What Writers Read: 35 Writers on their Favourite Book (4 page)

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

Bridget Jones's Diary
by Helen Fielding

I was 21 when I started reading
Bridget Jones's Diary
. I remember the moment vividly. I was taking my baby to her babysitter's house before work. It was a really hellish route involving two buses, a train and a tube, and I always felt especially sorry for myself when I had to wake up at 4.30am to start it. It was one of those periods in my life when I was feeling like I hadn't lived up to other people's expectations for me. I'd always done well in school and had long been expected to follow in my dad's barrister footsteps. However, I had found out I was pregnant during law school and was at the time raising my daughter as a single mum while doing my pupillage. All of this had been a bit of a wrinkle in the path that had been laid out for me. I was feeling that keenly when I picked up this book.

Bridget Jones's Diary
was exactly the book I needed, at the very moment I needed it. It was
as if Bridget herself had sat down beside me on the bus and started whispering in my ear about her insecurities and secrets. I think the best novels make you feel like you are gaining access to a real person's secret self. Because this one takes the form of a diary, it is not only confessional, but also immediate; you feel as if you are living each mortifying, hilarious moment with Bridget. Here was the type of companionship I'd looked for every time I read, ever since I read my first book to myself aged three. That day, Bridget joined the pantheon of my literary friends, which included Jo March, Jane Eyre, Elizabeth Bennet. But each of them was, let's face it, a bit of a goody two shoes. Bridget was the messy heroine of her own life, which was how I had to start seeing myself.

The best novels are also a record of time and place.
Bridget Jones's Diary
is a love letter to London – which I love because I love London. It is a state-of-the-nation-in-the-mid-90s novel. In her bonkers efforts at self-improvement, Bridget tries to become more learned about current events, which, rereading the novel nowadays, might be a bit like reading historical fiction for women younger than I am, but I suppose what makes it timeless is the way it explodes the myth of perfection that so many women struggle with.

When I finished the novel for the first time, I promptly forgot its lessons. That's the thing about lessons – they are of limited use when you're young. For a good 20 years afterwards, I struggled with the myth of perfection in my personal and professional life, thinking I had to become a partner in a law firm, kitted out in power suits and stilettos, looking like the kind of woman who can do it all. But it was miles away from how I was feeling inside and from what I really wanted to do. I had ignored the message of Bridget: you have to find a way of being happy with being yourself. It took a creative writing course in 2014, after my youngest child started high school, to find my way back.

Bridget Jones's Diary
changed the zeitgeist in ways that I think we are still exploring today. I trace a lot of the stuff that I've been obsessed with recently, like
Killing Eve
, to Bridget Jones's brand of truthfulness. In my own book,
The Confessions of Frannie Langton
, I also tried to evoke a confessional tone (I suppose it is also a diary of sorts) and to engage with a truthful way of looking at Britain's colonial history.

There are, of course, things that were acceptable in the 1990s that we wouldn't tolerate now. But I think a lot of
Bridget Jones's Diary
remains true today, even if we don't like to think that's the
case. We have a tendency nowadays to curate our imperfections. We've all been liberated, rightfully and delightfully so, by the ideas of body positivity, but deep down we still have the same foibles and quirks and worries about ‘how do I look?' and ‘who's in love with me?' and ‘am I doing well in my work?' and ‘are my friends ignoring me?' So, it still comes full circle to the idea that there is a gap between who we show the world and who we really are.

For me, the joy of reading is that books forge these connections between the unlikeliest of people. There was a lot about Bridget's life that bore no resemblance to mine as a young Caribbean single mum, but there was a lot we had in common also. Bridget is a character conjured up by another woman's imagination, yet she electrified mine – I think that's magic. It'd be wonderful to meet Helen Fielding to be able to tell her how much her novel meant to me.

Sara Collins is a Caymanian-British writer, screenwriter and former lawyer. Her 2016 debut novel,
The Confessions of Frannie Langton
, won the Costa First Novel Award. She is currently adapting her novel for screen.

Tessa Hadley

Tom's Midnight Garden
by Philippa Pearce

I was a hungry reader as a child. I took books out from the local library each week, losing myself eagerly inside them. And I had a small collection of my own books – two shelves' worth above my bed, mostly Christmas and birthday presents – which I read over and over. A child's reading is very different to an adult's. An adult begins each book critically: suspiciously, even. Is this writing any good, has the writer got anything to say? A child takes on trust whatever book is in her hands – filling out its thinness, if it is thin, with her own imagination. And yet, perhaps discrimination was going on at some level, even in my childhood. There were a few beloved books – fiction always, first and last – that were at the core of my reading, revisited over and over, forming my imagination and the shape of my world.

One of these favourites, Philippa Pearce's
Tom's Midnight Garden
, appears to me now like a bridge between my childhood and my adult taste in reading. When I revisit its opening pages, I'm struck by the quality of the writing – the complex ideas and elegant sentences, the vivid detail. Tom has been sent to stay with his uncle and aunt at the beginning of the summer holidays because his brother has measles; he's resentful and hostile. The tone is grave, taking what the boy feels and sees with a whole seriousness – no bouncing, jolly condescension to the child reader. Yet there's an implicit criticism, too, of Tom's impatient judgement of his kindly aunt and tetchy uncle. No doubt the gravity of the prose, along with the psychological complexity, were part of what attracted me. Above all, though, I loved the brilliant conceit at the heart of the story, which was in tune with so much of my own curiosity and anxiety as a child.

Uncle Alan and Aunt Gwen live in a rented flat in a large house; the old lady who owns the whole house, Mrs Bartholomew, lives on the top floor. Once this house had a great garden, but it's built over now and only a dingy small yard is left, with dustbins in it and a garage. Poor angry Tom, bored and wakeful, creeps downstairs into the hall one night when his aunt and uncle are
asleep, to find out why the grandfather clock strikes 13 instead of midnight. When he opens the back door, which ought to lead into the yard, he finds in its place a magnificent garden with lawns and flowerbeds, great yew trees and glasshouses. The garden is only there at night when the clock strikes; by day there's just the dreary yard with its dustbins.

Night after night, Tom spends long happy hours in the garden. He meets a girl in there, Hatty, and the two lonely children become friends: there's something very adult and truthful in the way Philippa Pearce writes their uneasy, wary, tender relationship. And yet, when Tom gets back to his bed in the flat, it's only ever a few minutes after midnight. In his daytime life, the days pass slowly enough – but time in the garden moves differently, the seasons come and go, Hatty changes and begins to seem like a young woman. One night, Tom and Hatty leave the garden and go skating on the frozen river – it's a culmination and it's also the moment he knows she's slipping away from him. It turns out eventually – of course, of course, but the first time I hadn't seen it coming! – that young Hatty in the garden in the past of the house is the same person as old Mrs Bartholomew in its present.

This twist of plot unlocked so much for me, it haunted and obsessed me. I had always been
haunted, as soon as I could think, by the idea of time. The past had been the present once. This present, which was fitted so tightly around me, and seemed so irrefutably real for as long as it lasted – where did it go? ‘Tom was thinking about the Past, that Time made so far away. Time had taken this Present of Hatty's and turned it into his Past.' The old people I knew, my grandparents and their friends, must have been children once. The rooms of the houses I knew had been lived in once by other people, been furnished with their furniture, been the scene of their pleasures and their dramas.

I am still haunted and obsessed by the same things. The kind of fiction I write tries to capture the arrangements and style and sensations of a particular present, tries to find a language for how we live
right now
, in this place, in this historical moment. And as that moment passes and is left behind, the best books and films and paintings continue to hold its shape. Rereading
Tom's Midnight Garden
now, I can almost reach out and touch my child self, who loved this book more than half a century ago. And I'm touching, too, that lost world of the 1950s, Tom's present, when the book was written, and beyond that a late Victorian world when the midnight garden thrived and Hatty was a child. Hatty's Victorian
world was still close enough, in the 1950s, to be within living memory; but it's slipping away from us now and becoming the deep, lost past, only kept alive for us in art.

Tessa Hadley is the British author of eight novels, including
The Past, Late in The Day
Free Love
, and three short story collections. She has contributed short stories to the
New Yorker
for 20 years.

George the Poet

by Malcolm Gladwell

I first read
when I was 21. I'd been studying sociology for about five years and was deep into figuring out society and my environment. Why was it that the deeper I got into education, the more distant I became from my childhood friends? Why did personal success feel like it was taking me further away from my community? That's when I found Malcolm Gladwell.

The book's fundamental premise is that success doesn't happen in isolation. It's a combination of people and chance that leads to any successful moment or successful outcome for a group of people. It allowed me to see that the chances that I was given in life that set me apart from my community early on were set in place by big events and long chains of consequence.
led to a fundamental shift in my thinking. I no longer looked at success as a question of effort and genius alone, but as a series of connections.

, Gladwell talks about communities and people who have exceptional outcomes in something, like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. Clearly, he says, these people are exceptional in some respect. But let's also take a look at what's staring us in the face. These men were both born in the same year. They were both 21 years old with just enough independence and economic freedom to take advantage of the computer revolution at the same time. They had access to computers before the general population. There's this constant pulling of that thread in his work.

To illustrate his point about the collective advantage, he talks about a community based in Philadelphia who are originally from Sicily and have a much higher life expectancy and quality of life than the rest of the state. He says it's because they have inherited traditions from their homelands and keep their lives very simple. They value social connections. They eat the same food their ancestors ate hundreds of years ago. They are supportive of each other as a community.

Gladwell is a skilled and talented storyteller who uses true case studies – some big historical stuff, some small personal stuff – to weave a narrative. It really influenced me growing up. In my work, whether it's rap or spoken poetry, the stories I tell are either based on real events or they are looking
to make a serious point. Like Gladwell, I am overtly sociological and intentionally academic in my work. I organise my stories academically so as to kill two birds with one stone: talk to young people and help them learn. I believe that difficult stuff should be made accessible. If the maximum number of people are not involved in a necessary conversation simply because you need a Ph.D. to discuss it, that's not fair. We are living this stuff. We are part of this stuff. We should be able to get that from the art that we enjoy the most.

I read
as a book and I also listened to the audiobook, which is read by the author. Listening to Malcolm Gladwell read by Malcolm Gladwell allows me to experience his words in my body differently to how I experience the written word. With the written word, I am the filter. When I read it, I want to put the George voice on it. But if I can hear it from the author's mouth, there's a transfer of energy. It sounds a little bit hippy and flowery, but if you consider that sound is vibrational energy that lands in your ear, and that the reaction of that vibration in your body is unique to your body, then it's literally and scientifically a transfer of energy.

I would recommend
to anyone who is unsure of their place in the world. Life can be very scary when you try to find purpose in an isolated
existence. But when you look around you, and you think about how others impact you, and how you impact others, some things become self-evident. The context of your life is your community. We all affect each other, and we cannot ignore that by isolating people's actions. Art can provide a space where we are able to see this. It feels like Gladwell is trying to hold up a mirror: how we treat each other, how valuable our time and space is, when we share it. And, like me, he is using the academic and creative space to do so.

George Mpanga, best known by his stage name George the Poet, is a British-Ugandan rapper and spoken-word poet. He is best-known for his BBC podcast,
Have You Heard George's Podcast?
, which blends memoir, reportage and social politics and has won multiple British Podcast Awards and a Peabody Award.

BOOK: What Writers Read: 35 Writers on their Favourite Book
4.75Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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