One of the things we writers will be doing on April 30, during Authors for Indies Day, is chatting with customers at our favourite bookstores. One of the things we’ll be chatting about is our favourite books.
I must admit I have some trepidation about this. I’m probably the least likely person a bookstore will want on the selling floor talking about other writers’ books. I’m woefully out of touch when it comes to contemporary writing.
Don’t get me wrong. I love reading. I love books. All books. It’s just that between working full-time, and researching my own novels (I’m a stickler for facts so every historical detail in my stories will be excruciatingly correct), and writing my stories, and commuting, eating and sleeping, I honestly don’t have much time left over to catch up with the books that other people are reading and talking about.
Most of my reading these days tends to be books written in the past, because I love reading contemporary accounts of the eras that I’m writing about. For instance, for Persistence of Memory, I sourced out a wonderful relic whose title page, inside the cover, reads: A Complete System of Cookery, on a Plan Entirely New, Consisting of Everything That is Requisite for Cooks to Know in the Kitchen Business; Containing Bills of Fare for Every Day in the Year and Directions to Dress Each Dish; Being One Year’s Work, at the Marquis of Buckingham’s, From the 1st of January, to the 31st of December, 1805. By John Simpson, Present Cook to the most Noble, The Marquis of Buckingham. London: Printed for W. Stewart, Opposite Albany, Piccadilly, 1806.
This excellent book provided me with everything I needed to know about the sorts of meals Louis Augustus Duran (The Lesser) could expect to be eating at Stoneford Manor in 1825.
For my next novel, In Loving Memory (due to be released this July by Diversion Books), my reading wasn’t so much published books as published accounts, first-hand stories from men, women and children who lived through the Blitz in London in the 1940s. And stories told to me by my mum, who was a WAAF, and my dad’s brother, a child refugee from Europe who had relocated to England with his parents. And reports. So many reports, and helpful maps and diagrams, the most brilliant of which is a detailed drawing of Balham Underground Station showing the exact layout of the northbound platform and the exact location where the bomb dropped on the night of October 14, 1940, and the exact extent of the damage to the platform where so many people were sheltering that night. That diagram, more than anything, allowed me to write, with total accuracy, the scenes where Charlie and Mr. Deeley are caught in the devastation.
For Marianne’s Memory, the third novel in my Charlie and Mr. Deeley series, which I’m just beginning to write, I’m going back to London in the 1960s. I’m old enough to remember that time – I was 10 for a good part of 1965, and turned 11 in September of that year. The year before, 1964, I had simultaneously discovered the Beatles and become aware of a world beyond the little prairie city where I was growing up. I knew that London existed, of course, because I was born there. We moved to Canada in 1957. But by 1965 I’d already been back twice, and the last visit, Christmas 1961, had made a huge and lasting impression on me.
It’s one of my regrets that I actually managed to miss London in the Swinging Sixties. I was a little too early in 1961, and although we stayed until the new year, 1962, rang in, there were no real hints about what was on the verge of happening. Other than my cousin, Angela, who was somewhat older than me, who apparently mentioned to my mum in a letter written later that year, that she quite liked a new pop group called The Beatles.
The next time we went back to London was 1968. I was 13, about to turn 14, and I had done my research. I’d seen To Sir With Love and Smashing Time. I could sing their theme songs and knew their lyrics off by heart. I was Judy Geeson’s Pamela Dare and I was Rita Tushingham’s Brenda. (Well, not really. They were far more adventurous and worldly-wise than I was. And much older.) But the important thing was, I was on a mission. I was going to experience Swinging London first hand.
Except that, by 1968, it was all over. Swinging London was reduced to vinyl Union Jack carrybags touting the slogan I’m Backing Britain, sold in stalls alongside British flag buttons and black and white postcards that looked like street signs, the most popular being Carnaby Street and Kings Road.
Ah, Carnaby Street. The centre of the Swinging London universe. Except that it all looked a bit tatty and tawdry, and tired, like an over-the-hill party girl who’s been out too late and has fallen asleep on the Underground with her eye makeup smudged and her hair a bit of a mess and her clothes dishevelled.
I was disappointed. I wanted it to be like the Carnaby Street in the films, the one I’d dreamed of.
I suppose that’s why I’ve decided to send Charlie and Mr. Deeley back to 1965. They’re living the dream I had imagined. And perhaps they might, along the way, discover that it wasn’t quite the idyllic time my 11-year-old brain had conjured up. But they’ll have quite a romp in the process.
But back, now, to my original thoughts about books. I’ve just done a count, and in my 820 square foot flat, I have 16 bookcases. It’s fair to say that bookcases comprise probably 75% of the furniture in the flat. There are 2 in the main bedroom, 4 in the second bedroom (which is actually an office), one in the hallway, and 9 in the living room, and they’re all crammed with books. The biggest one in the living room is ceiling-to-floor and takes up an entire end wall.
Looking at the books occupying the shelves is like looking at snapshots of my life. At some point I tried to organize them by theme or author, but abandoned the idea as I kept running out of room. So now they’re a higgledy piggledy of collections. All of my textbooks from my BA in English, serious volumes about literary criticism and the discovery of deeper meaning in Milton, Chaucer, Mark Twain, Shakespeare… and most of their published works. All of the novels written by John Galsworthy and Monica Dickens and Ian Fleming and John le Carre. Spy stories and trash stories, popular fiction and unpopular fiction, old medical encyclopedias, how to make macrame plant hangers, how to play the guitar, the history of London’s Underground, assorted A to Z map books, The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
All of these predate e-books, of course. I have a growing collection of digital books too though. Like many people I love the smell and the tactile feel of a real book, and I freely admit to dog-earing pages, because I believe if you turn down the corner of a page, it’s a love-sign, not a defacement.
But I also love the versatility of e-books, and the instant-ness of being able to buy and download them. And their biggest advantages for me – I can read them while I’m lying in bed in the dark without turning on a light, and I can read them while I’m waiting in doctor and dentist offices, just by taking out my phone.
I began this blog worrying about chatting to customers about favourite reads on Authors for Indies Day on April 30. I’m still a bit nervous…but you never know…perhaps I’ll find a few people who share my love of books from the past. It won’t be very helpful for all the new books on the shelves, waiting to be bought. But I can, at least, point them in that direction while I’m waxing lyrical about the joys of John Galsworthy’s Forsytes, or Monica Dickens’ The Listeners, probably the favourite of all my books.
Oh…and in case you were curious, the header photo on this Blog is a picture of one of my bookshelves (the one in the hallway). The same photo is the header on my Facebook Writer page .
And another one of my bookshelves (the ceiling-to-floor one in the living room) is the cover image on my personal Facebook page.