I remember the moment when I finally knew how to read. After a longish period of learning letters and the sounds they supposedly made, these mystifying signs ceased to be a sequence of unrelated squiggles and became words, which became sentences, which became… a story. I was at the French Lycée in London, the book was François le Bossu (Francis the Hunchback) by the Comtesse de Ségur, a Russian aristocrat who married a Frenchman and wrote a string of children’s books in the 19th Century, and it was a moment which changed my life. Even in that early triumphant moment, tracing the words on the page with my finger, I knew that a whole new world had opened up to me. From the moment I singlehandedly read about poor Francis’s misadventures, books have never been a pastime: they have been an all-consuming passion, the worlds between their pages so much more real at times than our own poor imperfect universe.
As a child, my tastes were indiscriminate. I had only one rule: when I started a series, I had to finish it before I could move on to anything else (and by series, for a long time, I meant “author”). So I read all of the Comtesse de Ségur, followed by a number of other French authors and series, until I moved on to Enid Blyton and Le Club des 5. My father, appalled that I could think anyone called Enid was French, went out and bought me all the Mallory Towers books (in English), followed by the StClare books, the Secret Seven, the Adventure series and the Mystery series. When I had exhausted Blyton, I moved on to Little House on the Prairie and Swallows and Amazons, and so on until I stumbled into Narnia.
Ah, Narnia! That moment when Lucy walks through the wardrobe and stumbles into a land of snow! Until then my reading had been entirely prosaic. I had accumulated a wealth of knowledge about boarding schools, ponies, spies, the American prairies, Cornwall and sailing. But this was something else. I read all the books, one after the other, and in the course of reading learned an important lesson about metaphor and allegory – that books can be used to say one thing while really meaning something other, and that reading stories about other worlds can help us better understand our own.
I think Narnia marked the beginning of the end for children’s books for me as a reader. There weren’t many books for young adults around in those days. I tore through Anne of Green Gables and The Green Grass of Wyoming, but at the same time I was reading Agatha Christie, PG Wodehouse, not so much for the stories as for the insights they gave me into worlds I didn’t know and yet somehow recognized as my own. I gobbled up Jilly Cooper, Danielle Steel and Jackie Collins – precious discoveries which introduced me to an adult world of sex and courtship and romance, though I grew quickly tired of these authors (not Jilly Cooper – never Jilly) and moved on to Daphne du Maurier and Somerset Maughan. In time I grew brave enough to venture away from series and to try authors I didn’t know. I read on trains, on buses, on planes, on the tube, with the radio and television blaring, with people arguing all around me. I travelled through nineteenth century Russia with Tolstoy, through smoky Parisian cafes with Sartre and Camus, to South America with Marquez, and all the time my imagination grew, and I realised that books were more than a passion, they were my life.
When I left university, it never occurred to me to look for work in any field other than publishing and even now, twenty years later, I give thanks daily for the fact that I work in an industry I love. And it was enough, for a while. I worked hard, learned my trade, moved jobs, was promoted. I got married, had children, read lots of books and all the time this little voice in my head kept getting louder saying, all this reading and selling and working with other people’s books – isn’t it about time you wrote your own?
It’s dangerous, of course. Real life, we are constantly told, is not like it is in books. Why is it, then, that books seem so much like real life? Why is it that people in books (and, presumably, their authors) seem to know at times exactly what we are thinking and how we are feeling? I remember Anne Shirley and Laura Ingalls much more clearly than any of the girls I went to school with. Every time I start work on a new book, I get that same thrill again as when I first deciphered the story of Francis the Hunchback: it’s the beginning of a new adventure, new friends, a new universe. Oh, it’s going to be hard, I know, but then nothing worthwhile is ever easy. We’ll have setbacks. My characters will refuse to behave themselves, we’ll go charging down blind alleys, retrace our steps, start again, and we’ll get there in the end.
In my mind, writing THE THINGS WE DID FOR LOVE, I went to Russia, to Hamburg, to France. I ran through the French countryside at night, I kissed a beautiful boy, I explored an abandoned house. I witnessed unspeakable horror, but also astounding acts of sacrifice. By the end, I was thoroughly exhausted. It might not be “real life”, but what a road we travelled together, my characters and I!
Thanks so much for this wonderful post Natasha! You can find my review for The Things We Did For Love here and also you should go to The Spark Facebook page to see all the news on their up coming books and a fabulous contest where you can test your writing skills and be in a chance with winning an iPad