I heard you grew up reading bios and detective novels. What exactly?
I didn’t read any actual, professional, fedora-wearing detectives, only Nancy Drew, if she counts. A girl sleuth!—that seemed an interesting extension of science class—and she did have a raincoat, plus a plump friend and a tomboy friend, as did we all. As for biographies, I was most enthralled by Virginia Dare and Harriet Tubman, whose biographies necessarily contained a certain amount of invention.
Did you ever want to be any of those people?
When I read fairy tales, there were people who lived happily ever after that I wanted to be—especially the brunettes, like Snow White. But biographies were so full of struggle and greatness and then of course the person was dead, so it never occurred to me to want to be them.
What sort of books did your parents read?
Nonfiction. My mother went through a big Eleanor Roosevelt period, and for Christmas we would just buy her anything that had the words “Eleanor Roosevelt” on it. Sometimes just “Roosevelt.” Sometimes just some random thing with Eleanor’s picture would do.
What posters did you have up on your walls?
Some really stupid ones: things unfolded from John and Yoko’s Wedding Album, and one that said LIFE IS A GAS. AT 39 CENTS A GALLON.
Who was your favorite poet in your adolescence?
George Meredith. His “Modern Love” always made me cry. I was pathetically, heartbrokenly attached to sad, bad marriages even before I’d ever been out on a date.
Any songs stick out from that period?
The soundtrack to Porgy and Bess—and Funny Girl and Carousel. I do a very reverential Billie Holiday imitation that’s a complete room-emptier. My parents were constantly playing music in the house—Brahms and Joan Baez. By the time I had my own record player, I was listening to a lot of Laura Nyro, especially her redo of “Gonna Take a Miracle” with Patti LaBelle as a backup singer. When you have Patti LaBelle as a backup singer, you know you have performed a curious inversion.
Did you go to concerts?
Sure. There once was a Bruce Springsteen concert outside in Saratoga Springs, and we were all waiting on the lawn, in the rain, and he came out three hours early with an acoustic guitar and sang “Who’ll Stop the Rain?” and the rain stopped. My favorite song of his is “Meeting Across the River”—a perfect, beautiful searing thing. But probably the most thrilling thing I saw onstage was Hendricks, Fassbaender, and Soederstrom in Der Rosenkavalier. By the end, everyone’s hair was standing on end.
Any visual artists you particularly admire?
Well, I’m dating one. We’ll see.
You once defended Titanic at length, saying, “I am interested in the cinematic grapplings of Eros and Thanatos as performed, attractively, by young people.” What other movies fulfill those criteria?
Let me plead for mercy. It was the shortest essay in the book. And if it wasn’t, it should have been. As for other movies, the best ones might be Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven, Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet. On the Waterfront. West Side Story. I’m still trying to find someone who recalls this movie I saw as a very young child called My Pal Wolf, about a little girl who takes in what she thinks is a lovely lost wolf, though it turns out he is just an escaped police dog and she has to return him to the police. Some days I feel all my work has come out of that one movie.
What would your readers be surprised that you’re into—preferably something embarrassing?
My radar for what is embarrassing is not that good—perhaps because I just don’t care. So, for instance, I once loved the TV show The Name of the Game and will defend it to this day, though I haven’t seen an episode in 33 years. I love radio shows devoted to show tunes—different versions of Gypsy, say, compared and contrasted for two hours by some lonely young man whom I quickly come to regard as my closest friend.
Were you one of those drama kids in high school?
I love plays. Even bad ones. I like the fact that actual live, breathing people are standing before you in tense situations that you are not personally responsible for. Contemporary plays I’ve admired include August Wilson’s Fences (which is an African-American Death of a Salesman), John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt, David Hare’s Plenty—all of them in one way or another about shattered idealism, the great theatrical theme. As for musicals? Stephen Sondheim aside, I have seen some totally exhilarating pieces of garbage that I won’t name.
What did you pick up from living in New York years ago?
That it was completely inspiring and stimulating and a great place to walk and brainstorm but that I couldn’t get much actual work done there.
You won Seventeen’s short-story contest as a youngster. Were you a big magazine reader?
Oh, not that big, I’m sure. But some. I grew up with Life magazine on the coffee table, Life cereal on the breakfast table, and the game of Life on the card table. People were just so happy to be alive, I guess.
Author; 2005 winner of the PEN/Malamud Award for short fiction