Friday, July 21, 2017

My best shot / Rankin / Beautyfull

by Rankin
Rankin's best shot 

'This was taken at a time when we didn't really care about health and safety'

Thursday 25 January 2007 

This is quite an old picture. It was for a fashion story for Dazed and Confused magazine called Highly Flammable, in 1997 or 1998.

At the time, a lot of clothes were made out of that horrible shiny nylon material. I was at a party, and my ex-wife, who was always very critical and amusingly ironic about fashion, said to me that if someone set light to these kids at the party, they'd all burn immediately. It made me think it might make for a funny set of images.
I photographed them in the studio with very soft daylight, and then I had the images made into life-size cut-outs. I did a similar thing with Pulp, where we made cut-outs of them for an album cover. Then I took the cut-outs into the street and set them alight. I just threw on a load of lighter fluid. There's lots of pictures of my assistants jumping out of the way. It was at a time when we didn't really care about health and safety.
I shot it on film, on a tripod, because it was quite a long exposure. I didn't use any flash, but there is a very little bit of retouching. I just took out the stand for the cut-out, which was pointing out of the back a little.
The photo is a bit of a dig at fashion, the shallowness and emptiness of the industry, which can take itself far too seriously. You've got to balance out the seduction and what you enjoy about it with a little bit of cynicism. I think that pervades my work in general. I'm asking, "Why am I seduced by this? Why do I like it so much?" That's what the piece is about.
Interview by Leo Benedictus

My best shot / Anne Hardy / Untitled VI

Untitled VI
Photo by Anne Hardy

Anne Hardy's best shot

Interview by Leo Benedictus

Thursday 11 January 2007 10.33 GMT

t took about two months to set everything up in this picture, which was taken in December 2005. It's not a real place; it was built in my studio in Hackney, London. The whole space is structured around the position of the camera. It's put together as a photograph, rather than an installation. Sometimes I go back and reshoot things, moving something 10cm this way or that. The actual moment of taking the final photograph can almost seem - not an anticlimax, but such a tiny thing.

I usually start with abandoned objects I find in the street. All the old science equipment here came from a school. I put a lot of specific things into the image, without making specific references, so people can bring different things to it. There is no single explanation. I wanted to create the feeling that there are unfamiliar systems at work here. For example, maybe it was reasonable for someone to label the sections of a basketball.
I always use a similar setup for my pictures, which are taken with a medium-format camera and wide-angle lens. I try to make it look as if the light has come from within the space. In this shot, it comes from the skylight, which is intended to look like daylight, and from the red bulb, rather than anything behind the camera.
I just enjoy this picture. It's always hard to choose a favourite image, but there's something about this one that surprises me more than the others. You have certain pieces as an artist that you feel push your practice on, show you new things. It surprises me that I made this one.

My best shot / Bruce Davidson / Girl holding kitten

Girl holding kitten
London, 1960
Photograph: Bruce Davidson

Bruce Davidson's best shot 'I found her by accident. She took me into a cave, then some kind of dancehall'
Thursday 4 January 2007 11.41 GMT

I always had a feeling for Britain. We would listen to the BBC during the war, when I had an uncle Herb who was flying a bomber, which I believe may have been from England.
In 1960, I purchased a Hillman Minx convertible, which wasn't a very expensive car in those days, and drove around England with the top down. It was an American-drive car, which was an advantage because I could snap people on the sidewalk more easily. I also had a sports coat made with the side pockets larger, so I could fit my Leicas in them.
I found this young woman quite by accident, as I was walking the London streets. I came upon a group of teenagers, and struck up a conversation. They took me into a cave, and then some kind of huge dancehall. I think it was on an island. It was getting late, and I needed to move on the next morning, so I didn't stay very long.
But I isolated this girl to photograph, holding that kitten, which was probably a stray she had found on the street, and carrying that bedroll wrapped around her body. There was a great deal of mystery to her. I didn't know where she had come from, and I didn't get her name, but there was something about that face - the hopefulness, positivity and openness to life - it was the new face of Britain.
The picture was taken with a normal 50mm lens, with a wide aperture. I used the Ilford film, called HPS - hyper-sensitive film - which I loved, although it is probably no longer made. I loved that grainy texture; she has the feeling of a statue.
I still feel close to this picture. I wonder what that young girl is doing now. She must be lurking around London someplace, or she may not be alive, you never know.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Jane Eyre by Cornelia Parker

On the bicentenary of Charlotte Brontë’s birth

Jane Eyre

by Cornelia Parker

Cornelia Parker

Cornelia Parker

Saturday 16 April 2016 08.00 BST

I identified strongly with Jane and her painful childhood when I first read Jane Eyre as a teenager as I was having quite a painful one myself (though perhaps not as bad as hers). So later in the book when she overcame her shyness, threw off her childhood problems and then became this incredibly strong woman, it was emotional and cathartic. I reread it in 2006 when on a residency at Haworth Parsonage. Back in London in the British Library I actually got to leaf through the original text, neatly written in three musty notebooks. She had obviously copied out the manuscript many times but this was her final draft, so seeing where she had deleted a single word here and there made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. There were about 50 corrections in all, which I recorded through photographs: “crimson” was crossed out and replaced by “purple”; “soul” was changed to “spirit”, “glimpse” became “idea”. I also took images through an electron microscope of tiny punctures in Charlotte’s pincushion, holes that she made unconsciously when sewing, and of split ends in the little plait of Emily’s hair that had been kept after she died. The Brontës and their characters have attracted so much literary attention, been the subject of so many Hollywood films, it seemed appropriate to work with the seemingly inconsequential traces, the tiny little frictions of everyday life.

When my daughter read it at school a couple of years ago, it was touching to read out passages to one another. The book has stayed with me all my life and I was pleased that she loved it too.

Jane Eyre by Julie Myerson

On the bicentenary of Charlotte Brontë’s birth

Jane Eyre

by Julie Myerson

Julie Myerson

Saturday 16 April 2016 08.00 BST

I first read Jane Eyre propped up in my little single bed with a shawl around my shoulders in a cold and creaking attic room at the top of a house in the middle of the starless Nottinghamshire countryside. The room, my old and once beloved bedroom, was badly lit, unheated, dusty and forlorn. It hadn’t always been so. But that summer our mother had left our father in a most spectacular fashion – at dead of night, taking half the furniture, all our pets and all three of us children with her. And my father vented his rage in the only way he knew how: by replacing nothing, leaving the house – and especially our bedrooms – to grow sad and dusty and unloved, a reminder each time we visited (fortnightly as the court decreed) of how our terrible mother had ruined our once “happy” family life.
I could not have wished for a better setting in which to get to know the Brontës. Charlotte, Emily, Anne – all of them kept me company in that cold and sad little room. I was 13 and I knew very little about anything, but suddenly here it all was: injustice and illness, death, shame, fear and secrecy – not to mention the possibility of love in unexpected or even inconvenient places.

I have read the novel since and always found something new to love. But my abiding sense of it then, as well as now, is of Jane herself – her sheer, steady-hearted goodness. Throughout the novel, from start to finish, she unwaveringly tells the truth. Such clarity and, in an odd way, such calm. It felt like something worth aspiring to. It still does.

Jane Eyre by Blake Morrison

On the bicentenary of Charlotte Brontë’s birth

Jane Eyre

by Blake Morrison

Blake Morrison

Blake Morrison

I grew up not many miles from Haworth, in a vicarage at the top of a village; my mother, like Patrick Brontë, had come from Ireland; the landscape we looked out on resembled the one Jane Eyre wanders through after fleeing Thornfield Hall: “[the roads] are all cut in the moor, and the heather grows wild and deep.” The novel wasn’t on the syllabus at my grammar school; no self-respecting teenage boy would have wanted to be seen with it. But the sense of recognition I felt when I read it was immense. All adolescents feel like victims, and the mistreatment of Jane in the early chapters, first by Mrs Reed then by Mr Brocklehurst, put me firmly on her side. I too knew what it was like to be humiliated in class (the slate-dropping episode) and to lose a close friend (as she does Helen Burns). I too distrusted wealth and finery. Never mind Jane’s gender: it was the two of us against the world! Whether Mr Rochester would prove worthy seemed doubtful. The romantic denouement engaged me less than the impediments along the way: Miss Ingram; mad Bertha (we too had a scary attic); the halting of the wedding ceremony. But I liked the teasing and banter, and there were ideas to grapple with, too, about class and work and beauty. Above all, there was Jane’s denunciation of female servitude. Women, she says, “need exercise for their faculties … they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded … to say they ought to confine themselves to making puddings”.A hundred and twenty years after the book came out, that idea still met occasional resistance, especially in laddish rural outposts. But Jane Eyre showed it was plain common sense. Soon we’d all be reading The Female Eunuch. But Charlotte Brontë led the way.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Jane Eyre by Helen Dunmore

On the bicentenary of Charlotte Brontë’s birth

Jane Eyre

by Helen Dunmore

Helen Dunmore

Helen Dunmore

Saturday 16 April 2016 08.00 BST

What I love most about Jane Eyre is the ferocity of her radicalism. She refuses to see the world as it tells her it should be seen. She will speak out, although she is a friendless nobody: small, pale, plain and female. From the first page there are hints of the fire that burns in her. Jane is out of favour, banished from the family hearth. She hides away in her own no man’s land, a window seat where she sits “cross-legged, like a Turk”, revelling in the pages of Bewick’s History of British Birds. A drawn red curtain conceals her from the room, while the glass protects her from “ceaseless rain sweeping away wildly from a long and lamentable blast”.
Jane Eyre is between two worlds and belongs in neither, although she will have to live in both during the course of the novel. She will be a beggar-maid, exposed on the moors, and a princess wooed by the King of Thornfield Hall, Mr Rochester. Neither will satisfy her. Jane’s quest is long and solitary, and she is protected only by her fiery spirit and incisive intelligence. But if Jane Eyre has fairytale and mythic qualities, she is also an intensely political creation. Jane genuinely does not believe that morality has anything to do with wealth, power or social standing. She repudiates the idea that women’s mental capacities are less than those of men. She would rather live alone than accept a relationship that compromises her independence. Strong stuff even in our times, but revolutionary in 1847. At 10 years old she castigates rich, powerful Mrs Reed for her hypocrisy and cruelty. At 18 she sets out into the world to support herself, having done everything possible to secure an education.
Her relationship with Mr Rochester is, to put it mildly, challenging. She will not be flattered: she must be an equal. Is Jane Eyre lovable? Perhaps not. She is intensely critical, and quick to scorn. There is no warmth of humour in her. She is elemental, with “rather a look of another world” as Rochester says, and yet at times extraordinarily prosaic. But if not lovable, she is utterly compelling. There was no one like Jane Eyre before she blazed on to the page, and into a million imaginations.

Jane Eyre by Polly Samson

On the bicentenary of Charlotte Brontë’s birth

Jane Eyre

by Polly Samson

Polly Samson

Polly Samson

Saturday 16 April 2016 08.00 BST

I read Wide Sargasso Sea before I ever got to Jane Eyre. It wasn’t until my youngest son was set Jane Eyre for A-level that I finally read it (I thought I had but it turned out I’d only osmosed it from the air and screen). Wide Sargasso Sea, I’d read several times. Reading them the wrong way round, which happens to be chronologically the right way round, does rather spoil the romance: leaving you alert to a morally derelict rather than a Byronic Rochester. Jane falls for a man whose degeneracy and sadism drove his first wife mad. Lushly erotic and deeply disturbing, Rhys’s book bleeds very darkly into Brontë’s.

Throughout the exquisite suffering and withholding dance of Jane and Rochester’s courtship, you are thinking, ‘Please no, Jane, not after all we’ve been through so intimately together, the beatings and privations, the humiliations and near-starvations. Did love deafen you when he told you of roaming Europe and setting up home with three separate courtesans? What of his STDs?’
And what of poor little Adèle, the abandoned child of his Parisian mistress? There he is, pampering her with cadeaux while referring to her repeatedly and within her hearing as “it”, and remarking on her stupidity. Why did he take her in if he despises her so? And then, Rhys whispers in your ear and you shudder to remember that in Wide Sargasso Sea Rochester has sex with a servant girl, who can’t have been more than a child.
And on to the spectacle of the mad woman in his attic: unkempt and ugly, raving and knifing and biting. Rhys won’t allow you to dismiss her as some sort of mythical vampyre, or even Jane’s rebellious alter ego. In Wide Sargasso Sea, she is a beautiful but fragile Creole heiress whom Rochester marries for her fortune, and on his honeymoon is already resenting for her “disconcertingly non-European” eyes.
It is never made clear in Jane Eyre from what form of madness the first Mrs Rochester is suffering. Something must have turned her from a beautiful bride into this swollen, purple monster. Given what Brontë tells us of his decade-long lost weekend, does it seem unlikely that Rochester has given her syphilis?
And then, up on the roof, among the flames of Thornfield Hall, Rochester loses his hand, his left hand, the one he gave in marriage. According to Jane Eyre, the woman he gave it to jumps, thus freeing him to marry Jane. Oh dear. Reader, I can’t help but think he pushed her.

Jane Eyre by O'Farrell

On the bicentenary of Charlotte Brontë’s birth

Jane Eyre

by Maggie O'Farrell

Maggie O’Farrell

Saturday 16 April 2016 08.00 BST

Like many people, I first read Jane Eyre in my early teens, in the first flush of excitement at swapping my children’s library card for an adult one. The back cover promised a thrilling love story between a poor, plain girl and a brooding, troubled landowner. Later that night, I found myself wrong-footed. What, I wondered, was this neglect and abuse of an orphan child? Whose was this frank, unwavering voice? By the time Jane was locked by her heartless aunt into the terrifying red room, I had forgotten all about the promised love story. I pressed on, late into the night, straight into Lowood and the deprivations at the hands of religious fanatics.
I had, in short, never read anything like it. The shock and thrill of discovering this book, aged 13, continues to run in my veins. I read it without a single preconception; I knew nothing about it. I was as unprepared as those first Victorian readers for Rochester, for the fire, for the stalled marriage, for the lunatic locked away in the attic.
If Jane Eyre taught me anything as an astonished 13-year-old, it was to strive, to push my reach beyond my grasp, not to settle for compromise. When we studied the book at university, Brontë’s words were filtered for me through various frameworks of academic theory. Jane Eyre is a feminist novel, I was told. Or it is the link between the epistolary and the gothic novel. It is the precursor to all stream-of-consciousness writing. It is a psychological tract about doubles and doppelgangers, addressing levels of human consciousness. It is all these things and yet none of them. One of the reasons Jane Eyre continues to provoke so much discussion and theorising is that, like Jane herself, it eludes definition. It does one thing with its right hand while doing quite another with its left.
Thirty years on, I still haven’t read anything like it. Jane Eyre remains the book I return to the most. I read it every couple of years. Parts I know off by heart, yet each time I come away with something different. It is my datum, my pole star, the novel by which all others shall be measured.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Jane Eyre by Andrew Motion

On the bicentenary of Charlotte Brontë’s birth

Jane Eyre

by Andrew Motion

Andrew Motion

Andrew Motion

Saturday 16 April 2016 08.00 BST

I knew about Jane Eyre for a long time before I read it. Handsome Mr Rochester with his gothic dash and flair, plain Jane with her habit of lurking in window seats; it was an archetype of one kind of love affair, and in its way more sympathetic than the more glamorous coupling of Heathcliff and Cathy. More sympathetic because more encouraging to an adolescent (regardless of their gender) with low self-esteem. Then there was the mad woman in the attic. Didn’t all homes have such a creature – even when there was no attic and no lunatic – in the sense that the attic was a head space as well as a room space, in which invisible injustices and wildness were stored, ready to burst into the world and create havoc at any moment?
I expect I saw a film version too, which would have reinforced all these impressions. But the book itself … I didn’t read it until I went to work at the University of Hull in 1976 when I was 23 and found that I had to teach it. Although I still feel embarrassed to have arrived at the table too late, I comfort myself by thinking that at least I was more or less ready for it.
Ready, in particular, for something I’d not previously known about. Which is Brontë’s very clever meshing of a plausibly rendered world (and I could easily see how well rendered by visiting Haworth from Hull), with a world that is pretty much pure fantasy. I don’t just mean fantasy in terms of those gothic elements, but in the bending of hard facts (the contemporary laws of the land) to bring Jane to her eventual reward. In this respect, the book is truthful about cruelty (Bertha’s fate, especially), but it is also life-affirming. The central tension between actualities and make-believe anticipates the tragic plea at the end of Villette: “leave sunny imaginations hope”.

Jane Eyre by Esther Freud

On the bicentenary of Charlotte Brontë’s birth

Jane Eyre

by Esther Freud

Esther Freud

Esther Freud

Saturday 16 April 2016 08.00 BST

I was 14 or 15 and living on the top floor of a communal house in a small village in Sussex when I first read Jane Eyre. It was the most romantic book I’d come across, and it ignited in me the idea – surely already smouldering – that there was someone out there who would see the grand heroine that was really me, and not the “small, plain” person I presented. I had a bedroom with a balcony that looked out over a large terraced garden, and I used to lean over it and see if I could catch sight of the current object of my affections, a married man who lived on the ground floor, with whom I was carrying on a romance of epic proportions, fuelled only by an occasional glance in my direction, the offer of a lift to the next village and, once, the soulful handing over of a flower. I found out later that he was in fact having an affair with the woman who rented two rooms on either side of the front door, and although in that instance – and, sadly, in many others – my intuition was out, it was Jane Eyre’s psychic ability to know when she was being called to that has stayed with me most profoundly. When I next read the book, and recently, while listening to Rachel Joyce’s luminous adaptation on the radio, I was struck by the extraordinary directness with which Rochester and Jane communicate. It thrills me, as it must have thrilled readers in 1847, how their talk transcends convention – cutting through politeness, forcing an intimacy that leaves them reeling, altered.

“Your smile did not strike my heart for nothing,” Rochester tells Jane when she saves him from the fire, and then, noticing she is shivering with cold and shock, he tells her she must go. But she can’t go. He still has hold of her hand. It is this yearning, this connection, this idea that there is something out there bigger than us, that makes so many readers – me among them – respond to Brontë’s masterpiece so powerfully.

Jane Eyre by Margaret Drabble

On the bicentenary of Charlotte Brontë’s birth

Jane Eyre

by Margaret Drabble

Margaret Drabble.png

Margaret Drabble

Saturday 16 April 2016 08.00 BST

I remember being gripped by two aspects when I first read Jane Eyre at the age of 10 or 11 – the horrible school at Lowood and the mad woman in the attic. The Lowood episode is the most frightening boarding school story ever written, and, of course, all children, me included, think they are friendless, persecuted and despised, and identify with the poor orphan. The meals of burned porridge were nearly as bad as the processed peas and gristle stew of Sheffield girls’ high. I don’t know why the fate of Bertha Mason simultaneously attracted and terrified me so much, but it did. I don’t think it was for protofeminist reasons: it was more a fear of fire and madness, though its subliminal power was obvious even to a child. As an adolescent, I suppose I became more interested in the love affair, though by then I had read Wuthering Heights and much preferred Heathcliff to Rochester, and the fairytale wish-fulfilment elements in Jane Eyre I already found annoying and disturbing. On rereading in old age, I now find the arch, self-righteous and implausible dialogues between Jane and Rochester boring: they serve to remind one that Villette is a much greater work. Maybe I prefer tragedy to romance. But I do now find the St John theme of temptation-to-virtue more resonant than I did, and Brontë’s dreams of red room wombs and lost babies are very powerful. Also, I do now see more clearly why she shocked her contemporaries so much: Matthew Arnold was right when he said she was full of “hunger, rebellion and rage”. Jane does not even attempt to hide her greed and need for love. It is painful to read of her longings, and even more painful to know they were never to be satisfied.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Allegra Goodman / By the Book

Allegra Goodman
Illustration by Jullian Tamaki

Allegra Goodman: By the Book

The author of “The Chalk Artist” admires Mary Garth in “Middlemarch”: “She is not only brave and witty, but totally sane. That’s hard to write. Madness is easy. A character with good sense is a tour de force.”

What books are on your night stand now?

I don’t read in bed, but I keep my old Witherspoon and Warnke anthology of 17th-century literature on my night stand, because I like to fall asleep with Herbert, Donne and Milton watching over me. I’ve got my current pile of books downstairs on the floor by the couch. “Mr. Fox,” by Helen Oyeyemi; “Hillbilly Elegy,” by J. D. Vance; “The Art of Intimacy,” by Stacey D’Erasmo; “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves,” by Karen Joy Fowler; and “Jonathan Swift: The Reluctant Rebel,” by John Stubbs.

What’s the last great book you read?

I’m a bit of a back-seat reader: “Noooo, don’t go that way! …Wait! Slow down! What are you doing?” But with a great book, like Elena Ferrante’s “My Brilliant Friend,” I can sit back and enjoy the ride. I loved each of the Neapolitan novels, but my favorite is this initial story of Elena and Lila as young girls on divergent paths.

What classic novel did you recently read for the first time?

Recently my son and I listened to the Edith Grossman translation of “Don Quixote,” read brilliantly by George Guidall. His Sancho Panza is priceless! We have a long commute to my son’s high school, and we’ve listened to many audiobooks in the car. We agree that this was the best. We certainly laughed the most. “Don Quixote” has it all — epic, romance, satire, elegy, intertextual jeu d’esprit. It’s like a pomegranate, with the seeds of a hundred future masterpieces inside of it.

What do you read when you’re working on a book? And what kind of reading do you avoid while writing?

I read more of everything when I’m writing. I like to read for my characters, and in character as well. This sounds very method, but if a character researches rare cookbooks, as Jess does in “The Cookbook Collector,” I do that research as she would, not as I would. If a character stumbles upon Ezra Pound, as Aidan does in my new novel, “The Chalk Artist,” I notice what he notices, and I hear what he hears.

What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently?

This morning while listening with my son to “Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe,” I learned that in 1623 Francis Bacon realized that binary coding could express the intentions of the mind.

What moves you most in a work of literature?

I’m moved by recognition and discovery. It’s startling to recognize a feeling you’ve never articulated or admitted, even to yourself. Nicholas on the battlefield in “War and Peace” suddenly realizing that he could die. “Me? Of whom everyone is so fond?” And it’s magical to discover a new world and enter fully. Earthsea, Narnia, the Big Woods, Neverland, Elsinore, Troy. Then there are the moments when recognition and discovery come together. The strange becomes familiar, and the familiar takes on strange power. I’m thinking of the footprint in the sand in “Robinson Crusoe,” the butchering of whales in “Moby-Dick,” Hamlet’s cry “You cannot play upon me,” pairing adolescent resentment with awareness of his particular situation.

Which genres do you especially enjoy reading? And which do you avoid?

In theory, I’m interested in all genres. In practice, I don’t read much science fiction or fantasy. Other family members read widely in those areas, however! I’ve also got a son who reads contemporary philosophy. This leaves me to focus on realist and surrealist novels, history, biography and poetry. I’m drawn to some obscure subgenres. Any tale involving a piano in extremis, a long Arctic voyage, or a protagonist with an unusual occupation — sapper, bird artist, miniaturist, seal trapper, ventriloquist, pearl fisher — I’m there.

How do you like to read? Paper or electronic? One book at a time or simultaneously? Morning or night?

I read on paper, and I like to pile books around me. That way, whether I want to read about the hollers of Appalachia, the life of Lucy Barton or the history of Swift’s “Tale of a Tub,” I’ll be prepared. I try to keep some poetry on hand, as well. Blake, Dickinson, Yeats, Mary Oliver, Charles Simic. A poem will keep you honest. It’s impossible to skim.

How do you organize your books?

I organize my books chronologically within subject — so, for example, I have all my philosophy together starting with the Pre-Socratics, and I have my literature all together starting with Old English poetry and mystery plays. That’s the plan, anyway. In practice, my books are stacked everywhere, and double shelved. I am that reader who will buy another copy of something I own but cannot find. When my last child leaves for college, I’ll straighten out my books. Maybe.

What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?

Given my horticultural history, people might be surprised by the number of gardening books on my shelves. I have killed just about every plant I’ve ever owned, including cacti.

What’s the best book you’ve ever received as a gift?

At 10 I was obsessed with Dickens, and my philosopher father gave me the Oxford edition of the novels. The 21 volumes are bound in blue morocco, and they have gilt-edged pages and ribbon bookmarks, and they came packed in a special wood box. I still have them. They are beautiful books, and they read beautifully too. I’ve read “Great Expectations” aloud twice as a bedtime story. I remember my oldest son worrying about Pip’s debts. That concerned little boy is now a graduate student in economics!

Who is your favorite fictional hero or heroine? Antihero or villain?

My favorite antihero is Rudyard Kipling’s Kim. My favorite heroine is Mary Garth in “Middlemarch.” She is not only brave and witty, but totally sane. That’s hard to write. Madness is easy. A character with good sense is a tour de force.

What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?

I was not an early reader, and I remember experiencing books as art rather than text. When I was little I wanted to paint worlds on the page. I was entranced by Nancy Ekholm Burkert’s “Snow-White” and Ernest Shepard’s “The Wind in the Willows.” Later, the chapter books I loved best were the Oz series (I named my favorite doll Dorothy), the Little House books, the Earthsea trilogy and children’s biographies of people like Elizabeth I, Albert Einstein, Nellie Bly and Louis Brandeis. I liked to read about great men and women. Still do!

If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be?

“The Mayor of Casterbridge.”

You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?

I would invite Shakespeare and Ben Jonson, along with John Donne and his wife, Anne. This would probably be more of a working lunch, but I’d serve mutton, pheasant, salad, pastry and Jonson’s “rich Canary wine.” First order of business, we sort out dates of composition for every work. Then we discuss art, patronage, politics and performance. (This might take a while!) Finally, I dismiss the men and speak to Anne alone about her life as reader, writer, muse and mother. I want to hear her voice.

Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?

At 14, I hated “The Catcher in the Rye.” I understand now that it means a great deal to a great many people, but at the time — rather like Holden — I had no patience. While I took some amazing literature classes later in high school, ninth grade was unremittingly bleak. “Lord of the Flies,” “The Lottery,” “Everything That Rises Must Converge.” Coming-of-age ritual? Verbal flogging? Desperate attempt to stun us into silence? The fiction we read was all about degradation of one kind or another. I can’t imagine we were meant to enjoy it. I certainly didn’t.

Whom would you want to write your life story?

I seem to be writing it myself, but since I’m a novelist, it’s all in code.

How do you decide what to read next? Is it reviews, word of mouth, books by friends, books for research? Does it depend on mood or do you plot in advance?

I do read reviews and listen to friends, but I decide what to read while browsing tables and shelves in bookshops. No search engine can compete! I pick up a book in its crisp new cover and it’s like a wrapped present.

What do you plan to read next?

I can’t wait for Hilary Mantel’s new book, “The Mirror and the Light.” I’ll buy it the day it comes out and probably start reading in the store.