Welcome to Jill Dawson, author of The Crime Writer.
Picking just ten influential books is hard. These days I read a lot of non-fiction (such as the psychotherapist Irvin Yalom) and have caught up with the magnificence of Beryl Bainbridge and the American novelist Richard Yates but the books that have had the most lasting influence are probably the following:
- Akenfield by Ronald Blythe
This is an utterly original portrait of an English village, written in the mid-1960s. I remember vividly how Blythe captures and ventrioloquises the voices of the village grave-digger, the mid-wife, the vicar and how different each one sounds, what a good listener Blythe is, but also how his ear translates to brilliant voices on the page. It began a life-long interest in this form – vernacular voices, telling their own stories, in the first person. I wrote to Blythe recently to ask if I could put him in my new novel The Crime Writer. I was astonished when he said yes, and better still, wrote later to me to tell me how much he liked the novel; how my ‘imagination kept pace’ with Blythe’s friendship with Highsmith. It was the greatest honour.
- The Plague by Albert Camus
I studied French literature and this is one of the few novels I’ve read in French. The fabulous allegorical premise – that Camus was writing about one thing (The Occupation) in the guise of another (a plague) – thrilled me as a sixteen year old reader, and this is the novel that made me want to be a writer. Camus showed me that the form had no limits and could address everything that matters.
- Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy
It’s more than 30 years since I read Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy. Re-reading it now, what stayed? Tess herself, mainly. She sweats, she blushes, she bleeds. So physical! All that red and white. The white dress she wore in the May Dance, she singled out by a red ribbon; the blood from the horse, Prince, pooling on the ground and spattering her dress after she has accidentally killed it on her way to take the beehives to market; the strawberry – British Queen variety – that Alec d’Urberville foists on her with that telling line: “in a slight distress she parted her lips and took it in”.
I remember a sultry summer classroom in Boston Spa Comprehensive, Yorkshire, and our excitable English teacher, Mr Foggin, telling us that Tess’s “fatal dreaminess” was to blame for her ills. I remember too the lively – no, savage – way we teenagers discussed the subtitle, “A Pure Woman”, and the sexual hypocrisy of Hardy’s times. How far did Tess collude in her own fate? Was she raped, or seduced? “Stirred to confused surrender,” Hardy wrote: a classic date-rape then, surely?
Perfect discussion material for sixteen year old girls and a beautifully, passionately written novel that is also a masterclass in how to create character. How our landscape shapes us remains a theme with me and I know Hardy was the start of it. I didn’t like all those Austen novels about getting married – what a ghastly idea – so landscape and sex was much more interesting to me.
- Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
I’ve read this many times. Absolutely love it – the writing is exquisite and the character of Emma with all her longings, so memorable and masterful. This was a big influence on my novel Fred and Edie and I was glad when reviewers noticed.
- Sula by Toni Morrison
I read Sula as a young woman and it had a tremendous impact on me. I read it again recently and it was no less powerful. It’s probably my favourite of Morrison’s novels, though along with Atwood, Yates and Bainbridge, it is hard to pick just one. The prose is unlike anything I’ve ever read. Her writing about sex is stunning. Her ability to convey, in minimum lines, a heartbreak of inexpressible range –everything Morrison does is brilliant.
- Surfacing by Margaret Atwood
‘One of the most important novels of the twentieth century’ claims Francine Du Plessix Gray, on the weather-beaten green jacket of my Virago Modern Classic. I love that. I was eighteen when I first read it. I’m sure it – and Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder – were big inspirations for me buying and living in a log cabin in the wilds of Washington state when I was in my early twenties and on my first novel (also set in a log cabin) Trick of the Light.
- Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
I couldn’t bring myself to read ‘Lolita’ when I was younger, and it remains a disturbing novel, although full of extraordinary language and imagery. The way in which everything about the girls in it is eroticised, you know, right down to their bobby socks, is very troubling. But it seems to me that Nabokov has a clear moral position towards Humbert. In the scene when he finally sleeps with Lolita (Dolores), Humbert, narrating, justifies it by suggesting that she seduced him. This is in fact what paedophiles and sex abusers endlessly do – shift the blame to the victim – so in that sense it felt to me like an accurate portrayal of such a man.
- Winter Garden by Beryl Bainbridge
I adore anything by Beryl Bainbridge. Hard to pick a favourite but I’m just about to re-read Bainbridge’s Winter Garden. I know she can hardly be described as neglected, having just been awarded her own Booker…..but I do wonder if people know that novel? In places it’s hilarious (especially a funny little sex scene, a knee-trembler in the kitchen), it’s full of mystery and endlessly entertaining, with that Bainbridge voice that is utterly original.
- Carol by Patricia Highsmith
Again, hard to pick a Highsmith favourite, but her first novel Carol, published in 1952 as The Price of Salt is beautifully written. Pat showed some early extracts to her favourite teacher from Barnard College, Ethel Sturtevant, whose excited reply: ‘Now this packs a wallop!’ probably alarmed and reassured the former student in equal measure. Highsmith’s own publisher Harper & Bros rejected it, so it was published first by a small press, Coward McCann, and the solution of the pseudonym Claire Morgan was chosen.
‘It flowed from the end of my pen as if from nowhere’ Highsmith wrote. She also admitted a specific inspiration: a ‘blondish woman in a fur coat’ who wafted into the doll-counter of Macy’s in New York, where Highsmith was working as a sales-girl during the Christmas rush, to buy her daughter a doll. On her day off Highsmith took a bus to New Jersey, found the woman’s house (from the address on the sales slip) and simply walked by it.
Once Carol appeared, the novel sprung up fully formed. Not in Highsmith’s usual ‘low hypnotic murmur’; the prose has a feverish, lyrical bent that she usually reserved for her poetry and journals. She did have a fever, as it happened, coming down with chicken pox the day after seeing the blond in Macy’s, and writing in bed in this febrile state. There was another muse for the character of Carol, too: Highsmith’s former lover Virginia Kent Catherwood, the elegant and well- heeled socialite from Philadelphia, whose divorce in the 1940s had kept gossip columnists in New York in a state of scandalised delirium with its whiff of lesbian intrigue.
- Young Hearts Crying by Richard Yates
I love Richard Yates. There is never a comma out of place and I love the precision and the chaste lyricism in his work. I find his writing doesn’t spell too much out, leaving a lot of space for me to feel things, and so I always do. And there’s lots of poignant stuff about class and masculinity.
The Crime Writer is published in paperback by Sceptre in February 2017.
Jill Dawson is the author of nine novels. Her latest is The Crime Writer about Patricia Highsmith, which won the East Anglian Book of the Year. She has previously been nominated for the Whitbread, Folio and Orange prizes and won an Eric Gregory for poetry. She runs Gold Dust, a mentoring scheme for new writers.