What Writers Read: 35 Writers on their Favourite Book (5 page)

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

on
Cold Comfort Farm
by Stella Gibbons

It was 1990, and I had gone away by myself to Santorini for two weeks. I was so disappointed in my life at that point – suicidal and drinking alcoholically – and I hoped that if I flung myself into a location far away, wonderful things would happen. Anyone who goes to a Greek island on their own for two weeks will
surely
have an adventure, I thought. But I didn't, and I was incredibly lonely. It was long before mobile phones and social media. My saving grace was that before I'd left, I'd asked three women I worked with at the Architectural Association in Bloomsbury to lend me books that they loved. I didn't question what they brought in; I just took them all.

I remember there was some Nancy Mitford in there, a Barbara Vine and also
Cold Comfort Farm
by Stella Gibbons. I was baffled by it initially. It's a satire of those ‘loam and lovechild' books where everyone is miserable and inbred and fecund,
and I wasn't familiar with books that satirised. At that point, I read in just two categories. Mid-century American white men, like Joseph Heller, Truman Capote, Ernest Hemingway, that muscular confident statement-y kind of writing, because my dad belonged to a book club and got sent books like this. And then on the other hand there were the books that I
really
loved: Jilly Cooper, Judith Krantz. But
Cold Comfort Farm
didn't fit into either category. It was subversive and unexpected, elegant and cold. I normally really don't like cold writers, but then I clicked that underneath the coldness was this twinkle and it just grabbed me.

Cold Comfort Farm
was written in 1932 but set in a semi-mythical future of 1949, where Mayfair has become a slum. (Just imagine.) Flora Poste's parents have died, and she is left with only £100 a year to live on and so her great-aunt Ada takes her in at the very rural, completely falling apart
Cold Comfort Farm
. Everyone living there has these stunted ambitions and thwarted romances where everything is always going wrong until Flora storms in to organise their lives. It's both absurd and oddly believable. It's set in one of those communities where there is nothing to do but make your own entertainment and where people argue about absolutely nothing.

I loved it because it was funny in this very eccentric way and I love a bit of eccentricity, in both a person and a book. (I like it in my own writing, too.) They wash the dishes with something called a clettering stick – which is what my husband and I call the scrubbing brush – and when she first moves to Cold Comfort Farm, Flora hears her cousin talking about stealing feathers from the hens to trim dolls' hats. It was just the funniest thing I'd ever read. The humour really, really lifted me during this very dark time. It's not a book about love or emotional growth – not like
Heartburn
by Nora Ephron, which is another of my favourite books and by a real pal. But
Cold Comfort Farm
showed me how you can construct an unexpected reality to produce something unexpected and hugely entertaining. I will also reluctantly admit that I am quite like Flora Poste. I am the organiser in my family and they are always joking about me with the clipboard. Someone has to be the organiser, I say! Nothing would happen otherwise. But it's also true that I don't like not having the power. I like people to arrive on time and things to happen when they are meant to happen or I get quite jittery.

When I got back to London, I spoke to a couple of the learned older women who had
lent me the books. They told me that there was a sequel to
Cold Comfort Farm
, but that I shouldn't read it. And so, I never did. I didn't have much money at the time so I figured if no one was going to lend it to me, I wasn't going to buy it. But I'm not intrigued by the sequel. I feel like this one's quite enough. I reread it about every five years or so.

I had no idea when I first read it that I wanted to write. It wasn't until I was 30, when my life had totally begun to shut down, that I wrote
Watermelon
. And when I came to write, I thought of this book, and how you have to intrigue people, how you have to pull the rug from under their feet, and how you have to be funny. There are no layers of bullshit to
Cold Comfort Farm
, and what that taught me is that I don't care about genre or writing style; the only thing that matters to me is authenticity. This thing of ‘persevering' with a book – why in the name of God would you persevere? Reading is meant to be a pleasure, an escape from the shittiness and the rest of it. I will only read something that I love. And I will only write something that I love. And the best bit is that that only gets easier as you get older.

Marian Keyes is the Irish author of 15 novels, including
Rachel's Holiday, Grown Ups
and
Sushi for Beginners
, and two collections of journalism. One of the most successful Irish novelists of all time, she has sold over 40 million books globally and was named the Author of the Year at the 2022 British Book Awards.

Elif Shafak

on
Orlando
by Virginia Woolf

I was an avid reader and writer from an early age, mostly because I was an only child. I lived in Ankara with my grandmother in a very conservative and inward-looking neighbourhood, and my mother and I were outsiders. I was born in France, and after my parents separated, my mother brought me back to Turkey. She was a young divorcee with no career. Usually, women in such situations would immediately marry again. A young divorcee is considered a threat. Neighbours would suggest suitable husbands to her. But my grandmother intervened and said that she would raise me so that my mother could go back to university. ‘If she wants to get married, she can, but then it will be a choice,' she said.

My grandmother had been denied a proper education and she whole heartedly believed in women's education. Her support and solidarity changed our lives. My mum went back to
university, learned six languages and entered the foreign ministry. Thanks to that, we travelled and I had a good education. And all of that was possible because of that critical moment in time. It instilled in me an understanding of the importance of solidarity between women.

Not many people read in Turkey, because reading is not really encouraged – especially not novels, let alone novels by women. Books are not necessarily banned, but the authors are demonised, incarcerated, exiled or prosecuted. Anything you write can offend the authorities and you can be put on trial. It's also a feminist issue. More than 75 per cent of illiterate people in Turkey are women. But those that do read, do so passionately. And I was one of them. I was deep into my Russian male literature phase when I first read
Orlando
. I was 18, and even though I didn't understand all of it on first reading, I felt very much connected to the book and to Woolf.

Orlando
is a courageous book, full of chutzpah. It was published in 1928 and on the front cover it says that it's a biography. The book is not a biography, of course. Woolf is challenging us, blurring the boundaries right from the very start. The book describes the journey of an aristocratic poet who travels across genders, geography and time meeting key figures of literary and cultural history. In order
to understand
Orlando
, we also need to understand the big love affair Woolf had with fellow author Vita Sackville-West. I am bisexual, and I hadn't seen at that point any books questioning gender norms and a more fluid identity. Woolf felt like a kindred spirit, and I felt very much connected.

Another incredibly important detail – more than a detail, in fact – is that Orlando changes sex in Turkey. Constantinople (now Istanbul) was a very cosmopolitan and fluid place throughout its complex history with no fixed identity. It feels so sad to me that if this book was written by a Turkish writer, it would most probably be attacked, censured or even prosecuted in my motherland. Turkey has a long and rich history, but that doesn't translate into a strong memory. Society has a collective amnesia. Our entire relationship is full of ruptures. That void is filled in by an ultra-nationalist perception of the past. In that reading of history, you don't speak about pluralism. What was history like for women? What was history like for minorities? Those questions are never asked, so their stories become untold stories and taboos. If you talk about them, you are labelled a betrayer. Virginia Woolf saw the importance of that diverse nature of Constantinople and appreciated it. But many Turkish people have never been allowed to acknowledge it.

In
A Room of One's Own
, there's an interesting argument that Woolf explored. It is called ‘Shakespeare's sister', where she asks if Shakespeare had had a sister and she had exactly the same talents, what would her life be like? Would she be given the same opportunities? She would have gone crazy or shot herself or ended up very lonely. Women, after all, could not live a free life and write in the Elizabethan era. In 2007, I wrote a half-memoir called
Black Milk
where I took Woolf's essay and applied it to a famous 16th-century Turkish poet called Fuzuli. What if Fuzuli had had a sister called Firuze, I asked – what would her life be like? The truth is that she would never be allowed to publish her work. Even if she wrote, she would be consigned to oblivion, because she was a woman.

I associate
Orlando
with freedom. Virginia Woolf is an amazing writer, but she is also a public intellectual and a thinker. That side is not emphasised enough. She is also fiercely feminist. Feminism is vilified in Turkey. It is considered a Western import. In literature we have the tradition of the flâneur. He strolls around the city and he's always male. In
Orlando
, we see the city through the female gaze. Putting women in the public space like this is the ultimate act of courage.

Elif Shafak is a Turkish-British novelist, essayist, activist and political scientist, whose books have been translated into over 50 languages. The most widely read female author in Turkey, she has written 12 novels and seven works of non-fiction. She is an honorary fellow at St Anne's College, Oxford, a Vice President of the Royal Society of Literature and has been awarded a Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters.

Derek Owusu

on
The Great Gatsby
by F. Scott Fitzgerald

The first time I read
The Great Gatsby
, I was at work, sitting at the reception of a sports centre at Bolton University. I was about 25, a late uni goer, and had taken it out of the library. Or so I thought. The book I took out said
The Great Gatsby
, had a glistening silver finish on the cover, and I remember I felt so excited that I'd finally be able to read the book my best friend had been raving about for over a year. I wasn't much of a reader at the time, and she was trying to get me to read the classics, whatever they were. But when I got to work and started reading, I wondered why the introduction was taking so long. Turns out, I had taken out an analysis of
The Great Gatsby
and not the actual novel.

I took my break early and checked out the real thing. I finished it the same day in my dorm room and didn't feel much, mostly because I didn't really understand it. The language was complicated
to a novice like me, but I was determined to decipher the mystery of Gatsby and the flowery prose of Nick Carraway. I began reading it again immediately.

On the second reading, I felt like I was reading a completely different book. Sentences moved me enough to put the book down, spreading the centre of the page I was on, rub my arms to feel the piloerection, take a deep breath and say, wow. This was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. I saw the book as a whole; even though I was reading page after page, there was something complete about it as I followed each perfectly chosen word and mysterious narrative. I understood everything and knew Gatsby was someone like … me.

And that's strange to most people because we couldn't be more different objectively. But it's a hallmark of great literature. To me. Gatsby was working class, struggling to find his identity, thinking love would make him who he always wanted to be, thinking money could change the circumstances of his birth and relying on myth to elevate him in the world. He courted friends but preferred to be alone, thinking only of how he was perceived and caring nothing about being received. Except for one person. And she was arguably the jewel to complete the accumulating
gold to aid his ascension. He couldn't accept himself so others doing it for him was the next best thing. He even had a ‘tag name' as so many from working-class backgrounds do: Gatsby.

The Great Gatsby
taught me what I love most about literature – the writing, the ability to put sentences together in a way to evoke feelings you'll never have words for, and that's okay, just to let the impression and music of the language marinate and make you feel: excited, impressed, sad, jealous. It taught me about ideas that convey humanity, that even if a character isn't traditionally three-dimensional, everything they're missing or omitting makes them human in the imagination and acts as a guide to seeing particular life circumstances as they are.

And this is what I aspire to do in my writing. I want to create impressions for the reader rather than impress them with the plot. The plot of
The Great Gatsby
is a simple and straightforward one, but how it is expressed has a lasting impact. This is a book I recommend to everyone. Though I admit it's not to everyone's taste. Either because they studied it in school or they find the prose too purple or the narrative boring. But I feel it will always be relevant in a world that forces us to constantly aspire, to achieve more and amass our riches by any means possible.

Gatsby meant so much to me, I even had his name tattooed on my shoulder like an obsessed lover, but it's because the novel isn't about the characters, it's about the prevailing and everlasting emotion of wanting more in a life that can promise us nothing but love, whether we have riches or not. We Gatsbys, we'll always turn out all right in the end. Life may remain static; but hope can carry us forward.

Derek Owusu is a British-Ghanaian writer, poet and podcaster, whose 2020 debut novel,
That Reminds Me,
won the Desmond Elliott prize. The former host of literary podcast
Mostly Lit
, he also edited a 2019 anthology,
Safe: On Black British Men Reclaiming Space
.

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