In one way, The Burning House is a book about a protecting a community. Lumina, the community in your book, is just a few feet above sea level. Could you say something about water in your work?
I grew up on a lagoon, off a bay. It wasn’t our family’s usual, practical house, which was an hour inland, but it was the house that mattered to us. I knew early on that it could have been swept away by a storm in a minute. Did that make me love it that much more? It shaped me hugely to live right alongside marshes, black pines, seabirds, salt water. This sounds weird, I know, but I feel more than a little out of sorts whenever I’m too far from a marsh. That sense of landscape in constant flux–covered by water, emptied of water–is crucial to how I think of home.
Midcentury-modern architecture plays a role in The Burning House. How is it important to the book?
The houses in the novel spin off my childhood house, which had something in common with the Eichler houses in the Bay Area. Our house was filled with Finn Juhl and Ib Kofod-Larsen, the midcentury modern furniture my brother started collecting in his teenage years. That aesthetic has become institutionalized all over again, but I remember a time, not so long ago, when that world was terrifically out of fashion. I originally came to know it through that lens. I felt protective of it back when I was a kid: the optimism and restraint, the clean lines, the intelligence and charm of it. On a gut level, I always think about wanting to reproduce that sensibility in language.
You’ve written two books with gay narrator/speakers. In The Burning House, you write from the point of view of straight man. Was that a challenge?
I know if I’d written Isidore, the narrator, as a gay man, the story would have been read sociologically–in other words, the Turbulence of Modern Gay Life. It was a relief to leave the known landscape of my writing–for just this book–and to write about a set of characters who were a little less familiar to me. Plus, it was energizing to play a guy who’s so much in his body, so much about his body, even if that body sometimes defeats him. He’s sexy. Can a writer be attracted to one of his characters? Well, I’m guilty of that.
Your style seems to change from book to book. Could you talk a little about being a shapeshifter?
The surface of each book is different, sure. One is brighter than the others, one’s pretty dark, others are somewhere in between. By surface I’m talking about tone, imagery, atmosphere. The clauses are longer than usual in Famous Builder; I tried to push past my usual inclination to close down the sentence in that book. On the other hand, Unbuilt Projects is fairly experimental–or I should say experimental within the realm of my work. It makes use of gap and leap and tonal shift. But I think all the books are hooked together by a set of metaphors. An interest in building, an interest in finding home and leaving home. I’m fascinated by identity–the tension between self-definition and the categorizations projected onto us. Animals, trees, water–they’re in there too. I don’t think I could even write a book without those three things.
Jersey Shore, the reality show, takes place just across just the real bay from the location of your novel. What do you have to say about that?
I began the book before Jersey Shore was even an idea in some MTV person’s head. The Lumina of the book just happens to be an imaginary place, across Barnegat Bay from the cast house. The longer I lived with the book, the less sociological it became. In other words, I wanted the reader to be thinking about desire and the trouble it can get us into, rather than Life in New Jersey. The TV show really doesn’t have much to do with New Jersey, anyway. Those characters have a lot of swagger–they’re from New York. People from New Jersey are more likely to have a kind of aw-shucksism. We’re really self-conscious about coming from the maligned state.
So would Snooki and The Situation feel at home in Lumina?
Why all the animal tweets?
I don’t know enough about animals, and, like most people, I do not know enough about them. Every time I come into contact with an animal I feel more awake. I’m especially taken with stories of animals out of place, animals in suburban backyards, as devastating as they are. A deer in a swimming pool, an alligator in a retention basin, a bear at the foot of the George Washington Bridge. So you’re seeing my education. If you want to come along with me, that’s great.
Tell us about your interest in music.
I’ve wanted to be Joni Mitchell all my life. Well, I don’t want to be her, but I want to do what her open tunings do. She cracked open the guitar with those oddball harmonic structures, and I’ve been trying to find a way to do that in my writing.
What are you working on now?
For the past six months I’ve gone back to the short form. I’ve always thought of myself as a first-person writer, but these new pieces want to be in a more distant third. They’re in the form of parables, myths, fables. They’re funnier, I think, maybe more alarming than anything I’ve written in a while. I suppose I’m putting a book together, but I don’t want to be obsessed with finishing another project right now. I also just finished an essay about Flannery O’Connor for an anthology, finished a second about Joy Williams.
Your favorite writers?
The list changes every six months, but in addition to the two I just mentioned, my constants are Virginia Woolf, Denis Johnson, Don DeLillo, Mary Gaitskill, Elizabeth McCracken, Kathryn Davis, Nick Flynn, Salvatore Scibona, Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, Diane Williams, Lydia Davis, Marie Howe, Lorrie Moore, Jayne Anne Phillips, Bernard Cooper, Mark Doty.