“One thing I’ll have to learn before the end of civilisation is how to look at the stars and tell where I’m going.” – Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club.
Let’s start with the fun bit. Well, everyone likes to, don’t they? It seems I was no different to most children – even early on, reading good books (or being read to) made up a big part of my life. At six-years-old, I already had my own windowsill mini-library in the hope of copying my mother’s real one. A social historian and librarian, she taught me the basics of Dewey Decimal and we cut out little blue and yellow lending cards to fit inside the covers of my growing collection of storybooks. I looked after those books – and her lending cards – so well that the majority still survive in perfect condition to this day, nearly thirty-five years later. Many books on that windowsill made a happy, colourful impression on me as a child and anyone reading this will know at least one of them well: The Wind in the Willows, Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, The Borrowers, Little Grey Rabbit’s Storybook and Aesop’s Fables, to name a few.
It was perhaps Fables that caught my imagination and left the biggest mark – evidenced by the fact that it is also the book with the most peripheral damage and corrective sticky tape. I was especially intrigued by the short parable, The Stag and the Pool, about a stag who looks at his own reflection in a pool of water and is proud of his antlers, but ashamed of his slender legs. Huntsmen chase him from the pool and he runs so fast they cannot catch him, but then he plunges into a mesh of thorns and his antlers get badly tangled, making him easy prey. He suddenly realises, as he’s about to die, that his legs, which he so despised, were the only part of him that could have saved his life. The moral given at the end of the story is “usefulness is more important than beauty” and this really stuck with me.
By ten years of age, I had lost two friends in a house fire and my grandfather to cancer. Life had suddenly got a lot harder. In some ways, I can now see that I was entering a much more difficult phase, but at the time I didn’t really understand what was happening. I just knew I felt very very sad. (I would later incorporate the pain of those losses into my own novel, Even the Young Can Be Warriors), but back then, my sadness merely turned into a desperate confusion and later, slowly but surely, a powerful determination that I’ve carried with me through life. Drawing on the traits of heroes in the books I loved, I became something many believed I didn’t have in me: rebellious. I started most school days chewing gum and was often asked to leave class. I was no delinquent, no Tyler Durden – my mother’s strict homework regime and high academic expectations saw to that – but I did begin to feel that I possessed something deep inside that was more than just a passing fad. I started to want to be something, to make a stand, to be outspoken. I think some teachers saw that I was at the junction between my early life and two future possible paths. Luckily, my risky behaviour in English class made me popular rather than a pain (back then, saying “fuck” during a drama session really got you noticed!) and, after a rocky start, I somehow befriended the teacher and convinced her not to give up on me, impressing her with my wilder, creative side.
In truth, I was desperate for new role models. My mother was intelligent, hard-working and only wanted the best for me, but her emotional life was spiralling out of control. With a daughter to bring up and no husband to support her, she needed help, but never asked for it. I began to look elsewhere for patience and guidance – and that English teacher was one of the people who gave it.
Through her, I was introduced to two incredible books before the age of fifteen: the groundbreaking To Kill A Mockingbird and the historic, but timelessly breathtaking Macbeth. (Those are my original notes in the photo above). It is not an exaggeration to say they changed my life. Up until that time, I’d been a scientist, obsessed with physics and mathematics – what I thought was the real world – but two years in the presence of Atticus Finch and a certain dagger gave me a totally new perspective. I still loved science and all the calculations you could do to “work things out”, but now I understood that there was more to the Universe than reality. It seemed creative writers also had a way of figuring life out.
Next summer, you guessed it, I discovered boys, but without the confidence to speak to the one I liked most, I also discovered more books. Reclining alone on a cushioned deck chair in my grandmother’s garden, oblivious to the sound of younger children playing ‘tag’ the way I once had, I read, re-read and read again the exquisitely atmospheric Wuthering Heights, a novel someone said was “for grown-ups”; one that transported me out of the sunshine and into an utterly different world to the one I inhabited. I still remember the sensation of not really being in grandmother’s garden at all – of metaphysically leaving her recently-polished, half-open patio doors behind like a fuzzy dream and delving deep into Emily Brontë’s mind and her moors. The next day, I might have been back in school looking and talking like other teenagers, fancying boys from a safe distance, wearing black eyeliner and my new Kurt Cobain t-shirt under my school shirt, but I had tasted a different kind of darkness – a literary one.
My studies and career followed a predictably scientific route. During a physics degree in London I probably read less fiction than at any other time in my life. There just wasn’t the time or the solitude. I was too busy enjoying the freedom, the city, new friends and the nightlife. Somehow, those three years of fun led to a technical writer’s job in a large, unemotional corporation (the daily cut-throat politics of which fed beautifully into my first sickly-humorous novel, From the Horse’s Mouth). It was around that time, when I’d completed the bulk of my academic studies and secured employment, that my reading life took a more exciting turn. I was in the luxurious position of being able to spend my own money on books (not that I ever gave up my library card) and so, genre-free and shameless, I rattled through a smorgasbord of classics, insanely funny, bizarrely warped, bitterly devious comedies and stunningly poetic books.
From Franz Kafka to Irvine Welsh, George Elliot to Oliver Sacks, Anne Enright to Bret Easton Ellis and beyond, I was like a homeless lone ranger on the A666; I didn’t care where next. From fiction to non-fiction, stopping off at science and the occasional memoir en route, it just didn’t matter. Words, words, words were all that happened. The unabridged journey had begun and I was lost in it. Everything I read fostered new understanding. There were books I didn’t much like – The English Patient didn’t do anything for me; neither did much by Nicholas Sparks – I’m no romance reader – and I’m proud to have never read a single Harry Potter, but I still gained valuable insights from those big-name writers, a much better appreciation of who I was as a person and, crucially, in which direction I knew my own writing must take.
And so we arrive at the present day. As for reading, I’m a third through Glass Books of the Dream Eaters which, because of its unnecessary complexity and overwhelming size I had to restart more than once (I’m now enjoying it). Before that I didn’t enjoy Darkmans a great deal, even though I really wanted to, but I went crazy for the umpteenth re-read of my all-time favourite head-fuck, American Psycho. Over the last few years I’ve written three more of my own books: Never More Than 24 Hours, This Is Where You Join Me and Sex Media and I’m thoroughly enjoying completing my first, full-length novel, ready to send off to publishers. Reading is still my greatest passion. The bookshelf in our lounge is full and I’ve just bought another, smaller table to stack a few novels on in the dining room. My taste in fiction (and non) remains unpredictable, but recognisable I’m sure to many people with similar tastes to mine. Still waiting to be devoured are The God Delusion, The White Tiger, What A Carve Up, The Gormenghast Trilogy, Shantaram and, regularly recommended everywhere I go, classic, Catch 22, along with a terrifyingly long list of others (just hunt out my Goodreads “to-read” list to see the damage).
And, in case anyone asks, the answer is “yes”, I’m still determined to remain a rebel through and through: I will never read a Harry Potter as long as I live.