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Born in New York in 1954, Ken Kalfus worked as a journalist and essayist until he published his first book of short stories, Thirst (1998), aged 44. He is the author of three novels, The Commissariat of Enlightenment (2003), A Disorder Peculiar to the Country (2006), which was a finalist for the 2006 National Book Award, and Equilateral (2013). He lives in Philadelphia with his wife.
Which books are on your bedside table?
Dwelling in Possibility by Howard Mansfield, a book to be published next year called The Zhivago Affair by Peter Finn and Petra Couvée, and I’m rereading Swann’s Way by Proust.
Which book changed your life?
As a child I used to read lots of science fiction and I remember reading a series called Tom Swift. It was like the Hardy Boys but about a boy inventor who had adventures with the things he created. Those stories captivated me and made me want to be a scientist or a writer.
When did you know you were going to be a writer?
I knew I wasn’t going to be an astronomer because the maths was too damn hard. But I managed to use my love of astronomy in my new novel.
What is your daily writing routine?
I come up to my office every day when my wife goes to work and the first thing I do is crawl under my desk to unplug the modem. At lunchtime I reconnect and check emails. I don’t need a Zen environment to write but I do need to be disconnected from the internet.
What is the strangest thing you’ve done when researching a book?
I use my books as an excuse to travel. While researching my new novel Equilateral I went to Egypt and spent two weeks travelling from oasis to oasis and just looking at what the desert is like, and I spent one night sleeping out under the stars.
Which literary character most resembles you?
When I read a really great novel, I often feel that I resemble the central character. At the moment, reading Swann’s Way, I identify with Marcel, the young narrator. When I’m reading Updike I feel like Angstrom, or reading Roth I’m like Zuckerman.
Who are your literary influences?
I’m inspired by great writing and whatever I’m reading inspires me. It’s usually the stylists like Vladimir Nabokov and Italo Calvino. I don’t write like them but they make me want to be a writer.
Who would you choose to play you in a film about your life?
I guess it’d have to be Vin Diesel. What do we have in common? It’s the musculature!
What is the best piece of advice a parent gave you?
When I was a kid, after playing with friends, my mother would say “khop it up”, a Yiddish-English phrase which means something like enjoy it while it lasts or take it all in while you can.
What does it mean to be a writer?
A lot of rewriting. For me it’s about getting my unclear thoughts down on to paper and then clarifying them. As a writer, you really have to think a lot.
Ken Kalfus’s new novel is ‘Equilateral’ (Bloomsbury)
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