What Writers Read: 35 Writers on their Favourite Book (10 page)

BOOK: What Writers Read: 35 Writers on their Favourite Book
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Caleb Azumah Nelson

on
NW
by Zadie Smith

The first semester of university is always such a strange time. Everything feels like it's changing and shifting around you. Books were always the place where I could retreat when I wasn't quite sure about things and so, my first semester at Coventry, I spent a lot of time in the bookshop. I was a big reader at school, and my teachers were always yammering at me to try Zadie Smith. So, one day in the bookshop, I picked up
NW
. Less than a decade later, I think I've read this book 20 times.

NW
represented a big shift in my reading. Until that point, aside from Malorie Blackman, who also lived in south-east London like me, I hadn't read any fiction in which I had seen myself represented or seen people that I really knew.
The Times
used to do this promotion when I was 10 or 11, where you could take a token to WHSmith and get a Penguin classic. I spent most
of my time working slowly through the classics. But I was always really intrigued as to where the characters who looked like me, sounded like me, were.

NW
is about four people whose lives intersect, set in north-west London. It's billed as experimental fiction. I think Zadie Smith does things in it that border on genius. It was the first book that I read that used the European way of denoting speech, that used a little dash as opposed to speech marks, which really evokes this sense of intimacy. The characters felt so close and well rendered and complex. There was a sense of humanity that ran through them. This ability for them to be beautiful and messy. This enormous sense of warmth. I would not have written my first book,
Open Water
, if I hadn't read it.

I have a pristine, signed copy of
NW
and then a copy that I actually read. I met Zadie Smith at an awards ceremony a few months ago. She approached me and spoke to me about
Open Water
, like I was a contemporary. I asked her if she'd seen that I use a quote from
NW
as the epigraph:

There was an inevitability around their road towards one another, which encouraged meandering along the route.

Your words open the novel, I said. She waved it away.

After I read
NW
, I read her books in order:
White Teeth
,
Autograph Man
,
On Beauty
. I did the same thing when I discovered James Baldwin and Toni Morrison, where I doled out the writing, reading each book as closely as possible. I found something in each of them.
White Teeth
has a real energy to it, and it's so big and sprawling and incredibly ambitious. I would find myself laughing out loud.
On Beauty
feels like the best writing to me, the most classical kind of British novel. I love Zadie Smith's essays, too. Her voice is so clear in her non-fiction. There's an essay in one of her older collections, called ‘Joy'. I'd never had the language for this feeling before. Joy is such a mix of so many big and terrifying emotions. I remember finding that essay and printing it off and carrying it around in my bag, every so often pulling it out to read. Joy is about being present in your life. But of all her work,
NW
is still my favourite: the characters, the humanity, the experimentation, the playfulness.

The first draft of
Open Water
was a car crash. I was trying to take the parts of
NW
and render it my own. It didn't work. The relationship between the two texts needed to be subtler: about energy and feeling and the page.
NW
is so confident. Someone who has put her feet on the ground
and said, I am writing this novel.
NW
is so good at building a world out of a world that already exists. This rendering of a specific place was something that I really wanted to do for south-east London. In
Open Water
, south-east London is its own character. People want to be invested in communities, particularly after the pandemic. Making a small world within a world is the way to do it.

I knew as soon as I read
NW
, that I would be returning. Each instance that I have returned to the text, something has appeared that I didn't notice the first time round. There's a feeling of joy when I return to her work, as something new unravels and unspools over time. It's like speaking to a friend every couple of months. You know that each time you visit, you're deepening the knowledge that you have of them. Reading, for me, not only deepens the knowledge that a writer has of a text, but of myself. It encourages me to look not just outwards but also inwards.

Caleb Azumah Nelson is a British-Ghanaian photographer and the author of
Open Water
, which won the 2021 Costa Book Award for First Novel, was shortlisted for the Waterstones Book of the Year and longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize.

Kit de Waal

on
The Thing About December
by Donal Ryan

When I first read
The Thing About December
by Donal Ryan, I felt sick with jealousy. I was horrified that someone had written something so fantastic. It was really one of those moments that I just thought, why am I bothering? And then I thought okay,
this
is the craft.
This
has to be the standard.

The book is about a vulnerable, sheltered young man called Johnsey, who lives in rural Ireland, in 2001. When his parents both die within six months of each other, he inherits this farm, which is on a very valuable piece of land, and the developers and other farmers soon come circling. It's almost a thriller, in that you cannot stop turning the page and you're terrified about what's going to happen. There's an enormous amount of heart in it – Johnsey just wants to be loved. The use of
language is also so poetic. I don't mean poetic in the Byron sense; I just don't get poetry, quite frankly. I mean phrases that you will never have heard before.

One of the things that drew me to
The Thing About December
is it was from the point of view of this vulnerable young man, like my own book,
My Name Is Leon
, which came out in 2016. The territory was very similar. There was something about the way he had chosen to tell this devastating story that really showed me the way. It is a great thing to aim for, I think, to try and emulate your heroes. I have a whole shelf in my study of books that I can reach for when I am trying to accomplish something. There's
City of Bohane
by Kevin Barry,
The Heart of the Matter
by Graham Greene,
The First Bad Man
by Miranda July and
The Haunting of Hill House
by Shirley Jackson. It's a very disparate collection of books. There might be one thing about the book that the author does very well that means their book is on the shelf. With Donal Ryan, there are so many things he does well. He's the only author with all his books on the shelf.

I read a great deal, but I didn't start reading for enjoyment until my early twenties. I was brought up as a Jehovah's Witness, where I had to read the Bible all the time. I wasn't interested in books; I thought they were for swots. My sister read a
lot; she was a goody-goody. I left the church at 16 and had a few years of drinking and taking drugs. I was not in a good place. I started reading to get me out of my own head. I began with the classics –
Les Misérables
,
Madame Bovary
,
The Riddle of the Sands
,
War and Peace.
All the monsters. I'd start with Flaubert and then I'd read loads of French literature in translation. I'd see that Flaubert knew Arnold Bennett, so then I'd read all of him. And then I'd see he knew Somerset Maugham, so it was over to him next. I didn't read a contemporary book for 15 years.

Now, I listen to a lot of audiobooks and, at the moment, I enjoy a lot of memoir and autobiography. I read indiscriminately and without snobbery. This idea that every book has to say something profound about the world is rubbish. The only thing a book has to do is whatever the reader wants it to. The only thing that's changed in my reading habits over the years is that now, if I don't like a book, I don't force myself to finish it. Life's too short!

I now know Donal Ryan well. I am an adjunct professor of creative writing at Limerick, and he works there too. I once gave a talk, and he did the introduction and he was so complimentary about my work that I wanted to go up to him afterwards and ask him for his notes to keep.
I remember thinking,
Donal Ryan thinks I'm a good writer!
It really was one of the best moments in the world. He is the nicest, most humble writer you will ever meet – he wears his genius so lightly. My favourite passage from
The Thing About December
is this: ‘Mother always said that January is a lovely month. Everything starts over again in the new year. The visitors are all finished with and you don't see sight nor hear sound of them until next Christmas, with the help of God. Before you know it, you will see a stretch in the evenings.' It's a very Irish thing to say. It has a sense of hope. The winter is over, and we are on the turn into something better.

Kit de Waal is a British-Irish writer. Her 2016 debut novel,
My Name Is Leon
, was shortlisted for the British Book Awards, the Costa Book Awards and the Desmond Elliott Prize. The founder of the Big Book Weekend and a creative writing scholarship at Birkbeck, she has also written numerous short stories and a memoir,
Without Warning and Only Sometimes
.

Deborah Levy

on
I Capture The Castle
by Dodie Smith

I Capture The Castle
is about an eccentric family who live in a wreck of a castle in Suffolk in the 1930s. They are completely broke and take it in turns to bathe in a tin tub overlooking the fields. In summer, they swim in the moat that circles the castle.

I was 13 when I first read Dodie Smith's magical novel. How I would have loved to swim in that moat, too. In fact, in my imagination, I have swum in it many times. I suppose the point of reading at any age is that one life is not enough. Books can give us many more lives to live. The most exciting event of my week, aged 13, was when the ice-cream van, Mister Whippy, turned up on our road on Fridays. Obviously, living in a castle rather than a flat in the suburbs of London, and not having parents who made us hoover the carpets and do our homework, seemed like a more exciting life.

The story is brilliantly told from the point of view of 17-year-old Cassandra Mortmain. She wants to capture everyday castle life in her diary and writes in it every day for a year. She has much to tell us about her hopes, fears and big feelings. Her older sister, Rose, is a stunning beauty. Cassandra is supposed to be the brainy one. Do we think that sort of binary is really true? The kind and attractive handyman, Stephen, is deeply in love with Cassandra. They are about the same age. He saves up to buy her a radio and dreams of kissing her in the bluebell wood. She is not sure she returns his feelings and gives these complications an airing in her diary. Meanwhile, gorgeous Rose yearns for nice clothes and romance. Their cute little brother is a bit of a nerd and good at maths. Unfortunately, their mother died when they were young.

Their father is a bad-tempered writer who is very stuck in his life. He once wrote a famous book but doesn't seem to be able to write another one to support his family. In fact, he has not written a word for 12 years and lives in the tower of the castle, seething, selfish and sad. We are supposed to believe he is a genius. He did however have enough charm to persuade a young, spirited artist called Topaz to marry him. So, the siblings have a stepmother who likes to walk naked in the fields to
summon inspiration for her paintings. When the book starts, Topaz has had to sell off the furniture to buy food.

How are they going to survive?

Everything changes when the landlords of the castle, two wealthy Americans, Simon Cotton and his brother, Neil, arrive in Suffolk. Rose is determined to marry one of them and sets about making Simon fall in love with her. She thinks the way to go about this is to play the piano (badly) and sing old-fashioned songs. She wears ridiculous long dresses (dyed a weird colour by Topaz) and tries to act as if she were in a Jane Austen novel. The truth is she doesn't have a clue. After all, Rose has grown up in a castle and has not been educated at school. She does her best to appear sophisticated and irresistible. She faints, she flirts. After a few mishaps, it works. Reader, she almost marries him.

A wedding is being arranged. Rose now has lovely dresses and perfumes, a new chic hairstyle and stylish shoes. She wants to marry into money to save her family from poverty. Indeed, a giant juicy ham is sent to the castle by the Cotton family. Does Rose love Simon Cotton? Does it matter?

It does matter to Cassandra. She is confused about her own feelings for the brothers – no spoilers here. Before the summer ends, she has
had her first kiss (passion) and her second kiss (not so sure about this one) and two offers of marriage. She declines both of them.

Perhaps these young women would have been better off getting a job picking fruit in the fields or working in the café at the railway station. To be honest, that possibility didn't occur to me when I was 13. I just wanted to know what was going to happen next. Cassandra does something extreme (helped by her adorable little brother) to get her father to write again. They sort of succeed.

It was clear to me that it was Cassandra who was going to become a writer, which was her ambition all along. It was secretly my desire too. I was inspired and enchanted by this most unusual novel. What a relief it was, at 13, not to be talked down to in a book, no moralising, no being told to eat my vegetables or to have an early night. The best books are not about flawless people without problems. By the time I got to the last page, I decided to keep a diary, just like Cassandra did. In fact, I was often writing in this diary when Mister Whippy's ice-cream van arrived on our road on Fridays. I would hide my new diary under the bed and make a dash for the ice-cream called a ‘99', with a flake stuck in its soft, swirling centre.

Deborah Levy is the author of
Swimming Home, Hot Milk
and
The Man Who Saw Everything
– all three nominated for the Booker Prize. Within Levy's acclaimed trilogy of living autobiographies,
Things I Don't Want to Know
and
The Cost of Living
were awarded the Femina Prize 2020 in France, while
Real Estate
won The Christopher Isherwood Prize 2022 for Autobiographical Prose in the US. Deborah Levy is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

BOOK: What Writers Read: 35 Writers on their Favourite Book
5.03Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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