|photo: Ben Bromley
J. Nicole Jones received an M.F.A. in Creative Nonfiction from Columbia University in 2012. She has held editorial positions at VICE magazine and VanityFair.com. Her essays and writing have appeared in VICE, VanityFair.com, the Harper's magazine website, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Salon, the Paris Review Daily and elsewhere. Originally from South Carolina, she lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Tennessee. Low Country: A Memoir (Catapult, April 13, 2021) is her first book.
On your nightstand now:
Samantha Irby's Wow, No Thank You. During the pandemic, this book has been a lifeline. Re-reading feels like being with a friend, and it's especially comforting before going to sleep. If I'm lucky, I'll fall asleep reading this, and wake up to one of her newsletters in my inbox. Julia Blackburn's The Emperor's Last Island is next to the bed, too, but that is more of an afternoon book at the moment.
Favorite book when you were a child:
Roald Dahl's James and the Giant Peach or Judy Blume's Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing. By middle school, it was Edith Hamilton's Mythology. A black mass market paperback, with a picture of Perseus holding Medusa's head. I took that with me everywhere for a while.
Your top five authors:
W.G. Sebald, Thomas Bernhard, Barbara Comyns, Leo Tolstoy, Shirley Jackson.
Book you've faked reading:
The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoyevsky. Also Crime & Punishment. I've tried so many times to read Dostoyevsky, and he just doesn't click for me. To my shame, I usually can't make it beyond the first 30 pages. But I've really, really tried!
Book you're an evangelist for:
Monkey Beach by Eden Robinson. A close friend from British Columbia gave me this book 15 (or more--yikes) years ago, and now I give out copies left and right. Robinson is a First Nations author from Canada, and this novel won some big Canadian prizes. Why it isn't everywhere in the U.S. baffles me. This book has everything: lyrical prose, nature writing that is alternately enchanting and fearsome, history, family drama and secrets, magic, Sasquatches, more secrets. I adore this book and am an Eden Robinson mega fan.
Also, Wittgenstein's Mistress by David Markson, which is unconventional and devastating in entirely different ways. A woman calmly narrates her descent into either insanity, or her survival amid the ruins of art after an unnamed apocalypse. Somehow it works. How did Markson do that? The narrator is almost like an anti-Humbert Humbert.
Book you've bought for the cover:
Recently, I bought a new edition of one of my favorites exclusively for the stunning cover: Barbara Comyns's Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead, republished by Daunt Books. The title is the ultimate writing advice.
Book you hid from your parents:
I "borrowed" a copy of Jacqueline Susann's Valley of the Dolls from my parents' bookshelf. The white paperback with the pills all over the cover.
Book that changed your life:
Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God was the first book I read that felt literary to me, reading as a teen. It has enormous emotional importance to me, as a book about the South and a book about and centered on women. I've kept my high school copy, and it has decades' worth of scribbles in the margins at this point.
Favorite line from a book:
It's not the most lyrical or profound line Nabokov's ever written, but this one from Pnin never fails to make me feel happy: "You know I do not understand what is advertisement and what is not advertisement." I just hear poor Timofey Pnin's voice so clearly: sulky, desperate, but totally right. It always makes me laugh. And then Joan goes on to explain every picture in this magazine to him. And then Pnin very grumpily argues with her. I am laughing now thinking about it.
Five books you'll never part with:
We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson: Merricat Blackwood is my most-beloved character ever.
The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston: A gorgeous book that completely transformed what is possible in an entire genre. I read it annually.
The Dog of the South by Charles Portis: Reading this one in public (when that was possible) is so fun. More than once, I have been approached by polite, bookish strangers at coffeeshops, and one time in an airport terminal, who tell me this is their favorite book. Loving Charles Portis is like being in the best secret club. If you move to a new place and want to make some friends, take this one to the park.
Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age by Bohumil Hrabal: The sensation of reading this feels like being spun around a dance floor really fast. Joyful, absurd. Dizzying in the most fun sense. Unlike anything else.
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy: Please forgive me, Dostoyevsky. I find Anna Karenina to be an absolute page-turner. The first time I was reading, I missed my stop on an express subway train when I got to those dots in Part II, when Anna and Vronsky...
Book you most want to read again for the first time:
The Loser by Thomas Bernhard. I had never read anything remotely similar when I first read this hilarious, monstrous, spiraling tragi-comedy. When I finished, I did the next-closest thing and binged as many of his books as I could.
Your favorite recent read:
The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares. Borges calls it perfect in the New York Review Books edition's introduction, and who am I to disagree? To describe the plot too much would give it away. Weird and sad and beautiful and perfect.