My Life In Books: Bella Mackie

Journalist and Vogue columnist Bella Mackie was a commissioning editor at the Guardian and a news editor at Vice before she went freelance. Her first book, Jog On – about running and mental health – was a Sunday Times bestseller and she’s recently launched her Teach Me A Lesson podcast with her husband, radio DJ Greg James. To mark the imminent publication of her first novel, How To Kill Your Family, she’s shared her reading habits, favourite authors and top book recommendations with SL…
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What are you reading right now?

Currently I'm reading Still Life by Sarah Winman, which came out last week. It’s about a man and a woman who meet during WWII in Italy, and it mainly appealed to me because I would very much like to be in Italy right now, so I've been reading lots of books about other places. Yesterday, I bought Sorrow & Bliss by Meg Mason, which has had amazing reviews, so I'm desperate to get into that. The other thing I bought was The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris, so those are my three books I've got lined up to read. 

The last book I finished was The Push by Ashley Audrain and it was incredibly traumatising. It's about a woman who starts to think her child might be bad – it's got shades of We Need To Talk About Kevin – so I probably wouldn't recommend it to people who have young children. I read it and thought ‘I might just stick with dogs, then!’ But it was fantastic, and I was totally gripped – but it was definitely an advert for contraception. 

How do you decide what to read? 

There's a mixture of things. There are about four or five people I follow on social media, who if they really rave about something, I think ‘I'm definitely going to enjoy that’. Nigella Lawson is one of them. Recently she suggested a book by Bess Kalb which was a memoir about her grandmother called Nobody Will Tell You This But Me and it was one of the best books I read last year – I couldn't get over how good it was. Then there are a bunch of really good book bloggers, such as The Candid Book Club on Instagram, who discuss really great reads. And then there are writers like Jessie Burton, who always recommends incredible books.

I constantly check my local bookshop – Owl Bookshop in Camden – so every time they have a new book in the window display, I'll check it out. They’re so lovely in there, it’s a great place to mooch around, and – in normal times – it holds brilliant talks and book signings. 

Then I've got around 10-15 of those authors where if they ever write something, I will buy it regardless. I'll read anything Jennifer Egan writes; I think Curtis Sittenfeld is incredible; I love Maggie O'Farrell; and Hilary Mantel, obviously. 

Finally, sometimes late at night, if I can't sleep, I go onto iBooks on my phone and scroll through the latest recommendations and read them on my phone. It’s a kind of crazy thing to do if you think about how tiny your phone is, but it's a really nice way of reading something you might not necessarily pick up in a book shop, but you'll take a chance on if you can just download it straight away.

What book from childhood will always stay with you?

I remember reading Middlemarch by George Eliot when I was nine. I was an enormous reader when I was a kid and I just gobbled books up. And by that age, I’d started to graduate to grown-up books. I loved it and probably didn't understand all of it at the time, but I remember thinking ‘this is a breakthrough into adult reading’ and I felt incredibly grown up to be understanding and enjoying it.

Are there any childhood favourites you revisit?

When I was little, I read every single Agatha Christie book that there was, and I re-read those all the time. I also read every single PG Wodehouse book and I still read those today. Then there are authors like Elizabeth Jane Howard, who wrote the Cazalet Chronicles, which is the most beautiful, wonderful series of stories about a family during the war. I read that at the beginning of the pandemic because I thought I might find it comforting – and didn't. It’s quite dark and a lot of sad things happen, but I dip back into it whenever I'm feeling a bit sad or want something from my childhood. 

What books made you want to write?

Every book I've ever loved has made me either want to be a writer or made me paralysed and think I can't ever be a writer because it’s so good. I remember reading Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan in my 20s and thinking ‘I don't know how she's done this, this is the most wonderful thing’. That book affected me so much. Then I read a lot of Dorothy L Sayers who wrote crime novels and was always coming up with intricate plots – I remember thinking how much fun that must be.

When and where do you read?

At night when my husband goes to bed, as he goes to sleep much earlier than me – the house is quiet, and I’ll have a glass of wine. I can read anywhere, although I don't like to read in bed. I know lots of people do, but I'd fall asleep! It’s great if you want to read 10 pages before you go to sleep, but once I'm into a book I want to keep reading it – straight up to the point where I'm brushing my teeth while I'm holding the book in my other hand. For me, that’s the sign of an amazing book, if you’re trying to do things around it. Normally I sit on the floor and read, which is something I've always done – often in an uncomfortable position.

Print or kindle?

I don't have a Kindle, as I find them quite clinical. I like cracking spines and picking up a dog-eared book that I've clearly really loved and can keep on my shelf to pick back up again or lend to someone else.

Do you belong to a book club? 

No, but I'm subscribed to the book section on Reddit, which is a forum where people talk about what they’re reading and recommending right now. I read that avidly just to see what people are reading and reviewing. It's a lovely community.

What's been your favourite read of 2021 so far?

More than having favourites, I rate things by how long books live on in my brain. Last year, the book that stayed with me was Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell. It was amazing to keep living with it. This year, I think it's been Piranesi by Susanna Clark, which was stuck in my head for weeks and I thought it was unbelievable. I also thought How The One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House by Cherie Jones was an amazing book. It’s quite a difficult read and heavy-going, but she writes so beautifully and with such compassion for all her characters. 

For me, the sign of an amazing book is if you’re trying to do things around reading it.

Is there a particular book that will always stay with you? 

Intimations by Zadie Smith. It’s six essays about the pandemic – I think there are going to be lots of books about it, and I'm not sure I want to read them just yet as it’s all so bleak and we're still so close to it – but Zadie’s book was wonderful and was just what I needed to read. She's so kind and generous to her readers and she talks about suffering, even with privilege. She's an incredible writer. Francis Spufford’s On Golden Hill will always stick in my brain – it’s just the perfect novel. Another is Kiley Reid’s Such A Fun Age – she’s now another writer where I’ll read anything she writes. This was another of those books where I felt paralysed, I just thought ‘She's so good at this, and this is her first novel’.

Favourite biography?

I don't read a lot of biographies. But I recently read Lady In Waiting by Lady Anne Glenconner, thinking it was going to be a romp of rich people having an amazing time and actually it's about domestic abuse, grief, loss, love and about sacrificing so much for other people. I thought it was fascinating and an incredibly deep, insightful look at privilege and how that doesn't inure you from hardships. I also really enjoyed My Name Is Why by Lemn Sissay. Obviously, he's an incredible writer, which goes without saying, but I thought it was an unbelievable book – again, full of kindness and compassion, given the circumstances.

Favourite non-fiction book? 

I thought Sathnam Sanghera’s recent book Empireland was amazing – he's just a fantastic writer and this was such a brilliant, timely book. And I recently read Hallie Rubenhold’s The Five about Jack the Ripper's victims. She completely set the tone of ‘We're not talking about the murderer, we’re talking about the victims’ which was a fascinating concept. She did it brilliantly and pissed off all the ‘Ripperologists’, which I thought was brilliant. 

What book would you give as a present?

I think you want to give cheerful books – you certainly don't want to hand over A Little Life or anything like that. Perhaps something like The Glass Hotel or Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel. I read both of those in the last six months and they’re both fantastic. Failing that, I’d probably go for something fun, like The Best of Dorothy Parker.

What was the last book that made you cry?

It’s a toss-up between How The One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House and Nobody Will Tell You This But Me – I sat in the bath sobbing while reading that, as I found it incredibly moving and difficult to read. Also, Ian McEwan’s Atonement – I couldn't believe what he did at the end of the book, and then he did it again with On Chesil Beach. He constantly writes these tragic endings where young couples fail to communicate something quite small, which then results in a life full of tragedy, and I find that devastating. 

Any recommendations for laugh out loud books?

PG Wodehouse will always make me laugh, Joel Golby’s Brilliant Brilliant Brilliant really made me laugh out loud, as did Raven Smith's Trivial Pursuits – it made me snort. And I love Carrie Fisher’s Wishful Drinking. It made me laugh out loud – she was just f****** hilarious – and is both funny and thoughtful about mental illness. It’s brilliant.

What’s your favourite film or TV adaptation of a book?

It's very rare that I watch something and feel like they’ve captured what was in my imagination. I really loved the BBC adaptation of Wolf Hall, I thought that was amazing and I wasn't disappointed at all. However, I'm more likely to watch a film and then go back and read the book.

Are there any books that have helped you through difficult times? 

I remember reading Fleishman Is In Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner when I was feeling incredibly depressed a couple of years ago and I found that so absorbing and fun. Sometimes it's great to read something dark and twisty to make you feel better about your own situation, so I remember reading Graeme Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody Project, too. It's about a Scottish murder, and I read that when I was feeling s***. It was so gripping and got me out of a slump. That said, classic books that I read as a kid – like the Jane Austens – are great comfort reads.

What one book should everybody read in their lifetime?

One book I think everyone should try and read – but I totally understand why they wouldn't or can't – is Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. Lots of people tap out before they finish the first third and they say it wasn't for them. But I think if you can get through that, it's one of the most astounding pieces of fiction I've ever read, and it definitely changed me. She's the most phenomenal writer, and when you unlock whatever it is after that first third, there’s some second level of transcendence.

You’re just about to publish your first novel. Did you enjoy writing fiction? 

I loved it and I found the freedom of inventing stuff amazing, versus writing Jog On: How Running Saved My Life, which was really heavily researched, and I felt a duty to not mess anything up. With fiction, I can write anything I want, which is such an amazing feeling. 

Inspired? Read Bella’s top picks below…

How To Kill Your Family is published on 22nd July. To mark the launch, Bella will be in conversation with Raven Smith at an online event on 22nd July – visit Fane.co.uk for tickets.

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