The star and creator of the musical “Hamilton” says “Things Fall Apart” was his favorite book to teach at Hunter College High School: “The kids walk out of the classroom as different people.”
What books are currently on your night stand?
“The Wayfinders,” by Wade Davis; “Between Riverside and Crazy,” by Stephen Adly Guirgis; and “Unabrow,” by Una LaMarche.
What’s the last great book you read?
The last great book I read was catching up on “Saga,” the graphic novel series. An incredible world in which to get lost.
Which writers — novelists, playwrights, critics, journalists, poets — working today do you admire most?
Too many to list, really, not that I won’t try: Junot Díaz, Liz Gilbert, Patrick Rothfuss, Wesley Morris, Michael Chabon, Martín Espada, Sarah Kay. . . . I mean, I better quit while I’m ahead.
What genres do you especially enjoy reading? And which do you avoid?
I’m a biography buff. My favorite book growing up was “Chuck Amuck,” by Chuck Jones. I think I bought it as a kid because of the included flip-book: flip the pages, and Wile E. Coyote chases the Road Runner down the margins of the page. But it’s also one of the most beautiful books about the creative process I’ve ever read. Grabbing Chernow’s Hamilton bio rather famously changed my life, but I’ve also gotten lost in the works of Doris Kearns Goodwin, Robert Caro. Agassi’s astounding autobiography and David Foster Wallace’s Federer essay turned me into an avid tennis fan. Once I’ve spent some time in someone else’s life, it’s hard to shake.
What moves you most in a work of literature?
I’m most in awe of novelists, who move sets, lights, scenery, and act out all the parts in your mind for you. My kind of writing requires collaboration with others to truly ignite. But I think of Dickens, or Cervantes, or Márquez, or Morrison, and I can describe to you the worlds they paint and inhabit. To engender empathy and create a world using only words is the closest thing we have to magic.
What are the best books ever written about the theater? Do you have a personal favorite?
“Act One,” by Moss Hart. “Everything Was Possible,” by Ted Chapin. The “Rent” book. Patti LuPone’s autobiography — bring popcorn for that last one. Also, the Maya Angelou autobio that chronicles her touring with “Porgy & Bess” — I haven’t read it since high school, but her evocation of that experience has stayed with me.
What kind of reading do you do while writing? How do you read in order to prepare for or inform your own writing?
For “Hamilton,” the inspiration began with Ron Chernow’s book, but the research continued with many other indispensable books: his collected writings, edited by Joanne Freeman. Her book “Affairs of Honor” was very helpful in understanding dueling at the time. “The Heartbreak of Aaron Burr,” by H. W. Brands, helped unlock Burr for me. I found Joseph Ellis invaluable, as well as Jon Meacham’s Jefferson bio. I read until I feel like I can say, “I know how that feels” or “I know that person.” I have to find my way into each person, and the only way I know how is empathy and research.
Do you often read with an eye toward possible adaptation, or was “Hamilton” an exception?
Almost never. I read for fun. “Hamilton” grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and wouldn’t let go.
Are there works of fiction that you find capture the theater world particularly well?
The Nate series by Tim Federle is a wonderful evocation of what it’s like to be a theater kid. Highly recommended.
What’s the last book that made you cry?
My wife’s favorite book is “Moby-Dick,” which I finally read last year. I cried several times — it’s a force.
The last book that made you laugh?
“The Rap Year Book,” by Shea Serrano, is required reading for hip-hop fans and hip-hop newbies alike. It’s also the funniest thing I’ve read in years.
The last book that made you furious?
A young adult series that I liked at the beginning but that went down inflames as it went on. I’d rather not catch any literary beefs by naming the author.
When you were an English teacher at Hunter College High School, what was your favorite book to teach?
“Things Fall Apart,” by Chinua Achebe. Mr. Achebe evokes his world so brilliantly that the last sentence is one of the all-time great gut punches in the history of literature. The kids walk out of the classroom as different people.
Who is your favorite fictional hero or heroine? Your favorite antihero or villain?
My favorite fictional heroes are Oscar Wao, Ender Wiggin and Jane Eyre. I don’t believe in villains.
What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?
I read a lot. Louis Sachar, Madeleine L’Engle, Roald Dahl, Shel Silverstein, Judy Blume, Beverly Cleary are the patron saints that come to mind.
If you had to name one book that made you who you are today, what would it be?
We were assigned “Nilda,” by Nicholasa Mohr, when I was in sixth grade, and it rocked my world — maybe the first book I’d read about Puerto Ricans growing up in New York, like me. I still think of it whenever I pass through certain parts of East Harlem — I remember experiencing them through Nilda.
If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be?
“Common Sense,” by Thomas Paine — that’s the spark to the tinder of our founding.
Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?
I’ve never gotten through “Infinite Jest” — I’ve literally read every one of Wallace’s essays, and enjoy his writing immensely, but I’m embarrassed to confess I’ve never have the time or patience to finish the big one.
Whom would you want to write your life story?
I don’t know. I suppose I better do some things of note.
What do you plan to read next?
Well, I picked up Chernow’s Hamilton bio at random the week before I went on vacation. I just like wandering the bookstore and surprising myself.