What author have you discovered and loved recently?
Philip Caputo. His name was vaguely familiar but for some reason I’d never picked up any of his books before (possibly because most of them aren’t published in the UK). I love discovering a new writer, and even more so, I love it when they have a substantial back-list to work through. If those books are hard to get, that makes it all the more fun. These things become rarer as you get older. The three Caputo novels I’ve read so far are all set during war. Caputo was a lieutenant in Vietnam and his war-time experiences inform all his fiction. Acts of Faith was the most recent one I read and is set during the Sudanese civil war of the 1990s. It features a brilliantly-crazed cast of mercenaries, priests, idealistic charity workers and freedom fighters and, like all Caputo’s books, it’s an investigation into the morality of violence and war.
Is there an author who is your guilty pleasure (or any book you’d rather have a brown paper bag over while reading?)
I don’t believe in the concept of guilty pleasures, especially when it comes to culture. If you love a book you shouldn’t be ashamed of it, you should cry it out loud and tell everyone. I’ll read William Burroughs one day and Wilbur Smith the next, I’ll skip from Stephen King to Thomas Pynchon in the space of an hour.
What’s the book you’d choose as your Desert Island book?
Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon, because it’s the most inexhaustible novel I know. I’ve read it seven times and could read it seventy more and still be discovering new things, making fresh connections, putting it all together. Set in a stunned Europe just after the fall of Hitler, it’s a novel about Western culture’s fear of, and desire for, death.
Is there a book that you lend out and push onto all your friends?
Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy – a rattlingly good adventure story that is also, for me, the best written novel of the last century, and one of the most important. McCarthy traces the meridian of human violence through the microcosm of a group of scalp-hunters ravaging the American Southwest in the years immediately after the Civil War. It has some of the best nature writing ever, the most extreme and chilling scenes of violence, and dense, almost-Shakespearean soliloquys about God and fate and life.
Can books change lives? If so, which one changed yours?
Absolutely, and they do it all the time, in little increments you’re not even aware of. Books changed my life for the better and that was the primary reason I wanted to write them. I can’t think of one book, but each book you read helps you understand yourself a little better and puts your life into context. Each book moves you closer towards self-realisation.
What are your top ten books?
In no particular order and as it stands today (these things change, shift and alter, but not by too much)
Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon
Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy
The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch by Philip K Dick
The Names by Don DeLillo
Robert Lowell’s Collected Poems
Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson
Moon Palace by Paul Auster
The Magus by John Fowles
The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles
Crash by JG Ballard
What’s your most treasured book on your bookcase?
William T Vollmann’s seven-volume, 3352 page Rising Up and Rising Down. It came out as a limited edition from McSweeney’s ten years ago and now sells for ridiculous prices online. It’s not the scarcity of the book but its necessity that makes me include it here. Vollmann spent seventeen years writing this calculus on violence. Using logic, history, reportage, and political theory, he tries to devise a system whereby one can gauge violent acts as to whether they’re justified, proportional and / or necessary. A book that makes us think hard about our moral acts and their consequences. A book that all politicians and schoolchildren should read.