What has been your favorite or most unusual experience at a reading or a literary festival?
The most unusual would be the 2011 Rome Science Festival, the theme of which—I hadn't known until I arrived and a translator explained—was "The End of the World: A User's Guide." After that, I wondered, what's left to write about? I appeared on a panel with three I-told-you-so-type authors, each who seemed smugly pleased to greet the Apocalypse. All were disappointed, even disapproving, when I explained that while, yes, I'd written a book called The World Without Us, my motive was really because actually I want one with us. Moreover, I believed—and still do—that it's possible. Otherwise, I said, why bother writing at all? Writing's hard. Why not just drink? Passing by the bar later, and then still later, I noticed that they'd all apparently taken my last remark to heart.
If someone loves your latest book, what would you recommend they read next?
People who love my latest book, Countdown, generally ascribe to it adjectives like powerful, vivid, provocative (finally, thank God, some add: hopeful). All deeply appreciated, but after the high dose of reality I dredged up in 21 countries, I recommend they next read what I did when I finished writing it: fiction. Or poetry. In these crucial times, faced with potential destruction by our own heavy hand, it's absolutely indispensable to remind ourselves how beautiful, and beautifully creative, our species can be—and to realize, as with the rest of nature, that we're worth saving, too.
What books might we be surprised to find on your bookshelf?
Again, all the fiction. People, I've learned, will read any hard truth as long as you can weave it into a good story, so as a non-fiction writer I read novels and short stories constantly, to absorb their narrative vitamins. Growing up in Minnesota, I read every word F. Scott Fitzgerald ever wrote, and my prose is better for it. This past year I've read George Eliot, Adam Johnson, Howard Norman, Penelope Lively, Herman Wouk, Chad Harbach, Bruno Schulz, and Tom Perrotta. Louise Erdrich is next in the queue.
What are you most looking forward to in coming to this year’s Vancouver Writers Fest?
Too many fine writers are appearing to single out, so I'll just mention an obligatory Vancouver pilgrimage I hope to make: a long bike ride through Stanley Park—and, with luck, timing it right for wine and Pacific sockeye at the lovely Fish House.