Reading and Writing

A question often asked of writers is which books or authors have inspired them, so here are a few of my favourites, those that have been my inspiration since childhood. Some have influenced my life as well as my writing; with others I feel a particular affinity. Only when I began to make a list did I notice the common threads. Adventure and passion seem to run through many of them – from authors as diverse as Arthur Ransome and Thomas Hardy. So maybe my choice of reading also attests to the passionate feelings of a Scorpio, the Sagittarian love of travel and thirst for adventure (you may scoff at astrology but, just for the record, Scorpio is my sun sign, Sagittarius my ascendant). Social justice (or rather injustice) is another theme common to my choice of reading from early on. It’s a topic I feel strongly about and inevitably this is reflected in most of the novels I’ve written.

 The first real craze I remember was for Arthur Ransome. The adventures of the Swallows and Amazons captured my imagination as nothing before. Between the ages of about eight and eleven, I read and re-read every one of his books; acted out scenes from them with my friend Rita; learnt all the vocabulary and technicalities of sailing without ever setting sail in a real boat. We were Captain Nancy and Mate Peggy of the Amazon and I still remember the thrill of meeting ‘Captain John of the Swallow’ at the local swimming pool; we became instant friends. My father indulged me by taking us on a family holiday to Lake Coniston and hiring a rowing boat to visit Wild Cat Island. What was the attraction of these books? Adventure and independence perhaps, along with a love of water (my Scorpio side again). I saw the film of Swallows and Amazons recently, expecting a family audience, but the mostly grey heads proved that its appeal was generational. The books now seem overly dated: I didn’t even try introducing them to my children.

Another author whose books I sought out in the library as a child was Malcom Saville. When, years later, I moved to Shropshire, Stiperstones, the Devil’s Chair and other local landmarks were as familiar as if I’d known them all my life. At around the same age, I became a fan of Geoffrey Trease’s historical novels. I remember scouring the library shelves each week for new ones, disappointed by his failure to keep up with my voracious reading demands.

In my teens, passion about causes and strong emotions drew me to the novels of James Baldwin. Giovanni’s Room, The Fire Next Time, Another Country chimed with (and very likely helped foster) my abhorrence of prejudice, whether racial or sexual, in the less liberal society of the 60s. On a more personal level, Thomas Hardy’s doomed romances pulled at my emotions, echoing my own teenage heartbreaks. I was the tragic heroine and Hardy helped me put the blame for my romantic failures on cruel fate. A couple of years later, I discovered D H Lawrence and fell for the earthiness and sensuality of his writing.

In the 70s, feminist writers like Doris Lessing, Marge Piercy and Marilyn French dominated my reading and undoubtedly shaped my thinking to some extent. Class was another important issue for my generation (street cred depended on proving your working class origins, at least in the circles I moved in). It offended my inverted snobbery that many contemporary novelists seemed to write only about middle class characters in bourgeois settings so I was delighted to find Pat Barker writing about working class people in the down-to-earth community of Teesside, where my husband grew up. In my own writing, especially in my earlier novels, I deliberately chose ordinary people (in terms of class, not character) from humble backgrounds as my protagonists.

John FowlesThe Collector intrigued me and I went on to read The French Lieutenant’s Woman, The Ebony Tower, The Magus and others, impressed by the fact that each was so different. I’ve always admired those authors who show versatility rather than repeating the same formula. Another example is Rose Tremain, perhaps my favourite contemporary writer and one of my greatest inspirations. The Cupboard, Letter to Sister Benedicta, Music and Silence, Sacred Country, The Colour, Restoration, The Road Home: what do they have in common? Very little except great writing, psychological insight and empathy, the skill of drawing the reader in to characters, setting and story. With Maggie Gee, it was our common themes and concerns that struck me first. I was well into writing my anti-nuclear novel when The Burning Book came out. Grace was a novel loosely based on the unsolved Hilda Murrell murder in Shrewsbury that with its disturbing political ambiguities preoccupied many of us locally at the time. The White Family dealt brilliantly with racial prejudice, through the lives of an ordinary English family.

My love of adventure and romance as well as his beautiful poetic prose made it inevitable I should fall in love with Laurie Lee. It may even have subconsciously influenced my decision to move to Spain many years after first reading his books. India was another country that fascinated me and I lapped up writers such as V S Naipaul, Arundhati Roy, Rohinton Mistry and Vikram Seth. In the meantime, I had become a travel writer myself.

Although Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy was aimed at young readers, it captivated me in middle age. The books can be read on many levels and chimed with my philosophical, non-religious outlook. The magic realism of Isabel Allende enchanted me too. Eva Luna in particular caught my imagination. Where do I stop? ‘Read, read, read’ is the advice given to aspiring writers. I agree, but reading as a writer is slow, time is precious and there are just too many good books out there.

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