The Mark Blog

Bookmark This: Francine Prose

Francine Prose, whose recent books include The Turning and Reading Like a Writer, was interviewed in The New York Times Sunday Book Review's "By the Book" series. You'll be pleased to learn that she's neither a fiction nor nonfiction person, but "a sentence person," and that she has a delightfully dry sense of humor. She also urges the President to read The Torture Report by Larry Siems, our friend and director of the Freedom to Write program at PEN American Center. Savor this excellent interview below.

Content and style re-posted from The New York Times. The full text can be found here.

What book is on your night stand now?
A volume of Brassaï photographs. Alain-Fournier’s “Le Grand Meaulnes” (the new translation calls it “The Lost Estate”). And “Hard Measures: How Aggressive CIA Actions After 9/11 Saved American Lives,” by Jose Rodriguez.

When and where do you like to read?
The passenger seat of a car on the New York State Thruway, on a sunny day without much traffic.
What was the last truly great book you read? Do you remember the last time you said to someone, “You absolutely must read this book”?
A year after reading it, I’m still urging people to read Peter Nadas’s dense, filthy, brilliant 1,100-page novel, “Parallel Stories.” I’ve told lots of people to read Mavis Gallant’s stories; Jo Ann Beard’s “In Zanesville”; “A Chronology,” a collection of Diane Arbus’s writings; and Mark Strand’s recent book of prose poems, “Almost Invisible.”
Do you consider yourself a fiction or a nonfiction person? Any guilty pleasures?
I consider myself a sentence person. Really guilty pleasures? Skimming memoirs by writers I know for gossip about people I know
What book had the greatest impact on you? What book made you want to write?
“One Hundred Years of Solitude” convinced me to drop out of Harvard graduate school. The novel reminded me of everything my Ph.D. program was trying to make me forget. Thank you, Gabriel García Márquez.
If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be?
“The Torture Report: What the Documents Say About America’s Post-9/11 Torture Program,” by Larry Siems, head of PEN American Center’s Freedom to Write Program. But since the president probably already knows what’s in it, I’d suggest he read “The Complete Stories of Anton Chekhov.” Chekhov helps you imagine what it’s like to be someone else, a useful skill for a political leader.
Do you prefer a book that makes you laugh or makes you cry? One that teaches you something or one that distracts you?
Distract me. I cry enough. Though some books I love — Mrs. Gaskell’s “Life of Charlotte Brontë,” Kosztolanyi’s “Skylark” — are almost unbearably sad. Books make me laugh out loud so rarely I remember the ones that have: Hunter Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” Iris Owens’s “After Claude.” Geoff Dyer’s “Zona.” Here’s a funny bit from Jess Walter’s novel “Beautiful Ruins,” another book I have been telling friends to read: “The first impression one gets of Michael Deane is of a man constructed of wax, or perhaps prematurely embalmed. After all these years, it may be impossible to trace the sequence of facials, spa treatments, mud baths, cosmetic procedures, lifts and staples, collagen implants, outpatient touch-ups, tannings, Botox injections, cyst and growth removals, and stem-cell injections that have caused a 72-year-old man to have the face of a 9-year-old Filipino girl.”
What were your favorite books as a child? Is there one book you wish all children would read?
“Mary Poppins.”  “The Borrowers.” “The Martian Chronicles.” “Little Women.” The fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen. I was a very early reader with a child’s ability to slip back and forth between fantasy and reality — and an intermittent inability to tell the difference. I lived inside those books. Their characters were my friends, especially the melancholy exile Earthlings on Mars. I was always disappointed to find myself back in my room.
I wish all children (American or not) would read large-print versions of the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. James Marshall, William Steig and Maurice Sendak are gods of the picture book. Parents, check out Marshall’s “The Stupids” and Steig’s “The Amazing Bone.”
Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel as if you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?
I read 10 pages of Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road,” then put it down (forever) and went to see if there was anything good to eat. Whenever I admit I can’t read Trollope, some helpful person suggests the one Trollope novel I should try, and I always promise to try, even if I already have.

Read the full interview here.