With Neal Thompson of the Amazon blog "Omnivoracious."
Q: Describe Life Among Giants (Amazon editors' Spotlight pick for Best Books of November) in one sentence.
BR: A mere mortal tries to walk among the gods, or anyway, a talented young athlete’s life and family gets tangled with the life and family of a world-famous ballerina who lives in the mansion across the way, watch out.
Q: In ten words.
BR “… a thrilling indulgence, a tale of opulence, love triangles, and madness.” Oh, sorry—that was Publisher’s Weekly.
Q: Try again.
BR: Two families get entangled, one rich, one poor, and fate steps in.
Q: Three words.
BR: Revenge takes time.
Q: What’s on your night-table/Kindle?
BR: It’s a big stack. Here’s the actual order, bottom to top, some already read, some cracked, some long-term projects, some awaiting insomnia: Bring up the Bodies, by Hillary Mantel; Canada by Richard Ford; Wild, by Cheryl Strayed; Waging Heavy Peace, Neil Young; When I was a Child I Read Books, by Marilynne Robinson; Lives of Girls and Women, Alice Munro; Telegraph Avenue, Michael Chabon; To Dance, Siena Cherson Siegel (borrowed from my daughter, who’s twelve); Blake Bailey’s Cheever (on the occasion of Cheever’s 100th birthday); Lost Memory of Skin, Russell Banks; Legs Get Led Astray, by Chloe Caldwell.
Q: Three to five favorite books of all time.
BR: The Tempest, William Shakespeare; Middlemarch, George Eliot; Moby-Dick, Herman Melville; The Great Gatsby, Scott Fitzgerald; My Antonia, Willa Cather.
Q: Important book you never read.
BR: So many! But, let’s say Paradise Lost, by John Milton, though I have a sense of the plot: Adam and Eve eat an apple and things go to Hell.
Q: Book that changed your life.
BR: Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Shunryu Suzuki. Simple and pure thinking, often mysterious, even confusing, that (back in the day) somehow let me settle down and just write.
Q: Book that made you want to become a writer.
A: As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner. The multiple narrators made me see for the first time how it was done, and how I might do it, too. Turned out it was harder than it looked. By far.
Q: What’s your most memorable author moment?
BR: A really funny conversation on the main drag in Vineyard Haven, Martha’s Vineyard, with an older guy who invited my whole gang back to his gorgeous house for drinks when we discovered it was a dry town. His name was Bill like mine and we partied late into the night as his friends stopped by, story after story. I didn’t get wise till a few days later, when I noticed the author photo on the book I’d been reading: Sophie’s Choice.
Q: What talent or superpower would you like to have (not including flight or invisibility)?
BR: Making old cars and houses and various machines like new with a wave of my hand.
Q; What are you obsessed with now?
BR: The movies. The art theater’s an hour from here and I’ll go and watch three or four films in a row, a whole afternoon and evening, analyze every second, every aspect, every nuance, story first.
Q: What are you stressed about now?
BR: Getting this place ready for winter before my book tour. I live in western Maine and it snows a lot here. I wave my hand and nothing happens.
Q: What are you psyched about now?
BR: All the great attention Life Among Giants is getting. Grateful, too!
Q: What's your most prized/treasured possession?
BR: A gorgeous old pair of pear bookends carved in walnut that were my mother’s.
Q: Writer crush.
BR: Cheryl Strayed
Q: What’s next for you?
BR: A new novel, about strangers trapped in a cabin by a snowstorm.
Q: What’s the last dream you remember?
BR: I got onstage for a reading without pants but kept going, gales of derisive laughter. I wonder what that’s all about?
Q: Favorite line.
BR: First line of Joseph Heller’s Something Happened: “I get the willies when I see closed doors.” Or my dead mother’s frequent line when hearing of unexpected meetings: “Small, smelly world.”
Q: Favorite method of procrastination?
BR: Cooking. Gardening. Reading. Nap.
BR: Great food.
BR: Great Whiskey
Q: What do you collect?
BR: Seashells, smooth rocks, books, kind people.
Q: Best piece of fan mail you ever got?
BR: Mother of a friend telling me she read my essay about him every year on the anniversary of his death and found him alive again, perfectly alive, effusive thanks, tear-stained page.
1. Can you tell us a bit about your early days in Connecticut and what interests did you have as a child (music?).
I was born in Chicago, moved to Massachusetts when I was one, then to Connecticut at six. I liked roaming around in the woods and fishing, stuff like that. Later, I got into music and played in various bands—a lot of fun. First I played guitar, but then when our keyboard player left town to go to private school, I started playing piano, got pretty good at it, too.
2. Ithaca College appears to be a pivotal place for your growth. Can you talk about your time there in NYC, your band days and about what you gained most from the College atmosphere? Also what does a degree in Individual and Interdisciplinary Studies mean?
Ithaca was great. The drinking age was 18, then. And the Vietnam draft loomed over us. I left school for a year to play music, and when I came back, I was a much better student. But I kept playing in bands, and Ithaca was a great crucible for that—lots of places to play and make a little money. And I do mean a little. Individual and Interdisciplinary Studies was a new thing then, common now: you designed your own academic program. There was no writing major there or anywhere at the time. I was interested in science, music, writing, reading, lots of other things. In my homemade major, I could take courses across the curriculum and did. Great prep for writing.
3. A decade after graduating from Ithaca (cum laude) you decided to go to grad school, what pushed you back to school? What was the process of getting into Columbia’s writing program like? A lot seems to have happened while there, you taught, you were a fiction editor, and it seems you fell in love. How did Summers with Juliet come about?
There came a point when I had to commit to writing or music. I’d been doing both (also construction work and bartending) for many years, and I saw that full focus was going to be required. One dark 4 a.m. in a band bus in Norway (long story), thirty years old, I just thought, What am I doing? And went home. Columbia was just a matter of applying for a January admit, unusual. I was thrilled when I got accepted. And the program was wonderful for me. I taught as a T.A., got paid, free ride otherwise. And yes, I served on the literary magazine, learned a lot there, too. And most of all I wrote and read and read and wrote. It was great, being among people doing the same thing and with the same dreams, meeting all those famous teachers. Earlier, I’d met Juliet Karelsen. I was graduated in May 1990, and we were married that June. Ten years later our daughter, Elysia, was born. But in grad school I was writing these essays in nature, and Juliet appeared frequently as a character in them. My Columbia pal Betsy Lerner, then an editor at Bantam/Dell suggested I make a book of them, and even provided the title and helped me find a great agent. Later, when Betsy became an agent, I moved to her shop and she’s my agent to this day.
4. What did you love about Maine to end up living and teaching there? What about this epic 3 & 1/2 hour drive you took to work every week? How was your transition from a small liberal arts college to Ohio State? What was it like in Buckeye country as a tenured teacher?
Maine is a beautiful place with a lot of nature and not many people. What’s not to like? Juliet and I were living in Montana for a year after my grad school career, really enjoying it. But you have to make a living. I applied for a job opening at the University of Maine at Farmington. I was there four years before Ohio State hired me away, gave me tenure after two years. Ohio was a big shift, but wonderful to teach in a great graduate program. Juliet and I went back to Maine every summer, kept our house here.
5. You daughter was also born during your time at Ohio State, how has she impacted your writing, choices in jobs, and movement back to Maine?
When Elysia was born—home in Maine, by the way—I looked at her and thought, I don’t want you to be from Ohio! And I quit my tenured position to write full-time. A little luck fell into line—movie money, an NEA grant, things like that, and it worked out. Then I got a five-year endowed chair position at the College of the Holy Cross, a great job, Worcester, Massachusetts. I’d drive down on Mondays—that’s the 3.5 hours you were talking about—and drive home on Wednesdays. It worked very well, and after five years it was over, perfect. I’m back to writing full-time again.
6. Your writing picked up when you went back to Maine, can you talk about your writing process and how Maine helps that process? Can you talk about befriending authors like David Gessner during your time in Maine and how you both came up with the unique “Cocktail Hour” concept.
I’m not sure my writing picked up—I’m always writing, always. But I did continue to publish and make friends. Gessner and his wife, Nina DeGramont, appeared at a weekend writers retreat we were all teaching at and we became fast friends. Much later, Dave and I were lamenting the changes in the book industry one night and came up with the idea for a website together, a place where we could have an ongoing conversation between us and with readers, like a cocktail hour. And so Bill and Dave’s Cocktail Hour was born (www.billanddavescocktailhour.com). It’s a lot of fun, and has won us a lot of readers. We write about reading and writing, but also about everything else. Dave’s a cartoonist, and I contribute videos along with everything else. We’ve developed a huge following, and that can’t hurt the books! Which we both continue to make.
7. You have jumped around fiction, non-fiction, short story to novel length, and even gotten into video and film. How do you decide what to write and what style? What do you like about each style?
I don’t really jump around—I’m too old for that. But I do visit all the various genres. Certainly as a reader I’m interested in everything and anything—just so long as it’s good. Literature is like a big apartment building. I like knocking on doors, seeing who I meet. My favorite is definitely fiction. I love being inside a novel, both as a reader and writer. Writing, really, is just a very slow form of reading.
8. I first heard about you thru your book Big Bend: Short Stories. What pushed you to tell these stories and can you talk about the wonderful accolades and awards you took home for its magnificent writing (Flannery O’Connor & O’Henry awards especially). Also what was it like to witness James Cromwell read your work as part of NPR’s (Awesome!) Selected Shorts (which we have a variation of at the Dallas Museum of Art – with locally based or rooted Texas talent).
Big Bend is a favorite of mine. The name comes from the title story, which takes place in Big Bend National Park, down there on the Rio Grande, a favorite place of mine. In fact, I love Texas in general—the nature, I mean. It’s a beautiful place. I was very pleased to win the Flannery O’Connor Award and to be published in that series by the University of Georgia Press. “Big Bend” the story first appeared in the Atlantic Monthly. A great moment was going out to Los Angeles and the Getty Center, where that Selected Shorts episode was recorded. James Cromwell was very warm and kind and funny. They’d had to shorten the story a little for radio, and he was very concerned about what I’d think. Well, I thought it was tremendous.
9. How has your love of nature influenced your choices in subject matter?
Nature always plays a role in my work. It kind of has to, as there’s nothing without it! My nonfiction is generally based in nature. My fiction has its share, but in that case story comes first.
10. Life Among Giants is due to come out November of this year. Can you tell us about the inspiration of the story? Are you a fan of high school football or football in general? A unique nickname for your lead character, “Lizard,” can you give us more insight (obviously without ruining the story)?
Football is just one thread of this layered and sweeping story, which follows Lizard for life. Another thread is ballet, yet another food. Also love and sex. And family. I’m interested in everything, really, including sports. Lizard lives across the way from a huge mansion where a famous dancer lives. His life gets tangled with hers in all sorts of unexpected ways, not so good for him in the end. The nickname comes from a high-minded girl’s view of the football team at his school: they are reptiles. But he wins her over in the end. And slowly untangles his life. His father, it turns out, really made a mess of things.
11. Is it to soon to ask what you’re working on now?
I just finished a new-new novel, but that won’t be out for a long while. I’m always working on stories and essays, lots of things. And there’s Bill and Dave’s Cocktail Hour to keep me busy. Also, I’m going to be making more videos. First though, Life Among Giants. Right now we’re working on the book tour. I’ll be going all over the country giving readings, signing books, doing media. With luck, I’ll be hitting Texas at some point—stay tuned! I’d love to hear what your readers think of the book—they can comment and even reach me through the Life Among Giants website, www.lifeamonggiantsthebook.com. And if you want to set up a reader’s forum of some kind, I’m happy to take part. For me the fall is going to be a Life Among Giants festival, such a pleasure to share, and to find great readers for those characters I care so much about!