While Dressing the Dearloves is largely set in a familiar world, it features some historical strands which offer a richer view of what’s going on and help develop some of the characters. But unfortunately, this has meant that one of my great pleasures in life – reading historical fiction – has been lost on me over the past five years while I’ve been working on it and my previous novel, Precious Things.
I’ve often told anyone who’s starting to write that the best thing they can do is read, read, and read some more from the best and worst in their chosen genre. For much of my life I’ve indulged in historical or classic fiction like a greedy connoisseur, but soon discovered as I deep-dived into writing the past that I needed a complete break from it myself. I was afraid of picking up the narrative voice of my favourite authors, or stealing their plots by accident, and – quite honestly – felt impatient with reading about the past when I was living it each day as I wrote. Just as my favourite café no longer felt like a sanctuary when I started waiting tables there during university, so too did the pleasure of reading historical fiction curdle any feeling of escape when I turned to it.
Another problem was that I would find my mind wandering to my own unpublished work, and how it needed so much more before I could feel any sense of accomplishment. And that kind of thinking is death to creativity. Not, perhaps, if comparisons spur and motivate you onwards, but certainly if they have the effect of making you freeze up, stop, and start judging yourself too harshly. That was my experience. The one exception was Anthony Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot See because, well, who isn’t blown away by that virtuosic performance? The man is clearly in a league of his own and thank you, Book Group, for forcing my hand.
So, what have I been reading instead? The answer is, everything else. Particularly non-fiction and literary fiction – all modern, some even speculative – and books, essays and articles as dissimilar to the worlds I’m creating as humanly possible.
As a child I would devour whatever was put in my hands. I felt towards our local library like a kid who’d been given access to a toy factory and told to take home whatever they liked, borrowing as much as I could carry and moving seamlessly from the children’s to the adult’s section at around age thirteen. No surprises then that I wasn’t born with scoliosis, but now have a curvature of the spine that will plague me for life.
I’ve always read widely. It didn’t start with any great desire to expand my knowledge or show off how well-read I am, but came about because I couldn’t help myself. I will literally read the ad copy on a box of cereal if it’s sitting in front of me, so I’ve always been a little nervous about not having decent reading material to hand, in the event of idle moments. The love wheat farmers have for their crops or finding out that Tim Cahill takes his morning bowl with lashings of milk, honey and fresh strawberries can only be read so many times.
My years of backpacking and living overseas were great for introducing me to writers I may never have stumbled upon otherwise. Some of the books I picked up in youth hostels or secondhand and new bookstores changed my life, expanding my horizons well beyond what was currently popular. Cold Comfort Farm gave me something to talk about with my future husband (he was reading it himself when we met, and our shared amusement at Stella Gibbons’ clever prose helped us bond) and John Simpson’s Strange Places, Questionable People gave me a thirst for travel and travel writing which has yet to be slaked. I am that person who reads abandoned novels on park benches and in holiday rentals, and sometimes prefers browsing friends’ bookshelves because of all the quirky, forgotten books on offer. I may not have discovered Tom Robbins’ Jitterbug Perfume, Joseph Heller’s Catch 22, or Barbara Trapido’s Brother of the More Famous Jack otherwise.
As Dressing the Dearloves hits bookstore shelves this week, I am allowing myself a little break from writing fiction. Thankfully, this means that I’m re-acquainting myself with historical novels and immersing again in my favourite authors. I’ve started reading Hannah Richell’s The Peacock Summer and a proof version of Belinda Alexandra’s new book, The Invitation, both of which are absolutely captivating for their rich historical detail and elegant plotting. 1950s England in a great, sprawling mansion (The Peacock Summer – sign me up) and Paris and New York during the Belle Epoque (The Invitation… pure heaven!) Next, I will move on to Kate Morton’s The Clockmaker’s Daughter and consume it like a box of Godiva chocolate truffles.
Being a promiscuous reader has been endlessly instructive, but hopping back into bed with my familiars is always the ultimate comfort.