You are what you read and, in my case, that’s immeasurably better than if ‘you are what you eat’ were true! But we won’t go there – improvements to my diet remain consigned to my To Do List.
What follows is another list – a list of writers who changed my life and made me into a person – and a writer – that I am. That’s not to say that I am even a fraction as good as they are, but thanks to them, I am a hundred times better than I could ever be without them.
Travelling back in time to my childhood, I find myself in a place where no-one has ever been before: an other-worldly place, somewhere in the centre of the earth or perhaps on the Moon. I read all there was to read of Jules Verne and I believed in everything he said because he had made me realise that if I could imagine it than it had to be real. He taught me to live dangerously and never ever settle on a life inside the square.
I was a teenager when that brooding man left his mark on my soul. He had burnt into it. He didn’t take prisoners in his writing – it was raw, touching every nerve, uncompromising. It was clear to me that every internal battle he described in his prose he knew intimately, and, by God, he had fought many demons in his day! His moodiness would rub off the places and the characters he evoked so vividly in his writing. His world was eerie, thick with suspense, haunting. He taught me to bare my soul, to never give in to embarrassment, to drag into the light all that delicious evil, and fear, and doubt that a writer should not dare to ignore.
She swooped into my life in my twenties. No, let’s rephrase that: it was I who entered her world. And what a world it was! An ancient world that existed outside time and matter, populated by beings not quite human and yet brimming with humanity, worthy of redemption despite their unspeakable sins. The supernatural was the reality, believable and deeply rooted in human psyche. Anne Rice showed me that settings had to be made of thoughts and people, of depths of meaning rather than descriptions. Places had to live and breathe, not be merely put on display.
I matured with Ruth Rendell. Under her tutelage, I explored the darkest recesses of human nature whilst at the same time discovering – to my surprise – its redeeming features: the vulnerability behind a crime, the reasons for insanity, the logics of obsession. Ruth Rendell taught me to understand my characters and never to judge them. They are who they are; it’s not their fault – not entirely… I know now to just let them be.
With all that angst and darkness, you need a friend. Agatha Christie’s mysteries provided some light – cosy – relief. Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple became family members. We were solving crimes while sipping lemon tea and knitting mittens. All would be well, criminals exposed and their motives unpicked. And the world would go one, regardless. Agatha Christie taught me to like my characters, to find what we had in common and cherish it.