Bill Roorbach’s new novel, “Lucky Turtle,” follows the wayward path of a delinquent teenager who lands in a reform camp in the Montana wilderness. The award-winning writer is the author of the best-selling novel “Life Among Giants” as well as memoirs and nonfiction. He lives in Scarborough, Maine.
BOOKS: What are you reading?
ROORBACH: I’ve been driving all over the place for my book tour so I’ve had a lot of good book listening hours. I listened to Jonathan Evison’s “Small World,” a sweeping western epic, which I could follow though it’s structurally complicated. Then I listened to “Pure Colour” by Sheila Heti, and I had to rewind a lot. I saved some classics for when I’m old and now that I am it’s time to read Dickens’s “David Copperfield.” It’s 35 hours on tape. I’ve been listening to it in the car and the garden. I’ve also been listening to gardening books while I garden. It gives me a sense of company.
BOOKS: What have you been listening to while gardening?
ROORBACH: “Seed to Dust” by the British writer Marc Hamer. It’s a philosophical gardening book. There would be funny coincidences like he’d mention a hydrangea and that is what I would be working on. Now as I walk around the garden I hear his voice in my head. I love that. The first book I listened to in the garden was Tan Twan Eng’s “The Garden of Evening Mists.” It’s a novel set in Malaysia but there’s so much in it about gardening and gardening philosophy.
BOOKS: When did you start listening to books?
ROORBACH: A few years ago I basically broke my neck, and I couldn’t read for a while. I had listened to books in the past when I was driving, but I struggled to pay attention. But I got really good at listening to books because of my injury. Also, when I taught at the University of Maine, Farmington, years ago I had a blind student who listened to books. He had a machine that turned up the speed so he could listen really fast. I am doing that with Dickens so I can get through it in 40 years instead of 60.
BOOKS: What are you reading in book form?
ROORBACH: Cate Marvin’s poetry collection, “Event Horizon.” Her poems are both accessible for me, the non-poet, but also really elusive. I spend a lot of time on each poem. I read one a day. My reading goes about 60/40 novel to nonfiction ratio with a constant soft snow falling of poems. I also get on kicks where I get into a certain author or subject.
BOOKS: What was your last kick?
ROORBACH: I was on a Sylvia Plath kick. I read five biographies, Ted Hughes’s poetry and letters, Janet Malcolm’s “The Silent Woman,” and reread Plath’s novel “The Bell Jar.” I read that in high school but didn’t remember how depressing it was. That kick started with Heather Clark’s “Red Comet.” I love writer biographies. I never had writer role models, so I love reading the biographies to hear the possibilities for the writing life, good and bad.
BOOKS: What are some of your favorite writer biographies?
ROORBACH: Ian Hamilton’s “Robert Lowell,” spectacular. This is not exactly a biography, but “The Journals of John Cheever,” holy gazoly! The poor guy. Tormented, closeted gay, unbelievable boozer. Benita Eisler’s “Byron” was so fat it took a year to read it. I would read four or five pages at naptime.
BOOKS: What else has taken you a long time to finish?
ROORBACH: I read Elena Ferrante’s four Neapolitan novels over many years. When I was on a fellowship to Italy I went to Naples and was in a salumi shop there reading the third book. The mother brought out my salumi and asked me in Italian what I was reading and I showed her. She said, “You’ll never learn Italian if you read it in English!” She grabbed it and came back with the book in Italian. She ordered me to read that. I only had like 100 pages left. I read those in Italian with a dictionary and a friend’s help. I’m not sure I know what the heck happened in the book but it was a really cool experience.