New Haven, Connecticut
Place of Birth
Clackamas High School, Clackamas, Oregon
Amherst College summa cum laude
Yale University, Ph.D. in American Studies
Most memorable or most influential class at Amherst
Writing my senior thesis in American Studies. I’d always worried that I was by nature a dilettante, so the experience of buckling down and completely a major year-long project had a transformative effect on my work habits, intellectual focus and self-confidence. I had a student job in the college archives, unbinding old senior theses, and I especially remember reading David Foster Wallace’s senior thesis, which became a chapter in his big debut novel around that same time. I loved being among all those striving young minds, past and present, trying to say something original.
Most memorable or most influential professor
I’ll split that title between my advisor Bob Gross, in American Studies, and Bill Pritchard, even then the old lion of the English department -- each a master in the art of using close reading to stir up big ideas. They caught my attention the first September I arrived on campus and became life-long mentors and friends.
I sometimes think of myself as a historian of human rationalizations: I'm fascinated by how people persuade themselves to think and believe what they think and believe. I write about the interplay between intimate experience and aggregate trends that have shaped American culture.
A surprisingly difficult question! Here’s the best answer I can muster: the book I have most often reread is The Great Gatsby, and I’ve been enchanted by it every single time.
An even more impossible question! Here’s another side-long answer: I'm addicted to the New Yorker magazine, and will read almost anything in its pages, from its debut on February 21, 1925, to the issue that just landed in my mailbox.
Tell us a bit about your path to becoming an author
As a kid, I read all the time, anything I could my hands on. If it does take 10,000 hours to fully master any skill, then I put in my 10,000 hours absorbing how essays, stories and books should sound: the rhythm of sentences, the pacing of turns-of-thought, and the unspoken expectations of genres. When it came time to find an occupation, writing was the thing I found easiest. So I took what seemed like the lazy path. By the time I realized how much work is actually involved in publishing a book, I found that I’d unfitted myself for any other career.
Tips for aspiring writers?
Cultivate the skill of creating suspense. No matter what genre you are working in, nothing is more effective at getting a reader to pay attention and turn the page than wondering what comes next.