Nicholson Baker: ‘I fear America has become a bloated roadkill cadaver’ | Life and style

Born in New York, Nicholson Baker, 63, published The Mezzanine, a novel detailing a lunch hour, in 1986. He has written 11 novels and won the 2001 National Book Critics Circle Award for Double Fold: Libraries And The Assault On Paper. Baseless: My Search For Secrets In The Ruins Of The Freedom Of Information Act has just been published. He is married with two children and lives in Maine.

When were you happiest?
When we had children at home. But recently I finished a book about old secrets that I’ve been working on for a long time, and when I was done, I felt a gigantic, joyful relief in having escaped from the corn maze of remembered facts in which I’d been wandering for so long.

What is your greatest fear?
That America has become a horrible, bloated, roadkill cadaver of a smear of a civilisation and not even its music or its sitcoms can save it.

What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
Inability to finish things, inability to reply to letters. Inability to be a part of the coruscating literary scene.

What is the trait you most deplore in others?
Meanness and pomposity. Lack of a truth-telling urge.

What was your most embarrassing moment?
I shat myself in kindergarten. Then lied and said the underpants in question were not mine.

What is your most treasured possession?
A copy of the New Yorker from July 1948 with a Nabokov story, Colette, in it.

What is your phone wallpaper?
One of my wife’s pieces of art, Bursting Heart.

Who would play you in the film of your life?
I’d play myself, and if I wasn’t available, I’d get Adam Driver.

What or who is the greatest love of your life?
My wife, Margaret Brentano, has led me toward every good thing I know.

If you could go back in time, where would you go?
I’d float back to New York City in the depression. Love those looming buildings, and the newsstands. EB White was writing.

What is your most unappealing habit?
Excessive apologising, meaningless self-deprecation.

What is your favourite smell?
Sunlit dog fur.

What makes you unhappy?
In movies, people endlessly say, “What are you wearing?” to signal that they’re keen to have a bit of phone sex. That’s my sentence. I began a book with that, and I never get the credit.

What do you most dislike about your appearance?
My beard and what’s left of my hair. Everything started to go white when I was about 30. Once I shaved off my beard and my kids cried and ran around in circles, so I grew it back.

What is your favourite word?
Infundibuliform comes to mind. Meaning funnel-shaped, but with fun in it.

What is the worst thing anyone’s said to you?
The only bad review that still hurts was of a novel. [The New York Times critic] Dwight Garner said that some music I’d written was mortifying and “room clearing”. I’ll never recover.

What is top of your bucket list?
To know how to paint dappled shade on a linen tablecloth.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?
In 1999, the British Library auctioned off some of its newspaper holdings. My wife and I formed a non-profit and saved more than 20 tons of these irreplaceable bound newspapers, including the last intact run of Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World.

What does love feel like?
It’s like all your emotions are apples and they get crushed all at once into cider.

If you could edit your past, what would you change?
I made too much money in my 30s, and it distorted my writing and made me less hungry. Then, in my 40s, I spent all the money on daily life – and now I don’t have it.

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