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Emma Donoghue: "Books that changed my life"

Emma Donoghue: "Books that changed my life"

The author of Kissing the Witch and The Room, which was adapted into a wonderful film in 2015, tells us the books that left a lasting impression and inspired her writing career.

Red Shift by Alan Garner

Red Shift by Alan Garner

The British fantasy author Alan Garner was someone I came across at a very young age, but it was in my teens that I encountered his slim, potent Red Shift (1973).

Set during both the Roman Civil War and 1970s Britain, this was the first novel I read set in several different time periods that managed to suggest a mysterious, powerful, psychic link between those and all times. It was as if history is a set of parallel universes.

It didn’t rely on any of the hokey devices like other such stories (time travel, dream visits, reincarnation), it merely juxtaposed storylines of love and trouble occurring in the same spot, many centuries apart, and letting them subtly echo each other.

Garner managed to make me feel that the past has not passed at all.



Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach

Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach

I’m a bit sheepish about admitting it nowadays, because Richard Bach’s bestseller has gone so far out of fashion, but… Jonathan Livingston Seagull (1970) blew my tiny mind.

Not only was it my introduction to concepts of Eastern spirituality, but it thrilled me. It’s the story of a gull who doesn’t fit in, an Ugly Duckling figure who realises, it’s not that he’s a loser, it’s just his passion for flying means that he’s destined for (in several senses) higher things. 

In its experiments with genre (was it a novel, a spiritual memoir, or a book of advice?) and its vivid focus on Jonathan’s predicament, this fable expanded my sense of what stories could do.



The Bible

Gideon's Bible

Growing up as a Catholic in 1970s Ireland, I heard selected readings from the Bible at Mass, but we were never particularly encouraged to read the book for ourselves. However, when I was about ten, the Gideon organisation (the people who put Bibles in American hotel rooms) came to my Catholic primary school and were allowed to hand out copies of their New Testament: tiny red-backed ones with onionskin paper and minute print.

I read it compulsively, for years. It left me with a love of the stories and language of the Bible; they echo over and over again in my own work. I’ve written a children’s story about being a bridesmaid that’s inspired by the parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins, for instance, and a love story about two boys on a Yorkshire soccer team that’s a retelling of the history of David and Jonathan.

Reading the Bible also made me a questioning, sceptical reader, because I noticed that sometimes the four Gospels told very different versions of the same ‘Gospel truth’. This was my first experience of the pleasures of closely comparing versions of a text, and it led me directly towards taking a degree in literature.



The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter

The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter

I think it was seeing Neil Jordan’s film The Company of Wolves (1984) in my teens that made me seek out the book that inspired it, Angela Carter’s collection of fairy tales The Bloody Chamber (1979).

Carter’s collection was the first explicitly revisionist book I read—meaning that it took a timeworn, hallowed source (in this case, the traditional European legends written down by the Brothers Grimm) and retold it from the heroine’s perspective, raising new questions, with the effect of turning the old stories upside-down.

The Bloody Chamber not only helped turn me into a feminist—or realise that I was a natural-born one—but it gave me a powerful itch to join in the retelling game.

It inspired me to write my own set of fairy tales, Kissing the Witch. In my writing, those familiar motifs of Grimm, Perrault and Hans Andersen continue to come up over and over again.

It brings me right back to being a toddler in my mother’s lap, listening to her read me fairy tales: I suppose that’s where I began to be a writer.

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