John blogs at The Asylum, which recently leapt over the coveted 1,000,000 blog views statistic (but he doesn’t want to talk about it! This is where I should point out that I write these introductions…)
Qu. 1.) Did you grow up in a book-loving household, and did your parents read to you? Pick a favourite book from your childhood, and tell me about it.
John: Neither of my parents read much when I was a child – I certainly never saw them sitting down with a book – but I was encouraged to read. We had one of those World of Knowledge-type encyclopedia sets which I used to curl up with. The only fiction I remember seeing at home (in my father’s bedside cupboard, not out on display) were Henri Charrière’s Papillon and Spike Milligan’s Puckoon.
I also don’t remember being read to, though I can’t say for sure. One of my favourite childhood books was Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth. I loved its playfulness and trickery – qualities I still admire – and its joy in exploring letters and numbers was catnip to a little geek like me.
Jackie:When I was about 16 I fell in love with William Horwood‘s Duncton Wood series. Each book was about 750 pages long and I was proud of myself for reading something with so many pages. The books follow a group of moles on a epic adventure, but although it sounds like a children’s book it definitely isn’t – there is enough rape, murder and torture to classify firmly that this is an adult novel. I think this series is a modern classic and am surprised it isn’t more well known. At the time I was living in the Lake District, enjoying an outdoor life involving canoeing, walking and lots of camping. I think this is the reason that this story set in the great outdoors resonated with me so much.
John: I didn’t read much adult fiction until my late teens, in my last year or two at school. Before then it was stuff like Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett: written for adults, yes, but highly appealing to younger readers.
The first two adult authors I really loved – and whose backlists I devoured – were John Irving and Iain Banks, when I was aged 17 or 18 (1990 or ’91). Banks’s Walking on Glass was recommended by a schoolfriend – I was doing my A-levels at the time. I adored its hard-to-connect mysteries (again, a quality I still admire) and went on to read all his novels: he’d written only five by then.
John Irving I stumbled on after being drawn by the armadillo cover of A Prayer for Owen Meany, which had just come out in paperback in the summer of 1990. Again I raced through his other novels, and I particularly remember sneaking quick reads of The Cider House Rules in my A-level Physics class, and behind the counter in the clothing store where I worked at weekends for the princely sum of £9.50 a day! I remember sneaking a new Irving into the house past my mum, knowing that I shouldn’t be spending what little money I had on more books. Now I sneak new books into the house past my wife. Plus ca change!
Oddly, Banks and Irving are both authors whose new books I don’t seek out any more. I think they might be the opposite of an acquired taste, though I still have a great deal of affection for the ones I read back then.
Jackie: I read very little in early adulthood – having to work whilst doing a demanding chemistry degree meant I had very little free time. I got married straight after graduation and my husband and I bought a house together in Newcastle. Once there I started work as an analytical chemist and began reading again, although probably only about 10 books a year. During this time I was almost totally reliant on the Richard and Judy Book Club for my reading suggestions. The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger was a favourite – I loved the romance and tragedy of it all.
John: I might have answered this above. But another of the first adult books I bought – again in 1990 – was Julian Barnes’ A History of the World in 10½ Chapters. Like Walking on Glass, it’s a fractured novel told in stories – arguably not a novel at all. I think those two books, looking back, were quite structurally adventurous ones to read as some of my earliest grown-up fiction, and might have forged my tolerance for non-traditional narratives. Another early favourite, Jeanette Winterson, whose terrific Sexing the Cherry I read a year or two later, and which I’ve reread probably more than any other book, is in the same boat. Both she and Barnes – who I think gets slightly unfair press – remain high on my personal league table.
Jackie: I started blogging shortly after the birth of my second son – I was at home on my own and needed something to occupy my brain. I never expected to still be writing it four years later, but it has become a bit addictive. My knowledge of books has grown immeasurably and I have found a whole world of literature that I was previously unaware of. I now read a range of different books from across the globe and no longer rely on the blurbs of random books in my local library. I have also become more aware of the literary prizes and this led me to read my favourite book, A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. It is set in India during the 1970s, a turbulent time for the country. It is a bleak, but inspiring tale that explains the difficulties faced by ordinary citizens of the country. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
John: Too many to choose from, but I’ll plump for Maeve Brennan’s story collection The Springs of Affection – out of print in the UK (predictably), but far more deserving of attention than many new books I see. The best stories are the half-dozen about Rose and Hubert Derdon, a Dublin couple in the mid-20th century. Frustration, friction and stasis have never been so beautifully put. William Faulkner, fiction editor of the New Yorker where Brennan worked for much of her life, said, “as a study of one kind of unhappy marriage, these stories are surely definitive.” And who would dare to disagree?
I came to blogging in early 2007, having been a member of various book forums for years. I wanted a place of peace and quiet to think – hence Asylum. I think the exchange of ideas and recommendations that bloggers engage in has led me to read (a) more books in translation, and (b) more books by women, both of which I feel richer for having.
Jackie: My guilty pleasure is cookbooks. I love cooking, especially when combined with chemistry to form molecular gastronomy. I’m normally happy cooking traditional food, but when I have the time I love to experiment with more unusual techniques. The only reason I feel guilty is because they cost so much. My current favourite is Bentley by Brent Savage, which is a stunning book to look at as well as one that contains many fantastic recipes.
John: Like other contributors to previous series, I don’t really have guilty pleasures, being of the mind that nobody should be made to feel (to quote Kurt Vonnegut) “like something the cat drug in” over what they like. And I’ve sat here for half an hour trying, in vain, to think of any favourites of mine that are outside my usual field.
John, on Jackie’s choices: For a moment I thought this was Scott Pack, who likes both Horwood and The Time Traveler’s Wife, but if the Niffenegger is the ‘early adulthood’ selection, well, old man Pack is far too ancient to have read that at that stage in his life. It was published in 2003, so I’m guessing my partner must be no older than their late 20s…
I’d never heard of Z for Zachariah, but it sounds like good, bleak, Wyndhamesque fun. Duncton Wood suggests an animal lover, or, along with Z for Zachariah, someone with a nascent interest in fantasy or the uncanny. Rohinton Mistry is a wonderful epic storyteller, whose books are full of heart and lively characters, and I think that this and The Time Traveler’s Wife indicate someone who likes a strong involving storyline, even if it’s not told in a linear way.
The last choice is entirely unexpected! A recipe book from a high-end Sydney restaurant? This makes me, rather obviously, think of someone Australian, and with a lot more patience and energy than me, and the only blogger I can think of off the top of my head who matches that description is Kim Forrester (Kimbofo), but she appeared in the last series (and chose Robert C. O’Brien too!), so I’m all out of ideas…