Tell me what inspired you to write your (debut) memoir?
I’ve wanted to write about my mother for years; she died quite young, and had in some ways a difficult life, and I really wanted to tell her story. When I was a teenager I even tried to write a novel about her life, which was, frankly, terrible. I hatched the basic plan for Reading My Mother Back maybe a decade ago, once I’d written some more academic work and knew what was involved in writing a full-length book, but I needed to sit on it for a while, really just to get enough distance to speak really honestly.
How long did it take to write?The planning took years, although certainly not of continuous work! I spent a lot of time figuring out the structure of the book. The book is about my mother’s life, but I didn’t do research into it, or talk to her family; instead, I tell her story through a series of children’s animal books that I read with her in childhood. I had a long list of possible books that I thought about including, and spent a while both reading through those books, figuring out which would work and which wouldn’t, and reading a lot of other books of this sort – memoirs about grief, and about parent-child relations, and about reading – to see what I liked and didn’t like in each of those. But once I’d done that work, the first draft of the book went incredibly quickly – I had something I could work with in about six months.
Do you have a writing playlist? If so do you want to share it?
I mainly write while listening to the radio, specifically BBC 6 Music, at a very low volume. If I’m choosing the music I’m more likely to listen closely and get distracted, but having the radio on in the background will often give me a surprise inspiration, or just change the pace and focus of my thinking.
What kind of reactions have you had to your book?
One of the first things I did when I finished a draft was give it to a bunch of friends with very different backgrounds – different ages and nationalities and so on. I think one of the things that I’ve really been pleased about is that different readers find very different things – so some people really focus on the stories about grief or illness, and some people much prefer the discussions of reading. I think what makes me happiest is when someone identifies with a specific element that I might not have considered important, but for them becomes what the book’s really about.
What’s the favourite reaction you’ve had to your book?
I gave the book to a friend of mine who is a mother, who said ‘what I’ve mainly learned from this is “don’t die”’, and I thought that was a pretty good lesson!
What can you tell us about your next book?
I have a lot of different ideas right now, and I’m partly waiting to see how people respond to this one, but I’d like to write about my father more, and specifically about the city of Baltimore, where I lived as a young child but where he spent more of his life.
Do you take notice of online reviews?
Of course. I really admire people who say they can ignore them, but I am, unfortunately, one of those people who will smile or moan for days based on one review.
Would you ever consider writing outside your current genre?
Very much so. There are a few ideas for novels that I’ve had for years, and not been able to make work; I’d love to write for children some day.
What did you do before (or still do) you became a writer?
My day job is as an English lecturer at a university, which means I basically am talking and writing about books all day anyway; before that, I worked in various bookstores for about fifteen years. To me they’re very close occupations – what I like doing is talking to people about books, whether that’s in an academic context or a retail context or something much more personal.
Which author(s) inspire you?
For this project in particular I enjoyed reading a lot of more experimental memoirs, mostly by authors around my own age. Jenn Ashworth and Emilie Pine were very big specific inspirations, but I learned a lot from writers like Daisy Hildyard, Annie Ernaux, Elizabeth-Jane Burnett, Annie Dillard, and Alison Bechdel, all of whom I really love.
Which genres do you read yourself?
Everything, pretty much! I mostly read literary fiction, but I’m open to anything. One of the fun things about teaching contemporary literature is that I’m always looking for something that might surprise me, or does something I wasn’t expecting.
How much (if any) say do you have in your book covers?
I’ve been incredibly lucky; I absolutely love the cover the publishers came up with, and was able to talk very frankly with them not just about the cover design but the book’s physical dimensions and layout.
Were you a big reader as a child?
In a lot of ways, Reading My Mother Back is really about that. I read constantly as a child, to the exclusion of pretty much everything else. I remember going off to school and always taking three books: the one I was currently reading, and two back-ups, so that if I finished that one I’d have a choice for what to start next. Most of my childhood memories are, honestly, of reading.
What were your favourite childhood books?
Part of the initial inspiration for this book was that I always wanted to explain how big a role Watership Down has played in my life. I read and loved a lot of the more canonical authors – I talk here about C.S. Lewis and Frances Hodgson Burnett, but I was also a big fan of A Wrinkle in Time and The Hobbit, as well as some books that haven’t stood the test of time as well.
Do you have a favourite bookshop? If so, which?
I feel I should name one of the bookshops I’ve worked in over the years, but sadly most of them have closed or been bought out. I really do like the LRB bookshop in London, though.
What books can you not resist buying?
At the moment I’ll buy anything that says it’s a new type of nature writing, whatever it is!
How many books are in your own physical TBR pile?
A scandalously high number, honestly; I still take comfort in having a lot of choices, and while this means that I sometimes do buy books that I never read, just as often I’ll come back to something years later, and be glad I did. But my floor is a safety concern.
What is your current or latest read?
I’ve just read Sara Baume’s Seven Steeples, which is a wonder of a book.
Any books that you’re looking forward to in the next 12 months?
I really love Fitzcarraldo Editions, and am excited about the new work they’re publishing by Esther Kinsky and Thea Lenarduzzi in particular.
and finally, what inspired you to write the genre you do?
I think there are a lot dangers in writing memoir – you worry that you might be taking yourself too seriously, or that the story you have to tell might not be that interesting to other people. But when I read memoirs, sometimes there’s that moment of complete connection between author and reader – a moment where, as a reader, you say ‘I didn’t know other people felt this way, and now that I’ve seen it, I understand myself better’. It’s something I really love as a reader, and if I can give a few people that moment of recognition, I’ll be happy!
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