What’s the last book that made you laugh?
“Heads of the Colored People,” by Nafissa Thompson-Spires. We need a new word for this story collection. Dark humor isn’t quite it. But it’s close. It’s dark; it’s funny; but it’s kind, too.
The last book to make you cry?
“White Houses,” by Amy Bloom. At the center of this great American novel is the great American love story of Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok. Eleanor is the name everyone knows, but after this book Lorena will be a name you will never forget. Love is always hard and always worth it.
The last book that made you furious?
“Cutting School,” by Noliwe Rooks. My hair almost caught on fire when I read the chapter about single moms tossed into prison — prison — for trying to enroll their children into schools in better-resourced neighborhoods. Imagine little kids stuck in foster care all because their mothers wanted them to have a decent education. I threw the book across the room and paced the floor. This is an important work; hopefully it will make people mad enough to act.
Sing the praises of an overlooked or underappreciated writer we should know about.
Katherine Vaz is the sort of fiction writer who makes me wonder why the rest of us even bother. Much of her work explores the Luso-American experience in California, where she was born and raised. Her work has a delicious sadness to it that I couldn’t quite define until I visited Lisbon. The Portuguese have this emotion they called “saudade,” a sort of beautiful longing. Imagine the blues, but a little bluer and not as funny. It brings to mind what Toni Morrison says in the dedication to “Sula” about the “sheer good fortune to miss somebody long before they leave you.” It’s the textured sadness that comes from love. My favorite book of Vaz’s is ”Our Lady of the Artichokes.”
Which writers — novelists, playwrights, critics, journalists, poets — working today do you admire most?
Toni Morrison, Jim Grimsley, Sarah Schulman, Nikole Hannah-Jones , Bridgett M. Davis, Jayne Anne Phillips, Edwidge Danticat, Elmaz Abinader, John Keene, Aleshea Harris and Pearl Cleage.
Which genres do you especially enjoy reading? And which do you avoid?
I adore mysteries, but I don’t care for thrillers. I like my dead body in Chapter 1, and then spending the rest of the novel figuring it out. Motives should be love, money or revenge. Spare me the sick stuff. I don’t care for thrillers that spend every other chapter in the mind of a psychopath who murders prostitutes with a potato peeler. I’ll take Kinsey Millhone over a down-and-dirty Scandinavian any day.
How do you like to read? Paper or electronic? One book at a time or simultaneously? Morning or night?
The dreamiest setup for reading is a hardcover book and a first-class seat on an overseas flight. I accepted a gig in Dubai just for 18 hours of luxurious reading time. But in real life, just give me morning light and a clean, quiet room. No screens.
What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?
I was reared in an unreligious household, so most friends are surprised to find a Bible on my shelf. My father marvels that I can recite so many of the Psalms. I’ve come to understand that, as a black Southerner, I am a Christian, whether I am observant or not. It’s woven into the fabric of the culture. There are a lot of us — people who may not belong to a church, but are fluent in the language and sensibility of religion. I don’t know that I could write a good book about the South without being well versed in the Good Book.
What’s the best book you’ve ever received as a gift?
My greatest desire is to own the entire “Schomburg Library of Nineteenth-Century Black Women Writers.” Forty dainty hardcovers. I had my eye on a set online, but my dear friend (and genius playwright) Branden Jacobs-Jenkins bought it out from under me before I got my coins together. “Don’t be mad,” he said. We found another set, but the deal fell through. This year he shared his volumes with me. I am most intrigued by “A Biografy of the Slav Who Whipt Her Mistres and Gand Her Fredom.”
Who is your favorite fictional hero or heroine? Your favorite antihero or villain?
I tend to fall for the minor characters, the scene stealers. About three-fourths of the way through “Song of Solomon,” First Corinthians, the neglected sister, rises up and gives her brother some inspired suggestions as to where he can shove his toxic masculinity. For me, she’s the jewel of Morrison’s whole oeuvre.
What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?
When I was a kid, I was even more of a reader than I am now. My mother, who is notoriously frugal, never put limits on books. “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry” was my favorite novel, but Judy Blume was my favorite author. So many wonderful novels! She wrote about a world starkly different from my Georgia upbringing — New Jersey seemed so exotic. (Maybe this is why I moved to Jersey City in my 30s.) In 2010, I met Ms. Blume, and like a real-life fairy godmother, she led me to a publisher for my third novel. Seriously. This really happened. She saved my career. It was like my bookish childhood rescued me.
You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?
If I can’t have Toni Morrison all to myself, I’d love to add Lucille Clifton and Maurice Sendak.
Who would you want to write your life story?
If you could ghostwrite someone else’s life story, whose would it be?
What do you plan to read next?
“The Overstory,” by Richard Powers. He’s brilliant.