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The first writer you fell in love with: four writers share their inspirations

The first writer you fell in love with: four writers share their inspirations

The winner of the 2016 Sunday Times/Peters Fraser + Dunlop Young Writer of the Year Award will be announced this week. Here, the four finalists tell us about the writers and books they first fell for.

The coveted Young Writer of the Year Award is an important prize, not least because it celebrates some of the best new literature but also showcases the writers whose books we’ll be enjoying in the future.

The prize of £5,000 is awarded to a work of fiction, non-fiction or poetry by an author aged 35 or under. Previous winners include Zadie Smith, for her novel White Teeth, William Dalrymple (City of Djinns: A Year in Delhi), Simon Armitage (Kid), Naomi Alderman (Disobedience) and last year’s winner Sarah Howe, for Loop of Jade, a beautiful poetry collection about her dual British and Chinese heritage.

The winner will be announced on Thursday 8 December. This year’s shortlist includes a collection of poetry, a collection of short stories, a novella and a novel. All are tremendous works, representing some of the finest writing out there.

Here, the four finalists tell us about the writers they themselves first fell in love with…


Max Porter, author of Grief is the Thing with Feathers

Max Porter, author of Grief is the Thing with Feathers

I was fortunate enough to be read to as a child. So I fell in love with stories when my parents and grandparents read me myths and fables, with poetry when they read me poems. But the first real–private–love affair was with Calvin and Hobbes. It was given to me by an American friend, and the American-ness of it was part of the appeal. Vacation! Jello! Imaginary voyages to fight snow-monsters in the Yukon. The WHAT???

And then I fell hard, like a stuffed tiger rolling down a hill, in love with the relationship between this boy and his friend. The wit, the agony, the perfectly observed drama of childhood shared with a tiger. Rarely if ever have I read such a finely calibrated and insightful portrayal of a relationship. It is profoundly good. I am hugely inspired by Calvin to this day, from the vastness and cruelty of his imagination, to the empathy challenges of understanding that his (anyone’s) reality is personal, and bespoke, and should never be judged or squeezed into boxes.

Today, 30 years later, I look over my son’s shoulder as he is reading Calvin and Hobbes and I laugh, and cry, and marvel at the draughtsmanship, and love the life force of the boy and his tiger, the very real energy between them. Childhood has rarely been so well observed or understood.

Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter, published by Faber & Faber


Benjamin Wood, author of The Ecliptic

I fell in love with Clive Barker’s imagination reading The Thief of Always when I was twelve. I bought it on a family holiday to Cornwall — or perhaps it was south Wales? It’s hard to recall where I was, because I spent that whole week living inside the book. It’s a wonderful, dark adventure story about a kid called Harvey Swick who’s lured into the mysterious house of a man named Mr Hood. The house has been standing for centuries; the longer Harvey stays, the stranger and more supernatural his experiences with Mr Hood become, and the danger of his situation grows increasingly apparent. It’s a fable about being grateful for what you have, and it was the first novel I remember being captivated by — a children’s book that didn’t condescend, which evoked something sinister and adult without resorting to horror-movie clichés or shock tactics. And I remember the day I finished reading it on the beach: my parents and my brother were swimming in the sea and they kept calling me over, but I just couldn’t leave Harvey alone with Mr Hood. That’s the mark of an exceptional story, I think. Its draw is always stronger than reality’s.

The Ecliptic by Benjamin Wood is published by Scribner


Jessie Greengrass, author of An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It

I was a pretty solitary, bookish child, so some of my earliest memories are of reading. I can remember sitting in bed when I was five or six working through a set of school reading books about three pirates, and how I was completely engrossed and I felt solid, as though I had found a place in which I was entirely myself and protected, and I think I've been chasing that feeling ever since. Later, in my early teens, it was Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers, beginning a love of detective fiction which is still pretty strong, but the first writer I can remember discovering independently, when I was about thirteen, was Philip Larkin. I found a copy of The Whitsun Weddings and read it over and over, and it felt then as it feels now- perfect, a work of real craft, so precise, so exact; and it felt true. A few years later I read Aubade for the first time and it's probably still the poem I read most often and it still seems simultaneously simple and enormously complicated, and I still can’t figure out how it’s done.

An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It by Jessie Greengrass is published by John Murray Originals


Andrew McMillan, author of Physical

There were, of course, books I ‘loved’ when I was a kid, but the first one I truly loved in the adult sense (with the lust, sense of yearning and loss which always comes along with that) was the collected poems of Thom Gunn.

It’s a story I’ve told before, but I came out to my dad when I was sixteen; I was in the back of the car and we were driving somewhere. He just said ‘well done’ and then the journey continued. That night he came into my room with a copy of Thomson William Gunn’s Collected Poems.

At first, back then, I fell in love with the content, with the beauty, the romance, the masculine physical presence in the poems; I yearned for a life like the one that might be described in some of his free-flowing poems of the 1970s, was heartbroken by the later elegies for friends dying during the AIDS crisis.

I’ve fallen in love with him many times since (isn’t that always the way with these things); with the form of his poems, with his technique, with him, in all his complicated handsome glory.

I used to think my heart beat with the sound of him (Thom…Thom…Thom); I’m less enamoured now; but like any lifelong relationship it’s settled down, and I still seek out his companionship on a regular basis.

Physical by Andrew McMillan is published by Jonathan Cape


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