Excerpts from the interview:
“I always knew I wanted to be a writer. I couldn't wait to grow up and know writers and hang out with writers. Now, with a few exceptions, I mostly hang out with musicians. They're just more fun, and much more generous, probably because they have to work together.
“Music and writing have always been interconnected for me. Even with my first book, A Fine and Private Place, I thought of passages of dialogue as being like pieces of music -- 'This is a woodwind quintet,' or 'Right here I'm going to have to bring up the brass' -- very consciously. Now I still do, but I'm more likely to think in terms of jazz: solos, riffs, improvisation or counterpoint. Sometimes I know I'm doing it, sometimes I don't.”
“I've thought often, in recent years, that the three major themes of my work are what seem to turn up all the time: music, cats, and old goddesses. In my most recent project, Summerlong, I got rid of the cats but one of the major characters is a retired history professor whose great ambition is to blow Delta blues on the harmonica, and the whole thing is a modern take on the legend of Persephone. By the same token, I think of it not as a quartet but a quintet (like a Schubert piece with an extra cellist).
“I got the idea for it while I was separated from my second wife and living for a year in Sacramento, in a little dump of an apartment that I loved dearly. One large room, bedroom, tiny kitchen, perfectly adequate bathroom -- that was it. I was thinking about two people I knew who had been an item for over 20 years but had never lived together, thinking, 'That's probably the only sort of relationship I could sustain.' And somehow, without writing about them in the least, I started writing about a couple (a flight attendant in her fifties and a retired history professor in his sixties) and a young woman they meet: a waitress in their favorite dive who looks (as the man says) 'as though she got to Woodstock a day too late.' There's something so haunting and charming about her, she winds up clearing out a garage on his property and fixing it up as a place to live.
“Very gradually, you come to realize that what they've got there in that garage is Persephone. There's a notion that every ten thousand years, Persephone (knowing that it's never worked out before) makes a break for it: 'What if I didn't go back to the Underworld?' You'd get perpetual spring wherever she was, for one thing, and eventually Hades would have to come looking for her. For some reason, he appears in the guise of a very elegant, likeable older gentleman named Mr. Mardikian -- I have no idea why he has an Armenian name! And to add to the mix, the flight attendant has a gay daughter (Lily), who falls in love with Persephone. Lily turned out to be a much more important character than I ever imagined.”
“The Innkeeper's Song, Giant Bones and Tamsin are the books I sometimes look at when I really need a shot, that particular little shiver that says 'Damn, I'm good!' (It's immediately followed by fear: 'How did I do that? I bet I couldn't do that today.')
“Last October, I was in Los Angeles, meeting with people who want to make a movie out of Tamsin. Two producers and a screenwriter and me -- by now, we're an act! -- and we've been doing pitch meetings with DreamWorks and Disney. Everybody seems to like the story, and I think sooner or later it will happen. Tamsin started out, weirdly enough, as a movie idea. I got a call from someone at Disney who asked me if I could come up with an original story for a future film. I actually worked out something original, in what I imagined was the Disney style. Sent it in -- never heard back. (That's how you tell they turned it down; they never actually tell you.) A few years later, looking around for something that might work as a book, I came on my notes for it. I made a lot of changes (since it wasn't Disney, I no longer needed the villain to have a comical sidekick), but if you saw the notes you'd recognize the book.”
“I'm currently working on a novel, the only baseball thing I've ever written, a fantasy set in Pittsburgh in the 1950s (which is when I was going to college there), back when it was still blue-collar and funky and smelly. I was 16, away from home for the first time, and I roomed in a place that had always rented to baseball players, within walking distance of the ballpark. It was a totally different world as far as sports pay and sports heroes went. There was no such thing as free agency -- players belonged to their clubs essentially for life. Nobody but a Joe DiMaggio or a Ted Williams could afford not to work in the off-season, so the Pirates’ ace relief pitcher, who’d command millions today, ran a bar across from the ballpark, and you would see the players on their way walking to work like anybody else.
“In my story, the widow who owns the place rents the room to a black man. She likes him, but there's something strange about him. He's a standout at any position, and when he swings and misses it's almost theater -- he doesn't have to miss. He turns out to be an angel who has walked away from Heaven. Political differences. There's a heavenly APB out for him.”