Thursday, January 30, 2014

The five books that made me a writer

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.


Gwen Mayo said...

That was an interesting collection of books. You took a very different path from me in becoming a writer. The oral tradition still lives in the Kentucky hills. Telling a good story came first. Writing those stories down so I could remember them followed. From that came reading and the love of books.

Catriona McPherson said...

Yeah, it struck me that I could have made good money charging people a dollar to guess my five books!

Lori Rader-Day said...

I. Love. I Capture the Castle. LOVE. It's one of the books I keep re-reading (along with P&P). And Catch-22 blew the top of my head right off. Great list!

Catriona McPherson said...

Lori - have you ever read Dorothy Whipple?

Terry Shames said...

I agree with Gwen. It started with oral tradition. I can picture my grandfather at the kitchen table telling a tale, and then laughing and slapping his knee.

But then I started reading--begged my dad to teach me before school started. Never looked back. I'm going out right now to get Capture the Castle. Who knew?

Susan C Shea said...

Good selection of starter-reads. No wonder you got the message that writing is a wonderful/awful way to spend a lifetime.

Paul D. Marks said...

Interesting cross section of books. But I'll have to check out Capture the Castle -- don't know that one.