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What were your most cherished childhood books?
I read a lot of Nancy Drew, and a lot of Tom Swift, but pretty early on I also started venturing into things like "The Three Musketeers" and "The Count of Monte Cristo," and the detective novels of Agatha Christie and Ross McDonald. I also loved the spy novels of Helen MacInnes, and of course, all of Sherlock Holmes, especially "The Hound of the Baskervilles." And I adored scary short stories, like the kind that appeared in annual collections ostensibly picked and edited by Alfred Hitchcock or Rod Serling. One particularly memorable story was Daphne du Maurier’s “The Birds,” which of course was the inspiration for the Hitchcock movie.
Can you recall a specific book or author that inspired you to become an author?
Can you think of a particularly powerful passage from a book that’s stuck with you? That you return to?
Absolutely. "The Maltese Falcon": Sam Spade’s closing monologue to Brigid O’Shaugnessy, just before he turns her over to the police.
Have you read a well-reviewed or popular book lately that you felt didn’t live up to the hype?
Happens all the time. But then, I’m a perverse guy. Tell me I’m going to love something, and most likely I’ll hate it. The best example for me is the Stieg Larsson “Girl Who” series. I read all three, but I have to say, I just don’t get why those books became so incredibly popular. If you want to read some really good Scandinavian detective fiction, try Henning Mankell and Joe Nesbo. And speaking of dark Scandinavian prose, definitely read "Let the Right One In," by John Lindqvist. It’s terrifying, but also very moving.
Do you have a book or two that you’ve re-read over the years and will no doubt read again?
Oh yes, many. Hemingway’s short stories — especially “Up in Michigan,” and “Hills Like White Elephants,” which is possibly the best single example of writing as the art of not saying. I’ve read Hammett’s "The Maltese Falcon" probably a dozen times. I’ve read Barbara Tuchman’s "The Guns of August" maybe five times — and, here’s the thing, thanks to the magic of excellent writing, each time I read that book I find myself hoping World War I will not occur. Then there’s Tolkien’s "Lord of the Rings" series. Walter Lord’s "A Night to Remember."
But probably the book that had the greatest effect on me each time I read it was "War and Peace." I know that sounds like the kind of thing a beauty pageant contestant would say, but it’s true. I’ve read it three times, at markedly different points in my life, and each time I felt as if I’d lived another life. Very satisfying. I’m about due for my fourth read. I only wish I could read it in Russian.
Do you have any favorite true crime titles, or favorites in another genre?
My absolute favorite is Capote’s "In Cold Blood." That’s another example of a book I’ve read over and over. There’s just something about his voice that is so alluring and seductive. The book begins like a travelogue about some charming town in the Midwest, and continues that way, very matter of fact, in the process amplifying the horror of the underlying crime. Another book — though it’s a novel based on a true crime — is James Ellroy’s "The Black Dahlia." Brilliant. Dark. Complex.
When and where do you settle down to read? To write?
My favorite spot is the living room, preferably with a fire in the fireplace, and rain and wind outside. Seattle really is one of the best reading towns, in winter, because there’s really nothing else you want to do, except maybe ski. But I’m not much of a skier. I’ve tried. Truly. But — and this is doubtless heresy —I feel about skiing the way I feel about Stieg Larsson’s books: I don’t get it.
Any book you’ve read lately that really caught your imagination, inspired you, or changed how you look at the world?
I’d have to say Hemingway’s "A Moveable Feast." That’s another book I’ve read over and over. And now, here in Paris, I am absolutely savoring it. Now that I’m here in Hemingway’s habitat, it’s almost a different book. Now I can feel it. I only let myself read a few pages at a time, and I use Post-Its to mark the pages that have the names and addresses of bars and such where Hemingway used to hang out. His era was just such a charismatic one — every writer’s fantasy. I mean, a guy could make a good living writing short stories, and hang out in bars with Joyce and Fitzgerald and Dos Passos. I totally get the premise for Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris.” Reading "A Moveable Feast," you just want to hop aboard an ancient Peugeot and head for the Brassserie Lipp or the Closerie de Lilas. Which, in fact, my wife and a visiting daughter and I are going to do tonight. Here I am, living two blocks from Hemingway’s haunt, and a block from his beloved Jardin du Luxembourg. I’m walking where he walked. Which amazes me no end. On the other hand, I had a drink the other night at the Hotel Lutetia, which during World War II and the occupation of Paris served as headquarters for the Gestapo. I’m just saying.
What book do you plan to read next?
Andrea Camilleri’s "The Terracotta Dog." Though for research I’m reading some pretty interesting things as well. But of course, I won’t tell you what they are.
What Val’s Reading This Week: "News From Spain: Seven Variations on a Love Story" by Joan Wickersham is the kind of book you read in one sitting, partly because the writing is so good, but mostly for how the stories so cleverly and elusively intertwine and echo each other.
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