Five minutes of fame
What are you reading right now?
A Dead Man in Deptford, Anthony Burgess’s last novel, published posthumously in 1993. The stiff in question is Christopher Marlowe, Cat or Kit, playwright and spy, and the book a companion piece to Nothing Like the Sun, Burgess’s brilliant fictionalized life of Shakespeare and his Dark Lady. I’m pondering a larger-than-life character for my next novel, someone of the heft of Picasso or Diego Rivera. Bulls in a china shop. That made me revisit Burgess, who also had bull-like appetites and energy.
How do you like your lit served – audio books, graphic novels, used paperbacks, library loaner, e-reader, other?
By the District of North Vancouver library system, peace be upon it.
What book makes you feel like a kid again?
Mein Kampf. The England I grew up in was still on a war footing in many respects, and stayed that way until the Sixties.The first time I met a German I was acutely embarrassed. John Cleese’s “whatever you do don’t mention the war” sketch was based on something very real but little understood (by me, anyway).
Where is your favourite place to crack open a book?
Under the cherry tree in my garden in Lynn Valley, sunny afternoon, pinot noir to hand. Pisses down much of the time, but Elysian when it stops. A shaggy place threaded through with gurgling creeks. (The neighborhood, not my garden)
What books have changed your life/influenced you the most?
My own, The Great Firewall, for the inordinate amount of time it took to write. Among the also-rans:
Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, by Shunryu Suzuki
The Smiley novels of John le Carre set the gold standard for style and storytelling.
My notebook. The music of language always moves me and sentences I like I write out by hand. James Baldwin pops up quite a bit:
“For the wages of sin were everywhere, in every wine-stained and urine-splashed hallway, in every clanging ambulance bell, in every scar on the faces of the pimps and their whores, in every helpless newborn baby being brought into this danger, in every knife and pistol fight on the Avenue, and in every disastrous bulletin: a cousin, mother of six, gone suddenly mad, the children parcelled out here and there; an indestructible aunt rewarded for years of hard labor by a slow, agonizing death in a terrible small room; someone’s bright son blown into eternity by his own hand; another turned robber and carted off to jail.”
They don’t have to be long:
“The people of Rome, viewing with a secret pleasure the humiliation of the aristocracy, demanded only bread and public shows, and were supplied with both by the liberal hand of Augustus.” (Edward Gibbon)
What is the most cherished item in your library?
The Confessions of Harry Lorrequer, by Charles Lever. I’ve never actually read it, and it looks pretty awful. But the inscription says “W. Boxall, 1905, R.M.S. China.” This is my only connection with my father’s fabled Uncle Willy, renowned for falling drunk off the dock in Shanghai.
The one book you always recommend is…
The late Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker. I’ve read it three times and plan to do so again. The new edition has a glossary. But you’ll need more than that to undertand it.
Librarian vs. English professor—who is sexier?
The Jacobean Drama course I took was taught by the terrifying Germaine Greer, who sped, more harpy than eunuch, down to London at weekends to ball Jimi Hendrix. This sets the bar pretty high for librarians. But who knows what they get up to behind the stacks?
What is next on your reading list?
Life With Picasso, by Francoise Gillot. Still on the track of the bull.