Writers Ask Writers returns, and celebrating two book releases!
It’s been a while since we last posted in our Writers Ask Writers series, but we’re celebrating publications by two of our writing group: Sara Foster’s All That Is Lost Between Us and Natasha Lester’s A Kiss From Mr Fitzgerald.
Not only are both of these books great reads, but they also both focus on young women negotiating the transition from childhood to adulthood, so we thought it would be a good time to ask our group about the books that inspired us as teenagers. You can read about the books that inspired Sara and Natasha below, as well as the other members of our group: Amanda Curtin, Annabel Smith, Sara Foster and Yvette Walker.
I remember lots of book that had an impression on me as a teenager, but my memory of the content of those books isn’t great! But the best books are those that leave you with a feeling, of awe or shock or inspiration. By my early teens I’d read pretty much everything in the ‘teenager’ section in my local library. I still recall seeing the spine of Judy Bloom’s Are you there God? It’s me Margaret, taking it home, and devouring it. I remember feeling shocked, and thinking that somehow I shouldn’t be reading all that talk of bras and boys and crushes. Soon, my grandma was checking books out for me from the adult section on her library card, and I remember the exhilaration of reading The Shining by Stephen King. I went on to read every book he’d written. It gave me nightmares, yes, but I was so drawn into the pages of that story that I only came up gasping for air when it was over. Soon after, Donna Tartt’s The Secret History made me long to go to University (but not to partake in the behaviour that goes on in that book!)
But the book from my teenage years that has stayed with me the most, and in a strange way, inspired me not only to be a writer, but to work in child and adolescent mental health, is Iain Banks’ The Wasp Factory.
Iain Banks is one of my favourite authors. He was Scottish, which gave him extra brownie points. He wrote both mainstream/literary fiction as Iain Banks and science fiction as Iain M Banks. I’ve read all of his books, even the sci-fi .The Crow Road is another favourite of mine, but The Wasp Factory was his first published novel, and the first one of his that I read.
The main character is an adolescent boy called Frank Cauldhames (the Scots reading this will be able to translate that surname!) who is trying to come to terms with being a teenager after his castration by the family dog as a child. He’s an unpleasant character: he’s violent and sadistic, but we readers are allowed access to his internal world that allows us to empathise – a little – with him. His father is awful too – at times cruel and unresponsive to his child’s distress. But mostly I remember the twist at the end of this novel and the dread and horror as the I understood, along with Frank, what his real story is.
I still have my original copy of The Wasp Factory on my bookshelf: the simple black and white cover takes me back instantly to the couple of days I spent reading it and the realization of the power of words and stories. I think I was about 17 when I read it. I had just started my medical degree at University, and it made me more determined to work in mental health. It showed me that external behaviour is not the whole story: children have a rich and secretive internal world and in many ways, are a product of their environment and family. It’s an uncomfortable read, but one that challenged me to look at the world differently and go behind the closed door of a family in distress and dealing with things that I could never imagine. It’s the genre that I love to read, and to write, and it’s how I spend my working life as a psychiatrist.
Iain Banks died in June 2013 at the age of only 59. He had announced only a few months earlier that he had been diagnosed with gall bladder cancer and was unlikely to live for a year. He arranged for his final novel, The Quarry, to be published sooner than planned, but he passed away before he saw it hit the shelves. I listened to the audiobook of The Quarry with tears running down my face as the father in this novel came to terms with the fact he was dying of cancer, only weeks after Iain Banks himself he had died. Apparently he didn’t know until the book was almost finished that he was ill. He’s a writer whose career I followed and loved from his first novel, The Wasp Factory, to his last.
Now you can read about the books and people that inspired Amanda Curtin, Annabel Smith, Sara Foster, Natasha Lester, Yvette Walker and Emma Chapman – including stories of old bosses and Richard Branson kitesurfing, Sylvia Plath, historical fiction, Graham Greene, Douglas Adams, the Brontes and Virginia Woolf