What Writers Read: 35 Writers on their Favourite Book (3 page)

BOOK: What Writers Read: 35 Writers on their Favourite Book
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David Nicholls

on
The Pan Book of Horror Stories
selected by Herbert van Thal

Of all the milestones on the journey into adulthood, the acquisition of a full library card was the one I craved the most. I was in no great hurry to join the armed forces or get married, but the library considered me a grown-up, rather generously, at 13, and there'd be no more sitting on bean bags, reading books with pictures. At 13, I'd be downstairs with the big boys, browsing through the forbidden fruit, the vinyl library,
Jaws
, the Shirley Conrans and Stephen Kings. At 13, I would finally have access to
The Pan Book of Horror Stories: Volume Two
.

It was the cover that grabbed me; an ivy-tangled hand emerges from a fresh grave – thrilling enough in itself, except the palm of the hand contains a fresh human eyeball. An eyeball! I knew that it was a mistake to judge a book by
its cover but how could this be anything less than phenomenal?
Volume Four
featured a tarantula crawling across a sinister china doll,
Volume Five
showed a skull wearing a bobbed wig for no very clear reason, each volume compiled by someone called Herbert van Thal, editor and lord of darkness. A teenage horror freak, I tore through each edition with the same commitment that kept me in front of the TV until midnight to watch
Tales from the Crypt
and
The Blood on Satan's Claw
.

The short story is a famously delicate and sophisticated form, more poetry than prose, though this was not necessarily the case with
Volume Eight
(centipede crawling out of skull's eye socket). At 13, it was all about The Twist, which usually involved someone being buried alive or the narrator being revealed as a vampire. The success or failure of a short story was entirely proportional to the unpredictability and unpleasantness of this final narrative flourish, and even now, reading the filigreed miniatures of Alice Munro or Katherine Mansfield, a small part of me is waiting for the protagonist to be impaled or torn apart by cats or sent spinning into infinite space.

The late 1970s and early 1980s were the golden age of sleazy horror, of the X-certificate and the video nasty, but books somehow slipped under the radar. The most highly prized contraband
was the work of James Herbert, who I revered, read and reread so that even now if you were to hand me a copy of
The Fog
or
The Rats
, I could quickly direct you to the most gruesome scenes. Dickens aside, Herbert was the only author I would recognise on the street. Warlock hair, a leather blouson with the sleeves rolled up, the bass player from an Iron Maiden tribute band, he had us all in his grip, inspiring a whole genre of cheap pulpy fiction in which innocuous branches of the animal kingdom are exposed to radiation and develop a taste for human flesh, because that's what radiation does. In
Night of the Crabs
, it was giant, sadistic crabs, in
Slugs,
it was – well, you get the idea. Did I really read a book called
Earthworms
? I have a feeling that I did.

But, like the Pan anthologies, I can't really remember much of it now. If I'm nostalgic for anything, it's not the writing, which became increasingly salacious, reactionary and sadistic as the series wore on. But I do remember vividly the experience of reading, the pull the stories had, their ability to steal sleep and make my heart beat faster. It was fiction as a fairground ride, shallow and disreputable but still thrilling. I'm aware that this sounds more like a confession than a celebration and perhaps it might have been more impressive to write about Turgenev's melancholy
or first encounters with
The Waste Land
, rather than stories in which, more often than not, people were eaten alive from the inside by frogs. Looking back now through the list of contributors, I realise that these books were my first exposure to writers that I'd go on to love. Muriel Spark is in there and Dahl of course, but also Ray Bradbury, Patricia Highsmith, Ian McEwan and even William Faulkner. Which isn't to make any great literary claims for the Pan books; the lettuce doesn't turn a burger into salad.

But perhaps it's futile to separate out the nutritious and improving from the excessive and unhealthy. Whatever their source, the words go in and become part of who we are, and while I can't remember every part of the process, it really isn't that great a leap from Poe to Robert Louis Stevenson to Dickens to the Brontës, from H. G. Wells to that other rat enthusiast George Orwell, or perhaps across the Atlantic to Vonnegut and Stephen King, to Shirley Jackson and Margaret Atwood, all these authors made easily available to me, free of charge, through the public library system.

Neither do I think it's a coincidence that this obsession started when I was 13. Adolescence is its own horror story and in some indefinable way, I'm sure there was some release there from the
angst and tension of double chemistry followed by games that all too often could feel like that scene in
The Fog,
the scene with the PE teacher and the kids, that bit where . . .

Well, you'll have to read it yourself. I'll lend you my copy. Be warned though, it's really, truly horrible.

David Nicholls is a British novelist and screenwriter, best known for the sliding-doors love story
One Day
, which has been translated into 40 languages and has sold five million copies worldwide. The author of five novels, he has adapted several books for screen, including Edward St Aubyn's Patrick Melrose series, for which he was nominated for an Emmy and a BAFTA.

Benjamin Zephaniah

on
Ain't I a Woman
by bell hooks

I came to London in late 1978. I was an angry, political and energetic 21-year-old from Birmingham, trying to get away from gangsterism and gun culture and wanting to make a name for myself as a poet. I'd started speaking poetry from a really young age, five or six. I didn't call it poetry, I called it playing with words. I inherited this love of words from my mother, who was part of the oral tradition. My mother never read a novel, but she spoke many. I was the same. I'd left school at 13, and I could hardly read or write, but I could speak novels.

I'd not long come from Birmingham when I walked into a café and bookshop in Stratford called Page One Books. They'd been given a grant from the Arts Council to publish books from under-represented communities. I turned up one day saying, I'm a poet, can you publish me? People didn't understand performance poetry
then. They would say, we don't get rap poetry, we don't get Jamaican poetry, we don't know what to do with it. I'd had a lot of rejection, but this cooperative said they'd publish me on one condition: I had to join the collective. I said, all right. It was a bit hippy and alternative. We all ate, lived and worked together – even shared bicycles and a car.

Page One Books had lots of books on politics and a massive section of feminist literature. There were a lot of hardcore feminists in the collective. I remember, once, I got told off because I was singing ‘Once, Twice, Three Times A Lady'. ‘What's this lady thing, anyway!?' one said. They taught me that a woman being ‘as good as a man' or ‘as bad as a man' isn't feminism. That real feminism is liberation for men as well as women.

There is no getting around it, I was raised sexist. The things that the men around me told me about women are things that I completely disagree with now, but at the time I thought, all right. These were upstanding men of the community, respected men, who taught me a misogynistic idea of what men think and how women are. But something deep inside me thought, this can't be right. My twin sister can't be less of a human being than me. We were born of the same mother at the same time. What I learned in the collective was so
essential and so grounding. Forty years later, I'm still friends with some of them.

The best thing about working in the bookshop is that any book I wanted to read, I could read. One day, I picked up
Ain't I a Woman
by bell hooks. There'd been a lot of talk about that book in the Black community. One of the things I love about the book is that it doesn't really have soundbites. bell tells the story of women from back in the 17
th
century, right up until the present day, or up until 1981 when the book was published. The book made me realise something really important. Black men have a raw deal. White women have a raw deal. So a Black woman? Well, think about the deal that
they
get.

When I read it, it challenged me in many ways, and even now, every time I read or listen to it, I learn more. I listened to it as an audiobook recently, while driving on tour, and I had these moments of,
Oh I get that bit now
. It's me growing as a person. bell hooks always said she wrote the book to appeal to people like me, who weren't brilliantly educated.

bell is also very critical of some of my heroes, like James Baldwin, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. And she's right, these men don't say much about women. I had read their books, so why didn't I notice that they didn't talk about women? Is it because I am a man too, or is it
because I've put them on a pedestal? I found these men so inspiring but when I read what bell had written about the women's organisation in the civil rights movement and even how people like my other hero, Angela Davis, were marginalised in the movement, it really had an effect on me. I realised that the Black Panther movement was sexist.

I recommend
Ain't I a Woman
to everyone. But I also say, prepare to be challenged. That's not a bad thing. I love being challenged. I'm always happy to say I've made mistakes. I've read a lot of Indian philosophy, and I've studied martial arts, and they have taught me to strive to get rid of the ego. Whatever you see me doing in the public arena doesn't come from my education at Oxford or Cambridge or Eton. It comes from my life experience. It comes from reading bell hooks in Page One Books.

Benjamin Zephaniah is a British-Jamaican poet, writer, actor, broadcaster and musician, who has written over 40 plays, poetry collections, works of non-fiction and books for children and young adults. Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Brunel University, he has been awarded numerous honorary doctorates. He has presented dozens of shows for television and radio including
Life & Rhymes
, which won a BAFTA.

Elizabeth Strout

on
The Pink Maple House
by Christine Noble Govan

When I was in the third grade, I had a teacher called Miss Lurvy. She seemed old to me, and she probably was – it was rumoured that she had taught a classmate's grandfather, but who knows. One day, Miss Lurvy said to the boy who sat in front of me – he never spoke; he was very poor, and no one ever spoke to him – Miss Lurvy walked up to him and said in front of the class, ‘You have dirt behind your ears. No one is too poor to buy a bar of soap.' The poor boy's neck became terribly red as I watched from behind. He still did not speak. I have written and talked of this before, and I used it in
My Name is Lucy Barton
.

But Miss Lurvy liked me. One day she brought me over to the ‘library' in the room, which was three small shelves of books, and she told me I could find one book and take it home to read.
This was considered an honour. The book I found was
The Pink Maple House
.

This book made a huge and lasting impression on me. It was about a friendship between two girls in the third grade. One girl – Polly – moves to another town, and so the two girls can't go to school together any more, but her friend, Jenny, comes and visits Polly all the time. And their life is perfect. Polly's mother is perfect, and her father is perfect and even Jenny's parents turn out to be perfect. So why did I love this book so much back then?

Because of the girl Tilly, who is at the new school, and Tilly is very poor and sleeps on the sofa with no room of her own, and for a while the two perfect girls are mean to Tilly, but then Polly's mother speaks to them about her, and they become nice to her.

I have used Tilly also in
My Name is Lucy Barton
.

I suspect the reason I loved that book so much was because I had a very good friend at that time, and to my eyes, her mother was perfect. (It turned out there were serious problems in that house.) But to my mind, back then this mother was kind and pretty and always so good to us. My mother was different. And so I must have felt split between Tilly and the girl Polly, I must have inhabited both their worlds as I read that book.
And I also remembered that poor boy who Miss Lurvy spoke of so meanly that day about his dirty ears. I think this book was probably the first time in my unfolding consciousness that I understood class differences. With no name for it, of course.

I recently bought this book and looked through it again. Polly's mother had a woman who ‘helped with the laundry' and that would have gone straight over my head as a third grader; I knew nobody who had help like that. But Tilly stayed in my mind – in fact, hers was the only name I remembered – and as I look through the book now, it seems almost saccharine to me, the perfection of the girls' lives versus Tilly's life. But it is Tilly I always remembered. She had no room of her own and slept on the sofa, and while I had a room of my own, it was never heated.

The point is: Tilly, with her unattractive mother, was unforgettable to me, and also the girls' attitude towards her until Polly's nice mother made them be kind to her – and they were.

It would be wonderful if life was really like this, but it is not. Still, it was a kind of awakening for me. I have remembered it – and even used it in my work – after all these years.

Elizabeth Strout is an American author of eight novels, including
My Name Is Lucy Barton
and
Olive
Kitteridge
, which won a Pulitzer and was later turned into a TV series for HBO, starring Frances McDormand. In 2022, she was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

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