Can a great book be badly written? What other criteria can overcome bad prose?
It’s pretty tough to compensate for bad prose.
Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).
Any time, in bed, alone. New fiction by a writer I love, like Laura van den Berg, with a decent lamp, under a warm duvet, with a slight Terrence Malick type of breeze making my curtains billow.
What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of?
I’d have to say it’s “Ellen’s Eyes,” a beautiful, mournful and strange book written by David Scott, the father of my son’s former high school basketball teammate. It has no margins or paragraph breaks. David and I were always at the games, but we didn’t sit together. I was so intrigued with him. Every time the refs blew the whistle, or if there was some break in the game, David would read, even if it was just for one minute or 20 seconds. Eventually, I worked up the nerve to go over and talk to him. All we really talked about were books. It was such a nice antidote to the screaming parents in the stands. The game became a pleasant, thumping backdrop to our bookish conversations. David told me he lived outside of the city, in the woods. At the last game of the season he gave me a copy of “Ellen’s Eyes,” and I never saw him again. Then I heard he’d died. Years later his son gave my son a painting David had done, and it’s on my son’s living room wall. It’s a painting of the cityscape of Winnipeg, with the Assiniboine River in the foreground, and it shows the things in the river that are otherwise invisible to us.
What writers are especially good on mother-daughter relationships?
Toni Morrison, Claire Cameron, Elena Ferrante, Mona Simpson, Alice Munro, Elizabeth Strout …
Has a book ever brought you closer to another person, or come between you?
When I was 18 my boyfriend and I were hitchhiking around Europe. We had very little money and were always cold and hungry. We were in Oxford, pretending that we were university students there. My boyfriend discovered that John Fowles was signing his new book at Blackwell’s. My boyfriend insisted on buying the book, I think it was “Mantissa,” and getting it signed. I was so angry. I sat on the curb outside and refused to go in. It was a hardcover book, expensive, we could have eaten for a week with the money he spent on it, and also it was heavy, and we had backpacks that were already heavy. I was furious. We fought all across Western Europe about that book. And I have no idea where it is now. When my boyfriend and I split up we fought again about Italo Calvino’s “If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler,” about whose copy it was and who should have it. Eventually my boyfriend was so eager to be done with me that he said: “Take it. Just take it, goodbye.”