Were there any works that inspired or otherwise influenced the writing of the book?
While it’s obvious that visionaries such as John Bunyan, James Hervey, William Blake and John Clare cast long shadows, or, perhaps, long lights, over “Jerusalem,” the single book which most inspired it and to which it owes the most has to be a slender volume published locally in 1987 by Northampton Arts Development and titled “In Living Memory — Life in ‘The Boroughs,’ ” compiled by numerous people including my dear friend Richard Foreman. The book consists largely of interviews with the ancient area’s older inhabitants, many of them known from my childhood, augmenting my own familial history of the neighborhood and providing a few of the book’s more memorable characters; names like Freddy Allen, Black Charley, Georgie Bumble and Tommy Mangle-the-Cat, that I’d heard my mother or grandmother mention when I was a child but with whom I’d been mostly unfamiliar. If anybody can manage to track down a copy of this marvelous but marginal booklet, I think they’ll be surprised by how little of “Jerusalem’s” improbable narrative I had to make up.
How do you organize your books?
Huh. Yes, I suppose I could organize my books, couldn’t I? That might actually work a lot better than my current method, which is to tell myself that I know roughly where all my books are according to a kind of literary form of proprioception; a psychic gift which, glaringly, I don’t possess.
What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?
Probably most of them. I know I always am. Of the volumes I can see from where I’m sitting now, there’s a copy of Captain Fuller’s “The Star in the West,” co-signed by Aleister Crowley and the politically questionable British Army officer-cum-occultist who invented the concept of blitzkrieg; but possibly everyone would expect that to be on my shelves and wouldn’t be surprised at all. How about my first-edition copy of William Hope Hodgson’s “The House on the Borderland”? I’ve got five or six different editions of this book, including the Arkham House version with the Hannes Bok cover, but as far as I know, my 1908 Chapman & Hall edition isn’t even technically supposed to exist in the immaculate rebound condition that I have it in. And please be advised that this isn’t humblebragging: This is plain, unreconstructed old-school bragging. Envy me, bibliophiles.
What’s the best book you’ve ever received as a gift?
That would be the second unabridged edition of the Random House Dictionary of the English Language, one of the first of many marvelous gifts from my wife, Melinda. Aleister Crowley once stated that the most important grimoire, or book of magical instruction, that anyone could ever conceivably own would be an etymological dictionary, and in my opinion he was exactly right. I keep it right here by my desk, and just 10 minutes ago it confirmed for me that I had the spelling of “proprioception” right all along, even though my spell-checker had raised a crinkly red eyebrow. Quite seriously, this is the one book in my collection that I’d save in the event of a fire.
Who is your favorite fictional hero or heroine? Your favorite antihero or villain?
I’m afraid I’m rather dubious about the whole concept of heroes and villains, and feel that there are probably more useful and less simplistic groupings of complex human personalities that we could come up with if we put our minds to it. Of course, when I was 13 it was a different story: The brilliant and sociopathic underclass anarchist Steerpike from Mervyn Peake’s electrifying “Gormenghast” trilogy was definitely an early role model, which perhaps explains some of my misgivings about the whole hero phenomenon.
If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be? The prime minister?
You can bet that if I could compel the president or prime minister to read one book — other than “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” — then I definitely would.
What do you want to read next?
I think it should be fairly transparent by this point that I want to read a couple of critical or biographical works concerning David Foster Wallace, in order to test my developing hypothesis that a particularly bleak interpretation of the phrase “death and taxes” is at the heart of his last, supposedly uncompleted novel, “The Pale King.” And, after that, perhaps some poetry.