What Writers Read: 35 Writers on their Favourite Book (11 page)

BOOK: What Writers Read: 35 Writers on their Favourite Book
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Damon Galgut

Train Dreams
by Denis Johnson

I heard Denis Johnson's name a few times before I gave him a try. I think I started with
, his first novel: a really wonderful book. So is
Jesus' Son
, a collection of linked stories about addiction and rehab, clearly territory Johnson knew well. But neither of these comes close to the experience of reading
Train Dreams
, a crystalline novella that first appeared in 2002. I've returned to it a few times over the years, and it never fails to move and thrill me, but the occasion I first read it has stayed with me in a profound way.

It's hard to explain exactly why it works, because it's about a nobody, and nothing of great significance happens to him. Robert Grainer is a labourer in the American West. It opens with a scene of arbitrary violence in 1917 and jumps around to other arbitrary scenes from his life, from childhood all the way to his death in 1968. The closest he comes to a meaningful connection
is when he acquires a wife and child, but he loses them both in a fire. He's devastated for a while but goes on because he has no choice. Mostly his life is shaped by the railroads, through work and travel, but that's the only shape to any of it. He's not by any means a heroic figure. He has no mission to fulfil.

This is how Johnson describes him after he dies:

He'd never been drunk. He'd never purchased a firearm or spoken into a telephone. He'd ridden on trains regularly, many times in automobiles, and once on an aircraft. During the last decade of his life, he watched television whenever he was in town. He had no idea who his parents might have been, and he left no heirs behind him.

I think of Cormac McCarthy every time I read Johnson, but especially with this book. There are some similarities in their prose, though Johnson doesn't go in much for heavy rhetoric. But the plotlessness of
Train Dreams
is reminiscent of
, where a lack of plot is actually the point. Things happen, then other things follow. In
, the aimless drift of life is embodied by the river; in
Train Dreams
, it's the railway that connects all the episodes together.

As an addict, Johnson was familiar with the edges of society and the human creatures that inhabit it. There's no end to the crooked tales he could dream up; his weakest novels tend to get buried in febrile, drug-driven imaginings. But
Train Dreams
is strange in a completely different way. Because it's actually a historical piece, he has the scope to imagine some of the weirder fringe types living on what was still a kind of frontier. There's no big overarching story, but there are multiple small stories along the way. Johnson writes great dialogue, and at least one conversation (between Grainer and a man who's been shot by his own dog) extracted a belly laugh from me.

Grainer lives his early years in that time when the world is changing for ever – when the industrial age is about to break, but myth and the supernatural are still part of the language of life. He sees the spirit of his dead wife one night. Then his long-lost daughter visits him in the form of an injured wolf-woman. These events are presented as natural and real because that's how Grainer experiences them.

All of this is odd and interesting and at times deeply moving. But the true pleasure of this book is its style – dryly lyrical, but also highly restrained. The reach of the story is, in fact, epic, but it's told with the most glancing of touches. There's
something wonderful in the way Johnson leaps, in a sentence, ‘years later, many decades later, in fact . . .' On the one hand, you've got the pain of life and the heaviness of history; on the other hand, it's being related with the lightest puff of air.

And then he pulls a genius move at the very end. I wouldn't want to spoil it for anyone, and it only makes sense as the conclusion of a certain trajectory … but the last scene does another little hop in time, back to what could have been one more arbitrary moment, but isn't. Johnson creates a perfect symbol for the historical epoch he's writing about and pulls together all the little shards and fragments into one image. It's heartbreaking and mystical, and it keeps coming back to haunt me.

Damon Galgut is a South African novelist whose first book was published when he was just 17. His ninth novel,
The Promise
, won the Booker Prize in 2021 – a prize for which his 2003 novel,
The Good Doctor
, and his 2010 novel,
In a Strange Room
, were both shortlisted. He has also written several plays.

Naoise Dolan

Schott's Original Miscellany
by Ben Schott

When I'm writing fiction, the first thing I have to do is make the characters talk. It's awkward, meeting strangers. I'll spend five minutes deciding if X person says ‘Hi' or ‘Hello'. Then something clicks. I'll still have to decide how everyone looks and what the weather's doing. But once the characters speak, there's a story. Dialogue is my passion. I can't believe I'm paid to write it. I'd do it anyway; I'd be a sad sack if I never made the heads talk. That need has been in me nearly all my life. Nearly, but not quite. And it started with the page in
Schott's Original Miscellany
listing U and non-U English.

I was a 12-year-old in Dublin when I read the miscellany. Most books I ‘happened on' as a kid now show up on Google as having been smoking-hot publishing sensations. As was
. It's a
salutary check on the old authorial ego to reflect on the juggernauts you'd considered weird little things. The cover might say that it's a
Sunday Times
bestseller, but a 12-year-old won't see that. I was my best self when I was 12. I didn't care about status – mine or the writer's. Our minds met. I learned what I could.
Schott's Original Miscellany
, a book of selected trivia from many fields of study, seemed to me then a map of endeavour. Seek what you want, cherish what you find, but remember there'll always be more.

Whatever your specialism,
grants it no particular prestige. There's no hierarchy of knowledge. Clothing care, law, medicine, bagpipes: it's all just stuff among stuff in a world that's stuffed with stuff. Even at 12, I found some entries obvious. Why was he telling us things everyone knows in between things nobody possibly could? But my humdrum was different to the next person's.

It's impossible to dislike the miscellany. If you're truly determined to hate things, then you might find it boring. But it reminds you on every page that life holds more than you can ever comprehend. Being okay with Earth's hugeness is one thing you need as a fiction writer. We are all just small in the scheme of it. That's joyous. There's no meaningful starting point in a
universe so vast. Pick one and go. That's what the miscellany taught me: peaceably moving through infinity.

Why I was particularly keen on the U and non-U English part of the miscellany is because it taught me language-neutrality. Until I read it, I'd often wondered: ‘Why does the language around me seem different to the language in books?' – which is to say, ‘Why do I think Ireland and Irish people are un-literary?' I'd grown up on
Anne of Green Gables
and Enid Blyton and there wasn't much Irishness in those.

Seeing the U/non-U thing awakened my perception for a writer's main job, gathering language. I began reading more Irish writers with the mindset that there's no better or worse English, there's just usage. My dad makes brilliant sentences when he talks. He's a funny, inventive, well-spoken Irishman with no literary ambition whatsoever and he's just as much a source to me as Dickens. (If anyone fears ‘no literary ambition' is harsh on Mr Dolan, please know he's fundamentally an Irish dad, and he'll be glad I've informed the public that my own notions aren't contagious.)

The U/non-U thing also taught me that the meaning of a word doesn't come from the sounds. ‘Pardon?' is the harder one to remember. It's
relatively context-specific, whereas ‘What?' has broader uses so stays on the tip of your tongue. Also, there are more ‘What?'-sayers. The working- and upper-class ‘What?' bloc outsizes the ‘Pardon?' club by far. We could all decide to say ‘green' instead of ‘Pardon?' and ‘red' instead of ‘What?', and so long as everyone got the memo – one pities the traffic-light engineer on birthday leave – those noises would then carry the meaning.

There's no material law dictating that if you say ‘Par' and then ‘don', you must buy everything in John Lewis. (Which is a joke I know how to make because the U/non-U entry also made me wonder what different people in England are stereotyped as doing. I only gathered data once I moved to England aged 24, but the table kicked it off. The miscellany keeps giving.)

You can't look at class differences as a child and find dignity. When you're an Irish 12-year-old your main takeaway is going to be that it's silly and fun and just words. With this starting world-neutrality, I gleaned from all sources. A fiction writer's process is therefore less one of talking aloud than of scrapbooking key elements like Schott does. Style needn't be terse – you can write beautiful flowing sentences – but if you want them to be loved and shared, then each must be a self-complete miscellany.

Choose your corner, the miscellany says. That's what I took from it as a girl. Choose your corner since any will delight you – and keep visiting other people in theirs.

Naoise Dolan is an Irish journalist and novelist, best known for her debut novel
Exciting Times
, which was longlisted for the 2021 Dylan Thomas Prize, the Women's Prize for Fiction and Waterstones Book of the Year.

William Boyd

by Joseph Heller

The years of Nigeria's bitter and devastating civil war, the so-called Biafran War of 1967–1970, during which more than one million people died, coincided with my late teens. I was 18 in 1970. I was born in Ghana and initially educated there until, in 1962, my father, a doctor, moved the family from Ghana to Nigeria. By this time, my secondary education was taking place at a boarding school in Scotland, and I returned to Nigeria in the school holidays. Despite my background and my periodic enforced absence, I unreflectingly felt that West Africa was, in almost every sense, my real home.

The onset of the civil war in 1967 changed the conditions of our lives in Nigeria in dramatic and, sometimes, irritating ways. Power cuts and water shortages were normal. Armed soldiers were visible everywhere. You were routinely stopped
at roadblocks and searched. Guns were pointed at you. Every night the television news bulletins provided graphic illustration of the brutal fighting as the Nigerian army pushed into the shrinking secessionist enclave that was Biafra. The Nigerian episodes of my life began to punctuate my normal school career like surreal dreams. I was once strip-searched by soldiers at Lagos airport who suspected me of carrying drugs. Our neighbours dug a slit-trench in their back garden. My father and I were almost fired upon by drunken militia when we inadvertently drove through their flimsy roadblock. Our cook, Israel, on a visit to his home-village, was forcibly conscripted into the Biafran army but managed to desert and return to us. As I flew out to Nigeria from London – the overnight flight lasted about eight hours in those days – I had no idea what strange adventures would be awaiting me on my holidays from school.

It was my habit in my late teens to fly luggage-less, for some reason. Everything I needed I carried in my pockets – toothbrush, money, passport, ticket, reading matter. This meant I moved through customs at Lagos airport with ease and no delay. Thus unimpeded, I was then quickly able to catch a connecting domestic flight to Ibadan, in Western Nigeria, where my parents lived.

In 1969, at Heathrow, waiting to board the flight to Lagos, I realised I had nothing to read. In an airport bookstall I bought the first book I saw that intrigued me. It was
by Joseph Heller. The paperback cover showed an American airman standing in the middle of a runway, staring out and shaking his fist vengefully skywards. I knew nothing about the book, but the blurb told me it was a war novel, set in Italy in World War II. There was no inflight entertainment on planes in those days. If you wanted to pass the time you read a book.

After take-off, I started reading
and read on throughout the night. I was utterly rapt, utterly held and read the book in one long blast of mesmerised absorption. I'm sure that trance-like concentration was a consequence of my own experience of living in a war-torn country. Heller's absurdist vision of war and combat and the helpless impotence of his protagonists chimed very closely with what I had witnessed and understood. Until the Biafran War began, my experience of warfare was one derived entirely from movies and novels. What I was living through in Nigeria, however, was absolutely nothing like what I had read and seen at the cinema and on television. Subjectively, unconsciously, I was becoming aware that conventional dramatised
and fictionalised versions of war were at a remote distance from the real thing – the real thing that I was seeing as I looked about me. And then I read

It was an intense, though half-reasoned, intellectual experience for me. For the first time I found in this fiction a clear identification with what I was experiencing in Nigeria. I saw how a novel could – through humour, absurdity, tone of voice and unhinged imagination – capture the weird contingencies of the world I was inhabiting in Nigeria. I saw how an artist – a novelist, in this instance – could replicate life's textures and reality in a way that no journalism, documentary or history could. I was beginning to comprehend, I now realise, the unnerving power of fiction.

I don't think I can say that my fervid, night-long 1969 reading of
on board that aircraft made me want to be a novelist – I was too young and too callow for that transformation to occur – but it did change my reading habits. I now actively sought out fiction that authenticated my experience – or experiences that I was curious about – and judged that fiction by the paradoxical standards of veracity that
had established, as far as I was concerned. And I suppose that change, that new awareness, did set me off on the path I was eventually to follow.
Twelve years later, I actually wrote my own war novel,
An Ice-Cream War
, and almost everything in that novel originated in or was informed by what I'd experienced in Nigeria and the Damascene moment when I opened
and started reading.

William Boyd is a Scottish writer and screenwriter. The author of 17 novels, including
Any Human Heart
(both of which he later adapted for screen), and five short story collections, he has won numerous literary prizes.

BOOK: What Writers Read: 35 Writers on their Favourite Book
12.48Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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