The novelist, whose new book is ''Lorna Mott Comes Home,'' ''hasn't cried while reading since she was 16 : ''I'm a hard-hearted professional writer - I'm always more interested in how it's done.''

.- What books are on your night stand?

Brian Dillion's ''Suppose a Sentence,'' very amusing about sentences; a saucy French novel, ''Partita'' -for me, lots of new vocabulary; a novel, ''The Margot Affair,'' which the author, Sanae Lemoine, just brought me.

''Field Marshall,'' a biography of Erwin Rommel by Daniel Allen Butler; ''The Wreck of the Abergavenny : The Wordsworth and Catastrophe,'' by Alethea Hayter; ''A Safer World...........?,'' by my upstairs neighbor Luc Debieuvre.

.-  What's the last great book you read? 

''The Leopard,'' by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa.

.- Can a great book be badly written? What other criteria can overcome bad prose?

People talk about Dreiser and Zola. I might add '' The Da Vinci Code.'' Apparently an exciting plot or burning social message can overcome bad writing.

.- What book should everybody read before the age of 21?

''The Count of Monte Cristo.'' Although maybe reading it for the first time at any age would still produce the riveting suspense of a great story. One you would stay up all night to read under the covers with a flashlight if your mother made you turn out the light.

.- What book should nobody read until the age of 40?

''Pride and Prejudice,'' or ''Emma.'' Or, rather, read them in your teens for the stories, for one experience, and then later to appreciate Austen's genius, rewarding both times.

 .- Which writers - novelists, playwrights, critics, journalists, poets, working today do you admire most?

There are so many, but among journalists I can mention any book by Michael Lewis on any subject -somebody who can make the stock market or anything else fascinating. I look forward to any novel by Margaret Drabble.

.- What moves you the most in a work of literature?

Skill - a great amazing style, or graceful erudition. I think of W.G. Sebald, or certain passages  in L.P. Hartley and E.M. Forster and V.S. Pritchett that I copied  out. I'm very susceptible to the Edwardians.

.- What's the last book that you read that made you laugh?

Molly Keanne's  ''Good Behaviour.'' Or Elif Batuman's  ''The Possessed : Adventures with Russians Books and People Who Read Them.''

 .- The last book you read that made you cry?

I am a hardhearted professional writer   - I'm always more interested in how it's done. It was probably   ''Anna Karenina '' when I was 16.

.- The last book you read that made you furious?

I'm always getting furious at exposes : how food isn't getting to the African children, or waste in the Pentagon, the plight of Afghan women  - you name it.

.- Which subjects do you wish more authors would write about?

My friend Bob Gottlieb has always said that more people should write about friendship, and it's true that that's a neglected, important part of life.

.- What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?

Voracious, like most kids who grow up to be writers. My childhood loves were Alexandre Dumas and Rafael Sabatini, after I outgrew Nancy Drew, Beatrix Potter and Winnie the Pooh, I really didn't outgrow them, of course.

I also had a book of poems called ''Silver Pennies,'' and of course,'' A Child's Garden of Verses.

Some childhood favorites are now forbidden for political incorrectness - for instance, about the brave little boy who saved his family from being eaten by tigers, and another about some children who lived in the South before the Civil War.

.- Disappointing, overrated, just not good : What book did you feel as if you were supposed to like, and didn't? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?

''The Goldfinch.''

.- What do you plan to read next?

Cynthia Saltzman's ''Plunder : Napoleon's Theft of Veronese's Feast,'' about Napoleon stealing a painting, ''The Wedding Feast at Cana.''

The World Students Society honors author Diane Johnson and thanks The New York Times for this interview.


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