Do you count any books as comfort reads, or guilty pleasures?
No guilt around reading anything. What a waste of guilt. My comfort reads run parallel to my comfort television binges. Somewhere in the United Kingdom in an earlier era. Women of a certain age (are they sisters? so much the better) looking for love or unhappy with love or completely cynical about love. Long walks, teatime, gardening. Throw in a meddling great-aunt and an untrustworthy suitor. Is there a vicar? I’m in! Pretty much any Barbara Pym fits the bill here.
What’s the last book you read that made you laugh?
“Sorrow and Bliss,” by Meg Mason.
The last book you read that made you cry?
“Sorrow and Bliss,” by Meg Mason. A truly comic novel about love and the despair of depression. It’s a rare and beautiful thing when an author can break your heart with humor; it’s also the quality I admire most in a writer.
What writers are especially good on marriage and family dynamics?
This is such a hard question. So many. The Masters: Jane Austen, Edith Wharton, Wallace Stegner, William Trevor. “Mrs. Bridge,” by Evan S. Connell is probably my favorite book on marriage. (I like “Mr. Bridge,” too, but Mrs. is where it’s at.) While writing my latest book, I kept going back to Penelope Lively’s “The Photograph,” a brilliantly structured book about marriage, friendship, betrayal, secrets — all my favorite things. All of Tessa Hadley, I recommend her so often I’m worried she’s going to take out some kind of restraining order, but honestly nobody is better on the nuances of relationships. Nora Ephron’s “Heartburn” (funny, heartbreaking, I bow down). Stephen Sondheim if you want to hum it. Ann Patchett, Amy Tan, Meg Wolitzer, Brit Bennett, Alice McDermott. I could go on for pages, but I’ll stop at Laurie Colwin, whose books are being reissued this year. I’m thrilled that a new generation of readers will find her. She’s so good on love and marriage.
What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently?
From Stephanie Danler’s memoir “Stray,” that the wild black mustard that proliferates in Southern California and is just coming into glorious, yellow bloom was planted, in part, by Franciscans along the Camino Real to mark its path. The plant is an unwelcome invader, crowding out the native growth and wildflowers. Fact and metaphor.
What moves you most in a work of literature?
For me it starts with voice, inextricably linked to language: Do I like what this person is doing with words? And I’m always waiting for that moment when a book surprises me in a way that one second later feels perfectly inevitable.
Which genres do you especially enjoy reading? And which do you avoid?
I don’t actively avoid any genres, but I’m drawn to fiction like a heat-seeking missile. I constantly berate myself for not reading enough poetry. I’m a fast reader — to my detriment — and poetry forces me to slow down, to appreciate not just the individual words but the way they appear on the page, the white space. Following my post-“Middlemarch” books-before-email plan, I’ve been starting the day with a selection or two from “The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton” and “The Age of Phillis,” by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers. I know from Jeffers’s social media that Clifton was her mentor and friend and I love looking for connections between writers, seeing how their work might be in conversation.