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Ahead of the Sydney Writer’s Fest, we tasked Stella Award-winning author Heather Rose to share the books that provoked, inspired and challenged her.
When I wasn’t running barefoot on a beach or sailing a boat, reading was my favourite childhood pastime. I was sure that’s why rainy days were invented. We had only a handful of books on the shelf at home, we were not wealthy, so I consumed them all. This is how I discovered Douglas Bader’s Reach for the Sky and Sir Francis Chichester’s The Lonely Sea and Sky – both of which made a huge impact. Everything else came from the State Library in Hobart.
To ask a writer to choose five books (five!) that had an impact, I had to go past Peter Mathieson’s The Snow Leopard, Tom Robbins’ Still Life with Woodpecker, Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Christo, Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd and Tess of the D’Ubervilles, Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment and Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. All of them read before I was 18. My twenties produced more to add to that list, my thirties more and on. I want to include Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale or Alias Grace or Oryx and Crake, Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things, Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life and everything written by Murakami. And the complete works of Barbara Kingsolver. But I have to isolate five! Every decade I am enlivened and startled and awakened by literature.
I can’t do it. So, here are six that today made this list. Six books that might have made me a writer.
Also on The Big Smoke
The Old Man and the Sea (1952) by Ernest Hemingway
My father chose it as my first book from the adult section of the library. I was six years old, a reader since three, and I think he chose it because it was Hemingway and because it was short.
It broke my heart.
When Santiago (spoiler alert) drags the marlin skeleton up onto the beach, the anguish in me was palpable. Until then, my diet of Dr Seuss, Golden Books, Enid Blyton, rhymes and children’s poetry had not prepared me for unhappy endings. It fuelled my commitment to being a writer. A writer of characters and place, but also of stories that changed the way people thought about life. That’s what I’ve set out to do with all my novels.
The Hobbit (1937) by J.R.R. Tolkien
My grade three teacher, Mr Viney, read The Hobbit aloud to us at the end of each day if we had been good. We were jumping out of our skins with excitement when Bilbo and Gollum engaged in the riddle game. I couldn’t believe how a story could so take hold! Even the most restless and least engaged of my fellow classmates was suddenly on the edge of the mat, eyes aglow, mind alert, totally immersed. That’s the gift of world creation.
When I began writing the Tuesday McGillycuddy children’s series with Danielle Wood, The Hobbit for me was our benchmark. For Danielle it was Carbonel by Barbara Sleigh. We had to create a world that children could totally immerse themselves in, and to do that successfully writing has to connect emotionally. Love, laughter, surprise, pain and heartbreak. No reader is too young or too old to appreciate the complexity of life.
The Fat Man in History (1974) by Peter Carey
In year 11 my English Literature teacher, Mr Fitzgibbon, introduced me to this collection of short stories. It was as if I had been given permission to write my stories. Not Australian stories with gum trees and horses, but all the ideas that populated my mind.
At that stage, I wrote short stories and the odd poem or two. The stories that I wrote were dystopian, science fiction, speculative fiction.
Carey too, it turned out.
I later followed in his footsteps and became an advertising copywriter for many years. A brilliant discipline for both craft and deadlines. And perfect for killing preciousness. There is nothing like a client for slaying your darlings.
Anna Karenina (1877) by Leo Tolstoy
Oh Levin. Something about Levin’s soul – his love of nature, his admiration for the physical toil in a human life, for agriculture and philosophy. His integrity and awkward candour. His disregard for artifice. His yearning for honour and simplicity and for true connection with his fellow human beings. All these things made me love him.
For a long time, I found the last paragraph of Anna Karenina the quality of writing I aspired to. And then I discovered the last paragraph of Middlemarch. But still I have read Anna Karenina every decade of my life and use it as a measure against which to weigh myself, to consider how my values have changed, what life has taught me, what I think I understand now.
If I had to be buried with one book, this might be it.
Light in August (1932) by William Faulkner
Along with The Wind Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami, Light in August is what I consider a perfect novel. Or as close to it as anyone is likely to get. It has a balance to the narrative, a perfection in the creation of characters and a structure that is a masterclass in form and style. Ah, Mr Faulkner. How high he set the bar.
As I Lay Dying is also breathtaking. But The Light in August with Lena Burch, Joe Christmas and Reverend Hightower and all the interweaving plots… well, it doesn’t get any better than this, this craft called writing. Although I think Cormac McCarthy is a dialogue genius. Spare, taut, like a bow across strings, dialogue has to create a music of its own. If you want to study it, McCarthy is a master.
Middlemarch (1871) by George Eliot
Oh no, now I think I should have included The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton and To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf, and Mrs Dalloway, because for all that we have been gifted with brilliant male writers, the women writers have been utterly extraordinary in depicting the nuances of our inner lives. And Middlemarch is a masterpiece among masterpieces in sharing the lives of women with us. And in particular the life and heart of the unforgettable Dorothea Brooke.
I have often wondered how many women over the centuries might have added beautiful threads to the creative tapestry. How many went unheralded and dismissed, who yearned for a creative life, but were disallowed by society. Nobody understood this better than George Eliot. Here it is in heart-breaking simplicity:
Her full nature … spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive for the growing good of the world is partly reliant on unhistoric acts, and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life and rest in unvisited tombs.
Yes, brava. I’ll take this one in the coffin too.