What inspired you to write this incredible novel?
Some family history—my mother’s family were Cornish miners—but mostly the image of a woman stepping off a train and disappearing. I’d been doing historical research for a documentary on Butte, and my head was stuck in the turn of the century—the edge of the modern world, and so much of it was about to literally explode. It was a great age for reinvention, and I’ve always been annoyed by our sometimes patronizing attitude to the past, the notion that people were as bland as most obituaries. I wanted humor, and frankness, and realism in lust and romance; I wanted to have fun with my plot, and I wanted to handle the past without nostalgia, and without distance.
What are you reading right now?
I just finished George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo—which is so oddly and beautifully joyful—and I’ve started The Songs, by Charles Elton, whose last book, Mr. Toppit, I really loved.
What’s the one book that you recommend to people, over and over?
The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, by Michael Ondaatje. One hundred inspired, singing, surreal pages.
Who are some of your writer mentors? Do you find that’s changed over time as you evolve as a writer or do they remain the same?
I wrote my thesis on Peter Matthiessen, and knew him quite well; he’s still in the back of my head, telling me to aim (considerably) higher. And maybe different books call for different inspiration, though I’ve never tried to break down another writer’s prose or plot. When I was writing mysteries it would have been the odd combination of Dorothy Sayers and the Swedish writing team of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö: humor, clarity, a lack of melodrama, plots that rang true. And I read several of Kate Atkinson’s novels during a pause in writing The Widow Nash, and marveled at the dialogue and all the spinning plates.
What is your most prized book possession? A first edition? A gift? Please describe.
I don’t know why, but I’ve never really thought that way. Maybe a battered children’s book (King Arthur illustrated by Gustaf Tenggren, very much not Little Golden Books/Disney style), or my great-great grandfather’s notebooks, which I used in The Widow Nash. After my father’s death last year, I guess it’s become his old New Directions paperback of Lorca’s Selected Poems, which is held together by duct tape.