My Life in Books
What’s your favourite book of all time?
I can re-read Samuel Pepys’s diaries repeatedly – he shines a light on another age and reminds us that circumstances change but human nature doesn’t. I enjoy his dexterity in moving seamlessly between personal events and the important happenings of his day. And his self-absorption makes me laugh.
What book made you want to become a writer?
Short stories motivated me: favourites range from Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard To Find with its marriage of the macabre and the everyday, to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper which charts a woman’s descent into madness. Maeve Brennan’s short stories, dealing with repression and relationships turned brittle by it, are thought-provoking. Sad, of course, but it can’t always be happy ever afters.
Any books you’d recommend to people?
Margaret Atwood The Handmaid’s Tale for the chilling world it invokes and its ambiguous ending (I like that equivocal aspect to Ian McEwan’s Atonement, too); Joseph O’Connor’s Star of the Sea for being that rare beast a literary page-turner; Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and follow-up Bring Up The Bodies, because she redefines historical fiction.
The best book to start a book club?
The Collected Works of AJ Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin because it is a shop window for the wisdom contained in books, and sells us on the value of sharing the insights found in books with other people. It’s a novel about the power and value of community, and a deceptively simple read. This is important because book clubs started with 800-pagers like The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt will cause some members to drop out.
Charlotte Bronte because she has Jane Eyre step out from between the pages of a book and speak directly to us: “Reader, I married him.” In so doing, she dismantled one of the barriers between writer and reader, and shows how and why the best stories fundamentally are about forging a connection – giving us a compelling reason to keep reading.
Favourite classic book?
Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe because it showed books could make difference. The novel became a powerful tool in the hands of the anti-slavery movement. The book is dated: melodramatic and sentimental, with some stereotypical attitudes towards black people. But it was an agent for change, forcing people to re-
examine their acceptance of slavery. It also made the case that women could write about large themes rather than focus on the domestic.
Book you wish you’d written?
Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood because he invented a genre for it. It’s factual but written like a novel – nobody had done that before he devised the non-fiction novel The book follows the police investigation into a Kansas family’s murder, and stays with the process right up to the killers’ execution. The writing is absolutely precise: he uses words scrupulously.