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The Science Fiction Writer John Scalzi Readily Quits Reading

The author, whose new novel is “The Last Emperox,” says, “Life is short and there are many other books.”

What books are on your nightstand?

I made a New Year’s resolution to spend more time reading than I do staring at Twitter, so as a result the turnover on the nightstand (including the books on my phone, which has a nightstand charging cradle) is pretty rapid right now. Currently there: “All This Could Be Yours,” by Jami Attenberg; “Docile,” by K. M. Szpara; “Spin,” by Robert Charles Wilson (reread); and, on the phone, “Wolf Hall,” by Hilary Mantel (I’m sooo late); “Uncommon Type,” by Tom Hanks; and the upcoming “The End of Everything (Astrophysically Speaking),” by Katie Mack, which I’m reading in PDF galley form because the end of the universe is professionally relevant to me.

What’s the last great book you read?

In terms of books already generally acknowledged as “great,” that would be “The Face of Battle,” by John Keegan, which was one of the first serious books of military history to take on the history of battle from a grunt’s-eye view of things. The book was incredibly useful when I wrote “Old Man’s War,” and I come back to it whenever I start researching for a military-oriented work. I’m very bad at guessing which contemporary works will be seen as “great books,” and often I am deeply surprised which ones get the label over time.

Are there any classic novels that you only recently read for the first time?

I bounced hard off Jane Austen growing up, but so many friends are so deeply in love with her writing — and I have enjoyed her filmed adaptations enough — that I thought I’d give her another try. So I picked up “Pride and Prejudice,” and soon enough set it back down again. The problem is not her, it’s me: The rhythms of writing and speaking and even just how commas are used have changed enough that for me reading most pre-20th-century work feels like sitting on a lurching train, getting knocked about. She’s a great writer, without doubt, and also, not for me. I love her films, though (and much prefer the 2005 film of “Pride and Prejudice” over the 1995 BBC mini-series, which is heresy).

Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).

In my office, on my chaise longue, with one of my cats on me, on a spring or fall day where the temperature is nice enough to have the windows open, and there is a nice breeze (and also I’ve taken my Claritin for the day; I live in rural Ohio and we have all of the pollen). But honestly I can read just about anywhere, and have, and will again, just watch me.

What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of?

In science fiction: “Raising the Stones,” by Sheri S. Tepper, a quasi-sequel to her novel “Grass” (also exceptional, with “Dune”-level worldbuilding), which has very interesting things to say about masculinity and society, and is very sadly out of print. “Grass,” however, is in print. Get it.

What book should everybody read before the age of 21?

There is no single book everyone should read before age 21; there is, I suspect, the one right book for each person which, if they read it at a young age, makes them fall in love with reading for life. I endorse doing what we can to find that one book for each person, rather than stuffing the same book down everyone’s throat. With books, one size does not fit all.

What book should nobody read until the age of 40?

I mean, I grew up in a house where the rule for books was “if you can reach it, you can read it,” and used that same rule for my kid, so, meh, there’s not one? There are books you bounce off of at 15 that speak to you at 40, and vice versa. The only way you’re going to find them is to try them. I’m not in love with segregating out books by age. Let books speak to readers.

Which writers — novelists, playwrights, critics, journalists, poets — working today do you admire most?

Today? N. K. Jemisin (novelist), Alexandra Petri (journalist), Daniel Lavery (memoirist), Pamela Ribon (screenwriter/novelist), Roxane Gay (essayist/editor). Ask me again in a year. There are so many writers to admire, for their work and for who they are in the world.

Sci-fi writers are often writing about the present even when their books are set in the future. Who do you think gets the present (or the future!) particularly right?

Oy. Well, William Gibson seems to be doing a depressingly good job of calling out where the world is and is going; Charlie Stross gets the future of today so right that sometimes he has to rewrite his work-in-production because current events overtake his fiction; Mira Grant’s “Newsflesh” trilogy seems to be on point right about now, too, in terms of the politics and culture of this exact moment.

What do you read when you’re working on a book? And what kind of reading do you avoid while writing?

When I write fiction, I read nonfiction and generally avoid other fiction, for the simple reason that my brain will attempt to absorb the voice of the author and then output it through my typing fingers. This is not great for anyone. Several years ago I read a book of China Miévelle’s and then sat down to write a new chapter; what came out was dreadful, and not the good sort of dreadful that Mr. Miévelle is so adept at. I had to write about 3,000 words just to get back to me.

Do you count any books as guilty pleasures?

No. If they’re not hurting anyone, why feel guilty about one’s pleasures? Why condescend to your own desires and belittle yourself that way? I write in a genre that for decades people felt like they had to make excuses for reading — who benefits from that? Read what you like; like what you read. If someone tries to give you crap for it, it’s their problem, not yours.

Any comfort reads?

I reread James Clavell’s “Shogun” a lot when I travel; I tend to think of it as epic fantasy as I am unsure of its historical and cultural accuracy. Speaking of epic fantasy, Katherine Addison’s “The Goblin Emperor” is always a joy to reread; I leaned on it a lot when creating my own unready imperial ruler for the Interdependency series, the last book of which is out very soon now. And I always have at least one Susan Orlean book on my phone for when I’m stuck in the airport and in the mood for nonfiction; the current one I have at the ready is “The Library Book.” She writes books that are comforting and fascinating at the same time. That’s a good skill to have.

Has a book ever brought you closer to another person, or come between you?

When I was younger I would give Mark Helprin’s “Winter’s Tale” to people I wanted to be better friends with (and/or I had a crush on); it’s a book so lovely on a sentence level that it took me six reads to focus on the story. I’m still friends with most of the people I gave the book to, and married one of them, so … thank you, Mr. Helprin?

What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently?

That Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was the original “nice guy” (used in the internet sense of the phrase, which means emphatically not), falling in love with women who weren’t interested in him, then turning into a creepy abusive jerk when rebuffed. (See: “Great Philosophers Who Failed at Love,” by Andrew Shaffer.)

Which books got you hooked on speculative fiction? Are there any science fiction books you would elevate to the canon?

As a kid the three authors who served as my entryway to the genre were Madeleine L’Engle (“A Wrinkle in Time”), Susan Cooper (“The Dark Is Rising”) and Robert A. Heinlein (“Citizen of the Galaxy”), who were writing books aimed at younger readers. Authors writing for younger readers, and the books that captivate those readers, often get dismissed as being part of the science fiction “canon,” which I find problematic for all sorts of reasons (the “canon” of speculative fiction is itself currently in for massive revision). If I were nominating for canon, I’d look at Y.A.: J. K. Rowling (Harry Potter), Suzanne Collins (Hunger Games) and Scott Westerfeld (Uglies) are obvious candidates from the last couple of decades. Mind you, my vote won’t count; the future of the specific canon will be decided by people younger than me.

Do you distinguish between “commercial” and “literary” fiction? Where’s that line, for you?

There’s no line between commercial and literary fiction; it’s a Venn diagram with considerable overlap. The best approximation I can make for “literary” fiction is simply fiction written (intentionally or not) for other writers, who will be paying attention to fiddly nuances other readers might not care about. But you can do that and still be massively commercial (and likewise intentionally write for a wide audience and still sell nothing). Ultimately no one knows anything and some books hit and no one can tell you why. Luck matters more than we like to admit.

How do you organize your books?


What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?

I would be surprised that anyone would be surprised at any book I have on my shelf. I read widely and also publicly and frequently endorse reading as many different things as one can, so it shouldn’t be surprising to find lots of different books in my home. Maybe people might look at me askance for “Atlas Shrugged,” since I’ve written about how Ayn Rand valorizes a genocidal sociopath in John Galt, and I think it’s a really bad sign when ostensible adults take her “philosophy” seriously (and even worse when they’re elected to office). But I’ll tell you what, Rand could make a pot boil; there’s a reason her brand of nonsense sells.

What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?

Voracious. Would, could and did read anything I could get my hands on, which set the tone for the rest of my life. Aside from previously mentioned writers and books, probably the most important book for me growing up was “The People’s Almanac,” by David Wallechinsky and Irving Wallace, which I consumed when I was 6 and sparked a love of knowing a little about a lot of things. Learning how to find out more came later.

If you were to write something besides speculative fiction, what would you write?

When I sat down to write my first novel, I couldn’t decide between writing a science fiction novel and writing a crime/mystery novel, à la Gregory Mcdonald (“Fletch”) and Carl Hiaasen. So I flipped a coin, and it came up heads, which was the side I chose for science fiction. I frequently wonder what my life would be like now if it had landed on tails. The good news (for me, anyway) is that I like my life and the people in it. And anyway, I write science fiction crime novels now — my Lock In series — so I get to have my literary cake and eat it too.

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?

When I was a teenager, friends swore I would identify with Holden Caulfield, so I read “The Catcher in the Rye” and was furious my so-called “friends” thought I had anything in common with that entitled jerk. And I absolutely remember the last book I put down without finishing; it was last week. I frequently put down books I’m not enjoying. Life is short and there are many other books. I don’t publicly say which books they are; that’s rude and someone else may love that same book.

You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?

See above, regarding the writers I admire. With that said, I am sorely sad I did not meet and converse with Molly Ivins, Roger Ebert and Nora Ephron when they were alive. I imagine a dinner party with all three at their respective heights would be delightful in every sense of the word.

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