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Describe your latest project.
It's a novel, the story of two boys called George Fisher: one a very chatty dummy in the 1930s recounting the ups and downs of his career, from papier mache mix to unlikely war hero; the other, a withdrawn and eccentric schoolboy in the 1970s who, in the search for a voice of his own, finds a paper trail leading straight to the dummy, now on mute display in a dusty museum, still holding the key to the family secrets, just waiting to be asked.
Introduce one other author you think people should read, and suggest a good book with which to start.
Patrick Hamilton (author of the original plays for Gaslight and Rope) is not much read and ought to be. If anyone likes seedy drinking novels — though he's more Wodehouse than Bukowski — look no further. But beyond that, he may be the funniest novelist I've read. Hangover Square — a great book used as "inspiration" for a completely unconnected Hollywood movie — is fantastic. Also wonderful are Twenty Thousand Streets under the Sky, a trilogy of novels now available in one paperback volume (with more misprints than you can shake a stick at) and The Gorse Trilogy. But don't neglect The Slaves of Solitude (in America, it was called Riverside) which features his most monstrous creation, the crashing bore Mr. Thwaites. My favourite Thwaites moment, and one of the funniest things I've ever read: his discussion of communism in the tea-room.
Offer a favorite sentence or passage from another writer.
I quoted this on the spine of my first record and I still love it.
From The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck:
And perhaps a man brought out his guitar to the front of his tent. And he sat on a box to play, and everyone in the camp moved slowly in toward him, drawn in toward him. Many men can chord a guitar, but perhaps this man was a picker. There you have something — the deep chords beating, beating, while the melody runs on the strings like little footsteps. Heavy hard fingers marching on the frets. The man played and the people moved slowly in on him until the circle was closed and tight, and then he sang "Ten-Cent Cotton and Forty-Cent Meat." And the circle sang softly with him. And he sang "Why Do You Cut Your Hair, Girls?" And the circle sang. He wailed the song, "I'm Leaving Old Texas," that eerie song that was sung before the Spaniards came, only the words were Indian then.
And now the group was welded to one thing, one unit, so that in the dark the eyes of the people were inward, and their minds played in other times, and their sadness was like rest, like sleep. He sang the "McAlester Blues" and then, to make up for it to the older people, he sang "Jesus Calls Me to His Side." The children drowsed with the music and went into the tents to sleep, and the singing came into their dreams.
And after a while the man with the guitar stood up and yawned. Good night, folks, he said. And they murmured, Good night to you. And each wished he could pick a guitar, because it is a gracious thing. Then the people went to their beds, and the camp was quiet. And the owls coasted overhead, and the coyotes gabbled in the distance, and into the camp skunks walked, looking for bits of food — waddling, arrogant skunks, afraid of nothing.
I work all day, baby permitting, so as soon as possible — 6pm or so — I like to open a bottle of wine and start some cooking: it might be a curry, or something from one of my Rick Stein cookbooks. This is also a good time to listen to music, which I can't do at all while I'm working. And at the end of the process, I have something nice (with any luck) to share with my wife, and sometimes this even coincides with our daughter going to sleep.
How did the last good book you read end up in your hands and why did you read it?
Last monday, at a gig in Yokohama, called Thumbs Up, I was handed A Spot of Bother by Mark Haddon by Doug Allsopp of Buffalo Records. He probably thought that I looked like I needed an English book to read, and he was right, because I'd just finished An Equal Music by Vikram Seth, and my other book (A Song of Love and Hate: The Meaning of Opera by Peter Conrad) is too heavy to carry around. Doug had just finished the Haddon, so this was an ideal gift. I read it over the next two days in bullet trains and thoroughly enjoyed it. Though I might not have enjoyed it so much under other circumstances — that might seem a curmudgeonly thing to say, but we've all seen terrible movies in airplanes and enjoyed them out of sheer relief.
Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?
Many. In fact, given that I went to school in Canterbury, destination of some of the first great literary pilgrims, or pilgrims in literature, I was probably bound to. My best ever pilgrimage was to Shandy Hall in Coxwold, Yorkshire, England — home of Lawrence Sterne, writer of Tristram Shandy. They filmed some of the recent movie there, so you may have seen it. This is a fantastic place, with much Sterne memorabilia, not to mention a beautiful garden, and some magnificent walks that Sterne himself took, for example past the ruins of Byland Abbey, where he hallucinated that he saw the ghost of Ophelia.
Another literary pilgrimage has a link with Powell's, in that I bought a book called A Literary Companion to Venice (by Ian Littlewood) in the travel section at Powells. My wife and I took this on our honeymoon — a week in Lake Garda (home of Catullus) and a week in Venice — and every day we took one of these walks, past where the Merchant lived, where Corvo fell in the canal and emerged with his pipe, where Coryate saw a hanging, and Ruskin complained about the hotel. Great.
What makes your favorite pair of shoes better than the rest?
They are a pair of handmade black Italian boots that I bought five years ago at Iramo on Spring Street in New York. I have worn them about 75% of the days since. They are very versatile, very comfortable, and, I think, very good-looking. But they are also in dire need of repair. However, I'm confident. Last time I took them in they were in a similar state and the cobbler told me they'd be good for another fifteen years. I append a picture, taken this morning in a hotel lobby in Osaka:
Books mentioned in this post