Welsh writer Deborah Kay Davies tells us about her reading tastes and favourite novels.
What books are on your nightstand?
Frieda by Annabel Abbs, The Lord of the Rings trilogy by Tolkien, The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy, Crampton Hodnet by Barbara Pym, all of Mary Renault’s historical novels (good Lockdown stuff), I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith (ditto), The Garden of the Finzi-Continis by Georgio Bassani, Close to Colette by Maurice Goudeket, Love from Nancy – The Letters of Nancy Mitford, The Odyssey by Homer (translated by Emily Wilson) and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown.
What’s the last great book you read?
The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, which I read during Lockdown, was really good: I am haunted by the characters. The mood the writer created, the context, its relatable strangeness has stayed with me. I was bored at times, but I loved it.
Can a great book be badly written? What other criteria can overcome bad prose?
Aren’t most of us looking for THE book: excoriating, totally involving, fabulously written, true to itself and with a very particular, surprising angle on the same old same old? If a book is sloppily written, obviously lazy, and full of clichés, I doubt it can be great. However, the reasons we love a particular book are so mysterious and personal that it could be all of the above, and we’d still want it with us on a desert island.
Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).
I love to re-read a book I know, lying on my bed, propped up by cushions, on a silent, grey, rainy afternoon in winter. If I could have snow drifting past the window my cup would run over.
What’s your favourite book no one else has heard of?
The Book of Ebenezer Le Page by Gerald Basil Edwards. I never stop banging on about the brilliance of this book.
Which writers – novelists, playwrights, critics, journalists, poets – working today do you admire most?
Oh dear, I find this question really difficult to answer. Of course, there are many admirable writers around. But I am not an enthusiastic reader of contemporary stuff.
To be brutally truthful, I am so insecure, so eaten up with envy when I find out about other fiction writers’ successes that I can’t read them. My heart is obviously a tiny, shrivelled walnut. It’s the only thing I have in common with Gore Vidal.
Do you have any comfort reads?
Yes. Each September I embark on Lord of the Rings, and finish around Christmas. I also go back to The Balkan Trilogy by Olivia Manning, and The Last of Cheri by Colette.
How do you organise your books?
I try to do it by author, but I am a notorious shover in.
Have you ever changed your opinion of a book based on information about the author, or anything else?
Interesting question. I don’t think so. We are all more or less flawed. A book stands or falls by its own merits.
How have your reading tastes changed over time?
Scarily, they haven’t much. I still like the same things, but I couldn’t accurately explain what they are. A book either does it for me, or it’s a gonner.
On reflection, the series of books I avidly borrowed from my local library when I was fifteenish – Angelique and the Sultan et al. by Sergeanne Golon – might not do it for me now, but I was obsessed with them.
You’re organising a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?
Such a cliché, but Dickens, Nancy Mitford and Colette. They’d probably be ghastly together, but it would be fascinating.
Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel as if you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?
Anything by Donna Tartt. I was a little underwhelmed by the last Hilary Mantel, The Mirror and the Light, having loved the first two. Even so, I still read it all.
Deborah Kay Davies’ most recent novel, Tirzah and the Prince of Crows, is available now from Oneworld Publications.