I was a squat, bespectacled child who lived mainly in books and daydreams. I used to come out of the clouds periodically to invent games, bully my sister when she didn’t play them to my liking, and draw pictures – but mostly I read and, from quite an early age, wrote my own stories. There were always plenty of books in our house, because my mother was a passionate bibliophile.
I had huge difficulty selecting my favourite books; the list changes daily. It’s been a revealing exercise. Looking down my list, it struck me that all of my chosen stories are about love in some of its myriad forms: romantic, fraternal, perverse, unrequited, frustrated, self-sacrificing and destructive. The other thing that struck me was that three of my chosen passages feature large families or individual members of large families.
I have always been drawn to the idea of large families, even as a child; perhaps I wanted more siblings to boss around, or wanted to escape into a corner to daydream without being missed as easily. I’ve devoured biographies of the Kennedy and Mitford families for years, and one of my best friends is the oldest of 12, so I’m well aware that life in a large clan is not without its drawbacks. Nevertheless, the Harry Potter books were my chance to create my own, ideal big family, and my hero is never happier than when holidaying with the seven Weasleys.
The first of my chosen books is the famous story of the six Bastable children, who set out to restore the “fallen fortunes” of their house: The Story Of The Treasure Seekers by E Nesbit. I think I identify with E Nesbit more than any other writer. She said that, by some lucky chance, she remembered exactly how she felt and thought as a child, and I think you could make a good case, with this book as Exhibit A, for prohibition of all children’s literature by anyone who can not remember exactly how it felt to be a child. Nesbit churned out slight, conventional children’s stories for 20 years to support her family before producing The Treasure Seekers at the age of 40.
It is the voice of Oswald, the narrator, that makes the novel such a tour de force. I love his valiant attempts at humility while bursting with pride at his own ingenuity and integrity, his mixture of pomposity and naivete, his earnestness and his advice on writing a book. According to Oswald, a good way to finish a chapter is to say: “But that is another story.” He says he stole the trick from a writer called Kipling.
Escape from poverty forms the backdrop of my second chosen book, too, though this is not a childhood favourite, but a novel I read for the first time last year: I Capture The Castle by Dodi Smith. I was on tour in America last autumn, and after one mammoth signing a friendly bookseller handed me a copy and told me she knew I would love it. She was quite right. It immediately became one of my favourite novels of all time, and I was very annoyed that nobody had ever told me about it before.
Once again, it is the voice of the narrator, in this case 17-year- old Cassandra Mortmain, which makes a masterpiece out of an old plot. Cassandra, her older sister Rose and her younger brother Thomas are living in poverty even more abject than the Bastables, in a broken- down castle. Their father, the author of an experimental and mildly successful novel, has since written nothing at all, and sits alone in a tower most of the time reading detective novels from the village library.
The shadowy presence of the depressed and apathetic Mortmain hangs over the castle, but it is the women who dominate the book. Clever, perceptive Cassandra, who tells the story through her journal; sulky, dissatisfied Rose, a beauty without Cassandra’s brains, whose only escape, as she sees it, is marriage to a rich man; and the immortal Topaz, their young and beautiful stepmother, a hippy well before her time, who enjoys naked hilltop dancing, baking and playing the lute.
THE question you are most frequently asked as an author is: “Where do you get your ideas from?” I find it very frustrating because, speaking personally, I haven’t got the faintest idea where my ideas come from, or how my imagination works. I’m just grateful that it does, because it gives me more entertainment than it gives anyone else.
My favourite writer of all time is Jane Austen. I’m excruciating company when watching a Jane Austen television or film adaptation because I writhe with irritation whenever I see a large, florid actor playing Mr Woodhouse – or Mr Darcy taking a gratuitous dip because apparently he isn’t sexy enough without a wet shirt. My attitude to Jane Austen is accurately summed up by that wonderful line from Cold Comfort Farm: “One of the disadvantages of almost universal education was that all kinds of people gained a familiarity with one’s favourite books. It gave one a curious feeling; like seeing a drunken stranger wrapped in one’s dressing gown.”
I re-read Austen’s novels in rotation – I’ve just started Mansfield Park again. I could have chosen any number of passages from each of her novels, but I finally settled on Emma, which is the most skilfully managed mystery I’ve ever read and has the merit of having a heroine who annoys me because she is in some ways so like me. I must have read it at least 20 times, always wondering how I could have missed the glaringly obvious fact that Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax were engaged all along. But I did miss it, and I’ve yet to meet a person who didn’t, and I have never set up a surprise ending in a Harry Potter book without knowing I can never, and will never, do it anywhere near as well as Austen did in Emma.
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