Best-selling author Ada Calhoun failed where her father, the New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl, had before her. Each was stymied in their attempt to write a biography of the great American poet Frank O’Hara. But Calhoun’s attempt resulted into the genre-bending memoir “Also a Poet: Frank O’Hara, My Father, and Me.” Calhoun’s other books include the neighborhood history “St. Mark’s Is Dead,” the essay collection “Wedding Toasts I’ll Never Give,” and her exploration of Gen X women facing midlife, “Why We Can’t Sleep.” She lives in Brooklyn with her family.
BOOKS: What are you reading?
CALHOUN: I’ve been reading a lot of philosophy and religion lately. I finished bell hooks’s “All About Love” a week or so ago. I’ve also been reading Rowan Williams’s “Tokens of Trust,” a Christian book, and some Sanskrit poetry. Simone Weil’s “Gravity & Grace” has been really paying off. That is one of those books I can read a page and then spend the whole day thinking about it.
BOOKS: What have you been reading for fiction?
CALHOUN: Julie Schumacher’s epistolary novel “Dear Committee Members” made me laugh out loud repeatedly. I read the Russian writer Viktor Shklovsky’s “Zoo, or Letters Not About Love,” an epistolary novel from the 1920s in one sitting. I’m realizing I read a lot of epistolary novels. I also read Emma Straub’s novel “This Time Tomorrow” because our books are like sister books. We both grew up in New York City and both had writer fathers. It was fun to read that and have flashbacks back to the city in the 1990s.
BOOKS: Did your father influence you as a reader?
CALHOUN: I wonder. There were always tons of books in our house. Most of them were art books that I flipped through. He read much more serious things than I did. I remember when I fell in love with Philip K. Dick’s science fiction in college and read all his books. He was baffled by that interest.
BOOKS: Did your parents lose a lot of books when their Greenwich Village apartment caught fire in 2019?
CALHOUN: They had these giant bookshelves filled with books. I went in a day or two after the fire and the bookshelf in the back of their apartment looked like burnt toast. That was where all the poetry was and the books from when I was a kid. The art books were in the front and were miraculously saved. They were a little smoky. We haven’t been through them because that smell of smoke could bring the memory of the fire back.
BOOKS: Do you own a lot of books?
CALHOUN: I do own a lot of books. We have the world’s tiniest apartment in Brooklyn, but it’s rent stabilized so we have lived there for 16 years. When we got a place in the Catskills we moved all the books up there. Those shelves keep filling up. I pare them down and then they magically refill.
BOOKS: Do you have a criterion for purging books?
CALHOUN: I get rid of newer books that didn’t grab me, the books of the moment versus books of all time. There are a few books that I have extra copies of. Every time I see them in a bookstore I buy them and then I give them out when people come over. I have a handful of copies of “Chroma” by Derek Jarman, “The Night of the Gun” by David Carr, Dawn Powell’s books set in New York City, and “Housekeeping” by Marilynne Robinson. I have like seven copies of “Housekeeping.” Come over and I will give you one.
BOOKS: What’s the best book you’ve been given as a present?
CALHOUN: The most touching one I ever got was from my stepson. When he was a little boy, one of the first books we bonded over was “Ooka the Wise” by I.G. Edmonds. It was written in the 1950s, and is about a Japanese village with a wise judge who comes up with brilliant solutions that make everyone happy. For Christmas a couple of years ago he gave me a first edition. I cried. When you bond over a book, especially with a little kid, it’s really special.