Writers ask writers: What books changed your life?
This month, we are excited to share our group blog post with the first of our guest authors – Hannah Richell. Hannah has written two novels: The Secrets of the Tides, and her latest, The Shadow Year. I have read both of her books, and honestly loved them. I also had the pleasure of meeting Hannah this year when we both spoke at the Sydney Writers Festival, so I’m really pleased that this month she too is answering our writing group’s shared blog question: What are the books that changed your life?
This is a difficult one for me to answer, as like most writers, there are so many books that have influenced the way I think and work. But, if I think back over my reading life, there are some books that I can vividly remember buying, or reading, and it’s these that I’ve chosen today. I’ve limited myself to six books, though it’s been difficult!
Malory Towers books by Enid Blyton
Ah, I just had to include these books. When I read these (were there really only six?) I longed to go to boarding school, have midnight feasts and have drawers that linked dorms together so I could pass secret notes to my schoolfriends. I can remember specific scenes in these novels, in the same way that I can instantly recall characters from Blyton’s earlier books (The Magic Faraway Tree and The Wishing Chair books). These were the books that completely captured my imagination as a child and did what every book should do: transported me into a different world.
Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden
One day, as a young University student, I realised I had read almost every Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Danielle Steele and Virginia Andrews novel – the books I read in my late adolescence. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy them any more, but I felt like I knew the formula to them, and wanted something more. I remember walking into Waterstones, in my home town of Aberdeen, and instead of going to the horror section, browsed in the new releases and picked up Memoirs of a Geisha. I was anxious about risking my meager student money on an author I hadn’t heard of, but the blurb sounded interesting. I bought it, and remember lying on the couch in my flat, starting to read and just loving it. I loved it because it was a new type of reading experience for me: it was a character exploration, it was realistic, and it helped me to learn about another culture. From then on, my reading preferences changed.
A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
While working as a young doctor, a colleague of mine was reading this book in the on-call room. He was shocked that I’d never read John Irving, and passed on his copy of this to me. It was an amazing book. Owen Meany is perhaps one of the most memorable characters I’ve ever come across in fiction: this tiny, squeaky voiced little child with divine aspirations… I promptly read every other book by John Irving and love his imagination, his characters and his brilliant story telling.
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
I was browsing in a bookshop in Sydney, with no idea what to read. I remember looking on the shelves and realizing I’d read every book by my then-favourite authors, Margaret Atwood and John Irving. In a wonderful example of hand-selling by a great bookseller, this book was suggested to me. When I started reading it, I was completely drawn into the world Tartt had created. It reminded me – as was her intention – of Greek mythology, with a perfect structure, and a narrating ‘chorus’. I re-read this book a few years ago and I must say that the second time round, I didn’t like it nearly as much. It was a good lesson to me not to re-visit old favourites: when books come to you at the right time in your life, they are a perfect fit, but this isn’t necessarily the case in years to come.
The First Stone by Helen Garner
Wow. I took this book out of the library, and can remember sitting on an armchair one evening and reading this in one sitting. This was non-fiction in a way I’d never experienced: it was written in a narrative style that completely engaged me; it was shocking; my allegiances shifted with every chapter. It’s a book I still think about as an example of the power of great journalistic narrative, and I would love one day to write a non-fiction book in this style.
We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver
This was the book that has had the biggest influence on my own writing career. I can’t remember why I picked it up, but I do remember that as soon as I started reading it, I had a physical reaction: my heart sped up, my skin tingled. This was a story that was incredibly confronting, that dealt with the psychological conflicts of parenting, that made me want to talk about it. It was an incredible moment when I finished it, as I knew then that people – like me – did want to read about difficult topics, and more importantly, they did want to discuss them. It was then that I knew that I would write Fractured.
What books have changed the other writers in our group?
It’s been fascinating reading the other posts below, especially as there are so many books that make it onto several lists, and others that I wish I’d included!
Our guest author, Hannah Richell talks about one very special book. Her post was very familiar to me as a previous student of Latin (Caecilius est in atrio anyone? Amo amas amat…)
Natasha Lester describes several books that have influenced her throughout various stages of her life, including several that I could easily add to my list!
Amanda Curtin also has the Malory Towers books on her list, as well as some others that I’m not familiar with…
Emma Chapman has yet another vote for Enid Blyton on her list too, and some other classics…
Sara Foster has some fabulous books in her ‘inspiring, absorbing, twisty fiction’ section, books that I too love and find inspiring for my own writing.
Annabel Smith has list of books that I haven’t read! But they’re on my to-read list now!
I’d love to hear from readers of our blogs too: what books have changed your life?