5 Books That Changed My Life
Each month, writers, readers, book lovers and bloggers tell us about the books
that had an impact on their lives - and explain why.
I’m Susan. I live in Stratford upon Avon – and can glimpse the Royal Shakespeare Theatre if I lean out of my landing window. I have also lived in the Scottish Highlands and Northumberland and, when not writing or attempting pilates, I can often be found back in these places with my backpack and walking boots on. I’m also oddly fascinated with Roman Britain and spend my holidays assisting on an archaeological dig on Hadrian’s Wall.
I’ve been writing for over twenty years, now, and The Night In Question is my seventh adult novel. I am as in love with the written word as much as ever – as both a reader and writer. Here are five books that have, in some small way, changed my life.
Book One: Postman Pat's Foggy Day by Ian Cunliffe
I know ... But one of my earliest reading memories is of reading this book with my father – sitting on his knee in the armchair by the bay window of my childhood home. It enthralled me: the landscape, the community, the kindness, how much I loved the characters (especially Jess, black-and-white cat). I remember feeling very invested in whether Pat (fogbound, disorientated) would be able to deliver his letter in time. It was my first sense of the magic of storytelling. (And I loved that I read it with my dad.)
Book Two: Death of a Naturalist by Seamus Heaney
My English room at school had a quote on its wall: ‘Poetry is to prose as dancing is to walking.’ On discovering Heaney – in that very room – I suddenly understood its meaning. Being an outdoorsy sort, even then, I fell upon his descriptions of the natural world; I felt I could eat his blackberries, look up into his trees – and his use of language changed something in me. This book started my love of poetry - its form, rhythm, the keenest eye, the physical ache that poems can bring about for capturing something perfectly. I love (to both read and try to write) novels that share these qualities – that dance, rather than walk.
Book Three: Women Who Run With the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes
I turned to this book after a relationship broke down. I felt exhausted, spent – and had moved to the Scottish Highlands to start my life again. This book examines (and champions) the ‘wild woman’ in all of us and how essential she is to creative work. Through fairytales, case studies and her own experience, Pinkola Estes’ writing managed to breathe life back into me; it made me stronger than I’d ever been. Also, it made me come to understand myself – and whilst we, as writers, are often on our own, that isn’t always the same as spending time with oneself and knowing who we are. This book – coupled with long, blustery walks in breathtaking landscape – heralded a new, wonderful chapter in my life. And I think it made me a better writer, too.
Book Four: The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje
This felt like being struck by lightning. The passion, the descriptive writing, the structure: this is an extraordinary book. There’s an early scene in which a Bedouin doctor tends to an injured pilot in the desert – and he carries a yoke across his shoulders from which glass bottles of various ointments are suspended. It is one of the most mesmerising pieces of description I’ve ever read – I can hear those glass bottles knocking against each other as he emerges, out of the dark - and I will return to it regularly, as one might visit a friend. That same magic, beauty and quiet sadness in this writing is everywhere in this book. I read it to remind myself of how the best writing can, sometimes, call the heart forwards so that it answers back.
Book Five: State of Wonder by Ann Patchett
Ann Patchett is a reasonably new discovery to me. She is a revelation; her writing is so insightful, precise, somehow both delicate and robust. She is also a wonderful example of a highly literary writer whose books are, too, page-turners. I discovered State of Wonder in the midst of a deep writing and reading inertia; I felt oddly numb to the idea of managing either – and this worried me. But this book hooked me with its first paragraph. Also, the scene with the anaconda kept me reading till 2am – and I found myself punching the air and whispering to the characters: please help him! You can do it! I had never done that with a book before. It was exhilarating. The next morning, I made a cup of tea, sat down at my desk - and started to write.