There’s something voyeuristically thrilling about knowing what other people’s reading habits are. The Reader is a brief interview inspired by the Proust Questionnaire, which was itself inspired by a 19th century party game. We ask readers, writers, publishers and book-lovers everywhere (including our own staff) to answer eleven questions about the books they love, what they have been reading and their literary habits.
Carl Shuker is the author of the Prize in Modern Letters winning The Method Actors (2005), The Lazy Boys (2006), Three Novellas for a Novel (2008), and most recently his Middle-East vampire novel, Anti Lebanon. He is the 2013 Writer in Residence at Victoria University’s International Institute of Modern Letters.
What are you currently reading and how did you discover the book?
Ahem, currently reading, in somewhat guilty pleasure, the slightly less than actually properly written World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War. Talking over the film with my very film-literate masters supervisee, I was saying how uncomfortable yet completely affectless and unaffecting the Israel sequence was: a Qalandia like checkpoint scene surrounded by massive walls holding out a horde of insane zombies. It should have been outrageously offensive, but it was dead on the screen. She mentioned how in the book each country’s more worrying tendencies are brought out and elaborated by the zombie plague and it sounded really interesting. I’m intrigued to see how, or if, Brooks handles all the wildly differing voices the project commits him to.
Who are your favourite writers and what do you love about them?
There are too many so I’ll choose a couple.
[David] Foster Wallace, I hope forever, for fun, for breadth of vision, for the way he bears down, finds gear after gear, and the way you finish an episode in IJ with a feeling like you only just pulled back from falling off a building’s edge. For the way in the mid-period fiction you remember the characters, not the performance of the author. But also for the way you can do both.
Cormac McCarthy I love for landscape and writing a wolf and I’ll simply point anyone to the episode in Blood Meridian where Glanton’s gang encounters a procession of mules carrying quicksilver to the mines up a tiny track alongside a precipice. His description of the explosions of blood and mercury when the gang shoulders them off the cliff is simply one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever read.
What books are on your bedside table?
John Le Carre’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and Smiley’s People; stories of Raymond Carver; Mary Reufle’s Madness Rack and Honey; Emily Perkins’ Novel About my Wife; Susan Sontag’s Aids and its Metaphors; Julio Cortazar’s Blow Up and other stories, particularly for “House Taken Over”; Martin Amis’ The Information, which eases insomnia (compliment and diss in equal parts—it’s rather too long), particularly for the brilliant extended (spoiler alert) “He can’t write for toffee/peanuts” bit about Gwynn Barry, the rubbish but insanely successful writer; Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree and Cities of the Plain (Chip Kidd cover version); Lebanon through Writers’ Eyes, being a curation of Lebanon pieces from the Bible to William Dalrymple; Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley Under Water; and a manuscript from a certain Canterbury academic turned to writing novels that is both nasty and funny and quite moving indeed.
What is your favourite book to film adaptation?
This is a really hard question. The best film that just happens to be made from a book? The best pair, i.e. so not necessarily the best film or the best book but the best of both? A film of a book should owe nothing to its source material but royalties. “Faithful” adaptations are for books with built-in audiences and commercial imperatives that demand fidelity to the original’s sequences and characterisations. I can’t go past The Thin Red Line, which is utterly unfaithful and utterly perfect.
What book have you re-read the most and why?
Infinite Jest, probably? First of all because you need to, to figure out its mysteries. Second of all, because it’s Infinite Jest. It gives and gives and gives and I was at just the right time and age when it first came into my life. Twenty-two with a terrible monotonous solitary job—working as the night man in a hospital laundry.
The St George’s Hospital laundry had four massive washing machines and four massive driers, as big as vans. A laundry is supposed to be a perpetual cleaning machine, and I was on the nightshift, alone. I still recall the sounds of the buzzers that ring at the end of a washing cycle – all of them, all going off, the usually cacophonous laundry otherwise silent, as I sat in a little pile of cigarette butts on the fire escape reading and reading Infinite Jest, simply unable to tear myself away from it to do my job. I had to falsify the wash records. My boss was Sayzed Hussein, not a great name to have in Christchurch shortly after the Gulf War. I also read Catch 22 there.
Who is your favourite literary character?
I read in a previous version of this questionnaire the writer Pip Adam put down Michael Pemulis here. And her doing that suddenly reminded me that this is quite possibly true for me, also. I was sort of stunned, because I’d never thought of him like that. Yet he sits there in my imagination at the end of that novel, his yachting cap jauntily askew (superfans, I know he’s not wearing it in the scene), saying, “And this affects the Whataburger, my chances?” and I realise I know what T-shirts he wears, zillions of his catchphrases I use all the time, often not internally, and I can’t imagine the world without him.
And, a bit darker, Bill Gray (what a name!) the “reclusive novelist” from Delillo’s MAO II.
What book have you always been meaning to read but still haven’t got around to?
There are a lot. Today my terrible guilt and nagging dissatisfaction at not having read Middlemarch vexes me.
Which three writers would you have over for supper?
Hmm – I’d want it to be fun. No embarrassing conversations where people say, “Yes, yes, but if existence precedes essence…” Or like that story about Joyce and Beckett sitting silently in a room together over cucumber sandwiches until Joyce says, “If Hume the idealist were to write a history, what sort of history would it be?” A long silence ensues, then Beckett, in a creaky monotone, “A history of representations,” and they subside into muddy quiet again.
At first I thought Truman Capote – I want to ask him about his supposed verbatim memory for conversation. Bret Easton Ellis and he would be fun to listen to. The bitching, the celebrity takedowns. But now I see I need Kingsley Amis (in his late forties) and JG Ballard. My God, think of it. The naughty stories. And a woman, for Kingsley to amuse and unsuccessfully seduce: my label mate, wife of my publisher, Jack Shoemaker: the fiery Jane Vandenburgh.
I’d just sit there.
What would you cook them?
Sushi seems appropriate. Kingsley would hate me. Roast shoulder of pork.
How are your books shelved and organised at home?
Since relocating all my stuff from London, they are only just shelved and not organised at all apart from – let’s call it “comfortabetical”. When we finally got some bookshelves we opened up all the boxes and just jammed them in based on the good feelings we got seeing beloved spines again. “Oh yes this! It must go beside this! This is what it feels like to be me again!” etc. And they’ve basically stayed that way.
What is your favourite literary quote?
It’s a little extract from Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, Quentin’s section, talking about his watch. I’ll give here the two bits. The first I continue to parse and tease and never tire of. The second, in isolation, can’t possibly convey what it did and does to me in context: devastating, the tiny act like a blow.
“The hands were extended, slightly off the horizontal at a faint angle, like a gull tilting into the wind. Holding all I used to be sorry about like the new moon holding water, niggers say.”
“I went to the dresser and took up the watch, with the face still down. I tapped the crystal on the corner of the dresser and caught the fragments of glass in my hand and put them into the ashtray and twisted the hands off and put them in the tray. The watch ticked on.”
To view an archive of previous interviews, follow this link.