Photo credit: Katy Close
Describe your latest book.
The Judge Hunter
is set in the year 1664, which the alert reader will recognize as an important year here on the American continent. Samuel Pepys, England’s great diarist, arranges to rid himself of his annoying and needy brother-in-law, Balthasar de St. Michel (called “Balty”), by contriving a Crown commission to send him to New England to hunt down two of the fugitive judges who signed the death warrant for Charles I. What neither Pepys nor Balty realize is that Balty’s mission is a cover for a much more significant and dangerous one — that comes from the very top (as they say in movies). In Boston, Balty meets up with a shadowy, tough-guy Crown agent named Huncks. Along the way, they save a beautiful Quaker damsel (possibly, this is the first ever use of the phrase “Quaker damsel”) from the clutches of sadistic Puritans, and the adventure continues.
I gave up political satire on the grounds that American politics is now sufficiently self-satirizing, and turned to historical fiction, which I really, really love. My last book, The Relic Master
, was set in the 1500s. This one is set in the 1600s. The one I’m now working on is set in the 1700s. My aim is to make it back to the 21st century before I collapse at the keyboard. A modest aim, I know, but my aim nonetheless.
What was your favorite book as a child?
The Wind in the Willows
. Mr. Popper’s Penguins
. Treasure Island
. But the first book that really, really, really grabbed me by the seat of the pants — or should I say, soles of my feet? — was Kerouac’s On The Road
, which I read as a senior at boarding school. (And yes, I do imply that I still a “child” at 17.)
When did you know you were a writer?
Probably when I was 13, at boarding school in Rhode Island, and feeling very, very alone. One Saturday after classes I wandered into the woods, the site of a significant skirmish during the American Revolution — the so-called Battle of Bloody Creek. I spent the whole day writing an epic poem about it, fortunately since lost. I was a bit of loner, and in ways, still am.
What does your writing workspace look like?
The Age of the Laptop means that anywhere you are is your workspace. My most stationary workspace is my garage studio at home, which was my father’s. He died at the desk, with his boots on, so to speak. That I work where he worked — and died — is humbling to me. It’s a big space filled with books and mementoes. My Labrador has his own couch, and demands to be let out every, say, five minutes so he can chase the squirrels. So at this stage of life, under “Occupation” on forms, I put down, “Doorman to a Labrador.”
What do you care about more than most people around you?
Now that I’m writing historical fiction, the answer would be: whatever period I’m working on. For two years, I was immersed — really immersed — in the American and English history of the 1660s. And since I don’t like to talk about what I’m working on, that didn’t give me much to add at the dinner table. Which is to say: a bore. I love writing, but the cliché is true: it’s kind of lonely, isolating work.
Share an interesting experience you’ve had with one of your readers.
A fellow named Peter Bowen, a Montana-based writer of fine, mostly western fiction, wrote me a fan letter in 1982, after he read my first book, Steaming to Bamboola
. We became great friends. We’ve exchanged thousands of letters since. And I have met him exactly once, over lunch, at Washington DC’s Union Station, sometime in the early 1990s. We communicate pretty much every day.
Tell us something you’re embarrassed to admit.
Still haven’t gotten around to reading War and Peace
. And honestly, I just don’t get Proust
. And I tried. I really tried. I stipulate that this marks me as a philistine. But you probably wanted something more embarrassing. Okay: I have Tourette’s. I tic. It makes me reluctant to go on TV — which I have, far too much. If I watch the tape, all I see is this person blinking. I blink all the time. It’s created some unfortunate situations, as when I find myself talking to an attractive woman — or man — and they think I’m coming on to them. There — embarrassing enough for you? It is for me.
Introduce one author you think people should read, and suggest a good book with which to start.
Well, there’s my buddy Peter Bowen
, mentioned above. There’s my late uncle, Reid Buckley, who wrote a neglected masterpiece called Servants and Their Masters
(1973). And I insist — insist — that anyone reading this immediately get Stephen Potter’s Upmanship
books — to me, the quintessence of satire.
What’s the most interesting job you’ve ever had?
At age 18, I shipped out as a deck boy on a Norwegian tramp freighter that took me around the world. Runner-up: working as Vice President George H. W. Bush’s speechwriter at the White House during some hot years of the Cold War.
Have you every made a literary pilgrimage?
I’m a major pilgrim. To the graves of:
T. E. Lawrence
D. H. Lawrence
(Taos, New Mexico)
Gérard de Nerval
(Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris)
(Père Lachaise Cemetery)
(Père Lachaise Cemetery)
(His grave at Woodlawn Cemetery, Bronx, NY; his birthplace, 6 Pearl St., Manhattan, NY; 104 East 26th St., where he died; and Arrowhead, Pittsfield, MA, where he wrote the greatest novel in American literature)
Edgar Allen Poe
(Montparnasse Cemetery, Paris)
Also: various Hemingway
haunts in Paris; Monticello, Virginia; and — a bit oddly — Gardiner, Maine, where I failed to find the boyhood home of Edward Arlington Robinson
, after whose poems my father named all our dogs (“Cheevy,” “Flood,” etc.),
What scares you most as a writer?
That none of my books will be in print a hundred years from now. Assuming “print” is even a medium a hundred years from now.
If someone were to write your biography, what would be the title and subtitle?
He Tried. Really, He Did: Christopher Buckley, Son of William F.
Offer a favorite sentence from another writer.
From memory, therefore perhaps not 100% accurate:
“I tried to warn you about English charm that night at Thame. It destroys everything. It destroys art. It destroys love. And now, my dear Charles, I g-greatly f-fear that it has destroyed you.” — Anthony Blanche to Charles Ryder in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited
Share a sentence of your own that you’re particularly proud of.
Again, from memory:
“They were — well, I’m out of words finally — they were my Mum and Pup.” — Closing line of my memoir about my parents, Losing Mum and Pup
What’s your biggest grammatical pet peeve?
Mistaking “disinterest” as meaning “not interested.” It means (of course) “having no stake in.”
Do you have any phobias?
I learned from Ms. Stormy Daniels’s interview on 60 Minutes
that apparently Mr. Trump and I share a shark phobia. Mine was at least earned: I was attacked by a 7-foot-long blue shark when I was nine years old. I have spent a lot of time on the water (I’ve sailed across three oceans) and under it (I’m SCUBA certified, and have done night dives on the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, though why, I still don’t know) but I am never, ever relaxed in salt water.
Name a guilty pleasure you partake in regularly.
I watch a lot of television. Series, that is. But then we are, truly, in a “Golden Age of TV.” I’m in awe of the writing that goes into these shows. My current addictions are Billions, Homeland
, The Americans
, and Doc Martin
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
My late father’s mantra: “Industry is the enemy of melancholy.”
What do you consider the worst sin of all?
My Top Five Books
Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited
. I reread it at least once a year. Waugh himself said later in life that he thought it flawed (over-rich, over-ripe), but it never fails to pull me into its spell of golden, doomed youth. And the language is just caviar.
by Herman Melville. I know, I know — all that blubber. But there are sentences in it that raise the hairs on my arms even on the 20th rereading. Melville’s great wrestling match with God, in the which he was destroyed, but what a book he left us: a fusion of Shakespeare and the Bible. Think of his description of Queequeg: “George Washington, cannibalistically rendered.”
by H. L. Mencken. Or really any Mencken, especially the volume edited and introduced by the late Alistair Cooke: paperback, yellow cover with a photo of Mencken scowling, cigar in mouth. The zest of his prose and vocabulary is as bracing as aftershave. And when he got on a tear, as he so often did, you sit there, grinning, amazed, thrilled.
It’s hard to pick a favorite book by Tom Wolfe, but if I had to, I’d say The Right Stuff
, his masterpiece about the Mercury astronauts. Wolfe’s prose is cooked with liquid nitrogen as potent as the juice that lofted these guys into space. “Exhilarating” doesn’t begin to describe it. To me, it’s the ne plus ultra of contemporary American nonfiction.
The Wind in the Willows
by Kenneth Grahame. I only recently learned that his tale of Mole and Ratty and Toad and Badger and the rest began as a series of bedtime stories to comfort his developmentally challenged son. In the process, he created a magical and wondrous sylvan world for us, to which I return whenever our own world seems just too much. Which, of late, it often does.
÷ ÷ ÷
is a novelist, essayist, humorist, critic, magazine editor, and memoirist. His books include Thank You for Smoking
, The Judge Hunter
, and The Relic Master
. He worked as a merchant seaman and White House speechwriter. He has written for many newspapers and magazines and has lectured in over 70 cities around the world. He was awarded the Thurber Prize for American Humor and the Washington Irving Medal for Literary Excellence.