I understand that I’ve caught you in the midst of a visit to the National Stamp Museum in DC?
I’m doing an appearance here in DC. I had an hour and a half to blow, so I decided to pop into the museum, take a look around. You’re always hunting for ideas, you know?
Congratulations on winning the National Book Award.
I was eating an apple tart. Then they announced my book. I was stunned. Pretty surprised. I went to accept the award, and I was still holding my dinner napkin in my hand. It was a great moment in my life, I suppose.
Where do you live and why?
I split my time between a small town in New Jersey and New York City. I have a place in the city that I’ve had for about 18 years. I live in New Jersey to stay close to my 12-year-old. I have three kids, one who’s 20, one who’s 21, and a 12-year-old. But I’m in New York some three days a week. I wrote this book in my city dump. I’m a life-long New Yorker, so I still prefer New York. And I have a row house in New Jersey.
Tell me about your dump. I’m curious about your writing set-up there.
For the first 10 years of my time there, my view was looking down at musicians, writers, artists, prostitutes, bums, and drug addicts. Now I look down at a Citi Bike rack, assorted well-to-do types, tourists—right there in Hell’s Kitchen. I don’t need a view of the river and birds tweeting, all that kind of business. I don’t mind sirens and hammering. Most of my work is done when everyone else is asleep.
What does a good writing session entail for you?
I get up around 4:30 or 5 at the latest. I usually go until I get tired, until about 9 or 10. Then I quit and monkey around. That monkeying around could be anything: research, working out, paying bills, flossing my teeth … I have a whole array of delaying behaviors that usually don’t kick in until 9 or 10. At 5 in the morning I’m too sleepy to do anything but try to think about what I was last working on. My mind is clearer. Through the day sometimes I’ll practice music. I push through the day, get my son to school. Then after dinner, 7 or 8, I’ll have a go at writing again, if I’m really deep into it. I can write anywhere. I was on the train this morning writing. I usually write the first few pages longhand. I used to write a lot longhand. I still write my first 20-30 pages longhand. Then I move to the computer, or I’ll type it—I still use a typewriter, too. I used to use a typewriter a lot more. I needed it early in my career. The computer makes you rewrite and just hit the “insert” key. The insert key is deadly for a writer. You really have to push forward, know you’re going to discard and rewrite everything. Man, I rewrite everything. Even emails I rewrite.
Since you’re a musician, is there anything you like to listen to while writing? The reason I asked is that I interviewed Junot Diaz, and he actually listens to certain albums on repeat during certain books.
Well, whatever Junot Diaz is listening to, I’d like a copy of it…
Maybe not. He wrote one book while listening to the soundtrack to the movie Conan the Barbarian…
No, I don’t think I could handle that! No, I don’t listen to music when I write. I go through periods listening to specific types of music. Because I’m a musician, listening to music is…it’s a bit like work for me. A little bit. So I don’t listen to any music at all. I don’t mind cacophony when I write. I grew up in a house with a lot of kids, brothers and sisters. So I don’t mind a lot of talking, yelling, playing. I can tune most of that out. One thing I have a hard time tuning out is a cell phone conversation. I find those to be the most inane, irritating things one could imagine. So I don’t listen to music, but I do use music in a sense. There’s an improvisational quality to some of my writing. If I know a dramatic point is supposed to happen, I’ll try to figure out a slick way to get there. My latest novel has a kind of improvisatory approach to telling an old story. In jazz, lots of people play the same songs. But it’s the way you play it is what distinguishes you from the next man or woman who plays it. So for the John Brown story [the subject of his National Book Award-winning novel The Good Lord Bird, I was doing the same thing.
Describe your routine when conceiving of a book and its plot, before the writing begins. Do you like to map out your books ahead of time, or just let it flow?
I usually research it deep. Whatever I need to do to get to the mainland. Sometimes I use index cards. Sometimes I’ll draw a map of the place. Once I did that, put it over my desk. I usually absorb so much of it, that it just stores in my mind. But the amorphous blend of character and character motivation somehow morphs into plot. So I spend a lot of time on my characters. Writing their biographies, deciding who they are, what they would do, what they would say…
Even though that might not make it into the book?
Most of it doesn’t make it onto the page. Maybe 10 percent does. You just can’t do more in today’s world. I don’t think you can spend 4-5 pages doing back story on a character in this reading environment.
What is guaranteed to make you laugh?
Ha! When serious people take themselves too seriously.
What is guaranteed to make you cry?
Beautiful choral music.
Do you have any superstitions?
Plenty. Can’t tell’em all. Oh man, I’m full of ticks, tacks, and toes.
If you could bring back to life one deceased person, who would it be and why?
John Coltrane. Just to hear his thoughts on art.
What is your favorite snack?
I drink that yerba mate tea. I got so sick of drinking coffee.
What phrase do you over-use?
Tell us a funny story related to a book tour or book event.
I once was doing a book signing, and a woman came up to me with a young guy next to her. She said “I really enjoyed your book.” I said, “Thank you very much. Did your son like it?” She said, “That’s my boyfriend.”
Maybe that was a compliment for her.
I don’t think she took it that way…
What advice would you give to an aspiring author?
Fail and fail better and keep failing.
What would you like carved onto your tombstone?
“He was a good person.”
Tell us something about yourself that is largely unknown and perhaps surprising.
Hm. That’s a difficult question. I wear two faces. Publically…I’m a shy person, but I’ve been a performer a long time. So I know how to handle myself.
I don’t want to keep you from the Stamp Museum, James. Thanks very much for speaking with me.
This interview has been edited and condensed.