|photo: Deone Jahnke
Christina Schwarz writes fiction because, she says, "nothing in her real life is all that interesting." She was born and raised in Wisconsin and then went to Yale, where she became simultaneously convinced that she wanted to be a writer and that she would never be a writer. To avoid writing, she taught high school English in Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles. She lives with her family in Southern California. Her novels include the New York Times bestseller and Oprah Book Club pick Drowning Ruth. Her new novel is The Edge of the Earth (Atria, April 2, 2013).
On your nightstand now:
An advance copy of Sparta by Roxana Robinson. Every time I open one of Robinson's books, I'm newly impressed by her ability to convey emotion with freshness and precision, and by her fearlessness in writing about subjects that I assume are far outside of her own experience. Lone Star: A History of Texas and the Texans by T.R. Fehrenbach (research for the novel I'm working on now). V.S. Prichett's Complete Collected Essays. Sports Illustrated Kids (my son colonizes all surfaces with his own reading material).
Favorite book when you were a child:
Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley and Me, Elizabeth by E.L. Koningsburg and The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare. You could bury me with these and I'd be both entertained and comforted through eternity.
Your top five authors:
Such an impossible question! I particularly admire writers from the late 19th and early 20th century--Edith Wharton (I can't even choose a favorite among Age of Innocence, House of Mirth and Ethan Frome), William Dean Howells (especially for The Rise of Silas Lapham and Hazard of New Fortunes) and Leo Tolstoy. They do it all--expose society's foibles, capture the manners of their time, effortlessly employ graceful and exacting prose, and concoct interesting plots, while keeping character and psychology--for me the essence of compelling fiction--at the center of their stories. And they were prolific--I admire that, too. I treasure Barbara Pym; how acutely and wryly and with what sympathy she recognizes and minutely defines the drama that fills even the most quotidian exchanges. (Of course, this also means I'm a Jane Austen devotee.) I'm overawed by the genius with which Virginia Woolf transforms ideas and sensations into words on paper. Gustav Flaubert must be on my list, since I think Madame Bovary is a perfect novel. Contemporary authors I'm nearly always delighted with include Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood, Kate Grenville, Kate Atkinson, Jane Smiley, Elizabeth Strout, Kazuo Ishiguro, David Lodge.... Is this more than five?
Book you've faked reading:
I kept Nixon Agonistes: The Crisis of the Self-Made Man by Garry Wills on the floor near my bed for literally years, moving it from Los Angeles to New York to New Hampshire, but I never actually finished it. I want to be the kind of person who devours exceptionally thoughtful and well-written nonfiction but to my dismay I'm apparently not. Yet.
Book you're an evangelist for:
Mrs. Bridge by Evan S. Connell--this masterpiece that crystallizes the emotions, attitudes and inchoate yearnings of an upper-middle-class housewife in prewar Kansas City keeps being resurrected and then seems to get lost again. William McPherson's elegant Testing the Current, which conveys the inevitable poignancy of growing up. Main Street by Sinclair Lewis and New Grub Street by George Gissing--both superb novels, at once funny and bleak, and filled with characters and incidents strikingly and uncomfortably true, by authors whose other works are flawed.
Book you've bought for the cover:
A new edition of The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. The covers of Persephone Books and of new Virago hardcovers are particularly beautiful as well. I could also list those I've read most recently--The Tortoise and the Hare by Elizabeth Jenkins and Good Behaviour by Molly Keane--under a question like "Books that made you want to read everything else by their authors."
Book that changed your life:
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen and Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë. My mother gave me both these books when I was in seventh grade and I read them in the car driving from Wisconsin to Wyoming and back. (I almost missed the Badlands.) I'd feared that my reading life--the pleasure I felt at being sucked into the world of the book at hand--would end when I crossed into the realm of what I assumed to be dull adult literature (admittedly, a weird, reader-girl anxiety), and was immensely relieved to find that grown-up books were just as engrossing as the ones I'd always loved. Maybe these aren't books that changed my life so much as books that showed me that my life would never change.
Favorite line from a book:
"I am the blind date!" from In God We Trust (All Others Pay Cash) by Jean Shepherd. Reeling self-awareness following on the heels of hilarious self-delusion is Shepherd's hallmark. His books also fall into the category of "Favorite Stories to Read Aloud."
Book you most want to read again for the first time:
These would be books filled with delicious tension that have surprising but satisfyingly inevitable ends:
Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson
Rebecca by Daphne de Maurier
The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain
Appointment in Samarra by John O'Hara.