It never really happened for me at school, well, not with reading anyway. I studied English literature up to A level standard, but not at any point did a book we read inspire me. There were, of course, all the usual suspects, such as Shakespeare, in all shapes and forms, and ‘Of Mice And Men’ which I remember vividly……but nothing in any of them set my imagination ablaze, sent goose bumps down the back of my neck, or made my dreams come alive with their storyline. In short, nothing about my schooling made me want to read, let alone write, not unless it was absolutely necessary.
Shifting ahead, a couple of years on from A levels, I had a job as a service engineer….out and about in a car all day, visiting all sorts of very different customers, covering quite a large area of southern England. I remember clearly one day being sent to repair a fax machine in a huge bookshop, right in the centre of Southampton. I walked in smartly dressed in my suit (unusual for me), whacking great tool case in one hand, paperwork in the other. As I weaved my way in and out of the bookcases, a book cover jumped out at me. Inadvertently I must have stumbled through the fantasy/sci-fi section of the store. There, staring out at me, was a book, but not just any book. At this point it is necessary for me to point out that I was then, and still am now, a massive Star Wars fan. The book in question (and just thinking about that moment is sending shivers down my arms) was ‘Star Wars Volume 1: Heir To The Empire’. And I think to this day, I’ve never seen a book either in a store or online that’s excited me more at the very thought of reading it. I remember sweating profusely, and I’m pretty sure it had nothing to do with the fact that outside, it was a scorching hot summer’s day. After reaching the front desk, informing them who I was and why I was there, I set to work on their fax machine, my thoughts all the time focused on that book. I had to have it, had to read it………NOW!
It seemed to take an age to complete the straight forward repair. After completing the paperwork, I walked straight out onto the shop floor, picked up a copy of the book, returned to the front desk, and paid for it, much to the surprise of the manager who’d just been signing my paperwork. On returning to my car, I recall studying it intently, reading the blurb over and over, combing the front cover for any clues to the storyline hidden within the pages, allowing my underused imagination to run away with every conceivable possibility, and reading the very first page, over and over again. Needless to say, the end of the working day couldn’t come soon enough. I sped home, with but one thought on my mind. I’m pretty sure I had something to eat, but If I did, I wolfed it down and made straight for my bedroom. There I gently slid the book out from its brown paper bag (this part sounds like something very dubious) and started reading. The book didn’t disappoint one bit, living up to all my expectations, both then, and on the many subsequent readings since.
I recall my bosses not being too happy with me the following day, because I looked and felt like crap, having stayed up all night reading said book. But is that not how it should be? That one book made me feel like nothing else could or would have at the time. It fuelled my imagination, it got me to join a book club, and from that day onwards I’ve hardly ever walked past a bookshop without going in. Books should have characters that you can visualise in your mind, that take you on a journey, make you laugh, make you cry, make you empathise with them and the situations they find themselves in. They should make you forget about what’s going on in your own life, and transport you to somewhere else entirely. Twists and turns should force you to continue reading against your will. A good book shouldn’t be something you keep beside the bed, to read before you drop off to sleep. It should stop you going to sleep altogether.
As I sit here typing this up, the overwhelming memories of buying that book fresh in my mind, a chord is struck deep within me. I try and read as much as possible, I really do. It’s something that I absolutely love doing, and I find it relaxes me like nothing else. But for nearly as long as I can remember, many, many months if not longer, all I’ve ever done is read for a matter of minutes before going to bed. I’m not sure if that tells you more about me or the books I’ve been reading. I want something that grabs me, twists me upside down, turns me inside out, before dropping me onto a roller coaster ride that leaves me breathless, ragged, and begging for more.
The book club I mention joining was one of those ones that seemed everywhere during the late 80’s, early 90’s. You know the kind……..buy five books ridiculously cheaply and then pay full price for the next six books that you were committed to buy. Don’t worry….I learned my lesson, eventually. What was interesting about this for me was the fact that there was a mix up with one of my orders and by mistake they sent me (and it was all done by post) a huge, hardcover Tom Clancy book. That book was called Debt Of Honour, and I still have it. At the time, given my new found love of books, my interest mainly lay in sci-fi/fantasy, and that was the genre of the particular book club (if that’s what it can actually be called……should have been more like ‘stitch up’) that I’d joined. So you can imagine how puzzled I was to discover this thriller by someone I’d never heard of, about the weight of a small child, turning up amongst all the packaging. Anyhow, ‘Debt Of Honour’ sat on my bedside table for some considerable time.
“Why didn’t you send it back?” I hear you cry. Hmmmm Well, the truth is I was (and still am) a little lazy. I really couldn’t be bothered (I was still in my teens……JUST!) with wrapping it back up, taking it back to the post office, completing all the paperwork, etc. So it just sat there until one evening, with no new books to read, I picked it up and started on it. At that point, I’d never read a book from that genre. It wasn’t something we were ever allowed to read at school, and it would never have occurred to me that I would enjoy something like that. But do you know what? I did. Immensely. So much so, that I finished it in only a few days…..sounds like a long time compared to the Star Wars book, but if you find ‘Debt Of Honour’ in hardback, you’ll realise a few days is pretty good. After that it was back to the book shop (very little in the way of internet then for us ordinary people) to pick up all of the Tom Clancy books previous to that one. And there were quite a few, but they kept me in reading material for ages. I still have them all, and I find each one as brilliant as the one before it. The characters, the plots, the detail which is conveyed was mesmerising. I was in awe that somebody could write books such as these, with so much detail and information about the US Navy and Air Force, as well as the CIA and FBI. I was blown away.
To top it all off though, there was a bit of a theme in the books that stood out for me. It wasn’t in the plot, or about any of the characters (John Clark, Jack Ryan, etc.). It was to do with the style of writing, something I found hard to believed I’d noticed, something that I hadn’t even thought about since my A levels, and something that, then, had bored me to tears. But here in these books, it stood out like water in a desert, like a ship on the sea, like a single car in an empty car park. I was and still am fascinated by the introduction of a seemingly innocuous piece of text (for that’s how it starts) that transforms over the course of the story into something major. It generally takes a long time before you get any clue as to how it links in with the major plot development, but when you do it all comes together seamlessly. I find it intriguing, fascinating and addictive. This happens time and again in his books and I absolutely love it. So: Tom Clancy……one of my favourite authors ever. I only wish I’d had the chance to tell him how entertaining I’d found his books, and how much they’d inspired me in my own writing.
Speaking of authors I’d like to speak to, there’s one that lives relatively close to me that I would love to spend some time with. In fact, his books are probably my all time favourites. His name is Terry Pratchett, author of the disc world series of books. My wife bought me one of his very first books a long time ago, and since then……….I’ve been hooked. The storylines are stunningly creative; the characters are so surreal, and imaginable. Whenever I read one of his books, I can instantly see everything that’s going on, in my head. The stories twist and turn, the characters are hilarious, the settings magnificent. And some of the things that go on in the books are truly wonderful. My favourite book of his is ‘The Fifth Elephant’, which is a must read for everyone. There’s one part in it that always makes me cry with laughter; even now typing this, I’m holding back the tears just thinking about it. His books are the only ones that have ever had that effect on me, and I have to say it’s something I absolutely love. Reading a book with a gripping storyline and magical characters that leap off the page right into your head is pure joy, but add to that the ability to make you laugh out loud, perhaps even so much so that you cry…..WOW!
So what relevance do these stories hold, other than just more out of date, ancient memories, clogging up an already vastly overused space in my tiny little brain? For me, they’re one of the many snippets of information, normally in the form of stories, I try to hold on to in the back of my mind while I try and write. That feeling of seeing something and wanting it SO badly, of reading a book that is impossible to put down, even if it means missing out on well needed/valuable sleep, writing in such a way as to introduce seemingly innocuous lines of plot out of nothing, something that makes no sense and no context, and then weaving them into the story so that they fit seamlessly together much like a well crafted floor. Add to all of this the ability to make someone laugh out loud, and you have everything and more for a fantastic read. If those aren’t things to aspire to as a writer, then I don’t know what are.