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Nothing is predictable about Oprah Winfrey's book picks - except for their sales.
Once associated with inspirational narratives such as Jacqueline Mitchard's "The Deep End of the Ocean," Winfrey has been increasingly willing to take on the most challenging books and the most challenging writers.
Over the past few years, she has recommended novels by Faulkner, Tolstoy and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, even as she advocates diet and self-help books, such as Rhonda Byrne's million-selling "The Secret," when not choosing works for her club.
On Tuesday, she announced her new club selection: Jeffrey Eugenides' "Middlesex," a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel narrated by a hermaphrodite - someone with both male and female sexual organs - and aired a talk with her previous pick, Cormac McCarthy, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author's first ever television interview.
"I am proud to be in the same company as Tolstoy and Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy," Eugenides said in an interview from his home in Chicago.
"The image Oprah Winfrey has had just isn't true," said Jonathan Galassi, publisher of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, which released Eugenides' novel in 2002. "It seems that the club has been going more up market. I think she must have found that readers responded well to those kinds of books."
The 73-year-old McCarthy has spoken with the press just twice before - both times for print publications - in the past 40 years, but he opened up for Winfrey. The author said he has nothing against the media; he just doesn't like talking about what he does - a trait Winfrey illustrated with a story about how McCarthy, when he had no money years ago, refused a speaking engagement that would have paid him $2,000.
"You work your side of the street, I'll work mine," he said in an interview that was taped at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico.
Dressed in a blue work shirt open at the collar and tan slacks, the author looked trim and much younger than his age. He sat slouched in an arm chair and spoke calmly, carefully, in a low, rumbling voice. His answers were thoughtful, even when the questions seemed to make him a bit uncomfortable, as when Winfrey asked whether "The Road" was "a love story to your son."
"It was kind of refreshing how he didn't seem to be aware of the camera, or play to the camera at all, as so-called professional authors do," Eugenides said.
Known for his rural settings, biblical prose and affinity for bygone worlds, McCarthy said that while typically he doesn't know where the ideas for his books originate, he can trace "The Road" to a trip he took with his young son to El Paso, Texas, about four years ago.
There, standing at the window of a hotel in the middle of the night, his son asleep nearby, he started to imagine what El Paso might look like 50 or 100 years in the future.
"I just had this image of these fires up on the hill ... and I thought a lot about my little boy," said McCarthy, whose previous books include "Blood Meridian" and "All the Pretty Horses."
He said he wrote some of his thoughts down and didn't really think about it again until he was in Ireland a few years later and the novel came to him.
"There was a book, and it was about that man and that little boy," he said.
"The Road," this year's winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, is about a father and his son as they wander through a barren post-nuclear landscape. It is dedicated to McCarthy's son, John Francis, and the author acknowledged that he wouldn't have written it had he not had a son.
Having a child as an older man also had its effect on McCarthy. "It wrenches you up out of your nap and makes you look at things fresh," he said. "It forces the world on you, and I think it's a good thing."
Winfrey was clearly fascinated with McCarthy's life, particularly the time when he was so poor that he once was tossed out of a $40-a-month hotel because he couldn't pay his bill.
He told a story of living in a "shack in Tennessee," having so little money that he could not afford to buy toothpaste when he ran out, only to discover a free sample of toothpaste in his mailbox.
"Just when things were really, really bleak something would happen," he said.
Many authors jump or weep for joy upon receiving the word from Winfrey, publishing's swiftest and surest path to the top of best seller lists. But McCarthy's apparent indifference to having hundreds of thousands of new readers baffled and charmed the talk show host.
"You are a different kind of author, let me tell you," she said, chuckling.
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Oprah Winfrey: http://www.oprah.com
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