Why do I read? Because it’s such a pleasurable thing to do. That an inanimate object can interact with you so that you cry or laugh without anything changing in the real world. That you can read a thing and want to vomit. That Joey in Friends can want to put The Shining in the freezer to be physically away from it.
I remember going on a school trip to York aged eight with a terrible haircut and a Secret Seven book in my bag – I think it was Seven Go to the Island. We were in this old school which had bunkbeds and I was there with my three best mates and we were having a grand old time. I remember the date was the 7th May because in the book it was the 7th May too, and I thought that was incredible. That fiction and reality could overlap like that. Even now at the age of 33 if I’m on a train and we’re on a train in the book, it somehow seems more special. And if I’m reading that a character bites her nails I’ll do that. Or if someone in a book gives somebody the stink-eye, I’ll be doing the stink-eye to myself. I guess it’s like mirroring in a conversation with someone, only with an inanimate object.
It’s almost like the writers’ pulling your string. That you can see yourself and also see something or someone entirely different from you. It’s kind of magic. Emily Dickinson said ‘a book is a frigate in a storm.’ Kafka that ‘it’s the ice pick to crack the frozen sea around us.’ Books have been intrinsic to who I am.
Deirdre Madden said a good short story should be like an electric shock. Kevin Barry’s story ‘A Cruelty’ does that. It’s the one about Donie, who gets the same train every day and goes and sits by the river and eats his sandwiches. I’ve seen Kevin Barry read it a couple of times and everyone is laughing their head off about poor ol’ Donie. Then the moment that creepy guy comes and clamps his hand on Donie’s, everyone’s gills just quiver. What just happened? He’s just come at you from nowhere and you are stunned. That’s what great writing can do.
‘Reading is sexy. Reading is disco. I love it.’
My granny was the big reader in my childhood. She would go to the library once a fortnight and for each of these trips she would get her hair and nails done – she was glam like that! She’d take out a big fat Stephen King or eight, read them in a fortnight, and get more two weeks later. She would drag me along, and after the library we would go and have a sausage roll – I had beans on mine – and I would borrow books to read and swap and share with my friends.
I adored Malory Towers, The Secret Seven, The Famous Five. The Twins at St Clare’s left me looking at my life in comparison to theirs in this posh boarding school and their picnics with constant lashings of ginger beer and big fat pies. Blyton writes an impossible-to-match picnic!
But I think the breakthrough for me was with Roald Dahl. I can remember getting a book token as a present and buying George’s Marvellous Medicine and reading it in a velveteen beanbag in my grandparents’ house. I read it all in one sitting which was the first time I had ever done that. A lot of Roald Dahl’s books spoke to me. His language, these great escapades the characters get into. But it was probably Matilda that I most related to – I thought she was the bees knees and that I might be a bit like her.
Later, Judy Blume became formative. But then you get to that age. For our generation there wasn’t really a young adult market, so you went from Roald Dahl and Judy Blume to asking what next? At that point I started to read things like Dickens, and Jane Eyre, and maybe even Jane Austen – but I was a bit too young. I distinctly remember not understanding or taking everything in.
And so while I did continue to read as a teenager, it wasn’t in the obsessive way I had as a child. I got into sport and the reading took a back seat. I played hockey and football and didn’t even do English Literature at GCSE. We had to choose between Physical Education and Literature, so while I was learning about foot fungus and isotonic exercising my friends were reading To Kill a Mockingbird and Pride and Prejudice. I was looking over their shoulders and wishing I’d chosen that too. I read along with them and that was the first time I read To Kill A Mockingbird which was the first book that I remember staying up really late to finish. And the crying. That book was huge to me. I was a tomboy with brothers and Scout showed me it was okay to be a tomboy. Matilda and Scout are probably the two pillars that have shaped me most.
Fortunately, I had good teachers who let me come back to do English Literature A-Level, and after that everything changed. I remember reading Prufrock and just thinking
There we were: a small class having our minds blown by the possibilities of literature. I never turned back.
So yeah, obsessed and obsessive with reading, love loved loved loved loved. Then sort of parked it a little bit, and came back to it galloping.
I knew from my first year at university that I wanted to work in literature. Being from quite a working class background I guess I thought I would teach, because that is what you do with an English degree. But at St Andrews there is a poetry festival called StAnza and I ended up volunteering there from my first year. I realised that literature could be a job so I applied to be front of house at the Edinburgh International Book Festival over the summer, and for the two subsequent summers I would go home and work in a day centre for adults with learning disabilities, and a pub, save up, and then have an amazing August seeing writers speaking about their work. And okay we were picking up litter and cleaning the toilets, but most importantly we were in the events.
There was a Press and Marketing entry level job at the Book Festival and I got it, and that became my first Graduate job. I loved that it involved getting people excited about the festival which was easy because I was already excited about it. And then I was lucky that a job came up at the Scottish Poetry Library which is an Edinburgh institution with a national remit to bring people and poetry together. I did that four years and got to meet Seamus Heaney which was like meeting God or the Pope. Although he was just like an old uncle at a family wedding, which was wonderful.
I worked for Edinburgh City of Literature Trust, and am now Manager of Literary Dundee, which sits within the University of Dundee and involves running a year-round programme, a literary festival, a book prize, and a publication. I like to think I’m trying to get people excited about books by producing events that they’ll like, by leading book groups, by trying to remove barriers. If you’ve never been then a book festival is quite an intimidating prospect. So I try to do events in bizarre venues. Or put on free food so the event is leading with the idea of food and drink and then there’s an author in addition.
I chair book events. I love that facet of the job: you’re trying to make a brilliant event for people without becoming academic, get the best out of the author and have a lovely time talking about their book. I like to ask writers how it feels to have done that in the world: to have put those marks on the page that are now out there.
I love hearing an author read their work. If you hear Stevie Smith read Not Waving But Drowning she actually laughs because she thought it was funny. And if you hear T.S. Eliot read Prufrock, people are laughing at him. I find that one of the most heart-breaking poems ever, but when I hear his old-school delivery there are certain bits where I dare laugh. These are aspects that only reveal themselves when you hear aloud.
I’m Northern Irish but have always worked in Scotland I feel myself a bit of a missionary abroad, not that Irish fiction needs it. Each year I seem to take an Irish book and become chief cheerleader and whip for it. It started with A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride which is one of the best things I’ve ever read. I love it fiercely. I shuffled out of it feeling pale, like I’d been squeezed through this awful ringer. I had been holding my breath as the crescendo built. I felt like I might be sick. This year it has been Spill Simmer Falter Wither by Sara Baume which I read it in one big galloping gobble.
What is a national literature? If you’re not reinforcing stereotype, how can a book still be of its place? What’s it doing differently? What do we understand Ireland to be? Or Scotland? Sara Baume’s book is a very Irish book. But what does that mean? There’s a particular rhythm to Irish writing, some kind of weird dying fall. There’s a Patrick Kavanagh line that I always misquote but goes something like ‘a nettle-wild grave was Ireland’s stage. // It would never be spring, always autumn / After a harvest always lost’ which seems to me to capture that.
I attended an event with Deirdre Madden – she had edited a collection of Irish short stories called All Over Ireland and was reading bits of Colm Tóibín and Mary Morrissey. She wanted people to hear it so she could hone in on the bits she especially liked. There was a great line from the Morrissey story ‘Emergency’ where a fighter plane crashes and the parachute ‘faints’ behind the tree. Well that’s just gorgeous. That event had a flavour of close reading. It wasn’t intimidating or scary, people seemed to enjoy it. How can we ensure that the beauty in books, the thing that makes them memorable, is retained in an event? That’s a challenge I feel keenly.
The thing about books that is unique against other art forms is that it’s so cheap. Everyone can share a story. Even if you are on the breadline you can go to the library when you perhaps can’t enjoy the full experience of a theatre production or music concert. A bus driver in the Czech Republic was recently offering free tickets to people who were reading. We need more of that. And less of the judgement that sometimes goes on about some books like Dan Brown. I hate it. Okay Fifty Shades of Grey wasn’t my cup of tea. But I know for a fact a whole load of people in my home town went wild for it; Asda sold out of it. That’s a good thing. Daniel Pennac is good on this: he says you cannot anymore make someone love to read than you can make them fall in love or make them love squid or hate bananas. You have to come to it on your own terms.
In her thoughtful introduction to All Over Ireland, Madden urges us not to take for granted the act of reading and to remember that the ‘direct relationship between a reader and a writer – private, contemplative, born out of silence – is to be valued more and more as the cultural cacophony around us increases’.
Books are with you always. At least they will be if you want them to be. They’re your best friend if you want them to be. Reading is pretty cool. I think it’s a sexy place to be. Reading is sexy. Reading is disco. I love it.
Interview conducted in partnership with Edinburgh International Book Festival, in August 2015.