Do you distinguish between “commercial” and “literary” fiction? Where’s that line, for you?
I’m sure there is a distinction, but I hate thinking in those terms, because they pretend to know the writer’s intent. I imagine every writer wants literary respect and every writer wants commercial success. These terms suggest a lack of respect for how difficult both things are. Once, during the eight years between novels, my mail carrier caught me at the mailbox looking for a check. He asked what was taking so long with my new book. “A novel takes time,” I explained. “You have to research it, craft it, find the thematic strands, tear it apart, rework it.” He shrugged. “James Patterson published three books this year and I liked them all.” Point, mailman.
How do you organize your books?
Intuitively, unalphabetized on dedicated bookshelves. I have a bookshelf for hardcovers of novels that are meaningful to me (Don DeLillo to Gabriel García Márquez to Edward P. Jones to Marilynne Robinson), other bookshelves for “classics,” shelves for nonfiction and poetry, one for autographed books, and a few “general public” shelves with great books for my adult children to pilfer — which they do. In my office, I keep bookshelves for current research, books on writing and stellar examples of what I hope to do next. (Last year, it was covered with historical fiction; now, it’s dedicated to story collections.)
What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?
I probably have more poetry than someone might expect of such a bad poet. I tend to dip in and out, read a poem here and there, recently from Jericho Brown, James Tate, Dorianne Laux, Christopher Howell, Natasha Trethewey, Robert Wrigley …
What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?
Pretty typical. As a kid, I loved nonfiction about dinosaurs and space, and fiction about time travel: H. G. Wells, Ray Bradbury and Madeleine L’Engle. My favorite book was “Treasure Island,” so much so that when my grandfather told me stories of hopping freight trains to find farm jobs during the Depression, I imagined it like stowing away on a pirate ship.
You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?
Having never hosted a literary dinner party, this idea terrifies me. Especially if dead people start showing up. I did once have a great meal with Laura Lippman and Anakana Schofield (whose new book, “Bina,” is terrific), and we were so clever and funny, I could imagine Dorothy Parker wanting to rise from the grave to join us.
What books are you embarrassed not to have read yet?
Oh, pretty much all of them. Classics and best sellers and thrillers and books by writers’ writers, poems and essays and books by friends and books that friends recommend. After 40 years of trying to catch up, I still live in a state of behind-on-my-homework anxiety, which is maybe natural for the autodidact, the fear that at any moment someone might ask me about Proust and I will say how much I enjoyed “The Shipping News.”
What do you plan to read next?
I just cracked Christopher Beha’s “The Index of Self-Destructive Acts,” which starts like this: “What makes a life, Sam Waxworth sometimes wondered — self or circumstance?”