A really good piece of advice for novel writers is: read. Read novels, read lots of novels, read every day, keep reading. That’s the way you learn how a book works, how it is constructed, what it gives and what it takes. You learn what language can do.
So any decent writer obeys this advice and spends a part of every day reading. I’m evidently not a decent writer, because I simply can’t do it.
There was a time, from the age of about five onwards, when I really did read, at every opportunity. It might have something to do with growing up in an era before Gameboys and social media, and anything vaguely electronic. Being totally uninterested in sport probably helped too. I would come home from school, have my tea, do my homework, go to bed and read. In the morning, I would wake up and read until it was time to get up (at the weekend, this might be midday).
I had plenty of books to learn from – the Chronicles of Narnia (I had to wait for The Last Battle to be published), all the Swallows and Amazon books, The Silver Sword, the historical novels of Henry Treece, Geoffrey Treece (anyone called Treece, really) and Jean Plaidy, the Earthsea Trilogy (there were only three back then), the Romney Marsh books of Monica Edwards, Bambi (I still haven’t seen the film), The Hobbit (and later, The Lord of the Rings) tales of Robin Hood and King Arthur, school adventures inherited from my mother’s cousin with titles like Phyllida of the Fourth Form. And classics, of course, like Black Beauty and Jane Eyre (illogically abridged for children and therefore slightly puzzling). My favourites, for years, were the Three Musketeers and its sequels, in little Everyman books donated by my grandfather. They had pictures and I started reading them long before I was capable of making out half the words. It was years before I could even attempt “d’Artagnan.”
Nowadays, if I read when I go to bed, I usually manage a couple of pages and then I’m fast asleep. When I was a child I could keep going for hours. I know I used to read until late into the night because I would often hear the radio in my parent’s room – no, sorry, not a radio. It was a wireless, an art deco bakelite model with smoky glass valves and a whining dial, permanently set on the Home Service. The last broadcast every night was Compline. I can still hear “Brothers, be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour,” often accompanied by my sister’s sleepy, mumbled “someone shut those bloody monks up.” (There’s nothing like monks, late at night, to develop vocabulary.) It was the cue for me to get up, tiptoe next door and switch the wireless off because, if it got as far as the monks, my parents were both asleep.
Somehow my father would be awake again really early, with the wireless back on. He just had to hear Farming Today, listing today’s prices of turnips, then the Today programme, with Jack di Manio getting the time wrong and presenting amusing stories about donkeys (definitely pre-John Humphreys). But first came a harpsicord rendition of Handel’s Water Music, before I would hear it (a tune forever embedded in my very unmusical brain) because by then I would be reading again.
Since I was such a compulsive reader as a child and well into adulthood (I did progress to Iris Murdoch, John le Carré etc) but the problem arose when I really got in to writing… can I say professionally? I have discovered the limits to my multi-tasking skills. If I am engrossed in a book that I am working on full time, any attempt to read someone else’s book leaves me floundering. How can I get engrossed in the characters, plot or languages of another creation, when I am totally involved in my own, when my own characters are whispering at me all the time. I need train journeys, because I can’t write on trains but I can read. On a long journey I can get through a book. Otherwise, I have to wait for those spaces between books (think of the place between worlds if you know The Magician’s Nephew), or moments when I am so stuck that I have to put my own book aside for a while. Then I can take the chance to plunge back into reading again. It is slightly depressing. Maybe I should just stop writing.
Don’t answer that.