Admires books that ignite strong reactions

Since his first novel, “The Object of My Affection,” which was adapted into a film starring Jennifer Aniston and Paul Rudd, Stephen McCauley has charted the crooked course of ill-fated lovers of a hilarious sort. In his newest, “My Ex-Life,” a twosome drifts back together after a long-ago divorce. Never mind one is gay and one is not. McCauley is the author of seven novels, plus two more under the pen name Rain Mitchell, and is co-director of Brandeis University’s creative writing program. The novelist reads from his new book at 7 p.m., Wednesday, May 9, at Porter Square Books.

BOOKS: Given your school year just ended, what are your summer reading plans?

MCCAULEY: Over the summer I plan to read one long book. I will have more time to concentrate. Two years ago I read George Eliot’s “Middlemarch ,” which I had never read before. I was thrilled I hadn’t because I didn’t have the patience or the emotional maturity before. In five years I won’t have the mental acuity. It was the perfect moment to read it. This summer I might tackle an Anthony Trollope novel. They are extremely readable books.


BOOKS: What are you reading currently?

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MCCAULEY: Two things, both rereads, Jane Austen’s “Persuasion” and “A Time to Be Born” by Dawn Powell, a mid-century American writer. She was never wildly successful, but Gore Vidal wrote a long piece about her that caused a reinterest in her work. This novel is sort of a scathing roman à clef about Clare Boothe Luce and her husband.

BOOKS: Do you read largely fiction?

MCCAULEY: I do though I went through a biography phase a few years ago. I loved Victoria Glendinning’s bio of Vita Sackville-West. I also loved Michael Holroyd’s immense biography of Lytton Strachey. I recently read Stefan Zweig’s biography of Marie Antoinette, which is magnificent. He was a wonderful fiction writer but also wrote biographies.

BOOKS: What draws you in fiction?


McCAULEY: I don’t follow trends very much. I have always had someone in my life that I consider my reading mentor because I come from a family where reading was not emphasized or even approved of. If you aren’t a reader and you have a kid with his face buried in books it can be a bit threatening. My parents viewed my reading as somewhat effeminate, but also subversive on some level. Still I loved going to bookstores and libraries. It was an escape to an imagined world.

BOOKS: Are you drawn to novels about relationships?

McCAULEY: Absolutely, but I think it’s hard to find novels that aren’t about relationships. Anita Brookner’s novels are about loneliness and that can be very intriguing too. I think what I look for is some kind of psychological insight that opens up something new to me. I’ve been reading Japanese novels and that has opened a whole other way of thinking. Last summer I read “The Makioka Sisters” by Junichiro Tanizaki. It’s a famous Japanese novel about four sisters living on the border of time between imperial Japan and a more modern world. I just loved it.

BOOKS: What’s been in your to-read pile the longest?

McCAULEY: My partner and I weed through our bookshelves and throw stuff out regularly. Every time we come to one book, he says, “You’re never going to read that.” It’s “The Last Empress,” a bio of Madame Chiang Kai-shek by Hannah Pakula. An editor at Simon and Schuster told me it was one of the great books of the past 25 years. It has been on my to-read pile for close to a decade.


BOOKS: Is there a book you give as a present a lot?

‘Over the summer I plan to read one long book.’

McCAULEY: It’s not always appreciated. “After Claude” by Iris Owens. It’s a very funny, offensive, challenging book because of the nature of the narrator, who is a disturbed person. Half the time people say, “Oh my God, that book is amazing.” And half the time people say, “That’s the worst book I’ve ever read.” That lets you know a book has something to it, if people can’t be neutral about it.

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