Describe your latest book/project/work.
My new novel, Model Home, is about a downwardly mobile family living in Southern California in the '80s. The father has made a disastrous real estate investment in the Mojave Desert, their things are being repossessed, but he lies to the family about what's going on, still clinging to the hope that he'll be able to pull them out of debt. It's quite funny, I hope, despite the tragic events of the plot. Eventually they end up living in the middle of the desert, near a toxic waste dump — in one of the homes the father has failed to sell.
The novel is told from alternating perspectives, not just the parents' but the children's as well: a real family saga. But it's also about real estate, about the rise of the exurbs and the strangeness of our modern urge to people the desert, where human beings are sorely equipped to prosper. I began the novel before the whole sub-prime loan disaster, but the book came to prefigure it in an odd way.
If someone were to write your biography, what would be the title and subtitle?
Fear of Death: A Life Without Sleep.
What fictional character would you like to date, and why?
God. He'd forgive me my faults.
What's the strangest or most interesting job you've ever had?
I worked as a baggage handler in Salt Lake City one winter. It was for a no-frills charter airline, and we had to turn planes over as quickly as possible, which meant crouching in the pit of an airplane and stacking bags that came at us from a belt loader; connections went to one side of the pit and nonstops to the other. It was like a demonic game of Tetris. In order not to get buried, we'd stop checking tags and just toss the bags any way we wanted. Everyone working there made seven dollars an hour. Whenever a bag marked Vegas showed up, we'd open it up and search for rolls of quarters. Once, towing a train of baggage carts, I almost ran into a DC-10 and caused millions in damage.
I never check my luggage, and recommend that you don't either.
Introduce one other author you think people should read, and suggest a good book with which to start.
Stoner by John Williams. Just a beautiful book.
What makes your favorite pair of shoes better than the rest?
I own a black pair of desert boots that I wear almost every day. I've always worn desert boots, ever since I was a teenager. They allow me to entertain the fantasy that I'm in the Velvet Underground and not a college professor.
What is your idea of absolute happiness?
Feeding the ducks in Golden Gate Park with my four year old daughter.
Aside from other writers, name some artists from whom you draw inspiration and talk a little about their work.
I listen to a lot of music. In the past few years, I've become a fan of the band The Hold Steady. Craig Finn's songs are like short stories. There's one on their last album called "One for the Cutters." It's about a college girl that becomes involved with a townie, and the townie ends up stabbing someone, and the girl has to lie in court to give him an alibi. At the end, she comes home for Christmas and seems "distant and different." It's a terrific song.
Recommend five or more books on a single subject of personal interest or expertise.
I'm a bit fascinated by books that become cult favorites in literary circles: novels that inspire great passion among other writers but for whatever reason have never found a large readership. Writers' novels, I guess you'd call them. There's something about the fact that these books remain "undiscovered" that makes them especially lovable. (I already mentioned Stoner by John Williams, so have left it off the list.)
Six Unsung Novels Beloved by Other Writers (and Myself)
Light Years by James Salter
The End of Vandalism by Tom Drury
Fat City by Leonard Gardner
So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell
Desperate Characters (Norton Paperback Fiction) by Paula Fox
A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes