What’s one book you return to over and over again?
Underworld by Don DeLillo. He can capture an entire relationship in four lines of dialogue, and he writes women and men equally well, which is extraordinarily rare. I find his word choice remarkable—either he identifies the exact right word or he invents one. And the man is prescient; it seems that he’s reading the tea leaves of our society in his books.
What book would you consider an ‘ancestor’ of your own most recent FSG book and why?
I just revisited Jane Smiley’s novella Ordinary Love and I was surprised to see how much I’d metabolized that book—basically that the “ordinary love” you feel for your family is like the love you have for your right arm. She also has identical twin boys who are no longer identical!
And then there’s a short story by Primo Levi called “Man’s Friend,” in which an Assyriologist from Michigan State translates the patterns on the sides of tapeworms to be poems from the tapeworm to its host. I read the story a dozen times before I realized that it’s about the expelled begging for God not to turn his face from them. OK, so how does this relate? In my novel, when the main character is struck by lightning, he experiences an ecstatic dimension in addition to his injuries. The fact that he’s entranced by what happened to him (that, and his obsession with barbecueing) is an affront to his family—for them, his turning away from them is the worst that could happen.
What’s one book you’ve tried to finish but couldn’t?
Confederacy of Dunces, which everyone says is so funny. I disagree.
What’s the last book that made you cry?
Tenth of December—several of the stories in that collection moved me to tears.
Can you send a photo of your bookshelf?
Here’s a small selection in the dining room; the World Book is a 1923 edition that my husband inherited and we constantly consult.
And if possible, can you rummage through the books on your shelf to find the things that you have left in them?
What’s your favorite indie bookstore?
Politics & Prose, which is fortunately a few blocks from me. The coffee is equal to the books.
What are you reading now?
I just listened to Frankenstein; I’m reading The Color Master by Aimee Bender and My Beloved World by Sonia Sotomayor. I feel like a DJ; there are a half dozen other titles cued up right behind them!
What is the first book you ever remember reading (or having read to you)?
My mother read to the three of us, taking turns in our bedrooms. The first book I remember is A Child’s Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson, maybe because she read it so often that I can still recite chunks of those poems.
What’s one book that ended up different from what you expected, whether for better or for worse?
Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriett Beecher Stowe, which I only read a few years ago. Actually, my husband and I read it to each other out loud. The narrative voice is surprisingly sarcastic, and the situations far more complex than I had imagined. Despite the outrageous sentimentality in some of the death scenes, we cried like babies as we read them to each other!
MARY KAY ZURAVLEFF is the author of Man Alive!, The Bowl Is Already Broken, and The Frequency of Souls. Honors for her work include the American Academy’s Rosenthal Award and the James Jones First Novel Award, and she has been nominated for the Orange Prize. She lives in Washington, D.C., where she serves on the board of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation and is a cofounder of the D.C. Women Writers Group.