"People keep telling me I ought to brand myself. I gather that's what authors do to sell books. But I've checked my poetic license, and it says I can practice anywhere. So that's what I've done. I've written Grammy-nominated liner notes, anthologized poetry and song lyrics. I've written a biography of Sam Cooke, produced documentary films and written essays on everything from the paintings of Richard Diebenkorn to what lies on the bottom of the Hudson River. My latest book, The Fight for Home: How (Parts of) New Orleans Came Back [Bloomsbury USA, August 7, 2012] comes from film director Jonathan Demme and I visiting and re-visiting New Orleans over the past half-decade to document the extraordinary stories of people trying to rebuild their city. It ends up being a larger story about how our nation is going to move forward, about courage and recovery, about bucking the odds--and the brands."
On your nightstand now:
I just finished Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway; I'm in the middle of Ben Yagoda's Will Rogers: A Biography; and I'm looking forward to Lucia Perillo's latest collection of poems, On the Spectrum of Possible Deaths. You see the through-line, right?
Favorite book when you were a child:
Curious George by Hans Augusto Rey and Margaret Rey.
Your top five authors:
Impossible. How about, "If you haven't read anything by these, you ought to: John Berger, William Bronk, George Herbert, C.R. James and Primo Levi." And that leaves out the women, from Zora Neale Hurston to Doris Lessing.
Book you've faked reading:
Well, I once read Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by Walker Evans and James Agee and loved it. But when I tried again to help with The Fight for Home... I was too old.
Book you're an evangelist for:
I press Fair, Clear, and Terrible by Shirley Nelson on people: an extraordinary tale of 19th-century American born-agains. And Praying for Sheetrock, Melissa Faye Green's story of backcountry Georgia. Which reminds me of Harry Crews's A Childhood, a searing and funny look at poverty.
Book you've bought for the cover:
Bo Diddley taught me you can't judge a book that way. But maybe you can for music? If so, Ohio Players' "Honey."
Book that changed your life:
Birds of North America: A Guide to Field Identification by Chandler S. Robbins, Bertel Bruun and Herbert S. Zim.
Favorite line from a book:
"From here on in I rag nobody." --from Bang the Drum Slowly by Mark Harris.
Book you most want to read again for the first time:
A year or so ago, I re-read Moby Dick by that Herman Melville guy and found it hilarious. Who knew? I'd like to see if it's still funny next decade.