These are the ten most influential books on my writing career…
1) Cards on the Table by Agatha Christie. This book changed my life. I left school at fourteen when my family emigrated to Melbourne, Australia. I’d never read a novel in my life. I was bored one summer holiday, and in desperation my mother said, “Read this. It might keep you quiet.” A Pan edition of Cards on the Table. I read it and was spellbound from the first page. I finished the book and began reading it again. I find it hard to relate the revelation this piece of fiction had one me: it was shattering. To be allowed into the heads of other people, albeit fictional characters, to be given a view of the world not my own… I knew, as soon as I read the book, that I wanted to be a writer. The very next day I sat down and began plotting my first novel. It was three pages long and featured a vicar, a retired major, and a tennis party.
2) Sundance and other stories by Robert Silverberg. I read Christie religiously for months, and then while in Menzies bookstore in Melbourne saw the Corgi paperback edition of Sundance, featuring a bull-nosed starship by (I think) Chris Foss. I was captivated by the image and bought the book. It was another, even greater revelation. If Christie blew my young mind, then imagine what Silverberg did. It’s not one of his best collections, I realise in retrospect, mainly featuring tales he wrote at speed in the fifties, but it contained a story called “The Overlord’s Thumb” about a planetary governor and a tricky alien-human conflict which fired my imagination. Years later I paraphrased the opening paragraph in one of my own stories, “The People of the Nova.”
3 & 4) The War of the Worlds and The Time Machine by H. G. Wells. I’ve listed these two books together because that’s how I discovered them in an ‘Opportunity’ shop – which is what they called charity shops in Australia back in ’75 (and might still call them today) – in Mordialloc. They were bound together in a Heinemann hardback, and I think it might have been a schools edition. Anyway, the books amazed me, especially The Time Machine. It was the first time travel tale I’d read – what an auspicious starting place! – and the very idea of time travel filled me with that tingling sense of wonder that SF is all about. I was very affected by one of the final scenes in the book, when the Time Traveller stands on a lonely shore millions of years in the future, surrounded by scuttling crab-like beasts, and contemplates the vast, red fulminating sun. Vast, red fulminating suns make guest appearances in my fiction to this day. I loved The War of the Worlds, too, and recall that I was very taken by the tripods. It was shortly after reading these books that I set aside any idea of writing whodunits and concentrated on writing SF.
5) The Father Brown stories by G.K. Chesterton. Around the same time I discovered Silverberg, I came across a Penguin edition of The Wisdom of Father Brown, began reading it and found the prose too ‘hard’. It wasn’t what I was expecting from a detective story, being far too philosophical for my liking. A few years later, however, I returned to the book and loved it – loved Chesterton’s rich, alliterative, declarative prose, his poignant descriptions of the English countryside (which I lapped up as I was still in Melbourne, and homesick). I admired his turn of phrase, his alliteration, the way he used the language in a fresh and vibrant way. He’s still one of my favourite writers (I pastiched his style and featured G.K. himself in my novella Gilbert and Edgar on Mars) and I collect his work – a mammoth task as he wrote a lot.
6) Riotous Assembly by Tom Sharpe. It must have been around 1976 that I picked up this novel, Sharpe’s over-the-top satire on apartheid in South Africa. I was fifteen and knew little about the political situation there, and read the book as a comic novel about ignorance and racism. It was hilariously funny – the first funny book I’d ever read, and again it blew me away. I haven’t read it since – I’m afraid to, in case it doesn’t live up to my recollections of it – but I recall being taken by Sharpe’s prose style, his long, complex sentences, and his intercutting between scenes.
7) Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake. Skip a few years and I’m back in England; I’ve read a lot more and written lots of unpublished rubbish. I’m in my early twenties. I can’t recall how I came across this book, and was surprised I liked it. I’m wasn’t too keen on fantasy (not that this novel is strictly fantasy, though that’s what I read it as back then) and I preferred pared down prose to lush, descriptive writing. But I was taken by Peake’s descriptions, his rendering of the setting, his larger-than-life characters, and the brooding sense of menace he builds up throughout the book. I fell in love with Titus Groan’s sister, Fuchsia, and was deeply moved by her accidental death. I was captivated by Peake’s description of her, too: “She was gauche in movement and in a sense, ugly of face, but with how small a twist might she not suddenly have become beautiful. Her sullen mouth was full and rich – her eyes smouldered.” Wonderful.
8) The Drums of Morning by Rupert Croft-Cooke. This is the third volume of Croft-Cooke’s twenty-seven book autobiographical sequence entitled The Sensual World. He’s a sadly neglected writer who between around 1930 and his death in 1979 wrote over a hundred and twenty books, thirty-odd mainstream novels, the same number of crime novels under the name Leo Bruce, and books on such diverse subjects as darts, gypsies, the circus, wines, cooking, and biographies of Wilde, Lord Alfred Douglas and Kipling, as well as short stories and poetry. But his lasting legacy is The Sensual World, a brilliant evocation of his life and times – concentrating on the latter. The odd thing is that although he wrote so many volumes of autobiography, he never once mentioned the fact that he was homosexual – partly of course due to the times in which he was writing, and partly because, as he was at pains to point out, the books were less about himself than the places he travelled to and the people he met. Croft-Cooke was a non-conformist, an eternal optimist, and eternally seeking – perhaps as a rebellion against his upper-middle-class upbringing – new and varied experiences. The autobiographies bristle with incident and loving accounts of the personalities, famous and otherwise, he encountered during his varied and peripatetic life.
I came across The Drums of Morning in a junk shop in Haworth, West Yorkshire. I read it quickly and knew that I had to find the rest of the series. Over the course of the next few years I began collecting Croft-Cooke’s books, and found the story of his life, its many vicissitudes and few triumphs, as true inspiration.
9) The Girl with a Symphony in Her Fingers by Michael G Coney. A few years later I discovered the excellent and neglected SF writer Michael Coney. I recall precisely where I found this fix-up novel. It was in W.H. Smiths in Bradford, on a discount table. I picked up the Elmfield Press hardback for 50p – and bought it because it was SF. I’d never heard of the author, but the blurb sounded interesting. I devoured the novel and it remains one of my favourite SF novels. It’s not his best (Hello Summer, Goodbye or Brontomek! are technically superior novels) but it spoke to me. It’s a quiet novel about Joe Sagar, a slithe farmer, on the Peninsula. Slithes are alien creatures whose pelts, when shed, change colour according to the emotions of the wearer. Joe meets and falls for a young woman, has run-ins with the haughty and egocentric 3-V star Carioca Jones, and flies his sling-glider in the skies above the Peninsula. It’s a light read, and Joe Sagar is a wry, likable character who features in other uncollected tales set in the same milieu. This novel, and others by Coney, were the influence behind my novel Meridian Days and the series of novellas that comprise the Starship Seasons sequence.
10) Helix by Eric Brown. This might seem a stroke of blatant self-publicity, but the book was a great influence on the rest of my career as an SF writer. I’d had a trilogy out with Gollancz – the three New York books – which didn’t sell well, perhaps because Golly, in their wisdom, brought the books out over a period of five years. They then rushed out The Fall of Tartarus, with no publicity at all, then promptly dumped me. After a period in the doldrums, I had what I thought was a great idea for a big SF novel: a vast spiral of ten thousand worlds created by an enigmatic alien race as a haven for races on the edge of extinction. I wrote an opening chapter or two and a detailed ten thousand word outline, and sent it to various publishers and agents. To cut a long story short, no one wanted it. I was disappointed, to put it mildly. A couple of years later John Jarrold contacted me, knowing I was unagented, and asked if he might represent me and if I had anything he might be able to sell. I leapt at the chance and sent him the outline of Helix. He thought it sellable, and promptly sold it to Solaris. It proved to be my best-selling book, with nearly fifty thousand copies sold to date. I wrote a sequel, Helix Wars, and hope to do more in the series. The moral of the tale, keep at it and don’t let the bastards get you down. Anyway: Helix, a big influence on my career.