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The Books Interview: Nicholson Baker

Your new book, The Anthologist, is full of poetry.The narrator, Paul Chowder, is a poet trying to write the introduction to an anthology called Only Rhyme. He has these theories about rhyme and meter, which he's describing, as well as what is going on around him.Do you write poetry yourself?

I did write some poetry in college. My prose style came out of reading 19th-century English writers like Thomas De Quincey, and even earlier writers such as Boswell and Johnson. And then I'd read these American poets - Howard Moss, William Snodgrass, Elizabeth Bishop. And I got tremendously excited by them and was inspired to write a certain kind of observational fiction - but I knew I couldn't write poetry.

Did you have to read a lot of anthologies?

I love anthologies - I have about a hundred of them - but in order to write this book convincingly I had to simulate what would be in a poet's mind at the age of 50 or so. To do that, I had a spell, a sudden burst, of extra reading and I let it moulder down. The way memory works is hard to simulate and that's one of the challenges. How do you make a believable retrospective person when you don't have the same kind of memory?

Voice is very important in all your books.

It's important to get the voice right. I spoke into an audio device; I spoke and typed at the same time, talked into a video camera. And what I found was that the first time I explained some of Paul's theories on poetry it came out a little stiff and forced. It was the way you'd teach it if you'd just figured it out. But this is a fiftysomething poet. He's had this theory kicking around in his head for years, so I had to rewrite it over and again. I was just trying to find the right way of saying it.

Are you a great reviser of your work?

I am a very inefficient writer. What I find is that the pages which work are those where the person is sitting somewhere, walking somewhere, riding an escalator. So that's what I use.

You write about tiny moments in people's lives rather than dealing with big plots.

Being a thinking person in a specific place gets me going more than if I started with a story. I have tried to write third-person novels and stories, but they just didn't come naturally.

Sex was very much a part your early success. Would you go back to the subject?

You go through phases as a writer. Some of the earlier books were trying to be more finished; but I'd given up on that. Vox and The Fermata came from a secret fantasy I had when I was 11 or 12. I had this fantasy that I could stop time and take off women's clothes. I tried to put it into Vox. But it started to take over the book, so I left it for The Fermata. People had different reactions to it, but yes, I may come back to the subject.

You've written about your recent obsession with Wikipedia. Do you think it's good for writers?

I love Wikipedia, but I do want to make sure that at least the background to my books is correct. If you wrote, for example, that someone reached for the upper doorknob in a world where we don't have two doorknobs, you'd know it was false. If you read it 300 years later, however, you might not.

Did you expect such controversy over Human Smoke, your history of the beginning of the Second World War?

I remember being on a radio show just after the book came out and the presenter asked me if I was ready for the kind of spitting rage that this book was going to provoke. I thought that as the book presents a series of documents and facts to consider, it wouldn't anger people in that way. But it did. It made me angry, too. I didn't want the British cabinet to be talking about the starvation of Europe in 1939. It was troubling, because I am an Anglophile, and for me Britain is my civilisation, much more than America. There's something about the British character that just deeply appeals to me.

“The Anthologist" is published by Simon & Schuster (£14.99)

This article first appeared in the 07 September 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Meet the new progressives