This week my American publisher asked me to provide a reading list of books that influenced The Shock of the Fall to feature in the soon-to-be-launched US paperback. If you think my unequal weighting in favour of American novels is an unconscious effort on my part to ingratiate myself with this readership then you’re wrong!
It was entirely conscious.
The Cement Garden by Ian McEwan
As a schoolboy I had a determined lack of interest in reading. I would occasionally steel myself to suffer the books prescribed to us on the English syllabus, but even then if I could get away with a revision guide and the film adaptation then I would.
My journey into reading came a little later. I was a teenager when I idly plucked a copy of The Cement Garden from a friend’s bookshelf. I was astounded by it. Still am really. Something about McEwan’s precision; the control he has over each and every sentence. I found myself re-reading passages, trying to unlock their secrets. By the end I had not only discovered reading, but also knew that I wanted to write.
So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell
I was studying for a master’s degree in creative writing, and well into my first draft of The Shock of the Fall, when my tutor recommended Maxwell’s classic. He suggested I might find it helpful when thinking about my book. Detailing a tragic feud between tenant farmers in 1920s Illinois, I’ll confess it wasn’t immediately clear to me how they related. Then on page 27 Maxwell captures in a single perfect paragraph a notion I spend my whole novel trying to grapple. I copied it out into my notebook and referred to it often. ‘In any case,’ the paragraph concludes, ‘in talking about the past we lie with every breath we draw.’
Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
I sometimes joke that I must owe a royalty cheque to the Salinger estate. For all my interest in structure and form and themes The Shock of the Fall is first and foremost a book about voice. The eccentric voice of a socially alienated young male protagonist.
There are many, many novels in this lineage, but I don’t suppose anyone has done it better than Salinger. I reckon Matthew and Holden Caulfield would get along famously.
The Oxford Dictionary of Nursing
Because it’s not all about fiction. Research. Research. Research.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
I was tempted to bookend this list with another British novel (I never realised how American my reading habits have been.). But I want to mention To Kill a Mockingbird. This was actually one of the books that I avoided reading at school. It was on the syllabus but I settled for the revision guide. I don’t know what made me revisit it, but I have, and very recently. It’s the book I’ve just finished. So I can’t call it an influence.
But you know that feeling, when you’ve just read something so profoundly wonderful that you’ll seize any given opportunity to talk about it?
Well, this is me doing that.