I read a lot from the age of three or four when my big sisters taught me. For instance, I read my entire introductory reading book walking home from school after the first day. But I read as a reader. I didn't know there was a man behind the curtain and I didn't wonder about him.
Then, when I was eighteen and in my first year at university, feeling completely out of my depth with Ben Johnson and W.H. Auden, I got a hold of a copy of Gone With The Wind and devoured it in one sitting, in my student flat, in my pyjamas, missing classes. For some reason, it struck me for the first time that day that someone had sat at a desk and done this. Interesting.
We also studied Persuasion that year. Which was okay. So I bought and inhaled Pride And Prejudice. Which was mind-blowing! That taught me that I didn't want to study literature; I wanted bathe in it, dive into it and drown in it. And - this was a very tentative dream - make my own.
So when, maybe six months later, I read Catch-22 I can remember laughing with exhilaration at finding out that you could do that in a novel. Be that tricksy, play those games, have so much FUN!
The next year I switched to studying linguistics and also read John Irving's The Water-method Man which had all the fun and games of Heller, but real people, in a world I recognised (with real, baggy, messy, silly relationships), and was full of jokes about the kind of epic Norse poetry I was parsing in my history of language classes. Another lesson: you can take what you've got and do whatever it pleases you to do with it.
So far, so slightly giddy, right? I think what saved me from plunging, hysterical and unprepared, into pastiches of Irving and Heller was Dodie Smith's I Capture The Castle. It's another big, warm-hearted book that builds a whole world around its characters, but it's also about writing. About learning the craft and finding your own voice. And about the fact that sitting all alone in a room trying to write can be a trap-door to mental collapse.
So I learned one of its lessons, but managed to ignore the other. I'm very glad of that. I finished my linguistics degree and a PhD and even taught in a university for a few years, but writing is home. I'm so lucky that these five books were there pointing the way.