Describe your latest project.
Like most of my books, The Brief History of the Dead straddles the divide between literary fiction and fantasy. In some ways it's a survival narrative, in other ways a post-apocalyptic character study, and in still other ways a sort of jigsaw story about the connections we forge with each other.
Half of the novel is set in a city populated exclusively by the dead but not yet forgotten people, that is to say, who remain in the city only so long as there is someone still alive who remembers them. The other half takes place in our own world, the world of the living, at some point in the near but indeterminate future, where a wildlife biologist named Laura Byrd has been isolated by an accident of fate in the Antarctic.
The novel's action is shaped by the spread of a lethal virus, which has a ruinous effect on our world and, eventually, as the people who succumb to the virus die and take their memories along with them, on the residents of the city. I was curious as I wrote the book about how those residents would react to the circumstances of their existence, what kind of relationships they would form, and what they would do when it came time for them to pass out of living memory.
Introduce one other author you think people should read, and suggest a good book with which to start.
It's hard, of course, to confine myself to just one. Should I name a revered icon (Italo Calvino, William Maxwell), a brilliant newcomer (Peter Orner, Kelly Link), a childhood favorite (Daniel Pinkwater)? I'm going to go with an obscure master, though, and say Augusto Monterroso. Monterroso was beloved by such writers as Márquez, Calvino, and Isaac Asimov, and it's a shame that so few of his books have been translated into English. The best one I've read is Complete Works and Other Stories, which is a collection of forty-some odd, wry, very short stories, ranging from about eight words to about eight pages.
Here is a story from his book The Black Sheep and Other Fables. It's called "Faith and Mountains," and if you enjoy it, you're likely to appreciate the rest of his work, as well:
In the beginning, Faith only moved mountains when this was absolutely necessary, as a result of which the scenery remained the same for millennia at a time.
But when Faith started spreading and people began to be amused by the idea of moving mountains, these did nothing but change place, and it became more and more difficult to find them in the spot where they had been left the night before, which of course created more difficulties than it resolved.
From this point on, decent people chose to abandon Faith, and now for the most part mountains stay put.
Whenever there is a landslide on the roads and a number of passengers die beneath the rocks, this means that someone, nearby or faraway, has had a glimmer of Faith.
Offer a favorite sentence or passage from another writer.
I just finished reading The Line Between: Stories by Peter S. Beagle, which contains this gem: "Accidents of the universe we may be, but we are beautiful accidents and we must not live as though we were ugly."
How did the last good book you read end up in your hands and why did you read it?
I keep an ongoing list of my fifty favorite books, which I recalibrate whenever I discover a new one that seems to demand a spot there. This might happen three or four times a year. The last book to earn a place on this list was I Served the King of England by Bohumil Hrabal (bumping poor Bernard Malamud and his Complete Stories off the end). I decided to read Hrabal after he was recommended to me by Myla Goldberg. I Served the King of England was simply the first of his titles I happened to run across. It's a book of the type I like best, a perfect short novel balanced exquisitely between joy and sorrow, with an astonishing breadth of humanity and an eye so precise that the entire world seems to turn fantastic under its gaze. Thanks, Myla.
What is your astrological sign? If you don't like what you were born with, what sign would you change to and why?
I'm a Sagittarius, born in the year of the rat, all of which is basically meaningless to me. But I wanted to take the opportunity to point out here that I designed my ninth-grade science fair project to determine how accurately people's zodiac signs correspond to their actual personality traits and was surprised to discover that, at least within the confines of my procedures, they fit together much more neatly than I had predicted. I won first place in my category at the regional competition, thank you very much.
Share an interesting experience you've had with one of your readers.
To date, the most surprising experience I've had as a writer happened when I received a phone call informing me that someone was acting as my imposter. You'll find the full story recounted here: The O. Henry Prize Stories.
Name the best Simpsons episode of all time, and explain why it's the best.
The one I'm always most pleased to see in reruns is the golden age anti-immigration episode "Much Apu About Nothing" [Season 7], which not only introduced the world to the wonderfully silly chant, "We're here! We're queer! We don't want any more bears!" but also contains two of the funniest and most pointed lines of the entire series, when Chief Wiggum tells his officers, "All right, men, here's the order of deportations. First we'll be rounding up your tired, then your poor, then your huddled masses yearning to breathe free," and when Apu passes his citizenship exam and immediately says to the immigration clerk, "Yes! I am a citizen! Now which way to the welfare office?"
Why do you write?
I write out of gratitude for all the books I have loved over the years.
What is your favorite literary first line?
From G. K. Chesterton's The Napoleon of Notting Hill: "The human race, to which so many of my readers belong, has been playing at children's games from the beginning, and will probably do it till the end, which is a nuisance for the few people who grow up."
Make a question of your own, then answer it:
Q.What is your favorite literary last line?
From Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping: "No one watching this woman smear her initials in the steam on her water glass with her first finger, or slip cellophane packets of oyster crackers into her handbag for the sea gulls, could know how her thoughts are thronged by our absence, or know how she does not watch, does not listen, does not wait, does not hope, and always for me and Sylvie."