The author, whose new novel is '' The Late Americans, '' love romance novels and big European histories : '' Indeed, the two have a lot in common!''

.-  What books are on your night stand?

Nothing on the night stand - I keep my going pile on my kitchen table. I've got a recent reissue of Edith Wharton's '' A Son at the Front,'' and an edition of '' The Forsyte Saga '' as well as some biographies of Emile Zola.

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

C.V. Wedgwood's '' The Thirty Years War.'' It's sprawling and masterly and has the feel of a great novel with so many brilliantly drawn characters. I can't get enough of it.

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

I find the prose unforgivable, to be honest. Like, bad prose isn't the same thing as prose that isn't brilliant or good or whatever. Bad prose, to me, is bad thinking. It is the result of some critical failure on the writer's part and cannot be gotten around at all.

So if the prose is bad, the book is bad, there's no way through it for me.

.-  Describe your ideal experience [ when, where, what, how ].

The only thing I need is time. Right now, that's the thing I'm craving most.

.- What's your favorite book no one else has heard of?

Rebecca West's '' The Court and the Castle. '' It's this fascinating book of lectures she gave at Yale in the 1950s about the relationship between the individual and authority as read through literature from '' Hamlet '' up through Kafka.

I believe. It's just so funny and right even when it's wrong. If there's any justice in the world, some publisher will reissue it.

Also, Leslie Fiedler's sublime cycle of books '' Love and death in the American Novel, '' '' What was Literature? '' and '' Waiting for the End '' should be mandatory reading in all classrooms of serious literature. Totally mind-shaking stuff.

.-  What's the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently?

I was reading Claire Dederer's '' Monsters '' and found out that Jenny Diski was Doris Lessing's foster daughter! I was so shocked, I stopped reading 

''Monsters'' and went to look it up. Amazing.

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

I wish more people would write about evil people.  I understand why Americans don't.

Toni Morrison said that great thing about how goodness is more interesting and that evil is boring, and I respect her tremendously, but on that score, we diverge sharply.

Or maybe it's just that I read contemporary fiction, I don't feel that it's taking place in a moral universe where evil is even remotely possible, and that makes the books boring. In the absence of evil, goodness means nothing.

.- Have you ever changed your opinion of a book based on the information about the author, or anything else?

Never not once not even a little bit. Finding out things about authors mostly just means that I can't tell other people in public that I'm reading them, but it changes nothing about my own ethical stance on the work.

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

Moral depth.

.- What genres do you especially enjoy reading? And which of them do you avoid?

My first two loves are big books on European history and romance novels. Indeed, the two have a lot in common! The only two things I avoid are military history and American history, both of which I am sure are very important but which I find a total snooze fest.

.- What's the best book you've ever received as a gift?

I received a beautiful set of Jane Austen novels from my British publisher when my first book was a finalist for the Booker Prize. They're in this cute little case and they've beautiful painted pages.

The books themselves are rather small, so sometimes I take them out and pretend I'm in a Regency sitting room.

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

My family was not big on books or reading. As a result the only books really on hand were textbooks and my aunt's home nursing manual. Then somehow, I got my hands on a romance novel and kind of taught myself a read using that.

As a result, I kind of a skipped the usual kid's book fare. Nobody was reading to anybody in my neighborhood. But I did love those early romance novels quite a lot and as a result, I have this intense loyalty to Kathleen E. Woodiwiss.

.- You're organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive do you invite?

I would invite Mavis Gallant because she is my favorite writer and I feel like she'd have really cutting and sly things to say about the party after everyone left.

I'd also invite Elizabeth Bishop because she'd absolutely hate it, and I feel like she'd be funny to watch hate a party I was throwing. And probably Laurie Colwin because she'd probably be funny and kind, and I want to ask her about her strong coffee opinions.

The World Students Society thanks The New York Times.


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