Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Ten books which inspired me

 Candy Gourlay, wonderful author of Tall Story (what do you mean you haven't read it yet? Buy it now!) has written a fascinating post about the books which inspired her on her journey to becoming a children's author, a theme picked up by Nicky Schmidt and Kathryn Evans .
Thinking about what books I might choose brought on feelings of unworthiness. I had hardly read a contemporary YA book before I started to write one. I feel as though I've been on a big catch up in my reading ever since I got my publishing deal, but there are so many books I have still to read.
But still, there were books which encouraged, inspired and influenced me. Here are ten.

 Three books from childhood

I was always a big fan of Noel Streatfeild's books, but Wintle's Wonders (now retitled Dancing Shoes) was my favourite. Not only did it have a great setting - a dancing school which trained children to take part in musical shows, but also a main character Rachel whose  fierce love of her sister and loyalty to her dead mother were consistently misunderstood by the adults around her. I always felt misunderstood and I completely identified with Rachel. And I also loved the little glimpses of adult relationships given by the author, especially the seemingly mismatched artistic Uncle Tom and brassy Aunt Cora. Real people, real emotions, this book set my taste in fiction.

I've written elsewhere about my love of the books of Antonia Forest. The Marlow family series is my favourite series ever written and The Ready-Made Family  my pick of the series. I still can't read it without amazed admiration of how much Forest does in one book - juggling lots of characters, a thrilling plot, intriguing relationships and  making you believe you're reading about real people.

 S E Hinton's The Outsiders was probably the first book I read about boys fighting each other. Loved it then, love it now. It was a million miles away from my staid Home Counties upbringing, and yet I felt it was a book about me. I'm still not sure why.

Dutch literature

I've been a journalist for my entire adult life, and I'm very confident about writing as a journalist. But somehow I'd got a notion into my head that writing a novel would be somewhat different, that I would have to write in a poetic, complicated way to be taken seriously as a novelist. Then I went to live in the Netherlands, and started to read as much Dutch literature in translation as I could. Much of it was sparse and unfussy compared to the British literary fiction I'd been reading - partly because Dutch is a very unfrilly language. It gave me the confidence to think that I could write my own kind of literary fiction, that short sentences and apparent simplicity could be enormously effective. Probably the Dutch book that made the most impact on me was The Assault by Harry Mulisch, a devastating tale of  Holland in the Second World War. Harry Mulisch used to drink coffee in the cafe opposite our flat in Amsterdam, a tiny white-haired man with great style. He died in October 2010. Truly an inspiration.

Books by 'normal' people

How to put this? It was very helpful to read books that had been written by people whom I knew to be not so very different from me. It meant I couldn't hide behind  the feeling/excuse I nurtured that novelists are somehow different...
First of all, the very talented Melissa Nathan. Melissa's brother is married to my sister. Melissa, like me, was a journalist. She became an immensely successful writer of books which are very funny and satisfyingly romantic. My favourite is The Waitress, because it's about a girl who doesn't know what to do with her life, a common state that doesn't get much attention. Melissa wrote The Waitress while she was having treatment for the cancer which cruelly killed her at just 37. I can't write about her without being gripped by sheer disbelief that she was taken so young. She wrote her last book knowing that she was unlikely to see it published. It's as bouncy and fun, hopeful and life-enhancing as the others. Melissa inspired me in many ways, but most of all for her pure professional stamina.

Amanda Swift was my tutor when I did an evening course in writing for children at City University, and she was my mentor and guide as I wrote When I Was Joe (and still is now). As part of the course she shared with us the process she'd been through in writing her book Anna/Bella -  from outline to synopsis and beyond. She also worked with me on the original plot-planning exercise that became When I Was Joe and kindly donated her disabled athlete character who eventually became Ellie.  It was only much, much later that it occurred to me that Anna/Bella is about a girl who swaps between names and identities -  not so unlike When I was Joe as one might imagine, looking at the cover. Another teacher might have mentioned the overlap -  Amanda never did.

Books which made me brave.

 I knew I wanted to write about a boy. I wasn't sure I could do it. After all, I'd never been a boy. Then I thought 'What if JK Rowling hadn't written Harry Potter for the same reason? If she can write a boy, so can I.' And so I did. 

I read Stephenie Meyer's Twilight  in the spirit of enquiry, trying to find out what had captivated so many readers. I didn't like the writing style, the colourless heroine or the snickering hero. But I admired the feeling that Meyer had written from her heart, that she'd fearlessly poured her own emotions into her writing. I think that's what readers connect to.  A  better example of that kind of abandon is Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, which I devoured at the age of 13 and still love. I read a lot of books which are clever and beautifully written, but  there's something missing unless I get a sense that the author is somehow in love with the story she or he is telling. These books made me brave enough to try and do the same.

The ultimate book

I suppose we all have a book which we'd love to have written. Mine is Anne Tyler's The Accidental Tourist. Virtually every line makes me want to laugh and cry at the same time.  She takes the most difficult subject - how bereaved parents go on living after their only son is murdered -  and makes it into something constantly unexpected yet utterly true. And funny -  it's so funny.
  I don't think I could ever write anything one-millionth as good. But I'll go on trying.



  1. I love that you sorted them into groups - especially "books that made me brave" - I remember after reading Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials thinking how could I ever, ever get to that kind of mind-blowing world building? And then I read one of his earlier novels which was contemporary, readable and down to earth ... and it made me think okay, that I can do. One simply needs the courage to START.

    Anne Tyler! I've never read her but I will now.

  2. Oh my god, what a list! I want to read every one of them now. I adore Anne Tyler yet I have never read The Accidental Tourist. Must. Buy. Immediately.

  3. I have to say - my ultimate book is constantly changing. It's not that I'm fickle, it's just that I am such a fan.

  4. The Accidental Toursit sounds great - I love books that tackle difficult subjects without being misery lit. Will put on 'must' list!

    It's also interesting that you admit to not having read contemporary YA before starting to write it. This being the sort of thing that aspirants are told they must Never Do. But I think that out of three necessary qualities of writing competence, genre/market knowledge and a strong story, you can make do with numbers 1 and 3 if necessary.

  5. I read and loved The Accidental Tourist ages ago, and when I recently re-read it I wondered if it would live up to my previous admiration of it. It was so much better than I remembered - and I'd always thought it was marvellous. Genius. Karen, drop everything and read it now!

    @Anna I did so many things that people are told never to do. I cringe now, remembering. But not reading much YA worked for me - I remember reading Nick Hornby's Slam while I was writing When I was Joe and having a sleepless night because I thought it was so much better than anything I could write. I also think that if I'd researched the amrket beforehand I wouldn't have felt so free in writing what I wanted to write. It's an interesting subject...probably worthy of a blog of its own.

  6. I really love this post. I think it's fascinating to read which books have inspired other people. I adored reading The Outsiders in high school and The Waitress is my favourite Melissa Nathan book as well.

    I used to write, but over the years I've gotten out of the habit. Last year, after I read a few of Jenny Valentine's books I thought 'that's the type of book that I'd like to write' and we'll see what happens.. :)

  7. You don't like my precious Twilight :( x

  8. @Claire Haha...I did like the first Twilight film a lot. Especially Robert Pattinson.

  9. Oh my goodness - there's a Noel Streatfeild book out there that not only have I not read but I hadn't even heard of! How is this possible? She is my favourite children's writer ever and I thought I'd read all her books. Am off to track it down right now. Thank you for this, Keren - I always enjoy your blog, loved When I Was Joe and it's so interesting to read about other writers' favourite books. I also always loved the way Noel Streatfeild made the adults as real as the children and it gave me the courage to make the father a major character in my book.

  10. @Helen, Oh I do hope you can find it! And have you read Hilary McKary's Casson family series? I've only just discovered them, and they're reminding me very much of Noel Streatfeild for all the best reasons.

  11. That should read Hilary McKay. First one in the series is Saffy's Angel.