What books are on your night stand?
“We, the Drowned,” by Carsten Jensen; “The Betrothed,” by Alessandro Manzoni; “Utopia for Realists: How We Can Build the Ideal World,” by Rutger Bregman; and “Binti,” by Nnedi Okorafor.
What’s the last great book you read?
“The Buried Giant,” by Kazuo Ishiguro.
What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of?
“The Land of Spices,” by Kate O’Brien. I know people in Ireland are well acquainted with this author because of interviews I’ve done there, where it’s obvious she’s quite beloved, but no one in my circle of book-loving friends and colleagues here on this side of the Atlantic has ever heard of this book. Published in 1941, this quiet, luminous little book had a profound impact on me when I read it about a decade ago — both spiritually, as a seeker, and as a writer. My goodness, there is something about the way the Irish write that just gets me.
What book should everybody read before the age of 21?
“The Lord of the Rings.”
What book should nobody read until the age of 40?
If you could rephrase the question to be “what book should someone reread after 40?” I would say “Dubliners.”
Which writers — novelists, playwrights, critics, journalists, poets — working today do you admire most?
Kazuo Ishiguro, because of the expanse of his work. An English butler in 1930s Oxford. Children raised for body parts in a dystopian future. Saxon warriors in Arthurian times. I love when authors don’t repeat themselves, but jump in space and time to write whatever the heck they want.
Which children’s books would you recommend to people who don’t usually read children’s books?
There are too many to name, but here are a few: “A Long Walk to Water,” by Linda Sue Park; “Refugee,” by Alan Gratz; “The Book Thief,” by Markus Zusak; “When You Reach Me,” by Rebecca Stead. People who never venture into the kids’ section of bookstores don’t know how much they’re missing.
Which subjects do you wish more authors would write about?
Authors should write whatever they want to write.
What moves you most in a work of literature?
Without doubt, the thing that gets me every time is when I come across an unexpected moment of tenderness between people. I remember reading “The Road” on the subway one morning, and I was just crying like a baby. It was embarrassing. Sure, it’s a novel full of unbelievable violence and apocalyptic nightmare stuff, but the humanity and love is there right from the first line of the book. “When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him.” Has there ever been a better first line? It’s all right there — darkness and light, and love.
How do you organize your books?
I organize novels by region and then country. So I have a shelf for Germany, Russia, Italy, France, Spain, Africa, Asia, Latin America, etc. Then, separately, I have a sci-fi and fantasy section, ancient literature, Y.A., nonfiction, etc. Every shelf is then sorted by time periods — oldest on the left.
What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?
I got very into the works of the original creators of the literary fairy tale genre a few years ago — the women, like Madame d’Aulnoy and Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de La Force, who wrote stories to entertain themselves and their friends in the salons of Louis XIV. These were very subversive tales that empowered these women and vented their wishful fantasies — often published in the literary gazettes of their day. I have five original Mercure Galant books from the 1600s in which some of these stories first appeared.
What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently?
I learned from a book called “Gowanus,” by Joseph Alexiou, that Al Capone grew up near the canal not too far from where I live, in a house that still stands.
Has a book ever brought you closer to another person, or come between you?
Both my sons recently read “Les Misérables,” and the amazing conversations that were sparked by the grandness of that enormous volume are among the best I’ve ever had. I love how affected they both were, not only by the heroic intentions of young people their age, but by the small affirmations of human goodness reflected in the subtlest of gestures, the briefest of dialogues. I can’t say these conversations made us actually closer than we already are, but when your children become adults with whom you can have deep, philosophic conversations that blow your mind, well, it’s really a joyful, exuberant, life-affirming moment in the life of a parent.
You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?
While I wouldn’t mind nerding out with Carl Sagan, J.R.R. Tolkien and Arthur C. Clarke, I’ll keep it to the living: Susanna Clarke, Margaret Atwood and Judy Blume. Can you guys arrange that?