Small Talk: John Burnham Schwartz

John Burnham Schwartz was born in New York in 1965. His first novel, Bicycle Days, was published soon after he graduated in Japanese studies from Harvard University. Since then, he has written four further novels, as well as film and television screenplays. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and son.

Who is your perfect reader?

Somebody who can be in utter thrall to both the narrative and the music of the language.

What is the last thing you read that made you laugh out loud?

Mortality by Christopher Hitchens. On the surface, it’s not a funny book because it was written while he was dying, but you know Hitchens. He wrote: “My so far uncancerous throat, let me rush to assure my Christian correspondent above, is not at all the only organ with which I have blasphemed.” I don’t think I would have had the presence of mind or nerve to write that way in the face of death.

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

I was 12. Our teacher made us write an autobiography and I realised that I wasn’t very interesting. I began to make things up and that’s when I thought maybe I was a writer, or at least a fiction writer.

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

Alice Munro. She is the Chekhov of our time.

What are you scared of?

My son not living a long and healthy life.

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

Maybe Matt Damon. He is an everyman.

What is the best piece of advice a parent gave you?

When I was 24, heartbroken and working in Paris, my great aunt, who was 80 at the time, called me and said, “You just put one foot in front of the other.”

What book do you wish you had written?

The first section of The Crossing [1994] by Cormac McCarthy. It is something that has stayed with me for a long time and it is astonishing.

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

“Nighthawks” by Edward Hopper.

What novel would you give a child to introduce them to literature?

Danny, the Champion of the World by Roald Dahl, The Dark is Rising sequence by Susan Cooper and The Once and Future King by TH White.

What are you most proud of writing?

The Commoner [2008]. After failing to finish a previous book, I started writing this novel in the voice of a first-person fictional Japanese empress set over 70 years – when my name is Schwartz and I live in Brooklyn.

John Burnham Schwartz’s latest novel is ‘Northwest Corner’ (Corsair).

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