Describe your latest book.
Imagine Me Gone
, the novel I’ve been working on for the last five years, starts with a mother recalling a dilemma. In London, in the early 1960s, Margaret discovered her fiancé had been hospitalized for depression. She had a choice to make. Go forward with their planned marriage, or step away given the pain she might face. She decided to marry him. The novel is the story of the family that is born from this young woman’s initial act of love and faith.
It centers on Michael, their elder son, a brilliant but anxious music fanatic who makes sense of the world through parody. He’s someone who needs music to survive, dance music in particular, and the book is full of these playlists — disco, British New Wave, house music — running as a kind of theme to his character.
It interweaves five points of view — the mother and father’s; Michael’s; and those of his two siblings, Celia and Alec, who struggle along with their mother to care for Michael in his increasingly troubled and precarious life, lived out in the shadow of his father’s pain.
It’s got a good deal of humor in it, too, both because I think it’s true to the subject and because I wouldn’t have been able to write it without that counterpoint, and the relief of laughter.
What was your favorite book as a child?
I was/am dyslexic, so I read much later than most kids and still read quite slowly. I can remember with pride the day when I was 10 or 11 and sick in bed and managed for the first time to read an entire book in one day. And by an entire book, I mean, if I recall correctly, a 50-page, large-print kid’s history of the American Revolution. I wouldn't call it my favorite book. Oddly, I don’t know that I had favorites. Books were things to conquer. They were a kind of work, even from a young age.
When did you know you were a writer?
I began by writing in journals as a teenager. Though I didn’t realize it then, I was narrating a story, describing my experience to myself, and learning how to think on the page. I needed to write in those journals because so much of what was coursing through my mind felt forbidden to say anywhere else. This said, I didn’t think of myself as a writer at this point. Writing was a way to get things down that had to be got out of myself.
I didn’t try writing anything fictional until college, and I took one creative writing class my senior year. But again, I didn’t identify as a writer per se. It was just one of the things I did.
The truth is, I’ve always resisted the label. Once I got a fellowship and was working on fiction full time, it was hard to deny I was a writer, but it always seemed at least potentially temporary. I never felt confident it would last, and so I hedged, went to law school, imagined other lives as I sometimes still do. It is a kind of shell game, I suppose, a way to ward off identifying as something that still feels perilous.
What does your writing workspace look like?
My desk faces a blank wall. Immediately to my right is a large window which looks out over the narrow backyards of the adjoining buildings and to a garden with several large trees. Behind me is a wall of books. To my left, on the other side of the room, is a rug and a meditation cushion, where I sit before writing. It’s a small room, but it has a decently high ceiling, and the window is large enough to let in a good amount of light. There’s one filing cabinet, a lamp, and another small desk by the bookcase for bills and such. The tidier the room is, the more clear-sighted about my work I can be.
Share an interesting experience you've had with one of your readers.
I was giving a reading once from my first book, You Are Not a Stranger Here
, and afterwards one of the people who lined up to get his copy signed was a boy of 15 or 16. He didn’t say a word as he handed me his paperback. I asked him his name — I don’t remember it now — and I made the book out to him. As he took it and turned to leave, he said quickly, looking down and away, “Thanks for writing ‘The Beginnings of Grief.’” Before I could reply, he sped out of the store.
I don’t know that it was the most interesting experience with a reader, but it was the most moving. The story he thanked me for is about a gay, teenage boy who loses both his parents and draws the boy he’s obsessed with at school into committing acts of violence against him. When I wrote it, I thought no one would ever publish it, and thus no one would ever read it. That my words had made it through the world into this boy’s hands, and that they had, I am assuming, made him feel sufficiently less isolated that he would come and thank me for writing them — there is no greater reward than that.
Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?
The closest I came was when I visited the German Literature Archive in Marbach. It holds the papers of everyone from Schiller to Kant to Thomas Mann. I hadn’t gone for any particular one of these writers, but when I was shown the original, handwritten copy of Kafka’s Metamorphosis
, I began to tear up. Certainly it’s a story I’ve read many times, and Kafka is a writer I’ve always valued. But it wasn’t just that. It has something to do with how close we came to losing Kafka’s later work — though not The Metamorphosis
, which was published in his lifetime. Something about the unlikelihood of his work ending up in this Olympian collection. Like the voice of the underground. And something also to do with his particular handwriting. Every "t" had been crossed with a hard, slashing mark, as if in enraged emphasis. In the end, I can’t fully describe it. Something powerful emanated off that page to me. For the only time in my life, I felt as if I were in the presence of a sacred text.
What scares you the most as a writer?
Offer a favorite sentence or passage from another writer.
“All art is a kind of confession, more or less oblique. All artists, if they are to survive, are forced, at last, to tell the whole story; to vomit the anguish up, all of it, the literal and the fanciful.”
– James Baldwin, from “The Northern Protestant” in Nobody Knows My Name
Top Five Short Novels
For one reason or another, I’ve been reading a lot of short novels recently. I’m drawn to the space between the lyrical distillation of the short story and the narrative scope of a full-length novel. So the list that follows is a modest top five: the top five short novels I’ve read in the last few years.
1. Benito Cereno
by Herman Melville
For a riveting historical account of the actual episode Melville fictionalizes, I highly recommend reading Greg Grandin’s Empire of Necessity
2. The Good Soldier
by Ford Madox Ford
The narrator’s headlong need to tell the particular story he has to tell is evident from the first paragraph and never really lets up.
by Andrew Holleran
An achingly restrained and exact tour de force by an author best known for Dancer from the Dance
, a chronicle of gay city life before AIDS. The narrator here is older, his mother has died, and he’s reading the diaries of Mary Todd Lincoln. It’s simply gorgeous.
4. The Sense of an Ending
by Julian Barnes
Like The Good Soldier
, it’s a love story told from an odd angle by a man who both needs to tell the tale, and needs to avoid some of its meanings.
5. What Belongs to You
by Garth Greenwell
The most recent of the five — I read it last week. Beautifully rendered, quietly obsessive. A Sebaldian account of a gay American in Sofia, Bulgaria, and the bruising experience of his sexuality being revealed to his father when he was younger.
÷ ÷ ÷
is the author of the short story collection You Are Not a Stranger Here
, which was a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award finalist, and the novel Union Atlantic
, winner of the Lambda Literary Award and shortlisted for the Commonwealth Prize. Imagine Me Gone
is his new novel. His books have been translated into 18 languages, and he has received the Berlin Prize from the American Academy in Berlin, the PEN/Malamud Award, and fellowships from the Guggenheim and Rockefeller Foundations. He lives in New York City.