Describe your new book.
The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Prisoner's Dilemma is the third adventure featuring four diversely talented children brought together by an eccentric genius named Mr. Benedict. The children's original mission (in the first book) was to uncover a secret, society-threatening menace, a complex and dangerous task that compelled them to work together to solve riddles, puzzles, and other clues, accomplishing as a team — and eventually as close friends — what most adults could not. Their subsequent adventures, last recorded in The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey and now in this new book, likewise call for the solving of riddles and clues, as well as abundant resourcefulness and no shortage of quick wits and bravery.
To be more specific about Prisoner's Dilemma, there is a secret agent, a falcon, a circus strong man, a mind-control device, a blackout, a trap, a hidden door, an amphibious vehicle, several tense moments, and a potted ficus. But now I've given everything away.
What fictional character would you like to be your friend, and why?
I would love to be friends with Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin from Patrick O'Brian's incomparable series of seagoing novels. They are such unlikely and wonderful friends themselves, and their friendship has captivated me for years. It's hard to imagine what I could bring to the table — between them you have an ingenious fighting naval captain, astronomer, and violinist (Aubrey), and a brilliant physician, naturalist, linguist, secret agent, and cellist (Maturin) — whereas I can, um, write stories and stuff like that. But I've loved them both so long I suppose it's natural to wish they loved me back.
Introduce one other author/illustrator you think people should read, and suggest a good book by him/her.
This is going to turn into a Patrick O'Brian fan page, I'm afraid, but few books have given me greater pleasure in the last 10 years than his Aubrey/Maturin novels. Perhaps they aren't for everyone: if you don't like exquisitely written, historically accurate novels of manners that center around the friendship of two flawed but irresistibly fascinating and basically good men; novels of loyalty and love and great humor that somehow also manage to include espionage and riveting battles at sea; beautifully eccentric novels unafraid to devote long passages to Maturin's study of the flora and fauna of remote regions; generous novels, in other words, that are in love with the world — or if, as I'm afraid is most often (and understandably) the case, you just can't help being put off by all those sails and ropes, then you probably won't enjoy these. But for those willing to give them a shot, naturally you should start at the beginning, with Master and Commander. (The film was fine, but only hints at the pleasures the books offer.)
What is your favorite literary first line?
For its audacity and poetry, I've long admired the first line of Cormac McCarthy's Suttree:
Dear friend now in the dusty clockless hours of the town when the streets lie black and steaming in the wake of the watertrucks and now when the drunk and the homeless have washed up in the lee of walls in alleys or abandoned lots and cats go forth highshouldered and lean in the grim perimeters about, now in these sootblacked brick or cobbled corridors where lightwire shadows make a gothic harp of cellar doors no soul shall walk save you.
By way of dramatic contrast, but also for its audacity and humor, let me offer up another memorable first line, from Jack Butler's terrific novel Living in Little Rock with Miss Little Rock: "Howdy, I'm the Holy Ghost."
How did the last good book you read end up in your hands?
Browsing the first editions at my local independent bookstore, I came across Pastoralia, a collection of stories by George Saunders. I'd read one of the stories in it already, and several other Saunders stories in magazines and anthologies, and liked them all. So I eased the book off the shelf, and when no one was looking, I slipped it under my shirt.
Fine, I bought it. But I did get a discount.
Share an interesting experience you've had with one of your readers.
I was in a Chicago park with my family when I fell into conversation with two kids. A boy had asked me for help getting a swing down (it had gotten wrapped around the bar overhead), and, noticing his large vocabulary, I asked him what he liked to read. His friend, a girl of about 12, gave me an appraising look and asked if I was a children's librarian. When I replied that I wrote novels for children, she asked me what I'd written, and when I told her, she jumped out of her swing and gave me a hug. Then she peppered me with sophisticated questions about my books and writing in general, and the whole brief, unexpected encounter was very gratifying, except that I failed to get the boy's swing down.
What book by another author do you wish you had written?
I feel this way about almost all of my favorite books, from Bleak House to Anna Karenina to All the King's Men to Cry, the Beloved Country to etc., etc. My fantasies are constrained by the limits of my imagination, though. I mean, can I plausibly imagine that I ever could have written Their Eyes Were Watching God, Angle of Repose, Jane Eyre, or Mrs. Bridge? No, I cannot.
But The Architecture of the Arkansas Ozarks by Donald Harington — an incredibly funny, bawdy, and affecting saga that somehow calls to mind both One Hundred Years of Solitude and Catch-22 — now, that is a book I could have written, because it is set in Arkansas, and I am from Arkansas.
Okay, I could never have written that book in a million years. But you should read it, and Harington's other books, too.
What three things would you bring to a desert island?
A trunk full of great books, an ample supply of food and drink, and some comfortable means of returning to the mainland.