Reading with... Stephen McCauley

photo: Sharona Jacobs

Stephen McCauley is the author of several novels, including The Object of My Affection, True Enough and Alternatives to Sex. His fiction, reviews and articles have appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Harper's, Vogue and many other publications. He serves as co-director of creative writing at Brandeis University. My Ex-Life (Flatiron, May 8, 2018) is his seventh novel.

On your nightstand now:

The Sparsholt Affair by Alan Hollinghurst, Happiness by Aminatta Forna and The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea by Yukio Mishima. There are about 20 other books beside my bed, but these three I'm actually reading. I've been sampling quite a few 20th-century Japanese novelists lately, prompted by having read and loved The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki last summer. It was my favorite read of 2017.

Favorite book when you were a child:

Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes. It's set in Boston during the American Revolution. I loved the historical background (Paul Revere and all that) and the streets and landmarks described in the novel were familiar to me. That said, I suspect the greatest appeal was having a crush on the sensitive, wounded main character.

Your top five authors:

In addition to all the writers I'm friends with: Dawn Powell, Alan Hollinghurst, Anita Brookner, Richard Price, Anthony Trollope.

Book you've faked reading:

Where to begin? Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James. I was giving a talk on current bestsellers and had to have an opinion. I struggled through 20 pages and figured my opinion wasn't likely to change if I read on. On the other end of the literary spectrum--and with a lot in between--I've faked reading Absalom, Absalom! by Faulkner. As you get older, faking becomes easier; you can claim faulty memory for specifics and no one presses you.

Book you're an evangelist for:

Can I mention an audiobook? Ruby Dee's reading of Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God is not only one of the best audiobooks I've ever heard but also a truly great feat of acting. Dee opened up new aspects of the novel for me, even after I'd read it on the page a couple of times. I'm always pushing it on people, especially people who claim they don't like audiobooks.

Book you've bought for the cover:

I'll buy anything published by New York Review Books. Yes, it's a well-curated collection, but the clean, pleasing, uniform design of their covers has a lot to do with what I find irresistible about the books. I love holding them in my hands and purchasing them, even when I suspect I won't read them.

Book you hid from your parents:

Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann. Of course, they also hid it from me, so it seemed like that's what you were supposed to do with it. I still have my mother's original paperback from the 1960s, and it's still hidden.

Book that changed your life:

Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin. It was the first novel about love between men that I read. It ends with tragedy, but as an isolated teenager, it made me feel I had a place in the world.

Favorite line from a book:

"She was forty-three--well, all right, forty-eight if you're going to count every lost weekend." That's from The Golden Spur by Dawn Powell. I especially love "well, all right." It sums up the character's attitude toward life and herself perfectly.

Five books you'll never part with:

The number is more like 500, but if you insist: Angels on Toast by Dawn Powell--probably not her best, but I love so many passages from it, it doesn't matter. The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin--I wish it were mandatory reading for all Americans. Lives of the Saints by Nancy Lemann--one of the nuttiest, most hypnotic novels I've ever read. Almost any sentence puts me in a state akin to fever dream. After Claude by Iris Owens--it's unspeakably audacious, outrageous, uneven and offensive. If you can get past all that, it's the funniest novel ever written. Madame Bovary by Flaubert. You can open it at random and read a paragraph that teaches you something important about writing. Since I never seem to learn the lessons, I need to keep it around.

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

Rosemary's Baby by Ira Levin. It terrified me in a very satisfying way when I first read it. I reread it recently and had great fun, but that initial shock wasn't there.

Book you wish had a sequel:

The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James. The last page of that novel is so upsetting to me I crave a sequel in which Isabel Archer has a decisively happy ending.

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