With his sixth novel, Telegraph Avenue, due out this month, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author shares his fondness for James Bond books and architectural models.
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SURPRISING LITERARY ADDICTION
"I'm rereading the James Bond novels. They're really quirky, almost neurotic. He's a surprisingly fussy, prissy kind of character whose response to certain situations is, like, 'Eww, gross.' Live and Let Die was the most demented, racist, bizarre, crazy, incoherent... I swear Ian Fleming must have been drunk while he was writing it. But then he followed it with Moonraker, which is just wonderful—clean and efficient."
LITERARY COME-TO-JESUS MOMENT
"When I was 11, I was completely obsessed with the Sherlock Holmes stories. Right around that time, a writer named Nicholas Meyer came out with a book called The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, which was a big best-seller and made into a movie. It was a straight Holmes pastiche about Watson taking Holmes to Vienna to get treated for his cocaine problem by Sigmund Freud. It was like a lightening bolt. Like, 'Wait, what? You can write your own Holmes story? I want to do that.' And at that moment I was assigned to write a story by my English teacher, and I decided I was gonna write my own Sherlock Holmes story, about Holmes and Watson meeting Captain Nemo from Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. I loved trying to imitate the voice of Watson, to try and make my writing sound Victorian, and I just got so much pleasure from doing it. And then I got an A from my teacher and praise from my parents, and I just thought, 'That's it. Now I know what I'm doing for the rest of my life.'"
"Before I decided at 11 to be a writer, there was a brief moment when I wanted to be an architect. I grew up in Columbia, Maryland, and we had a few of the first buildings built by Frank Gehry. As a result, I've always had an interest in him. My favorite building is probably the Bradbury Building in Los Angeles, which makes a very notable appearance in the movie Blade Runner. And I love that period in American architecture generally, the Louis Sullivan era—Louis Sullivan is maybe my favorite American architect. Architectural models also fascinate me. I feel there's a real kinship between architectural modeling and writing fiction."
THE JOY OF REREADING
"There's no doubt I don't read as much as I used to, but that's mostly my children's fault. I'm still always reading constantly, just not for hours at a time as I once was able to do. I have a tendency to reread the same books over and over again. Edgar Allan Poe, Moby-Dick. I reread lots of Chandler, Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy, Heart of Darkness. There just seem to be certain books that I just get drawn back to. Suddenly I just find myself yearning to revisit them, and so I do."
ALL-TIME GREATEST CONCERT
"The show that just completely floored me and was musically fantastic and personally meaningful was a reconstituted Big Star at the Fillmore in San Francisco about five years ago, with Alex Chilton and Jody Stephens and two members of the Posies who were clearly thrilled to be there. When Chilton did 'September Gurls,' it brought tears to my eyes."
RECENT MUSICAL DISCOVERY
"I really knew nothing at all about this whole incredibly rich world of 1970s soul jazz. I knew some of the leading luminaries of that period—Donald Byrd and George Benson and some of the organ players like Jimmy Smith or Johnny Hammond—but I didn't realize there was this coherent, musical pocket universe of labels and of artists attempting to do this incredibly exciting thing of merging jazz with something easier to dance to than Ornette Coleman."
BEST TUNES TO WRITE TO
"I can't listen to anything vocal, or nothing with lyrics, anyway. Certainly nothing with English lyrics. The ultimate piece of music to work to, for me, is Steve Reich's Music for 18 Musicians, because it's dynamically steady, no vocals. Other times, I do rely on [music to help] me to get into the mood of what I'm working on. So for Kavalier & Clay, I was into a lot of big-band swing—as long as it was instrumental, it was just what I needed. For Yiddish Policemen's Union, I did listen to some klezmer albums to get into the mood. Then with this book, I just nonstop listened to the soul jazz we were just talking about. And some funk, too. Instrumental funk like the Meters. Once I started getting into the vinyl, what I realized is that if you listen to records as you work, it forces you to get up every 20 minutes to turn the record over and put a new record on, and that is exactly the increment that is recommended by [repetitive strain injury] consultants as the ideal period to take a break from the keyboard and get up and walk around."
"I watch a lot of long-arc series. Right now it's Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones. My kids love this show called Adventure Time. To me, it's a stoner show, but they don't seem to notice."
KIDS AS AN EXCUSE TO REVISIT MOVIES
"I and my older son, who's 15, spent a week alone together, and we watched all kinds of stuff that I knew he would love and I was dying to see again, in some cases for the eighth or ninth time. We watched Full Metal Jacket and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and A Fistful of Dollars and Goodfellas, and this really fun late John Frankenheimer film called Ronin that's just unbelievably good and underrated. I know what he likes, and if I manage it properly, I can almost trick him into watching great movies without realizing that he's doing so."
"Some kind of Southern soul-food-barbecue ensemble. Ribs or pulled pork, collard greens and black-eyed peas and corn bread—all that stuff. It's my ultimate fulfilling, consoling meal."
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—Timothy Hodler, research director at Details