Friday 27th December 2019
Q1) The first book you ever loved
Like most writers, I read a lot as a child. Of course, I wasn’t thinking of it this way - it’s only become obvious as I’ve gotten older – but reading has always been my best way of keeping calm, while escaping from whatever is going on outside the book, feeling free of the world while also engaging with it. I have always been a quite serious over-thinker, even since very young, also a serial enthusiast. I’m not the kind of person who only occasionally finds a book or writer to fall in love with. Someone with very high standards. I’m always in love with several books, or writers, and have always been the same.
Though there must have been many before, lots of books for children, the first book for adults I truly loved was 1984. I have a clear memory of being given it by an English teacher who could see I loved reading but wasn’t interested in anything we were doing in class. Maybe I was 13. This’ll blow your head off, he said, passing it over like it was something terrible, and secret, and exciting. I imagine there must be many other children who are noticed by good teachers as being interested in reading and thinking, but who are not very good at school. I remember the shape of that teacher’s head, it was almost like a big, grey-haired triangle – but I don’t remember his name.
Q2) The book you’ve read more than any other
That must be Poor Things by Alasdair Gray. I was given a clutch of hardbacks by my aunt and uncle for my 21st, and this was around the time I was really falling for Alasdair Gray’s work. I read everything, too quickly, missing most of what was good about it, but I knew this was someone I would want to read for my whole life.
The context matters to me. I’d moved to Scotland as an isolated 19-year-old Jewish kid from the north of England with virtually no knowledge of the country and an inflated sense of what I was capable of. I had just come from Jerusalem, via a kibbutz in the desert; I’d left there disillusioned because I realized I was deeply uncomfortable in Israel-Palestine, I didn’t want anything more to do with it – but the experience had made me think I would be fine wherever I went next. That because I’d coped with that, I could cope with whatever Scotland had in store. Well, not really. I had a terrible first year or so. In fact, I struggled on my degree course until I came across Gray’s work, which led me – as so many others – on to Kelman, Agnes Owens, Tom Leonard, and to all the characters in Gray’s painting, murals, portraits and stories. At the time I was given Poor Things I was working in Curlers on Byres Road and one day he walked in and ordered a gin and tonic. I had never met a living writer before. What I love about Poor Things is its playfulness, its invention, and its many boxes. It’s a response not just to Frankenstein but to so much in Victorian Literature, and it wears its steals with real lightness. When I get talking to folk about Gray, all over the world, and they don’t know who he is, I direct them to Poor Things, as a way in to Gray’s work. My students in England love it. I can’t understand why Gray is seen, still, by so many as a writer who couldn’t possibly be understood by the English.
Q3) A book you despise
I don’t despise any book. I’m very peace love n’ understanding. Perhaps I should despise Mein Kampf, or Michael,, the popular novel by Joseph Goebbels. I certainly wish they weren’t read quite so much, but I pity the men who wrote them. No point getting angry. No point despising. Living well is the best revenge and all that.
Q4) A book full of beautiful writing
Oh! Nudibranch by Irenosen Okojie. I’ve just finished reading this, and what she does with language is exquisite and vivid and quite wonderful. This is a collection of stories, and it works well as a partner piece to Speak Gigantular, her first collection, which I came across when I was a judge of the Edge Hill Short Story Prize. She’s utterly fearless. I see that Chris Power, who knows more about the short story than most, has just given the book a great write-up in The Guardian, which is worth reading: he writes that ‘One of the pleasures of her stories is their unpredictability: it’s often difficult to say where a sentence will end up, let alone a paragraph or an entire scene.’ That’s exactly right, I think, and that’s why it’s invigorating. Okojie is notable for having been marked out and supported by more experienced writers as being a real talent to watch – writers like Bernadine Evaristo and Ben Okri – but she’s also notable, I think, for being an advocate for other black women writers. Can’t recommend her work enough.
Q5) The book you’ve been meaning to read for years, but haven’t
DJ Taylor’s biography of Orwell. To my shame, I’m about to give it away. I’m moving back to Scotland after 8 years away, and coming from a lovely big office with space for all my books, to a smaller space where I have to be much more selective, even about my own publications. I’ve done this big clear out once before, when a previous relationship broke down, and I’ve since regretted taking so much to the charity shop – but space is not infinite, so here we go again. This time, I’m trying to give things to students and friends that I think they’ll love. I’ve always meant to get to that Orwell biography, and I like DJ Taylor’s work. I think he’s thorough, and smart, and his writing is engaging. But I know I will probably never get round to it. So I’ll try and find it a good home instead.
Q6) The book you’re reading currently
I’m reading a lot of Scottish contemporary poetry. Having been out of the country for a while, I feel I’ve missed a lot – and my new job at the University of Strathclyde – praise be! – is granting me chance to teach poetry for the first time in years. Which is a good excuse to buy some new things, read some new things, learn some new things. I always read a few books at once. Currently I’m reading Juana Adcock’s Split, which opens with a wonderful sequence detailing a lengthy dialogue between a woman and a snake – it reminds me of Dance With Snakes by the great El Salvadorean writer Horacio Castellanos Moya, where the four murderous, rampaging, talking snakes can also turn on the charm. I’m also reading Rebecca Joy Sharp’s Little Forks, which is a poetic narrative between brother and sister, and which toured as a play in 2012. I wish I could read the Gaelic translations also printed in the book. It’s a lovely edition.
Q7) Your favourite short story
It’s so hard to say. I think it has to be Gray’s Five Letters from An Eastern Empire, his most anthologized story for good reason. Or Adam Marek’s The Stone Thrower, the perfect, brief artifice story. Or every story in Daisy Johnson’s Fen. Or Memories of a Personal Computer by Alejandro Zambra. Ach, I can’t do it! There’s too much to love. At a push, I’d go for Five Letters…. It’s about the power of language and corruption of language. There are two poets, ripped from their families as children, imprisoned by a regime that tasks them with waiting a lifetime to write a single poem. One poet is to write a tragic poem, one a comic poem. Finally, the order comes, in the wake of the regime’s most horrific crimes. The tragic poet writes a tirade against the regime. The Emperor is delighted. He only has to change one small element of the poem to turn it into a hymn of praise.
Q8) Your all-time favourite novel
I’m such a flake - it’s always something I read recently. I went through a period of obsessing over contemporary Chilean literature and couldn’t imagine anything more satisfying than Roberto Bolaño’s 1000-page opus 2666. But Zambra’s Ways of Going Home, at 100 pages, which explores the lives of children in the time of Pinochet, is also unimprovable in my mind. How can you compare the two? At the moment, it’s got to be The Testaments by Margaret Atwood. I’d love to teach a module purely of Atwood’s work as there’s so much I don’t know about it. But ask me next week and I’ll say something else. Or I’ll go back to Poor Things. In fact, yes. That’s nice and circular. Ha! I can’t be trusted! The author will tell you 1982, Janine is his best novel. For me, it comes close. But Poor Things is everything I love about Gray’s work. It’s light and heavy, playful and deadly serious, experimental and accessible, while being beautifully designed; the illustrations and portraits are every bit as much a part of the story as the narrative. So there we go. My favourite novel is Poor Things. Until it isn’t. ●
Rodge Glass is the author of three novels, a short story collection, a graphic novel and a biography of Alasdair Gray. He has recently been appointed as a Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Strathclyde, also the Convener of the MLitt in Creative Writing.