. Books like “The Count of Monte Cristo.”
Do you prefer a book that makes you laugh or makes you cry? One that teaches you something or one that distracts you?
Wait, do you think those things are exclusive? That books can only be one or the other? I would rather read a book with all of those things in it: a laughing, crying, educating, distracting book. And I would like more than that, the kind of book where the pages groan under the weight of keeping all such opposites apart.
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?
No. Perhaps because there have been few books in recent years I actually broke up with, realizing we were not right for each other. There are instead books I have stopped seeing, and vaguely intend to finish one day, the next time I run into them, but they are vaguer, more general things.
I remember the first book I didn’t finish, though. It was “Mistress of Mistresses,” by E. R. Eddison. I was around 17, and I’d finished every book I’d started before then. It was inconceivable to me not to. I’d read and mostly enjoyed Eddison’s “The Worm Ouroboros,” a fantasy epic written in a lush, thick, cod-Elizabethan style that started off irritating and then became part of the fun. I bought “Mistress of Mistresses” and abandoned it a third of the way through. It was gloriously liberating, the idea that I didn’t have to finish every book.
But mostly, I did. If I started it, I’d read it to the end: until I found myself a judge of the Arthur C. Clarke Awards in the U.K., and obliged to read every science-fiction book published in the U.K. in the year of eligibility. I was a judge for two years. The first year, I read everything. The second year, I read a lot of first chapters and took delight in hurling books across the room if I knew I would not be reading the second chapter.
Then I’d go and pick them up again, because they are books, after all, and we are not savages.
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?
As a teenager I wrote to R. A. Lafferty. And he responded, too, with letters that were like R. A. Lafferty short stories, filled with elliptical answers to straight questions and simple answers to complicated ones.
He was a sui generis writer, the oddest and most frustratingly delightful of American tall-tale tellers. Not a lot of people have read him, and even fewer like what he wrote, but those of us who like him like him all the way. We never met.
The last time I wrote to Lafferty, he had Alzheimer’s and was in a home in Oklahoma, shortly before his death, and I do not believe he read or understood the letter, but it made me feel like I was doing something right by writing it and sending it.
What’s the best comic book you’ve ever read? Graphic novel?
Ow. That’s hard. I think I love Eddie Campbell’s “ALEC: The Years Have Pants” best of everything, but it’s a hard call.
Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s “From Hell” is pretty wonderful, after all. “Watchmen” had a bigger influence on me than anything else, reading and rereading it a comic at a time as it was published, as did the “High Society” and “Church and State” sequences of Dave Sim’s “Cerebus.”
And Will Eisner’s “The Spirit” is funny and sad, educational and entertaining (read the books, ignore the movie).
I’m about to start building giant lists of comics and graphic novels here, so I will stop. (Quick! Read anything by Lynda Barry!)
There. I stopped.
What do you plan to read next?
“The Night Circus” by Erin Morgenstern. I have so many proof copies of the book, given to me by people certain that if I read it I would love it, that I feel guilty. They stare at me from all over the house. I resisted when Audrey Niffenegger told me I had to read it, but when my daughter Holly told me how much she loved it, I knew I would have to succumb.