Reading with... Cutter Wood

photo: Erin Shaw

Cutter Wood was born in Central Pennsylvania and completed an MFA in creative nonfiction at the University of Iowa in 2010, during which time he was awarded numerous fellowships and had essays published in Harper's and other magazines. After serving as a Provost Fellow at UI and a visiting scholar at the University of Louisville, Wood moved to New York. For his new book, Love and Death in the Sunshine State (Algonquin, April 17, 2018), he was awarded a 2018 Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. He lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., with his wife and daughter.

On your nightstand now:

My nightstand is the messiest and happiest part of my life. Right now, I've got Cesar Aira's Ema, la cautiva, Lisa Ko's The Leavers, Will Alexander's Compression and Purity, Magda Szabo's The Door and Terrence Hayes's Lighthead. Also The Poems of Marianne Moore, The Essential Haiku, edited by Robert Haas, Hey Jack by Barry Hannah, The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder and My Private Property by Mary Ruefle. And a few others. Also, I can't read without a pen, so there are a bunch of pens.

Favorite book when you were a child:

I had a book about various natural and manmade catastrophes (Hindenburg, Krakatoa, etc.) that I carried with me everywhere the summer after fifth grade. Also, The Odyssey. I particularly liked the scene where Odysseus throws off his disguise, strings his bow and begins shooting arrows into Penelope's suitors (at the time, I pronounced her name pee-nuh-lope). I also had a nearly complete set of the World Book Encyclopedia, which I dug in a hardcore-dork connector-set sort of way. I could take the letter S with me to bed and coast off to sleep thinking of sequoias, steam power, St. Bernards and Sweden.

Your top five authors:

In the order my brain emitted them: Sir Thomas Browne, Joan Didion, James Baldwin, Sylvia Townsend Warner, George Orwell, Sei Sh┼Źnagon. An extra one squeaked in there, and there are a thousand others ready to do the same, so let's not say that's my top five, let's say those are my first six.

Book you've faked reading:

All of them at first.

Book you're an evangelist for:

Often it's whatever book I read most recently. I've been talking up the work of Antoine Volodine ever since I lost my mind reading Minor Angels. It's fantastical and weird, and yet strangely heartfelt and heartbreaking. Also, there's this book called The Magic Pudding by Norman Lindsay. It's about a koala and a penguin and a sailor and a feisty magic pudding and two pudding thieves, and everyone should be required to read it.

Book you've bought for the cover:

Death in Persia by Annemarie Schwarzenbach. I'm such a sucker for scenes of desolation, and her book has this lovely black-and-white photograph of two ancient columns on an empty plain. And then when you open up the book and the first line says: "This book will bring little joy to the reader." How could you not buy that book? And how strange once you do to discover that Schwarzenbach and Carson McCullers were once almost-pals in Brooklyn.

Book you hid from your parents:

My own.

Book that changed your life:

This is going to sound ridiculous, because it is, but the book that marked my transition into adulthood was absolutely Plato's Apology. I know it's dry, there's not a lot of action, nobody reads Plato unless they have to, but about halfway through the Apology, I was riveted. You grow up in this country, you ride your bike down alleys, you play hide-and-go-seek, you put in your time at school and it never crosses your mind that this way of approaching life, this thoughtful, meditative, intellectual style of existence had to be invented, someone had to say the world and the self are worth examining. I felt like I was part of a movement I never knew existed, and I was reading the founding document.

Favorite line from a book:

"This is the bravest thing I have ever done." I've probably paraphrased this incorrectly--I gave away my copy--but this is Stuart Little about to shoot a cat in the ear. In the first place, it just rings so true. We all want to be heroes, to do brave things and be loved and admired for having done them. But then I also love the strangeness of having a character think this. Stuart is essentially telling himself a story about himself, which is so brilliant in so many ways. I also just love E.B. White. Once, while he was ice skating, someone stole his shoes, and he had to walk home in his ice skates, fuming, looking at the shoes of all the people he passed by. I love that image. 

Five books you'll never part with:

Montaigne's Essays. He's just such a funny, inquisitive, modern dude. He's writing about is there such a thing as parallel lines, and why do smells get stuck in my mustache, you can almost see him typing these questions into Google. But where he takes the questions always surprises me, and I feel when I read him the way I feel with all the people I love most, like I'll never stop discovering new things to love about him. Proust's In Search of Lost Time. Beautiful, yes, and very, very long, which seems useful if you can't part with it (I guess I'm thinking here more in terms of five books for a desert island). On that note, I'd take Treasure Island, because it's a perfect beach read, and I've never tired of reading it. Also, one of those long Russian books, maybe Crime and Punishment. There would probably be a cookbook, too. And this might be a good time to finally finish Moby-Dick.

Book you most want to read again for the first time:

When I think of this question, it's not the story so much as the voice that I think about. A new voice is so exciting because it makes possible a thousand things that before were inconceivable. New kinds of transitions, turns of phrase, unpondered combinations of words, sudden shifts in tense, new ways to describe light illuminating a mote of dust: when you read certain books for the first time, this stuff just comes flooding down on you. I think of a Barry Hannah story ("Rangoon Green"), I think of Toni Morrison's Sula, Tarjei Vesaas's Ice Palace, Orwell's The Road to Wigan Pier, McCullers's Ballad of the Sad Cafe, everything by Julio Cortázar. And there's a single paragraph from Mark Twain's Autobiography that, if I could go on reading it for the first time forever and ever, I just might.

Book do you most wish you had written:

Excellent question. I wish I'd written Treasure Island. With due esteem being given to the many depictions of evil in literature, I don't think anyone has ever quite equaled Long John Silver. I believe I still see him cropping up here and there in other books, the way you sometimes see Bartleby or Kurtz crop up. I just feel like Stevenson had so much fun with this book. It starts with a treasure map. Some day I want to write a book that starts with a map.

Book you wrote quotes from on your adolescent bedroom walls:

Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis. I visited my sister at college when I was 14. They were discussing this book in one of her classes, and the college kids were so cool and so blasé and wrote with pens instead of pencils. I bought a copy of Zorba, read it, re-read it, and I wrote in blue oil pastel on the wall of my bedroom, just below the light switch, editorializing slightly: "The gods must come down here in simple human form, walk barefoot across the spring grass, and converse quietly with men." This is still the way I think of literature.

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