Describe your latest project.
My new novel, Lost and Found, is about a group of contestants on a fictional reality show called (wait for it...) Lost and Found. The show is a global scavenger hunt: contestants travel around the world, looking for strange objects, which they then have to carry with them for the rest of the game. The novel follows several two-person teams a mother and her teenage daughter, two middle-aged brothers, a pair of former child TV stars, and a married couple who met through a Christian "ex-gay" group. But even though reality TV provides the backdrop for the book, that's not entirely what the novel is about; it's also about the limits of intimacy and the destructive power of shame. Each character starts out with a secret, something that haunts them that they'd like to keep private, and each one finds that the trial of being on the show brings these things to the forefront in ways they hadn't imagined. And each of them begins to wonder if they knew their partner as well as they thought they did.
Writers are better liars than other people: true or false.
I'm a terrible liar, and I suspect I'm not alone in that. I could say some lofty thing about how writing fiction is more about revealing the truth than about making things up, but I suspect it's actually because lying is, at its foundation, a social skill. And I don't want to generalize, but writers as a group aren't known for their astonishing social skills.
What is your favorite literary first line?
"On the morning the last Lisbon daughter took her turn at suicide it was Mary this time, and sleeping pills, like Therese the two paramedics arrived knowing exactly where the knife drawer was, and the gas oven, and the beam in the basement from which it was possible to tie a rope."
?Jeffrey Eugenides, The Virgin Suicides
How did the last good book you read end up in your hands and why did you read it?
I just read a fabulous book called The Chester Stories by Kermit Moyer. It's a collection of linked stories about a boy growing up as an army brat in the '50s and '60s. It's funny and passionate and absolutely riveting. Oh, and it hasn't been published yet. Kermit is a former professor of mine, and he asked me if I'd be interested in taking a look at it, which is why I started reading it, but not why I kept going. To paraphrase Irene Cara (which I do whenever I can), remember that name. And the day you see it on a bookstore shelf, take it home and clear your calendar.
Share an interesting experience you've had with one of your readers.
A couple of times, I've had readers point out mistakes to me. There's a section in The Dogs of Babel where my narrator, Paul, makes new words out of the letters of his own name, his dog's name, and his late wife's name. Someone at a reading pointed out to me that one of the words is wrong: the letters in "Lexy Ransome" cannot be rearranged to make the word "lost." I'm not sure how this error made it into print; apparently, neither I nor my editor (not to mention two copyeditors and a proofreader) thought to double check. Another time, someone pointed out that in my first chapter I mention a steak that my characters were supposed to cook that night on the grill; elsewhere, I say that on the night in question, Paul was going to teach an evening class, then meet some graduate students for a beer. So when was this alleged steak dinner supposed to take place midnight? People are never obnoxious about calling attention to these things; it's more like they're genuinely puzzled. They figure they must be missing something. It can't be that the book is wrong.
Name the best Simpsons episode of all time, and explain why it's the best.
Wow. This is something I've thought about quite a bit (and if I had to choose second best, I'd be in trouble, because I can think of about twenty possible contenders). But the absolute best episode, in my opinion, has to be "El Viaje Misterioso de Nuestro Jomer (The Mysterious Voyage of Our Homer)." It's the one where Homer goes on a mystical hallucinogenic journey after ingesting too many "Guatemalan insanity peppers" at a chili cook-off and subsequently embarks on a search to find his soul mate. It's got everything a Simpsons episode should have: great guest stars (Johnny Cash as an enigmatic talking coyote); quotable lines ("So I says to Mabel, I says..."); good use of supporting characters (Ned Flanders's kids worry he'll go to jail for trying to pass off two-alarm chili as five-alarm); and pop culture references (this one has allusions to Carlos Castaneda, the Beatles, and The Twilight Zone). The dream sequence is psychedelic and beautiful (Homer shatters the sun after he discovers he has the power to make it rise and set at will); there's not a wasted line, and the episode ends with Marge and Homer kissing in silhouette while the citizens of Springfield wade into the water to loot a shipment of hot pants that's fallen overboard from the Sea Captain's ship. The song "Who Wears Short Shorts?" plays over the credits. It's perfect.
In the For-All-Eternity category, what will be your final thought?
"Can we go back to talking about The Simpsons?"
Make a question of your own, then answer it.
Q: Give us an epigraph for a novel you might never write.
A: "I was working as a waitress in a cocktail bar. That much is true."
The Human League