My Fantasy "By the Book" Interview

Like most bloggers, I suffer from the delusion that my ideas matter--that people would be as eager to know my thoughts as I am to read the interviews with writers in my New York Times Book Review every Sunday.

So bear with me. I've read 85 books so far this year. I'm really proud of that. And, despite the fact that I have two manuscripts languishing in files somewhere and I have never published a book, pretend that you might learn something from my reading experience.

These questions come from the most recent "By the Book" feature, which interviewed Ethan Hawke. His answers were erudite and enlightening. I hope mine will be, too.

What books are currently on your night stand?
Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947 connects me with my German history and the German-language class I teach at my school. Gold Fame Citrus is a post-apocalyptic novel by a writer whom I've met and whom I admire, Claire Vaye Watkins. On my Audible app, I'm listening to The New Jim Crow and, when I have time to listen to a story in completion, Adam Johnson's  collection of short stories, Fortune Smiles.

What’s the best book you’ve read so far this year?
The Buried Giant by Kazuro Ishiguro worked its magic on me last winter, and I'll be using things that I learned from Destiny Disrupted: The World through Islamic Eyes (Tamim Ansary) for many years to come. But I'm most proud of a discovery I made as I prepared to visit the Republic of Georgia last March: Ali and Nino, a historical romance set in Azerbaijan still engages my mind so many months later.

Which writers — novelists, essayists, critics, journalists, poets — working today do you admire most?
Karen Russell and Lauren Groff  are contemporary writers whom I find engaging and whose work I enjoy sharing with my student writers--Armstrong, for her unique and inspired syntax, and Groff for putting complete plots together in ways that are unforgettable.
What genres do you especially enjoy reading? And which do you avoid?
I enjoy literary and historical fiction, and nonfiction is the best way for me to stay on top of issues and events that matter. I tend to avoid fantasy writing (despite the fact that it is beloved by my wife and sons).

What moves you most in a work of literature?
I am moved by what I describe to my students as capital-t Truth--when a plot elevates an issue or an idea to a place that feels to me more real than real. So when the Count of Monte Cristo looks upon a devastated Mercedes and second-guesses his vengeance, or when the father in The Road tells his son, "You have to carry the fire.... You do. It's inside you. It was always there. I can see it," I am moved. Recently, I have been touched by books like The Buried Giant and The Book of Strange New Things which deal with marriage and aging. I am moved by literature that makes me true-er.

What are the best books ever written about teaching? And do you have a personal favorite?
One thing I noticed about heroic teaching books: the people who write them aren't usually teaching anymore. Maybe that's how they have time to write!

One book that was popular when I entered college in 1989 was My Posse Don't Do Homework, an inspiring tale about a teacher gaining acceptance in an inner-city classroom, but I'd lost all illusions of heroism by the time the movie version of the book, Dangerous Minds came out in 1995. Teachers in books seem fake to me--but not as fake as "teenagers" in high school movies.

One favorite teacher tome of mine is Katrina's Sandcastles, written by a friend, Kaycee Eckhardt. It's an honest look at teaching--both successes and failures--in the devastated city of New Orleans. Kaycee is an honest person, and the passion that she brings to her teaching--and her care for her kids--leaps from the written page.

I was also inspired by Samuel Pickering's Letters to a Teacher. Pickering, an inspiration for John Keating in Dead Poets' Society, offers some tips that I've used often in my classroom.

Are there works of fiction that you find handle the life of an teacher particularly well?
A lot of my teaching persona (an idea I learned from Pickering and poet Billy Collins) comes from two characters in John Steinbeck's collection of short stories, The Pastures of Heaven. Molly Morgan, a young woman who teaches for a year at the small school in the valley, and Junius Maltby, an absent-minded father who would rather discuss the essays of Stevenson than work on his farm. Each character inspired me to be a Romantic in the classroom.

What kinds of stories are you drawn to, and which do you avoid?
I am drawn to adventures featuring inspiring ideas and exotic locales. I tend to avoid stories that never get out of either one room or one mind.

What’s the last book that made you cry?
Two books come to mind. The Buried Giant haunted me, because I have been married for over 20 years now, and while I long to spend the rest of my life with my Bride, it becomes clear that the length or the scope is not guaranteed. The final thirty pages had me weeping. I didn't want to let go of either Axl or Beatrice.

The last book that made you laugh?
I think that Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl is one of the funniest books in any genre.

The last book that made you furious?
Reading Guantanamo Diary was tough for me. I love my country deeply, and the book demonstrates the way that American values were twisted and perverted by the Cult of 9/11.

Tell us about your favorite poem.
"'Think as I think,' said a Man" by Stephen Crane. It's an inoculation against crummy acquaintances and bullies.

And your favorite fairy tale?
I just can't say enough about the "Wife of Bath's Tale." Is it a fairy tale? There's magic, right? And deep, deep wisdom.

Who is your favorite fictional hero or heroine? Your favorite antihero or villain?
My fictional heroes are Junius Maltby and Edmond Dantes. My favorite villain is Miss Havisham.

What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?
I read Hardy Boys books and stories from American history. I treasure every illustrated volume of A Picturesque History books that were passed down from my dad to me. Having grown up in a very religious family, the Bible remains a source of comfort and inspiration.

Which books have you most enjoyed sharing with your children? And what are the best books they’ve introduced to you?
I read with my kids, and I insist on sharing at least one reading experience with them every year. A couple years ago my daughter and I read The Fault in our Stars over Christmas break. A book I read with my youngest son, Chasing Lincoln's Killer, led to a trip together to Ford's Theater during a stay in Washington, DC.

If you had to name one book that made you who you are today, what would it be?
Imagine a boy who moves from Ohio to Tennessee three weeks before his 13th birthday. Put him in a classroom with kids who seem aloof, disloyal. Then put The Count of Monte Cristo in his hands. It would make him who I am today.

If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be?
He would need a break from history or current events. I would recommend The Book Thief for a number of reasons--first and foremost that it is a young-adult experience that he could share with his daughters. It is narrated by Death, who is all too often kept busy by the decisions of presidents. Moreover, it celebrates humanity by featuring the lives of two children and a Jew who are trying to experience living, learning, and loving in the most oppressive of eras.

Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?
I love the writer, Junot Diaz, and I teach from This is How You Lose Her, but I put down The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao after three chapters. It's hard for a white boy from Tennessee to appreciate the gritty, profane urban scenes of Wao. I still have the book. I hope to finish it some day.

This is what I wrote in my review of the former text:
I admit that I am Junot Diaz's worst big fan. 
I read his works from a small, country town in Tennessee, surrounded by trees, fields and flowing streams. I readily admit that I "get" about 1% of Diaz's big-city swagger, and about the same proportion of his Spanish. If he walked by me and saw me reading his stuff in public, he'd likely tell me, "Put that shit away, blanquito, you're making me look bad!" I'm the worst fan, I admit it.
Whom would you want to write your life story?
Any person but my sons or my father is welcome to it--fathers & sons are too biased to write about one another. That leaves the task to my daughter, I guess, or a former student.

For the record, I don't see my life as biography-worthy. I measure my worth by individuals and organizations who can be empowered through my effort. I'd rather find my name in the index of a book than on the cover.

Describe your ideal reading experience.
It's Saturday morning, and I'm in my favorite chair in the corner of the family room of my house. Light pours in through the huge windows. My fingers mechanically mark the pages ahead to read.

What do you plan to read next?
I'm planning a trip to Germany next spring, and I'm looking forward to reading Danubia by Simon Winder. My great-grandmother grew up along the Danube in the city of Ulm before migrating to the United States. I also enjoyed The Hangman's Daughter by Oliver Pötsch so much, that I ordered the original German-language version to brush up on my Deutsch.


  1. James, just loved reading your "interview." I disagree with your answer to the third to last question. I think you and your life is biography -worthy. I think your influence over your students, own children, and colleagues is something that would not only make good reading but inspire others. I always look forward to your posts on FB as a way to learn and reflect. I am glad to have met you and am glad that you are (virtually) in my life.


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