Describe your latest project.
Spinning Dixie is a coming-of-middle-age story about a presidential press secretary who uses diabolical public relations tactics to spin an old girlfriend back into his life. As you'll see, the spinner gets spun. It's equally a book about how romantic obsessions can last a lifetime as it is a book about fooling people who desperately want to be fooled individuals and mass audiences alike. The protagonist, Jonah Eastman, is a disgraced White House press secretary who, even at middle age, is running from the ghost of the gangster grandfather who raised him. No matter how far he thinks he's gotten in life, he never seems to escape the street-fighting tactics employed in the American underbelly. The antagonist, the beautiful Claudine Polk, is a Dixie princess who is very much a hostage to her family's Confederate past. The novel features Jonah and Claudine as teenage lovers and as middle-aged people with adult pressures and responsibilities and who use the resources familiar to them to get what they want. I began writing Spinning Dixie in the summer of 1980 when I was eighteen and it didn't take shape until I was in my early forties.
If someone were to write your biography, what would be the title and subtitle.
Panic: My Life on Pins and Needles
Writers are better liars than other people: true or false?
Absolutely true. Every fiction writer is writing his autobiography even if he's making it up. In fact, we want to make our lives up. We use fiction to spin the images of ourselves that we want to project, to recreate our lives in accordance with our fantasies. In fiction we get to right wrongs and control a world that in reality we can't control. To accomplish this, writers need to be unusually receptive to falsehoods, especially self-delusions. We are the smart kids who didn't pay attention in class and didn't get great grades because we were daydreaming. The challenge as grown-ups is to remember what's real and what's fantasy.
Offer a favorite sentence or passage by another writer.
In Seinfeld, Elaine walks into the diner and, apropos of nothing, asks Jerry, "Do you think it's possible that I'm not as attractive as I think I am?" Jerry responds, "Anything's possible." This, in a nutshell, summarizes the process of growing up.
What is your favorite indulgence, either wicked or benign?
I'm obsessed with organized crime. I grew up in a mob-infested community and had some interesting characters in my background. Growing up, however, I was never able to discuss the subject. It wasn't considered smart. Consequently, I became extra curious at this mysterious world that was simultaneously close and remote. I think when you're a shy, straight-arrow kid, there's something very appealing about people who seem to be unfettered by law or morality.
Why do you write?
I write because I have to write. It's involuntary. I'd love to say it's been a process requiring great deliberation, but it's not so. Whipping the books into editorial shape was hard, but basically, with the seven books I've written, the words just came out in an urgent fashion.
Share an interesting experience you've had with one of your readers.
A Philadelphia mobster called me to ask if a particular character in one of my novels was based on him. I asked him, "Do you want him to be based on you?" He said yes. I told him that the character was totally based on him. He was thrilled and told me that he owed me one. I told him that he didn't. These guys have a strange way of returning favors.
On a clear and cold day, do you typically get outside into the sunshine or stay inside where it's warm?
I stay inside. I believe that exploration and curiosity about one's world are overrated. I'm a nester. I've got enough drama going on inside my head that I don't need an outside stimulus to make my life interesting. Besides, it's cold out there.
Recommend five or more books on a single subject of personal interest or expertise.
1. Little Man: Meyer Lansky and the Gangster Life by Robert Lacey
This book examines the harsh reality behind the romantic mythology about life as a mobster. It's a sad book and should dissuade anyone from the notion that crime pays big dividends.
2. We Only Kill Each Other by Dean Jennings
A largely affectionate look at the life and times of Bugsy Siegel. Bugsy wanted to be a star, but in the end he exited this life early as just another killer.
3. Supermob by Gus Russo
A new and comprehensive look at Sidney Korshak and the thugs who became rich by being quasi-legitimate. In the end, it was the characters who went straight who are the most interesting and ended up with the money and the power.
4. Wiseguy by Nick Pileggi
A gritty look at life as a bottom-feeder in a New York Mafia crew. In the beginning, you want to be a part of it. By the end you'll foreswear a life of sin.
5. The Godfather by Mario Puzo
To understand the reality of criminal life you first have to become disillusioned by the fantasy. Puzo's book is pure fantasy.