What Writers Read: 35 Writers on their Favourite Book (6 page)

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

on
The Summer Book
by Tove Jansson

The Summer Book
is one of 10 books the Finnish writer and illustrator Tove Jansson wrote ‘for adults'. It's one of my favourite books. Other Jansson favourites of mine are her brilliant books ‘for children' about the Moomin family, an open and inclusive family of creatures curious and philosophical about everything, who survive wild climates and even wilder plotlines in the mountains and forests of Scandinavia, and she's world famous for these. But I've used quote marks in those two sentences because the distinctions between adult books and children's books blow away to nothing whenever you read Jansson, because at any age, reading these books, and especially this book, becomes a gift of understanding of all our ages in us at once.

The Summer Book
is about an old woman and her small grandchild spending a summer on a very small island. ‘It was just the same long summer
always, and everything lived and grew at its own pace.' They talk and they fight and they go on adventures. There are dangers and darknesses: the child's mother is dead, but the death is mentioned in a dream image only, suitcases floating away in the water round the island. And is that water too deep for a child who can't yet swim very well? And why on earth has the person on the neighbouring island locked the doors of his house when everyone always leaves their doors open on these islands?

Age means experience, yes? Youth means everything new. But
The Summer Book
is a book of profound openness, where age knows everything anew and youth is profound experience. Saying this, or trying to describe the book in any way at all, doesn't come anywhere near what happens when you read it: the calm, the joy, the depth, the understanding, the warmth of this slim little masterpiece about everything.

The lightness of its writing, day or night, dark or light, is a kind of magic.

Ali Smith is a Scottish writer and playwright. The author of 11 novels and four short story collections, she has been nominated for the Booker Prize multiple times, and has won the Women's Prize for Fiction, the Goldsmiths Prize and
the Orwell Prize for Political Fiction. She has also written numerous plays. She is an honorary fellow at Goldsmiths and the University of East Anglia.

Paris Lees

on
The Beach
by Alex Garland

I remember being bemused when our GCSE English teacher told us that people had felt strong physical reactions to books like
Frankenstein
,
Dracula
and other Gothic fiction when they first came out. To me, and the rest of the class, this seemed unlikely. We were raised on a diet of endless cable channels, mobile phones and video games. Constant stimulation. The idea that people had fainted while reading a book – perhaps even felt a sexual twinge mingled in with the anxiety – seemed ridiculous. So, I quietly filed it under ‘things about the past I don't get', like how people didn't die of boredom before TV was invented. Until I read
The Beach
, that is.

I was 19 when I first picked up a copy of Alex Garland's cult 1996 novel. I'd been to see the film a few years earlier. It was a 15, and I wasn't, but me and my best friend managed to sneak in, keen to see Leonardo DiCaprio prancing
around topless for two hours, his first movie after
Titanic
. I'd recently moved to a beach myself. Not the paradise described in
The Beach
, sadly, but Brighton seafront. I was the first person in my family to go to university and was desperate for adventure, excitement and to become well-read. I'd always loved books and I consumed them ravenously, often walking down the street with one in my hand. Such was life before Instagram.

The Beach
is cool. Cooler than the film. The fact it had come out over 10 years previously by the time I read it only made it cooler to me. As a child in the 1990s, I felt like all the young adults around me were having fun. Rave culture was mainstream, particularly on the council estate I grew up on, and I had a young mum. Alex Garland was 26 when
The Beach
was published, and my mum was around the same age. I remember her going out clubbing and listening to The Prodigy, and how exciting it all seemed. It's this energy that Garland perfectly taps into. As the
Guardian
puts it,
The Beach
‘captured the late-90s zeitgeist'.

But it's the book's creeping, overwhelming sense of dread that made the biggest impression on me. Without giving any spoilers away, there's a moment where the narrator, Richard, gets himself into a suffocating situation. It's genuinely terrifying and I was so engrossed in the story, I felt
as though I were right there with him. My heart was pounding. I was, like contemporary readers of Gothic fiction, having a strong physical and emotional reaction. Possibly even a twinge.

Plot and character matter, but it's the vivid scenes in
The Beach
that have stayed with me. It lives in me like a remembered nightmare or fever dream: it's a place I feel I've been to in my mind. Like all great works of art, it helps furnish my inner world. I reread it when I was 25 and still loved it, but it had lost a smidgen of its thrill. I'm grateful, now, that I read it as a teenager, when I was at my most impulsive and wild. It's dark and fun, a book to read when you're discovering life and hormones make the world exciting and intense.

I love how
The Beach
is peppered with references to cartoons, Nintendo and the Vietnam War. It feels so specific and lively. When I came to write my first book,
What It Feels Like for a Girl
, I wanted to create a sort of culture-soup, sprinkled with adverts, songs and slang that no one had thought about for years.

And while I wouldn't compare my writing to Garland per se, I'm definitely influenced by writers who make the reader feel something. I want a book to make me cry. Laugh. Angry. Disgusted. Horrified. I read to escape, to live for
a while in the world that's created on the page, but I also want to feel something. Anything. That connection is the biggest joy a reader can experience and the highest compliment a writer can receive. Forget reviews. Just tell me you cried. Tell me you had to put the book down because it was too much. Tell me you remember how it made you feel 20 years later. As Maya Angelou puts it, ‘People won't remember what you said, but they will remember how you made them feel.' The details of
The Beach
have become blurry, but I'll never forget the fear, the excitement and the beating of my heart.

Paris Lees is a British journalist and the author of a work of autofiction,
What It Feels Like for a Girl
. The first openly trans columnist for British Vogue, and the first trans presenter for Radio 1, Channel 4 and guest on BBC 1's
Question
Time, she has also received an honorary doctorate from Brighton University.

Dolly Alderton

on
Heartburn
by Nora Ephron

There are three things that are impossible to write. Food, flirting and heartbreak. We all eat, we've all lusted, we've all lost someone we love. And yet putting these experiences on the page in a way that is real and original, without leaning on cliché or sentimentality, is quite the task. God, I've tried. I've spent hours in front of a blank screen and a blinking cursor, wrestling with metaphors to conjure taste, dialogue to create chemistry and descriptions of unrequited love that don't sound like the lyrics to a Gary Barlow song.
Heartburn
by Nora Ephron, the most-loved and most-read book on my shelf, effortlessly nails all three. It is the study of a whole relationship in 150 or so pages – a marriage's architecture, rupture and its eventual demolition.

The narrator Rachel, a food writer, tells us what it was like to fall in love with her husband Mark, including an unbelievably sexy passage in
which he teaches her how to dance: ‘Your waist is mine for the next three minutes,' he tells her. ‘After that I'll give it back. But you have to give it to me for now.' She describes the lustful stupor they fall into: ‘We went out to dinner. And then we went to bed. We stayed there for about three weeks.' Followed by domestic, carb-filled bliss: ‘Whenever I fall in love, I begin with potatoes. Sometimes meat and potatoes and sometimes fish and potatoes, but always potatoes. I have made a lot of mistakes falling in love, and regretted most of them, but never the potatoes that went with them.' And then, for the majority of the book, she describes heartbreak. Or, as she physically experiences it, heartburn, while she tries to make sense of his infidelity, which she discovers when seven months pregnant with their second baby.

Sounds miserable, doesn't it? When described like that, it seems bizarre that such a dark story (based on real-life events) became the plot of such a treasured book. But while it is raw and painful in moments,
Heartburn
is also hilarious. It is a unique portrait of heartbreak because Ephron finds the unexpected details of emotional devastation – the absurdity, mundanity and embarrassment of it. One of my favourite sections is when Rachel takes her son, leaves the marital home and goes to stay with her dad. The following morning, she
hears the doorbell and assumes it is her husband Mark begging for her forgiveness. But instead, it is Jonathan, the husband of the woman with whom Mark is having an affair. They burst into tears and fall into each other's arms. ‘Oh Jonathan, isn't it awful?' Rachel says. Jonathan replies: ‘What's happening to this country?', before Rachel explains to us in an aside: ‘Jonathan never takes anything personally; he always sees himself as a statistical reflection of a larger trend in society.'

I've often wondered if the reason
Heartburn
is so exquisitely put together is because it is the confluence of all of Ephron's jobs. She was a newspaper reporter, a screenwriter and a personal essayist. All these particular skills layer up in the storytelling as deliciously as the Potatoes Anna recipe Rachel gives us (layers of potato slices and butter. The basis of every Ephron recipe is butter). Her journalistic training is channelled through her highly observant narrator. Her skills as a moviemaker make for perfect scenes of dialogue (the chapter in which her therapy group is robbed at gunpoint is a particular highlight; all of them fighting over whose fault it was and who should get the limelight). And her ability to open up her heart and let her readers in feels intimate and precious. Nora, through Rachel, speaks directly to you. It is unfathomable to me that this is so many
people's favourite book, because every time I read it, I truly believe it was written just for me.

The book is often called a thinly disguised novel. Like Rachel's husband, Nora Ephron's husband, the journalist Carl Bernstein, had an affair while Nora was pregnant with their second child. Their breakup was very public. Nora's infamous mantra, borrowed from her writer mother, is that ‘everything is copy', so it is unsurprising that such a life event should end up in her work. But it is still a piece of work rather than a piece of therapy, and to reduce this beautiful novel to a large tell-all confession is to grossly undermine it.

Fiction is memoir and memoir is fiction. Writers use reality to enrich our make-believe, and we shape and reorder the real events of our lives when we're writing it into a piece of non-fiction. In an introduction to a later edition of the book, Ephron wrote: ‘One of the things I'm proudest of is that I managed to convert an event that seemed so hideously tragic at the time to a comedy – and if that's not fiction, I don't know what is.' I don't care about what's real and what isn't in
Heartburn
. Any traces of Bernstein and Ephron hidden in the sentences is the least important thing about the book. The thing everyone loves about it is its humour and its emotional truth. It will always make me laugh; it will always make me cry. And
of all the things I've ever tried, it remains the most effective medication for a broken heart.

Dolly Alderton is a British journalist, novelist, screenwriter and podcaster, best known for her 2018 memoir,
Everything I Know About Lov
e, which won a National Book Award and which she adapted for TV for the BBC. A columnist for the
Sunday Times Style
magazine and the former co-host of
The High Low
podcast, she is also the author of a novel,
Ghosts
.

Paul Mendez

on
Escape to An Autumn Pavement
by Andrew Salkey

I first encountered the Jamaican novelist and poet Andrew Salkey in Somerset House's 2018
Get Up, Stand Up!
exhibition. On display was
The Lime
(1974), a group portrait by the Trinidadian filmmaker Horace Ové, in which Salkey and
The Lonely Londoners
author Sam Selvon flank John La Rose, the co-founder of New Beacon Books. Almost incognito under a deep bucket hat, horn-rimmed glasses and a wild beard, and with his fists jammed in his raincoat pockets, he looks every bit the writer's writer, appreciated by those in the know and content to be largely ignored by the unliterary masses. The Windrush generation produced a rich seam of literature, thanks much to Salkey's work behind the scenes, from his presenting of the BBC's
Caribbean Voices
to his own poetry, children's fiction and retellings
of Anancy folk tales and from his prominent early roles in V. S. Naipaul's career to the founding of the Caribbean Artists' Movement.

Also on display in
Get Up, Stand Up!
was Ové's film
Baldwin's Nigger
(1969), documenting James Baldwin's seminal Q&A with a group of radical Black British students. Watching it again recently, I recognised the figure two seats away from Baldwin as Salkey and was delighted to see the two of them in such close proximity at the height of their powers, facing an electrified audience in a cramped room. After reading about Salkey's
Escape to an Autumn Pavement
in
The Cambridge History of Black and Asian British Writing
, which I reviewed (disastrously) for
The Times Literary Supplement
, I read
Escape to an Autumn Pavement
for the first time in May 2021, as lockdown restrictions were being incrementally eased.

It had been a year since my debut novel
Rainbow Milk
was published during the very first lockdown, and my entire professional life up to that point had taken place on Zoom and via email. My maternal grandmother, a true matriarch, died in October 2019, leaving me uncertain as to my position within the extended family, as she was the member I was closest to. Never had I gained so much only to feel such a loss, such a feeling of exile. My grandparents, who were of
Jamaican heritage, were always circumspect and conveniently forgetful about their lives during the Windrush era, yet lived in houses stacked with flowery wallpaper, loud carpets and cheap ornaments from the 1960s and 70s. Looking to enhance my sense of history with social realist Caribbean-British fiction, music and art,
Escape to an Autumn Pavement
stood out to me for the fact that it is one of the earliest examples of queer Black British writing, queerness often being seen as incompatible with what it means to be Black and part of a family.

The novel's plot, as far as there is one, forms naturally from the intersections of race, gender, colour, class, migration status, education and sexuality its hero carries around with him. Johnnie Sobert is an educated young Jamaican who has moved, like so many others, to the Mother Country, where he has to settle for jobs that are beneath him and for a place lower in the class system than he feels his education and light skin tone deserve. He lives in a boarding house in Hampstead and works in an underground Soho bar redolent of The Colony Club, a place of tolerance where the demi-monde mix with drunken aristocrats. Salkey's handling of Johnnie's bisexuality, as he is pursued by two of his housemates – one male, one (married) female – is strikingly devoid of
judgement, drama or shame (especially for its time, pre-partial decriminalisation and as the author was presumed straight). The author's magnanimity emphasises Johnnie's ennui in postwar London, where lingering American GIs and tactless members of the public racially profile him, while his masculinity is questioned by women put out by his lack of interest in them. At a Black barbershop, Johnnie is open about his predicament and receives a response that confirms his suspicion that he is too Black to be English and too English (and queer) to be Black.

I sometimes think about my GCSE syllabus, and the novels, plays and poetry I was set, that virtually exclusively promoted white, heterosexual, patriarchal points of view, and now understand why, for a long time, I read sparsely: I was not able to examine or reconcile my Black and queer subjectivities in those narratives. I believe that, had I been given authors like Salkey, Baldwin and Edgar Mittelholzer (the Guyanese writer whose 1950 novel
A Morning at the Office
is among the very first in Black British fiction to feature a gay character) to study, I would've taken myself seriously as a writer earlier. Better late than never, though, and while I acknowledge
Escape
contains some stereotypical depictions of characters that will appear dated to us, I'm inspired by Salkey's
emotional prose, cutting dialogue and essayistic musings.

Escape to an Autumn Pavement
was greeted with critical silence on original release, most unfairly given Salkey's enthusiastic promotion of other authors, but as someone who is trying to reclaim my heritage as a Black, gay man and descendant of Jamaican immigrants, I declare it canonical.

Paul Mendez is the Jamaican-British author of
Rainbow Milk
, which was shortlisted for a British Book Award and the Jhalak Prize. He is currently adapting the novel for TV and studying for an MA in Black British Literature at Goldsmiths, University of London.

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