Some of the beautiful books that once graced my shelves
A couple of weeks ago on Twitter, someone asked what books people had read as children that inspired them to become writers. I replied that it was probably The Five Children and It, The Phantom Tollbooth and The Hobbit.
Then I thought about for a while and realised that as much as I did love reading those books – I can’t tell you how gutted I was every time I didn’t unearth a Psammead when I built a sandcastle or ‘made’ paddling pools by digging holes in the earth and trying to fill them with water – they weren’t the ones that made we want to write.
I’m still not certain I can pinpoint the ones that did – on which more later – but I began to remember a slew of books I read when I was a child – which for present purposes I’m capping at 14 – that at least made me want to be someone else. And that, I would venture, is the thread all writers of Fiction share, be that Fantasy, Sci-fi or even self-help books, which for me are the ultimate in fiction, and which underpins their desire to write.
As memories of books I hadn’t thought about in decades flooded back, I also began to remember the effect they had on me, fleeting or otherwise.
For example, I’m fairly sure it was The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, the trilogy Alan Garner started in 1960 and only finished in 2010, that left me with vivid dreams of finding a sleeping Arthurian knight in a secret chamber under Mont St. Michel in the run-up to our school trip to Normandy, and which also inspired me to fill the margins of dozens of notebooks with execrable art.
Susan Cooper’s five-book The Dark is Rising sequence made me wish I too could fight ancient evil, as well as move to Cornwall and have a grandfather like Merriman. Meanwhile, Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea had me spending hours in front of the mirror perfecting the dramatic casting gesture on the cover of my copy of the trilogy, as I imagined the bolts leaping from my fingers and frying my schoolyard nemesis, Dominic.
Phillip Jose Farmer’s Riverworld made me wonder what fictional/historical character I’d get to wake up next to. I seem to remember that in the end, it was a toss-up between Rick Deckard and Burt Reynolds, make of that what you will. And Larry Niven’s Ringworld sparked my determination to live long enough to be able to visit abandoned alien artefacts in space one day, even as a cyborg, although my existing interest in metal-detecting, archaeology and Star Trek had likely primed that fuse already – and yes, I admit that Michael Forest and his gold lame toga probably didn’t hurt.
But it was when I stumbled across Stephen Donaldson’s Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever and discovered there was a very different world of Fantasy – darker, more realistic and harder-edged – that my reading really began to have a profound effect on me.
It was while picking up my copy of the Illearth War, the second instalment in the Chronicles in the glorious old Waterstones on Bold Street in Liverpool, that I spotted a copy of Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson’s Illuminatus! Trilogy.
I bought it entirely for its lurid acid yellow cover (like a magpie, I like bright, shiny things) and when I didn’t understand a word – I mean, how many 12-year-olds would understand what ‘immanentise the eschaton’ meant? – I abandoned it, although after teenage cynicism had set in a few years later, I did return to its pages and by then, the book’s mix of counterculture conspiracy theory, absurdity and surrealism found more fertile ground.
The next writer I remember being bowled over by was Michael Moorcock (which naturally led to Alan Moore and graphic novels in general). That a book like The Knight of Swords was easier to understand as a 12-year-old than Illuminatus! tells you all you need to know about the two Roberts’ books, although I will admit that I also bought my copy, and thus my introduction to one of the UK’s most imaginative and prolific authors on the strength of its cover.
But then, browsing for Sci-fi and Fantasy in the late 70s and early 80s was just as much fun as a trip to the sweet shop. With the latter unencumbered by health concerns, and thus able to pack as many artificial colourings and flavours into each sugary bite as possible, and the former unencumbered by the perceived need to appeal to mainstream readers with ‘sensible’ covers and still heavily influenced by 60s drug culture, Sci-Fi and Fantasy book covers were at their apogee (and, you pulp Sci-fi buffs can fight me on that one, too), and books were cheap enough to be judged by their covers. Literally. I can’t remember how many I bought simply because I liked the look of them. And I was no moneybags, either. I got £1 a week in pocket money (and he worked hard for that money), but at £1.25, I could afford to buy a book every two weeks – every week, if I went for a pulpy 90p imprint from Mayflower or Sphere, which came with the added bonus of that enticing old book smell, even new.
So to return to what I said earlier about not being sure what books I read as a child that made me want to become an author, allow me to rephrase.
These later reads, with their trans-dimensional timelines, time-travel, deeply flawed and even unlikeable heroes and liberal mixing of eras, cultures and species, were not only exactly what mixed-background, mixed-up, Third Culture teenage me needed but in shifting Fantasy away from myth and magic, also gave it a slight edge over Sci-Fi. I am speaking in purely personal terms here, not attempting to argue the merits of one genre over another.
It seemed to me that by blurring the line between our real and the imagined, they also opened the way for convergence between the two genres, and not just in the ‘any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic‘ kind of way and once I’d had that moment of teenage satori, I suddenly discovered that I wanted to write novels of my own.