I still have trouble calling myself a “writer”. When I was growing up, obsessed with books, I believed authors were other-worldly beings… not quite of this earth, blessed by some magical writers’ god who deemed them worthy of the gift. I now realize that writers are very much of this world and that even the best ones have to work damn hard. Great works don’t just happen.
I will never be the writer I hope to be, but will keep writing and reading obsessively because nothing else gives me as much pleasure (that is after I’ve dealt with the daily angst of just getting to computer!).
It is difficult to name only five books that made a difference, as I am constantly discovering books that inspire me and make me strive to be better. I want to ramble on about my passion for the fiction of Milan Kundera (ah, his economy of words), Lorrie Moore, Yannick Murphy, Toni Morrison, Philip Roth, Peter Carey, Patrick White, Roald Dahl, Dostoyevsky, or the fact that every Ian McEwan novel fills me with awe.
I’m not very good at articulating why I like a certain book so I guess I’ll just start with the first book that transported me to another place and go from there…
THE BUNYIP OF BERKELEY’S CREEK by Jenny Wagner
I still get unnerved and sad when I read this haunting Australia picture book published in 1973. It tells the story of a hulking bunyip (a mythical amphibious creature) that emerges from the bottom of a muddy creek and asks the question “What am I?” He wanders around asking different animals and they tell him he is a bunyip and that bunyips are “ugly”, “horrible”, “nothing”. So the poor lonely bunyip wanders off to a secluded billabong where he can be “as handsome as I like.” In the middle of the night something stirs in the black mud of the billabong. It is a lady bunyip asking, “What am I?”
“You are a bunyip,” the happy man bunyip replies. “You look just like me.”
The dark, moody illustrations by Ron Brooks make The Bunyip of Berkeley’s Creek an unforgettable book. As I child, I feared and loved it equally.
THE BELL JAR by Sylvia Plath
My beloved high school English teacher gave me this book when I was 15 and going through a very difficult time. This insightful teacher assigned a different novel to each student in the class, stating that we were all different people with varying sensibilities.
Reading The Bell Jar as a teenager (who was trying to deal with grief and depression) I felt a connection with an author in a way I had never experienced before. When I discovered that it was based on Plath’s life, and that she committed suicide soon after it was published, my impressionable 15-year-old self was devastated. Oh, how I wished it could have been different for her; that the writing could have saved her.
So, how has it made this writer? I suppose it was the first time I realized that pain and confusion could be channeled into something worthwhile, something beautiful.
SEXING THE CHERRY by Jeanette Winterson
This is the first Jeanette Winterson novel I read (in my early twenties) and the moment I was done I rushed out to find all of her other works.
Sexing the Cherry is the story of an orphan, Jordan, and his keeper, the Dog-Woman. They live in 17th century London but the narrative moves through time and as a result you often don’t know where you are.
It’s hard to describe a Jeanette Winterson novel (see, I told you I wasn’t too good at this book description thing). They are mystical, magical, ballsy, groundbreaking, poetic, masculine, feminine, philosophical… All I can say is, Jeanette Winterson reminds me that anything is possible in fiction.
RIDERS IN THE CHARIOT by Patrick White
Sadly, not many people have heard of this incredible Australian author who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1973. I am very anal about my books (ah, if only I could have this attitude when it comes to housekeeping) and hate broken paperback spines, pencil markings, dog-eared pages… but when reading White’s 1961 novel Riders in the Chariot I was forced to abandon all of my fiction reading foibles.
This poetic, shocking, savage, heartbreaking novel intertwines four very different lives in small town Australia – a Holocaust survivor, a washerwoman, an Aboriginal artist, and a child-like heiress. I won’t say much more but urge you to discover this masterpiece for yourself.
PORTNOY’S COMPLAINT by Philip Roth
I read this daring, funny book when I want to be courageous in my writing; when I’m afraid of going to far. Philip Roth reminds me to go as far as I damn well please!