Writers on Literature and the Literary Life from The New York Times Book Review

Sixty-five of the world’s leading writers open up about the books and authors that have meant the most to them

Every Sunday, readers of The New York Times Book Review turn with anticipation to see which novelist, historian, short story writer, or artist will be the subject of the popular By the Book feature. These wide-ranging interviews are conducted by Pamela Paul, the editor of the Book Review, and here she brings together sixty-five of the most intriguing and fascinating exchanges, featuring personalities as varied as David Sedaris, Hilary Mantel, Michael Chabon, Khaled Hosseini, Anne Lamott, and James Patterson. The questions and answers admit us into the private worlds of these authors, as they reflect on their work habits, reading preferences, inspirations, pet peeves, and recommendations.

For the devoted reader, By the Book is a way to invite sixty-five of the most interesting guests into your world. It’s a book party not to be missed. Contributors include:

  • Lena Dunham

    Lena Dunham

    Lena Dunham is the creator, producer, and star of HBO’s Girls and the author of Not That Kind of Girl.

  • Neil Gaiman

    Neil Gaiman

    Neil Gaiman is the author of Coraline, The Graveyard Book, Odd and the Frost Giants, The Wolves in the Walls, and The Ocean at the End of the Lane, among other books.

  • Mary Higgins Clark

    Mary Higgins Clark

    Mary Higgins Clark has written suspense novels, collections of short stories, a historical novel, children’s books, and a memoirm.

  • Drew Gilpin Faust

    Drew Gilpin

    Drew Gilpin Faust is the president of Harvard University and the author of Mothers of Invention, among other books.

  • Carl Hiaasen

    Carl Hiaasen

    Carl Hiaasen is the author of numerous books for adults and children, including Bad Monkey, Star Island, Nature Girl, Skinny Dip, Sick Puppy, and Lucky You.

  • John Irving

    John Irving

    John Irving is the author of The World According to Garp, The Cider House Rules, In One Person, and A Prayer for Owen Meany, among other books.

  • Elizabeth Gilbert

    Elizabeth Gilbert

    Elizabeth Gilbert is the author of Eat, Pray, Love. Her other books include The Last American Man, Committed, and The Signature of All Things.

  • Richard Ford

    Richard Ford

    Richard Ford is the author of The Sportswriter, Independence Day, Canada, and The Lay of the Land, among other novels.

  • Colin Powell

    Colin Powell

    Colin Powell is a former secretary of state, national security adviser, and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. His books include My American Journey and It Worked for Me.

  • Dave Eggers

    Dave Eggers

    Dave Eggers is the author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, How We Are Hungry, You Shall Know Our Velocity, What is the What, Zeitoun, and A Hologram for the King, among other books.

  • Sylvia Nasar

    Sylvia Nasar

    Sylvia Nasar is the author of A Beautiful Mind and Grand Pursuit, She teaches at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

  • Ira Glass

    Ira Glass

    Ira Glass is the producer and host of the public radio program “This American Life.”

  • Junot Diaz

    Junot Díaz

    Junot Díaz is the author of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, This Is How You Lose Her, and Drown.

  • Joyce Carol Oates

    Joyce Carol Oates

    Joyce Carol Oates is the author of more than forty novels, including We Were the Mulvaneys, Blonde, and The Accursed.

  • Nicholson Baker

    Nicholson Baker

    Nicholson Baker is the author of novels including The Anthologist, Vox, and The Fermata, and works of nonfiction including Human Smoke and Double Fold.

  • Emma Thompson

    Emma Thompson

    Emma Thompson is an Oscar-winning screenwriter and actress who is also the author of two children’s books.

  • Michael Chabon

    Michael Chabon

    Michael Chabon is the author of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Wonder Boys, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, The Yiddish Policemen's Union, and Telegraph Avenue, among other books.

  • Jeffrey Eugenides

    Jeffrey Eugenides

    Jeffrey Eugenides is the author of The Virgin Suicides, Middlesex, and The Marriage Plot.

  • JK Rowling

    JK Rowling

    J. K. Rowling is the author of the Harry Potter series and the novels The Casual Vacancy, The Cuckoo’s Calling, and The Silkworm, the last two under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith.

  • David Mitchell

    David Mitchell

    David Mitchell is the author of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, Black Swan Green, Cloud Atlas, Number9Dream, and Ghostwritten.

  • John Grisham

    John Grisham

    John Grisham is the author of The Firm, A Time to Kill, and Sycamore Row, among other novels.

  • PJ O’Rourke

    PJ O’Rourke

    P. J. O'Rourke is the author of books on politics, economics, and cultural commentary, including Parliament of Whores, Give War a Chance, and Eat the Rich.

  • Anne Lamott

    Anne Lamott

    Anne Lamott is the author of many books including Operating Instructions, Bird by Bird, Traveling Mercies, Some Assembly Required, and Help, Thanks, Wow.

  • Ian McEwan

    Ian McEwan

    Ian McEwan is the author of the novels Amsterdam, Atonement, Saturday, Solar, and On Chesil Beach, among other books.

  • Lee Child

    Lee Child

    Lee Child is the author of a series of thrillers featuring the protagonist Jack Reacher, including Killing Floor, The Enemy, and One Shot.  

  • Arnold Schwarzenegger

    Arnold Schwarzenegger

    Arnold Schwarzenegger served as governor of California from 2003 to 2011. Before that, he was an actor and a champion body builder. He is the author of the memoir Total Recall, among other books.

  • Francine Prose

    Francine Prose

    Francine Prose is the author of many books including Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932; A Changed Man; Blue Angel; Anne Frank,; and Reading Like a Writer.

  • Jared Diamond

    Jared Diamond

    Jared Diamond is a professor of geography at UCLA and the author of Guns, Germs, and Steel; Collapse; and The World Until Yesterday; among other books.

  • Alain de Botton

    Alain de Botton

    Alain de Botton is the author of How Proust Can Change Your Life, The Art of Travel and The Consolations of Philosophy, among other books.

  • Dave Barry

    Dave Barry

    Dave Barry is the author, most recently, of Insane City, I’ll Mature When I’m Dead, and Dave Barry’s History of the Millennium (So Far).

  • Katherine Boo

    Katherine Boo

    Katherine Boo is a staff writer at The New Yorker and the author of Behind the Beautiful Forevers.

  • Marilynne Robinson

    Marilynne Robinson

    Marilynne Robinson is the author of Housekeeping, Gilead, Home, and Mother Country, among other books.

  • Sheryl Sandberg

    Sheryl Sandberg

    Sheryl Sandberg is the chief operating officer at Facebook and the author of Lean In.

  • Caroline Kennedy

    Caroline Kennedy

    Caroline Kennedy is the U.S. ambassador to Japan and the editor of books on American history, politics, constitutional law and poetry, including She Walks in Beauty and A Family of Poems.

  • Isabel Allende

    Isabel Allende

    Isabel Allende is the author of The House of the Spirits, Eva Luna, and The Island Beneath the Sea, among other works.

  • Anna Quindlen

    Anna Quindlen

    Anna Quindlen is the author of novels and nonfiction works, including A Short Guide to a Happy Life, Object Lessons, Still Life with Breadcrumbs, and One True Thing.

  • Jonathan Franzen

    Jonathan Franzen

    Jonathan Franzen is the author of Freedom and The Corrections, among other books.

  • Hilary Mantel

    Hilary Mantel

    Hilary Mantel is the author of twelve books, including the novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies and the short story collection The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher.

  • Walter Mosley

    Walter Mosley

    Walter Mosley is the author of many books including the Easy Rawlins mysteries series, which started with Devil in a Blue Dress.

  • Khaled Hosseini

    Khaled Hosseini

    Khaled Hosseini is the author of The Kite Runner, A Thousand Splendid Suns, and And the Mountains Echoed.

  • Jeannette Walls

    Jeannette Walls

    Jeannette Walls is the author of books including The Glass Castle, The Silver Star, and Half Broke Horses.

  • Dan Brown

    Dan Brown

    Dan Brown is the author of The Da Vinci Code, Inferno, The Lost Symbol, Angels & Demons, Deception Point, and Digital Fortress.

  • Dan Savage

    Dan Savage

    Dan Savage is the author of It Gets Better, American Savage, Skipping Towards Gomorrah, and The Kid, among other books.

  • Christopher Buckley

    Christopher Buckley

    Christopher Buckley is the author of Thank You For Smoking, Losing Mum And Pup, and But Enough About You, among other books.

  • Curtis Sittenfeld

    Curtis Sittenfeld

    Curtis Sittenfeld is the author of the novels Prep, The Man of My Dreams, Sisterland, and American Wife.

  • James McBride

    James McBride

    James McBride is the author of The Good Lord Bird, The Color of Water, Song Yet Sung, and Miracle at St. Anna.

  • James Patterson

    James Patterson

    James Patterson is the author of many books including the Alex Cross novels, which include Kiss the Girls and Along Came a Spider; the Women's Murder Club novels; and the Michael Bennett series.

  • Jonathan Lethem

    Jonathan Lethem

    Jonathan Lethem is the author of Motherless Brooklyn, The Fortress of Solitude, Dissident Gardens, and Chronic City, among other books.

  • Jhumpa Lahiri

    Jhumpa Lahiri

    Jhumpa Lahiri is the author of the Interpreter of Maladies, The Namesake, Unaccustomed Earth, and The Lowland.

  • Richard Dawkins

    Richard Dawkins

    Richard Dawkins is the author of many books including The God Delusion, The Selfish Gene, and An Appetite for Wonder.

  • Sting


    Sting is an award-winning singer, songwriter, and human rights activist. He is the author of Broken Music: A Memoir.

  • Andrew Solomon

    Andrew Solomon

    Andrew Solomon is the author of Far From the Tree and The Noonday Demon.

  • Malcolm Gladwell

    Malcolm Gladwell

    Malcolm Gladwell is the author of The Tipping Point, Blink, Outliers, What the Dog Saw, and David and Goliath.

  • Scott Turow

    Scott Turow

    Scott Turow is the author of Presumed Innocent, Innocent, and Identical, among other novels. His works of nonfiction include One L and Ultimate Punishment.

  • Donna Tartt

    Donna Tartt

    Donna Tartt is the author of the novels The Goldfinch, The Secret History, and The Little Friend.

  • Ann Patchett

    Ann Patchett

    Ann Patchett is the author of Bel Canto, The Patron Saint of Liars, and Truth and Beauty, among other books.

  • Amy Tan

    Amy Tan

    Amy Tan is the author of The Joy Luck Club, The Kitchen God's Wife, The Hundred Secret Senses, The Bonesetter's Daughter, Saving Fish from Drowning, and The Valley of Amazement, among other books.

  • Bryan Cranston

    Bryan Cranston

    Bryan Cranston is an actor best known for his starring roles on the television series Breaking Bad and Malcolm in the Middle, and is the winner of three Emmy awards and a Golden Globe award.

  • Michael Connelly

    Michael Connelly

    Michael Connelly is the author of many books including The Black Box, The Drop, The Fifth Witness, The Reversal, The Scarecrow, The Brass Verdict, The Lincoln Lawyer, and the Harry Bosch series.

  • Neil DeGrasse Tyson

    Neil DeGrasse Tyson

    Neil deGrasse Tyson is the director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History, the host of Cosmos: A Space-Time Odyssey, and the author of The Pluto Files, among other books.

  • E.L. Doctorow

    E.L. Doctorow

    E.L. Doctorow is the author of many books including The Book of Daniel, Ragtime, Loon Lake, World's Fair, Billy Bathgate, The March, and most recently, Andrew’s Brain.

  • Chang rae-Lee

    Chang rae-Lee

    Chang-rae Lee is the author of Native Speaker, A Gesture Life, Aloft, The Surrendered, and On Such a Full Sea.

  • Gary Shteyngart

    Gary Shteyngart

    Gary Shteyngart is the author of the novels Super Sad True Love Story, Absurdistan, and The Russian Debutante’s Handbook. His most recent book is Little Failure: A Memoir.

  • Rachel Kushner

    Rachel Kushner

    Rachel Kushner is the author of The Flamethrowers and Telex from Cuba.

  • David Sedaris

    David Sedaris

    David Sedaris is the author of Me Talk Pretty One Day, Naked, When You Are Engulfed in Flames, and Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls, among other books.

By the Book contains the full uncut interviews, offering a range of experiences and observations that deepens readers’ understanding of the literary sensibility and the writing process. It also features dozens of sidebars that reveal the commonalities and conflicts among the participants, underscoring those influences that are truly universal and those that remain matters of individual taste.

Click here to read the full David Sedaris By the Book

David Sedaris

David Sedaris

David Sedaris is the author of Me Talk Pretty One Day, Naked, When You Are Engulfed in Flames, and Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls, among other books.

What book is on your night stand now?
I was a judge for this year’s Scholastic Art and Writing Awards, so until very recently I was reading essays written by clever high school students. Now I’ve started Shalom Auslander’s Hope: A Tragedy. His last book, Foreskin’s Lament, really made me laugh.

When and where do you like to read?
Throughout my twenties and early thirties—my two-books-per-week years—I did most of my reading at the International House of Pancakes. I haven’t been to one in ages, but at the time, if you went at an off-peak hour, they’d give you a gallon-sized pot of coffee and let you sit there as long as you liked. Now, though, with everyone hollering into their cellphones, it’s much harder to read in public, so I tend to do it at home, most often while reclining.

What was the last truly great book you read?
I’ve read a lot of books that I loved recently. Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, by a woman named Barbara Demick, was a real eye-opener. In terms of “great,” as in “This person seems to have reinvented the English language,” I’d say Wells Tower’s Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned. What an exciting story collection it is, unlike anything I’ve ever come across.

Click here to read the full David Sedaris By the Book

J.K. Rowling

JK Rowling

J. K. Rowling is the author of the Harry Potter series and the novels The Casual Vacancy, The Cuckoo’s Calling, and The Silkworm, the last two under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith.

What were your favorite books as a child?
The Little White Horse, by Elizabeth Goudge; Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott; Manxmouse, by Paul Gallico; everything by Noel Streatfeild; everything by E. Nesbit; Black Beauty, by Anna Sewell (indeed, anything with a horse in it).

Did you have a favorite character or hero as a child? Do you have a literary hero as an adult?
My favorite literary heroine is Jo March. It is hard to overstate what she meant to a small, plain girl called Jo, who had a hot temper and a burning ambition to be a writer.

What’s the best book your mother ever gave or read to you?
She gave me virtually all the books mentioned above. My most vivid memory of being read to is my father reading The Wind in the Willows when I was around four and suffering from the measles. In fact, that’s all I remember about having the measles: Ratty, Mole, and Badger.

If you could bring only three books to a desert island, which would you pack?
Collected works of Shakespeare (not cheating—I’ve got a single volume of them); collected works of P. G. Wodehouse (two volumes, but I’m sure I could find one); collected works of Colette.

Marilynne Robinson

Marilynne Robinson

Marilynne Robinson is the author of HousekeepingGilead, Home, and Mother Country, among other books.

Are you a rereader? What books do you find yourself returning to again and again?
I do reread. I tend to think of the reading of any book as preparation for the next reading of it. There are always intervening books or facts or realizations that put a book in another light and make it different and richer the second or the third time.

If you could meet any writer, dead or alive, who would it be? What would you want to know?
A wonderful writer has given the best of herself or himself in the work. I think many of them are frustrated by the thinness and inadequacy of ordinary spoken language, of ordinary contact even with the people they know best and love best. They turn to writing for this reason. I think many of them are magnanimous in a degree their lives cannot otherwise express. To meet Emily Dickinson or Henry James would be, from their side, to intrude on them, maybe even to make them feel inadequate to expectation. I can’t imagine being a sufficient reason for the disruption. We do have their books. That said, I would like to meet William James.

Malcolm Gladwell

Malcolm Gladwell

Malcolm Gladwell is the author of The Tipping Point, Blink, Outliers, What the Dog Saw, and David and Goliath.

Many a book is now touted as The Tipping Point for X or Y, or generally Gladwellian. What do you make of the many imitators and homages?
I’m flattered, naturally. Although I should point out that it is sometimes said that I invented this genre. I did not. Richard Nisbett and Lee Ross did.

In general, what kinds of stories are you drawn to? Any you steer clear of?
I don’t think I will ever write about politics or foreign policy. I feel like there is so much good writing in those areas that I have little to add. I also like to steer clear of writing about people whom I do not personally like. My rule is that if I interview someone, they should never read what I have to say about them and regret having given me the interview.

What books might we be surprised to find on your shelves?
I have—by conservative estimate—several hundred novels with the word “spy” in the title.

What do you plan to read next?
Something with the word “spy” in the title.

Pamela Paul

Earl Wilson / The New York Times

Pamela Paul is the editor of The New York Times Book Review and the author of Parenting, Inc., Pornified, and The Starter Marriage and the Future of Matrimony. Prior to joining the Times, Paul was a contributor to Time magazine and The Economist, and her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Washington Post, and Vogue. She and her family live in New York.

What kind of reader were you as a child? And what were your favorite childhood books?
I was the kind of obsessive and voracious reader that actually frightened grownups. My local public library was across the street from my elementary school and I would stop there for hours on the way home. I read the children’s library’s entire wall of biographies – I knew everything there was to know about Dolley Madison and Florence Nightingale. I begged the librarian to allow me to reshelve books for them but was sternly rebuffed. She must have seen a dangerous gleam in my eye.
As a child, I loved the twin titans of 70s girlhood: Beverly Cleary and Judy Blume. Also Madeleine L’Engle. I adored the “B is for Betsy” series by Carolyn Haywood and the “Ginnie and Geneva” series. I grew up with seven brothers so I did not like to read about boys. Even when I read Archie comics, I went for the Betty and Veronicas.

You’re hosting a literary dinner party. Which three writers are invited?
Dorothy Parker, H. L. Mencken and Mark Twain. It would be feisty and fierce – something would get spilled and someone might actually get hurt – but I could just lean back and listen, and wonder what each would write about it the next day.

Which three books do you bring to a desert island?
The Bible, because I never got past Cain and Abel in my children’s edition – too violent and male-centric. War and Peace because I’ve been meaning to re-read it, and this would give me a chance. The Golden Bowl because it was the one assigned book in college that I never got around to reading.

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