You are a camera


Christopher Isherwood’s most-quoted line must surely be this one:

I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.

He’s speaking as the narrator of Goodbye to Berlin, a novel published in 1930. But the line is actually part of a paragraph, and the second line enriches the first:

I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking. Recording the man shaving at the window opposite and the woman in the kimono washing her hair.

So evocative, so haunting, the notion of the narrator—the writer—simply watching as all unfolds before him. Yet what an odd idea for a writer to assert. We understand the point he’s making, but it’s a set-up: the narrator is not as passive as Isherwood would like us to believe at first. At the very least, he’s chosen to be standing at his own window to observe what happens.

In fact, there’s a third line to that paragraph:

I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking. Recording the man shaving at the window opposite and the woman in the kimono washing her hair. Some day all this will have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed.

The third line is often left off when the quote is invoked, and I suspect it’s because the line changes the meaning of the previous two sentences. With that third line Isherwood admits, rather with a sigh, that the first two lines are wishful, romantic. In the third line he backs away from his viewing post, backs away from the charming but disingenuous misdirection he’s tried to sell us in the first two lines—and heads for the darkroom.

Now the narrator accepts the writer’s role: you are not, if you write, simply a passive camera taking in information as it comes. You are taking it in with the purpose of transforming it into something carefully considered and made permanent.

Isherwood hedges his assertion by setting it in the passive voice: Some day all this will have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed. As if it will happen by magic, without agency. But doesn’t he have his tongue firmly in his cheek when he suggests such a thing? Nothing happens in a writer’s writing without agency. Even the most stream-of-consciousness poet is the producer of his work.

A writer must sometimes be an outsider, and that can’t be ignored in Isherwood’s three lines: they are about the narrator being alone and separate, and yet being tasked with preserving his solitary observations carefully, responsibly, and permanently. Who assigns him this job? No one. No one has to. He will do it because he is it: he is the job. He’s not only the job, but he’s never not the job.

“Camera” is part of a metaphor about vision: internal, external, real, remembered, imagined, invented, constructed, appropriated. If you write, you are a camera because you have vision or you have vision, but you are not only the first line of Isherwood’s paragraph: “passive, recording, not thinking.” You are also the third line, taking on the rest of the job too.



 FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Bank Square Books, Mystic, CT

Off the Beaten Path, Steamboat Springs, CO

Seattle Mystery Bookshop, Seattle, WA



Clap if you love libraries


Am definitely on a library roll, and happy to be there because nothing (that isn’t human) gives me more pleasure than a library.

Girl Group member Lynda Myles sent me a short documentary video called “Why Libraries Matter,” and I recommend having a tissue handy when you watch it.  I don’t think it was meant to make anyone cry, but if you have important memories about libraries, you’ll cry. Anyway, I cried.

IMG_0296I am writing a collection of linked short stories called Room to Breathe, though the members of the Thursday evening fiction workshop at the New York Society Library always called it The Roxie Stories. They are about a little girl growing up in the 1950s, in the small (fictional) northern New Jersey town of Westervelt; one of the stories is called “The Library.”  Here is a short excerpt.

It’s a sunny Thursday afternoon in April, 1953, and Roxie Lifton is riding her bike to the library, taking the shortcut through the Commons to avoid the traffic on South Park Road. The bushes and trees in the Commons are still only dotted with green, but there are patches of fat blue hyacinths and yolk-yellow  daffodils nodding in the light breeze; long wands of forsythia curve over the rutted dirt path, tickling Roxie’s face and hands as she pedals by. The six books she took home from the library last Thursday slide around in the wire basket fastened to her handlebars.

At the western end of Main Street, the Westervelt Municipal Library sits five yards back from the sidewalk. If bad boys were to steal the wooden sign nailed to the left of the front door, a stranger might be fooled into thinking the little structure was just an ordinary two-bedroom family bungalow. As indeed it was when the Westervelt Town Council bought it in 1935 and converted it into a house for books instead of people.  Founding a library was a clever idea, since Westervelt was growing and a library would help to attract the right sort of residents. However, after the councilmen had purchased the small house, hired a librarian at a very small salary, and given her a very small budget for books, they felt they had done enough.

Over the years more books were donated, some were willed to the library, and a Citizens’ Library Committee was formed to hold raffles and bake sales to raise money to buy new books. The town grew even more, and another librarian, and another, was hired. But little cash was available for upkeep, and now, seen in the pale green spring light, the library looks shabby. Its white clapboard siding is warped and splitting, and the brown shingles on the roof are curling like late autumn leaves. The interior of the library is shabby too, with rusty watermarks on the ceiling and an oak floor that has darkened with years of ground-in summer dust and winter mud.

It’s not as if Roxie doesn’t have books of her own at home; she has a whole shelf of them. Her parents believe in books. But they also believe in libraries, and Bernie Lifton is a member of the Citizens’ Library Committee.  So when Roxie began first grade her father took her straight downtown to get her first library card.

“Take good care of that card, now, Rox,” Bernie said as they left the bungalow. “It’s a very important step in your life, to get a library card.”

Clutching the pale blue square of heavy card stock with two hands and looking up at her father, she nodded solemnly. “I’ll be careful, Daddy.”

“Come on, this occasion deserves a Dairy Queen.”

She did take good care of the card; she never lost it or even let it get dirty. She’s been to the Westervelt Municipal Library at least a hundred times by now, when she’s eight and a half, yet she still experiences a thrill of pleasure when she pushes open the library door, as if she’s entering a toy store where the toys are free. As if she’s going to get six birthday presents and it’s not even her birthday and she doesn’t have to say thank you. Of course she has to mind her manners and follow the rules, but the rules aren’t obstacles to her pleasure. Nothing bad has ever happened to her at the Westervelt Municipal Library.

At which point you may infer that something not so good is going to happen to Roxie at the library–but it will not diminish her love for libraries and books.



 FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Bookends, Ridgewood, NJ

Between the Covers Bookstore, Telluride, CO

City Lit, Chicago, IL


in defense of libraries, as if they needed defending

What’s the matter with Forbes magazine’s Tim Worstall? Did he never have a lovely afternoon in a hometown library?  Has he never lingered in the stacks, thumbing through book after book, searching in a leisurely way to find the novel, history book, art book he was just exactly in the mood for?

Read “What the ‘death of the library’ means for the future of books,” an article from The Daily Dot, and deliver us from the tyranny of Kindle. How could the death of diversity–even in reading options–make for a better world? A world without libraries is a frightening thought.


end run around the gorilla: alternative sources for buying books

If you’re a writer or reader, you’re probably well-informed about the twists and turns in the Amazon vs. Publishing World conflict. If you’re looking for a way to avoid buying books from Amazon until the dispute is settled, here’s a small list of alternative sources.


First and best: your local independent bookstore(s). They actually have a lot of books, and if they don’t happen to have what you want that minute, they can order it. If they have to order, try replacing your need for instant gratification with the excitement of anticipation. That could be a thrill, and you can do it in the warm and fuzzy knowledge that you’re supporting something that’s in your own best interest: diversity in marketing.

But if you live far from a bricks-and-mortar bookstore, you need mail-order.

Bulletin: There is life and mail beyond Amazon.

Try one of these, and please feel free to advise us all (in the comments, below) of any other mail-order sources you recommend.

  • Powell’s, in Portland, OR, which is huge, smart, and shipping (fast and cheap) nationwide
  • BAM, or Books-a-Million, which also has many bricks/mortar branches in many states
  • Barnes & Noble, ye olde standby
  •, a gigantic marketplace of booksellers all over the world
  • Individual publishers: Get in touch online with the publishers of the books you want; look for the link to “order books” or to “shop” or some similar phrase. This may or may not pan out, but it’s worth a try. Macmillan, for instance, has a comprehensive ordering service.
  •  Walmart Books Online, yeah, I know, it’s Walmart, but they have an amazing stock of books at great prices

The fact is that there are many mail-order sources, and I can’t name them all here.  But here’s a trick: Publishers, like Random House , sometimes list a plethora of online sources for books. Check them out. Hachette used to have a “Where to Buy Our Books” button; the button isn’t operational right now. Sad.

But I reiterate: If you have a local independent bookstore, give those folks a chance to serve you. They’re part of your community, and community is important.  If you possibly can–even though it takes a few extra dollars and some extra time too–support your indies. 



 FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

McNally Jackson, New York, NY

Folio Books, San Francisco, CA

Common Good Books, St. Paul, MN

stealth authors! indies beware!

Here’s a link to a fascinating piece on a PW blog, about the trials of being an indie bookstore in an age of author desperation. Seems to me these store owners and their staffs are pretty nice people.


It’s four a.m. and I want a book


This is a collaborative post, between me and my very dear friend Barry Hoffman, retired executive vice president/executive creative director of Young & Rubicam, avid reader, and author of a fine book called The Fine Art of Advertising.  (Even more to his credit, he’s married to one of my very best friends, Jane Weiss.) Our foray into collaboration is about e-readers, and Barry (in blue below) begins it with the story of their trip to Montreal.

We went on vacation to Montreal and I had just been given a shoulder bag. I filled it with books for the trip. Being a short-attention-span reader (usually reading three to five books at a time until one grabs) I’d usually travel with five to ten pounds of books. This trip, I lugged the books not only to Montreal, but around Montreal on foot. It destroyed my back; it took years for the innocent crushed vertebrae to recover.

So, a surfeit of curiosity, a slacker’s lack of persistence, a desire for instant gratification, and a dose of self-delusion about the (evidently waning) strength of my middle-aged body conspired to lead me to an e-reader. It was, for me, the antidote to back pain.

Like many cunning technological solutions, it solved one problem and created a few others. On the problem-solved side: I now travel the world with a library of over a hundred books. The e-reader serves not just as a reading machine but as a whim machine.

On the problem-created side: Without the anchor of the book itself, the smell of the glue, the feel of the paper, the image on the cover, the crack of the spine, the march of the page numbers, the freedom to thumb my way forward and back, the heft of the thing, the taking of notes with a pen, the writing of important page numbers on the frontispiece, it actually is harder for me to remember what I’ve read. I didn’t expect that.

Barry also cited the pleasure of being able to get information instantly, like being at the Taj Mahal and downloading an e-book about it. “Books take you places you can’t get to; e-readers bring books to where you happen to be.” And he pointed out the “unintended effect on nightly happiness”: you can read your (backlit) e-reader all night long without driving your partner nuts. “It may not be a guarantor of bliss, but it is certainly an antidote to frustration.”

All in all, in my cost-benefit ledger, the book v. e-book comparison is a happy trade-off. I should conclude, however, in the service of full sociological disclosure, that enjoying the virtues of the e-reader has its limits. So I often buy both the hardcover and the e-book of the same work. It costs a bit more, but it allows me to enjoy the pleasures of the future-made-present without the backdraft of nostalgia for the way the world was.

E-readers have been blessings in many ways, we all know that. The debate about the joy of reading a real book versus the joy of reading an e-book will no doubt buzz on like a swarm of gnats. It’s a fascinating topic but an irrelevant argument, because we’re certainly going to have both real books and e-books for the foreseeable future. A thousand hysteria-generating articles about the demise of paper books won’t change that.

Barry and I agree that choice is a good thing to have and one might as well take advantage of both reading options. For me that meant books at home; e-reader on the bus, train, and plane. And then this very odd thing happened.

I was in Medford, Oregon for a week, visiting my elderly parents, who live in a retirement community. I visit them every few months and I always stay in a Hilton Homewood Suites down the street from their little attached house. On this trip I woke at about four a.m. on a Sunday, with a stomachache. I moaned and groaned and tossed and turned and finally switched on the light to read–for comfort and distraction. All I had was my e-reader. It was four a.m. and I had no book.


Longing for comfort and having to hold an e-reader was like wanting a cozy stuffed animal to snuggle up to and getting a frying pan instead. Unlike Barry, I’m single: no stuffed-animal-analog (sorry, Janie) to grab. I wanted a real book! Actually, I wanted one of my four favorite comfort books, and none of them was with me, and even though two out of the four actually could have been downloaded right that moment, the point was that I wanted a real book.  All the real-book delights that Barry describes above were exactly what I wanted if I had to be ill in a hotel room in a strange city, alone.

Gradually the mountains in the distance beyond my window grew light, I dozed off, spent the day in bed, and emerged from my bookless cocoon to resume normal life. But I will never again take a long trip without a paperback. E-reader plus paperback, that’s the travel ticket for me from now on.


SIDEBAR: If you’re wondering what my four main comfort books are, I’ll tell you. But try not to be disappointed; best not to argue with another person’s choice of comfort.

1. In This House of Bredeby Rumor Godden

2. The Eighth Day, by Thornton Wilder

3. And Now Miguela YA by Joseph Krumgold

4. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spyby John le Carré


 FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

A Great Good Place for Books, Oakland, CA

Prince Books, Norfolk, VA

Octavia Books, New Orleans, LA




read this, skip that, laugh at the other: articles about writing and reading

Some good ones, some bizarre duds, some laughs…

Hit the READ THESE links to find interesting recently-published material about reading and writing. Hit the SKIP THESE links just for the amusement or surprise value, as in: You won’t believe these pieces got published. Hit the FREE LAUGHS link for a giggle.

read these

1. Does Novel Now Mean Any Book?    Ben Yagoda, Slate   •   Were you aware that Shakespeare was a novelist? High school students seem to think so. The strange evolution of the word “novel,” which is becoming an all-purpose term for “book.”

2. Confessions Of a Former ‘Sweet Valley High’ Addict    Cristina Henriquez, NPR books   •   Although you’ll deplore NPR’s sloppy copy editing (capital “O” on “Of” in a title?), you’ll be charmed by this small story of a Latina girl getting hooked on books.

3. Amazon vs. Hachette: Some Indie Sales Up, Awareness Way Up   Shelf Awareness   •   Scroll about halfway down to get to this piece, an interesting take on the A vs. H situation–from the point of view of independent bookstores.

4. Writing Is a Risky, Humiliating Endeavor   David Gordon, The New York Times   •   Read this as much for the Comments section as for the article. So many nasty people out there.

skip these

1. Dispatches From Book Leave, Part 4   Justin Peters, Slate   •   Seriously? Slate thinks adult readers are interested in following Justin’s ho-hum progress on his book? In this episode Justin discovers the concept of rewrite! And that it’s hard to write a book!  Good grief.

2. The Catholic Book Trade: Brand Loyalty for Niche Publishing   Kevin Di Camillo, Publishing Perspectives   •   This is my favorite line from the piece: “However, if a Pope is particularly a popular author, he may go with a trade publisher for a book that is not an official papal pronouncement.” Direct quote.

3. Columbia Publishing Course 2014 Super-Grad   editors of Publishing Trends   •   Look, I know this is supposed to be droll and tongue-in-cheeky, but frankly, I found it kind of creepy. Let me know what you think.

free LAUGHs!

Unpleasant Vibrators Need Not Apply    Dan Piepenbring, The Paris Review   •   Can a piece about librarians be funny? Oh, yes.


 FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

[words] Bookstore, Maplewood, NJ

D.G. Wills Books, La Jolla, CA

Fiction Addiction, Greenville, SC



Why we write


It’s embarrassing to admit this: I read a few pages of Big Little Lies.

Have I no standards at all? Usually I do. To wit: This book is currently #1 on the New York Times best-selling hardcover fiction list, and I’d never even heard of it before one of my NYT alerts alerted me to a brief item about its author. Never heard of her either. I follow a lot of book news, but I pay minimal attention to bestseller lists, since there’s generally very little on them that interests me. Like Big Little Lies.

So the Times led me to a paragraph or two about the author of BLL and the blog she doesn’t write anymore, and I caved and read a few pages of her best-selling book.

The excerpt blew me away, and not to a good place. The first character who appeared was a dithering Mrs. Patty Ponder, at which point I checked the top of the page to be sure I was reading the right book. Goodreads had given this novel 4.23 stars. I’d say it read like a bad children’s book, but that would be insulting to bad children’s books.

I got through about three pages and stopped without regret. And no, I do not believe I had any obligation to give it more of a chance. There’s no way I’ll ever attach to an adult novel that speaks to me as if I were in sixth grade. I kept thinking that Mrs. Patty Ponder (who will forever be Mrs. Potty Pander to me) sounded a lot like Mrs. Daisy Duck. I don’t do comic books anymore.

This four-minute reading experience led me to mull, once again, why we write. By “we” I mean the writers I know, the writers I teach, the writers I read (and love), and the writers whose work I may not always love but who are unquestionably serious about writing. And “serious” includes writers whose work may be playful or funny or quirky, but who are still exacting about their craft.

Why do we write, when so many readers want Big Little Lies? Actually, I mean why should we try to write well when so many readers would just as soon read Big Little Lies?

I don’t know. I’m not sure. I never feel as if I have a choice.

What I say to the Girl Group–too often–is this: Write because you love writing, since that’s the only thing you can count on. You cannot count on getting published (unless you plan to self-publish) and if you get published you cannot count on being read. There are no guarantees, least of all that your writing will capture both a publisher and an audience. Even a genius may have trouble finding an agent.

If that daunts you and you decide that the reason to write is to write a sure-fire bestseller, forget it.  You cannot “write a bestseller,” no matter how many how-to books you study. Ask any experienced agent, editor, or publisher, because every one of them has chortled gleefully over a sure-fire bestseller and cursed bitterly when it…wasn’t.

There’s another reason we write, personified by a close friend: he’s a wonderful novelist and nonfiction writer too, and he does not like to write.This is hard to fathom: how do you repeatedly sustain an activity that you don’t enjoy and are not required to do? The process of writing doesn’t usually give him pleasure; it often undermines his confidence and frequently makes him question his own worth. And yet he continues to do it and do it brilliantly. He can’t live with it, and he can’t live without it. So he keeps writing.

I would delight in dismissing the author of Big Little Lies as not a real writer; unfortunately, that wouldn’t be logical. She isn’t a good writer, though that appears to be irrelevant to her popularity. (Personally, I would shoot myself before I named a character Mrs. Patty Ponder, but that’s just me.) Talent isn’t a prerequisite for being a writer; the case for quality is hard to defend.

Why do we write? We just do. Good or bad, writing is what we do. Sometimes we can’t live with it, but always we can’t live without it.




 FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Posman Books, New York, NY

Vero Beach Book Center, Vero Beach, FL

The Well Red Coyote, Sedona, AZ



Guest post: Wanderlust

first view of Dunnottar castle. this was a very nice ramble indeed.Carolyn Waters, today’s guest, is Assistant Head Librarian at the New York Society Library, as well as Writer Services Librarian at the NYSL, as well as a treasured friend.  She’s the contact person for all the writing groups based at the library, and she plans the monthly Writing Life Daytime Talk Series. Carolyn writes, “I have a master’s degree in business administration from NYU, and spent twenty years as a consultant in the financial services industry before I came to my senses and got a master’s in library science at Pratt.” She’s been at the NYSL for her whole short library career. 


Traveling is the great joy in my life. I’m the one who takes all of her vacation days and cannot relate to colleagues who leave days unused every year. I get sulky when I go a month without even a long weekend away, and if for some unthinkable reason I couldn’t travel, I’d take the day off just so I could read about fantastic places.

machu picchu

My favorite hideaway in my exceptionally fabulous library is Stack 1. Stack 1 is, for all intents and purposes, the basement. It is dark and windowless, airless, unnervingly quiet even in a library notable for its tranquility, yet it is the source of my reading nirvana. I can disappear into the travel books, undisturbed and lost in other worlds, only occasionally rudely jolted back to the present by a clanking pipe or the heaving sigh of the ancient elevator called to another floor.

I consume travel narratives in a few categories defined by highly personal location criteria: the familiar; the soon-to-be-known-to-me (the most wonderful, because it means a trip is forthcoming!); the longed-for; and the never-in-a-million-years. I sometimes wither at the sight of articles screaming “100 Most Celebrated Travel Books!” and “100 Greatest Adventure Books of All Time!” But then I perk up at the realization that I’ve read a great many of them already.  It’s enough to make me want to put my own list together. hagia sophiaSo I did and—because Lorrie asked – I give you my own wildly subjective (albeit more manageable number of) favorites in the oeuvre, based on nothing more than my appreciation for the place, the story, the writing itself, or maybe because they didn’t make those other lists.

Through Glacier Park, Mary Roberts Rinehart    Rinehart was America’s very own Agatha Christie (she is probably responsible for the phrase “the butler did it”). She was also a journalist with a great love of adventure. Her account of horse packing and boating through Montana’s Glacier National Park in 1916 is an absolute joy – she proves to be stronger than most of her fellow travelers (all men, including her husband and son), but most of all she’s a funny and enlightening companion on an absolutely delightful trip through the park.

The Pine Barrens, John McPhee    As a N.J. native, I am a frequent visitor to and vocal champion of the state’s Pine Barrens region. So you can certainly ignore my boosterism, but please pick up this book. McPhee is a glorious writer and his sketches of the people and the natural phenomena of the mysterious “Pines” are simply sublime.

The Last Empty Places, Peter Stark    Stark views nighttime images taken from satellites and notices a number of big, blank, dark spots on the American map. Some are obviously protected areas like national parks, but the others turn out to be intriguing and historically important empty places, some even within easy reach of major metropolitan centers.

The Unconquered, Scott Wallace    I have a seemingly unquenchable thirst for tales about the Amazon. I will go there someday, but probably from the safety of a luxury cruise with a caipirinha in hand. If you are fascinated by the unknown, interested in undiscovered peoples, and enjoy dangerous and exciting adventure tales, this book will satisfy on an extraordinary scale. It is one of the best books I have read. If “unputdownable” is not a word, it should be.

Aku Aku: The Secret of Easter Island, Thor Heyerdahl    I have a soft spot for this book, because it might just be the reason for the wanderlust I have to this day. As a little girl just learning to read, my parents plopped this tome into my lap. (No, I can’t answer that question; you’ll have to ask them.) I read what I could at the time, and they filled in the rest, supplemented by the amazing and mysterious photographs of the moai. I was entranced by the story and the place then – and still am. Easter Island remains on my “longed for” list.

An African in Greenland, Tété-Michel Kpomassie    I don’t have an overwhelming desire to visit Greenland, but this book relates a tale that is unlikely, disorienting, and utterly appealing. Kpomassie was born in a village in western Africa and was so enthralled by a children’s book about Greenland that he vowed to go there one day. He did eventually make it to the island – and he writes about his fantastic journey with all the wide-eyed wonder and cultural confusion you’d expect.

The Lunatic Express: Discovering the World…via its Most Dangerous Buses, Boats, Trains, and Planes, Carl Hoffman    Whoa. Do you want to take the scariest and surely most unsafe trips ever? Me either. But Hoffman does and he shows us just how much we take for granted when we commute. For much of the world’s population, traveling to work or to see family can be a game of Russian roulette.

The Cruel Way: Switzerland to Afghanistan in a Ford, 1939, Ella Maillart    Strong, passionate, adventurous women are my heroes. The title of this book says it all: Maillart and her friend Annemarie Schwarzenbach take off in 1939, overland, on an adventure through the Middle East. (See also: anything by Freya Stark and Isabella Bird, two of my all-time favorite women travel writers.)

Montaigne’s Travel Journal, Michel de Montaigne    The famous essayist’s sixteenth-century travel journal continues to inspire me as I keep records of my own trips, reminding me that even the most mundane and casual experiences can be just as fascinating as the planned bits.


Thanks to Carolyn Waters for the photos.


 FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Charis Books and More, Atlanta, GA

Garcia Street Books, Santa Fe, NM

Ninth Street Bookshop, Wilmington, DE

I interview me, since the NYT SBR isn’t planning to


Believe me, this is the most self-indulgent post I ever intend to write, and I promise it won’t happen again.


The New York Times Sunday Book Review has a feature called “By the Book,” in which a popular author is interviewed about reading. I love this feature. Some cranky fascination with Author X’s a) weird taste in literature; b) attitude; c) degree of show-offiness; d) suspected amount of fibbing; and e) comfort (or discomfort) level keeps me gobbling the interview as if it were popcorn.

I’m jealous of every writer who gets to answer the questions. I want to be the writer being interviewed. I want to tell everyone about books.

So I have decided that it’s my turn to ask and answer the questions, since no one from the Times has called for a phone date. You are most welcome to answer the questions too, in the Add a Comment section below.


What’s the best book you’ve read this year?  Battle Bunny, a children’s book by Jon Scieszka and Mac Barnett and Alex (yes, just “Alex”). Or perhaps it’s Alice McDermott’s Someone or Maile Meloy’s short story collection called Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It.

Have you finished all the books you started this year?  Almost none. I have a “read at least fifty pages” rule, but I didn’t follow it this year. Life’s too short.

Who is your favorite novelist of all time?  Willa Cather. Who else would write a novel about aging, drop into it a completely stand-alone short story that works perfectly in (or out of) the book, and get away with it? I refer to The Professor’s House, and the short story is called “Tom Outland’s Story.” I often wonder if any editor or publisher would allow such a thing in a contemporary novel.

Who is your favorite overlooked or underappreciated writer?  Willa Cather again. Once upon a time high school sophomores were required to read My Antonia in English Lit; more’s the pity if that’s no longer true. She’s mostly a joy to read (yes, there are a few flops), and you can grow up with her.  Reading Death Comes for the Archbishop when you’re twenty is very different from the read you’ll get when you’re fifty. Talk about Great American Novels–that’s one of them. Cather is sometimes oddly clumsy, but writers can learn an enormous amount about writing by reading her.

What Great American Novel do you think is overrated?  The Great Gatsby. Kindly refrain from hate mail or hate comments.

How do you keep your books organized?  By owning as few of them as possible. My can’t-live-withouts (fiction, poetry, and nonfiction narrative) are jammed into one three-shelf Ikea bookcase; art books, reference books, and my own published books are tucked here and there around my very small apartment. Everything else I need or want is in the New York Society Library–that’s my true organizer.

What books are currently on your night stand?  What night stand? Small apartment! But I have a book-width shelf that runs the length of my bed, and that’s where my current books are stacked: The Best American Short Stories 2013; Pat Barker’s Regeneration; Russell Banks’s Trailerpark; Carrie Fountain’s poetry, Burn Lake; The Lost Art of Dress by Linda Przybyszeski; Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams; William Stafford’s poetry, The Way It Is; and two books of Helen Levitt’s photographs.

What books do you reread?  Category 1: books I like so much that I reread them every year or two, which includes Alice Munro’s and William Trevor’s short stories; To Kill a Mockingbird; The Raj Quartet; The Deptford Trilogy; Jean Ritchie’s Singing Family of the Cumberlands, and a few others. Category 2: books I reread quite often, because they comfort me, though it’s hard to say exactly why they do. Rumer Godden’s In This House of Brede, a novel about nuns and the contemplative life; Thornton Wilder’s The Eighth Day, his best novel, a family saga; John Le Carre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, probably because homely little Smiley triumphs by brainpower.

What kind of reader were you as a child?  The persistent kind. Also the snoopy kind. We had a houseful of books, but I had trouble learning to read (because I’m left-handed?) until well into the first grade. Once I got over the hurdle, no one haunted the library more than I did. The very word “library” can make me tear up with gratitude and love. A library is better than a great restaurant, a fabulous shoe store, and the best bakery in New York City put together.  The snooping was in Mom’s closet, to sneak-peek at books I didn’t understand, mostly about sex.

What was your favorite book as a child?  IMG_0244 Newbery-award-winning And Now Miguel, by Joseph Krumgold, which is truly a book for any age. I reread it regularly. One of the characters in the books is the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, and I will never forget my first actual sight of them, when I was forty.

What do you plan to read next? More short stories. I’m writing a novel and since not reading isn’t an option, short stories interfere least.



 FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Lemuria Books, Jackson, MS

Politics and Prose Bookstore, Washington, DC

The Peregrine Book Company, Prescott, AZ