Why do you live in Vienna?
Home is where you're most comfortable. I came to Vienna in the mid 1970's because I was offered a teaching job. After a while I realized this was the town I was most comfortable and so I've remained. If you ask anyone why they have chosen to live in one place for a long time I think their answer will be similar to this one-- because they are comfortable there.
Why do you like/write about dogs?
Dogs are minor angels, and I don't mean that facetiously. They love unconditionally, forgive immediately, are the truest of friends, willing to do anything that makes us happy, etcetera. If we attributed some of those qualities to a person we would say they are special. If they had ALL of them, we would call them angelic. But because it's "only" a dog, we dismiss them as sweet or funny but little more. However when you think about it, what are the things that we most like in another human being? Many times those qualities are seen in our dogs every single day-- we're just so used to them that we pay no attention.
Why do you think your books are more popular outside the US?
As a rule, Americans are more prone to like categories-- mainstream, romance, Science Fiction, fantasy... When they go to a bookstore they tend to gravitate towards the section that stacks the reading material they're most apt to like. The problem my books have had all along is they don't fit comfortably into any category. I have heard time and again from people who like my work that they've gone into three different bookstores to find them and the books are in three different sections. When asked what "kind" of books I write I always say half-jokingly "mixed salads." Because when you make a mixed salad, you take some onions, lettuce, tomatoes, capers... and mix them up with your favorite dressing on top. So too my books-- there's some mainstream, some fantasy tropes, horror now and then, psychology, romance.. all mixed together and then covered with the way I write and tell the story. Outside of America my books usually are simply "published" rather than directed towards any group or genre. As a result, the reader who is unfamiliar with my work willl see a good cover (hopefully), read the plot description, and then buy the book on that basis, rather than because they were shelved in some specialized section of the store.
What's your advice to young writers?
Read. I can't stress how many times I've heard young writers say I don't read because I'll be influenced and I want to write in my own voice, not Stephen King's or J.D. Salinger, or whoever my favorites are. But without exposure to many different voices and literary styles, you don't know what's out there and how it might subsequently help you to create the writing style you are aiming for. It's like the person who has lived their whole life in a remote community, exposed only to the things that are immediately around them. If you read, you not only expand your vision and understanding of life, but will sooner or later bump into writers whose work will help mold your own. Not dictate it-- mold it. My wife, who is an art teacher, always loves the lesson where she shows her students the paintings of Salvador Dali for the first time. Most of the kids (11 and 12 year olds) have never seen his work before. She says it is a treat to see the looks on their faces the first time they see those melted clocks or surrealistic women draped in silk. It is like seeing their eyes and minds simultaneously opening up onto a new world of possibilities. So too when you read.
What do you say when people tell you they don't like your books?
Then don't read them. If I'm watching a movie I don't like I leave the theater, or turn the channel on the television. Sometimes people will say I liked this book of yours but not that one, which is fine. I'm just pleased I made them happy once. What I don't like is when people write in (it's almost always an email, usually anonymous) saying this book is terrible and you're a lousy writer. I wonder why they felt compelled to write that letter rather than just toss the book and drop the subject. What is it about the book or me that made them go to the trouble of writing such a nasty, unnecessary letter and sending it? What did they hope to achieve with it?
Who are your favorite authors?
F. Scott Fitzgerald, Robertson Davies, James Salter, early Mark Helprin, Herman Melville, Montaigne, some of Garcia Marquez, Julio Cortazar, lots of others I can't recall right now.
Which of your books do you like best?
Books are like your children-- you like/love them for different reasons. I love THE LAND OF LAUGHS because it was my first published novel. I love FROM THE TEETH OF ANGELS because it says a lot of the things I've been thinking about my life long. I love OUTSIDE THE DOG MUSEUM because it was the easiest and most fun to write... on and on.
Besides the length, what is the difference between writing a novel as opposed to writing a short story?
A short story is a sprint, a novel is a marathon. Sprinters have seconds to get from here to there and then they are finished. Marathoners have to carefully pace themselves so that they don't run out of energy (or in the case of the novelist-- ideas) because they have so far to run. To mix the metaphor, writing a short story is like having a short intense affair, whereas writing a novel is like a long rich marriage.
If you weren't a writer what would you like to do/be?
work in a zoo or write lyrics to songs.
How much of your novels is autobiographical?
A lot. Any writer who says his work is not autobiographical (even the ones who write cavemen novels) is lying. Of course all fiction is to one degree or another autobiographical-- it has to be because it is your voice telling the story and your voice is a result of your perspective and life experience.
Are you any of the characters in your novels?
The people who know me well say I am most like Harry Radcliffe in OUTSIDE THE DOG MUSEUM and Frannie McCabe in THE WOODEN SEA