The author of the new novel Traveling Sprinkler talks about Fifty Shades of Grey, Wikipedia, and writing in the car.
NC: Where did you grow up?
NB: We moved from New York City to Rochester, New York, when I was 2. I went to public schools there and rode my bike a lot, and then I spent a year at the Eastman School of Music on Main Street, where I played the bassoon and wrote short compositions—modernistic but tonal.
Where do you live and why?
My wife, Margaret, and I live in a small town in Maine, about 20 minutes from the coast. Maine’s slogan is “The Way Life Should Be,” and it’s true.
Describe your morning routine.
Feed the dog, feed the cat, listen to the coffeemaker snuffle, talk to Margaret, drive to a nearby waterfall and read, type a few things.
What is a distinctive habit or affectation of yours?
I gently rub the top of my head when I’m thinking.
What is your favorite item of clothing?
It’s a dark blue T-shirt made of thick cotton. I’m always happy when it turns up next in the pile of clean clothes.
In The New York Review of Books you wrote a great article called “The Charms of Wikipedia.” Why do you like Wikipedia so much?
Wikipedia is great because it can be gigantic without being gigantic. It can grow like some vast underwater reef, with eels hiding in the shadows. It has proven that a heterogeneous, sometimes irritable community can do something revolutionary and life improving, without leaders.
Were you surprised at the response to your book on World War II, Human Smoke, which got a lot of knickers in a twist?
If you think about the Second World War for any length of time, it will make you terribly sad, or angry, or both. It’s sometimes easier to be angry at an amateur historian like me, than at the real villains whose words I quote.
You have a number of books that are considered works of literary erotica. May I ask for your thoughts on the Fifty Shades of Grey hoo-ha?
Haven’t read the book. I’m not wired for dominance or submission—it seems a distraction. Misuse of the necktie.
Describe your routine when conceiving of a book and its plot, before the writing begins. Do you like to map out your books ahead of time, or just let it flow?
I sometimes make an ordered sequence of scenes and observations I want to include, before I start writing, but I don’t follow it. The right order only comes when I’m in the middle of a paragraph, groping, wearing the miner’s hat, and looking around for where to totter off to next.
What has to happen on page one, and in chapter one, to make for a successful book that urges you to read on?
A successful book should have a mirror being unloaded from a moving van on page one. No, I don’t know. One nice feature of any book is how different it can be from any other book. Some novels get going slowly.
Describe your writing routine, including any unusual rituals associated with the writing process, if you have them.
When I’m rewriting, and it’s progressing, I begin breathing audibly through my nose. I like to proofread in noisy restaurants, with my glasses off, staring close at the type. I love the feeling of sealing up a FedEx envelope—that soft, cool fibrous Tyvek bending around the corner of a block of page proofs—and sending it off.
Is there anything distinctive or unusual about your workspace? Besides the obvious, what do you keep on your desk? What is the view from your favorite work space?
Lately, working on Traveling Sprinkler, I’ve been writing in the car, so what I see is whatever is out the windshield—usually leaves, other cars, fireflies. The dashboard is the desk, complete with coffee stains.
Describe your evening routine.
We eat dinner—maybe pasta with black olives and a salad—and watch a movie. While we’re watching the movie, I pry my shoes off unconsciously. We talk about the movie while we’re brushing our teeth. We read in bed. When I start making up dream sentences, I stop reading and go to sleep.
What is guaranteed to make you laugh?
What is guaranteed to make you cry?
Sandra Bullock movies do me in.
Do you have any superstitions?
Sometimes, in the middle of the night, I think I can sense when my children are unhappy or sick. I’m usually wrong, though.
What is something you always carry with you?
I carry around an apple in my briefcase—nature’s toothbrush. Not always, but often.
What phrase do you overuse?
In the shower, I sing the phrase “fungible commodities” far too often.
What is the story behind the publication of your first book?
I was driving to a job in Mansfield, Massachusetts, that was making me slightly crazy. During a blizzard, stuck in traffic on the way home, I started thinking about a story I’d just written about a pair of broken shoelaces. I thought, no, it’s not a story, it’s a novel.
Was there a specific moment when you felt you had “made it” as an author?
When I was 23, two magazines accepted stories I’d sent them. I got the acceptance letters on the same day, and I walked down Monroe Avenue to a restaurant called Mr. Steak, and I ordered a steak.
What do you need to have produced/completed in order to feel that you’ve had a productive writing day?
Most days are not productive: 95 percent of what I write never sees print. But I feel good when I’ve snuck something into a finished paragraph that I wasn’t sure would fit.
Tell me a funny story related to a book tour or book event.
Once in Florida, years ago, I gave a reading to an audience of two, an elderly couple sitting in the midst of a sea of chairs. A few minutes after I began, their heads fell forward and they went to sleep. I read for 20 minutes to the sleepers, said thank you, and stole away.
What advice would you give to an aspiring author?
If you come across a passage you like, copy it out into a commonplace book. It’s the best way to learn how prose works—from the inside out.
What would you like carved onto your tombstone?
I like the old Quaker practice of unmarked graves.
Tell me something about yourself that is largely unknown and perhaps surprising.
For years I’ve wanted to found a factory near where we live that makes transferware china.
What is your next project?
Something dark and shiny and irrefutable, but full of inconsistencies and uncertainties. Or maybe a book about renting a hydraulic lift and painting the house. Too soon to tell.