Monday, 10 October 2016

7 Lessons in 7 Books

Reading is inherent to writing. You can’t even conceive of a book worth writing until you’re familiar with enough books to determine your tastes, your values, and your motivations. If creativity is a flame, books are the tinderbox we use to light it. With that in mind, I’ve tried to pick out the books that have meant the most to me both as a reader and as a writer.

The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde
The lesson: absurdity is a serious business. 

The Eyre Affair is the first in Fforde’s series about Thursday Next, a SpecOps agent with the ability to read herself into the BookWorld. Simply by opening a book and reading its contents, Thursday is able to enter any given book and interact with its characters. Pretty handy, considering her latest case. Literary characters are going missing, and Thursday is tasked with finding the kidnapper. The series is bizarre beyond belief; there are puns galore, fantastical libraries, madcap mysteries and countless literary characters that make unexpected appearances. But despite all the silliness, it’s the emotional scenes I remember most. There are twists, failures, and deaths over the forty-odd years that these books span. It’s this incredible balance of humour and tragedy that inspired me to write something similar; a ridiculous universe with a core of sensitivity and truth. It’s for this reason that the entire Thursday Next series (at time of writing, there are seven books,) shaped my understanding of literature and stands as one of my favourite works of literature.
On a personal note: I can’t recall how or when I discovered these books, but I’m glad I did.
See also: Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s series.

The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
The lesson: science-fiction and romance aren’t mutually exclusive.

The Time Traveler’s Wife is a science-fiction novel about a man with a hereditary genetic disorder that causes him to slip through time, causing untold misery to his wife, Clare. Some write this off as a trashy romance, but it’s much more than that. It’s a book about sickness, death, grief and parenthood, and what was most stunning to me was the way form and subject matter intertwine – the book is about a man living his life out of order, and the non-linear narrative reflects that, jumping from past to present to future without hesitation, yet somehow remains coherent and compelling.
On a personal note: I remember successfully lobbying a bunch of my friends to read it too when it came out. (They all loved it.)
See also: Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger.

The Art of Asking by Amanda Palmer
The lesson: ask for help. 

The only non-fiction book on the list, The Art of Asking chronicles musician Amanda Palmer’s journey from street-performer to contract artist to indie musician. Palmer famously walked out on a record deal after growing disillusioned with her label, and went on to crowdfund her next album via Kickstarter. Her story is equal parts hilarious, touching and inspiring. Palmer insists that there are good people out there, who are willing to pay for entertainment rather than demand freebies, and encourages artists to place their trust in fans.
On a personal note: Without this book I probably wouldn’t have made the leap into self-publishing, and my network of writer-friends would be all the poorer for it.
See also: nothing. There’s nothing like it. Just read it twice, or buy her album Theatre Is Evil. She’s also married to…

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman
The lesson: fantasy and reality go hand in hand.

Did you know there was a hidden London? Another city beneath the city? Neverwhere invites you to find it. This fantastical quest/adventure story sees everyman Richard Mayhew escort a missing princess through a dark and dangerous underworld of monsters, kings and lurking henchmen. It’s colourful, grimy, spooky and very witty.
On a personal note: one of the best books I read at university. It was recommended during a lecture about the literature of London. I made a lot of great literary discoveries during that time but Neil Gaiman was one of the best.
See also: American Gods. I nearly went for this one, but I read Neverwhere first.

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
The lesson: eschew perfect endings. 

A book doesn’t have to be neat and tidy; after all, real life rarely is. Wuthering Heights is a famous classic featuring two lovers who (spoiler warning) never really get the chance to be together. Where the book excels is giving the “second generation” a chance to fix the mistakes of their parents. This technique gives Wuthering Heights a truly epic span, as the narration covers several different eras. Amazing how much you can cram into a little book.
On a personal note: I share my birthday (July 30th) with Emily Bronte and Kate Bush, who wrote the famous song of the same name. So I have to include it!
See also: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte. A similarly stormy, tumultuous romance with a bittersweet ending. Ignore anything by Charlotte. I don’t like her. Rumour has it she burnt Emily’s second manuscript. 😠

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
The lesson: you can’t repeat the past! 

There’s something incredibly sad about Gatsby, the man fixated on a relationship he can never recapture, but it makes for beautiful reading. The American classic follows an infamous, lonely playboy as he tries to woo a girl he knew from years before. Everything about this book is memorable, from the lines to the imagery and the yellow cocktail music, but what stays with you the longest is the idea that no good comes of retrospection.
On a personal note: We read this in school alongside Wuthering Heights and I remember ardently debating with a friend that Gatsby and Wuthering Heights were essentially the same story.
See also: Tender is the Night by Fitzgerald.

Pushing Ice by Alastair Reynolds
The lesson: judge books by their covers. 

I was probably about thirteen when I pulled this hard sci-fi novel off the shelf when picking a holiday read. I didn’t really understand the blurb, nor did I understand any of the politics or science I skimmed through, but it had a nice cover, and it was long enough to last me all week. Pushing Ice turned out to be perhaps the greatest wildcard I’ve ever had the pleasure of choosing. What started off as a simple space opera evolved into an examination of a tiny society – the crew of a mining ship – forced to fend for themselves, hold impromptu courts and executions, colonise new worlds, negotiate with other races and adapt to new, incredible technologies they’re not even sure they deserve. Every time I had adjusted to the new status-quo of the novel, the rug is pulled and your expectations are blown apart once more. The novel is unrelentingly pacey. And I’ll never forget the image of the mining drill being used to bludgeon someone through a space helmet. Blergh.
On a personal note: probably the first “adult” book I ever read, and probably too soon. Didn’t do me any harm though.
See also: Chasm City by Alastair Reynolds, Manifold series by Stephen Baxter.

That’s it. Seven reasons I’m a writer, plus a few more recommendations for giggles. Hope you enjoyed reading about my inspirations and have maybe found a new read or two. Let me know what you think in the comments. 

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