As the Man Booker Prize shortlist is announced, a selection of writers who were in the running for the award—some literary heavyweights, others startling newcomers—tell Vanity Fair about the books that have inspired them along the way.
I was a few chapters into writing History of Wolves when it dawned on me that the story might have something in common with the gothic tales I’d read growing up—mysteries and ghost stories—and, especially, some of the delicious governess novels from the nineteenth century. The contemporary equivalent of the governess is the babysitter, of course. My babysitting protagonist in Wolves, Madeline, quietly insinuates herself into the mysterious family that has moved in across the lake from where she lives. As I wrote, I found myself thinking a lot about Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, and the way the governess at the heart of each of these books plays a peripheral-yet-central role. Both are granted privileged access to family secrets. At the same time, because they are outsiders in the homes of their employers, the narrators of these books are shielded from a full revelation of those secrets. This struck me as a remarkably rich vein to mine, the gap between knowing and not knowing! The fissure allows both novels to tackle tricky questions of perception and agency, and, in the case of Jane Eyre, to touch more broadly on issues of class and gender. To the extent that Wolves also plays with these ideas in Madeline’s role as a canny and limited narrator, I am deeply indebted to the gothic and to the governess genre in particular.
In his day, Francis Parkman was considered one of the first great American historians and it might be said he chose the wrong subject for his many-volumed magnum opus, about the rather obscure American/French border wars in the U.S. But The Oregon Trail, this other little book of his, is an out-and-out masterpiece. It is about his journey west in the 1840s, just after graduating in Boston, to find what remained of untouched Native American life, not to mention untouched America. By the time he published this memoir, he writes in his preface that the wilderness he has described is no more, and the peoples he encountered vanished, through treaties, death, and wars, only twenty years after his epic, luminous, enchanting adventure… Without this book I could not have attempted Days Without End.
It has become a commonplace to speak about Cormac McCarthy and the natural world in the same breath. Whether it’s the harsh, apocalyptic wastes of The Road or the vermilion deserts of Blood Meridian, landscape has a central place in McCarthy’s fiction. McCarthy does not rely on a scattering of good sentences and profound statements to lift the whole: every single sentence has a difficult beauty. I decided to strip back my writing style, to try and make every phrase work, to cut no corners. It wasn’t just the style of Blood Meridian and McCarthy’s other books that struck me, but also how they captured landscapes in a state of transition. When writing about British landscape there is a temptation to articulate a sense of antiquity; to marvel at the longevity of hedgerows and standing stones; to emphasize the continuity of rural traditions. I am gripped by this temptation as much as the next writer; perhaps even more so.
In addition to writing Elmet, I have spent the last few years researching the understandings of nature that were held in late-medieval England, in an attempt to put together a PhD thesis on the topic. My novel takes its title from the ancient name for the area in which it is set. Elmet was the last independent Celtic kingdom in the part of the Atlantic Isles that is now known as England. It withstood Roman conquest and Anglo-Saxon settlement (at least in part) and—if Ted Hughes is to be believed—it retained something of its distinct culture long after that. The ancient kingdom is hardly mentioned within the pages of the book. However, it was my hope that the sense of antiquity would convey that the boundaries of the land were not always thus. Borders rise and fall, field patterns vary, territory changes hands. Although the story unfolds within a setting that can lay claim to a distinct cultural heritage, it is also one of flux.
The influences I turned to when building the narrative were not entirely local, although the dialect is unmistakably rooted in this part of Yorkshire. Along with McCarthy’s novels, the Western, both literary and cinematic, was one of my genres of reference. It is a genre concerned with the relations between land and people. It is a genre of frontiers, frontiersmen and the construction of “home”; of wilderness and its enclosure. In the traditional American Western, of course, these issues are informed by the particular politics of that region and era; of the displacement and murder of indigenous peoples and the plunder of natural resources. Elmet takes place on a much smaller scale, and in a very different time and place, inflected by its own concerns. However, it was my hope that the novel would interrogate these notions of ownership and present a family encountering a frontier of their own.
I am continually inspired by Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls, and I’m not sure why. I’m not really “moved” by it, or compelled forward through it—but there is something genuinely strange and (I would say) “God-like” about Gogol’s vision of human activity. The book seems to reject the usual oppositions a human narrator might almost auto-invoke (good vs evil, darkness vs light) in favour of a decidedly non-judgmental (or, we might say, erratically judgmental) stance. Gogol has a different kind of lens in his glasses, a lens that keeps his work perpetually contemporary. There is no outrage or beauty a human being could perpetrate that his prose style wouldn’t accommodate (or, we sometimes feel, predict).
What book has most inspired me? The question just made my brain explode into fizzing little pieces. I can’t choose one. There are so many. I think I’ve been inspired by everything I’ve ever read one way or another, and I don’t mean just books, I mean things on hoardings, things on the sides of pencils, things that catch your eye on the sides of buses, the words FRAGILE BREAK GLASS on the front of a firehose cabinet in an Italian hotel. My partner Sarah just said, stop being inspired by everything. Is this piece of newspaper really inspiring to you? Yes, I said, so don’t throw it away. (She threw it away anyway, but that was inspiring too, because it inspired me to write this paragraph.) Inspiration is everywhere. It’s as everyday as what it means, which is literally in-breath, the act of breathing in. If we think about it like that, inspiration becomes not just natural, first nature, but how we live, how we stay alive—a matter of heart, blood, rhythm.
There are enormously inspiring books all over my desk and I’m not sure I’d give any of them the title of Most Inspiring, but here’s one: the book which changed how I thought about writing, and which I kept watching from the corner of my eye while I was working on Reservoir 13, is John McGahern’s 2002 novel, That They May Face the Rising Sun. This apparently straightforward account of a year in the life of a small community around a lake in the Irish midlands contains no great narrative arcs or revelations, no linguistic fireworks, no big formal innovations; but in its deep and patient understanding of its characters, its carefully rhythmic storytelling, and its deft sentence-making, it stands for me as one of the near-perfect examples of the novel form. I never get tired of reading it.
I rarely use the Kindle app on my iPad, preferring a physical book, but one of the first e-books I downloaded was The English Patient, even though I have two copies of the physical book at home. That way, if I’m travelling I always have it with me so it can function both as safety blanket and challenge. The safety blanket part has to do the refuge I find in the beauty of its sentences and the love I have for its characters—particularly the Sikh sapper, Kip, and the Canadian nurse, Hana. During long airport layovers or jet-lagged nights in anodyne hotel rooms, I can flick to any part of the novel and feel myself at home in it. The challenge lies in the brilliance of everything it does with the novel form. Here is a book with a complex and rewarding structure, fully realized characters, an astonishing sense of place in a variety of locations, and some of the most exquisite sentences written in the English language. It also takes on vast questions of history and politics but does so in the most intimate fashion, through the lives of its characters who come from so many different parts of the globe, and are all handled with equal sensitivity and understanding.
Looking back I think the book which freed me up from all sorts of anxieties and misgivings was Thomas Pynchon’s Slow Learner. That is a collection of his early short stories which are very good in themselves but what is really inspiring is the wonderful introduction in which he recounts his own faltering start as a writer, how he was all balled up with anxiety as a student at Cornell, how he was so afraid to make mistakes. When I read it in my early twenties I was amazed that a genius like Pynchon had ever suffered from any doubts whatsoever. Moreover, he seemed to have the exact same doubts I had when I was starting out. So, I reasoned, if Thomas Pynchon had these doubts then it was okay for me to have them. That was incredibly enabling. The proof of the piece is that I have given it to so many young writers down the years and they have always found it both a comfort and an inspiration.
There are so many books that inspire me. I don’t really want to pick one. But since I have to here, I’ll go with Ficciones (“Fictions”) by the great Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges. It’s a masterpiece of compression: each of its short stories is built on a formal idea more than big enough for an entire novel. It prefigures, from almost a century ago, our virtual, internet age with mirror upon mirror, reflection upon reflection of an ever more uncertain reality. It is truly global in its references and influences, drawing on literary traditions and events from India to Arabia and Europe to Latin America. The writing is beautiful and funny and brilliant and mind-blowing. For me, it is a touchstone. It says: literature can be this good.
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Credits: Hulton Archive/ Stringer; Simone Padovani/ Awakening; Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert