There is difference, I think, between the books you classify as your favourite reads and those that inspired you to write yourself. One of my favourite books, for example is Stephen King’s The Dark Half – and while King has inspired me in many ways, his books don’t necessarily make me want to write (mostly because I’d be nothing but a poor imitation, and inspiration and imitation are very different beasts).
But there have been books that have made me want to write – not in an “I can do better than this” kind of way (I don’t really believe that trying to prove a point is good enough motivation to finish a novel) – but more in a “I want to be able to weave a plot as clever and as beautiful as this in my own way, with my own voice”. I wouldn’t say I have got close to any of these book yet but I’m working on it!
1. A Fatal Inversion – Barbara Vine
Nowadays this would probably be classed as one of the original psychological thrillers, but back when it came out and we were all a little less obsessed with genre, it was just one of those books that took your breath away with it’s cleverness, it’s beautiful narrative, it’s evocative setting. It’s an immensely twisty book, set in the long, hot summer of 1976 (a period in time I’m slightly obsessed with) and if you haven’t read it I highly recommend it. I read it first as a teenager and many, many times since and even though I know the twist, I still don’t always see it coming.
2. The Shellseekers – Rosumunde Pilcher
Oh this book! Again, I first read this in my late teens and I was obsessed with it – I love long complicated family tales in which not much really happens but at the heart of which is a mystery. My teenage ambition was to be Olivia, and my early imaginings of writing long complicated books in a dusty garret began (my books in reality aren’t that long and I have a dust allergy but imaginings and reality bear little resemblance). All of Pilcher’s books are wonderful, but this is my favourite.
3. The Cammomile Lawn – Mary Wesley
A novel of two parts – the first, following a group of cousins through the long hot summer before the war (I have this thing for books set in long hot summers as you’ll know if you’ve read The Many Colours of Us!) and the second, in London during the war. I can’t remember when I first read this but the dynamics between the five protagonists as they move from their easy existence to a the emotional liberation that war brings, finding comfort in sex and humour is endlessly fascinating to me. While I tend to write contemporary fiction, I draw constantly from the past looking at the idea of how we become who we are over several generations and how the past effects our present.
4. Bleak House – Charles Dickens
Much as I love Dickens, I would never say that he inspired me to write a book – but as Bleak House was the catalyst for my first novel, I can’t really leave it out. While that first book turned into something quite different it did begin as a rather ambitious modern retelling of Bleak House.
5. Behind the Scenes at the Museum – Kate Atkinson
And this is the big one, the one where it all began. I first read this when I was 24 and newly arrived in London. I was living in a flat near Highgate tube and writing for the local paper. This book was the inspiration for many, many unfinished novels and one that was finished but was roundly rejected on all fronts. But still…I got there in the end!
Today is also a super exciting day because one month today my new book, The Things We Need to Say, is out on ebook and audio. You can preorder it here!