Jonathan Baumbach on Early Influences
As I mentioned, I’m going to be speaking at a school about The New You Project next week. In honor of the occasion, I interviewed Jonathan Baumbach about writing, in the style of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, which I have always loved.
The New You Project: When did you know you wanted to be a writer? Did anyone memorably encourage or discourage you?
Jonathan Baumbach: 10…11…12. My father was a visual artist–we called them painters in those days–and I knew the most important thing in life was to do something creative. Since he owned the franchise on visual art–he also wrote poems–I started writing imaginatively at an early age. He was my major influence. By turns, he discouraged and encouraged me.
The New You Project: Who were some of the writers who inspired you when you were just starting out?
Jonathan Baumbach: I don’t remember anyone inspiring me (except Kafka and Dostoyevsky in my teens), but I remember reading at an inappropriate age, “Studs Lonigan” by James T. Farrell, a 3-volume novel about a tough Irish kid growing up on
the streets of Chicago. My father had a large ecclectic library and I remember sneaking illicit books like Boccacio’s “Decameron” and Balzac’s “Droll Tales,” which probably seem very tame by today’s standards.
The New You Project: Is there any book that you were forced to read in school that you were only able to fully appreciate many years later?
Jonathan Baumbach: I hated George Eliot’s “Silas Marner,” which was required in my Brooklyn high school, but I came around to liking George Eliot after (much later) reading “Middlemarch” and “The Mill on the Floss.” It’s always hard to like books that you’re compelled to read. The worst thing for the soul is to pretend to like something because older and wiser heads tell you you should.
The New You Project: If you could write the teenage version of yourself a letter, what three books would you tell him to read?
Jonathan Baumbach: The Trial by Franz Kafka, Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts by Donald Barthelme, Don Quixote by Cervantes, A Child Again by Robert Coover.
— LAUREN CERAND
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