During a recent podcast, I was asked about the writers who have influenced and inspired me. When I listened back to what I had said, I realised that there was more to it than my answer would suggest.
For as a long as I can remember I have loved books and words. As a young child, growing up in a relatively remote house, reading was a lifeline. I immersed myself in make-belief worlds and had barely put one book down before I picked up the next. My earliest reading memory is discovering Enid Blyton (what kid of the 70s didn’t go there?) She had it all covered; mystery, adventure, fantasy, fairy tales, characters to admire and intriguing places in faraway lands (or magic faraway trees to be exact) She certainly knew how to grab a young and impressionable mind and entertain it.
I then, somehow, made the jump from Enid Blyton to Charles Dickens, starting with ‘Great Expectations’ at the tender age of ten. I was enthralled. Whole new worlds opened up to me, worlds from different times with characters to shock and delight. I believe his characters must surely be amongst the most memorable in literary history, encompassing all of life and human nature.
What captured me the most though, was Dickens’ use of language; rhythmical language which was music to my ears, new words, old-fashioned words, difficult words, words which painted pictures, ‘couldn’t wait to try them out’ words. He sparked in me a love of words and stories which remains unrivalled to this day. I became fascinated not just by his work but also by the man himself, choosing to specialise in Dickens during my final year at university. It was probably the first time I truly connected with a writer, or rather the influences behind a writer’s work. I believed him to be a literary genius and the greatest story-teller of all time: I still do.
Let me share a couple of quotes to illustrate his beautiful use of language:
“A man would die tonight of lying out on the marshes, I thought. And then I looked at the stars, and considered how awful it would be for a man to turn his face up to them as he froze to death, and see no help or pity in all the glittering multitude.”
― Charles Dickens, Great Expectations
“The sun,–the bright sun, that brings back, not light alone, but new life, and hope, and freshness to man–burst upon the crowded city in clear and radiant glory. Through costly-coloured glass and paper-mended window, through cathedral dome and rotten crevice, it shed its equal ray.”
― Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist
Since then, I have often reflected on what it is that attracts me to a book or a writer, and I find myself returning to many of the things which I loved about Dickens: the clever use of language, characters who show us life and humanity in all it’s many guises, and stories which surprise and delight me. Any one of these features on its own can make for some enjoyable reading, but when you happen to get all three together, it’s literary gold.
Examples, for me, would include Laurie Lee’s ‘Cider with Rosie’, a book which I return to time and time again for the sheer joy of the language:
‘Summer was also the time of these: of sudden plenty, of slow hours and actions, of diamond haze and dust on the eyes, …. snow of white butterflies, skylarks’ eggs, bee orchids and frantic ants; of wolf-cub parades, and boy scouts’ bugles, of sweat running down the legs; of boiling potatoes on bramble fires, of flames glass blue in the sun…All this, and the feeling that it would never end, that such days had come forever, with the pump drying up and the water-butt crawling, and the chalk ground hard as the moon.’
– Laurie Lee, Cider with Rosie
Another writer who I find inspiring, particularly in his portrayal of human nature, is Khaled Hosseini. The first time I read ‘A Thousand Splendid Suns’ I was hesitant, knowing that the subject matter would be difficult. What I found however, was that in the midst of a difficult topic was a tenderness which moved me to tears on several occasions. It evoked in me an overwhelming appreciation of the small things and the connections we make in life which are truly special; connections with others that seem so unlikely but prove so powerful.
“Mariam lay on the couch, hands tucked between her knees, watching the whirlpool of snow twisting and spinning outside the window. She remembered Nana saying once that each snowflake was a sigh heaved by an aggrieved woman somewhere in the world. That all the sighs drifted up the sky, gathered into clouds, then broke into tiny pieces that fell silently on the people below. As a reminder of how people like us suffer, she’d said. How quietly we endure all that falls upon us.”
― Khaled Hosseini, A Thousand Splendid Suns
There are countless other authors, from different times and with different styles, who have inspired me through the years, pulling me into their worlds and the lives of their characters; Joanne Harris, Harper Lee, Kamila Shamsie, Anita Shreve, Jodi Picoult, Lewis Grassic Gibbon, the Bronte sisters, Mary Shelley…
What they all have in common however, is the gift of being able to tell a really good story. And this, when we get down to it, is what readers desire the most.