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Lives in Books #7: Brian W. Lavery

Lives in Books: Brian W. Lavery

Writer and lecturer Brian W. Lavery, is author of The Headscarf Revolutionaries and The Luckiest Thirteen, both with Barbican Press. He is working on his third creative nonfiction from Hull and a novel based in his native Glasgow in the 1970s as well his poetry, short fiction and a theatre piece with music, based on The Luckiest Thirteen alongside singer/songwriter Derek O’ Connor, a Hull lad based in New York.

Thank you so much Brian for agreeing to answer these questions:

1. What are you reading at the moment?

At this very moment? – Thomas and His Friends, an excellent comic book based on the characters created by the Rev W. Awdry. I’m practising my storytelling as it is my wee grandson William’s favourite. Since he is only two, I am not entirely certain it is the comic he loves, or free toy trains that come with it.

Other than that, I have got a to-read list that is building by the week, some for review, like Red Hands, a novel of Ceausescu’s Romania by Colin W. Sargent, and Angelicapaintress of minds by Miranda Miller, and James Thornton’s lyrically beautiful poetry collection, Notes from a Mountain Village (all Barbican Press) – as well as some just for me, like the two collections of stories by the Scottish writer Peter Ross; Daunderlust and The Passion of Harry Bingo, (both with Sandstone Press) look set to be the works with which I will boring folk to death next.

Ross is a superlative teller of stories and he seeks out that which most would pass. A great exponent of whimsy and lyrical prose. And recently, I finished Leonard and Hungry Paul by Ronan Hession (Bluemoose) – a novel of such consummate skill that raises the banality of the every-day to high art. I could go on. But I won’t. The to-read list would necessitate another article all to itself.

2. Did you enjoy reading while growing up – if so, which comics/books and writers were your favourites and why?

As a child I read all the time. I still do. Comics, books, cereal boxes – anything. My favourite comic was the Victor and my favourite character was ‘Alf Tupper – The Tough of the Track’ a working-class athlete, who was a welder during the week and a world-class runner at the weekend – the scourge of Greystone Harriers – Alf joined no club. He wore a lone wolf badge on his vest and ate mainly fish and chips while training. My kinda guy!
The stories were wonderful, triumph every week and constantly sticking it to the posh boys at Greystone – what’s not to like?!

I remember being enthralled by Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, and R.M. Ballantyne’s The Coral Island. Oddly for a tenement boy, I also loved all those public-school novels like the Jennings stories by Anthony Buckeridge. I dreamed of going to a school with tuck boxes and midnight dorm raids. I also loved all those gung-ho imperial adventure stories like the Biggles series by Capt. W.E. Johns. I also loved the stories of Rudyard Kipling, Jack London, Herman Melville, Enid Blyton and many more – definitely a catholic taste!
My library ticket was a prized possession.
Still is.

As a teenager in the very early 70s, I was duty-bound to love J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. Me and Holden Caulfield knew the score! It was then my life-long love of John Steinbeck began, joined soon by Charles Bukowski. I devoured the work of Alistair Maclean, Jack Higgins, Frederick Forsyth too. Basically, if someone put a book in my hand, I would read it.
After all, if you want to learn to write, then you must read.
Apropos nowt, one of the highlights of my life was when a critic described my writing about the Arctic and its environs and maritime adventure as being on a par ‘with Maclean or even Melville’ – to be honest – I could’ve retired happy that day!

3. Which books do you recommend to others and why?

See above … and below…

4. If any, which writers have influenced your writing?

From when I could remember I wanted to be a writer, but it wasn’t exactly a career pursued by many down our street. That’s why I will be forever grateful to a working-class Glaswegian novelist and dramatist called Archie Hind – who wrote Dear Green Place and Fur Sadie – stories of Glasgow tenement life, with the first being about a guy from a place like my street struggling to write a novel – and succeeding. His work is sadly overlooked but it stuck with me. I was about fifteen when I read it.
Similarly, the likes of; Barry Hines, Keith Waterhouse, Alan Sillitoe, Walter Greenwood and A.J. Cronin. To paraphrase Lennon, a working-class writer is something to be.

As I mentioned previously, I am in awe of Steinbeck, Bukowski, and Salinger – and I would add to that Roddy Doyle, Harper Lee, James Kelman, Alan Bleasdale, William McIlvanney, John Godber, Willy Russell and Jimmy McGovern; the nonfiction of Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, Hugh McIlvanney, Ludovic Kennedy, John Pearson, Sebastian Junger and Jon Krakauer – I am certain I have missed out many more. But you get the idea! I also love biographies and autobiography, some of the best non-fiction of course. I think writers are influenced to greater and lesser degrees by everything they have read, and everything that they will read.

In poetry, for me, it starts and ends with Robert Burns, the heaven-taught ploughboy; a man so ahead of his time and whose work is still quoted.

As a teenager I wrote to the great Scots poet Norman McCaig and sent him some of my poems (lucky Norman) – I was 14. He sent by return the kindest, handwritten guidance. I still have that letter, one of the reasons I never refuse a kid who asks for advice to this day.

Among my other favourite poets are; Bukowski, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Seamus Heaney, William Blake, Roger McGough, Adrian Henri, Tom Leonard, – and again this list will be missing out many too.
5. Desert Island Question – which book would you take with you?

My notebook.
Seagulls will provide the quills – and I will have a story to bring home when the ship comes to my rescue.
The last line in this notebook will read, ‘Please get this to Martin Goodman at Barbican Press’ – (just in case things don’t go as well as I might have hoped.) There is a reason why the phrase ‘He’s as lucky as a Brian!’ is not in common use.

To order The Headscarf Revolutionaries and The Luckiest Thirteen, get in touch with J. E. Books through the contact form on this site or email jlellam@hotmail.co.uk

Lives in Books #6: Damian Le Bas

Damian Le Bas is the author of The Stopping Places: A Journey Through Gypsy Britain. His next book, The Drowned Places: Diving in Search of the Real Atlantis, will be published by Chatto & Windus (date TBC).
Thank you so much Damian for agreeing to answer these questions.

1. What are you reading at the moment?
I’m reading The Boundless Sea: A Human History of the Oceans by David Abulafia. It’s a big one, this: it’s like stumbling on the ultimate hoard of seafaring documents and history. One of those books you can’t believe anyone is accomplished enough to write. But luckily for the rest of us, they are! I’m working on a book about the underwater world so this one is kind of research, but I’d have bought it anyway, it’s just my kind of book. It has maps and facsimiles of old coins and documents and treasure, and it takes in so many cultures and vast swathes of time and the sea.
I’m also just finishing The Easy Way to Control Alcohol by Allen Carr. A very different sort of book. A friend bought it for me and I was a bit irritated by the gesture as I didn’t feel I had a drink problem. But he didn’t mean any harm, he just thought I’d find it interesting. That was a month ago. I’ve now stopped drinking and it feels great.

2. Did you enjoy reading while growing up – if so, which comics/books and writers were your favourites and why?
I love that you mention comics in the question because I read a lot of comics when I was younger! My favourites were Wolverine, a mysterious Canadian ex-soldier who ages very slowly, can miraculously heal his wounds, speaks perfect Japanese and has claws that shoot out of his hands; The Demon, who is a sort of mediaeval gadfly character who talks in rhyme and enjoys killing Nazis; and The Darkness, which is about a lineage of Italian hitmen who are wilfully possessed by a demonic force that gives them great power to create and destroy. I think all these comics had something in common: protagonists contending with the savage side of their nature, either battling it or embracing it.

I didn’t read as many books. But when I found something I loved I would devour it very quickly and get upset that it was finished. I loved the short stories of an Australian writer called Paul Jennings: they always had an amazing twist to them. They were adapted for a brilliant TV series called Round the Twist. I read a lot of ‘choose your own adventure’ books which were sort of a cross between books and role playing games. I loved Roald Dahl as well. But I wouldn’t say I was the most avid reader as a kid. I was pretty shocked at university to meet people who’d read the entire English canon by the time they were 18. The first adult book I read cover to cover under my own steam was Albert Camus’s The Outsider when I was 16 or 17. I was ill and it seemed thin enough to read without feeling oppressed by it, so I read it in one go. It blew my mind.

3. Which books do you recommend to others and why?
I tend to recommend the same few books for a few reasons. One, I devoured these books because they were addictive to read – a pleasure as opposed to a noble but arduous task. Two, they had a massive, genuinely life-changing effect on me. So it has nothing to do with genre or length or who wrote them, but these two qualities – powers, really – which don’t occur often in the same book.

 

I think we can get a bit trigger-happy when it comes to recommending books these days. I’m a slow reader and get mixed emotions when someone suggests I should read something, I think partly because reading has often been an escape for me and being ‘set’ a book to read feels a bit invasive. So I try to be sparing with my recommendations and think carefully before even offering one. And a lot of my favourite books are celebrated classics — Wuthering Heights, War and Peace, Moby Dick, East of Eden, The Second Sex, The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, the Tao Te Ching, the Bible – so rightly or wrongly I presume people know about those and that there’s not as much point recommending them.
I think there’s another thing these books have in common: to say they’re an example of one genre always feels like a bit of a betrayal because they all do things you wouldn’t necessarily expect of that genre. Novels that are rich in history; memoirs that are full of geographical detail or motivational writing; poems that work as self-help tools. I love that sort of thing.

 

Here are three of those books:
The Son by Philipp Meyer – a blood-soaked multi-generational epic novel of Texas spanning Comanche, ‘Anglo’ and Spanish cultures, multiple narrators, and 150 years. It contains everything I want from a novel. This book pulls no punches about the craziness of the human condition, and the fact that more things have happened than any of us can ever know or hope to understand. Meyer once said that a great work of art should move you without you quite understanding why: it should make you feel like you’ve “discovered some secret code that explains the human race”. Well, he’s accomplished that with The Son.

 

The Outrun by Amy Liptrot. In theory this a ‘recovery memoir’ shot through with some of the best nature writing I’ve ever read, but it’s more than that: it’s a call to enter a state of enchantment at the strangeness of our world. An ode to the mystery of human existence and its location in the cosmos, seen through the awakening eyes of someone going through the excoriating but miraculous process of gaining freedom from the prison of a drug: in Liptrot’s case, alcohol. The whole thing is swept over with the salt mist and fearless winds of Orkney, and it sparkles with the wildlife and mythology of the far north, with London pulsing away like a sinister character in the distance. This book made me feel like anything was possible. As indeed it is.

 

Consolations of the Forest by Sylvain Tesson. An account of six months spent living in a log cabin in Siberia, on the shores of Lake Baikal, which is frozen over for most of the book. This book seemed like a miracle to me. It’s written in a diary format in a witty and very accessible style, full of perceptive and funny descriptions – mosquitoes, for instance, are “tiny flying syringes” – yet it ranges over everything from ancient Chinese philosophy to the idea of layered humus on a forest floor being the ultimate symbol of memory. In parts it’s just a beautiful hymn to contentment with simple things like fire and tea. And how can you beat a line like this, written after he has befriended two husky pups? “The courage of dogs: to look straight at what appears before them, without wondering if things could have been otherwise.”

 

4. If any, which writers have influenced your writing?
Hmm, sometimes it’s hard for a writer to tell who’s had the biggest influence on them. But I can have a guess. Now we come back to the authors of the classics I was on about earlier…

 

Emily Brontë manages to force such emotional intensity into a sentence that once you’ve read a book like Wuthering Heights there’s a danger that a lot of other writing can seem diluted. I think her work, more than any other, has made me willing to sit there for ages trying to get one sentence to convey an unfeasible amount of emotion. (I’ll never succeed like she does but she convinces me it’s worth trying.)

 

Ted Hughes has had a profound effect on me, particularly in his striving to inhabit the minds of other animals and express what they might see in human language. I think his animal poems are astonishing and I try to enter that state of empathy with other minds when I’m writing.

 

Emily Dickinson convinced me that phrases can make sense emotionally without having to make sense analytically. I think that’s incredibly important. Herman Melville gave me the idea that you could somehow address every aspect of human life through a single topic: in his case, whaling. Bruce Chatwin taught me the power of terse descriptions and that – I think – metaphor is generally preferable to simile. Sylvia Plath taught me that you can do spells without mentioning magic: a sufficiently powerful poem is indistinguishable from a spell, it changes what reality is for you with a mere deployment of words.

 

Leo Tolstoy taught me that writing was already cinema before cinema was invented. Toni Morrison taught me that the spoken idioms of oppressed people can soar in English prose. Charles Bukowski taught me to write what you feel, not what someone else thinks you should write. I could go on and on.

 

5. Desert Island Question – which book would you take with you?
I was arguing with myself about this the other day. It ended up being a toss-up between The Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson and the Bible. I could be happy with either of those. Dickinson is an endless oracle, and a friend. It would be a real companion.

 

And the Bible… Well. It’s not just the philosophy and the history and the inspiration and the darkness and the madness and love, the sustenance, the full picture of humanity. What shocked me when I was studying it at university, in the original languages, was the beauty of it. David’s lament for his son Absalom above the gates of Jerusalem just left me stunned. You are there, in this flood of a father’s grief for his son. And sometimes, when I used to live in a trailer and I was walking back to it late at night, I used to recite Psalm 23 to myself in Hebrew. I’m scared of the dark and the sounds of the owls and the wind in the trees used to terrify me, but those words had a power: I was under a protection. And I always got back safe.

To order The Stopping Places from J. E. Books, you can get in touch by the contact form on this site or email jlellam@hotmail.co.uk

Lives in Books #5: Katherine May

Katherine May is the author of fiction and memoir and her books include: WinteringThe Electricity of Every Living Thing, The Whitstable High Tide Swimming Club, The 52 Seductions, Burning Out and Ghosts & Their Uses. You can find her on Twitter as @_katherine_may_ and Instagram as @katherinemay_  . She is also currently creating a community of non-fiction writers at @writingtruestories on Instagram and welcomes you getting in touch.

Thank you Katherine for agreeing to answer the following questions:

  1. What are you reading at the moment?

A hundred things at once, as usual! But mostly I’m reading Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion and Why We Swim by Bonnie Tsui, and I’m listening to Rosewater by Tade Thompson on audiobook. I’m terrible for flitting between books.

2. Did you enjoy reading while growing up – if so, which comics/books and writers were your favourites and why?

I did, although I was always more of a writer than a reader. I loved all the Enid Blyton books (especially The Secret Seven, which led me to try to set up an HQ in my shed, squeezed in next to the rabbit hutch.) Later I was obsessed with the Adrian Mole books, and The Children of Great Knowe. And then I seamlessly graduated on to Stephen King novels. Carrie was my gateway drug. There was no going back after that.

3. Which books do you recommend to others and why?

I pressed copies of Death in Spring by Merce Rodoreda into so many people’s hands that I think I bought up all the stock of the Open Letters edition. I’m now glad to see that Penguin Classics have published a new edition, so I might start again. It’s a surreal fable of the Spanish Civil War, full of dream-like images of the dark deeds of adults and the burgeoning wisdom of children.

I’ve been telling everyone about Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind this year – it definitely changed my mind about hallucinogens and their potential to help us through life’s difficult transitions.

4. If any, which writers have influenced your writing?

I think reading Sylvia Plath as a teenager was a lightbulb moment for me: the idea that you could write about life with such unguarded intensity was thrilling. I still find myself adding internal rhymes in homage to her, and I have to go through my drafts and pick them out again! I felt the same about Kristin Hersh’s lyrics. I now think I was recognising minds similar to my own, without being able to say why.

I often think about Jon Ronson’s handbrake turns – the way he allows himself to change his mind in each chapter – whenever I’m tempted to find certainty in my own work. I love that place of ambivalence and doubt that he takes you to.

5. Desert Island Question – which book would you take with you?

Oh easy. Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke. I could happily read it in a loop into eternity.

To order any of Katherine May’s books, just get in touch with J. E. Books via the contact form on this site or email jlellam@hotmail.co.uk

Lives In Books #4: John O’Farrell

John O’Farrell is a scriptwriter and author and has worked on shows such as Spitting Image, Have I Got News For You, and the currently ‘paused’ Broadway musical, Mrs Doubtfire. He is also the co-host of @wearehistorypod

He has also written seven books to date. These include Things Can Only Get Better, its follow-up Things Can Only Get Worse?, and An Utterly Exasperated History of Modern Britain.

1 What are you reading at the moment?

I am currently reading Humankind by Rutger Bregman, which is fascinating and optimistic in equal measure. It poses the thesis that people are a lot nicer and kinder than the psychologists and historians would usually have us believe.

2. Did you enjoy reading while growing up – if so, which comics/books and writers were your favourites and why?

I always loved humour, so I was drawn to the Down With Skool books by Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle. I still have all my old Asterix books, and I liked the Ladybird History books, which sparked a lifelong interest in the historical period known as ‘the olden days’.

3. Which books do you recommend to others and why?

Sometimes people ask me to recommend a funny book and I might point them in the direction of Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome. Or maybe Slaves of Solitude – I love everything by Patrick Hamilton, and his wartime novel set in a stifling provincial guest house is my favourite. You can feel the awkward silences and the repressed emotions of these middle-class English guests as they react to world changing events and the local curiosity of the newly-arrived American soldiers.

4. If any, which writers have influenced your writing?

I don’t think I would have written my first book Things Can Only Get Better if Nick Hornby hadn’t written the football memoir that gave me the idea for my political autobiography. I also read a lot of George Orwell in my teens, and Animal Farm had a big influence on me – that a short book with talking animals could actually be a dark satire with something important and difficult to say.

5. Desert Island question – which book would you take with you?

I might take something I hadn’t read yet but always intended to. I have a copy of War and Peace sitting on my bookshelf which I really should have attempted by now. Maybe I was saving it for an extended lockdown following a global pandemic, but somehow I still haven’t found the time!

To order Things Can Only Get Better for £10.99, Things Can Only Get Worse? for £8.99, or An Utterly Exasperated History of Modern Britain for £9.99 (plus p & p) from J. E. Books, you can get in touch by the contact form on this site or email jlellam@hotmail.co.uk – All orders over £40 have free postage and packaging.

 

Lives in Books #3: Adelle Stripe

Adelle Stripe’s debut novel, Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile, was inspired by the life and work of playwright Andrea Dunbar. It was shortlisted for the Gordon Burn Prize and Portico Prize. She is the author of three poetry chapbooks, and her writing has appeared in The Quietus, New Statesman and Caught by the River. Her recent publications include Sweating Tears with Fat White Family for Rough Trade Books and an essay in Faber & Faber’s forthcoming Excavate: The Wonderful and Frightening World of the Fall. She is currently writing her second novel.

1 What are you reading at the moment?

I’m devouring Gay Talese’s Thy Neighbour’s Wife and St Augustine’s Confessions.

2 Did you enjoy reading while growing up – if so, which comics/books and writers were your favourites and why?

I was a voracious reader and had an advanced reading age – which resulted in reading lots of ‘unsuitable’ adult books including Jilly Cooper, Jackie Collins and the filthy verse of Pam Ayres. As a child, I loved Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia and Ursula K Le Guin’s Wizard of Earthsea. All were portals to another dimension, offering some element of escape from the dreary brewery town that I grew up in.

3 Which books do you recommend to others and why?

I always recommend Lucia Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women. Her exquisite short stories are easy to digest, and I believe her to be one of the finest American writers in 20th century literature. Recently, I’ve suggested Adam Hochschild’s Leopold’s Ghost to a few friends. It’s one of the most important history books I’ve read and reveals the vile colonial history of the Congo. Anyone interested in Heart of Darkness or Kurtz should read this book. It’s a masterpiece.

4 If any, which writers have influenced your writing?

Gordon Burn, John Fante, Cookie Mueller, Mary Gaitskill, Norman Lewis, Niall Griffiths, Herbert Huncke, Tony Parker, Virginie Despentes and Alexander Trocchi are all authors I admire – but it’s hard to say if they influence me, as I think as writers we suck up material from television, plays, art, newspapers, and even the music we listen to. I’d argue that my collection of reggae 45s, Robert Crumb comics or Werner Herzog films have as much significance on the work I create as the writers I’ve just mentioned.

5 Desert Island question – which book would you take with you?

The Norton Anthology of Poetry – if it could fit in the suitcase. All of the world’s secrets are buried within its pages.

 

To order Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile for £8.99 (plus p&p) from J. E. Books, you can get in touch by the contact form on this site or email jlellam@hotmail.co.uk – All orders over £40 have free postage and packaging.