Welcome to Mark Mayes, author of The Gift Maker.
Thank you so much, Ruby, for inviting me to share some of my favourite reads for My Life in Books. I’ve very much enjoyed previous posts in this series, and have certainly picked up some tips for future reading.
The ten books I’ve chosen have influenced, delighted, and enlightened me in various ways. Some of them typify the artistry and craft of a particular writer I admire, or more accurately, love; others are memorable as significant junctures along my (ongoing) journey as a reader. I’ve listed them, as best I can remember, in the dated order in which I discovered them:
- The First Pan Book of Horror Stories by various authors, selected by Herbert van Thal
1978: My dad loved horror films, as did I. In light of that, the image on the cover of this book greatly appealed to me – its sheer gruesomeness. For me, it’s one of the most memorable covers ever, and, as a solely comic-reading fourteen-year-old, it hooked me into discovering the stories within – some genuinely terrifying and uncanny – including tales by Muriel Spark and Bram Stoker. I went on to buy and read a number of the other anthologies in this series.
- Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse
1985: This may well have been the first book by Hermann Hesse I came across, via the local library. Reading Hesse was my version of getting into some kind of philosophical state of mind, whatever that means. Well, his stories made me think about life’s purpose; they made me feel less isolated; perhaps because the writer/narrator cared about the inner struggle of his characters, their existential conundrums, their essence, their soul.
- The Glamour by Christopher Priest
1993: I was given a copy of The Glamour as a present. It’s a story that plays with your perceptions by means of an unreliable narrator, it gets under your skin, and the premise – that of being the kind of person who is so unnoticeable as to be literally invisible – fascinated me. There’s a haunting scene where an old witchy type says to one of the main characters, something like: You’ve got the glamour. You’re glamourous. And it’s meant in a rather different way than modern usage suggests.
- Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys
1997: Jean Rhys is my favourite writer, and if I had to choose only one novel by her, it would be Good Morning, Midnight. Sasha Jansen is a single middle-aged woman adrift in Paris in the 1930s; she is isolated, wounded in love, and fast running out of hope and money. The ending is profoundly moving, and you can only marvel at the combination of Jean Rhys’s technique and whatever that magic ingredient is, that lifts what might be a sordid and desperate sexual encounter into something transcendental and almost holy.
- Tigers Are Better-Looking by Jean Rhys
1998: I felt it necessary to choose at least two Jean Rhys titles for My Life in Books. This is probably my favourite collection of stories by this astonishing artist. She is the most ‘honest’ writer I can think of – fearless in her emotional clarity, when depicting the fierce vulnerability of her characters. I am deeply moved by these stories, several of which are taken from her earliest collection (The Left Bank and other stories, 1927), and the remaining written during her lengthy period of literary ‘obscurity’. I admire in particular: Till September Petronella, Let Them Call it Jazz, and The Sound of the River.
- The High Window by Raymond Chandler
1999: The principal reasons for Chandler’s inclusion here are style and character. I could have chosen any one of his seven novels. The style, hard-boiled, imitated by many, has never been surpassed, retaining the poetic bent to Chandler’s nature in the cadence and phrasing of his sentences. The character of Philip Marlowe – beloved of so many; neither angel nor automaton, but a fully rounded individual, both sensual and intellectual, a chess freak – who plays alone, an existentialist, a mensch in every regard – a hero when heroes are few; the archetypal loner, the sometime reluctant idealist. How I wish there were more books of Chandler’s yet to read, another knock on Marlowe’s office door to herald another case to be solved, or at least survived.
- What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver
2000: I discovered Raymond Carver’s work by chance, again via my local library. Over the following few years I read pretty much everything Carver had published, outside a stage-play (Carnations), which I’d like to find. He also wrote many poems, a practice which he termed a ‘spiritual necessity.’ I love, and am bewitched by, the stories in this collection; in particular: Why Don’t You Dance?; After the Denim; and, of course, the title story.
- The Art of the Novel by Milan Kundera
2003: I sought out this book because I wanted to one day attempt writing a novel, and was looking for advice from a writer I admired. This is no checklist of banal or hand-me-down ‘rules’ about writing fiction, rather it is infinitely more discursive, wide-ranging, and subtle. Kundera chooses a number of European writers as his models, including Kafka, Flaubert, and Cervantes, to illustrate the astounding scope and range the novel form has embodied over the centuries.
- What I Saw: Reports from Berlin, 1920-1933 by Joseph Roth (translated by Michael Hofmann).
2013: I love these beautifully descriptive non-fiction pieces centred on the Weimar capital in the twenties and early thirties. In this collection of feuilletons (originally published in the Frankfurt Zeitung), the novelist Joseph Roth demonstrates, among much else, his penetrating eye for detail, the pathos of everyday concerns in a dull city side-street, the carnivalesque nature of Berlin’s demi-monde, the plight of the workless and roofless, and, in the final piece, written in 1933, he chillingly foreshadows the calamitous period to come, perceiving perhaps that it is already too late to turn the wheel.
- Amerika by Franz Kafka
2014: All Kafka’s unique strangeness, oneiric sensibility, and sense of the uncanny – the disturbing buried in seemingly ordinary events – are on offer in Amerika, his first novel; a novel which remained incomplete, and was published posthumously by his friend and literary executor, Max Brod. Amerika tells the story of a sixteen-year-old emigrant, Karl Roßman, who takes passage to New York and finds himself in some very odd situations: initially feted and coddled, exposed to unfamiliar luxury by a distant relative, he is then reduced to utter penury and a scrabble for mere survival.
The Gift Maker
‘Gifts ought to be free, but they never are. They tie you to the wishes of others. To your own sad expectations. To the penitentiary of your dreams.’
Late one night, Thomas Ruder receives a strange package: a small blue box. Another such item is delivered to his friend Liselotte Hauptmann. These ‘gifts’ will change their lives forever. In the far-off border town of Grenze, a play is to be performed at the Sheol Theatre. Reynard the impresario expects a very special audience.
Thomas and Liselotte, together with their friend Johann, are drawn into Reynard’s seductive web, as Daumen, the gift maker, must decide who his master really is. The Gift Maker is a story about identity, about fulfilling your dreams and becoming the person you always were … at whatever cost.
“This is a magical, daring book, set in a world reminiscent of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast or the Wes Anderson film Grand Budapest Hotel. Using language of marvellous distinctiveness and beauty which reveal his poetic background, Mark Mayes creates a sometimes beautiful and frequently nightmarish world where reality and folk tale morph into surrealism to disturbing effect. By turns hilarious and terrifying, wise and thought-provoking, The Gift Maker stands head and shoulders above anything I have read this year. I devoured it in two sittings, and will now start again so as to savour less breathlessly its sublime language and ideas. This sustained feat of imagination is a best-seller and likely award winner if ever I read one. Not for the faint-hearted, but brilliant.” – Simon Michael, bestselling crime author.
Before becoming a writer, Mark trained as an actor at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. He subsequently worked in theatre and television for several years, both in the UK and abroad. He has worked variously as a cleaner, care-worker and carer, salesman, barman, medical transcriptionist, warehouse worker, and administrator.
Mark has published numerous stories and poems in magazines and anthologies in the UK, Eire, and Italy, and in particular has had several stories published in (or accepted for) the celebrated Unthology series (Unthank Books). His work has been broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and the BBC World Service. He has been shortlisted for literary prizes, including the prestigious Bridport Prize.
In 2009, Mark graduated with a First Class Honours Degree in English (Creative Writing and Critical Practice) from Ruskin College, Oxford.
Currently living in South Wales, Mark is also a musician and songwriter, and some of his songs may be found here.