Photo credit: Barry Goldstein
Describe your latest book.
My latest book is yet another collection of short stories — since what better way can we imagine to enact social change in the current United States? — entitled The World to Come
. And once again I’m all over the place in terms of worlds, and voices, from 19th-century English explorers on one of the Arctic’s most nightmarish expeditions to 20th-century American military wives maintaining hope at home while their husbands man precarious radar stations in spectacularly treacherous waters, to 18th-century French balloonists inventing manned flight. There are also, among others, two frontier housewives who forge a once-in-a-lifetime connection despite and because of their isolation; a father and son who, during a cataclysmic volcanic eruption, sprint for home, knowing they’ll never make it; and three women in Queensland in the late 19th century who find themselves facing one of the largest cyclones in Australia’s history.
What was your favorite book as a child?
Well, that would depend on where you caught me on the timeline. I was the first one in my family to go to college, so there wasn’t a lot of literature in my house when I was growing up; my father hugely promoted my reading and bought me books all the time, but was also of the opinion that if you were going to read a book, you should learn something and so for many years only bought me nonfiction. So if we’re talking first, second, or third grade, my favorite books were probably giant picture books of dinosaurs — I adored Rudolph Zallinger‘s The Age of Reptiles
mural, for example — or rudimentary science books like All About Volcanoes
, or histories like The Second World War
Then when I was older, and even more firmly into monsters — fourth, fifth grades — I loved Dracula
, and Poe
. But I was always reading as much natural science and history as I could find. The history seems to have stuck more than the science has, in terms of information I’ve retained.
When did you know you were a writer?
For the longest time I didn’t
know, in the sense of having eradicated doubt that that’s what I would do for a living. I knew I loved writing
, but I didn’t imagine that I could make a living doing that; very few people I knew had even attended college, and no
one I knew wrote for a living or had earned any money doing so. I started writing at a very young age, mostly because the nuns in the Catholic school I attended had a rule in English classes that once you finished all the sentences you were supposed to diagram, you could use the rest of the period however you liked, and I was enough of a whiz at diagramming that I would fly through the sentences and then spend the rest of my time writing stories about werewolves. Around about middle school I realized I liked making up stories more than anything else, but even then I didn’t think, Well, maybe I can become a writer.
What I thought was, What kind of job can I get that I wouldn’t hate or be terrible at, and that would leave me any energy to write when I came home?
Mostly, though, I didn’t think ahead at all. If I had any plan whatsoever, it was that I would write for my own pleasure, and that someone would give me food.
What does your writing workspace look like?
My wife, Karen, who’s also a fiction writer, teases me that I’m more meticulous about keeping that space neat than I am about the rest of the house, but as these photos will suggest, that’s not true. When it comes to a desk, I need very little by way of drawers and a lot in terms of surface space, so the desk I had made looks more like a dining room table than a desk. When I think about my favorite spaces, they all involve windows and books, and that’s what my workspace is like, as well.
I also still have enough of the 10-year-old boy in me to have within sight objects that would have made me swoon with envy back then: a model tylosaur. A Greek hoplite’s helmet. A figure of Nosferatu.
And three beagles always lounge just one room over, inviting procrastination.
What do you care about more than most people around you?
Politics. Disasters that are rolling down the road towards us. Our own complacency and complicity in the face of such news.
Tell us something you're embarrassed to admit.
I still look in the mirror before I go out in the morning. You would think that by now I would have learned.
Introduce one other author you think people should read, and suggest a good book with which to start.
Rather than citing favorites that most literary readers know, I’ll pick two writers and books, one Italian and one German, that most don’t seem to know about: Marta Morazzoni and The Invention of Truth
, and Maria Beig
and Lost Weddings
Besides your personal library, do you have any beloved collections?
Not really. Going back to that residue of 10-year-old boy that still remains, though: I‘ve hung on to the complete set of Mars Attacks
cards, which I’d be sad, for nostalgic reasons, to lose.
What's the strangest or most interesting job you've ever had?
When I was in high school I had a job that was so staggeringly shitty that when I finally told my father what I was doing and he checked around the shop where he
worked, he was reassured that human beings didn’t do that kind of work anymore, that they had machines for that now. The job was called passivating. Back then when stainless steel cabinets were soldered together, the soldering produced a rainbow pattern on the steel, which couldn’t be sanded off since sanding would ruin the finish. The solution that was settled upon was washing the stainless steel with hydrochloric acid through which an electric current was run. So every morning I’d climb down into what looked like a giant steel sink in the basement of this factory and I’d wrap with gauze a wand hooked up to a huge battery, and then pull on some massive rubber gloves, and then dip the gauze in hydrochloric acid, and then swab away. With each steel cabinet, rinse and repeat. Except A) the gauze disintegrated under the acid and electricity, which meant it continually had to be replaced, which meant I was continually taking off the gloves and handling everything that was soaked in hydrochloric acid; B) the acid didn’t burn right away, so that I only realized minutes later what trouble I was in; C) the acid also ate through the gloves (see B, above); and D) the fumes from the acid were themselves debilitating. The only other worker with whom I shared the sink spoke no English whatsoever, which I should have taken as a bad sign. I worked there for about two weeks until my father got the news about what his son was doing, and pulled the plug on my participation.
Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?
Yes. Three in particular were inspiring experiences for me: visiting the filmmaker F. W. Murnau
’s home in Berlin, Vladimir Nabokov
’s home in St. Petersburg, and Giuseppe di Lampedusa
’s villa in Sicily.
What scares you the most as a writer?
Doing a bad job of adequately deploying what empathetic imagination I’ve got in order to connect to a world or a sensibility. Or rather: not sufficiently improving the bad job with which that sort of project always begins for me.
If someone were to write your biography, what would be the title and subtitle?
What’s-His-Name: A Partial History.
Offer a favorite sentence or passage from another writer.
I still find this passage from Lolita
one of the most moving passages I’ve ever read:
Reader! What I heard was but the melody of children at play, nothing but that, and so limpid was the air that within this vapor of blended voices, majestic and minute, remote and magically near, frank and divinely enigmatic — one could hear now and then, as if released, an almost articulate spurt of vivid laughter, or the crack of a bat, or the clatter of a toy wagon, but it was really too far for the eye to distinguish any movement in the lightly etched streets. I stood listening to that musical vibration from my lofty slope, to those flashes of separate cries with a kind of demure murmur for background, and then I knew that the hopelessly poignant thing was not Lolita’s absence from my side, but the absence of her voice from that concord.
Describe a recurring or particularly memorable dream or nightmare.
I used to dream regularly of tsunamis: of going down to the shore near where I lived (Long Island Sound was a short walk) and seeing the water streaming out to the horizon, being unable to convince those I loved of what was about to happen, and then seeing the wave come back in. Not a bad paradigm for most of the writing I’ve produced.
Do you have any phobias?
I’m somewhere between arachnophobic and mildly arachnophobic: enough that I learn all I can about spiders, anyway, and would prefer that no really big ones were wandering around in my room.
Name a guilty pleasure you partake in regularly.
I’ll watch terrible old movies at the drop of a hat, just to see if I can figure out who directed them; where I’ve seen this or that character actor before; etc. My brother and I are old movie junkies, and will often watch together.
What's the best advice you’ve ever received?
My thesis advisor in graduate school, John Hawkes, always encouraged me to look for the weirdness in my own work and never to underestimate how weird it was, and that was wonderfully helpful advice. Most of us are secretly and hilariously convinced of our own normality.
Jim’s top five historical novels:
5. Wolf Hall
by Hilary Mantel
4. The Radetzky March
by Joseph Roth
3. War and Peace
by Leo Tolstoy
2. The Leopard
by Giuseppe di Lampedusa
1. Memoirs of Hadrian
by Marguerite Yourcenar
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is the author of seven novels and five story collections, most recently The World to Come
. He lives in Williamstown, Massachusetts, with his wife, three children, and three beagles. He teaches at Williams College.