When I’m speaking at an event (which I love to do, by the way – invite me, invite me!), the only question that really scares me is this …
OK, stepping back a bit. I remember speaking to a group of businessmen, and very occasional women, in Venice (she said showing off) and it was SERIOUSLY FRIGHTENING because there were a LOT of questions related to the subject, which I seem to remember was globalisation, that I didn’t exactly have the answers to. I probably wasn’t the only one, looking back, who didn’t have all the answers related to globalisation, but that’s how it felt at the time. I just had to pray that people would sit back and listen and not be too interested, because as soon as they started asking for detail, or further analysis, or predictions, or anything involving actual numbers, I was probably sunk. And in Venice, that’s something you don’t want to be.
That was the story of my life for quite a long time. Learn about something. Present on it. Hope you don’t get asked to many questions. If you do, answer them as fast as possible and hope your adding up doesn’t go wrong. Until my last job before I wrote Threads because, if I say so myself, I was (and here I’m showing off again) ON FIRE. I was managing the creation of a new website and for once I actually felt I knew what I was doing. I was in control of my subject. If people wanted to ask me questions then – bring it on. I was ready. As long as the technology worked during my presentations, which it always did because it was (and here I’m not boasting, I was just working with some really good people) fabulously well-designed, I was going to be OK.
But that was nothing, nothing compared with the fun of being asked questions about being a writer. If only I’d known. The thing is, if you’ve wanted to do something since you were seven, and you’ve worked at it, one way or another, all your life, and you’ve finally done it, and people like it, and they ask you what it feels like, or what you do all day, or how you approach different aspects of it … you always know the answer. They’re just asking you about your life and the things you feel most passionately about. They’re starting interesting conversations and you can’t really go wrong: you just have to be as honest as you can, and I can do that.
Except for this one …
OK two. The other one is ‘What’s your favourite colour?’ and that’s complicated. It’s sort of blue, but in many circumstances (eg favourite wall colour) it’s white, and in others (eg favourite travel card holder colour) it’s hot pink. So there’s a long answer to a short question there, but I get there in the end.
The question that really scares me is this: ‘What are or were your favourite books?’
Apart from the years after I had my children, when I was reduced to reading nothing but short magazine columns and Calpol instructions, I’ve read voraciously all my life. Books have propped me up through hours of boredom, taken me into lands of wonder and adventure, taught me about good and evil, made me laugh, helped me pass exams, and inspired me to be who I am. But can I remember my favourites? As soon as I’m asked the question, my mind goes blank.
There’s Noel Streatfield’s work, of course, and PG Wodehouse, and Paul Gallico, and the Jennings books. The Secret Garden was the first book I tried to read in a day. The Nancy Drew series was an obsession for a while. I had a John Le Carre phase and a Solzenitsyn phase. I adored Dorothy L Sayers and will always be deeply in love with Lord Peter Wimsey – in which I know I’m not alone. But they’re the tip of the ‘favourite book’ iceberg. There are so many out there.
And then Luisa Plaja was interviewed by Bookbabblers today and she mentioned – in a much more incisive, coherent way, because she’s not as scared of this sort of thing as me – Masha, by Mara Kay.
And I thought, Of course. Masha is the perfect example of my relationship with books. I read it when I was eleven and I’m pretty sure I ripped through the series. I ADORED THAT BOOK. I wanted to call my daughter Masha and if I was remotely Russian and had given birth to a girl, the name would still have been high on my list. I remember loving every single thing about it and being transported into its world.
And that’s it. I don’t remember anything else about it at all. Who was Masha? Did she have a family? What sort of life did she lead that I loved so much? What happened in the end?
I have absolutely no idea. I consumed that book like a forest fire and all that stays with me is the heat of the moment and a name. It mattered to me a lot, and it still does. It does to a lot of people. I’ve since Googled it and it’s out of print – which is mad, because there are women my age all over the place who read it when they were about eleven and are desperate to get it for their daughters and would pay good money for it. But possibly not £200, which is what the single available copy I can find online is being sold for at the moment. There’s more about loving Masha here.
That is often the relationship I have with books. Read. Adore. Absorb. Forget most of, except the feeling it gave you. Move on. Not helpful, when you’re being asked about your reading experiences by people who can still remember every word of their favourite stories. So I talk about the ones I can still remember, the ones whose plots and characters are still as vivid as the feeling I got from reading about them. But this doesn’t mean that these are the ones I’m most grateful for. I’m grateful for all of them, including the ones that have sunk without a trace.