We arrive at Isaac Fitzgerald’s Brooklyn home to find the BuzzFeed books editor brushing his teeth. “Welcome!” he exclaims, through a mouthful of toothpaste, excitedly ushering us into the garden apartment he shares with his girlfriend, writer Alice Sola Kim. Ever the gracious host, he makes sure we’re settled before excusing himself to finish getting ready.
That’s when we spot it. A dead mouse.
“Holy shit!” Isaac exclaims. “I swear this has never happened before.” Without missing a beat, he adds, “He sure didn’t die of starvation. You saw the pizza box on the counter!”
After some discussion as to the best way to dispose-of-slash-honor the little guy, we gather in the backyard for a burial. “In Irish culture, a dead mouse in the living room is very good luck,” Isaac explains, pouring out a beer and glancing skyward. “My grandmother always used to say, ‘Dead mouse, bless this house.’ That was the prayer. That’s how it goes.”
Thus begins our morning with the affable, unflappable Isaac Fitzgerald…
What does reading mean to you?
Reading, to me, is escapism. That’s just the truth.
I know there are many different ways to appreciate the art form. But for me, growing up in inner city Boston, books allowed me to go someplace else. My parents worked at The Catholic Worker, a soup kitchen on Tremont Street, and we lived in The Haley House, which was a sort of rehabilitation apartment center that helped impoverished people get back on their feet. We grew up with not a lot, but I was very lucky in that my parents really believed in reading. It wasn’t a far walk to the Boston Public Library, which was a magical place. My parents made sure I always had a book in my hand.
Do you have a favorite reading memory?
When I was around eight, my parents separated for a bit. My mom and I moved to rural north-central Massachusetts, to a town that was kind of like the Kid Rock of Massachusetts, with lots of guns and trucks. There wasn’t much to do, so there was a lot of sitting around, reading.
Back in Boston, my father had read me The Hobbit. After I moved away, he read The Lord of the Rings onto cassette tapes, and he’d send them to me. I had this huge cassette deck like something you’d see in Stranger Things, with the carrying handle. I would go out into the woods and listen to my dad reading to me.
Was there a book that was particularly influential to young Isaac?
A few years later, in that same small town, I met an ex-reverend named Arthur Perkins. He walked with a cane, and you couldn’t tell if he was good or bad. He could have been a Stephen King character. Ironically, he gave me a box full of Stephen King books, and that changed my life.
Stephen King was the first author where, once I found him, I read all of his work. I loved not only his horror, but also The Eyes of the Dragon, and the Gunslinger trilogy. I think that’s the joy of reading books as a kid, when you’re like, “Holy crap, you can do that in a book?!” There was a lot of sexy stuff. I didn’t even know what sexy stuff was yet. And there it was! In a book.
I think that's the joy of reading books as a kid, when you're like, 'Holy crap, you can do that in a book?!'
Let’s talk about your massive book pile.
I give a lot of my books away, which I think comes from moving around a lot, both as a kid, and in my twenties. This is a very frustrating thing, because Alice loves to build a library. But I’m constantly like, “Here! Take this! You’ve gotta read this!” I’m trying to work on that. My 2017 resolution is to buy some bookcases and actually build a library.
What’s one recent read you really enjoyed?
One book I really liked this past year is Moonglow. I particularly love Michael Chabon when he’s geeking out. That’s my favorite Chabon. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay was the largest contemporary book I’d read at the age when I read it. It’s a cliché thing to say, but I was like, “I didn’t know you could put comics in a novel that’s going to win all these awards!” In Moonglow, there’s family, there’s partners with mental illness, there are a lot of real, deep things, but there’s also fucking rockets and WW2 history, and this shit where grandpa’s hunting a python. I’m just going to go ahead and say it: He writes good about boy stuff.
Do you have a favorite quote or literary passage?
There’s this play called The History Boys, and in it, there’s a line where a teacher is talking to young men about what literature can do. He describes that moment when you open a book, and up until then, you thought you were the only person who’d ever had that thought or felt that feeling. Then suddenly, it’s like a hand coming up through the page and grasping yours, and you are no longer alone. That connection, to me, is everything that’s important about literature.
Any other words you live by?
On a not-so-serious-note, there is a quote I love, “life mistakes are my copilot.” I’ve been very lucky, in that I’ve been given lots of opportunities to fail and find different avenues that come from that. I think failure is a very important part of life.
You thought you were the only person who'd ever had that thought or felt that feeling. Then suddenly, it’s like a hand coming up through the page and grasping yours, and you are no longer alone.
Your latest book is Knives and Ink. So let’s talk about your ink. What’s the story behind your first tattoo?
The first tattoo I ever got was from Nathan McBride, who was an advisor to me at boarding school. He seemed like such an adult, but in hindsight, he was probably 23. He gave me wonderful books, like The Secret History by Donna Tartt, and encouraged me to study Latin and Greek.
Sophomore year, well, let’s just say this: A lot of acid. I think when you’re a kid and you do bad things, you’re like, “The teachers don’t know!” But looking back, I think they did know. They were just exhausted and had their own kids to look after.
Nathan saw what was going on, so he sat a group of maybe 11 of us down and was like, “Look. If you walk at graduation, I’ll buy your first tattoo.” Out of all those kids, I was the only one who walked. And so, as promised, he took me to a trailer park in a place called Seabrook, New Hampshire, and I got my first tattoo from an old dude with a giant walrus mustache. I almost passed out.
What about the actual tattoo?
There were some rules about the tattoo. It couldn’t have any words, and it had to be an original image drawn by a friend. To be clear, the image my friend drew was very beautiful. But the tattoo itself looks like the cover of a Godsmack album. It’s supposed to be a Celtic tree of life, with the branches and the roots coming together. I enjoyed this tattoo for exactly one hour. For one hour I thought it was the coolest shit I had ever seen. Then I went back to my job working maintenance at a hotel, and my boss was like, “Why’d you get Spiderman getting his spidey sense tattooed on your shoulder? Look at his two spidey eyes!” I couldn’t un-see it.
Do you have a favorite book of all time?
The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake. It’s bleak, but I’m coming from a place where I really do appreciate beauty found in really bleak places — both in the landscape and in stories about people. This was one of the first books I read where I was like, “I didn’t know you could write books about a low income family!” Of course I’d read books by Dickens where people were poor, but this was a modern American look at the beauty to be found in rural, destitute areas. It was one of the first times I saw myself and my surroundings reflected in a book.
Who are a few people you admire who are doing great work right now?
To build on what I was just saying, I think we’re seeing an explosion of people who grew up both loving books and wanting to see themselves reflected in these stories. And then they were like, “If I don’t see it, I’m going to fucking write it.” We’re talking about a wonderful time in publishing right now, where stories are being told that reflect the diversity of this country and the diversity of this world, in a way that hadn’t really been happening before.
I think it’s so incredibly important that we have books right now from Brit Bennet, who wrote The Mothers, that we have Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, that we have Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad and Paul Beatty’s The Sell Out, that we have Karan Mahajan writing The Association of Small Bombs and Jade Chang writing The Wangs vs. The World.
Of course we’ve had Toni Morrsion, James Baldwin, Amy Tan… and of course their work means the world to us. But these were very select experiences. Now, to walk into a bookstore and have more choice, I can only imagine what that means for so many readers out there. It’s showing us how there is room for everything.
If you were a character, you would be: Fagan from Oliver Twist
Reading ritual: Everyday, mostly on the subway.
Secret talent: I used to act a lot
Bookstore or library: Bookstore. That’s so bougie, I’m a piece of shit. But I’m an events guy. So bookstore.
If you could only read one book for the rest of your life: The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake
Hardcover or Paperback: Paperback. I destroy my books.
Should have been a bestseller: Ugly Girls by Lindsay Hunter
Best thing to pair with a book: Beer. Goddamn. I don’t like this at all.
The Literary Discovery That Blew Your Mind: That whole CIA Paris Review thing. Joel Whitney has a new book about it. I was like, “Come On, US Government, call me up.” The idea that so much great, wonderful writing came out from being supported by the CIA during this time of fear and the Iron Curtain blew my mind.
We're talking about a wonderful time in publishing right now, where stories are being told that reflect the diversity of this country and the diversity of this world... There is room for everything.
Isaac Fitzgerald is the books editor at BuzzFeed, as well as the author of Pen & Ink: Tattoos and the Stories Behind Them and Knives & Ink: Chefs and the Stories Behind Their Tattoos. Follow him @isaac.fitzgerald.
Photography by Caroline Donofrio.