As a lifelong writer of essays, creative nonfiction, fiction, lyrics, and poetry, and as a 25-year resident of San Francisco, I’m driven in this moment by two goals: to ground myself in timeless wisdom values amidst the disrupted world around me, and to connect with those trying to do the same.
Of course, this can take you some pretty absurd places. But I’ve always been a comic writer coming from a serious place; Gogol is on my nightstand, as well as Gary Shteyngart.
On my mental nightstand are the films of Fellini, Cabaret, and the screenplays of Billy Wilder. On my playlist are everything from Mahler to the Pet Shop Boys in their icier, more mitteleuropan moods. Music drives my process by allowing me to see the buried emotional landscape all around me obscured by the modern camouflage of information and distraction.
I call myself a militant sentimentalist. The best fiction is characterized by the author’s genuine affection for his or her characters in all their frailty and disgrace, and the willingness to test that affection. Nick Hornby gets under our skin by unearthing the real shockers for twenty-first century denizens — those untidily sentimental, soulful moments in life — but he’s able to do so because intellectually he doesn’t spare himself.
I’m a literary writer, but the best espionage and Cold War suspense writers (Philip Kerr, John le Carré) embody my gold standard. They’re able to examine the depths of human evil in a way that conveys life and people on the whole are something more than the evil they contain. It’s the mettle and individuality of their voice that transmits there are things worth fighting for, especially in the most chaotic of times.
If my writing ambitions were a city, they would be Berlin.