I always baulk when asked about my favourite book – even my favourite books – of all time. How can I possibly have favourites? The books I seek out change all the time, according to the weather, my mood, what I’m writing and what I’ve just read. I recall David Malouf saying somewhere that ‘For every book there is a touchstone sentence’, which very much struck a chord with me. And then I began to think that for every book I’ve written there has been a touchstone book by someone else. These are some of the works that influenced me as I wrote each of my four novels.
Dreamhouse, Kate Grenville
When I was writing my first novel Pieces of a Girl – a strange, unnerving slip of a book that I now regard with a kind of repelled curiosity (did I really write that?) – I was enthralled by Kate Grenville’s own slender, unsettling, black novel of a marriage disintegrating over a summer in Tuscany. Returning to its pages now I am struck again by the force and purity of its language. Only 170 pages long and without a wasted word, Dreamhouse is the claustrophobic, lyrically menacing story of Rennie and Louise, on holiday in a friend’s rustic Italian villa. When the villa turns out to be a rotting house in the last stages of decay, and creepy siblings Hugo and Viola extend their sinister welcome, nothing is as it seems.
The Tree of Man, Patrick White
I came late to Patrick White – about the same time as I began my second novel The Submerged Cathedral – and was so relieved I did. White’s vast tale of domestic struggle, Australia’s landscape and the parched, strained love between Amy and Stan Parker came to me as I was trying to write my own way through a landscape of place and domesticity. White was one of the first writers to show me that a novel about domestic life need not be small: The Tree of Man is as intimate and yet sweepingly grand as only the best literature can be.
Safety, Tegan Bennett Daylight
While writing The Children I needed a tough-yet-sensitive contemporary voice to help me refill the creative well each week, and ound myself returning to this novel again and again. I had written a fan letter to Bennett (as she was then) on reading her previous work, What Falls Away, and by the time Safety was published we had become good friends. She’s taught me more about writing than almost anyone I can think of. This account of a marriage under strain as the couple learn to negotiate a life with a new baby is taut, elegant and spare. When they travel through Spain to visit the man’s dying and all too fallible father, the cracks begin to open up. Daylight’s prose is effortless, her observations so acute they hurt, and never lets the book’s considerable literary ambition overshadow the subtlety of the narrative. Read it for the birth and bullfight scenes alone.
The Lay of the Land, Richard Ford
I had always been impressed at the way Ford handled time in his Frank Bascombe novels, so was thrilled when The Lay of The Land came out at around the time I decided to set my fourth book Animal People over a timeframe of a single day. I love how closely Ford binds humour and pathos in this book particularly – they are two strands of the same rope, just as in life – and how his acutely intimate observations of daily life paint a much broader picture of contemporary society. Like most writers I love, Ford respects ordinariness enough to make it matter in literature. I recall him saying in one interview, ‘Everything starts with two people in a room,’ and I still love him for it. I can’t wait for his new novel to arrive next year.
The Ballad of the Sad Café, Carson McCullers
I’ve just this month begun a new novel, and I’m ready to get weird again. I was casting around my bookshelf for a fictional voice that would take me out of contemporary life and push me somewhere strange and otherworldly.
When I read this:
The owner of the place was Miss Amelia Evans. But the person most responsible for the success and gaiety of the place was a hunchback called Cousin Lymon. One other person had a part in the story of this café – he was the former husband of Miss Amelia, a terrible character who returned to the town after a long term in the penitentiary, caused ruin, and then went on his way again.
I knew I had the right book, for now.
Charlotte Wood’s latest novel is Animal People. Her book of personal essays about cooking and its emotional terrain, Love & Hunger: Thoughts and Notes on the Gift of Food, will be published in May 2012. In the meantime she blogs about cooking at www.howtoshuckanoyster.com and is working on her fifth novel.