Brief Interviews is a new series in which writers discuss language, literature, and a handful of Proustian personality questions.
Walter Kirn is the author of eight books, including Thumbsucker and Up in the Air. His latest book, Blood Will Out [Liveright, $25.95], is an account of his friendship with Clark Rockefeller.
Where do you like to read?
On the sofa in the TV room with the TV tuned to a boring cooking show or home decoration show and the volume turned down low, supplying a peaceful murmur that allows me to concentrate more fully than true silence does.
What did you want to be when you grew up (besides an author)?
A marine biologist, exploring the secret lives of dolphins.
What are the most important elements of a good story?
I believe that all the major elements of a story, from its characters to its tone to its action, arise from its setting. Place is paramount, it drives all else. When we have a favorite writer, it’s always the places where they grew up, lived, worked, and that they recreated on the page that we most want to visit and commune with. Faulkner’s Mississippi, Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles, etc. The mind of the reader longs to be somewhere, not just anywhere, and certainly not nowhere.
What books might your readers be surprised that you enjoy?
I love reference books, especially collections of memorable quotations, world almanacs, and atlases. Facts to me are like candy or popcorn, small, tasty delights, and I like to gorge on them now and then.
What bothers you most about the English language today?
The disappearance of colorful, earthy expressions drawn from the world of agriculture and country life. “Two peas in a pod.” Few young people even know what that means anymore. “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.” Huh? It’s as though the old natural world of plants and animals and simple outdoor work is losing its voice in the culture, and the future as a result is losing a certain vividness and rootedness.
What's your favorite word?
Moon. There is no improvement on moon. The word is as mysteriously poised and eternal as the object. To speak it aloud is to create a little moon of sound, as perfect as the one that’s visible in the night sky.
What is your least favorite word?
Amazing. It’s the superlative that’s used when the speaker has nothing specific, new, or thoughtful to say but wants to show approval or enthusiasm about something anyway. It requires no special mental effort to say and it conjures up no actual mood or feeling relating to the object at hand. It’s the emptiest of verbal gestures posing as surge of feeling — feeling which isn’t really there.
What word or phrase do you overuse?
I say “here’s the thing” a lot, both to alert people that I’m about to say something important and to give myself a moment to figure out what that important thing might be, because my head is so often completely empty.
Which books are currently in your to-read pile?
Robert Graves's study of Greek Mythology, Giovanni Boccaccio's The Decameron, a compact edition of the thoughts and sayings of the nearly forgotten mystic Emanuel Swedenborg, and a strange little volume called A Dictionary of Superstitions, which I picked up recently at a garage sale.
Who are your literary heroes?
Poe, for transforming his terrible depression into something wild and beautiful; Oscar Wilde, for proving that the refusal to be serious is really a higher form of seriousness; William Carlos Williams, for letting the American language be its humble, elemental, potent self; and every child of two or three years old who bravely takes up a language he or she didn’t make and often accidentally improves it or enlivens it with their so-called mistakes and mispronunciations, as when my son Charlie took to calling "bumblebees" "jungle bees," which is what they really should be called, I think.
What is the first book you remember reading?
The Tower Treasure Mystery, a Hardy Boys book.
Which classic have you not yet read? Do you intend to read it?
My mother used to push Wuthering Heights on me as a boy, and I sensed from her breathy description of the story that it would make me laugh. I have no plans to find out if this is true.
If you could only recommend one book, which would it be?
The first few books of the Old Testament, for the language, the erratic and extreme behavior, the majestic sense of urgency and portent, and literature’s most baffling and unpredictable character of all: God.
Do you prefer print or e-books?
I prefer physical, paper books, because they preserve a record of how you handle them — the bent pages, the water spots left when you drooped them in the bathtub, the underlinings of favorite passages, the broken spines caused by leaving them open night after night beside you on the bed. A physical book takes on the character of its reader, almost like a piece of clothing.
What, if anything, do you read while you're working on a project?
I read for pleasure when I’m deep in a writing project, amusing myself with fast-paced detective stories, cheap paperbacks about UFOs and farfetched conspiracy theories, and sleazy hollywood memoirs. I enjoy the break from heavy thinking.
Do you have a favorite sentence from a book?
Two sentences. They go together, “He felt imprisoned in an airplane. In an airplane there was absolutely no place in the world to go except to another part of the airplane.” Joseph Heller, Catch-22.