You taught at Oberlin until 2018. What was your favorite book to assign and discuss with your students?
My favorite thing as a teacher was intuiting which individual book might make a difference to a particular student. I vividly remember giving my beloved copy of Elizabeth Bowen’s “The Death of the Heart” to my student Rumaan Alam back in the late 1990s. This was not a book I’d generally recommend to the average 21-year-old, but it seemed to click with Rumaan, and we spent some very happy times discussing it. I felt as proud as if I’d set them up for a date!
Which subjects do you wish more authors would write about?
Anything other than themselves. I love writers like Emily St. John Mandel, Usman T. Malik, Mat Johnson, Sequoia Nagamatsu, Sanjena Sathian — who use some aspects of their own experience to tell a far-out tale. I find myself less interested in books that outline the banalities and humiliations of your middle-class Norwegian life or whatever.
What moves you most in a work of literature?
I like difficult characters — characters with deep flaws who are struggling, maybe they are bad people, but they are moved toward kindness or altruistic acts. So much of our daily life is full of cruelty and indifference, and sometimes we think that is the human condition. But I do like characters who affirm that there is also a human instinct toward empathy and connection. I’m such a sucker, that always makes my heart swell.
Which genres do you especially enjoy reading? And which do you avoid?
Genre is not as important to me as my sense that the writer is deeply emotionally engaged and taking risks. For example, Kathryn Davis. I can’t say what “genre” she’s working in, but I will read whatever she writes. On the other hand, I’m generally less enthused about work that is simply replicating a pattern of familiar plot points and emotional beats.
Like most of your novels, “Sleepwalk” has noir elements. Which books got you hooked on crime fiction?
The big ones for me were Ira Levin’s “A Kiss Before Dying” and Patricia Highsmith’s “The Talented Mr. Ripley.” Also, of course, the films of Alfred Hitchcock and David Lynch.
What’s the most terrifying book you ever read?
Elizabeth Kolbert’s “Field Notes From a Catastrophe: Man, Nature and Climate Change.” My son, an ecologist, says there are far scarier books out there, but Kolbert is about as much as I can handle.
How do you organize your books?
One of my guest bedrooms is basically a library, with built-in shelves on every wall, and that is all fiction and poetry, shelved alphabetically. The guest bedroom on the third floor has two walls of shelves with anthologies, comics and nonfiction, more randomly organized by size, and I spend most of my reading time there because it has a nicer bed.