Novelist Kate Hamer reveals her taste for science fiction in the latest of our ‘The Joy of Books’ series.
What books are on your nightstand?
A short story collection by the American writer Lauren Groff called Delicate Edible Birds. I read her more recent short story collection called Florida and immediately wanted to read this other one. Each story is perfectly formed, exquisite, often troubling but there is something so brilliantly humane about her work. I will be heading for the novels after this.
What’s the last great book you read?
I was really impressed with The Dutch House by Ann Patchett. It’s really fresh and unusual – I love that in a book. I don’t like feeling as though I’m reading the same thing over and over.
Are there any classic novels that you only recently read for the first time?
I’ve only read contemporary and mid-century fiction for the last few years. That’s except for Proust which is an ongoing process! However, I keep meaning to read Madame Bovary.
Can a great book be badly written? What other criteria can overcome bad prose?
I think a cracking story can go a long, long way.
Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).
The place doesn’t matter as long as there’s a sofa. The book would keep me gripped from morning till night and I would go to bed thinking about it. In the morning I read the last few pages that I couldn’t keep my eyes open for the night before. It changes the way I look at things for weeks or even forever.
What’s your favourite book no one else has heard of?
The Vet’s Daughter by Barbara Comyns. Written in the mid-twentieth century (around the same time that Shirley Jackson was writing across the pond) it’s a weirdly creepy book about a young woman going through experiences that lead to a kind of psychic explosion. I always see it as a sort of pre-cursor to Carrie.
What book should everybody read before the age of 21?
The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F***K by Mark Manson. I think many young people live under considerable stress at the moment, and I often find they are very hard on themselves.
Do you have any comfort reads?
The aptly titled Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons. It still makes me laugh out loud even though I must have read it about twenty times. That, along with a kind of ‘can do’ attitude and an excoriating portrayal of the countryside make it devilish and delightful.
What book would most like to see turned into a movie or TV show that hasn’t already been adapted?
My own three novels of course!
What’s the best book you’ve received as a gift?
The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter. I received it as a teenager and it really changed the way I thought about writing; in fact, it changed the way I thought about everything. Such is the power of books.
Do you prefer books that reach you emotionally, or intellectually?
I read for atmosphere more than anything else. I want to feel the place, the people, the times – so I guess emotionally.
Which genres do you especially enjoy reading? And which do you avoid?
I’ll read absolutely any genre – it doesn’t matter to me. I recently realised that many of my favourite books are science fiction – Nineteen Eighty-Four, Brave New World, even Ian McEwan’s A Child in Time is a sort of time shifting book. When I’m looking for what to read I usually try to ignore whatever genre it’s slotted into because it’s often misleading anyway.
How do you organise your books?
Fiction altogether – alphabetically by the author’s name. Non-fiction is less organised as I don’t have so much of it. They are on a beautiful set of shelves built by my husband. I’m actually trying to be less rigid about my books. I’ve got to the point where I get a bit edgy if anyone else is looking at them. As a ‘kind’ of joke my husband bought me a little library set for Christmas where you could stamp them out and record what’s been taken. I did actually seriously consider using it.
How have your reading tastes changed over time?
Yes, as a teenager I read a lot of classics. I’ve seeded in a lot more contemporary and American fiction into my reading as I’ve got older.
You’re organising a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?
Shirley Jackson and Barbara Comyns. They were writing around the same time on different sides of the pond and I’ve always thought there are some weird similarities in their writing. I’ve no idea if they were even aware of each other but I’d love to get them together. It needs to be three? Why not chuck Shakespeare into the mix?!
What do you plan to read next?
The novels of Lauren Groff and Elena Ferrante’s new book The Lying Life of Adults. A new Ferrante book is an event as much as a read.
Kate Hamer‘s latest novel, Crushed, is available now from Faber.