Q: Why did you decide to write How to Read Literature Like a Professor?
A: The flippant answer you might expect is that I got tired of saying the same things over and over. The truth, though, is that I didn't get tired of saying them again and again. I found that there's a pattern to what I say to students about reading literature, that the same set of preoccupations comes up in story after story, poem after poem. And at the same time, each appearance of those preoccupations would baffle or surprise my students, who often weren't seeing that there was a pattern to what we were doing. In part, I wanted to establish that I do have a consistent approach. So in a sense, I'm explaining myself to myself while I'm explaining literature to the reader. I find I often don't know what I think about a work until I write about it. It's probably safe to say that I learned as much in writing the book as readers will by reading it.
Q: What was the most enjoyable and what was the hardest part about writing it?
A: What was most enjoyable was what's always most enjoyable about a good class discussion: surprising myself with ideas. I think any teacher who's really teaching, that is, whose class sessions are alive and organic, has the experience fairly often of saying something he didn't know he thought, or didn't know he knew, until the moment of saying it. That happened with the book. I'd be writing a chapter and suddenly wonder, "now where did that come from?" And it doesn't have to be particularly deep or insightful, just little things about a novel that I've carried around without thinking about them would suddenly pop out.
The hardest? Cutting, without a doubt. By the very nature of the book, I couldn't pursue some discussions as far as I would have liked, had to leave one example to move on to another or, far worse, had to go back and take things out because they proved to be digressions. But always, part of me is crying out, "Hey, I liked that part!" Very painful, but also necessary.
Q: Which do you think is easier to explore: prose or poetry? And, personally, which genre do you favor?
A: You'd make a parent choose his favorite child? I love prose and poetry equally well in their own places. Poetry, by its very nature, by its compression and suggestive nature, requires a higher sort of concentration in a limited space. Reading a poem, really reading it, is a taxing activity, but so rewarding. Prose, especially the short story, can be that way, too. In general, though, fiction offers a more leisurely pace of involvement, a bit more breathing space in the midst of exploration. And there are times when I'm better suited to one, others when I'm probably better at the other. I suspect a lot of readers are like that, enjoying each genre in its proper place.
Q: In the interlude, you say that "there's only one story," yet the many writers and texts you're discussing seem to have such long-lasting impact in literary history precisely because they are, or appear to be, so original. How does that work?
A: Every work, if it's any good, is original. It may be made up of spare parts, reworked plot lines, character types, but it's put together by an original mind, and if that mind is true to its own vision, its own understanding of the world. The components plot, character, symbols, etc. have existed almost since the beginning of time, but that mind, that writer, has never existed before, so it's the original part of himself or herself that gives the work its originality. No doubt there is writing that is completely formulaic or derivative, and while it's still part of the one story, it's not a very interesting part.
It's a little like writing universal truths if you try to you can't do it. You have to write about the local, the particular, the specific, and if it's true enough, it holds some universality. That's what Faulkner discovered, writing about his Yoknapatawpha county, Mississippi, or Joyce about Dublin, or Louise Erdrich about her Chippewa reservation. It's a paradox, but no less true for all that.
Q: You make a list of recommendations in the back, but if you could only pick two, one poem, one novel -- what would they be?
A: Oh, you're cruel. I'm not sure I could do ten, but here goes. Anyone who knows me knows I absolutely love John Fowles's novel The French Lieutenant's Woman. It's brilliant writing, witty and insightful, full of acknowledgements to the larger tradition and yet entirely its own thing, very original. There are perhaps a dozen more, by Joyce and Virginia Woolf and D. H. Lawrence and Charles Dickens and Toni Morrison among others, that would be reasonable choices. Poems are even tougher, since they tend to be short and do such different things. For sheer power, almost nothing can touch William Butler Yeats's "Easter 1916." I'm always just blown away by it. Seamus Heaney's wonderful sonnet sequence on the death of his mother, "Clearances," would be a contender. I can't even read it in class without choking up on the seventh of the eight sonnets. That's got to be a strong recommendation for it, right? But there are a hundred or more from all sorts of poets that I'd really hate to do without. And I didn't even mention Walt Whitman in the reading list, an egregious oversight; there is no American poetry without him. None.