a conversation with Nicholson Baker      
photograph of Nicholson Baker


Bold Type: What inspired you to begin writing?

Nicholson Baker: In fourth grade somebody gave me a pile of about twenty old science fiction paperbacks. I had been drawing interplanetary rockets while making the usual juicy space-travel sounds, and that was very pleasant, but those books of Hugo and Nebula Award stories really flung me out into the void in a new way—so for about two weeks I tried writing my own, although without much success. I was only interested in science fiction back then—in fact, I couldn't understand why any writer would bother with a story that was about real life and not about the future. Then I started writing again when I was twenty, after failing as a composer. Now I can't understand why any writer would want to imagine a future world when there's so much of this one crying out for Sunday watercolorists.

BT: What attracts you to the minutiae of life?

NB: What minutiae? I've lost my sense of scale. A notion's a notion, no matter how small. Of course I'm attracted by the grand themes—life, love, hope, loss, mercy, dread, dragon-slaying—who isn't?—but a grand theme gets you nowhere on its own. To talk about a boulder, it's sometimes best to describe the sparks of mica embedded in the granite.

BT: What writers do you most admire?

NB:I admire all kinds, depending on my craving—George Saintsbury, who was a nineteenth-century critic, H.L. Mencken, the letters of Edward Fitzgerald, the poetry of Swinburne and Robert Service and Rudyard Kipling (which I read aloud to myself in hotel rooms in a low growling voice when I can't sleep), the essays of Samuel Johnson—and fiction writers too, like, for instance, Donald Westlake. And of course I like people I've written about at some length—Nabokov and Updike. Updike's most recent book, Seek My Face, is fascinating. I want a fair amount of glee in a book—I like when I can tell that the writer is suppressing maniacal laughter.

BT: Some readers of A Box of Matches have commented on its hypnotic quality. Was this intentional?

NB:I wrote the book in the early morning, which is a time of day when you can stare at a random object for a long time, blinking every so often. If you don't turn on the lights, as I didn't, you stare inwardly. In general, when the writing is going well, I feel, if not exactly hypnotised, then at least held still by the thing I'm writing about. My subject is forcing my typing fingers to move in certain patterns. Reading is inherently a trifle hypnotic, too: Follow my words, keep your eyes on my words, that's it, back and forth, line by line, think with me, slow down to my speed—and when you're done, look up at what you have. That's what I was trying to do.

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    Photo credit: Jerry Bauer