Is there a book you read that made you want to write them yourself?
Having wanted to be a scientist, I came to literature a little late. Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying was a very powerful book. I admired the way truth was represented from different points of view contradicting each other.
When did you discover it?
Nineteen sixty-two—I was 19. I was finished with college, and college was finished with me. I was working in a very lowly position at an advertising agency, surrounded by people writing on their lunch hours. That was the year I discovered that there was something as tempestuous as Ulysses and Kerouac and Graham Greene and all sorts of people—a great rush of modern literature.
Were your parents into music or books?
Well, Reader’s Digest Condensed Books, there were a lot of those around the house. My parents had a pianola—a piano that rolls were made for. They would play Broadway-show music, but that was more a center for drinking than anything. People would be up till three in the morning playing the pianola.
And you went straight from there to boarding school.
Yes. Going from that environment to a school where they do The Messiah every year, that was thrilling. But I was asked not to sing it. When the boys’ voices were breaking, it was suggested that they mouth the words. So there was some status in being asked not to sing. But in fact, I really couldn’t sing.
Were you assigned lots of lofty books there?
When I was in London, in the eighties, I gave interviews saying I hadn’t read a book until I was 19. And my former English teacher kept writing letters saying that I’d studied with him: Shakespeare, which I do remember, and Milton, which I don’t.
Did you at least go to museums as a child?
Well, they have a famous racehorse called Phar Lap, who had been stuffed and put in a glass case. We would go and look at Phar Lap, that’s what you go to a museum for.Any recent art exhibits you liked?
The Met had this exhibition of August Sander. You could buy the whole five-volume set for a hundred bucks, which I did. I should take it up to Hunter, to my writing class, and say, “Look at these people. Look at their lives. Look at their faces.”
Do you write to music?
The first time I discovered Bob Dylan was Pete Seeger at the Melbourne Town Hall saying, “There’s this new singer called Bob Dylan. I’m gonna sing you ‘A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall.’ ” The next day, I went out and bought The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. For long periods of my life, I began writing in the morning by playing Highway 61 Revisited or something until I couldn’t bear any more and just took it off and wrote. I still think he’s just the most extraordinary artist. I’m reading this book that Flaubert was writing at his death, Bouvard and Pécuchet. It’s about these two bourgeois characters. And I’m thinking of Dylan doing “Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum.” What I mean is, he’s a really great reinventor and self-inventor.
Did you read Chronicles, Vol. 1?
Not yet, but I will. He’s a great artist, but I doubt it’s a great book.
Do you like any more recent music?
My youngest kid now has a band called Corporate Burnings. There’s a whole lot of relatively political music, like Anti-Flag and people like that, that I listen to with him occasionally. The T-shirt for that one nearly caused me to be involved in a serious brawl at the Battery Park cinema. You know, “What’s that kid there doing with that flag?” So I listen to that sort of music—also Rancid, although not so intently that I could critique them.
What’s your guiltiest pleasure?
We do watch Friends. I like it enough to watch it. I don’t get angry with it. I used to watch the Weather Channel a lot.
Is there an artist who gave you an idea of what it would be like to live as one?
I had a really good friend who died recently. He was an American painter called James Doolin who’s well known in California. He had such a fantastic sense of absolute unbending integrity. When he first came back to the United States in about ’68, he spent four years doing this three-quarters view of a Santa Monica shopping mall. It’s an exquisitely beautiful work of art. I think he affected my life forever.
Wrong about Japan