|photo: Walter Kurtz
Bill Hayes is the author of How We Live Now, Insomniac City, The Anatomist and a collection of street photography, How New York Breaks Your Heart, among other books. Hayes is a recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship in nonfiction and is a frequent contributor to the New York Times. He has completed the screenplay for a film adaption of Insomniac City, currently in the works from Hopscotch Features, and he is also a co-editor of Oliver Sacks's posthumous books. Hayes's latest book is Sweat: A History of Exercise (Bloomsbury, January 18, 2022), a brisk and eclectic survey of fitness, from ancient arenas to modern gyms.
On your nightstand now:
Just finishing neurologist and author Suzanne O'Sullivan's The Sleeping Beauties--a fascinating and provocative series of case histories on psychosomatic and so-called "mass psychogenic" illnesses (such as Havana Syndrome). Next up is one of my favorite's latest: Rebecca Solnit's Orwell's Roses. I'm almost exclusively a nonfiction reader.
Favorite book when you were a child:
James and the Giant Peach--the ultimate run-away-from-home fantasy (inside a flying peach!) and just about every other book by Roald Dahl.
Your top five authors:
Joan Didion (especially for The White Album!), Edmund White (see below), Janet Malcolm (In the Freud Archives, if I had to pick just one), Sylvia Plath (Ariel--oh, Ariel!), Susan Sontag (AIDS and Its Metaphors).
Book you've faked reading:
Books plural: A collection of first editions of the work of Charles Darwin, my late partner Oliver Sacks's greatest hero and influence. They look beautiful all lined up on a shelf--and they remind me sweetly of Oliver, who knew them practically by heart--but I've never read them all.
Book you're an evangelist for:
Vivian Gornick's memoir about her relationship with her mother, Fierce Attachments--it's so compressed you feel like the book could explode in your hands--and it's so elegantly, simply structured.
Book you've bought for the cover:
Sheila Heti's How Should a Person Be? But equally for its title; it must be one of the most brilliant titles--ever.
Book you hid from your parents:
Patricia Nell Warren's The Front Runner, a 1974 novel about a gay relationship between two male athletes--rare at the time. I was 13. I remember hiding it under my mattress, in my underwear drawer (gee, not too obvious!) and rereading it several times.
Book that changed your life:
Edmund White's A Boy's Own Story (it felt like my story, as so many other gay men have said) and, equally, his amazing (albeit less well-known) cross-country travel memoir, States of Desire (1980), which captured gay male life in America just before AIDS hit--the book is a time capsule from a brief, shining, sexy, sliver of time.
Favorite line from a book:
"I will be her witness." The opening line to Didion's great novel A Book of Common Prayer. I say "great." Actually, I'm not sure it is one of her greatest books--I feel her nonfiction is far stronger than her fiction--but it's one hell of a great opening line--just on the verge of camp. Classic Didion.
Five books you'll never part with:
All of Oliver's personal copies of his own books--some of which he used for readings--filled with his annotations, corrections, notes.
Book you most want to read again for the first time:
I devoured Heather Clark's brilliant recent biography of Sylvia Plath, Red Comet, a 1,000-plus-page book with the narrative drive of a thriller. I wept several times, reading that book, and gained a whole new understanding of Plath and her work. I might just read it again after finishing Rebecca's new book.