Small Talk: Jonathan Dee

Born in New York City in 1962, Jonathan Dee is the author of six novels, including The Privileges (2010), which was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. A contributing writer at The New York Times Magazine and a former senior editor at The Paris Review, Dee also teaches creative writing at Columbia University. He lives in New York with his wife and daughter.

Who is your perfect reader?

My late writing teacher John Hersey, who was very formative in my wanting to be a writer and who I still dream of pleasing.

Who are your literary influences?

John Dos Passos, Raymond Carver, Flaubert and William Maxwell were all very influential when I first started writing. Now, the writers I’m most interested in are the writers who are most unlike me, for example Denis Johnson.

Can you remember the first book you read?

I remember the short story “So Much Unfairness of Things” by CDB Bryan, which I read in sixth grade. This was my introduction to the idea of ambiguity as a pleasure in fiction rather than a mistake.

Which book changed your life?

Anna Karenina. I read it in college. I was so engrossed that I couldn’t stop reading it and neglected all my other studies. I would go to the library even on nice warm weekends and just lock myself up. I think that was the first time that I felt transformed by a book.

When did you know you were going to be a writer?

When I was nine or 10. When I read a book I liked, I would get a pen and one of my father’s legal pads and rewrite it from memory as if I had thought of it myself. It was a clear sign that I wanted to be involved in writing, even if it was just pretend at that point.

Who would you choose to play you in a film about your life?

Kenneth Branagh. There was a time in my life when people would tell me constantly that I look like him. I could do a lot worse than that.

Do you remember when you last cried?

When I had to tell my then four-year-old daughter that our dog had died. You never want to have to give your child bad news of any kind. When I had to tell my daughter about death like that, it really got to me.

Who would you most like to sit next to at a dinner party?

Flaubert, even though he’d probably be rude and sarcastic. I’d enjoy seeing his mind at work, especially in a social situation.

If you could own any painting, what would it be?

“Rokeby Venus” by Velázquez.

Which book do you wish you’d written?

A Sport and a Pastime by James Salter. A great literary novel but also the most erotic book ever written.

What does it mean to be a writer?

It means being engaged in a counter-narrative to so much else that dominates mass culture. It means doing something solitary rather than collaborative; something private rather than crowd-sourced.

Jonathan Dee’s latest novel is ‘A Thousand Pardons’ (Corsair)

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