Last night I watched the recent BBC adaptation of the coming-of-age classic memoir, Cider with Rosie. The scenes with some of the child actors had me in tears - their expressions were so innocent and honest. I couldn't help imagining what the production crew must have been thinking when they were filming the scenes. I wonder if they had tears in their eyes, too, as the film was rolling... Watching the adaptation got me thinking about the books which inspired me in writing What a Way to Go (published by Atlantic Books in the UK on 7 January 2016 and available for pre-order here).
Reading and writing is a conversation across the years, across continents, class and cultures. In the first of two installments, I've picked out below five books with which I felt I was entering into a conversation while I wrote; they provided me with points of departure as well as things to debate inwardly. I never read without a pen in my hand; I am a terrible one for scribbling in the margins and folding down the corners of pages. The geographical settings in the novels and memoirs chosen below range from Brooklyn, Morocco, east Texas, Gloucestershire and war-torn Rhodesia. The oldest book in this pick was published in 1944, the most recent in 2002. All of them were inspirational.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith
I first read this novel when I was living in Brooklyn in 2001, and was hooked by this story of one girl's experience of growing up a stone's throw from Manhattan in the Williambsburg slums in the early twentieth century. We witness Francie Nolan's childhood and see, in the early pages, her scouring the street for junk to exchange for dimes, with which, in turn she buys food. Like Francie, in What a Way to Go Harper is always looking to earn an easy penny and she sets up her own shop, Harper's Bazaar, where she sells fag ends, yet-to-germinate sunflower seeds and jewellery stolen from the innards of Christmas crackers...
The Liars' Club, Mary Karr
I read this memoir of Mary's east Texas upbringing when I was commissioned by the magazine New Welsh Review to write about the theme of absence in family memoirs (Issue 100, Summer 2013). Mary's troubled mother at one point is taken away to a mental health institution and the image Mary Karr conjures up in this scene is so rarefied and beautiful I quote it in the article. Turning to wave goodbye to her children, Mary's mother pushes her hand up against the chicken wire which divides her from her children. Mary writes, "It made me think of a very white orchid I had found once sprinkled with some powder and mashed between the pages of Hamlet." I love how this image works on many levels, and admired greatly the author's ability to mix the concrete with the abstract throughout this heart-breaking, heartfelt memoir.
Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight, Alexandra Fuller
In the same piece for New Welsh Review, I also looked at Fuller's memoir of a childhood spent in Africa. The publishers - Picador Books - describe the era and location in which she was writing about (1970s; war-torn Rhodesia) as a time when "a schoolgirl was as likely to carry a shotgun as a satchel". In this memoir, the author writes a first-hand account of a childhood tainted by an unthinkable loss with a precision of language and expert eye for a succinct turn of phrase that I lapped up. It's a brave book which I recommend reading along with her follow up, Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness for a different perspective on some of the same events covered in Don't Let's..., something that I've not seen before in life-writing.
Hideous Kinky, Esther Freud
I first read this when it came out in the 1990s as the author came on a visit to discuss the book at the university where I was studying Creative Writing. The novel is a rare thing, partly because it is told from such a young perspective. The (unnamed) narrator through which we see the action unfold is only five years old. We learn of her early years traveling through Morocco with her single mother and her sister in the 1960s. I particularly loved the depiction of the single Mum in this novel (and the film, starring Kate Winslet). It absolutely spoke to me, although I was brought up in a very different setting by a single Mum in the less exotic east Midlands in the 1980s. In What a Way to Go, I relished giving Harper's Mum Mary a love life, a career and an intellectual goal of getting an OU degree. I didn't want her to drown in housework. I wanted her to be forging her own path as a feminist. Mary is very definitely a Ms, not a Mrs or a Miss...
Cider with Rosie, Laurie Lee
Coming back full circle, my fifth pick is Laurie Lee's memoir of a childhood in a remote Cotswold village also from the early part of the twentieth century. I chose it because I could glimpse tiny details that still resonated across the decades with my own part-rural upbringing, despite the advent of electricity and the motor car. I remember watching the sun set on a hayrick on the outskirts of the village where I grew up, the sound of horses' hooves on the lane outside my Dad's house, walking for miles between villages on my own at a young age getting distracted by observing birds' nests in hedgerows, and making daisy chains during what felt like endless summers. In What a Way to Go, Harper marvels at the slow pace of life in the village streets where the residents walk as if the pavements are covered in treacle...
What books make you stop and think, or have inspired you to write?
Stay posted for Part II of the installment of books which inspired What a Way to Go, coming soon.