Liz Hyder’s debut novel, Bearmouth, was the winner of the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize for Older Readers and was named Children’s Book of the Year by The Times. This week, Liz told us about her interests as a reader.
What books are on your nightstand?
I love the idea that you think I have any form of nightstand! The reality is actually a teetering pile by the side of my bed that I knock over every time I open a drawer for a pair of socks. The pile changes all the time but currently includes a mix of non-fiction, children’s books, fiction and all sorts. At the moment, it includes the likes of Kidnap on the California Comet by MG Leonard and Sam Sedgman, The Unadoptables by Hana Tooke, Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell, The Voice That Thunders by Alan Garner, A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes, Capturing the Light by Roger Watson & Helen Rappaport, Katherine Rundell’s Why You Should Read Children’s Books Even Though You Are So Old and Wise, The Giant Under the Snow by John Gordon, Theatres of Glass by Rebecca Stott, The Unwinding by Jackie Morris and Eating with the Victorians by C. Anne Wilson. Some of them I’ve already read and need to put away, others are new or recent additions to the giant pile…
What’s the last great book you read?
I recently finished Mic Drop – Sharna Jackson’s sequel to High Rise Mystery (which won her the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize for Younger Readers). I loved it. She mixes up classic elements of a whodunnit/crime thriller with a very modern setting on a London estate with three tall tower blocks. I also adored Hello Now by Jenny Valentine, it swept me up and took my heart with it. It’s a gloriously odd book, not like anything else I’ve ever read; it’s brilliant, beautiful and strangely haunting.
Are there any classic novels that you only recently read for the first time?
Not recently no, but I did re-read A Tale of Two Cities. I loved it as a teenager but I really struggled to get on with it this time – and I say that as a big Dickens fan! The writing’s as glorious as ever but I found Lucie, the main female character, really passive and feeble. I know I’m not the first to have issues with Dickens’ portrayal of young women and nor will I be the last but I found it much harder to swallow this time around.
Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).
In a comfy armchair that I can sling my legs over, with a large cup of strong tea (by which I mean, a vat) in my favourite mug, and in a room that’s fairly quiet but with birdsong, maybe overlooking a garden or view of some kind. If it’s chilly, then a nice warm cat to sit on my lap for a bit, gently purring.
What’s your favourite book no one else has heard of?
The Lord of the Forest by BB is one of my favourites. I read a lot of his books from the local library when I was a kid. He was a naturalist and an illustrator and his books are beautiful and utterly immersed in the wild world around him. The Lord of the Forest tells the life story of an oak, 400 years of English history, and it’s an incredible book, I find it really sad that so few people have heard of it. Many of his books are now out of print but Merlin Unwin publishers have re-published some of them so there is still a chance for new readers to discover BB.
What book should everybody read before the age of 21?
For me, it was Michael Rosen’s Quick, Let’s Get Out Of Here where I came across characters that looked and sounded like me, tomboy girls who were fun and had adventures, naughty kids, kids with imagination that helped get them through the day. Having said all that, if you absolutely twisted my arm, then I’d say 1984 by George Orwell.
Which writers — novelists, playwrights, critics, journalists, poets — working today do you admire most?
There are lots – I do think some of our finest writers today are writing for children and young adults. Philip Reeve, Catherine Johnson, Frances Hardinge, Sarah Crossan, Kiran Millwood Hargrave, Katherine Rundell – to name but a few! It’s interesting that some of those writers, I’m thinking of Crossan and Millwood Hargrave in particular, are also writing for adults now too. Above all though and if I had to pick just one, Jackie Morris, who many now know as the co-creator and illustrator of The Lost Words, is inspiring beyond words – she’s the most extraordinary, gifted, generous soul. She’s a phenomenal storyteller, stories just pour out of her all the time. Watching her draw and paint whilst simultaneously telling stories from the top of her head that I would give my right arm to write, just wow. There’s no-one else like her. I don’t think we treasure her enough.
Do you have any comfort reads?
Of course! The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper, The Chronicles of Narnia, Green Knowe, The Box of Delights, Helen Cresswell and Jenny Nimmo’s books. What’s been interesting about revisiting Narnia and Green Knowe over the years is both how I’ve changed and how society has changed. I notice all sorts of things now that I didn’t see in my original readings as a young kid, but although they are products of their time and society has moved on, I can still enjoy them for what they are: great stories rooted in a different time.
What book would most like to see turned into a movie or TV show that hasn’t already been adapted?
Sawbones or pretty much anything by Catherine Johnson. This Thing of Darkness by Harry Thompson. Sabriel by Garth Nix, anything by Michelle Paver or Joe Abercrombie. The Garvie Smith trilogy by Simon Mason too – and Slow Horses by Mick Perrin which I think is being adapted but sheesh, it’s taken forever.
What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently?
That there’s a British plant called Bastard Balm! I really wish I’d known that as a kid mainly because I could have used it to annoy all the adults. “No I’m not swearing Mum! It’s just the name of a plant!” etc. It’s up there with the toy company Buddy L that made toy trucks… My brother and I had so much fun with that… our poor parents.
Do you prefer books that reach you emotionally, or intellectually?
I like it when they do both, but when it comes to it, I don’t like books written, as my friend Rachel puts it, ‘from the neck up’. Books that are all head and no heart are dead inside and they leave me, as the reader, equally cold.
Which genres do you especially enjoy reading? And which do you avoid?
I’ll read pretty much anything. I read a lot of children’s and young adult books both for fun and out of habit, but it’s not really a genre. It’s treated as one but within that you’ll find crime fiction, fantasy, dystopian, historical fiction, comedy, romantic fiction, all sorts. Outside of that, I love historical fiction, general fiction, ‘literary’ fiction, social history, crime fiction and, increasingly, non-fiction. Researching both Bearmouth and my next book has been really interesting – I’ve learned a lot during the process and come across some brilliant historians and non-fiction writers that I’d not read before.
How do you organize your books?
Well, I worked at the British Library as a temp many years ago so I think that rubbed off a bit! It’s not quite the Dewey system, but I do organise them alphabetically within different categories e.g. history, biographies, fiction, children’s and YA etc. But over the years, where things have been put back on the shelves in the wrong place, it’s got a bit messy. It could do with a tidy up – as could the pile by the side of my bed.
What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?
I do have Kershaw’s two biographies of Hitler on my shelves – I did A Level History focusing on Nazi Germany and my husband’s degree is in Modern History and Politics. Unfortunately, the place that it sits on the shelves (next to Oscar Wilde I’ll have you know) means that it’s almost always in view when I do Zoom chats from that room. They’re big chunky books and shout HITLER at you quite loudly from their spines…
Have you ever changed your opinion of a book based on information about the author, or anything else?
No, not really. I’m not interested in artists as personalities to be honest, if the work only stands up because of the reader/viewer having to have prior knowledge of someone or something, then the art isn’t doing what it should be.
How have your reading tastes changed over time?
I’m much more eclectic now I think. When I was a kid I read a lot of classic children’s books but didn’t read very widely. I basically read whatever we had at home or in the local library or school library. A-Level English Language and Literature opened my eyes to a broader range of material (thank you Angela Levis and Charles Bond!) as did university and friends I’ve met since. I think the more broadly you read, the better. Not just in terms of genre, but in terms of country, language, sexuality, everything – never stop learning, right?
You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?
Oh that is HARD. Just three? Are you kidding? That’s a very small dinner party… Well, it’d be different on different days, but you’re asking today and so today I’d say I’d invite George MacKay Brown, Angela Carter and Maya Angelou.
I’d invite George MacKay Brown as I’d have loved to meet him. His writing is so very vivid and I know from a friend’s husband who was a doctor up in the Orkneys some years back when MacKay Brown was still alive, that he was great fun down the pub too. I love Angela Carter’s books and she has a strong streak of naughtiness to her so she’d be brilliant company. And finally, Maya Angelou, she’d be fascinating, witty, warm and wonderful. I’d also, whilst no-one was looking, squeeze in Aphra Benn. Who wouldn’t want to know more about her?! Spy, playwright, poet and so much more… I think that would be a great dinner party!
What do you plan to read next?
Whatever is within easy reach! I am extremely slovenly and so there are little piles of books all around the house, on the stairs, on top of any bit of furniture, seats, window sills and, of course, next to my bed…
Bearmouth by Liz Hyder is available now from Pushkin Press.