Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).
Like most people, I imagine: rope hammock, dappled sunlight, palms clapping. The big caveat is that my iPhone has to be dead or safe in some sort of vault so that when I grab it every five minutes – robotically, pathetically, like it’s a phantom member – he won’t be there to distract me.
What’s your favorite book that no one else has heard of?
My mum is from Melbourne, so I grew up reading some Australian books that no one in the US had heard of. The one that left a strong impression was “The Magic Pudding”, by Norman Lindsay, which was published in 1918 and is about a koala named Bunyip Bluegum, who has adventures with a sailor and a penguin and a fourth character who is a bowl pudding with arms and legs. Whenever the other characters get hungry, they eat the pudding (he has no problem with that – he loves being eaten) and when they’re done, the portion of pudding that was eaten is magically replenished. The unflattering truth is that many of my favorite stories involve the endless replenishment of food. “Strega Nona” was another touchstone growing up, one that I loved to share with my own children. The same goes for the movie “Big Night”.
Which writers – novelists, playwrights, journalists, critics, poets – working today do you most admire?
One surreal thing about writing for The New Yorker is that some of the writers I most admire happen to be my colleagues: people like Rachel Aviv or Larissa MacFarquhar. In our old building, in Times Square, I could just walk into the next office and ask David Grann, one of the great non-fiction writers working today, for his advice on how to handle a narrative problem. It’s not lost on me what an exaggerated privilege, I happen to have-Marshall-McLuhan-right here. But there are so many other writers whose work I envy and learn from: Robert Caro, Isabel Wilkerson, Lauren Redniss, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, Michael Lewis, Clint Smith, Jennifer Egan, the late John le Carré, Colson Whitehead , Katie Kitamura, playwright Jez Butterworth, podcaster Dan Taberski. The Coen Brothers. Michaela Coel. People who write “Succession”. The people who wrote “Veep”.
What do you read when you are working on a book? And what kind of reading do you avoid while writing?
I have a bigger problem which is that all reading becomes fodder for work. In college, I studied with Simon Schama, and I remember him talking about “emptying” a book, quickly tearing it up, and extracting what you need. Because I tend to and because I read a lot for work, I can sometimes forget to read for fun and relaxation. But when I really go on a project, I become obsessed, and all outside reading seems superfluous to me.