Describe your latest book.
We Are Water is a multi-voiced story about a family and a nation in transition. It's 2009. Barack Obama is in the first year of his presidency, the state of Connecticut has recently legalized gay marriage, and Orion and Annie Oh's 27-year marriage has ended because Annie, a successful outsider artist, has fallen in love with Viveca, her champion in the art world and her bride-to-be. As the wedding approaches, it elicits a variety of responses from ex-husband Orion, a university psychologist, and the Ohs' three grown children: earnest do-gooder Ariane, her born-again twin brother Andrew, and the twins' wild-card younger sister Marissa. Likewise, the impending ceremony pries open a Pandora's box of toxic secrets that have festered beneath the surface of the Ohs' lives. In this, my fifth novel, I explore the themes of class, race, evolving social mores, and the origins and purpose of art. As were my earlier novels, this story is an exploration of power and powerlessness and their effect on flawed but humane characters.
What is the strangest or most interesting job you've ever had?
One summer when I was in college, I was a Mister Softee ice cream truck driver. As low man on the Softee totem pole, I got the truck with the bad generator and the broken driver's side door that had to be kept closed with a rope. That faulty generator made for soupy soft-serve and necessitated my having to provide each customer with an ice cream cone and an accompanying spoon or straw. I worked on commission and sometimes, after an eight-hour shift, took home a whopping 11 or 12 bucks. I quit after a month, but the Mister Softee chime still plays in my head several decades later. All was not lost, however. In 1984, I fictionalized my experiences in what became my very first published story titled, appropriately enough, "Mister Softee."
Introduce one other author you think people should read, and suggest a good book with which to start.
I was awed by Jacquelin Gorman's recent book of linked stories titled The Viewing Room. The book is fiction, but it draws on Gorman's experiences as a hospital chaplain assigned to accompany loved ones to the small, stark, windowless room where their just-deceased loved ones' bodies may be viewed before being transferred to the morgue or the funeral parlor. Gorman's book, a Flannery O'Connor award winner, has profound and ultimately hopeful things to say about death and the meaning of life.
Writers are better liars than other people: true or false? Why or why not?
I think that's certainly true of fiction writers, but it's not deceitful or nefarious. Novelists, short story writers, playwrights, screenwriters: we weave a network of lies in hopes of locating the deeper truths which our stories explore. Then when the work is finished, we offer these discoveries to our readers or audiences. My first novel, She's Come Undone, is told in the first person and thus begins with the lie that I am a woman. In my second, I Know This Much Is True, the lie is that I am the twin brother of someone suffering from paranoid schizophrenia. In my latest, We Are Water, I assume the voices of eight different characters: four men and four women, none of whom has had the same life experiences I've had. Twenty-nine chapters, all lies — but hopefully illuminating ones.
Describe the best breakfast of your life.
Two of our kids live in New Orleans. During one of our visits there, our son Justin and his girlfriend Kristen took us to an off-the-tourist-circuit eatery called Elizabeth's. I still recall the amazing breakfast that was put before me: a fluffy, puffy omelet stuffed with fontina, avocado, and sautéed mushrooms, then topped with three or four of the plumpest, sweetest fried oysters I've ever tasted. This was during my drinking days, so I washed this feast down with one of the best damned Bloody Marys I'd ever tasted. I'll leave nectar and ambrosia to the gods. Take me not to Mount Olympus but back to Elizabeth's.
Share an interesting experience you've had with one of your readers.
I was book-touring somewhere in the Midwest with my third novel, The Hour I First Believed, when an alternative-looking young woman (piercings and purple hair) reached the front of the signing line, placed her book before me, and declared, "I am your biggest fan!" Kiddingly, I quipped, "Oh yeah? Prove it," whereby she pulled up her sleeve. On her right arm was an amazing tattooed replica of the cover of my novel She's Come Undone. "Yup, you win," I told her as I pushed my chair a few feet away from her. It was creepy but kind of cool.
Aside from other writers, name some artists from whom you draw inspiration and talk a little about their work.
I'm inspired by artists of all types: film directors, musicians, sculptors, dancers. But painters and photographers are at the top of the apex. I love Magritte for his dreamlike juxtapositions of the real and the surreal. I stand transfixed in front of Hopper's paintings which suggest story, a sense of place, and characters about whom I wonder. Walker Evans's photography vividly depicts the blacks, whites, and ambiguous grays of American life.
Five beautifully written coming-of-age memoirs:
Growing Up by Russell Baker
Uphill Walkers: Portrait of a Family by Madeleine Blais
Girls of Tender Age: A Memoir by Mary-Ann Tirone Smith
This Boy's Life by Tobias Wolff
Townie by Andre Dubus