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Powell’s Q&A: Ben Dolnick

Describe your latest book.
My latest novel is called At the Bottom of Everything, and it's about two men in their mid-20s, one of whom goes off the rails and disappears in India, the other of whom tries to find him and bring him home.

What fictional character would you like to date and why?
I'm pretty sure the fictional character I've been most attracted to, ever, is Viv from Ken Kesey's Sometimes a Great Notion. That book meant a huge amount to me when I was in high school, but now just about the only things I retain from it are a vague impression of Pacific Northwest weather and a scene in which Viv plays footsie with her brother-in-law around a campfire.

Offer a favorite sentence or passage from another writer.
One I have up on my bulletin board is from a George Saunders story called "CommComm": "When that wall cracks, there's another underneath." In the story this line describes a visualization exercise the narrator uses to calm himself down, but I take it more as a mantra about writing, and about life: there's always more work to be done.

Describe the best breakfast of your life.
My wife makes this astonishingly good egg sandwich sometimes — eggs scrambled with whatever herbs we happen to have around and cheddar cheese on a toasted English muffin. It's simple but illicitly delicious.

Name the best television series of all time, and explain why it's the best.
I'm not sure it's the best in terms of literary quality or anything, but I don't think there's any series that gives me more pleasure than Columbo. The crimes are gratifyingly non-gruesome (I can't watch more than a minute of CSI et al), and Columbo, played by Peter Falk, is one of those characters whose every line, even the ones without jokes, makes me laugh, just because they're so precisely the sorts of things he would say.

Aside from other writers, name some artists from whom you draw inspiration and talk a little about their work.
Conor Oberst: My new novel gets its name from one of his songs, actually! I feel slightly embarrassed admitting it since I'm now older than most of his fan base, but I truly and deeply love his stuff. I don't know what it is, but somehow his music goes directly into my spine.

Louis C.K.: I've always been a weirdly big fan of stand-up comedy — as a kid I watched Stand-Up, Stand-Up on Comedy Central the way other kids watched SportsCenter. I wanted my novel to have something of the directness and velocity of a good stand-up set.I wanted my novel to have something of the directness and velocity of a good stand-up set. More generally, I'm inspired, in my writing, by the relentlessness of Louis C.K.'s productivity. He seems to me to embody the ideal of never resting mentally on the bed of your previous work.

Do you read blogs? What are some of your favorites?
More than I should, yes. Ball Don't Lie is my favorite basketball blog (I'm a devout NBA fan, though my golden age, knowledge-wise, lies somewhere in the mid- to late '90s). Heidi Swanson's 101 Cookbooks is probably my favorite food blog — I'm a vegetarian, and she has been responsible for a major proportion of the meals to come out of my kitchen these past couple of years. And for politics, I think James Fallows is my favorite. He's relentlessly sane and calm and kind, all of which seem like rare assets in his field.

Dogs, cats, budgies, or turtles?
Dogs! (I had to look up what budgies are, so definitely not them.) I've had dogs all my life and would feel quite out of sorts without one. My pit bull mix, Bonnie, is asleep on the floor as I write this.

Five sneak-attack books:
These books seem quiet at first, maybe even boring, but turn out to be incredibly powerful.

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro. This is maybe the sneakiest book I've ever read. Its voice is so controlled, so proper, and yet it's brought me as close to actually crying as any book ever has.

Mrs. Bridge and Mr. Bridge by Evan S. Connell. These are actually two books, written a decade apart, but if you read one then you've got to read the other. They're un-summarizable, but by the end of each you feel that you now know a character nearly as well as you know yourself. By the end of both, you're ready to read everything Evan Connell has ever written (which turns out to be a lot!).

The Beginning of Spring by Penelope Fitzgerald. Just about any of her books would fit the bill — if she were a basketball player, her nickname could be "Sneak Attack" — but this one may be my favorite. It's about an Englishman living in Russia whose wife leaves him, and it's as strange and skillfully executed a book as I can think of.

The Folded Leaf by William Maxwell. This is one of the most surprising novels I know. It seems, at first, like a cozy sort of period piece (it takes place in Illinois in the 1920s), but it builds to one of the most devastating — and fitting — scenes I've ever read.

The Beggar Maid by Alice Munro. I could go on for hours about my love for Alice Munro (in fact, I wrote a whole Kindle Single about it). The Beggar Maid might be my favorite of her books. It tells the story of a woman named Rose from childhood to middle age, and reading it is like watching the construction of a ship in a bottle: it makes no sense that she can pack so much life into such a small space.

÷ ÷ ÷

Ben Dolnick is the author of the novels At the Bottom of Everything, You Know Who You Are, and Zoology, and his work has appeared in the New York Times and on NPR. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. At the Bottom of Everything
    Used Hardcover $7.95
  2. You Know Who You Are Used Trade Paper $5.50
  3. Zoology (Vintage Contemporaries) Used Trade Paper $4.95
  4. Sometimes a Great Notion (Penguin...
    Used Trade Paper $10.00
  5. The Beggar Maid: Stories of Flo and... Used Trade Paper $8.95
  6. Folded Leaf #1: The Folded Leaf Used Trade Paper $8.50
  7. Beginning of Spring (88 Edition) Used Trade Paper $8.00
  8. Mr. Bridge Used Trade Paper $5.95
  9. Mrs. Bridge
    New Trade Paper $14.95
  10. The Remains of the Day
    Used Trade Paper $5.95

Ben Dolnick is the author of At the Bottom of Everything

2 Responses to "Powell’s Q&A: Ben Dolnick"

    Koa September 6th, 2013 at 8:00 pm

    Anyone who lists Conor Oberst as their inspiration deserves a gold star, in my humble opinion ;) Can't wait to check this book out!

    Dave September 11th, 2013 at 10:50 am

    You mention "Kindle" in a Powell's blog? Hmmmmm... (Note that I have no idea what a Kindle Single is since I have absolutely no plans to buy one!)

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