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Powell's Q&A

Dennis Cass

Describe your latest book.
When people ask me for the "elevator pitch" for my book, I tell them we can start in the elevator, but chances are I'll end up following you down to the parking ramp, where we'll stand awkwardly by your car while you hold your keys in your hand hoping that I'll go away. But here goes:

Head Case is an accessible survey of basic concepts in neuroscience. It's also a memoir about fathers and sons, prescription drug abuse and mental illness, and why some people shouldn't live in New York City. It's a popular science book for people who would never in a million years read a popular science book, and it might be the shortest book that has ever written about the human brain that's not aimed at children. Head Case is also about babies. And cigarettes. But not smoking around babies. There is also some stuff in there about cave people.

Frankly, in the four years I worked on the book I never once talked about it without the person across from me looking confused or uncomfortable. I need help. If you can find a good way to describe it in 25 words or less, lunch is on me.

Writers are better liars than other people: true or false? Why or why not?
I don't think writers are better liars in general, but they are the best liars when it comes to talking about how hard they work. I love it when I'm listening to the radio and I hear a writer talk about his or her disciplined schedule, how they get up at 4 a.m. every morning and write for six hours, take a break and then write for four more. I think, Really? You write when your kid is sick, or it's your wife's birthday? You write after Election Day, or the morning you get a bad review in the Times or when you're hungover, or bored with words, or fighting with your mom? Because I feel like I almost never write. There is always some bit of life getting in the way. But ask me what I did today and I'll say, "I got up at four, and wrote for about six hours, then took a break..."

Dogs, cats, budgies, or turtles?
Cats, though in general publicly expressing your love for any kind of animal can only lead to embarrassment.

Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?
I once went to Charles Dickens's house in London. I took away three things. First, when I saw his scarred, ink-stained writing desk I was struck by the fact that he wrote by hand, which given his output seems impossible. Second, there was a touring copy of one of his books that had sections deleted, added dialogue, and what amounted to stage directions, which told me that a reading doesn't have to be a guy standing in front of an audience reading. The final item was tucked away in a glass display case. Apparently, Dickens had this small ceramic monkey that he used to keep perched on his desk, just like people today decorate their cubicles with action figures. I thought, Wow. Charles Dickens had office toys.

What makes your favorite pair of shoes better than the rest?
Because if I hadn't bought them I never would have met my wonderful wife.

Describe the best breakfast of your life.
I can have the best breakfast of anyone's life any day I want at Al's Breakfast in Minneapolis. I do not believe in the Devil, but if ever someone traded their soul for perfect knowledge it is the person who makes the pancakes at Al's Breakfast. They are so good they defy logic and reason.

Why do you write?
I write for two reasons. First, to get myself off my ass. If I didn't write I would watch television and play computer games and never talk to anyone. Writing gets me out of the house and meeting people. I've been places — political rallies, server farms in Silicon Valley, comedy festivals, soup kitchens — I never would have visited otherwise. I love going backstage. The second reason is that I like to tell stories, but in conversation I'm a terrible storyteller. Writing gives me the time and space I need to get a story right. Also, once in a great while, you get free food.

In the For-All-Eternity category, what will be your final thought?
Nobody thinks it's them.

Recommend five or more books on a single subject of personal interest or expertise.
Mostly Nonfiction Books with the Author-as-Hero plus a Favorite I Would Put on Any List

This is one of those for-better-or-for-worse categories. You either like it when the writer takes center stage or you don't. I personally love it. As a journalist for ten years, I hate it when I read a story where something amazing happens and the author pretends like they weren't there to witness it. You're right there and presumably a person. React! In any case, each of the following books demonstrates how different writers put themselves in the story in different and interesting ways. Plimpton gets down and dirty, but still manages to keep his professional distance, while Buford goes native. The Thompson I think is overrated, but you can't deny the spirit of the piece, nor his courage in abandoning reality as a way of capturing reality. As for the Brown, I haven't read it, but I hear it's amazing, and this is my way of reminding myself that I need to get to it sooner than later. Finally, the Amis is on the list because this is the book I read when I feel like there is no point in writing any more. Sentence for sentence it's one of the sharpest, funniest, most human books I have ever read. Money energizes me and pushes me to be better than I am, even when I know I'll never beat it. If I were a racing dog, this would be my rabbit.

Paper Lion by George Plimpton
Among the Thugs by Bill Buford
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson
Afterwards, You're a Genius by Chip Brown
Money by Martin Amis spacer

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