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

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.

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.

Do you consider yourself a fiction or a nonfiction person? What’s your favorite literary genre? Any guilty pleasures?
I like nonfiction books about people with wretched lives. The worse off the subjects, the more inclined I am to read about them. When it comes to fictional characters, I’m much less picky. Happy, confused, bitter: if I like the writing I’ll take all comers. I guess my guilty pleasure would be listening to the British audio versions of the Harry Potter books. They’re read by the great Stephen Fry, and I play them over and over, like an eight-year-old.

Childhood Inspiration

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?

— Neil Gaiman

What really made me want to be a writer was the Hardy Boys series, and also daily newspapers. My mom says I learned to read on the sports pages of the Miami Herald.

— Carl Hiaasen

Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, which my grandmother gave me when I was 9 years old and very impressionable. These were surely the books that inspired me to write, and Alice is the protagonist with whom I’ve most identified over the years. Her motto is, like my own, “Curiouser and curiouser!”

— Joyce Carol Oates

The truth is that the most beloved and the most formative books of my childhood were comic books, specifically Marvel Comics. Fantastic Four and Spider-Man, The Mighty Thor and The Invincible Iron Man; later came Daredevil and many others. These combinations of art and writing presented to me the complexities of character and the pure joy of imagining adventure. They taught me about writing dialect and how a monster can also be a hero. They lauded science and fostered the understanding that the world was more complex than any one mind, or indeed the history of all human minds, could comprehend.

— Walter Mosley

What book had the greatest impact on you? What book made you want to write?
I remember being floored by the first Raymond Carver collection I read: What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. His short, simple sentences and familiar-seeming characters made writing look, if not exactly easy, then at least possible. That book got me to work harder, but more important it opened the door to other contemporary short story writers like Tobias Wolff and Alice Munro.

If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be?
I would want him to read Is There No Place on Earth for Me?, Susan Sheehan’s great nonfiction book about a young schizophrenic woman. It really conveys the grinding wheel of mental illness.

What are your reading habits? Paper or electronic? Do you take notes? Do you snack while you read?
I sometimes read books on my iPad. It’s great for traveling, but paper versions are easier to mark up, and I like the feeling of accomplishment I get when measuring the number of pages I’ve just finished—“Three-quarters of an inch!” I like listening to books as well, as that way you can iron at the same time. Notewise, whenever I read a passage that moves me, I transcribe it in my diary, hoping my fingers might learn what excellence feels like.

What is your ideal reading experience? Do you prefer a book that makes you laugh or makes you cry? One that teaches you something or one that distracts you?
Yes, all the above.

What were your favorite books as a child? Do you have a favorite character or hero from one of those books? Is there one book you wish all children would read?
There was a series of biographies with orange covers in my elementary school library, and I must have read every one of them. Most of the subjects were presidents or founding fathers, but there were a few heroes thrown in as well: Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett. I loved reading about their early years, back when they were chopping firewood and doing their homework by candlelight, never suspecting that one day they would be famous. I wish all children would read Is There No Place on Earth for Me? That way they’d have something to talk about when they meet the president.

Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel as if you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?
Boy, did I have a hard time with Moby-Dick. I read it for an assignment ten years ago and realized after the first few pages that without some sort of a reward system I was never going to make any progress. I told myself that I couldn’t bathe, shave, brush my teeth, or change my clothes until I had finished it. In the end, I stunk much more than the book did.

What’s the funniest book you’ve ever read?
The staff of The Onion put out an atlas that gives me a stomachache every time I read it. I can just open it randomly, and any line I come upon makes me laugh. For funny stories it’s Jincy Willett, Sam Lipsyte, Flannery O’Connor, and George Saunders. Oh, and I love Paul Rudnick in The New Yorker.

What’s the one book you wish someone else would write?
I’d love to read a concise, nonhysterical biography of Michael Jackson. I just want to know everything about him.

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?
I’m horrible at meeting people I admire, but if I could go back in time, I’d love to collect kindling or iron a few shirts for Flannery O’Connor. After I’d finished, she’d offer to pay me, and I’d say, awestruck, my voice high and quivering, that it was on me.

If somebody walked in on you writing one of your books, what would they see? What does your work space look like?
When stuck, I tend to get up from my desk and clean, so if someone walked in they’d most likely find me washing my windows, or dusting the radiator I’d just dusted half an hour earlier.

Do you remember the last book that someone personally recommended you read and that you enjoyed? Who recommended you read it, and what persuaded you to pick it up?
My sister Amy and I have similar tastes in nonfiction, and on her recommendation I recently read and enjoyed Tiger, Tiger, by Margaux Fragoso.

What do you plan to read next?
I’m looking forward to the new Michael Chabon book. I loved The Yiddish Policemen’s Union.

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

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