What book(s) are you reading right now?
A wonderful biography called Mary Shelley: Romance and Reality by Emily Sustein. It was published in1989 by Johns Hopkins, and it takes on Mary as a whole person, not just as her parents’ daughter or Shelley’s wife or a product of her age. Her will and intellect were absolutely extraordinary. I have loved Percy Shelley’s poems since I was about twelve, and I’ve read Frankenstein twice; it’s so much more than any of the movies would have you think. I’m a great fan of gothic, of the theme of transformation, so it’s right up my street. Next I’m planning to read Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, which is among other things a novel about a plague. I can’t think what brought that to mind!
A book you loved reading at a child.
Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh. I read it again recently and it still holds up. It’s about a pre-adolescent girl growing up in New York who spies on everyone around her and keeps a notebook of what she finds out. She considers this research for her eventual career as a writer. Then her friends read her notebooks and get very angry. So it’s about learning when to be honest and when to be, well, kind. And about how hard it is to go from child to young woman. It’s a book writers tend to implicitly understand.
The first and last books on your bookcase/shelf.
The house is falling down with books, so many that all the shelves are full and there are stacks of books on the floors. I’m in the bedroom, and the shelves in here start with Zadie Smith, White Teeth, a doorstop of a novel which is just a joy, and which I often read from in classes when we’re discussing the uses of dialogue. The story takes place in modern London and the voices, the dialects, to my ear are gorgeous. They come together like a symphony. Last on these shelves is Pat Schneider’s Writing Alone and with Others, which is one of my teaching bibles. Pat Schneider was a writer and writing teacher who lived in Amherst, Massachusetts; she died last month. She had the most wonderful approach. She believed that everyone has a story to tell and we just need to be encouraged to tell it. She was anti-elitist, democratic and empowering. Kevin and I try to come at the ‘Over the Edge’ readings, which we’ve run for nearly eighteen years, with that same attitude. Pat Schneider’s writing has had a powerful effect on me. May she rest in peace.
A book you have read more than once.
There are several! I’ve read both Catcher in the Rye and The Great Gatsby at least four times each. With Catcher it’s the narrative voice. It’s honest, it breathes, it’s perfect and utterly convincing. With Gatsby it’s the humour, the lushness and the extraordinary sadness. One of the best and saddest final paragraphs of any novel, ever.
A book that you started but never finished.
Milkman by Anna Burns, which came out in 2018 and won the Booker Prize. It wasn’t that I didn’t like it. I loved it, but it is written in an experimental style and each time I picked the book up again I’d be at sea, and it’d take me ages to get re-oriented. It was a busy period for me so I eventually gave up. But a friend (Liam Boyle, a wonderful poet) tells me I must get to the end, it is worth the hard work. I trust him, so I will. It’s in the pile by the bed now.