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With his new book The Other Wife just published, we asked Michael Robotham to share his thoughts about some of the books that inspired him to become a writer.
I could easily come up with 50 novels that inspired me to become a writer, but none of them would be perfect books. Quite the opposite is true. Like a lot of writers, reading is more than just a pastime. It is work. I take books apart. I dismantle them like old alarm clocks, examining the springs and sprockets and winders. I want to see how they’re made and learn, quite literally, what makes them tick.
With a truly great novel, this is impossible. Such a book is so perfect and seamless that I cannot find the cracks to wedge my fingers inside and pry the cover apart. I cannot see the joins, or separate the elements of storytelling. Such a novel doesn’t inspire me. Instead it makes me want to cry because I will never be that good a writer.
The five books I choose today are good but not perfect. They motivated me because I could dismantle them and see their beautiful parts and understand what it took to put them together.
A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway
I was 22 when I first read Ernest Hemingway’s posthumous memoir A Moveable Feast about his early days as an unknown writer in Paris in the 1920s. Three years later, I carried that same book around the city, using it as my guide, visiting the same cafes and garret rooms and restaurants where Hem had lived and loved his first wife Hadley.
To this day, I can open any page and immediately want to write. I can picture myself in Paris, ordering a half-carafe of white wine and a dozen oysters before sharpening my pencils and opening my blue-backed notebook. I may never write a word to match that of Hemingway, but I can live in hope.
Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow by Peter Høeg
There are some characters in crime fiction that are heart-stopping and others that are heart-breaking, but only occasionally does one emerge that does both of these things and captures the imagination of readers. One such figure is Smilla Qaavigaaq Jaspersen, better known as “Miss Smilla”, a heroine with an unforgettable voice and a feeling for snow.
Smilla is a loner caught between two worlds – the rich, privileged life of her father, a celebrated surgeon in Copenhagen, and the poverty of freedom of her childhood in Greenland, where she grew up with her Inuit mother. She is drawn out of her seclusion by the death of a young boy, who falls from the roof of her apartment block.
Also on The Big Smoke
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This is not a formulaic detective story or a techno-political thriller. Nor is it a Gorky Park or a classic whodunit. It straddles all of these things, breaking down the borders between genres.
I don’t care that the climax of the novel is, well, anti-climactic, unresolved and inconclusive. It doesn’t matter. The underlying mystery is my excuse to spend time with Smilla and hear her views on the world.
Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie
When I discover a book I truly love, I read it more slowly. I’m known to read only half a page a night because I don’t want to finish. Midnight’s Children was like that for me. Set around the partition of India, the novel follows the lives of those children born at midnight on 14 August 1947, who will always be as old as their newly minted, chaotic, bloody and colourful country.
For many years I had avoided reading Midnight’s Children because I was predisposed against Salman Rushdie having seen him interviewed during the controversy over Satanic Verses and thinking he came across as conceited and arrogant. This was my loss. Credit where it is due – this is a lyrical, poetic, violent and magnificent novel.
A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
“I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice – not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.”
This is the opening line. How could anyone not read on?
I adore all of John Irving’s early books, which I read in my early twenties. I remember marvelling at how he so effortlessly created characters and wrote scenes that had me laughing and crying on the same page. When I first began to dabble in writing, I tried to copy Irving. I wanted to shock and subvert and weave a spell. My early efforts were a pale imitation, but they helped me begin the journey.
The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury
I discovered Ray Bradbury when I was about eleven years old, growing up in Gundagai, NSW. I first picked up The Illustrated Man, a collection of eighteen short stories that opens with two men sitting at a campfire. One unbuttons his shirt to reveal a canvas of tattoos, which begin to move in the flickering firelight and each illustration tells a new story.
I was mesmerised and went looking for more Ray Bradbury books, including his famous novel, Fahrenheit 451, about a future world where books are banned and burned. Soon afterwards, I wrote a letter to Bradbury, care of his New York publishers and the great man wrote back to me, saying how thrilled he was to have a young fan on the far side of the world. He also sent me the four books that weren’t available in Australia.
It was an astonishing gesture – life-defining if not life-changing. More than anyone else, Ray Bradbury is the reason I became a novelist.