Taking on a self-everything world with his first raspberry, er, novel

Although you're the author of 10 works of nonfiction, a journalist and a playwright, Lapham Rising is your first novel. Why write a novel now?

After three decades of writing essays, I still wanted to do creative work. I wondered, what's the point of living a whole life if you're not willing to try to do what you want to do? Three years ago I stopped writing for Time; now I've practically dropped everything but the TV pieces in favor of fiction. I've been an essayist primarily, but this book is just as serious a comment on the themes that have always concerned me: self-aggrandizement, ostentation, the spoiling of nature.

Does it come as easily to you?

I'm an amateur at this. When I started out writing, I thought I would be a poet, and I studied poetry with Robert Lowell at Harvard. But I didn't have talent or patience, especially patience. I wanted to be noticed, and being a journalist was a way to be noticed. But to be able to start the day and dream into my subject, not to turn to my notes, not to look at a quotation—not to do any of the other things I do as a journalist—to wonder about Harry March [Rosenblatt's cranky novelist protagonist living in the Hamptons] and what he'll do next... the novel is the product of a mood and state of mind entirely free.

Is Harry March like you?

He's nuts—that helps—totally antisocial, unfit for human company. And we share the same work, the same worldview: that the world today is self-absorbed, self-promoting, indeed self-everything, involved only with the ego. What Harry prefers is a quieter view of life, a time when people thought of others. Harry is odd and funny—sometimes intentionally. And, as it is for Harry, Dr. Johnson's "The Vanity of Human Wishes" is certainly one of my favorite poems. Johnson spoke for the modest, reasonable man.

He also, famously, wrote essays—

A satirical novel is like an essay standing on its head and sticking out its tongue. The point comes through the back door.

And that has trumped journalism for now?

Although journalism supported me and my family, I think I'll stay with satire—it seems to suit my nature, and I would rather make people laugh. If they're laughing at it, then they're agreeing with it.