Describe the ideal reading experience (when, where, what and how).
Like most people, I expect: hammock, dappled sunlight, palm muscles. The big caveat is that my iPhone has to be dead, or locked in a box of some sort, so that when I get to it every five minutes—automated, pathetically, as if it’s a phantom limb—it won’t be there to hijack me.
What is your favorite book that no one has heard of?
My mother is from Melbourne, so I grew up reading some Australian books that no one had heard of in the States. One that made a strong impression was “The Magic Pudding” by Norman Lindsey, which was published in 1918 and concerned a koala named Bunyip Plugoum, who goes on adventures with a sailor and a penguin and a fourth character is a bowl of candy with hands and legs. When the other characters are hungry, they eat the pudding (he has no problem with that – he likes to be eaten) and when they’re done, whatever portion of the candy has been consumed is magically reconstituted. The hard truth is that many of my favorite stories involve infinite food regeneration. “Strega Nona” was another touchstone of growing up, which I loved to share with my kids. The same goes for the movie “Big Night”.
Who are the writers – novelists, playwrights, journalists, critics, poets – working today, do you like the most?
One of the surreal things about writing for The New Yorker is that some of the writers I admire most are my colleagues: people like Rachel Abebe or Larissa MacFarquhar. In our old building, in Times Square, I could walk into the next office and ask David Grann, one of today’s greatest non-fiction writers, for his advice on how to deal with some narrative problems. I don’t miss what a higher privilege, that happens to me, Marshall McLuhan, here. But there are plenty of other writers I envy and learn from: Robert Caro, Isabel Wilkerson, Lauren Reddence, Adrien Nicole LeBlanc, Michael Lewis, Clint Smith, Jennifer Egan, the late John Lou Carrey, Colson Whitehead, Katie Kitamura, playwright Jess Butterworth, podcast Dan Tabersky. Quinn brothers. Michaela Coyle. People who write “Caliphate”. People who wrote “Veep”.
What do you read when you are working on a book? And what kind of reading do you avoid while writing?
I have a bigger problem which is that all reading becomes fodder for work. In college, I studied with Simon Schama, and I remember him talking about “pulling out” a book, tearing it up quickly and extracting what you need. Because I tend to do this, and because I read so much for work, I can sometimes forget to read for fun and relaxation. But when I’m really working on a project, I get obsessed, and any outside reading seems unnecessary.