This Saturday is Small Business Saturday, and we have the good fortune of having local writer Tom Nissley, author of A Reader’s Book of Days
champion) as our guest bookseller. We started the conversation with him here, but if you come by the store on Saturday between 2 and 4pm, you can pick it up yourself where we left off. He’ll be gracing the store with his amiable presence and all kinds of literary recommendations. Don’t miss it!
Island Books: A Reader’s Book of Days is essentially a literary calendar and merges two worlds: the history of great writers as well as fictional characters. Are there particular authors who used detailed dates in their novels, and do you think they based their fictional dates around events in their own life?
Tom: I had never really paid attention to how novelists used dates before, but once I started working on this book I suddenly started to care about that very much! Some of my favorite novelists (Marilynne Robinson, Franz Kafka, Virginia Woolf) rarely tell you what day it is in their stories—and you wouldn’t really want them to. But some novelists are maestros of the date, and use them to great effect. Nabokov has dates all over his books—Lolita was born on January 1, for instance—and so do Zadie Smith, David Foster Wallace, and H.P. Lovecraft. I think part of what makes the Sherlock Holmes stories so effective are all the specific details: the London street names, the kinds of cabs Holmes and Watson take, and the exact dates when, say, the five orange pips arrive (January 4) and the Red-Headed League is disbanded (October 9, 1890).
As far as tying stories to their own lives, the classic example is James Joyce, who chose June 16, 1904, for Bloomsday, the day Ulysses is set, because it was the day he went on his first outing with his future wife Nora Barnacle. But I loved discovering some other connections between authors and their books, like the way Toni Morrison used her birthday for the opening scene in Song of Solomon and Maurice Sendak hid his in the background of In the Night Kitchen. And of course Harry Potter shares his birthday, July 31, with his creator, J.K. Rowling.
Island Books: When is your birthday and what noteworthy events happened on that day? Was that the most interesting day for you to research? If not, what day was?
Tom: I’ve always been disappointed that my birthday, June 24, has never been much of a day for famous birthdays or events, so I was particularly happy when I read back over Annie Proulx’s story, Brokeback Mountain, and saw that perhaps the central moment in the story, when Jack and Ennis see each other again after four years and are drawn together so violently Jack’s teeth draw blood from Ennis’s mouth, takes place on June 24. And I was even more pleased when I went through the story and did the math and realized that it had in fact taken place on June 24, 1967, my exact birthday.
In general, I ended up being more interested in the stories I found to tell—no matter what date they fell on—than the dates, but one thing I did like doing was taking some of the most iconic dates in our history and coming at them from a way you might not expect. November 22, 1963—whose fiftieth anniversary we’re celebrating this month—was not only the day Kennedy died, but C.S. Lewis and Aldous Huxley too. There’s a story in the book of Huxley’s wife wanting to give him a last shot of LSD to ease his way into the afterlife (in keeping with his long interest in psychedelic experimentation) and wondering why the doctor and nurses in their house were watching the TV instead of their patient. And September 11, 2001, was also the day that Calvin Trillin’s wife Alice died in another part of Manhattan, and the day his fellow New Yorker writer Ian Frazier came to the end of the cross-continent trip he describes in Travels in Siberia and found out what had happened at home when he called his wife at home in New Jersey.
Island Books: Have you become superstitious about certain dates after researching the book?
Tom: I’m not too superstitious to begin with, but I think if anything writing this book has made me less so: I realize that wonderful and terrible and just flat out weird things can happen in writer’s lives on pretty much every day.
Island Books: Tell us about your PhD in literature. What did you write your thesis on?
Tom: Do you really want to know? My dissertation did get published as a book about ten years ago, but as far as I know the chair of my PhD committee and my mother-in-law are the only people who have read the whole thing. It’s called Intimate and Authentic Economies: The Self-Made Man from Douglass to Chaplin, and even at the time I couldn’t have summarized it very well for you. But I did make sure that most of the writers I wrote about for it—Frederick Douglass, William Wells Brown (the author of another well-known slave narrative), Benjamin Franklin, Horatio Alger, Nathanael West, James Weldon Johnson—made it into A Reader’s Book of Days too. (I especially like the Alger story, about the first biography of him, which was written as a joke and a hoax—making up all kinds of things about his life—but was taken as fact for decades.) The last chapter of my dissertation was on silent movies—I didn’t have a chance to include any of those in this book, but I’m writing a novel on that fascinating subject…
Island Books: Your love of trivia radiates from RBOD. Did you begin thinking about this book before or after you became a Jeopardy! champion? How much would you say your Jeopardy! experience influenced the book?
Tom: I was thinking about writing a book like this before Jeopardy!, although I didn’t come up with the format until afterwards. But I have always loved a certain kind of book—a book that looks like a reference book, but is really an idiosyncratic book of stories rather than an organized book of facts. The Book of Lists, one of my favorite books as a kid, was like that, and I had a couple of others in mind as I wrote this one: David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary of Film and Bill James’s Historical Baseball Abstract. Neither of them would be the first place you go if you just wanted to look up a fact, but if you wanted to get caught up in browsing and learn a hundred things you didn’t even know you didn’t know, they are perfect.
I’m not sure if my Jeopardy! experience affected the book itself very much, but it did make me a little more confident that people might read it.
Island Books: What are your three favorite books and why?
Tom: I have lots of different kinds of favorites, but for the last few years there are three books that I’ve thought of as the Triumvirate that rules my imaginative world, in part because they are just fantastic novels, but in part because they helped me figure out the kind of fiction I want to write (and am slowly trying to write): Richard Hughes’s A High Wind in Jamaica, Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, and Shirley Hazzard’s The Transit of Venus. Just weird, brilliant books, which are quite willing to tell as much as show in a very imperious way, which goes against everything writing students have been told to do for ages.
Island Books: Why do you think you’d make a good bookseller at Island Books?
Tom: I’ve always wanted to be a bookseller! One of my favorite days every year has always been when I go to a bookstore some time in December and spend hours browsing through the aisles looking for the right books for all the people on my holiday lists. I love surprising someone with the right book for them (especially if they didn’t even know it existed). I also feel like I’m reading the books vicariously through them—either a book I’ve been intrigued by but haven’t had time to get to myself, or one I love and like to imagine them enjoying for the first time, or one I’m not even sure I’d like but think they might!