On Saturday, I was at a ‘Literary Lunch’ in the Royal St George Yacht Club in Dun Laoghaire (http://bit.ly/1tEfICz). This was an event organized by Vanessa O’Loughlin from writing.ie and Sarah Webb, in association with Dubray Books. Several other writers were there, along with many readers, bookclubs, and a bookstall run by the great people at Dubray. The star-turn of the day was Martina Devlin’s interview with Jennifer Johnston, which everyone enjoyed. I might blog that interview later, but for now I want to think about something else.
We’d been briefed to think and talk about a book that changed our lives. I think the idea was that we would discuss these at our various tables over lunch. It didn’t happen that way, but the question got me thinking.
There are many books that have influenced me deeply; on any given day I might make a completely different choice. But the book I went searching for yesterday is a battered green Penguin from 1989: Women Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews, edited by George Plimpton and introduced by Margaret Atwood. It leaped into my hands from a shelf in WordsWorth Books in Boston soon after it was published in 1989. I was doing a distance learning/second chance degree course at Lesley College and this was my first semester. My brain was fizzing.
Many people have heard me say that I always wanted to write, but that I didn’t know a writer was something you could be – especially not if you were someone like me. It didn’t stop me writing, but I was going nowhere sickeningly fast. This collection of interviews with women writers showed me many valuable things, not least of them being that writing is something you choose to do, that it is work, and that it doesn’t just happen. Reading it, I loved the sense of sitting in on cracking conversations with these alert and varied minds as they talked about their ordinary/extraordinary lives. I was used to the weird effect of reading as it transports us to other worlds, but here was a book that left the door to my own life ajar: I could pass between them as freely and as often as I chose. I carried the book everywhere I went, hence its battered and dog-eared appearance.
The book also alerted me to the fact that the work of women writers deserved study, so I suppose it started me down the track of recovering work by forgotten writers that was my area of research over the next ten years. You could say I was led astray, but in fact I loved that work while I was doing it.
And of course the book also led me to the rest of the Paris Review Interviews series, which were eventually collected in four volumes edited by Philip Gourevitch, a life-giving resource for writers and an all-round fascinating read for anyone who loves books and refuses to believe that they are dead.
(I hesitate to say that there is a brilliant website as well: http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews )
Is there a book that changed your life?