1. To begin with why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself – where were you born? Raised? Schooled?
I had the most normal childhood imaginable – arguments but no divorces, sibling who hate/loved me, just enough money to think we could afford things we couldn’t afford – that sort of thing.
I grew up in New Jersey, but my mother was southern, from the little hamlet (or it was when she was a girl and I was growing up) of Lenoir City, Tennessee, and we and all our cousins and aunts and uncles congregated there every summer – it was heaven, and it deeply influenced my story-telling style.
It’s hard to quantify, but there is a kind of stem-winder quality to almost every verbal encounter south of the Mason Dixon line, not to mention a highly colorful way of describing the simplest things. I briefly went to college down there, too, but ended up at other places, Millersville University in the Pennsylvania Dutch Country, and finally the University of Chicago, where I learned just about everything I ever was going to learn.
2. What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?
At age 12: I don’t know what I wanted to be, but I know what I wanted to do: smoke cigarettes, buy my own clothes, and quit school.
At age 18: I wanted to be a singer/songwriter, poet, anthropologist, ballet dancer, and irresistible sexual object. None of it happened.
At age 30: I just wanted to finish graduate school so I could stride across campus in a robe with three Ph.D stripes on the sleeves, and then go on to be an absolutely brilliant person. None of that happened either.
And though there is truth to the above, the true-true is that I always wanted to be a writer. Actually, I always was a writer. I wrote my first “novel” at age 13. Handwritten and bound by needle and thread, it was about fifteen pages long. I still have it somewhere.
3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?
Wow, these are mean questions. Okay – I was a fervent socialist. Then I spent some time in a “socialist” country and came back a sort of capitalist. Lately, though, I’ve been thinking maybe I should reconsider. It’s not really socialism I want, of course – it’s justice and equity I’m after and I’m not seeing a lot of it in the world right now.
The thing about being eighteen is that you really believe you can change the world. Then you get a little hardened and decide the only thing you can change is yourself, which is fine, but kind of sad. Right now though, some of the movements like Black Lives Matter and the whole shift in attitudes toward LGBTQ life give me hope again. We can change the world after all! Which means: what’s in you at 18 is in you forever.
4. What were three works of art – book or painting or piece of music, etc – you can now say, had a great effect on you and influenced your own development as a writer?
It’s of course WAY more than three, but since I have to narrow it down for this terrifying exercise …
Rembrandt’s portrait of his son Titus, may be the most emotionally poignant painting for me, although Chaim Soutine’s Pastry Chef is a close second; for years I had a print of Titus over my desk – what it says to me is that you need to love your subject with your whole heart because that way the truth comes through, including all the sadness. It also reminds me how important skill is, learning your craft, using all the tools at your disposal. Rembrandt was a revolutionary artist in every sense, but without mastery, how could he have expressed it?
For or music I’m going to say Satie. I know, so trite: Satie. But he calms me, and at the same time brings to mind the whole of the French avant-garde from that most fertile time in the arts. It always brings me back to my earliest understanding of what it means to be an artist.
I don’t really have a literary guide – I have so many that no one comes to mind because I don’t write like any of the writers I really admire. There’s a bit of Ulysses in The Heart of Henry Quantum but none of the style or arcane allusion. There’s certainly some Cervantes in there. Maybe a little Jane Austen? You tell me.
5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?
As I said above, I’ve been writing stories since I was very young, so it just seemed the natural thing.
Here is what the book jacket says:
Henry Quantum has several thoughts going through his head at any given time, so it’s no surprise when he forgets something very important — a Christmas gift for his wife, Margaret, which he realises on the morning of December 23rd.
So Henry sets off in search of the perfect present for Margaret: a bottle of Chanel No. 5. But much like Henry’s ever-wandering mind, his quest takes him in different and unexpected directions, including running into the former love of his life, Daisy. Meanwhile, Margaret is questioning whether she and Henry belong together after all …
I think that sets up the plot pretty well – except to say it’s really funny, quite romantic, and a lovely Christmas story for grownups. What I’m really doing is taking a look at the choices we make in our search for happiness – which sometimes lead to trouble and sometimes to joy.
7. What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?
I hope they take away hope. Hope that things can work out. Hope that you can be yourself and still succeed in this world, even if you are a bit off. Hope that someone will love you for who you are. Hope that you can contemplate the deeper meaning of things and at the same time wander aimlessly through the back alleys of your brain and still find your way home.
To me, the world, the universe, is a magical place – awe-inspiring. Just the other day I read that there are two trillion galaxies in the universe. Two trillion! The size, the mass, the innumerable forms of life – beyond imagining – and yet here we are, blessed with capacity to do just that – imagine it! That is a very cool thing, and it makes me happy just thinking about it.
I admit that under another name, I have written much darker books. This one, though, is a love song to life.
8. Whom do you most admire in the realm of writing and why?
9. Many artists set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?
To be the world’s most overrated writer.
10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?
Do not write about yourself – your life is boring. But do steal from everyone else’s life, living, dead or otherwise. Just try not to get sued. And finally, have a little discipline – writing is a job and you can’t get paid if you don’t show up.
Thank you for playing, Pepper!
The Heart of Henry Quantum
A charming and quirky novel, perfect for fans of Graeme Simsion and Rachel Joyce.
Henry Quantum has several thoughts going through his head at any given time, so it’s no surprise when he forgets something very important — specifically, a Christmas gift for his wife, Margaret, which he realises on the morning of December 23rd. Henry sets off that day in search of the perfect present for Margaret: a bottle of Chanel No. 5.
But much like Henry’s ever-wandering mind, his quest takes him in different and unexpected directions, including running into the former love of his life, Daisy. Margaret, meanwhile, has begun her own affair, seeking an escape from...