Lauded Boise-based story spinner (The Shell Collector, About Grace, Four Seasons in Rome and Memory Wall) and Boston Globe science book columnist. He appears at noon Saturday as part of the “Why Write Short?” with David Vann and Aimee Bender on the Columbia Sportswear stage and 2 pm Saturday with Benjamin Percy on the Columbia stage.
What are your favorite themes to write about?
The vast times scales of the natural world. Most guilty of rehashing? Skies. My characters are always looking up at the sky.
Name three books on your nightstand or shelf right now.
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell; Kaputt by Curzio Malaparte; and The Tree by John Fowles.
What’s your personal writing ritual?
I put on chainsaw operator’s earmuffs. They blot out sound, my children, the world—I can no longer write fiction without them.
The most beautiful word in the English language is:
What authors made you want to pick up a pen in the first place and why?
Albert Camus and Cormac McCarthy. I found them when I was 18, and they taught me that with little black marks on a white page, a careful writer can conjure whole worlds.
Name a book you think is highly overrated. Be honest.
The Da Vinci Code. I found about five significant syntactical errors on the first page and promptly gave up.
The dumbest thing I ever did is…
Tell a newspaper I didn’t like The Da Vinci Code.
The best piece of advice I ever got was…
What’s your literary guilty pleasure?
The closest I’ve ever come to quitting is…
Most recent nightmare:
My dad rode a moped off a waterfall right in front of me. I think we were in El Salvador.
Your cure for writer’s block:
Work on something else.
A dead person you’d like to meet (they’d be alive during the meeting):
I’d like to meet Pliny the Elder. In the first century A.D., he wrote what amounted to the encyclopedia for the Roman Empire. The guy had slaves carry him around the city so he could read between appointments.
What was your favorite book as a kid?
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis.
A short paragraph from a story you’re currently working:
Little by little the girl learns to let her fingers work on their own, test resistances, build shapes from pressures. An orange is simultaneously light and heavy, hard and soft, smooth and rough. Seashells smell like old seeds, like distant oceans; their sudden openings inevitably surprise her. A pinecone, properly examined, can entertain her for a half hour, the sharp points, the sticky plates, the deep entrances. How many pinecones had Marie-Laure seen in her first six years? Hundreds? But never like this.