Narrative 10

In celebration of the publication of Will Schwalbe’s Books for Living, we have a few burning questions for the author.

1. Who is your favorite character in fiction; your fave character in life?

In my early teens, I read David Copperfield. Sure, I loved David. But I soon loved another character more: James Steerforth. The moment David (and I) met him, I was totally smitten. Steerforth is handsome and headstrong; he’s David’s friend and protector. I wanted to find my own Steerforth, someone to watch over me, just as he did for David. And, yes, I know Steerforth behaves like a cad. But David forgives him, so how could I not do the same? In fact, Steerforth is all the more lovable for being flawed. Is there anything more romantic than a savior who needs saving? So he’s my favorite character in fiction. As for my favorite character in life? Well, that would be my husband, David. Even when he is on my case about my leaving books and boxers “everywhere.” David chose David as his “English name” when he was a student in a Hong Kong high school, borrowing it from a character in literature he loved: Copperfield. David Copperfield.

2. Your favorite line (that you or someone else wrote) that continues to inspire you?

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” This is a line from Mary Oliver’s poem “The Summer Day.” I think it may be the single best question you can ever ask yourself. And it’s a question you can’t ask yourself too often. It’s a great to ponder this at the start and end of every day. But it’s just one of many Mary Oliver lines I think about all the time. And I’m now reading her new book of essays, Upstream, and am adding many more. She is a miracle.

3. The story, book, or poem you wish you could read again for the first time. What did it teach you?

I would love to read Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison for the first time again. It did things to me that I didn’t know any book could do.

4. Best part of the day?

The best part of the weekday is sunset. I’m either back from a day at the office or finished writing for the day. My windows face west, and it’s often glorious. David comes back from work and asks me if I remembered to pick up the mail. I did. We almost always have a drink—Tito’s on the rocks for me; wine for him. Or, if I’m feeling ambitious, I make a Pegu Club cocktail: gin, lime juice, Curaçao, bitters. But the best part of every weekend day is morning, especially Sunday. Tea and the New York Times and CBS Sunday Morning on the tube. And if it’s a perfect weekend day, then there’s not a thing scheduled, and I can then lie in bed for several hours, alternating between reading a book and inspecting my eyelids for holes.

5. Your cure for when the spirit flags?
When the spirit flags, I have to get out of the house and wander. Usually when I do so, I find myself at one of my local indie bookstores: Three Lives and Company, Posman, or McNally Jackson. I’ll buy a book, anything that catches my eye. And on the way home I’ll get myself an edible treat. Fortified by fresh air, and with the anticipation of a new book and something sweet, I can face myself again.

6. Ten words you use most on the page? In life?

I overuse awesome and cool; I really overuse semicolons; and I tend to throw just and quite and way into sentences that were just fine without them. When I’m finished writing, I need to search for really, great, and wonderful, and then excise most of them. And I start way too many sentences with and. Oh, and moving. A lot of things move me. I’m like United Van Lines with all the moving.

7. What’s your current obsession?

I saw a T-shirt that said, “My thoughts have been replaced by Hamilton lyrics.” That describes me. I’ve been barred (by my husband) from saying/singing, “What’s your name, Man” or “What’s your name, Son.” (That’s Burr to Hamilton in the first song). I was doing it, oh, like, a hundred times a day. So, yes, I’m obsessed with Hamilton and its genius creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda. “What’s your name, Man?” There, I did again. So sue me.

8. What’s the most useful criticism you’ve ever received?

The best advice for writing came to me from a brilliant editor, Marty Asher. For years he labeled the opening paragraph of just about everything I wrote “throat-clearing.” I try now to get rid of the throat-clearing all by myself. But I still need to clear my throat. So I do it, and then cut it. The best life advice I got was this: You aren’t running for president of the world, and even if you were, you wouldn’t need every vote.

9. What did you know at age twelve that you wish you hadn’t forgotten; and/or what do you know now that you wish you knew then?

At twelve I knew how to breathe. I remember my belly rising and falling with every breath. Somewhere along the way I forgot how to do that. At twelve, I also could recite the entire Longfellow poem “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere.” Now I can only do a few stanzas. “Listen my children . . .” What I know now that I didn’t then? That breathing, really breathing, and having the time and ability and desire to memorize poetry are things to be treasured.

10. To quote Auden, “O tell me the truth about love.” We’re all ears.

Most of what I know about love is the same piece of wisdom from two disparate sources: Another W. H. Auden poem and an Adam Sandler movie. The Auden poem is “The More Loving One” and includes this breathtaking line: “If equal affection cannot be, let the more loving one be me.” The Sandler movie is The Wedding Singer. In this film the Sandler character realizes something quite simple and profound: If you and your partner are boarding a crowded airplane, and you love this person, you should really want to sit in the middle seat so that your partner can have the window. Or aisle. If you really want the window or aisle for yourself and you insist on it, that’s not love. The best arguments in the world are the ones where you fight over the middle seat.

Finally, is there a passage from the new book you’d like to share with our readers?

The primary reason I first turn to any book is curiosity. I wonder what will be inside it. Or I wonder why someone I know and trust loves it. Or I wonder why everyone I know loathes it. Or I’ve read the cover copy and wonder how our heroine’s life “will be changed forever” after she encounters whatever it is the flap-copy writer has said she will encounter. Or I wonder why this book remains on shelves hundreds of years after it was written, or why I’ve never heard of it before, or why an author I love has mentioned it on the radio, or why it caught my attention at a particular moment.

And my primary emotion at the start of any book is hope—hope that it will teach me something or delight me in some way. From the delightful books, I almost always learn something, even if it’s just how to experience delight. That’s a bonus. Good books often answer questions you didn’t even know you wanted to ask.

Once, on a breezy day, I met a woman in a small bookstore after a reading. She looked to be somewhere in her sixties.

She told me that she had just lost her husband. She said she had never been a big nonfiction reader but that her husband had loved history books and biographies.

“In his last years, though, he was in too much pain to concentrate on reading,” she told me. “He kept starting books but couldn’t finish them. When he died, he left a big stack of books by his bed, all with bookmarks. Some of those books he had barely started. Others he’d almost read to the end.” She paused and then continued, “After he died, I didn’t know what to do. But then I figured it out. I decided to finish those books for him. I’m reading them, one at a time, start to finish. He couldn’t, so I will.”

Just because he was gone, she told me, his reading didn’t need to go with him. She read those books because she loved him; she read because she still could; she read because it helped her remember him.

Books and people are bound together. I can’t think about certain books and not about certain people, some living and some dead. The joy I’ve had from these books and from these people, and all I’ve learned from them, merge into one stream in my mind.

We can’t do much for the people we’ve lost, but we can remember them and we can read for them: the books they loved, and books we think they might have chosen. Maybe the reading can help us answer the questions they would have asked us if they were still here to ask them. Maybe the reading can help us figure out how to honor their lives and continue their legacies. And maybe the reading itself can help us answer one of the biggest questions we can ask ourselves: Why are we here at all?

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