Where are you from?
The answer to that depends on how much time you have. I live in Cambridge, Massachusetts now and consider myself a Bostonian. I grew up in a series of Midwestern suburbs, and lived in the Kansas City area for most of my teens and 20s.
What is considered good manners in Kansas City and what is considered good manners in Boston differ entertainingly.
Who are your favorite writers?
In nonfiction, there’s too many to name! Read the bibliography of Mind Over Manners—that will give you somewhere to start.
I’ve always read a lot of humor—"serious" humor—and that’s influenced my writing a lot. I particularly enjoy the work of Peg Bracken, author of I Try to Behave Myself, The I Hate to Cook Book, and the I Hate to Housekeep Book, along with Jean Kerr, David Sedaris, and Florence King.
I read a lot of novels and short stories—some of my favorite fiction writers are Stephen King, Ruth Rendell, Nancy Kress, Alison Lurie, Scott Spencer, James Wilcox, Iris Murdoch, Lionel Shriver, Jane Smiley, Stephen Macauley, Ian McEwan, and Jonathan Carroll. Mostly, stories about normal middle-class people whose lives suddenly get up-ended (by anything from an unexpectedly Baptist in-law to a haunted hotel) and how they cope with the ensuing chaos.
Which book/books have had the biggest influence on your writing?
The humorists I mention have helped shape my voice and sensibility. In terms of how I think about social interaction, I’ve been strongly influenced by Dan McAdams’ The Stories that We Live By, which analyzes life as an ongoing project to tell a coherent story about ourselves. Erving Goffman’s Stigma looks at how we adjust when that story, for some reason, becomes complicated and discreditable in the eyes of others. Rosabeth Moss Kanter’s Men and Women of the Organization has helped me think through the ways that people attempt to get their needs met in organizations.
What are your hobbies and outside interests?
It seems that everything I do—from playing with Milo to my job at Harvard Business School to serving on a local theater board—finds its way into the column, so I’m not sure I can claim to have any outside interests! I’ve always wanted to be one of those sexy-hobby people ("in her spare time, Robin is a black belt in Tae Kwon Do, restores medieval tapestries, brews her own ginger ale, and writes romance novels under the name Natasha Kansinsky") but I’m afraid it’s not to be. When I have free time I like to lie on the couch with my dog and read novels. Does that count as an "outside interest"?
What is the single best piece of advice anyone ever gave you?
It wasn’t advice per se, but my mother taught me the life lesson that neither kindness nor intelligence is worth much without the other. Mostly, she taught me this by the example of her own intelligent kindness working in the world. Sometimes, she taught me this by meanly but hilariously mocking those whom she believed to be deficient in one of those two qualities. Never to their faces, though.
What is your favorite quote?
This should be something I can change on a regular basis. We can start off with the book’s epigraph:
"People come at life from different places, they understand the world in different ways, they strive for different ends. This is a fact that has proved amazingly hard to live with…"—Louis Menand
What is the question most commonly asked by your readers? What is the answer?
Question: Who’s right?
Answer: It depends.
What inspired you to write your first book?
My readers! When I realized that most of the questions I got reflected uncertainty of how to gracefully navigate diversity of values, priorities, and experiences, I knew what this book would be about.
"If my slight Muse do please these curious days,
The pain be mine, but thine shall be the praise."
William Shakespeare, Sonnet 38
Where do you write?
Mostly at home, in the same room with my husband and dog, taking frequent breaks for tea or tug-of-war.