Best short story I’ve ever read
Hard to pick between ‘Bullet in the Brain’, Tobias Wolff or ‘Ballad Of The Sad Café’ by Carson McCullers. Both stories I keep coming back to, although so different. I love the use of time in both — how even short stories can incorporate and play with great shifts of life. Also slightly twisted characterisation. It’s too easy in short stories to make your characters either bland or too twisted.
Book that should be on the national curriculum: The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula le Guin
Not just to make us think about gender and how we treat people, but also to show how science fiction should be treated as important too. Just because something is imaginative doesn’t mean it’s silly.
Best film of the book I’ve seen
Secretary (Mary Gaitskill) was pretty good, but The Great Gatsby still has top place for me. I’ve just read that Scott Fitzgerald died thinking The Great Gatsby was a failure because it got such bad reviews.
Best short story featuring a dog: Lady with a Lapdog
How could I do a quiz like this and not mention Chekhov? I’m not sure if Carver wrote any stories with dogs in although he did write that poem ‘Your Dog Dies’, and as he should be in my top 10 too...
Best short story not featuring a dog: ‘Gazebo’ by Raymond Carver.
My favourite opening line of a novel
“It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me.”
—Earthly Powers by Anthony Burgess.
(For some reason I thought there was farting involved but on re-reading I can see that would be one step too many.)
My favourite novel that no-one else seems to have heard of
Maiden Voyage by Denton Welch. Probably the book that started me writing, as much for the rhythm of the sentences as the painterly descirptions. I found it in this amazing English-language bookshop in Amsterdam, was hooked, and not only read everything he wrote after that but ended up living only a couple of miles from the area he lived in and wrote about. Not a coincidence, as we’d spend many days cycling along the routes he wrote about — his descriptions are vivid enough to follow. It sounds as if I’m a stalker, but Denton Welch died in 1948. Probably one of the most exciting moments of my life was when I went into a neighbour’s house and saw photographs of him everywhere — this neighbour had been married to DW’s best friend.
The book I’d most like to reread, if I could find it again
Recently I asked on a web forum if anyone could identify a children’s book which I’d loved but couldn’t remember the name of — all I knew was that contained a tower, a girl admiring her shoes and sugar-iced biscuits (I’d even forgotten the horse). Anyway I got dozens of replies straight away and was happily reunited with The Little White Horse. So now I’d probably say it was the book I wrote in my head one night — it was absolutely perfect and completely shaped. Of course when I woke up, I couldn’t remember one thing about it, except that it was a masterpiece.
My favourite bookshop
Halls of Tunbridge Wells.
A higgledy-piggledy second hand bookshop which is next door to a pretty good cafe. Bliss is buying a cheap paperback and taking it next door to read with chocolate cake.
Author I’d like to nominate for the Nobel Prize for literature
Deceased author I’d most like to help me with my novel: Carol Shields
I’ve been re-reading her recently and am bowled over once again by her use of structure. She’s completely revolutionary in some of the things she’s done. And each book is so different too, which has to be one of the most daring and generous things for a writer to do. It feels as if she concentrated solely on the story and the form was something that then fell into place. I’d love to work with someone who could teach me to have so much faith in what I was doing — and also to remind me how important the smallest things can be. Mind you, her books are good teachers in themselves.