What are you reading right now?
I’ve just started a debut novel that’s not out till April 2021, called The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex, about three lighthouse keepers who go missing. The prose has a really quiet confidence, and the descriptions are stunning. As for non-fiction, I’m reading A Fistful of Shells by Toby Green; it’s an illuminating history of West Africa from before the age of empire and slavery, through that period and beyond. It’s really readable, dismantling western ideas of Africa as a place that only started its history once the Europeans turned up. There is so much we are never taught.
What book from childhood will always stay with you?
Probably Matilda and The Witches by Roald Dahl – in fact, anything by Roald Dahl. I was captivated by his writing from quite a young age – he had a fantastical imagination, but was also quite subversive in his humour, and he took children’s intellect seriously. I even had a poster of him on my door, which I put up when he died. Like a mourning poster… I was eight years old, and quite an intense child.
Any children's books you sometimes revisit?
There are enough adult books I haven’t read yet, so I tend not to go backwards. If I did, I think it would be the Richmal Crompton Just William series. I loved those books with all my heart. They made me laugh so much.
What books made you want to write?
I can’t recall a moment when I said: “I want to write”. It’s more a cumulative osmosis which starts when you’re little, when you read something that almost physically transports you from where you’re sitting. Pure escapism, pure trust and delight, putting the meaning of being alive into a sentence, finding recognition: that’s a gift. The words enter your consciousness and change the way you view the world. And then, when you get older and you start to analyse fiction (which has its drawbacks!), you find adult writers whose technical abilities, whose style, just bowls you over. And into that mix comes that old, intangible storytelling gift that you spend the rest of your own writing life trying to match. All this is to say, that in one way or another, probably all the books I have ever read have made me want to write. Even the books I didn’t like.
When and where do you read?
In bed, mainly, at night. I leave my phone downstairs, which is really important for my sanity.
Where do you buy books?
Mostly bookshops, independents mainly, but Waterstones too. I also get books from charity shops, and Abe Books when it’s out-of-print, and yes, occasionally Amazon, because I think a lot of people are probably fibbing if they say they don’t!
Print or Kindle?
Both. Print is absolutely preferred – I love the smell of new books. And the beauty of the covers that designers come up with. But there is also nothing like lying in the bath with a Kindle, or sideways on a pillow without having to worry about the book getting soaked or falling on your face. I like the concept of a Kindle – it’s like a medieval tablet that basically has infinite worlds inside it. That’s cool. But it’s not ideal reading off a screen. You don’t get the sense of a precious object in your hands.
Do you belong to a book club?
I don’t. But I do get to talk a lot about books and receive plenty of recommendations from friends, so in an abstract way, I suppose I am part of a collective book club.
How do you choose what to read?
Usually via recommendations from people whose taste I trust. I get sent a lot of books and sometimes I get lucky and one really resonates with me.
Do you have a favourite author?
No, I don’t. I have so many. But if you asked for my top ten for today, I’d say: Jane Austen, Hilary Mantel, Siri Hustvedt, Penelope Mortimer, Ali Smith, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Margaret Atwood, Zadie Smith, Deborah Levy and Anita Brookner.
What's been your favourite read of 2020 so far?
Probably Motherhood by Sheila Heti. There are a lot of books about motherhood, or not being a mother, or wanting to be one or not, etc, but this is one of the only ones that seemed to be as generous and curious to each of those states. It is a deeply moving piece of fiction that feels so sublimated into ‘real life’, and it resonated with me, as a woman who also wonders about those questions, and as a writer who writes about them. Her meditations on being a writer and a woman hit me hard, and I also loved the directness of the voice.
What one novel will always stay with you?
Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier haunts me. It’s about when you read a book, I think, how old you are, how in need you are. Some books just stick with you and stay under your skin.
What’s your favourite biography?
Claire Tomalin is my absolute number one biographer. She is unmatched. Of her work, I would say her biography of Jane Austen, of Dora Jordan the actress, and of Katherine Mansfield completely enraptured me. She brings people to life with such generosity and thought. The Austen one in particular is potent, because after Austen’s death, her sister burned a lifetime of twice-daily correspondence from Jane, at her request – which would have been wicked and clever and far sharper than the ones that were left unburned. That said, Tomalin still manages to conjure a de-sanitised, exciting portrait of a woman. The Victorians turned Jane Austen into a ‘spinster aunt’. Tomalin shows us a more human portrait of a woman.
Have you got a favourite non-fiction book?
Zadie Smith’s Changing My Mind is perfect. And James Wood’s How Fiction Works is a masterclass for all readers and writers out there. Also, Hilary Mantel’s memoir Beyond Black.
Any guilty pleasures?
Zero. No book is guilty, but it can always be a pleasure.
What book would you give as a gift?
Circe by Madeline Miller. I love that book. Extraordinary, so detailed and full of emotion, Greek myth turned on its misogynistic head and made pure. Miller is a genius. I read it on a Scottish island, where there was no electricity. It was midsummer and the weather was so good you could have been on a Greek island. It felt like I was inside the set of the book, that any minute a nymph was going to emerge out of the sea.
What was the last book that made you cry?
Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins. Bawling. She’s another lifetime favourite, actually.
Any recommendations for laugh-out-loud books?
Patricia Lockwood’s memoir, Priestdaddy. I’m not exaggerating when I say I yelped, then wept with laughter.
Are there any books that have helped you through difficult times?
Mantel’s Wolf Hall is a great comfort read, as is The Secret Countess by Eva Ibbotson. Andrea Levy’s writing also carries me away. When I’m blue or troubled, I don’t really want to read stuff that mirrors where I’m at. I want beautiful prose, other worlds, humour, detail and gentleness.
Who’s your favourite literary character?
Jane Eyre. A fairly ubiquitous choice, I don’t doubt, but I love her so much. She has some great lines.
What one book should everybody read in their lifetime?
I don’t really like telling people what to read, but seeing as you’re asking, no one would ever regret reading Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo. A huge, loving, funny, important book, and one that so many people hold with such affection already. It’s a born classic. On the subject of Evaristo, I would also say read The Emperor’s Babe. It’s set in the Roman times, but is also so modern. I love her flexibility, she’s just so bold.
Do you read poetry?
I do. Currently on my bedside table is a pamphlet called While I Yet Live by Gboyega Odubanjo – seriously, read his poem Swimming out loud: it will bring your heart rate down and bliss you out. It’s like water. And My Darling From The Lions by Rachel Long, which I am really enjoying. Each poem is like a gorgeous miniature – a snapshot from a moment – that rewards you each time you revisit.
Has anything you've read consciously inspired your books?
That’s a good question. Consciously, I would like to write with the economy of Muriel Spark, Anita Brookner or Penelope Mortimer, or with the poetic imagery of Toni Morrison, Hillary Mantel or Ali Smith, so when I read them, I feel inspired.
Are you most proud of any one of your books?
No. I am proud of them equally, but I am proud of them in different ways. They were each difficult to bring to bear in their own way, but I am grateful that even if they didn’t come out how I expected (books never do!), they stand on their own and have readers who love them. While they have themes in common, I suppose in a fairly self-absorbed way, I am fascinated by how different they are to each other.
What's your next book about?
I’ll let you know that once it’s written! I rarely know until that point. I waffle on until then, because I’m also finding my way through it. About five years after it’s done, that’s when I know.
The Confession by Jessie Burton is now available in paperback, priced at £8.99.
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