Gregory Cowles of the NY Times Book Review was kind enough to throw me a few "Stray Questions" for the Times "Paper Cuts" blog. The questions aren't really stray -- everyone featured is asked the same three questions.
Here are my answers:
What are you working on now?
This week finds me in that transitory state between promoting the last book, “The Harvard Psychedelic Club,” and pitching the next. Writing books is a strange business. You spend a year or two in your pajamas in your basement hardly seeing a soul or saying a word. Then you find yourself flying around the country, appearing on TV shows, peddling your work at bookstores and talking, talking, talking. I’m ready to get back in my pajamas and crawl back down into my man cave.
Next week my literary agent and I have a meeting to talk about a new book I’ve proposed, a kind of prequel to the Harvard book. I’ve stumbled across some interesting new material about the psychedelic drug scene in the 1950s that could be woven into a compelling story.
Meanwhile, back in the real world, I finished writing two reviews for The San Francisco Chronicle’s Sunday Book Review — on “What Is God,” by Jacob Needleman, and “Jesus Freak,” by Sarah Miles. I’ve also started working on a freelance magazine article about promising research into beneficial uses for some newly developed psychedelic drugs.
Describe a typical day in your writing life.
My best writing (and thinking) happens in the early morning hours, which is a good thing because I often wake up at 4 or 5 a.m. I make some coffee, do my back exercises, then head down to the basement to write for the rest of the morning. I wrote my first two books while working for a daily newspaper, which was not easy. Four years ago, I took a buyout from The San Francisco Chronicle. It’s been tough for some of my colleagues, but it was a great opportunity for me. It still feels wonderfully luxurious to be able to focus on long-term projects and not worry about what I’ve got for tomorrow’s newspaper. Just having time to think is a luxury in today’s shallow, chaotic and argumentative media universe.
My afternoons are filled with reporting, reading, telephoning, researching and (mostly) just wandering around the house not doing all the other things I need to do. The highlight of the day is taking my dog to the park, playing Frisbee with her and riding my bike along the San Francisco Bay to my post office box, on the other side of town.
What have you been reading or recommending lately?
Aldous Huxley is a central character in the new book I’ve pitched, so I’ve been rereading his work. My long and somewhat strange trip began with Huxley, back in high school. It was the late 1960s. I was probably 15 or 16 when I read “Island,” Huxley’s final novel, about a cynical reporter shipwrecked on a mysterious Pacific island where the natives live in cosmic harmony with everything. He, of course, goes native. It’s the same storyline as “Avatar,” which I just saw in IMAX 3-D and found amazingly reminiscent of a few LSD trips I had back in the day. “Avatar” is a fun movie to watch, but it’s a dull and predictable story. “Island” doesn’t fare well either with the passage of time, but I have enjoyed rereading “Point/Counterpoint,” one of Huxley’s better novels.
I just finished Michael Parenti’s forthcoming diatribe on religious hypocrisy, “God and His Demons.” It was an assigned review, but I’m not looking forward to writing it. While I respect Parenti’s intellect and progressive politics, I found this book depressing, derivative and mean-spirited. On the other hand, I loved “What Is God,” by Jacob Needleman. He’s a longtime philosophy professor at San Francisco State University, and a fixture around here. To quote myself, this is “a powerful and deeply personal book about Needleman’s lifelong effort to connect with God using both his head and his heart … a rare book that manages to be both skeptical and inspiring.”