My earliest memories are of books and words. I remember looking at Postman Pat picture books with my mum, hunting for Jess the cat. I remember coming home from reception class on Fridays clutching the little tin filled with paper cut out words, which I would excitedly read aloud all weekend. I remember Billy Blue Hat, Roger Red Hat, Jonathan and Jennifer Yellow Hat. Learning to read gave me consciousness – it became part of my identity.
I had an idyllic childhood. My siblings and I grew up in a big, old house which was full of nooks and crannies. The large, meandering garden featured the ‘den’ at the back – a wild scrap of land with mature trees ripe for climbing. My mum made it magical with her stories. Fairies lived there, we would build them houses and devise intricate characters and lives for the little beasts. We would spend entire days in the den, fully absorbed in our imaginary worlds. When it grew dark, we would traipse inside, muddy and flushed, and I would snuggle on the sofa continuing my exploration of imaginary worlds through whichever book I was reading.
Early on, I loved Enid Blyton. I tore my way through her books, relishing in the idea of children running off on their own little adventures, parents rarely present. I was also drawn by tomboy George, a character that appealed to me far more than the many traditionally stereotyped girls.
As I grew older, playing in the den dwindled but my forays into imaginary worlds certainly didn’t. Of course, I must mention the Harry Potter series. Like many in my generation, I received the first two books for my tenth birthday and was hooked immediately. The idea of a seemingly ordinary person having secret powers was highly appealing to me. I eagerly read the rest of the series as soon as it was released (never quite reaching the stage of queueing outside bookshops for the release, but always reading the newest within a day).
During this time, I had a brief incursion into fantasy with The Lord of the Rings, which I found hugely inspiring. In fact, as soon as I finished reading it, I began to write my own epic. It was named ‘The Defeat’ and featured a motley crew of characters – one of whom was named Borosam – trekking across a great expanse to take down the bad guy. Sound familiar? I read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy a few years later (I have a strong memory of lying on the bed in my tiny room, Kashmir by Led Zeppelin blaring out of my speaker, packet of minstrels to my side and that book in my hand) and loved it, but aside from that my fantasy journey began and ended there.
I also spent a long time reading the more realistic and slightly unsettling novels of Jacqueline Wilson. From Tracy Beaker to Girls in Love, all of my books by Wilson ended up with broken spines and dog-eared pages.
By the time I was a teenager, my reading tastes had evolved. I flew through the classics but was always drawn to the darkness – whether that be the foul depths that humans can sink to, as told by Zola, or more traditional ghost stories. It was at this time that I read Wuthering Heights – a beautiful combination of the two. It quickly became my favourite book and remains so now. I must have read it over a hundred times. The wild moors, the despicable characters, the selfishness, the helplessness – I love it. I took my well-thumbed copy off to university with me (I have since started collecting editions of Wuthering Heights and now have well over 30 copies sitting pride of place on the top shelf of my bookcase).
Studying law, my novels were a welcome escape and I moved toward historical fiction. I read Phillipa Gregory, C. J. Samson, Ken Follett, Alison Weir. Already a staunch feminist, these stories enhanced my views. Through fiction based on fact, I learned more nuances about the path women have taken through history. An overwhelming amount of our recorded history is male – I want to read about the women.
More recently, the books I most enjoy fit into a fairly specific niche. Female or non-binary main characters, gothic, a little frightening. This is summed up nicely by the book I read in my early twenties and jumped into my list of favourite books – Rebecca. The intrigue, the unknown, the haunting that is not quite a haunting. Not only this, but also the voice. Daphne du Maurier so beautifully captures a self-conscious, shy young woman, caught in an environment she is not comfortable in, unsure and unable to speak out. It caught me at exactly the right time, feeling much the same at times in my early career. There is something so very special when an author captures you.
An honourable mention must be given here to We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Shirley Jackson’s masterpiece fits into that very same mould: a gothic setting, a plot that has you guessing from the first word, characters who are far from good.
These are the types of novels that have inspired me, and so it is no surprise that my writing follows these trends. I am drawn towards the morally grey, human stories, and the ghosts that live inside all of us.