What Writers Read: 35 Writers on their Favourite Book (7 page)

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

on
National Velvet
by Enid Bagnold

I was quite an eccentric child. I had an enormous imagination and I read all the time as I was an only child with no television. I was also totally and utterly horse-obsessed, writing long tedious stories about girls and their ponies in my lined exercise books. I once asked my mother to fill my bedroom with hay so that I could pretend to be a horse and she agreed, which was particularly amazing of her considering we lived in Hackney. Neither of my parents are remotely horsey, they are in the arts, and they got this weird kid who wanted to sniff pony ears.

I have read
National Velvet
by Enid Bagnold so many times that I couldn't even tell you when I first read it – but I'm going to estimate that I was nine. A lot of people are only familiar with
National Velvet
because of Elizabeth Taylor. But the original non-Hollywood version is so much more nuanced and interesting. It's about a normal,
quite eccentric family who win a horse in a raffle that goes on to win the Grand National. It was published in 1935, but it feels very modern. The characters come alive, because they are quirky and unsentimental and you would recognise the dynamics of the family that she wrote in a family today.

It has at its heart this little girl with digestive problems who achieves something impossible through sheer force of will. I was a very weedy child, always the tiniest person in the class. I was like a country child, born in a city. I wanted to be with animals and horses and so this became an emblematic book for me. It was about somebody I understood – who was dreamy and solitary and sickly but steely when it came to pursuing something.

I had no writers in my family. There was a man at the end of my road called Sheldon who had written a book on voodoo and he was the most writerly person I knew. I associated writers with thick black glasses in garrets in Paris. It was only after 10 years in journalism that I thought I might have a voice. I'd had a baby and realised you can't be a news reporter and have a small baby unless something gives – and I didn't want it to be the baby. Also,
Bridget Jones
had come out and it was like this total revelation in publishing.
I was working at the
Independent
newspaper where Bridget Jones was first a column and I found myself in that initial explosion of ‘chick lit'. It was very female, often quite funny, often tackling quite tough issues but ultimately in a very readable way.

I kept reading these books and thinking, ‘I could do that'. It took me three books to get published. Looking back, I can only think it is that same bloody-mindedness that Velvet Brown, the little girl, has in the book that led me to carry on. I couldn't not write, just like she couldn't not ride a horse. I wrote eight books before
Me Before You
came out. When I read those unpublished books back – they're all longhand on paper – I think, ‘I wasn't good enough.' I had to learn how to do it, and it had to come from bitter experience.

While my fates were changing, I kept on going back and reading
National Velvet.
I got something different out of it every time I read it. When I was young, I very much identified with Velvet. And now when I read it, I identify with her mother. What I love about Ma Brown is that whilst her relationship with Velvet is adoring and facilitating, it's not remotely sentimental. Ma Brown is one of life's stoics. ‘No use guessing and dreading,' she says to Velvet. Velvet sees her mother as elemental: she is a mountain or tree. She is grounded, she takes no nonsense and there
is the loveliest meet-cute between her and the horse. Velvet's mother is walking down to the village, and as she is walking, she is thinking about her daughter's prospects. She thinks, who will be a suitor for Velvet? This odd child, who is dreamy and plays with paper horses. Suddenly, this horse comes clattering down the road and stops dead in front of Ma Brown and lowers its head, and Ma Brown says: ‘A suitor for Velvet.' The mother can see what her child needs.

I couldn't even tell you who this book is aimed at. But I think great literature transcends age brackets. I'm a picky reader and I get something out of it every time I read it. You could read it aged eight to 80. An adult will pick up on the nuances that a child will not – about your dreams. That comes with sacrificing who you were to adulthood, and how germs of that can remain inside you.

Jojo Moyes is a British novelist and screenwriter, best known for her 2012 novel,
Me Before You
, which sold 14 million copies worldwide and was adapted into a feature film starring Sam Claflin and Emilia Clarke. The author of 15 novels, she has sold over 38 million books worldwide.

Diana Evans

on
Middlesex
by Jeffrey Eugenides

I read
Middlesex
by American novelist Jeffrey Eugenides on a beach in Ko Samui, Thailand. Sometimes I was in a hammock between two trees with the ocean at the edge of my vision. Sometimes the sea was behind me and I was lying on a mat on the sand, completely enraptured. The book went with me back to my yoga shack when the sun went down. I took it with me to pranayama sessions and left it at the edge of the hall in case there was a minute to read. I read it on the bus into town, on the plane, in the airport lounges. I almost missed Thailand because of it. When I think of Thailand, I also think of
Middlesex
, of Detroit, of Greece and Mount Olympus.

The timing is significant. I had recently arrived at a place of temporary freedom. I had been writing a book, my first novel, for some years, a difficult novel, one that I had doubted at several abandonments along the way that I could ever finish. Eventually
I had taken it with me to do a creative writing MA in Norwich and there completed it, and soon afterwards got a publishing deal. That was how I was free. I was out of the other side of the long
26a
tunnel and had a little money to be a writer on a yoga retreat, plus I did not yet have children. I was in the before-time, at the threshold of the next projects of work and life, and my mind was gaping open for a good story. I fell in headlong.

It is of course the Pulitzer Prize-winning tale of Calliope Stephanides, who becomes Cal Stephanides, an intersex man born into a Greek-American family with a variant gene. The novel follows this gene all the way from its instigation in Asia Minor to its physical and psychic manifestation in its prime carrier, through his childhood in Detroit, his escape to San Francisco to discover his identity, and a portion of his adult life in Berlin from where he is narrating the story, drawing on some elements of Eugenides's own life and family history. It's a vast novel comprising social commentary and historical detail and churning, infectious humour, and its greatest strength is its mastery of character. It is character that makes it so unforgettable.

Character is the root of fiction, the very core, though not necessarily the beginning. The seed of an idea can begin with a place or a theme or
an object or even a plot, but at some point in the process of gestation all this is met with character, which makes it dance, or shine, or reverberate. The human factor is the thing. The muscle of the human mind and experience, witnessing a world. Character is where the particularities and specificities that language is so joyously capable of can take centre-stage: the way people think, their exact idiosyncratic thoughts, the way they walk and gesture, the way they communicate with one another. Character is the gift of dialogue where a writer can pull reams of bright fabrics out of a person's mouth. I used to be scared of dialogue when I first began to write. Now I can hardly stop them talking, and when I am not writing, they are still talking in my head.

In
Middlesex
, there is a character, Cal's brother, called Chapter Eleven, who has stayed with me just for his name. His grandfather is called Lefty, and Lefty's wife, Cal's grandmother, is the riveting Desdemona Stephanides. She is the greatest example of a living, breathing character I have yet read in a novel, so much so that I can still hear her voice, the pitch and tone of it, 18 years after first reading her. I remember most of all her shrieking reaction to Lefty's gambling away of all their savings, which deserves quoting here. It is all in capital letters: ‘HOW WILL WE EAT! …
WHAT KIND OF HUSBAND ARE YOU TO DO THIS TO YOUR WIFE WHO COOKED AND CLEANED FOR YOU AND GAVE YOU CHILDREN AND NEVER COMPLAINED!' So it goes on, accompanied by her staggering around the kitchen, beating on her chest and ripping off parts of her dress.

I felt like I knew Desdemona personally through witnessing the story of her life and the extremity of her emotional world. I even named a kiss after her in my novel
Ordinary People
because it seemed she deserved such resurrection in another dimension. The miracle of writing is that we can meet other people on a page. We can almost touch them. We can certainly be brought to understand them through the fact that we feel with them. It is sensory and spiritual contact with humanity across material distance. This is why books to me are like friends. They're full of people you can be alone with.

Diana Evans is a British-Nigerian journalist and author of three novels, including
26a
, which won a British Book Award, and
Ordinary People
, which was shortlisted for the Women's Prize for Fiction and the Orwell Prize for Political Fiction. She is an associate lecturer in creative writing at Goldsmiths, University of London and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

Sebastian Faulks

on
The Last Swim
by J. J. Smith

I think I was about nine and, as happens quite often at that age, was ill in bed with a chest infection.

The book came from a mobile lending library that occasionally came to our village and I'm going to have to be quite frank about this, but I can't remember what it was called. For the sake of this little piece, let's say it was called
The Last Swim
and it was by an author called J. J. Smith.

The only author of that name that I can now find is a keto dietitian in America. Perhaps in my fevered state I misread the initials. But I found that the story exerted a strange grip from the first page. A family had gone on holiday to the seaside in a remote village in Wales. This was the kind of thing families did in those days, before ‘abroad' had been discovered as a destination. I could identify with one of the children, an impetuous boy called Jacob who walked in a funny way and
never seemed to get anything right. Although the family seemed quite normal – Dad smoked a pipe and made bad jokes, Mum did most of the work – there was something not quite right about them.

You felt you knew them, but you didn't. None of them was quite like anyone you might have met, and this is what made them interesting. The sister was called Naomi and she was a vexing daughter, disappearing after tea on the beach to meet a local boy of about 18 years old with a spotted neckerchief (the illustrations were line drawings, one or two in colour). Mum expressed her doubts, but Dad seemed quite carefree about it as he loaded up another pipe and refilled his teacup from the thermos.

A few days later they found their pet dog, a Collie-Alsatian cross called Cinders, dead in a farm lane. It was said that she had been worrying the sheep and had been shot by a farmer, but Jacob for one wasn't sure about this and that evening went off to do some investigating. Behind a whitewashed pub with a black slate roof, he saw a field in which several young locals were making some sort of meeting place from hay bales.

When his parents were in bed that night, he crept out of the cottage and made his way to the field. Lit by torches, a young woman was standing in the middle of a group of people and seemed
to be conducting some sort of ceremony. Jacob watched from behind a tree, and what struck him most of all was that the woman was naked. He seemed to find this upsetting, though in a strangely enjoyable way he didn't want to think about.

I suppose J. J. Smith had read a fair amount of Enid Blyton, but he had a darker and more violent streak. There was some smuggling going on, for sure, and I was familiar with this from countless Blyton stories, but it was a surprise to find the local postmistress, shy Miss Wilson, strangled behind the counter one morning. It was also worrying to see Naomi spending so much time with the untrustworthy local youths and their motorbikes. You could tell they were untrustworthy from the illustration.

As the story went on, and it cracked along pretty fast, we discovered new aspects of each character. Smith returned to each in turn after a few pages away and twisted them a few degrees in the light so that they revealed a different facet. Dad's bonhomie was a false front for a deep kind of melancholy caused by his experiences in a recent war. Mum had chosen this village for their holiday not because it was idyllic (it clearly wasn't) but because her lover was rumoured to live there.

Most strange of all was Jacob. I wasn't sure that I could still identify with him when he seemed
drawn to the naked woman, yet he had a fire and independence of character that was thrilling. His physical courage when he crept out at night and witnessed the rituals or took photographs of the smugglers' hideout was impressive, especially when it was revealed about two-thirds of the way through the book that his odd way of walking was due to childhood polio.

The climax brought everything together: the mother's secret and the father's sadness; Naomi's wild longings and Jacob's impulsive bravery. Against the pressure of time, Jacob had to swim from the smugglers' island to the mainland against a running tide. Only if he made it in time would Naomi be saved from death by burning. The waves beat against him as he strove and kicked with his one good leg, lungs burning, the muscles in his shoulders ‘begging for release'. It was not just the safety of the family and the triumph of Good that hung on his making it safely to the shore. The author had shown that all his characters were creatures of history and prisoners of their human limitations. All our lives depended on Jacob's last swim.

Fourteen years later, after I had discovered that the author was in fact a woman, I submitted my own first novel to a publisher under the pen name of J. J. Smith. I thought it seemed propitious.
Sadly (for me, though not for the reading public), it was rejected.

Sebastian Faulks is a British writer and broadcaster, best known for
Birdsong
, which won the British Book of the Year in 1994, was adapted for both theatre and TV and has been named one of Britain's best-loved novels. The author of 15 novels and four works of non-fiction, he is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and was awarded a CBE in 2002.

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