Friday 3rd April 2020
Q1) The first book you ever loved
Would without a doubt be Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. I was, reputedly, a very wild kid. Like Max, I often went off on voyages of discovery without leaving the confines of my bedroom, although my neighbourhood was a bit wild too, come to think of it. The eponymous Wild Things of the famous children’s picture book, rolling their terrible yellow eyes and gnashing their teeth, should have terrified me – lots of other things did – but I think I always felt safe when I opened that book because I identified with Max and he was their king! I like that a wild loner like Max ends up with a cool gang, each one as individual as he is, but in the end he returns to his family because it’s important to be where you’re loved. I guess that’s something I still agree with. And it’s still a cool book – I have the figurines of Max and the Wild Things doing their wild rumpus across the top of my bookcase next to me right now.
Q2) The book you've read more than any other
Professionally I have to read a lot of Shakespeare. This isn’t a hardship – I like Shakespeare. So I’ve probably read Macbeth at least a dozen times. Oh and Of Mice and Men (Steinbeck, not Shakespeare) at least as many. Outside of work the book I’ve read most is probably The Hobbit. I read it for the first time as a teenager and it’s sort of a comfort read for me. I tend to pick it up if I’m in bed with the cold or battling a bout of insomnia. I have a really old battered copy from the 70s that my uncle gave me once when I was visiting him on a family holiday and had exhausted the reading material I’d brought with me. It’s falling apart but I hope I never have to replace it. I saw the Peter Jackson adaptions and enjoyed them. I don’t have the same issues with Hollywood film studios (or HBO/BBC, Netflix, insert content producer here) “expanding” classic texts that a lot of people have. I think some stories have to be told in the context of the world we live in today. Look at the recent adaption of War of the Worlds on BBC, where the introduction of a female lead character was widely criticised by enthusiasts of H.G. Wells. For me, it was an interesting take and I valued the new perspective introducing the character of Amy afforded. It may be a Victorian text, but women did exist in the 1800s – one of them was even Queen! Tolkien famously resisted film-adaptions of his writing during his lifetime, so he might not agree with my point of view. I heard an anecdote, which may or may not be true, that Tolkien had a clause inserted in his will that neither The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings could be sold to Walt Disney. I’m not sure if Disney own WETA yet, but I’m sure it’s on their list if they don’t!
Q3) A book that you despise
This is a difficult one. I’m not the kind of reader who feels like he’s made a commitment to a book once he’s started reading. My mum’s like that. She’ll persevere with a book she isn’t enjoying and see it through to the end. I’m happy enough to ditch a book if it’s not holding my interest. So I don’t really stick around long enough to hate a novel if I’m not enjoying it. The good part about giving up on a book is that you can find out later that you have been very wrong and you get a second chance to enjoy it for the first time. (That said, could I please have back the years of my life I spent following Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time cycle - the fantasy novel equivalent of TV’s Lost?)
Q4) A book full of beautiful writing
There are so many, but I want to pick out a writer who won’t get a mention from anyone else. He’s a fantasy writer called Guy Gavriel Kay, a Canadian author who cut his teeth working with Christopher Tolkien editing The Silmarillion. I’ve been reading Kay’s novels for nearly 30 years, with one appearing at four or five year intervals, each is a meticulously researched work which blends history and fantasy, exploring the medieval world and its politics. Kay’s latest book, A Brightness Long Ago, uses multiple viewpoint narration so skillfully in one section of the novel – when I finished the chapter I put the book down and tweeted the author to tell him how amazing it was and got a nice thank you in response – that's my 2019 literary fanboy moment! Obviously Game of Thrones has captured the public imagination through much of the last decade and George R.R. Martin’s books have doubtless outsold Kay’s - but I think Kay is just better. His writing really is beautiful; the political situations in which the characters are entangled often leads to dialogue that’s very sharp and layered with subtext. A bit like what Aaron Sorkin does on The West Wing, but in a medieval fantasy setting (for the most part).
Q5) The book you've been meaning to read for years, but haven't
I have almost all of Iain Banks’ books on my shelves and I have read...a lot of them. I like Banks in both his guises as straight, quirky lit fic novelist and the SF creator of the Culture. Thinking back on it most of the earlier novels, like The Crow Road or Espedair Street, had a sort of dark, funny charm that I remember enjoying. They were good books I recommended to people who didn’t generally read a lot of good books. And then I sort of fell out of love with them – I think it was the strangeness of Song of Stone which did it – and after that my reading of Banks was sporadic at best. So I’d like to pick Iain Banks’ Whit as a book I should probably go back and read.
Q6) The book you're reading currently
I’m reading two, so indulge me while I cheat. The first is Roddy Doyle’s Smile, which had been sitting on my bookshelf for months untouched, as I was lured away by the new Kindle I’d bought as an antidote to Ryanair’s luggage restrictions (Clothes or books? It’s not an easy call to make!) Guilt and the shiny toy being just too damn heavy to read with in bed recently drove me back to the medium of the dead tree. I’m only a few chapters in – yeah, chapters – it surprised me too. I can’t remember Doyle using chapter breaks in any of his earlier novels, so that’s an interesting structural departure. I’m enjoying the first person narration. Even though the voice is similar to the third person narrator of Doyle’s Barrytown novels, there’s an uneasiness that I suppose comes from Victor Forde’s involvement in the narrative and the opening scene will feel familiar to anyone who has run into an old school bully later in life. The second book I’m reading is one a pupil gave me as a Christmas present, just because we’re both Doctor Who fans (although she’s a Jodie fan, whereas I think if I ever see another actor give a better performance than Capaldi did during his run then I will be a very lucky Whovian). It’s called The Pescatons and its quite a rare one published in 1991, the year I left high school – adapted from a Tom Baker audio play the BBC put out on LP in the 70s. I’ve never come across it whenever I’m rifling through car boot sales and charity shops for second-hand books. So I put down Smile yesterday and picked up something a little read during the holidays.
Q7) Your favourite short story
Roddy Doyle gets his second mention here. Doyle’s short story collection Bull-fighting made a real impression on me, probably because the theme is men of around my age coming to terms with being around my age (or at least that’s the theme which resonated). A friend of mine passed away from cancer just before I read the collection, which made “The Photograph” a tough read – but it is probably my favourite story for the same reason. I’m both smiling and tearing up a bit thinking about it now, so that’s a sign I’ve chosen the right story. I don’t think of Doyle as primarily a writer of short stories (which is sort of how I see myself as a writer, at least that’s how I learned to write), but as a novelist and a damn fine one. When you look at his work though you find that Doyle must be one of the hardest working writers around – he's a novelist, a children’s author, a dramatist, regular columnist to the Irish Independent, he’s written for TV and, on top of that, he’s the writer of my favourite short story. Over the past year or so I’ve started to experiment with writing in different forms too, with varied success. I’d like to develop some of the ideas I’ve had, but which seem to me to be something different than the sort of thing I’d sit down and write in prose. I had a go at a script-writing competition earlier in 2019, but what it really showed me was that I need to learn a lot more about how to make a script work. It is a very different skill-set to the one I developed as a short story writer. I’d love to collaborate with a graphic artist on some ideas I have for a comic book strip – I asked an artist friend of mine, but he knocked me back (and it turns out his contract basically means his company owns anything he draws while works for them anyway!) I think I’d enjoy that kind of collaboration though.
Q8) Your all-time favourite novel
William Goldman’s The Princess Bride. I could leap to its defence against the eye-rolling reader, but I’m not going to bother with any of that. Goldman’s talent as a writer speaks for itself in the fact that, if you’re my age or there-abouts, he’s probably written at least one of your favourite films too. I haven’t even read the book as much as others on my shelves and it’s been years since I took it down, but I can’t really imagine another book I could choose. Open any page and you’ll find wonderful lines like “love is the best thing in the world, except for cough drops.” or “Life isn’t fair. It’s just fairer than death, that’s all.” And it’s 46 years old this year – just like me. ●
James Connarty is a writer and teacher from Lanarkshire. His writing has been published in Thi Wurd magazine, the Tales from a Cancelled Country anthology, the Ten Writers Telling Lies collection and, most recently, in the Lethbridge-Stewart Short Story Collection 2, as a finalist in the South Wales Short Story Competition 2019. James can be found on Twitter @connartyjames. His Doctor Who fanzine, Pull to Open, launches early in 2020 on www.jamesconnarty.com