Describe your latest project.
Stardust is a novel about Hollywood in 1945, when the studio system was at its peak and the town was about to come under siege, attacked by red-baiting politicians who wanted to borrow some of its stardust for their own opportunistic purposes. Like some of the movies being made in its pages, it's a story of intrigue, with a murder to solve and a love affair that wasn't meant to happen, but it's also a look at the workaday world of movie-making at a time when Hollywood was at the top of its game.
What fictional character would you like to date, and why?
Any of the female protagonists in my books, especially Lena in The Good German and Emma in Los Alamos. These are both love stories and I don't think you can write them without being somehow in love with the character yourself.
Introduce one other author you think people should read, and suggest a good book with which to start.
Patrick Leigh Fermor, whose account of a walk across Europe in the 1930s begins with A Time of Gifts and continues with Between the Woods and the Water. These books are very special — beautifully written and informative, they're time capsules to a period and place now vanished. They may not change your life, but they will make you happy.
How did the last good book you read end up in your hands and why did you read it?
I had read a review of Geoff Dyer's Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi in the Times and thought it sounded extraordinary. It was, and made me want to read all his other books, so I bought Yoga for People Who Can't Be Bothered to Do It, also wonderful and a book I might have bought for the title alone. Then, on book tour, I thought Paul Theroux's Ghost Train to the Eastern Star might be the perfect read going from airport to airport — a great pleasure and in many ways more interesting than the original railway bazaar journey that inspired it. Then... but this sort of question has an endless answer. There's always another good book.
Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?
Yes. I read a lot of Henry James as an undergraduate (subject of my thesis), so when I first went to London I took a train down to Rye to visit Lamb House, which was — well, a house. This should have taught me a lesson, but I nevertheless visited Melville's house in western Massachusetts — again, a house. In fact, I think most writers' houses are disappointing. What's much more atmospheric and interesting are the places they wrote about. Sit for a while in the Parc Monceau and Proust comes to life.
What is your idea of absolute happiness?
A true memory: floating in the warm sea off Hawaii's Big Island, snowy Mauna Kea in the distance, watching my wife and two young sons playing on the beach, healthy and safe and happy.
Name the best television series of all time, and explain why it's the best.
The Sopranos, hands down, and for all the usual reasons — writing, directing, acting.
Who are your favorite characters in history? Have any of them influenced your writing?
I don't know about 'favorite,' but one historical figure who did influence my writing was Oppenheimer. My fascination with him, and the Manhattan Project in general, led to my first book, Los Alamos.
Recommend five or more books on a single subject of personal interest or expertise.
Five Good Books about Hollywood
Hollywood has inspired a flood of books, both good and trashy, but these seem to me the most insightful accounts of Hollywood's golden period:
City of Nets by Otto Friedrich
The Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Book by Arlene Croce
The Last Tycoon by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Memo from David O. Selznick selected by Rudy Behlmer
An Empire of Their Own by Neal Gabler