My earliest reading memory is looking at books under the slip of light
under the door after I was meant to be asleep. I think it was 'Winnie
the Pooh' as I can remember an illustration of a bear who could walk and
talk. A rabbit family is another lasting experience, and Noddy. And
fairy stories of course. I loved 'Cinderella'
and, the 'Ugly Duckling' which turned up in 'The Last Virgin in Year 10.'
My first novel was 'The Folk of the Faraway Tree'. It was my 7th Christmas and both my big brother and sister helped to cut the cover, glue it on and varnish it. They were just as excited as me that I had a novel of my own at last. After that it was Enid Blyton's adventures and mysteries. I liked the secret tunnels and getting cut off by in- coming tides. For a kid who saw the sea once a year it was fuel for the imagination. I ate up folktales, and Bible stories. Mum caught me starting on the family King James, and bought me 12 volumes of Bibles Stories for children. Now I recommend writing students to read the King James Bible.
My bed became a ship, the Swiss Family Robinson's canoe. Every Friday in
the one teacher school that I attended in semi-outback Queensland we were allowed one book from the 3 foot wide and less than 3 foot high bookcase which was called 'the library'. I'd carry the book home, always aware of it in my bag and in the night take it into my bed. I learnt to read in the dark, under the covers, and in the early light of dawn. I was transported across the seas away from droughts or up high mountains riding the Silver Brumby & Flicker or calling for Lassie, or getting marooned in a Cornish sea cave. I even hung out of the window to read in the moonlight. My parents thought I had to sleep in due to the 70 mile round bus trip I took every day, but by 10 o'clock I'd emerge, my book read already, yearning for the next adventure that wouldn't happen until next Friday night.
Then there were Mary Grant Bruce's stories. They made me cry because the big brothers were too perfect. My sister found me crying over one of them. 'What's wrong with you?' she said. 'Why isn't our brother like Norah's? I wailed. 'Don't be stupid, brothers are only like that in books. No one has a nice brother,' she said.
Of course I forgot that my brother taught me how to shoot his gun and took me down to the creek to sail a boat he'd made. At 10, I couldn't know what I know now: that he was a depressed rural teenager.
I devoured my brother's Superman comics when he was out in the paddock. It was the cause for a few smacks – but it never put me off reading or sneaking into places where I knew there was something to read.
By the time I was 11, I remember reading 'The Prince and the Pauper' –
though that was possibly Enid Blyton's version – she ruined kids for the
classics in providing easily accessible texts so kids like me didn't
read the originals. 'The Prince and the Pauper' totally captivated my
imagination – how people could swap places – I loved the older male role
model in Sir Miles. I knew by then I loved history and I wonder now if
that wasn't the seed of the idea of Dev Eagle in 'The Keeper'. It was
one of the rare books I re-read – many times – out in the garden when I
was supposed to be watering the rose bushes. I was brought up in a
drought and was told to hold the hose at all times. I thought holding a
hose without a book in my other hand was such a waste of time. My
brother caught me wasting water on a few occasions when a book got too
interesting. But my mother read and so did I. At least I wasn't alone.
Mum took me to a library 35 miles away in the holidays. In between times she brought me books home – that was when I ate my way through all the legends of the world. There was a series: 'Fairy Tales of Russia' etc. Between library drops I sniffed out anything with paper and ink that had some remote mystery or story. My brother's Biggles books, Cherry Ames, Tarzan, the Bobbsey Twins, Corrego in Borneo. 'John Halifax, Gentleman', an old book of my grandmother's. Sometimes I got desperate.
By mid high school I knew all the history of England according to Jean Plaidy. I loved 'The Tale of Two Cities' by Charles Dickens. There was Thomas Hardy – I enjoyed him too. Books that made a huge impression on me were the Cornish ones – Daphne du Maurier's 'Jamaica Inn', 'Rebecca', and 'My Cousin Rachel'. Once Mum brought those home I was immersed in the Cornish landscape – mysterious Fowey, and Bodmin Moor, solving smuggling mysteries at Frenchman's Creek. I don't think Manderley ever left me.
As a young adult I discovered 'Sara Dane' and 'The Term of his Natural Life'. I found our own history was exciting too, and also enjoyed Taylor Caldwell's novels of historical characters ('Dear and Glorious Physician'). After that it was M M Kaye and 'The Far Pavillions' and C J Cronin. Then Salmon Rushdie's 'Midnight's Children'.
I don't know how much of what I read affects what I write – whether it's my experiences that affect my work more, but it is an interesting thought. Did Dev Eagle come from Sir Miles? Did Joel Billings come from reading stories like King David – he'll fight his giant and win? Do parts of 'Zenna Dare' have the atmosphere of 'Sara Dane' or Daphne Du Maurier's books? Or 'Sailmaker' the mystery and adventure of the famous five on holidays in Cornwall?
Possibly the greatest influence on our writing is what we read, and certainly we'll improve in our writing by reading.
'The greatest part of a writer's time is spent in reading in order to write. A man will turn over half a library in order to write.'