What book had the greatest impact on you? What book made you want to write?

Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking-Glass,” which my grandmother gave me when I was 9 years old and very impressionable. These were surely the books that inspired me to write, and Alice is the protagonist with whom I’ve most identified over the years. Her motto is, like my own, “Curiouser and curiouser!”

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

Our great American tragic-epic, Melville’s “Moby-Dick.” This truly contains multitudes of meanings: the Pequod is the ship of state, the radiantly mad Captain Ahab a dangerous “leader,” the ethnically diverse crew our American citizenry. And to balance this all-male adventure, “The Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson.”

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?

I was trained to consider “disappointment” of this sort a character flaw of my own, a failure to comprehend, to appreciate what others have clearly appreciated. My first attempt at reading, for instance, D.H. Lawrence was a disappointment — I wasn’t old enough, or mature enough, quite yet; now, Lawrence is one of my favorite writers, whom I’ve taught in my university courses many times. Another initial disappointment was Walt Whitman, whom I’d also read too young (I know, it’s unbelievable, how could anyone admit to have been “disappointed” in Walt Whitman? Please don’t send contemptuous e-mails).

Read the full interview in the New York Times Book Review.


  1. She’s just lovely. I would love to sit down with her and discuss books because not only is her writing wonderful, she’s a reader. She’s so educated about books and writing. I consider her a writing scientist, not just a writer – she studies books.


  2. I learned to love reading with Carolyn Keene’s Nancy Drew Series. The original. Stayed up all night with a flashlight to read them as a child. Walked to the library to check them out. My repetoire expanded to include classic authors like Austen, Wharton, Buck, Hemingway – and modern legends – none moreso that JCO!


  3. Randy, I found it interesting that you exercised your editorial prerogatives and began your excerpt in the middle of the interview,. A judicious decision–had you let your excerpt start in the tedious way the NY Times interview did, I (and probably many others) might never have clicked on the link to read it in its entirety.

    And could there be a lamer, more generic and less imaginative set of questions? Evidently the interviewer, knowing he/she would be shielded by anonymity, didn’t bother trying to think of even a single question that might pique the interest of Joyce or the readers of the NY Times.

    And did you notice that by the last few questions Joyce had become subtly contemptuous of her interviewer, garnishing her answers with sarcasm and sauciness?

    One question for you specifically, Randy. Do you know how this interview was conducted? Was it a telephone interview or done in written form–an email exchange, etc? It’s not idle curiosity–I have several good reasons for asking.


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