What books are on your nightstand?
I have been rereading some old wonders such as Georges Simenon’s “The Train,” J. L. Carr’s “A Month in the Country” and Janet Lewis’s “The Wife of Martin Guerre.” And discovering two forthcoming books: Dionne Brand’s “The Blue Clerk” — part poem, part memoir, part ars poetica — and P. Ahilan’s “Then There Were No Witnesses,” his poems set in Jaffna during the war, translated by Geetha Sukumaran.
What was the last truly great book you read?
Actually I am still reading it. Gilbert White’s “The Natural History of Selborne,” published by the wonderful Little Toller Books in Dorset, which keeps great books on nature in print. Written in 1798, it has the atmosphere and many of the qualities of a great English novel, except that the Bennet family has been replaced by weather and landscapes, as well as the seasonal arrival of visiting insects, all of them faultlessly described. White’s writing, with his depiction of a returning rainstorm or the slow wanderings of his tortoise, is great literature at a perfect pace, every creature dressed and portrayed in quick-witted adjectives; and he enthralls us with his knowledge of crickets, who are a “thirsty race,” who “open communications from one room to another” and who can sometimes foretell the death of a near relation or the approach of an absent lover. The book is a classic and has never been out of print since its first publication.
Which writers — novelists, essayists, memoirists, poets — working today do you admire most?
Luckily books do not die. So Willa Cather, Joseph Roth, Mavis Gallant, Robert Creeley, Tomas Transtromer, Penelope Fitzgerald, Lorine Niedecker and Derek Walcott are still with me, safe from the rush hour of present-day publishing. My favorite contemporaries are too many to mention, but some of their books include: Graham Swift’s “Waterland”; David Malouf’s “An Imaginary Life”; Don DeLillo’s “The Names” and “Libra”; “Fat City,” by Leonard Gardner; “The Round House,” by Louise Erdrich; “Train Dreams,” by Denis Johnson; John Ehle’s “The Land Breakers”; and essays by Annie Dillard and Donald Richie. Also the poets Don Patterson, Phyllis Webb, Karen Solie, Ko Un, Brenda Hillman and Alice Oswald’s “Memorial,” a remarkable book-length poem about the unknown dead in the Trojan War.
What’s your favorite thing to read? And what do you avoid reading?
I love memoirs that include the usually uncaught world around the writer, such as C. L. R. James’s “Beyond a Boundary,” Mikhail Bulgakov’s “A Country Doctor’s Notebook” or Raja Shehadeh’s “Palestinian Walks.” I am a various reader and am drawn to mongrel genres that slide as if unaware into new territories. Amitav Ghosh’s “In an Antique Land,” with its mixture of memoir and unearthed history, that was written in 1992, still feels an essential book of our time.
I also have a love for those books that joyously capture an art, such as Wilfrid Sheed’s “The House That George Built,” about songwriters from Gershwin to the present, or David Thomson’s succinct and opinionated essays on films in “Have You Seen…?”
I avoid all thrillers that begin with an unnamed killer stalking someone during the first chapter.
You used to work with doctors, in a class aimed at bridging the divide between medicine and the humanities. What did you have them read?
John Berger’s “Pig Earth,” Joan Didion, and I think some Isaac Babel stories. As well as Anne Carson and C. D. Wright’s poetry, among others. This was at Columbia University’s medical school, and they were wonderful students; in some ways, they read books more perceptively than the usual academic students. As if a character flaw resided in a specific and therefore limited area, such as the liver. So the problem could be eventually overcome.
Who’s your favorite poet-turned-novelist?
Thomas Hardy? D. H. Lawrence? Stephen Crane? Might as well begin at the top. I love the fact that when Hardy returned to poetry at the end of his life the critics were outraged, even though these were in fact his great poems. I also admire Raymond Carver’s poems as much as his prose. And although Faulkner’s poetry was not very good, he luckily turned to novels.
What are your favorite movies or shows based on books?
My favorite films adapted from books are “The Emigrants” and “The New Land,” both made by the Swedish filmmaker Jan Troell, based on two novels by Vilhelm Moberg — the first one set in Sweden in the 19th century until the central family leaves by ship — a terrible deadly journey — and the second about their arrival in America at the time of the Gold Rush. These films are masterpieces, the work of a grandmaster who made them when he was young. I have also always loved Robert Rossen’s “The Hustler,” based on the Walter Tevis novel, with its documentary style of camera work and Dede Allen’s editing. But in one sense the most remarkable “adaptation” — of a life story, as much as a book into film — is “The Arbor” — Clio Barnard’s mixture of the fictional use of actors with “nonfictional” recorded dialogue, about the Bradford playwright Andrea Dunbar. This is, I think, one of the stunning films of our time.
What’s the last book that made you cry?
“The Journey of August King,” the last chapter, by the greatly overlooked American novelist John Ehle, where a young man who has been brave in breaking every code that his Southern background stood for feels he has not been brave enough. Also, in Sam Shepard’s very last book, the dedication written by his children.
The last book that made you laugh?
“Animals With Sharpies,” by Michael Dumontier and Neil Farber, published by Drawn and Quarterly. Not to be missed!
The last book that made you furious?
Usually I get bored and quit before I get furious.
What kind of reader were you as a child?
Strangely I have no recollection of reading when I was young, or even being read to. I must have just listened and watched everything that was taking place around me, more doglike than future scribbler. The conversations and arguments during dinner probably sounded enough like a continuingly complex and layered novel to me. And perhaps at that time in my life it was more important to learn how to swim. As a writer now it is still the act of watching and listening.
Who is your favorite fictional hero or heroine? Your favorite antihero or villain?
Was it Calvino who said Mercutio? But that was a brief life. Kipling’s Kim in spite of the many ironies about him? But mostly I like those characters who hover awkwardly on the periphery of the plot, like Ezra Jennings in Wilkie Collins’s “The Moonstone,” someone unimportant, who in the end helps solve the mystery. I am drawn to the ones who will never be there at the climax of the book. Convicts, abandoned lovers, the dog that pulled someone out of quicksand, a crow in a Dickens novel. I spend quite a bit of time imagining the rest of their lives.
What books would we be surprised to find on your shelves?
You will find a couple of shelves full of old Richard Stark paperbacks that I asked him to sign when I eventually met him. He seemed a bit stunned by what looked like well-read but battered and foxed editions of his old Fawcett paperbacks; they are still precious to me with the unforgiving and distant Parker as their central character. Richard Stark was only one of Donald Westlake’s pseudonyms, and my favorite story is that he blurbed one of his own books written under another name, saying, “I wish I had written this book.”
Also, because I was first published by small presses like Coach House Books in Toronto, I have a healthy collection of books from places like Melville House, Catapult, Bloodaxe Books, Archipelago, Carcanet, Talon, Copper Canyon and Little Toller Books.