The Irish-born writer — whose most recent work is the short-story collection Thirteen Ways of Looking — muses on the books that have shaped his life.
My favorite book as a child
Every Christmas Eve my father used to play a recording of Dylan Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales. I used to love watching the dust collect on the stylus as Thomas’ voice boomed out from the speakers: “One Christmas was so much like another…” It’s still my favorite Christmas book. I suppose there are no days more full than those we go back to.
The book that cemented me as a writer
On the Road. It made me want my own Kerouac days. I ended up taking a bicycle across the United States. I wasn’t quite Dean Moriarty, but I did travel about 8,000 miles around Mexico and the U.S. I slept in campgrounds, gardens, underpasses, in the belly of a hollowed-out redwood tree. I also have to admit to having one night in a jail cell in Jackson Hole after being a little bit “over-served” at the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar.
What I’d read if I were restricted to just one genre
Literary fiction is my oxygen.
The books I read in secret as a kid
Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls fired up my teenage imagination. And of course, Lolita.
A book I’ve returned to time and again
Proxopera by Benedict Kiely, a novella about a retired schoolteacher who is forced to drive a bomb into his beloved hometown in Northern Ireland. I don’t want to give the ending away, but suffice it to say that art can sometimes sublimely confront the horrors of war.
A classic I’ve never read
I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve never read a book by Jane Austen. I’m even more embarrassed to admit that I don’t really want to.
The book that changed my life
At the risk of sounding pretentious, James Joyce’s Ulysses. I think of it as a living thing. I can walk into the pages and always find something new. I like celebrating Bloomsday every June…a friend of mine calls it “the thinking man’s St. Paddy’s Day.”
A book people might be surprised to learn I love
I once worked as a wilderness guide for kids who came from troubled backgrounds. I used to read them to sleep. One of my favorites was a fable called Fup by Jim Dodge. It’s a story about a mallard duck— almost enough said, except for the fact that it is a little miracle of a book.
My literary crush
Louise Erdrich, ever since I read Love Medicine. And, of course, Molly Bloom.
The last book that made me laugh, and the last one that made me cry
Kevin Barry’s Beatlebone is magnificently funny. The last time I remember crying was when I read Stoner by John Williams.
The movie adaptation I loved
John Huston’s lastever film, The Dead, the collision of two great geniuses— Huston and Joyce.
What I’m reading now
A collection of stories called Pond by a young Irish writer named Claire-Louise Bennett that will be published here next year. It stunned me into silence.
Whether I read my own books post-publication
No, no, no, never. There’s a great Irish phrase: “I’d rather go home and iron me leg.”