What Writers Read: 35 Writers on their Favourite Book (9 page)

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

on
My Side of the Mountain
by Jean Craighead George

I was eight or nine when my Canadian godmother gave me a copy of
My Side of the Mountain
by Jean Craighead George. Though a good and keen reader, being given books for Christmas at that age always seemed like a missed opportunity for money or sweets or talcum powder. This book was different though. Firstly, none of my vast, book-loving family had read it, or even heard of it, and so, unlike the usual book offerings, it was neither sacred to my mother nor special to an aunt nor cherished by my older sister; it felt like mine. Secondly, the cover struck at the heart of my favourite preoccupations. A boy in ragged clothing stared out at me, a bird of prey on his arm. Beside him, a small kettle on a rudimentary fire let out a wisp of steam. Wild animals in the near distance perfected the scene.

‘I ran away to the Catskill Mountains in May. I had a pen knife, a ball of string, I thought that was all I needed,' the narrator told me via the minimal blurb.

My Side of the Mountain
is the diary of Sam Gribley, who has left his overcrowded family flat in New York to live in the Catskill Mountains for a year in a hollowed-out tree. He's pretty young, probably 12. Running away from home was a story staple back then, a fact that author Jean Craighead George acknowledges in an introduction to a later edition; ‘Be you reader or writer, it is very pleasant to run away in a book.' We loved to fantasise about it but running away in real life was tricky (mainly, back then, because of a lack of resources and the question of where to?). I once forced one of my brothers to run away with me; he wasn't keen, but I didn't want to go alone. I packed a bag of snacks but soon got fed up with his inability to commit to the adventure or enjoy himself. My sister and I did manage to camp out for a night in a horse trailer, but in truth no one really cared, it was the 1970s – a time of benign neglect, and we discovered that without handwringing from parents, running away is no fun.

The diary opens in deepest winter, when Sam really believes he might be snowed in or freeze to death. We know he'll survive (otherwise how did
he write the rest of the diary?), but it is terrifically exciting and compelling, and the first-person narrative is informal and candid and feels modern and very American. I remember thinking it brave of this boy to admit feeling frightened. Rereading as an adult, it occurred to me that this is, of course, a woman's version of a boy and therefore we get to see his frailty. Far from implying innate survival instincts, he describes numerous failings and mistakes, like struggling to get his flint to spark, even though a Chinese man in New York has taught him. And when he becomes unwell, he hikes down the mountain to research nutrition in the library. It really does show someone learning to be independent in a methodical and rational way.

The book is sweet, but it's also quite brutal. There are elements of Peter Rabbit; the anthropomorphising and befriending of wild animals and making acorn pancakes and herb tea, but soon he's stolen a baby hawk from its nest and trained it to kill rabbits for him, which he roasts and eats, especially enjoying the liver. He traps a deer and, though we're spared the gutting of it, he does make a trouser suit from deer hide. Again, he gives us the rough with the smooth; on the plus side, he has a deer-skin suit but then when he wears it for his walk to the library, he gets a bit teased by a townsperson. It's really a delightful
balance. He has a beloved racoon neighbour and again, he resists presenting the racoon as cuddly or friendly, in fact the racoon never really likes him and is either stealing his acorn stash or attacking his ankles. I loved that things don't always go right for him, and he is able to accept that racoon for who (s)he is.

I bought this book for Sam and Will Frears, who I was a nanny for in the 1980s, and I mention it in my book,
Love, Nina.
Will enjoyed it, because he liked adventure, but Sam asked me to read it quickly to get it over with. I guess I overhyped it. I've adored this book for 50 years. It influenced my reading for certain. I think it taught me how transportive books could be. It also taught me tolerance, as a person, and reduced my expectations of woodland experiences. Whenever I can, I foist second-hand copies onto people, but I don't know anyone who has loved it as much as I do.

Nina Stibbe is a British author and screenwriter, best known for
Love, Nina
, which was adapted into a BBC series, starring Helena Bonham-Carter. The author of six novels, including the most recent,
One Day I Shall Astonish The World
, she has been awarded a Comedy Women in Print Prize and the Wodehouse Prize for comic fiction.

Ruth Ozeki

on
The Pillow Book by Sei Shōnagon

When I was 12 and getting curious about sex, I found a copy of
The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon
on my mother's bookshelf. I knew the book couldn't possibly be sexy, or racy, or even romantic; my Japanese mother wasn't any of those things. She was a linguist, and most of her tomes were thick Asian-language dictionaries, dense with tiny ideograms on tissue-thin pages.

But this book, with its suggestive title, was different. It was old, with a torn paper book jacket that hung askew, like a kimono falling off a shoulder. When I pulled it from the shelf, the jacket tore a bit more, revealing boards of beautiful Japanese paper, printed in a pattern of red and blue. Afraid of damaging it further, I was about to put it back, when a sentence on the cover caught my eye:

Nearly a thousand years ago this book was written by a woman who was equally famous for her wit, her poetry and her lovers.

…um, Mom?

I took the book to my bedroom to read under the covers and found myself flung back a millennium into the Heian Court of 10
th
-century Japan. The translation I was reading, by Arthur Waley, was published in 1928. Waley translated only the parts of Sei Shōnagon's book that interested him, about one-quarter of the original work. The rest was his exoticised commentary on her life, about which little is known. She was born around
ce
966. Her father was a provincial official, a scholar and a poet. She served as a lady-in-waiting to the Empress Teishi. She may have been married. She may have had a child. After the Empress died, she disappeared from history. Legend has it that she died in poverty, alone.

The Pillow Book
, which she wrote during her 10 years at court, is a genre-bending miscellany of lists, reminiscences, fashion tips, aristocratic intrigue and gossip. She claimed she was writing it for her own amusement and professed dismay when a visitor filched and circulated her manuscript, but her sincerity is questionable. Even through Waley's bowdlerised, Orientalist
lens, this was a woman writing with authority and an awareness of her audience – which most certainly did not include a 12-year-old girl in America, a thousand years later, reading in bed with a flashlight.

I was looking for a role model (other than my mother), and I found one in this arch, acerbic, intelligent contrarian, with strong opinions and an uncompromising voice. Although a stickler for etiquette, Sei Shōnagon freely broke gender taboos by using ‘men's Japanese' and quoting Chinese poetry. Her exquisitely refined taste made her a discerning connoisseur. If she were alive now and on TikTok, she would be an influencer. Influenced, I took her words to heart.

‘The success of a lover depends greatly on his method of departure,' she wrote. ‘To begin with, he ought not to be too ready to get up, but should require a little coaxing: “Come, it is past daybreak. You don't want to be found here . . .” and so on.' She scorns the lover who pulls on his trousers too quickly, fumbles around in the half-darkness for a misplaced fan or wallet, bumps into things and mutters to himself, fusses with his robes, ‘so that when he finally takes his departure, instead of experiencing the feelings of regret proper to such an occasion, one merely feels irritated at his clumsiness'.

When I finally grew up and had lovers of my own, I would recall this thousand-year-old piece of wisdom.

But what moved me and inspired me most were her lists. Sei Shōnagon created taxonomies that appealed to my awkward, alienated pre-teen self, and like Waley, I picked the ones that interested me, copying them assiduously in my diary: Annoying Things; Deceptive Things; Embarrassing Things; and Things that Give Me an Uncomfortable Feeling.

Later, in high school, I found a newer, more complete English translation by Ivan Morris, which included more lists: Rare Things; Squalid Things; People who Seem to Suffer; Times when One Should be on One's Guard; Things that Make the Heart Beat Faster.

The Pillow Book
contains over 150 lists, and from them, I learned an important lesson: make interesting lists. Your taxonomies will change how you experience your life. If you only make lists of things you must do, then you'll only do the things you must. If you make lists of Things that Make the Heart Beat Faster, your heart will beat faster.

Like a guiding spirit, Sei Shōnagon's influence in my life continued. In graduate school, I studied her original text in classical Japanese. Later, when I started writing fiction, her montage-like,
genre-bending approach inspired mine. When I wrote my first novel,
My Year of Meats
, about a documentary filmmaker with a strong contrarian streak, Sei Shōnagon floated into the story.

Some 50 years after I first found
The Pillow Book
, a new translation by Meredith McKinney was published. As I started to read, my heart beat faster. Would I recognise my old mentor? Would her words still move me, her lists still inspire? I needn't have worried. This newest translation is the best yet, an Outstandingly Splendid Thing that brings Sei Shōnagon vividly to life for new readers, including perhaps another 12-year-old, in search of meaningful taxonomies.

Ruth Ozeki is a Canadian-American author, filmmaker and Zen Buddhist priest. She is the author of four novels and one autobiography. Her 2013 novel,
A Tale For Time Being
, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, while her 2021 novel,
The Book of Form and Emptiness
, won the 2022 Women's Prize for Fiction. She teaches Creative Writing at Smith College in Massachusetts.

Elizabeth Day

on
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
by Agatha Christie

When I was 12, I discovered Agatha Christie. I can't remember who first gave me a copy of one of her books, but I can distinctly recall the thrill of reading them. I loved her pacy plots, written with a straightforward flair that even a child could grasp. I loved Hercule Poirot and his insistence on breakfast toast that had to be made from a square loaf, accompanied by eggs matching in size. I loved Miss Marple for constantly subverting people's assumptions that she was nothing more than a benign little old lady. But most of all, I loved the clarity with which Christie's chaotic fictional world of murder and infidelity and disputed inheritances restored itself by the final page, as if the Earth itself were resting back on its axis with a reassuring certainty.

Perhaps it's no coincidence that I came to the books when I was looking for stability in my own life. I was an English child who had moved at the age of four to Northern Ireland with her family. It was a province beset with violence and civil tension, where to speak with an English accent (as I did) was to mark you out as an occupier or, worse, an enemy. The daily drive to my primary school was interrupted by military checkpoints manned by soldiers with machine guns. Saturday trips to the local shopping centre were frequently shut down by bomb scares. Every August, balaclavaed men marched in the streets. Once, in Belfast, I walked through the city the day after a massive explosion. The pavements were lined by mangled cars and my feet crunched against shattered glass. I got used to news of people being killed. Most of the time, their killers weren't caught.

Unlike the real world, I knew when I picked up an Agatha Christie book, that the murderers in these pages would always get their just deserts. In fact, I became so enamoured with Christie that I used to give each novel of hers I read a mark out of ten and a short two-line review on sheets of foolscap I tied together with string. I was a harsh critic: only two of her books ever got full marks. One was
And Then There Were None
. The other was
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
.

The reason I've chosen to write about the latter is because it is the one that has had the most direct influence on my own writing. The edition I read was found in a second-hand bookshop. It had a blue cover, and the pages were tinged with that specific ochre colour that suggests decades of different fingertips and library shelves. I felt extremely grown-up having such a book in my possession. The cover didn't even have a picture on it, which seemed like the acme of sophistication.

The plot of
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
starts out as classic Christie: an attractive widow dies from an overdose of veronal, followed a day later by the man she was meant to marry – the eponymous Roger Ackroyd. Hercule Poirot is summoned. His ‘little grey cells' are perplexed, but of course he solves the case, and it becomes one of the most startling conclusions of his illustrious career.

Because
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
contains a twist. A twist of such epic narrative proportions that any time I have written an unreliable narrator since (and there have been a few), I aim to pull the rug from underneath the reader with the same shocking brilliance that Christie did for 12-year-old me.

I have never forgotten the immense satisfaction Christie's masterstroke gave me. It was the perfect twist because I guessed it just before it happened.
The realisation dawned literally a page or two ahead of the big reveal, and it made me realise that sometimes guessing the twist at the right time can be just as satisfying a reading experience as not sussing it out at all. It makes the reader feel in on the secret, but without sacrificing the white-knuckle ride it has taken to get there.

Agatha Christie might never have won a grand literary prize but her lasting commercial appeal – she is the bestselling novelist of all time, behind only Shakespeare and the Bible in terms of sales – is profoundly inspiring to me. She knew what it was to put the reader at the centre of all her storytelling, without using self-consciously literary language or pretension. Yes, some of her writing is notably dated and contains derogatory stereotypes of race and ethnicity. But for a woman of little formal education, born into the tail end of the 19th century, who taught herself to write against the constraints of her time, to achieve what she did is remarkable.

As entertaining as her books are, her life was one of her most impressively executed plots. I remain in awe of her for both.

Elizabeth Day is a British journalist, novelist and broadcaster. A former features writer and columnist, she
has written four novels including
Magpie
and two works of non-fiction including
How To Fail
, based on her hit podcast of the same name. She also presents Radio 4's
Open Book
and
Sky Arts Book Club Live
. She has won a Betty Trask Award, a British Podcast Award and a British Press Award.

BOOK: What Writers Read: 35 Writers on their Favourite Book
10.49Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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