Maggie Shipstead: ‘Elena Ferrante made me reconsider how I write’ | books

My earliest reading memory
I remember lying in bed with my mother while she read picture books to me when I was three or four, but I think that’s probably an amalgam memory, since she did this every night. I also remember her reading aloud to the whole family while we drove cross-country. Bunnicula by James and Deobrah Howe, about a vampiric rabbit, and its sequel Howliday Inn were big hits.

My favorite book growing up
I loved slightly starchy, slightly exotic (to me), varyingly outdated children’s novels: The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin, Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild, The Twenty-One Balloons by William Pène du Bois, Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh. Also, horse books.

The book that changed me as a teenager
Terra Incognita: Travels in Antarctica by Sara Wheeler awakened a lasting fascination with the polar regions in my mid-teens. Around the same time, I read Maiden Voyage by Tania Aebi, an account of how she sailed around the world alone as a teenager. My jealousy of both authors made me start to fancy myself adventurous, though I will never be as bold as either. But I did internalize that you can get to even the most far-flung places if you’re determined enough.

The writer who changed my mind
Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet made me reconsider how I wrote about people changing their minds. In fiction, characters’ decisions often carry a lot of finality. I think that’s connected to how epiphany gets held up as an aspirational narrative goal. But Ferrante’s characters are dead certain about something one minute and, the next, believe the opposite. After reading her, I let my characters change their minds more.

The book that made me want to be a writer
This is tricky because I became a writer in a semi-accidental way, more because I discovered writing fiction was something I could do than because I felt a deep urge to ok the writer. I think this has been helpful to me, not having a dream to live up to. But I’ve always loved to read, so I think a slow, natural, imperceptible accrual of reading experiences made me capable of writing, and then, later, the actual experience of writing made me want to keep trying to do it.

the book I came back to
It’s not so much that I didn’t get on with Middlemarch when I was supposed to read it in at university, more that I was just too lazy (or considered myself too busy – ha!) to read such a long book. Then a couple of years ago I remedied the situation. I also had to try twice with A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki, but it love at second sight.

The book I reread
Possession by AS Byatt. I listened to it first, on a road trip in my mid-20s, which was perfect because my clunky iPod made it difficult to skip the poems. I’ve read it all the way through at least twice, but I’ve dipped into certain parts dozens of times, just to dwell in them. Then there are other parts I’ll never read again, but I see that as a useful lesson about books not needing to be perfect.

The book I could never read again
I suspect John Updike’s Rabbit novels would rub me up the wrong way.

The book I discovered later in life
The Secret History by Donna Tartt. I happened upon an orange and white Penguin edition in a used bookstore in Bali when I was 30. Knowing the title, bought it nothing else, and spent the next few days binging it while standing in a swimming pool under a huge hat.

The book I am currently reading
I’m in French Polynesia at the moment, and I’m reading The Happy Isles of Oceania, Paul Theroux’s 1992 book about roaming the South Pacific. I like his books by him for the same reasons everyone does: the precision of his language by him, the intelligence of the way he emulsifies facts with impressions, and his mercilessness by him.

My comfort read
One Day by David Nicholls always makes me laugh. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Pride and Prejudice. What can I say – I like a love story.

Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead is shortlisted for the Women’s prize. To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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