25 Writers On The Books That Inspired Them To Write


“I remember… thinking, man, writing a story like this has to be the best job in the world”

There is no single reason anyone becomes a writer, and yet for so many authors, there are distinct moments in their lives when they realized they had stories they wanted to tell. For many, these moments come when reading the kind of books that provoke, disturb, and inspire—the kind of books that make us marvel and wonder if we too can inspire that sort of reaction in someone else someday.

Below, 25 writers share which books made such an impression on them. The selections range from children's books to YA series to 19th-century classics to true crime novels, but they all have one thing in common: They made someone understand their own potential to tell stories, and share those stories with the world.

The Sweet Valley High Series by Francine Pascal 
The Sweet Valley High series was what made me want to be a writer. All the iterations—Sweet Valley Twins, Sweet Valley High, even the minor arcana of The Unicorn Club, which was the inspiration for my first significant “literary” short story, entitled “The Crystal Club.” I know Francine Pascal herself didn’t write each and every book, but rather was the creator and overseer of a brand that produced the world of Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield. From those books, I learned about story structure, the pleasure and importance of archetypes, dialogue, and tension. The later series that followed the twins into college and adulthood were soapy and overwrought and ridiculous, but I loved it. There has never been and will likely never be a great work of adult literature that will ever compare to the experience of reading those books. I would read 20 in a day, lose a night of sleep, a day of meals, read so fast I would reread the last 20 books in the series as I waited for the next one to come in. The power those books held over me will never fade. —Jenny Zhang, author of Sour Heart

Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery 
In the fourth grade, I discovered Anne of Green Gables and promptly fell in love. I was a voracious reader before then, but this was the first book where I felt deeply connected to the main character. Anne was independent, intelligent, funny, and complex. Reading about her made me want to write my own stories with my own female characters (ones who looked more like me physically), who would have their own adventures. —Crystal Hana Kim, author of the forthcoming If You Leave Me

Arcadia by Tom Stoppard 
I could reach back further and find something childhood-formative, like Michael Ende's Momo or Peter Beagle's The Last Unicorn, but this play came to me at a time when I needed to be slapped around a little with the idea that an intelligent piece of art could also be deeply funny. (I was a Very Serious college freshman.) Preoccupied with math, time, and also the vagaries of style, Arcadia remains so emotionally grounded that its cleverness never tilts into either preciousness or didacticism. It hit me in the heart and the head—I still love it. —Adrienne Celt, author of Invitation to a Bonfire

The Portable Dorothy Parker
The book that comes to mind immediately is Penguin's The Portable Dorothy Parker, which I found on my mom's shelf when I was 12 years old. I only read the poems and epigrams in it, and I thought it was crazy and great that you could become an Important Writer by writing jokey poems about suicide. She was the first of many writers I would fall in love with whose books waste no opportunity for rudeness; I later discovered her rude kindred spirits including Joan Didion, Susan Sontag, Hilton Als, Joy Williams, and Muriel Spark. When I write, I still try to be as big a bitch as possible, and that's because of Dorothy Parker. —Alice Bolin, author of Dead Girls: Essays on Surviving an American Obsession

Little Women by Louise May Alcott
At least twice a year, from childhood through high school, I read Little Women, inspired by the character Jo March, who determined her own fate by writing and selling fiction. We were both strivers: mine that of a Chinese immigrant family’s, Jo’s born out of fallen fortunes. We were outsiders, too: My family was among a handful of Chinese Americans in the suburbs east of San Francisco, and Jo was a whistling tomboy among her ladylike sisters. In her, I found a mirror, even though we didn’t share the same face, place, or era. She was proof that a bookish but feisty girl like her—like me—could get published someday. In rereading Little Women, I’ve found it to be more sanctimonious than I remembered, but it doesn’t change its impact, how it made me feel at more at home because I recognized a character who shared my dreams and ambitions. What I held onto was what I need to make my way in the world. —Vanessa Hua, author of the forthcoming A River of Stars

West with the Night by Beryl Markham 
Beryl Markham's 1942 memoir, which spans her Kenyan childhood and career as a horse trainer and bush pilot, was my mother’s favorite book, and after I inherited her two copies, each underlined and annotated from years of rereading, it became mine as well. For a time, Markham was the only professional pilot in Africa, and she was the first person to fly the Atlantic east to west in a solo, nonstop flight. She wasn’t a writer, but her book is arrestingly beautiful and seductive, and is simply one of the best I’ve ever read. The lyricism of her sentences and observations inspired me to write, while the adventures she shared made me want to travel and see the world as she did. Below is one of my favorite passages.

There are all kinds of silences and each of them means a different thing. There is the silence that comes with morning in a forest, and this is different from the silence of a sleeping city. There is silence after a rainstorm, and before a rainstorm, and these are not the same. There is the silence of emptiness, the silence of fear, the silence of doubt. There is a certain silence that can emanate from a lifeless object as from a chair lately used, or from a piano with old dust upon its keys, or from anything that has answered to the need of a man, for pleasure or for work. This kind of silence can speak. Its voice may be melancholy, but it is not always so; for the chair may have been left by a laughing child or the last notes of the piano may have been raucous and gay. Whatever the mood or the circumstance, the essence of its quality may linger in the silence that follows. It is a soundless echo.

Anya Yurchyshyn, author of My Dead Parents

The Trumpet of the Swan by E.B. White 
I was young, maybe seven or eight, and the book was The Trumpet of the Swan, by E. B. White. It was the first book of his I read, and I can name the scene that got me—it was the one in which Louis the Swan stays at the Ritz after a long day playing his trumpet and swimming ahead of the Swan Boats, and he orders a dozen watercress sandwiches (one with mayonnaise, eleven without), and then goes to sleep in the bathtub. I've always loved a good dining scene in a book. And this one struck me then (and still does now) as a nearly perfect scene for a children's story: imaginative, wildly fanciful, yet also eminently practical in its acknowledgment of the fact that even the most extraordinary, well-traveled, musically gifted swan needs a good supper. I remember reading about that hotel stay of Louis' as a kid and thinking, Man, writing a story like this has to be the best job in the world. So began a childhood pastime of writing mostly terrible, never-completed novels. But I'm still writing today and White is still one of my favorite authors—I've shared all his children's books with my own kids, and I return again and again to his essays, in particular for comfort and inspiration. —Nicole Chung, author of the forthcoming All You Can Ever Know 

Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino 
Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics, the freest, most playful, delightful, and absurd book ever. Proof that the imagination can do anything: string laundry across a single point, arrange for parallel lines to meet in secret. The perfect lightness of fairy tales, applied to the farthest reaches of the imaginable. —Shelley Jackson, author of the forthcoming Riddance: Or, The Sybil Joines Vocational School for Ghost Speakers & Hearing-Mouth Children

Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise by Ruth Reichl
The book that made me start writing was Garlic and Sapphires, by Ruth Reichl. I read this memoir about Reichl's time as the food critic for The New York Times when I was feeling stifled and like my life was missing something. This book is about the fun Reichl had as a food critic, how she kept joy in her life despite all of the challenges, and how much she learned, and it was truly an inspiration to me. I realized how much I needed and wanted to have a creative outlet in my life that would make me discover new things about the world and about myself. I started writing shortly after reading it, and I'm so glad I did. —Jasmine Guillory, author of The Wedding Date

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
The book that made me want to be a writer was Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. I immediately identified with the young orphan, Pip, and his dreams of rising above his humble station. Now, some three decades later, I can easily point to the themes that struck me then and have carried over into my own writing—social class, alienation, wealth, ambition… Not to compare myself with Dickens, but, you know, I have always had pretty great expectations for myself. —Camille Perri, author of When Katie Met Cassidy 


I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
It's about a 17-year-old girl named Cassandra, set in 1930s England in a crumbling castle. Cassandra is a writer, and the book is her diary, and her voice feels so fresh and alive it could have been written today. By the time I was finished reading it, I was sure I wanted to be a writer too. —Jenny Han, author of To All the Boys I've Loved Before

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë 
Jane Eyre, more than any book I've ever read, made me both want to be a writer and it made me aware of a world where arts can be labored over, learned, and fetishized in a way which is creative and ultimately self-satisfying. Jane's world is populated from the first pages with books—she describes specific books, the pictures in them—with paper, and pens, with drawing materials, and, Jane's story for me, has always mostly been one of a young woman working ceaselessly to attain mastery. Mastery over herself and her work, and though I've read plenty of books since where narrative value is placed on self-reliance and hard work, the way that Charlotte Brontë deploys these basic values as specifically important to the creative lives of women was, for me, the match that lit the flame. —Laura June, author of Now My Heart Is Full

Bluets by Maggie Nelson  
Bluets is described as “a lyrical, philosophical, and often explicit exploration of personal suffering and the limitations of vision and love, as refracted through the color blue.” It’s difficult to classify. Are the 240 short sections poems? Prose? Nelson calls them “propositions,” which despite being a reference to pre-Socratic philosophical fragments sounds like an invitation for sex. I liked that this book was impossible to classify, as I felt that my writing, hell, my identity in general, was also this way. After reading Bluets, I saw this resistance as a strength rather than a weakness. Nelson showed me that you can be everything on the page. —Leah Dieterich, author of the forthcoming Vanishing Twins: A Marriage

The Ramona Quimby series by Beverly Cleary
As a kid, I devoured each and every Ramona book by Beverly Cleary. I loved Ramona's eternal curiosity. In fact, I'm channeling her now as I write. I think about how she did things her own way, making herself a crown of burs (that then had to be cut off), splashing her galoshes in every puddle, giving a kid a box of Kleenex for a present, naming her doll Chevrolet, and squeezing an entire tube of toothpaste into the sink JUST TO SEE WHAT IT FELT LIKE. There were repercussions, sure, and messes to be cleaned up, but that's the stuff of creative genius. May we all be more like Ramona as we write. —Jen Doll, author of the forthcoming Unclaimed Baggage

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas  
The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas was a novel that showed me how immersive fiction can be. Sometimes, I would look up from the pages of the revenge tragedy and be surprised to find myself in 20th-century Lagos, instead of 19th-century Paris. I took that book everywhere with me. It made me want to build a world as compelling, with words as my only tools. —Chibundu Onuzo, author of Welcome to Lagos

The Diaries of Anaïs Nin by Anaïs Nin
In high school, a teacher recommended I read The Diaries of Anaïs Nin—an edgy choice but totally perfect for me because at the time I was obsessed with 1920s Paris. I was immediately taken by this vision of a woman casting herself out into the world. That’s what being a writer meant to me, and that’s what I so wanted my own life to be. It would be a long time before I realized that a writer’s life is largely—and much less glamorously—spent sitting around alone in a room and thinking, but I’ve never really given up that vision of writing as an act of daring and radical self-invention. —Jasmin Darznik, author of Song of a Captive Bird


Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson
I can’t really remember a time when I wasn’t reading and writing, so it’s hard to recall one book that made me want to be a writer, but there were definitely certain formative books that broke open my sense of what writing could be, what a writer could do.  One of them was Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red; I was a budding classics nerd when I first read it, either in late eighth grade or early freshman year of high school, and Carson’s work was world-upturning: the formal experimentation of its novel-in-verse, the fact that it was basically high-brow fanfiction, and its sharp, playful attention to how the world makes not just an artist (which the red-winged Geryon, the book’s protagonist, eventually becomes) but a person.  Most of all I remember it being agonizingly tender, and, if not exactly fearless, then fear-facing—keenly tuned into the questions that follow all of us, artists or not: What does your childhood make of you?  What does it feel like to desire, badly; to have a friend; to build a life; to know another person; to be known, especially by yourself? —Elaine Castillo, author of America Is Not the Heart


Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbit 
When I was nine years old, I read a book called Anastasia Krupnik by Lois Lowry. Anastasia lived in a book-lined apartment in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with her novelist father and painter mother. Something about the depiction of her writer father struck me as aspirational, and it lodged itself in the back of my mind. A year later, when I was 10, I read Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbit and it was this book, the one that taught me about metaphors (among them that life is a Ferris wheel, and at some point, every one of us has to get off) that catalyzed my drive to spend my life doing for others (and by proxy, for myself) what Natalie Babbit did for me; namely, building metaphors that made the unwieldy circumstances of life feel more manageable to all of us. —Amanda Stern, author of Little Panic: Dispatches from an Anxious Life

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote 
Probably the first book I read that made me want to be a writer was Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Before moving into fiction, I was a journalist and nonfiction author, so I value research, and Capote’s investigation of this true crime was extensive and fascinating. I was a young teen when I first read it, but even then I was drawn to truth as storytelling, and the fact that parts of it were fictionalized resonated as a way to add interest and/or step away from fact to create more compelling characters. The triple narrative was also appealing, and today I enjoy writing multiple viewpoints in many of my books. And the overall quality of the writing—vibrant prose and perfect pacing—is something to emulate. —Ellen Hopkins, author of the forthcoming People Kill People

Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes
I was 13 when our well-meaning and enthusiastic Spanish literature teacher assigned Don Quixote to our class. While I am sure the book was too difficult for our age, and that I missed entirely in my first reading the nuances of the work, the world of a man who loves to read so much that he loses his mind—well, this, I absorbed with a passion. It was the first time too that I understood the wonder of books. The fact that words had survived in their magical, paperbound vehicle since the 1600s so that I could hold them and be nurtured by them in the 1990s moved me deeply. In the way we emulate what we love, I began to write my own very short stories after reading Don Quixote. They featured people who hallucinated realities of their own. —Ingrid Rojas Contreras, author of Fruit of the Drunken Tree

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg  
I loved so much about this book—that it took place in New York City, where I lived. That it was a mystery. That it was about kids running away to a museum, which did (and still does) seem like the most wonderful idea in the world. But mostly, it was that the narrator’s voice was so present and so clear, so much so that it was the first book where I realized that someone was crafting this—that there was someone behind the curtain, creating this narrator who was telling the story, and pulling all these wonderful strings. And I remember thinking, I want to do that too. —Morgan Matson, author of Save the Date

Rabbit, Run by John Updike 
For me, that book was Rabbit, Run by John Updike, which I read during my first semester of undergrad. I was studying to be a screenwriter, and most of my classes were about film but I took a narrative fiction class as an elective, and this was the first book we were assigned. I loved how dark and sexy it was, how Rabbit—the protagonist—stayed unlikeable and irredeemable and petulant to the very end. It was unlike anything I’d been assigned to read in high school, a big beautiful big middle finger to an English department cannon. And the prose is so lovely, I can still quote lines of description from memory. Reading it made me want to subvert expectations, break rules, be a little bit naughty… unsurprising, as I’ve always had a soft spot for bad boys. —Siobhan Vivian, author of Stay Sweet

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith  
The book that made me want to be a writer is A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which stars a girl named Francie Nolan, who grew up hardscrabble and dirt-poor in early 21st-century Brooklyn. Francie's favorite teacher told her that in life, she should tell the truth of the way things happened, but that in the stories she wrote, she could write life the way it should be. Francie took that advice to heart, and I learned from her. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn showed me that writing was a way to translate and transcend the wrenching experience of living, especially as a female, and I needed that. —Alison McGhee, author of What I Leave Behind

Breathe, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat
I read Edwidge Danticat's Breath Eyes Memory for the first time in high school then read it over and over again, not because of the content of the story but because of the way the story was told. Danticat’s language stuns in its spareness, her dialogue is true to the ear, and she lays bare the richness of a culture with simple details: the names of the neighborhood children, the logistics of playing the community lottery. That was why I liked the book, but I only recently realized why it made me want to write. Reading her work introduced me to a form that I thought might be accessible to me. In her style, I recognized my own budding inclinations. —Margaret Wilkerson Sexton, author of A Kind of Freedom 

The Secret of the Old Clock by Carolyn Keene  
Many books made me want to write, but Carolyn Keene's The Secret of the Old Clock (the first in the Nancy Drew mystery series) was the one that earned my mother’s complaint, “The house could burn down, and you’d have your nose in a book.” It taught me the power of reading (I loved knowing I would have that if all else failed) and also the power of its female detective, who could solve anything, no matter how they scoffed. Carolyn Keene was not a real person but a syndicate—very good I didn’t know that when I wanted to be her. —Joan Silber, author of Improvement 

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Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for The Met Museum/Vogue

"I am honored to share this bonding experience with my own daughter"

In a heart-warming Instagram photo, Serena Williams shares the history of hair braiding and the importance of the tradition. The tennis player shared a photo of herself braiding her daughter Olympia Ohanian's hair and spoke about how "honored" she was to be able to "add another generation" to the tradition of the practice.

The photo shows Williams attentively braiding her daughter's hair while Olympia smiles, obviously loving the experience. Williams noted that hair braiding was created by the Himba people in Namibia, Africa, and that "we have been braiding our hair for centuries." "In many African tribes braided hairstyles were a unique way to identify each tribe," she continued.

Williams pointed out that braiding is a bonding experience. "People would often take the time to socialize," she wrote. "It began with the elders braiding their children, then the children would watch and learn from them. The tradition of bonding was carried on for generations, and quickly made its way across the world."

Williams closed her post with a sweet message about her daughter, saying that she's "honored to share this bonding experience" with her.

See the post, below.

Courtesy of Adidas

The Stan Smiths are a must-have

Adidas just shared its capsule of sneakers paying tribute to Keith Haring, and TBH I can already feel my wallet emptying (and they're not even on sale yet). The new collection features three shoe silhouettes, all including the late artist's iconic imagery as embroidered designs.

The standout style of the collection is the Rivalry hi-top; with bright blue and orange stripes and piping along the edges, Haring's stars and cartoon bodies, in black thread, pop right off. If you're looking for something less over-the-top, the quirky white Nizza Hi RF sneakers show a snake wrapping around the back of the shoe and chasing one of Haring's cartoon bodies toward the toe. There's also a minimal embroidered design on the toe of a classic Stan Smith pair. Look a little more closely at the tongue though, and you'll notice the traditional image has been swapped with a caricature of Haring himself.

Peep the three silhouettes, below, and set your calendar for the official drop at the end of the month.

Adidas, Rivalry Hi Keith Haring Shoes, $120, available at Adidas starting at 10am EST on June 30.

Adidas, Nizza Hi RF Haring Shoes, $120, available at Adidas starting at 10am EST on June 30.

Adidas, Stan Smith Keith Haring Shoes, $120, available at Adidas starting at 10am EST on June 30.

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Photos by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images, Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

Hopefully this one will be typo-free

In an Instagram Live on Thursday, Taylor Swift announced that she would be creating a collaboration with fashion designer Stella McCartney inspired by her upcoming Lover album. Although she kept it vague, we can only assume that the two are working on a collection of luxe merch.

Swift noted in the announcement that she has been friends with McCartney "for a really long time," and that the designer already heard the new album. "I respect what she creates, how she creates it," Swift continued. "There's so much whimsy and imagination and romance to the clothing that she designs." Swift has been wearing McCartney's designs "a lot recently," so maybe we should have seen the collab coming.

One eagle-eyed fan pointed out that Swift wore Stella McCartney rainbow-hued shoes during her Wango Tango set. If the collab is anything like these shoes, you can bet I'll be copping it as quick as I can.

Swift detailed in her Instagram Live that the album Lover would be all about romance, which makes McCartney and her feminine designs perfect for the collaboration. We just hope that this collection doesn't have any typos, like some of Swift's "ME!" merch did.

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Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images

And spreads the message that "we all got crowns"

Late on Thursday, Taylor Swift dropped a new single, "You Need To Calm Down," and announced her forthcoming studio album, Lover, out this August. Following her lead single "ME!" Swift continues to spread her message of self-love and call out haters—particularly the homophobic ones—in this latest song.

Swift "ended homophobic locals," as one fan put it on Twitter, with one particular lyric: "'Cause shade never made anybody less gay."

Along with the song, Swift shared a lyric video via YouTube which made her sentiments even clearer. With her lyric, "Why are you made?/ When you could be glad?" she spelled "glad" as "GLAAD," referencing the queer media advocacy organization.

Swift sings of homophobic protestors in the second verse: "Sunshine on the street at the parade/ But you would rather be in the dark ages/ Makin' that sign must've taken all night." In the pre-chorus, she adds, "You just need to take several seats and then try to restore the peace/ And control your urges to scream about all the people you hate."

Swift additionally comments on women being pitted against each other—"We see you over there on the internet comparing all the girls who are killin' it"—asserting that "we all got crowns." There's nothing trolls can do to rain on her parade anymore.

One fan pointed out the possible symbolism of the crown lyric. In "Call It What You Want," track 14 on Reputation, she sings "They took the crown but it's alright." Now on "You Need To Calm Down," track 14 of Lover, she sings that there's not just one crown—we all have them.

Some fans are pointing to the double meaning of the track title. If I had a dollar for every time someone said those words to me in a totally condescending way, I'd probably be richer than her! What woman hasn't been told to calm down about an entirely not-calm situation or while expressing their distaste?

During Swift's live stream for the release of the song, she also announced a fashion collaboration with designer Stella McCartney, a peek of which we got during the singer's WangoTango performance.

Lover is set for August 23 release.

Credit: Frederick Elmes/ Focus Features

"I was like, 'Did I sleep with this critic's girlfriend, or what?'"

The day I meet Jim Jarmusch, the sun hangs so bright and hot and yellow and solid in the sky that it's hard to believe that it will actually set at night. It's one of those New York June days that suggests we might be in permanent daylight; it's got a completely different feeling than the crepuscular atmosphere of Jarmusch's latest film, The Dead Don't Die, which takes place in a small town in what feels like one long twilight, maybe the last one.

But for today, Jarmusch and I are sitting at a table in a sun-filled restaurant, though we're in the shade. We're in a part of the city that used to be very punk rock, and is now very NYU, yet being there with Jarmusch, who looks so at home, like he's holding court in the booth (it helps that Larry Fessenden, an old friend of Jarmusch's and a writer/director/producer/actor, who appears in The Dead Don't Die, happens by the table to say hi), makes the area feel a little punk rock again, even with all the sun.

The Dead Don't Die is a very punk rock zombie movie, by which I mean: It's not very scary, but it is very cool, and even when it's sneering, it's a little bit tender. Starring Bill Murray, Adam Driver, and Chloë Sevigny as a trio of small-town cops who fight back against a nascent zombie apocalypse caused by fracking, the film is cast with a who's who of Jarmusch regulars, like Steve Buscemi, Tilda Swinton, Iggy Pop, and Fessenden, to name a few; but it also features younger stars like Caleb Landry Jones, Selena Gomez, and Luka Sabbat—and there's a real earworm of a theme song, courtesy of Sturgill Simpson.

Below, I speak with Jarmusch about the movie, being a dilettante, and why he only reads his negative reviews—which is definitely one of the most punk rock things I've ever heard.

Photo by Gareth Cattermole/ Getty Images

This was filmed on a pretty condensed shooting schedule, right?
It was a very rough schedule. A very difficult one, actually.

We only had seven weeks to shoot, and we had to shoot Adam Driver out in three weeks because he had to be delivered to Star Wars, and the financing of the film was incredibly grueling and took a long time, so we were pushed so far that we had about one month of prep, and then three weeks with Adam. And then all these different actors coming in and out; I don't know how Carter and Josh, the two producers, organized it all. And then we'd shoot 15-hour days, and halfway through, I had walking pneumonia; I had two coats; it was 95 out; I was shaking. You know, just weird stuff like that. But it's all okay because we had such great people—our crew—everybody. And then, the visual effects were very taxing and complicated.

How did that all work together? Because there's more than one decapitated head.
Yeah, it's a mixture. First of all, we mixed prosthetics with makeup with masks for some of the zombie stuff, but all of those effects with the decapitations, we had to just imagine. So we had to choreograph everything and then only imagine kind of what it would be like, which was, for me, very abstract because I'm not very versed in visual effects. You know, you had to really kind of trust your instincts, because Adam Driver's chopping away with a machete with no blade.

It could've been a machete, it could've been a lightsaber, who knows? So, to what degree is this a sequel of Paterson with Adam Driver's character's last name being Peterson?
Well, I just do these things to amuse myself while writing, you know? Bill Murray in Broken Flowers was named Don Johnson, and in this, I gave him the name Cliff Robertson. Tilda Swinton's character is Zelda Winston. Rosie Perez is named Posie Juarez. You know, I'm just kind of amusing myself.

And Peterson, Paterson. While we were filming Paterson I was always teasing Adam that the next one, we would make was gonna be a sequel about a psychopathic murderous bus driver named Peterson. Tag line: "Get the fuck off my bus!" Or "Next Stop Hell!" You know, stuff like that. It's just to make them... I love trying to make Adam Driver laugh, because he has a very odd and wonderful sense of humor, but it's on the dry side, so I'm always joking around with him between work to try and see what makes him laugh.

But yeah, there's no sequel of any kind, and I don't think that way, and I don't plan, and I don't see my films from the past ever again. I just look toward the next thing.

Credit: Frederick Elmes/ Focus Features

What was the original concept for this? When did you start coalescing all of these different elements into knowing that you wanted it to be your next film?
Some years ago after Only Lovers Left Alive, Tilda kept teasing me, calling me, saying, "When do we do the zombies? When are we doing the zombies?" And in between I made Paterson and Gimme Danger, but then after those I started writing the zombie one, and my original conception was: I wanna make a film that's really funny and silly like Coffee and Cigarettes, where people talk about whatever nonsense I want them to, and I want to get actors I love, you know? So I thought, okay, if I make a zombie film, I can have a structure where different groups are cordoned off against the zombies, and the zombie attacks will be intermittent and not very long, so I'll have long lags where they're just stuck there, like in the house of The Night of the Living Dead, where they can talk about any kind of nonsense. So that was my first idea, and then when I started writing it, for some reason, I wanted to have a small town, Centerville, and I just followed my intuition, and it became this, I don't really know why beyond that.

What is it about small towns that make them the perfect setting for existential terror?
They're insular. They're kind of… everyone kind of knows each other. It's controllable by the characters. It's believable that everyone kind of know each other. I don't know. I'm not very good at analyzing that. And also, this is not a horror film because horror films use devices that are necessary to frighten people, like suspense, and then you get scared. We have no interest whatsoever in that. This is more of a metaphorical zombie film, but I would not call it a horror movie. It's a comedy with zombies with a kind of sad ending. Beyond that, I don't know what it is.

And horror nerds may not like it if they're expecting creepy, creepy, scary thing! They're not gonna get it. They're not gonna get that delivered to them.

What's interesting about it is seeing who fights back against this existential dread. Or, like, Chloë Sevigny's character, Mindy, doesn't fight, she is on her own separate trip, avoiding the end till she embraces it.
It's a character film. It's not even a plot film, really, although critics say that about all my films. But Chloë… it's a complicated thing, because when I first called Chloë, I told her... I wrote her a letter, and then she said, "Yeah, yeah I'd like to do this." And I said, obviously, this is not a feminist character. She's reactive. She's our sort of "Scream Queen." She screams like six times. But Chloë is the master of reaction, and I love watching her react.

She definitely feels like a stand-in for what a normal person would feel during these absurdist experiences, which is nice to have. It's not necessarily that you need a relatable character in a movie like this, but...
Yeah, but she's an empathetic human that's in a job with some authority, but in a small town where that means taking care of whatever, you know, as a police officer, pretty minimal [stuff]. There's not a lot of rampant crime or anything going on… or anything at all, really.

Credit : Frederick Elmes / Focus Features

A lot of people are going to be projecting tons of different meanings onto this film, like with all your films. To what level do you participate in that or pay attention to that? Or, once you're done making a film, is it just out there, and you just let people project onto it whatever they will?
I've always felt that anyone's interpretation of a film that I write and direct is probably more valid than my own. Because it's a funny thing, the beauty of films is going into a world—or a book or whatever—but going into a world that you don't know, and you are entering a world, and it takes you. And if you wrote it, and you were there filming it, and you're in the editing room every day for six months, the mix, and all that... I can never possibly see it. I like hearing what friends or people I know... I like Q and As after screenings because they have no agenda except their interest. I like that a lot, and I value that. I don't really like to read a lot of reviews unless they're really negative. I love the negative ones.

You do?
Yeah, because they must be very far from me in their perception of the world, and that is interesting to me. But I try not to read a lot...

I think you're probably the first person who I've ever spoken to who says they like to read the negative reviews.
I really like them. The worst one I ever got in my life, I laminated and used to carry in my wallet. It was a brief thing from a right-wing French [paper], maybe Le Figaro or something, of a film called Dead Man that we made, and they said—this is the English translation—"The French intelligence celebrates Jarmusch in the way death and blind parents would celebrate their retarded child. Jarmusch is 33 years old, the same age as Christ when he was crucified. We can only hope the same for his film career." I was like, Whoa! That is harsh! I'm keeping that one!

It gets personal.
But that was vicious. I was like, Did I sleep with this critic's girlfriend, or what? What happened? It was really... the knife was sharpened, you know.

That speaks to a very specific kind of agenda for sure.
A friend of mine Amos Poe, he's sort of a mentor of mine, a punk filmmaker, whatever, and when we were young when he made, in the late-'70s, one of his films—The Foreigner or Unmade Beds—the New York Times called it "the cinematic equivalent of kindergarten scribbling," and he put that on his posters and put "New York Times" and we were like punks, we were like, "Yes! Amos! That's great!"

I mean, it genuinely is a pretty great pull quote, and I think also a little bit oblivious to the charms of a kindergartener's scribbles and what the value is in that anyway.
Yeah, it was kind of accurate in a positive way, and they intended it as very negative.

In this film, there are so many actors who are veteran actors, but there are also a lot of younger actors. What do you like about the combination of that dynamic?
I just like the variety of sort of world perceptions—indicated in a very minor way when Bill Murray's character says, "I've known Hermit Bob since we were in junior high," and Adam's character says, "Oh, wow! That must've been like 50 years ago!" And Bill says, "Yeah. It was." But just the kind of difference of perception of age I find as I get older really interesting. And I'm very interested in young people, especially teenagers, because I think they form our sense of style, of music, of so many things, and yet they're kind of pushed around and treated badly and constantly told, "You don't know how the world really works! You're just a teenager!" But they gave us poetry. They gave us Mary Shelley and Rimbaud and chess masters, and all the great music comes a lot from teenagers. So I tried to keep a pulse, that's why the three teenagers, I would not let them turn into zombies. There are only four people [who don't get turned by zombies]: those three that are delinquents, and the Tom Waits character, who's already removed himself from the social order long before.

When the zombies become zombies, they all have one inciting thing that they're still pursuing in the real world. Do you have one thing that you think you would pursue if you were a zombie?
You know, it's hard because I'm a self-proclaimed dilettante. I'm interested in so many things, I don't know if I would be breaking into a bookstore, or if I would be in the alley outside of a movie theater, or if I would be trying to get into a guitar shop. I'm not sure. I have a lot of interests.

I mean there's a way in which it's a really tender portrayal of the human impulse to just seek out these things that they love.
It's not totally a critique; it's their vestigial memory of some things that they were drawn toward, whether it was power tools or oxycontin.

The Dead Don't Die is in theaters now.

Credit: Frederick Elmes/ Focus Features