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Cheap Wine, Plastic Chairs: A weekly series that celebrates everyone’s favorite part of the author reading: the Q&A. This week, John Green and Neil Gaiman at Carnegie Hall.

Advice for aspiring novelists?

John Green: My two pieces of advice are to read a lot and to read broadly and my second piece of advice is to tell stories to your friends and pay attention to when they get bored.

Neil Gaiman: I was gonna say, read everything, write, and finish things – just whatever it takes to finish, finish and then go on to the next one. You will learn more from glorious failure than you ever will from something that you never finished.

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I tend to just be envious of painters and visual artists. I probably have the erroneous idea that what we call “innovation,”—recognizing that it’s kind of a weird word and not that accurate—is expected in some art forms, and it’s almost embarrassing if it’s not [innovative]. And in the world of literary fiction it’s so not desired. And it may really be that writing is not meant to advance. That Jane Austen just cracked that code. It was just great what she did- I think it was great- and that narrative art should just refine that.

Cheap Wine, Plastic Chairs: Ben Marcus at McNally Jackson

Cheap Wine, Plastic Chairs: Oliver Sacks at Barnes & Noble: A weekly series that celebrates everyone’s favorite part of the author reading: the Q&A.

With science rather than spirituality, how do you find consolation in life?

I in no sense downplay the importance of given experience in various sorts. For me, for example, music is tremendously important; music transports me. I regard Mozart’s music as coming from heaven. That is only a way of speaking, but I can’t help speaking that way. I find my joys in nature and in human art and culture. And sometimes in science. There’s a lovely book by a great physicist called The Joy of Insight, and he describes epiphanies and ecstasies and feelings of revelation quite as intense as any religious person. But I personally have no taste for immortality. I think it would be a disaster for the species if any prominent way of averting death was found. I’d like a few more years of relative health to enjoy life and write and I will be happy to bill it in.

Cheap Wine, Plastic Chairs: Tracy K. Smith at Strand Bookstore: A weekly series that celebrates everyone’s favorite part of the author reading: the Q&A.

Why poetry?

I remember the moment that I “got” poetry. I had always loved it as a child and liked making puzzles with words. I liked the feeling of wisdom I attributed to poems and I wanted that for myself. I remember when I was older, I was in college reading a poem and really coming under its spell and realizing it was visceral. It afforded the reader, and I imagine the poet also, the opportunity to stop and look at very small details with such scrutiny that it becomes completely other.

The poem that did it for me was Seamus Heaney’s “Digging,” in which the speaker is looking at a pen. In the beginning, he says, “Between my finger and my thumb / The squat pen rests; as snug as a gun.” Then as he considers the pen and his environment, he goes backward in time and remembers his father and grandfather were working the land. By the end of the poem, having really stepped back into that history and that sense of place, he looks at the pen and says, “Between my finger and my thumb / The squat pen rests. / I’ll dig with it.” Suddenly the pen becomes a completely different implement but also suggests a different kind of urgency and a different kind of vocation. That just really blew my mind. I wanted to be able to look at the things that were at hand and let them teach me something about not just themselves but myself and the world that I was in.

What would be the cocktail-equivalent of making a sick friend chicken soup?

I already have a cartoon-vision of a hot toddy right now. There are many good ways to make a hot toddy. My usual is a very traditional Irish style: Irish whiskey, lemon, cloves, honey. Lately, I’ve also really loved a port toddy, which I find very nourishing and delicious. Use a decent but not obviously really expensive port – not the bottle of port you got as a wedding gift. Just a decent, dark port and basically the same proportions of hot water, lemon, and honey. I don’t think cloves go that well with port but a cinnamon stick is nice. I find that super comforting.

- Rosie Schaap at WORD Bookstore, 1/29/13

Cheap Wine, Plastic Chairs: Rosie Schaap at WORD

Cheap Wine, Plastic Chairs: A weekly series that celebrates everyone’s favorite part of the author reading: the Q&A. This week, George Saunders at Greenlight Bookstore.

Are you planning on ever writing a novel?

That’s a horrible question. I have, but they just shrink. There’s that Flannery O'Connor bit that a writer can choose what they want to write, but they can’t choose what makes a living. For me, if I get into any kind of space where I try to extend a narrative or try to accrue pages, that’s the end of it for me. I think my stories are kind of like those little toys that you wind up and see how long it takes to go under the couch. I think what we have to do is petition for the definition of the novel to come down a little bit.

Cheap Wine, Plastic Chairs: Joyce Carol Oates at Hunter College: A weekly series that celebrates everyone’s favorite part of the author reading: the Q&A.

Do you like to find your characters from real life or imagine them?

For [We Were the Mulvaneys], I got the idea of the father, who becomes irrational, from King Lear, who was the quintessential older, tyrannical father. My own father had been a very loving man, but then he got to be in his eighties and he had illnesses. His personality started to change, and he wasn’t quite as loving as he had been. I remember being just stricken to the heart and being so hurt and so wounded. I was an adult woman, but I felt like a girl at ten years old. I thought, My father doesn’t love me! All of that is in the novel, and it was kind of a complicated inspiration.

Cheap Wine, Plastic Chairs: Michael Chabon at Greenlight Bookstore

Our new series that celebrates everyone’s favorite part of the author reading: the Q&A. The same groan-worthy questions are always asked (“What was your inspiration?”), but a good writer can provide the most generic question with a stimulating answer. This week, Michael Chabon weighs in on the pros and cons of “healthy” Internet research.

Cheap Wine, Plastic Chairs: David Shields at Half King Reading Series

A weekly series that celebrates everyone’s favorite part of the author reading: the Q&A.

What’s a typical day like for you?

Water is crucial. Swimming is a big thing for me. Shower, bath, swimming - I don’t see how anyone can write without water falling on their head. I don’t think I write a word without being in the water most of the day. Luckily I live in Seattle so you’ve got a lot of water falling on your head. More seriously, I do think for better or worse I have evolved a relatively specific practice where, generally, my books start by mapping scenes with what strikes me as a metaphor that explains the world. Some huge idea which isn’t necessarily brilliant so much as a kind of holding tank.