The British author, whose latest novel is “Reasons to Be Cheerful,” says that “fictional animals were fundamental to my early reading and continue to score high, emotionally.”
What books are on your nightstand?
I am rereading “Commonwealth,” by Ann Patchett, after hearing friends discuss it and regretting my gallop through the first time. It’s the kind of book I love — precisely drawn characters in a family saga that shifts and turns on watershed moments. I also have a little tower of P. G. Wodehouse nearby. I find him simultaneously hilarious and soothing, and a good influence on my own rhythms (in life and in writing). Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s “Fleishman Is in Trouble” is there too — just finished and very much enjoyed.
What’s the last great book you read?
In the three years since the E.U. referendum the only piece of writing I have found to really get under the skin of the mess that Britain is now has been Jonathan Coe’s Brexit novel “Middle England.” It’s funny, compassionate and completely clearsighted. Sometimes you want to thank an author for writing a certain book, and this is one of those times.
What book should everybody read before the age of 21?
“The Country Girls,” by Edna O’Brien, gently, beautifully captures the truth of growing up. That a best friend can be treacherous and yet remain indispensable, that leaving home can be both exhilarating and banal and that the first steps into sexuality will be exciting but ridiculous.
What book should nobody read until the age of 40?
“The Long View,” by Elizabeth Jane Howard, is a brutal novel that requires experience to fully appreciate it. It’s 1950 and Antonia Fleming is throwing an engagement party for her son. The novel tracks backward from there, through her own ghastly marriage, landing us finally in 1926 to witness the bright, young Antonia on the brink of wifedom and the utter grinding disappointment that was the lot of woman in the mid 20th century. Astonishing that Howard wrote this at the age of 33, and sad (though not surprising) to find her so disillusioned at such a young age.
What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of?
“Lolly Willowes,” by Sylvia Townsend Warner, is a satirical, magical comedy of manners. Laura (Lolly) Willowes, a middle-aged spinster dissatisfied with the role carved out for her by convention and controlling male relatives, escapes to the countryside and takes up the practice of witchcraft instead. I’m puzzled that so few readers have found it.
Which writers — novelists, playwrights, critics, journalists, poets — working today do you admire most?
I admire writers like Joy Williams, Tobias Wolff, Lydia Davis and Katherine Heiny for serving up deeply satisfying characters — with a minimum of fuss — and have them thinking one thing but saying another, and being utterly, recognizably real. I am fascinated by the oddball genius David Sedaris, who is fearless and unique. I love his work and I love his method, and feel a great affinity with his wonky affection for his past and his family.
I saw Patricia Lockwood deliver a lecture in London recently. I’d enjoyed her memoir, “Priestdaddy,” and was first intrigued and then delighted. The material was funny and provocative, and her deadpan delivery wowed the sellout crowd.
We need clever, dogged writers like never before and we in Britain are indebted to certain journalists and broadcasters who, for the last three years and more, have dug into the political mess in order to satirize the madness and expose the badness. John Crace, Marina Hyde and Carole Cadwalladr from The Guardian in particular spring to mind, as well as the BBC’s Emma Barnett.
When you were younger, you worked as a nanny in the household of Mary-Kay Wilmers, the legendary editor of The London Review of Books. To what extent did she influence your reading life?
Mary-Kay Wilmers is all for books, and all for women. Yes, she pushed Grace Paley and Angela Carter into my hands but she also introduced me to “The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13¾,” by Sue Townsend, and had me watching the TV soccer program “Match of the Day” and playing snooker. And, actually, more than my reading, she influenced my writing. I once said to her I wasn’t sure I’d ever make a novelist. “I just don’t have a fancy enough vocabulary,” I told her.
“That’s why you’ll make a novelist,” she said.
Whose opinion on books do you most trust?
Nowadays, I rely on a British podcast called “Backlisted,” which discusses neglected classics and misunderstood writers. It has connected me with many great books I’d passed by, and writers I knew of but had skipped, such as Elaine Dundy, Angus Wilson and B. S. Johnson. The independent publisher Persephone Books is similarly devoted to overlooked and forgotten works, mostly by women, from the mid-1900s. A recent find in their London shop was “The Blank Wall,” by Elisabeth Sanxay-Holding, who wrote detective novels and was a favorite of Raymond Chandler.
My mother is very good too, and persistent. For years I ignored her entreaties to read Rose Tremain, Anne Enright, Jane Gardam and Anne Tyler. Now they’re among my favorites.
What moves you most in a work of literature?
Dogs. By which I think I mean love, loyalty and goodness. Fictional animals were fundamental to my early reading and continue to score high, emotionally, which is why my writing features so many dogs. I also enjoy pointless, specific detail. A tomato-colored towel, nicknames, the pattern on a teacup, the exact time, etc. I read today of an old gentleman’s disappointment with life: his career, his home, his marriage, etc. I honestly couldn’t have cared less, until I read on to find he’d once, years ago, mistaken the radishes on his dinner plate for small bitter potatoes and that his wife hadn’t bothered to put him straight over it. Similarly, I very much enjoyed Karen Joy Fowler’s “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves.” I fell for the twist, and enjoyed the themes, but my abiding memory is of an unnecessary comment about turkey breast. This interests me as a writer because sometimes these dainties appear unbidden, and you know you’re onto something.
Which genres do you especially enjoy reading?
Comedy in all its shapes. In case anyone thinks me frothy or lowbrow, I want it known that as a young adult I was brimming with curiosity and grit. I read my share of fairly serious women writers: Carson McCullers, Flannery O’Connor, Willa Cather, Kate Chopin, Toni Morrison, Jayne Anne Phillips. Nowadays, though, I’m drawn more or less exclusively to absurd, funny books that present worlds I want to inhabit and never leave — Maria Semple, P. G. Wodehouse, Barbara Pym, Muriel Spark, David Sedaris, Magnus Mills.
I love memoir, specifically writer’s memoirs. Hilary Mantel’s “Giving Up the Ghost,” Sally Bayley’s “Girl With Dove,” Akhil Sharma’s “Family Life,” Jean Hannah Edelstein’s “This Really Isn’t About You.” J. G. Ballard’s “Miracles of Life.” All simultaneously sad, funny and odd. John Lanchester’s “Family Romance” is a thought-provoking memoir about secrets and is my favorite of his books.
I am very attracted to stories about friends and siblings. I admire the intensity of Elena Ferrante’s writing and her forensic look at female friendship in particular. I love “The Old Wives’ Tale,” by Arnold Bennett, which takes two sisters in opposite directions.
And which do you avoid?
True crime, horror. Anything murderous or ghostly.
How do you organize your books?
After a major spring clean we switched to an alphabetized system. It took my daughter and her boyfriend two whole days to sort it — and I hate it. Previously books were shelved according to date-received/size/good looks. I could locate any book by closing my eyes and trying to visualize where I last saw it. This worked fine for me — and looked pretty.
What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?
A collection of nature writing. For instance: J. A. Baker’s “The Peregrine,” Patrick Barkham’s “Badgerlands,” “Common Ground,” by Rob Cowen, and “My House of Sky,” by Hetty Saunders. Also, “The Lost Words,” by Jackie Morris and Robert Macfarlane — a beautiful, illustrated book inspired by the decision to remove around 50 nature words (such as: dandelion, otter, bramble, kingfisher and acorn) from the Oxford Junior Dictionary to make way for more techy words.
Who is your favorite fictional hero or heroine?
I have a soft spot for clever, high-minded types with medium to low self-esteem and a lot on their plate: Adrian Mole, Lisa Simpson, Bernadette Fox, Polly Flint, Nancy Hawkins. I also love bossy saviors like Betsey Trotwood, and enjoy the touching self-importance of Charles Pooter, and Paul Ewen’s “Francis Plug.”
Your favorite antihero or villain?
Roald Dahl is good at villains. Matilda Wormwood’s parents are blissfully horrible, as is Miss Agatha Trunchbull.
What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?
At a very young age I discovered that you could earn respect by flicking through a nonfiction book and trotting out a few facts and figures. For a while I’d seek out books called things like “Bridges of Great Britain” or “Let’s Go to Scandinavia” and spout off about suspension versus cantilever, or suddenly remark that “Denmark is a country of gently undulating hills.” It got boring and I soon went back to my true book loves — adventure, shipwreck and animal rescue. Books such as “My Side of the Mountain,” by Jean Craighead George, where the young protagonist runs away to the Catskills, lives in a hollowed-out tree and tames a bird. Also, “Robinson Crusoe” (abridged), “Black Beauty” and “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.” I also read Ruby Ferguson’s “A Stable for Jill” series, about a plucky pony-owner who adored ponies but wasn’t quite as posh or accomplished as the other horsy girls. It says much about my own childhood that I wrongly took Jill’s mother (a quiet, widowed writer) to be a depressed, divorced drunk, and this had me cheering hard for Jill — in spite of her poor riding style.
If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be? And the new prime minister?
At the time of writing there are two men remaining in the contest to become prime minister. If Boris Johnson wins — which, although preposterous, seems likely — given that he was the worst, most ignorant, British foreign secretary in living memory, I’d suggest a new world atlas.
And, for Donald Trump, the complete works of Margaret Atwood followed by the complete works of George Orwell.
You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?
Jilly Cooper, Maria Semple and Barbara Trapido, which would make for a lovely time and I’d be able to ask for tips on plotting in return for cigarettes and pudding.
Whom would you want to write your life story?
I think David Sedaris would bring out my best side.
What do you plan to read next?
“Three Women,” by Lisa Taddeo. Hotly anticipating and dreading in equal measure.
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