As I start to think about my next novel and what kind of book it might be, I remember the advice meted out by a lecturer on my MA. She recommended trying to write, not the kind of book you think you should write, but the kind of book you’d most like to read.
What kind of book do I like to read? It’s an interesting question. This blog isn’t intended to incorporate book reviews, so I won’t go into too much detail, but here are some of the books I’ve enjoyed reading most in recent months.
Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, about a woman growing up in England during the first half of the twentieth century, living and dying over and over, with resulting alternative outcomes.
John Williams’ Stoner, about a boy raised on a poor Missouri farm who went to college to study agriculture and discovered literature and became a professor and led an unremarkable life (imagine trying to sell that plot line to an agent).
John Willliams’ Butcher’s Crossing, about four men who head out into the mountain country to kill a herd of buffalo for their hides.
Colm Toibin’s The Testament of Mary, in which Jesus’ mother gives her painful, bitter and wry account of the Passion and of her life as the mother of the so-called Son of God.
Pat Barker’s Toby’s Room, in which a young woman artist loses her brother to the First World War and learns to sketch the injuries of war casualties for the purposes of assisting plastic surgery.
Patrick McGrath’s Asylum, about a psychiatrist’s wife who becomes passionately involved with a patient who severed the head of his first wife.
Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News, in which a widower retreats with his two daughters to the wilds of his native Newfoundland.
Suzanne Berne’s The Dogs of Littlefield, about a series of dog poisonings in a well-to-do American Massachusetts suburb where psychiatrists are in high demand.
Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, in which an American ambulance volunteer in the First World War faces the realities of the Italian front and falls in love with an English nurse.
Blimey. I’m a cheerful soul, aren’t I?
So, where does all this lead me? Perhaps it’s easier to see where it doesn’t lead: the comic novel, for certain. Or anything approaching fantasy. It seems I really like the bleak stuff. Stuff about people and their aspirations and their relationships, their trials and failures and their small successes. I can appreciate being transported to a different time and place and learning something new, but this is not crucial to my enjoyment. I don’t require a novel to educate me, except in the general way of humankind.
You know, I’m fully aware that it would be a tad ambitious to set out to write a book like one of these. These are beautifully written, complex and subtle books, which include one of the giants of modern literature, no less. But I believe that as a writer it can do me nothing but good to immerse myself in the very best examples of my literary tastes. So, when I set out to write my own novel, which, at a guess, will be a little on the bleak side, I keep at the back of my mind the experience of reading these books as a guide and inspiration.
I’m also toying, for the first time, with the idea of writing some non-fiction. So, to finish, here are some of the books I’ve most enjoyed recently in that area.
Tracey Thorn’s Bedsit Disco Queen, Joanna Rakoff’s My Salinger Year, Joyce Carol Oates’ A Widow’s Story and Jeanette Winterson’s Why Be Happy When you Can Be Normal?
Luckily, the job of being a writer begins with the great pleasure of being a reader.