Whipsmart. Witty. Timely. Suffice to say Caroline O’Donoghue’s debut, Promising Young Women, received its fair share of acclaim. The tale of a millennial negotiating the politics of work, sex and power, it taps into the zeitgeist with both dark and comic effect.
Probably Matilda or Jacqueline Wilson’s The Illustrated Mum.
Flowers in the Attic by Virginia Andrews. I was obsessed. I had never read anything remotely like it before. It took this bizarre plot – four children locked in the attic of their grandfather’s mansion, waiting for him to die – and layered this dark, sexually subversive theme of incest and obsession on top of it. I remember thinking that it must be based on real life, because no one could simply imagine something so macabre and terrible. People give Flowers in the Attic a bad rap – sure, the prose is very purple and the dialogue is pretty strange, but it completely captivated me.
I read Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates when I was 16 and I think it was the first time I truly realised that people could be married and hate one another. It gives you a very intense view of how dark and weak people are capable of being (much like in Flowers in the Attic!) but with this very frank, very unflinching prose style. I remember staring at couples on the bus for months afterwards, wondering if they even liked one another.
The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert. People know Gilbert for Eat Pray Love and Big Magic, but her novel is a sprawling epic about a Victorian botanist, and it’s breathtaking. I think I’ve read it four times.
I love Alison Bechdel’s The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For, or Letters From Six Sisters, a compilation of correspondence between the Mitford Sisters.
The thing is, bad books make me want to write more than good books. There’s nothing better than reading a mediocre book and thinking “I can do better than that”.
I just finished The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets by Eva Rice and it definitely made me do both.
I don’t really like the term guilty pleasure when it comes to reading. If you’re spending time with a book, it means you think it’s worthwhile. But I love reading YA on holiday: I had a great time with Becky Albertelli’s Leah on the Off Beat this summer.
David Sedaris. I have a big family, so when I read Me Talk Pretty One Day as a teenager and was so thrilled by the idea that you could just jot down your childhood memories and it would be a book. However, the more I’ve grown as a writer and a reader, I’ve appreciated what an incredible artist he is. His framing of a simple anecdote or a story can really knock your guts out.
Amy from Little Women. I’m the youngest and was very petted growing up, but also had that inevitable isolation of being the baby and feeling left out all the time. I loved when she threw Jo’s manuscript into the fire. I cheered. I’m still cheering.
My writing is at its best when I have a regular morning schedule, which means getting up at 6am, writing until 12, walking the dog until 2, and then fussing around with emails until about 4.30, when I usually knock off.
When I start a new book I draw a big circle. It’s called ‘The Hero’s Journey’, and it’s the cycle all protagonists go through: they’re called to adventure, they meet a friend, they overcome an obstacle, they learn something etc. – and then I map my idea on top of that circle. It helps me answer big questions like: who are the most important characters here? The most important plot beats? I have a couple of diagrams like that I use, but I try not to get too invested in making them perfect: I think a lot of aspiring authors create these big colour-coded planning maps as a way of getting out of writing the thing. No amount of planning will get you out of having to write actual words down.
I tend to group books as though I were planning a dinner party. Like: oh, Evelyn Waugh, I’ll put you next to your friend Nancy Mitford, and I’ll put Nancy next to Colette, because they’ll get on (I realise this is insane).