Which classic novel did you recently read for the first time?
“Moby-Dick.” I read it first, and then I listened to it. I actually preferred having it read to me — having all the voices of the characters acted out was great.
Whose writing today most inspires you?
Graphic memoirs/novels are very inspiring to me. It feels like a very supple and new form. There are too many nongraphic memoir/novel writers whose work I love to name them all. George Saunders, Elif Batuman, Rachel Cusk, Matthew Klam, Rivka Galchen, Jeffrey Eugenides, Jennifer Egan, Emma Donoghue, Kazuo Ishiguro …
What kinds of books bring you the most reading pleasure these days?
I love contemporary fiction, but I also love long, older novels. I love getting involved with the characters, and also getting a sense of another time and place. Right now, I’m listening to “The Old Curiosity Shop.” Listening to a book while working on a craft project, like hooking a rug or embroidering, is my idea of a really good time.
Which genres do you avoid?
Not a big fan of fantasy, although I’m O.K. with some science fiction. I avoid books about romance, sports, detailed history of wars (“And then General Eisenhower said …”), books about secrets of success, and that whole genre of self-help books that seem to be pitched mainly to women about exercise, diets, being “mindful,” etc. Depressing.
The last book that made you laugh?
“Trashed,” the graphic novel about a garbage collector that I mentioned before. At one point, the garbage collector is taunted by a jerky kid. Later that day while on his route, he sees that kid from behind and throws a bag of garbage at him. When the kid turns around, he realizes it’s just some poor bespectacled shlub who happens to be wearing the same shirt as the taunter. He muses about how, for the rest of his life, that kid is going to wonder why a trash collector threw a bag of garbage at him.
The last book that made you cry?
“A Tale of Two Cities.” That scene at the end, where the little seamstress and Sydney Carton are being taken to the guillotine. She’s terrified and asks him to hold her hand, which he does. You feel that even though she knew she was still going to have her head chopped off, he was able, somehow, to take a tiny bit of the terror away. That got to me.
The last book that made you furious?
“The Power Broker.” Robert Moses may have been a genius and a visionary, but he was also a horrible jerk. He idealized cars and loathed public transportation. Interestingly, he never learned how to drive, so his whole idea of driving and cars was shaped by a life spent in the back of limousines.
What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?
“The Art of the Deal.” Kidding!!! As if!!!!!!!!
Who is your favorite fictional hero or heroine? Your favorite antihero or villain?
Hero? So many. Nick Carraway. Lily Bart. Harriet the Spy. Antihero? Definitely Tom Ripley.
What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?
Voracious. Books were an escape from boredom and loneliness and also worries. I loved “The Wizard of Oz,” all the “Eloise” books, “Alice in Wonderland,” “Harriet the Spy.” I loved the whole “Betsy-Tacy” series. Generally I preferred fiction to nonfiction.
If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be?
What makes you so sure he knows how to read?
You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?
Edith Wharton, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Marcel Proust. It would probably be incredibly awkward and embarrassing. I would be dumbstruck by my love and awe of them. They would probably be annoyed and wondering why I woke them from the dead and brought them to this lame dinner. On top of everything else, my cooking is terrible. Maybe their mutual irritation at me and their dislike of the food would be a conversation starter.
Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?
“Infinite Jest.” I’ve tried twice to read it, and feel terrible about not being able to get past page 85 or so.
Who would you want to write your life story?