His hair is salt grey, his skin on the spectrum between raw steak and ripe plum. Tattoos of Japanese wraiths begin below the elbow and disappear under rolled up sleeves. In his denim shirt, jeans and battered Converse trainers, he looks like the last Ramone standing.
I ask if he was on the lookout for material at the White House while he enjoyed the beef braciole with horseradish gremolata prepared by Mario Batali. “Always, every second of my breathing life I’m thinking ‘I wonder if I could do something with this,’” he answers.
Last October, Finnegan was surfing the back end of Hurricane Joaquin at Lido Beach when he found himself in a losing race for a good-looking set. Before taking the wave, the other guy glanced over his shoulder, did a double take and shouted: “If you’re who I think you are, good book!”
“It has always felt like me and my friends making things,” he says. “Play doesn’t mean it’s always fun and frivolous. You can play with the deepest ideas. Play can be melancholy and surreal and dig into deeper things, as long as you’re coming at it with a sense of exploration.”
“I, of course, would want to see a woman president. I hope it doesn’t have to be a millionaire that’s married to an ex-president for that to happen,” she says. “I’m more afraid of Hillary Clinton’s war record and her hawkishness than I am of building a wall, but that doesn’t mean that I would vote for Trump.”
I had been expecting the man who borrowed “silence, exile and cunning” as a defence mechanism from James Joyce’s alter ego, Stephen Dedalus. Perhaps he is less afraid of being misunderstood now that his place in the canon is assured. I found him happy to engage and not the least bit prickly or evasive.
All novelists hope for a passionate response to their work. Yanagihara set out to provoke one. “It is a book of extremes, in as many ways as I could make it,” she says. “Extreme suffering and extreme elation, extreme despair and extreme love, extreme poverty, in all senses of the world, and extreme wealth… The worst thing you can have as a writer is a shrug of the shoulders.”
“I didn’t know that it was going to be such a serious meditation on the post-Civil War era,” he says. “And I had no idea that events in the news would be corresponding with the themes we were dealing with. You’ve got institutional racism running rampant in this country. We’ve got into a polarised, lines drawn camp that we haven’t experienced since the Civil War.”
Bennett says the same few things to anyone that asks. He has been saying them for decades and will keep on saying them. They’re not just stories he tells any more: they’ve become a belief system that explains why he’s still around, and still relevant, when all of his contemporaries are gone.
A few minutes before our scheduled meeting, I am installed in the corridor outside Spielberg’s room. An Italian journalist is gushing about the film as he leaves. “It’s like John Ford doing John Le Carre,” he says. “I like that,” replies Spielberg. “Print that.”