Welcome to the Book Marks Questionnaire, where we ask authors questions about the books that have shaped them.
This week, we spoke to the author of Why I Don’t Write (out now in paperback), Susan Minot.
Book Marks: Favorite re-read?
Susan Minot: Too many for favorites, but poems by their length win for most visited. From Emily Dickinson to Anne Carson. One good thing about being old (one must note the good things) is being able to re-read and re-read. Who said, the first time you read a book it’s like shaking hands with a person, the second time you get to know the person? The third and fourth and fifth times it just gets even more interesting.
BM: A book that blew your mind?
SM: William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. I was in high school and I entered another world and realized I’d gone there only on words. That fact blew my mind and made me want to be a writer.
More recently, George Saunders’ A Swim in the Pond in the Rain amazed me, both as a teacher of the short story, and as a writer. His ability to describe the mysteries and joys of reading, along with his process of writing, is delivered in an aw-shucks folksy Saunders way, but is deceptively complex and as penetrating as the best literary criticism.
BM: Last book you read?
SM: Usually three or four at the same time.
The Copenhagen Trilogy by Tove Ditleson. The third book is particularly good, a memoir about addiction told with an eerie coolness. We Are Not Such Things: The Murder of a Young American, a South African Township, and the Search for Truth and Reconciliation by Justine van der Leun, an involving exploration of South Africa while investigating the death of Amy Beal in the 1970s. To Love and Be Wise by Josephine Tey, the Scottish mystery writer. Excellent transgender shout out. I have gotten through the pandemic continuously reading detective mysteries. Also re-read Hemingway’s short stories.
BM: A book that made you cry?
SM: Dorothy Gallagher’s Stories I Forgot to Tell You, which came out this year. Not only it is a graceful and endearing portrait of grief, it is a slim masterpiece of writing.
BM: A book that actually made you laugh out loud?
SM: Jonathan Ames’ A Man Named Doll. Laughter began with the title. Along with more laughter I found my heart swelling with both emotion and noir appreciation.
BM: Favorite book to give as a gift?
SM: Last year, many copies of Caste by Isabel Wilkerson. Excellent take on race in our country. Recently I’ve given The Sleeve Ought to Be Illegal, an new anthology of short essays written by a long list of people about the art collection in the Frick Museum, with pictures of course. And for a slim novel which I always want to press into peoples’ hands: Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offil.
BM: What book from the past year would you like to give a shout-out to?
SM: See above. And will add Francesca Marciano’s Animal Spirit, elegant short stories by a seductive storyteller.
BM: Classic book you hate?
SM: Literature needs all the help it can get, so I’m not going to be hater. But if we’re chatting at dinner, I could come up with a lot. I don’t usually agree with the general opinion.
BM: What’s a book with a really great sex scene?
SM: Raymond Chandler was very good at creating a thick atmosphere of sexuality in the air. Zora Neal Hurston too in Their Eyes Were Watching God. Milan Kundera. Mary Gaitskill. The long sex scenes in Vox by Nicholson Baker had an obsessive drive to them. Elizabeth Hardwick once said that sex scenes needed to have some humor, otherwise they would lapse into pornography.
BM: Favorite book no one has heard of?
SM: Wisconsin Death Trip (1973) by Michael Lesy. This collection of early American photos blew my mind in high school. But I have feeling it has a cult following.
BM: Favorite book of the 21st century?
SM: This favorite business is too hard, but I will say Bob Dylan’s Chronicles: Volume One because I also worship the author.
BM: Favorite book you were assigned in high school?
BM: Book(s) you’re reading right now?
SM: Re-reading Dorothy Parker short stories. The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir, re-reading Tobias Wolff’s short stories, The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson. Re-reading Ross MacDonald’s The Drowning Pool.
BM: Favorite children’s book?
SM: One Morning in Maine by Robert McClosky. Or anything by Dr. Seuss.
Susan Minot is an award-winning novelist, short-story writer, poet, and screenwriter. Her first novel, Monkeys, was published in a dozen countries and won the Prix Femina Étranger in France. Her novel Evening was a worldwide best seller and became a major motion picture. She received her MFA from Columbia University and lives with her daughter in New York City and on an island off the coast of Maine.
Susan Minot’s Why I Don’t Write is out now in paperback from Vintage