Niall Griffiths, winner of the Wales Book of the Year Award 2020 for his latest novel, Broken Ghosts, kicks off a new series of author Q&A’s where we delve in to writers’ love of books.
What books are on your nightstand?
The Penguin Book of Animal Poetry, a proof copy of the new Kevin Barry collection, and Leopardi’s Ziboldane (which will probably stay there for the next few years, given the enormity of it).
What’s the last great book you read?
Volume 1 of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past.
Can a great book be badly written? What other criteria can overcome bad prose?
A book cannot make any claim to greatness unless it does something innovative with language and/or structure.
Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).
Armchair, cat, tea. Or: kitchen table, red wine, cat. Or: bed, rain, owls, cat and partner aslumber.
What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of?
Maybe Jocelyn Brook’s The Scapegoat. No doubt some people have heard of it, but I’ve yet to meet one.
What book should everybody read before the age of 21?
Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby Jnr.
What book should nobody read until the age of 40?
The Very Hungry Caterpillar.
Which writers — novelists, playwrights, critics, journalists, poets — working today do you admire most?
A clatter of Irish writers: Barry, Barrett, Erskine, McInerny, O’Reilly, Burns. Jez Butterworth in drama. Women war reporters: Janine Di Giovanni especially, and the late Marie Colvin.
Do you have any comfort reads?
Do you think any canonical books are widely misunderstood?
I suspect that most of the readers of Wuthering Heights do not realise how much of a perfect pisstake it actually is.
What book would you most like to see turned into a movie or TV show that hasn’t already been adapted?
None that I can think of. A wish for such a thing is usually disappointing in actuality, whereas indifference can produce a pleasant surprise.
What’s the best book you’ve received as a gift?
A collection of photographs of the incomprehensible things that live in the deep seas, called The Deep by Claire Nouvian.
What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently?
The sheer, dizzying depth of British (more specifically English) delusional exceptionalism in Fintan O’Toole’s Heroic Failure.
Which subjects do you wish more authors would write about?
The contemporary working class.
Do you prefer books that reach you emotionally, or intellectually?
In reading – and writing, for that matter – the two are inseparable.
What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?
A large selection of P.G. Wodehouse.
Have you ever changed your opinion of a book based on information about the author, or anything else?
No. It’s all in the words.
How have your reading tastes changed over time?
If anything, they’ve become more eclectic, increasingly so. Which is a cruelty, really; the mind continues to hungrily expand in tandem with the shrinkage of time available in which to satisfy the need.
You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?
Brendan Behan, Dorothy Parker, and whoever wrote the book of Revelations.
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?
I’m not going to mention specific names, but Christ there’s some terribly disappointing stuff out there, utterly undeserving of the hype. Actually, I will mention one: Karl Ove Knausgård. I liked one or two of his early novels, but could struggle through only the first volume of his My Struggle sequence. So self-obsessively dull that I wanted to flay my own feet.
What do you plan to read next?
Volume 2 of Proust, following several books I need to read for review.
Niall Griffiths‘ latest novel, Broken Ghost, is available now from Vintage.