What books are on your night stand?
“Dickens and Prince: A Particular Kind of Genius,” by Nick Hornby. “Lincoln in the Bardo,” by George Saunders. “The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois,” by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers. “Giovanni’s Room,” by James Baldwin. “A Single Man,” by Christopher Isherwood. And always on my night stand, “The Book of Questions,” by Pablo Neruda. At the moment, I’m reading Truman Capote’s novella “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” He’s a gorgeous writer. And somewhere in the stack is George Eliot’s “Middlemarch,” which I keep meaning to read but never seem to get around to.
What’s the last great book you read?
I just reread “The Great Gatsby,” which I do every few years. There is something voluptuous, intoxicating in Fitzgerald’s prose which never fails to seduce me, to make me feel tipsy, which is great, because I gave up the booze years ago and I miss that feeling. Nabokov and Updike write that way too. I also recently reread Zadie Smith’s “White Teeth,” John Fowles’s “Daniel Martin,” Thomas Hardy’s “Tess of the D’Urbervilles.” As with a favorite song or film, great novels demand repeat play.
Are there any classic novels that you only recently read for the first time?
“Lady Chatterley’s Lover.” I found the … explicit … use of the word “crisis” interesting. Who doesn’t enjoy a good crisis? Some people even have multiple “crises.” I’ve heard that’s possible.
Can a great book be badly written? What other criteria can overcome bad prose?
I would say that a compelling voice that speaks truth is always powerful, even if the prose doesn’t measure up to what’s being said. The same could be true in painting, music, theater, film. I love a good potboiler.
Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).
When: Constantly. How: I switch back and forth between e-reader and audiobook. I love how cinematic an audiobook can become — a good narrator can bring characters to life in dramatic new dimension. Where: Everywhere. On the streets, in the kitchen, in the car, on a plane, by land or by sea, my books go with me. What: I love disappearing into a novel. It’s freedom, escape, from my own ruminations, yet stories, even sad ones, connect us to our humanness in ways that never cease to lift me.
What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of?
Yoko Ono’s “Grapefruit,” a collection of poems (a to-do list of fanciful prompts) which I found at a bookstore on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley in the late 1970s when I was in college. This small square of a book was instrumental in inspiring me to be an artist, as were those bookstores in Berkeley. I once met William S. Burroughs in one, when I queued up to get his autograph with nothing but a dollar bill for him to sign. He glanced up, amused, gave me a mischievous half-smile and said, “Ah, defacing U.S. currency,” and proceeded to sign it.
Which writers — novelists, playwrights, critics, journalists, poets — working today do you admire most?
Sarah Waters, Zadie Smith, Sally Rooney, Helen Fielding, Amanda Gorman, Donna Tartt, Tom Perrotta, Michael Cunningham, Ian McEwan and the journalist David Corn. His piece “It’s About Sex” was fantastic. I did a dramatic reading for my octogenarian parents, which delighted them.
You were a founding member of the Bangles in the 1980s, and your novel features a heroine who also had a hit pop song. Who writes especially well about the music industry?
Whenever I’m asked what it’s like being in a band, I say, “Watch ‘Spinal Tap.’” So, Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, Harry Shearer, Rob Reiner.
What book most influenced your decision to become a songwriter and musician or contributed to your artistic development?
Perhaps “Jane Eyre.” Something in the fierceness of the character’s convictions; despite being small, female, without resources, she perseveres. When I set out to write “This Bird Has Flown,” I kept returning to “Jane Eyre” and “Rebecca.” Love. Fate. Ghosts of relationships past.
Who are your favorite musician-writers?
Patti Smith. I loved “Just Kids,” and in “M Train” I discovered we share a love of detective and crime shows, as well as black coffee.
Your favorite memoir by a musician?
Keith Richards’s exuberant “Life.” Carly Simon’s memoir, “Boys in the Trees,” is beautiful and lyric. I also discovered the word “preprandial” in it and went on to include it in my novel.
What are the best books about music you’ve read?
“High Fidelity,” by Nick Hornby, “Swing Time,” by Zadie Smith, “Norwegian Wood,” by Haruki Murakami, “A Visit From the Goon Squad,” by Jennifer Egan, “The Wishbones,” by Tom Perrotta. Recently I’ve loved “Modern Lovers,” by Emma Straub, “Daisy Jones & the Six,” by Taylor Jenkins Reid, and “Mary Jane,” by Jessica Anya Blau. And I’m about to dive into Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Last Holiday: A Memoir.” I was privileged to watch his electrifyingperformance at a festival in Europe in 1986, which the Bangles played as well.
Has a book ever brought you closer to another person, or come between you?
Recently, in attempting to organize my library, I came across the hardback of “Sophie’s Choice,” by William Styron, and saw that I’d inscribed the book to my future husband, soon after we’d met on a blind date. We’re about to celebrate our 30th anniversary, in April. I wanted to share a book I was passionate about — and probably I wanted him to know he was headed into a love affair with the granddaughter of a rabbi.
What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently?
From Maggie O’Farrell’s gorgeously written “Hamnet,” I learned of the unlikely journey of plague-carrying fleas, and how barbaric it must have been to give birth — alone — in the woods.
How do you organize your books?
I attempt to alphabetize, but more often my books wind up in piles: current favorites, cherished classics, tattered paperbacks passed down from my mother. Sometimes I pick up a novel from the mess and open to a page at random. One great sentence can exhilarate me.
What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?
Historical fiction about the Elizabethan era and the French Revolution. Books on film. A couple rare copies of Avant Garde magazine, including one from 1970 entitled: “Wedded Bliss: A Portfolio of Erotic Lithographs,” by John Lennon. And I love crime novels. I’m drawn to darkness, things that scare me, perhaps from growing up in Los Angeles with its noir history. I’ve read Chandler and Ellroy, binged Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley books, and tore through Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy.
What’s the best book you’ve ever received as a gift?
A signed first edition of John Updike’s “Couples,” from my dear friend, the wonderful novelist Margaret Stohl, who knows I’m obsessed with it. It was a remaindered copy with a one-dollar price tag, which Updike had circled, in classic Updike style, inscribing the book to “a real bargain-hunter!”
How have your reading tastes changed over time?
They haven’t. Novels which profoundly affected me in my youth still do. I enjoy books about human relationships — sex, love, dysfunction, coping — with a healthy dollop of perversity. In my formative yearsI often read my parents’ paperbacks, like “Portnoy’s Complaint.” I have a fondness for misbehaving characters, and a soft spot for lonely hearts. I loved listening in on adult conversations. My father was a psychoanalyst and my mother, an artist. There were always a lot of actors and directors around — John Cassavetes, Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara and his wife, Janice Rule. Leonard and Sandi Nimoy had a great Hanukkah party every year, and I remember standing in the buffet line next to Vincent Price and Adam West. Talk about eavesdropping.
What author would you want to write your life story?
John Waters. He would be great with my dating life in the ’80s.
You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?
Charlotte Brontë. James Baldwin. Truman Capote.
Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel as if you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?
I honestly can’t. I only remember the good ones.
What books are you embarrassed not to have read yet?
I have not read Tolstoy. I need to read “Anna Karenina.”
What do you plan to read next?
Curtis Sittenfeld’s new book, “Romantic Comedy.” I loved “Prep.” And there’s always “Middlemarch,” of course.