The Books of My Numberless Dreams

The possibilities

Posted on: February 2, 2007



You mentioned reading Moby-Dick. Do you do much rereading?




I often reread Victory, which is maybe my favorite book in the world.




Conrad? Really? Why?




The story is told thirdhand. It’s not a story the narrator even heard from someone who experienced it. The narrator seems to have heard it from people he runs into around the Malacca Strait. So there’s this fantastic distancing of the narrative, except that when you’re in the middle of it, it remains very immediate. It’s incredibly skillful. I have never started a novel–I mean except the first, when I was starting a novel just to start a novel–I’ve never written one without rereading Victory. It opens up the possibilities of a novel. It makes it seem worth doing. In the same way, John and I always prepared for writing a movie by watching The Third Man. It’s perfectly told.




Conrad was also a huge inspiration for Naipaul, whose work you admire. What drew you to Naipaul?




I read the nonfiction first. But the novel that really attracted me–and I still read the beginning of it now and then–is Guerillas. It has that bauxite factory in the opening pages, which just gives you the whole feel of that part of the world. That was a thrilling book to me. The nonfiction had the same effect on me as reading Elizabeth Hardwick–you get the sense that it’s possible simply to go through life noticing things and writing them down and that this is OK, it’s worth doing. That the seemingly insignificant things that most of us spend our days noticing are really significant, have meaning, and tell us something. Naipaul is a great person to read before you have to do a piece. And Edmund Wilson, his essays for The American Earthquake. They have that everyday-traveler-in-the-world aspect, which is the opposite of an authoritative tone.


From “The Art of Fiction” interview with Joan Didion, Paris Review, Spring 2006


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