Mark Harril Saunders is the author of Ministers of Fire (Swallow Press, May 21, 2012), a literary thriller that opens in Afghanistan in 1979 and ends in the streets of Shanghai in the months after 9/11. The son of a diplomat, Saunders began his novel with an imagined version of an actual event--the murder of the U.S. ambassador to Kabul--that had a direct effect on his family. (The recent escape from house arrest of Chen Guangcheng, the blind human rights lawyer in China, bears an eerie resemblance to his book.) He holds an MFA from the University of Virginia and has traveled extensively, worked on Capitol Hill, in bookselling and in publishing. He is currently director of marketing at the University of Virginia Press and lives in Charlottesville, Va., with his wife and three children.
On your nightstand now:
Parallel Stories by Peter Nadas; Changing My Mind by Zadie Smith; The Fear Index by Robert Harris; The Third Reich by Roberto Bolaño; Invitation to a Beheading by Vladimir Nabokov; and The Life of Graham Greene, Vol III by Norman Sherry.
Favorite book when you were a child:
I wasn't as big a reader as you might expect, but that changed when my father suggested Great Expectations and East of Eden when I was 12 or 13. He could quote at length from Dickens, and the Steinbeck book had a brothel in it, so those novels really got me started seriously reading. When it came to books, I guess I had a semi-Victorian childhood.
Your top five authors:
I'm tempted to punt on that one unless I can split them into classics and (relative) contemporaries:
Contemporaries: Robert Stone, Roberto Bolaño, John Banville (and his pseudonym, Benjamin Black), Philip Roth, John le Carré.
Classics: Conrad, Hemingway, Faulkner, Tolstoy, Graham Greene.
Book you've faked reading:
I was a publisher's sales rep, so literally thousands.
Book you're an evangelist for:
The Siege of Krishnapur by J.G. Farrell. When something terrible happens, I always wonder how long it will take until we can take some refuge in humor. Farrell's novel is a brave example of that. After I discovered the book in an old British edition, I wrote to publishing friends and to Farrell's biographer Lavinia Graecen trying to get it reprinted. Finally, the New York Review Books imprint did it on their own. There's what programmers call an "easter egg" to the book in Ministers of Fire.
Book you've bought for the cover:
The boxed set of The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil. Almost too beautiful to read.
Book that changed your life:
Dog Soldiers by Robert Stone. A bookseller who worked with me at Politics & Prose turned me on to Stone's novel, which convinced me that you could tackle the themes of Conrad with a Beat sensibility.
Favorite line from a book:
"In the destructive element immerse." --from Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad.
Book you most want to read again for the first time:
I read Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men for the first time in the basement of College Hall at the University of Pennsylvania. I know it because I was so blown away that I actually wrote the location and date inside the cover.
Memorable character in a novel:
Widmerpool in Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time. He is creepy, monstrous and sympathetic, Dickensian and horribly modern all at once. (And, believe it or not, he gets the girl.)