Susie Boyt: ‘I found Noel Streatfeild in the phone book and called her’ | Books

My earliest reading memory
I loved a picture book called Story Number 1 by Eugène Ionesco. It showed a seedy household from the 1960s, where the mother and father lived the very high life and were always hungover. Every morning, their maid Jacqueline brings them a huge tray on which their little girl is crouched, wedged between ham, eggs, coffee and postcards.

My favorite book growing up
Crazy about dancing as a kid, I was addicted to ballet shoes. There was something about show business as a cure for genteel poverty that really appealed to me. One night I found Noel Streatfeild in the phone book and called her!

The book that changed me as a teenager
I read The Confusions of Young Törless by Robert Musil when I was 14 because I heard someone call it “nervous romance”. The subject was chilling: Sadistic, sexual bullying at an Austro-Hungarian military academy for boys, but I was mesmerized by the quality of the writing style. I felt like I was in the hands of a genius.

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The writer who changed my mind
Henry James explained my life to me. When I think back to everything I’ve ever thought and everything anyone has ever said to me, his commitment to reflecting the entire landscape of human consciousness makes so much sense. His preoccupation with how to be good in the world without embracing too much the taint that the word ‘worldly’ carries soon became a focus. I also love its fidelity to perceptions that have a provisional quality: the comment you thought you might have heard but actually didn’t say, or the moment you’re sure someone is catching you doing something has what you wouldn’t think in a million years…

The book that made me want to be a writer
When I left elementary school, the principal gave me a copy of James Vance Marshall’s Walkabout. In it she wrote, “I hope one day to see a book of your writings on a bookseller’s shelves.” I got knocked out.

The book I read again
I’m always reading John Berryman’s 77 Dream Songs, cheering him on, despairing at him, immersing himself in his oddly refined sensibility as I absorb all the pain and chaos of his days. He evokes the poignancy and wonder of living on the very edge of things, life between the teeth, with Shakespeare as a lifeboat.

The books I could never read again
I read Saul Bellow’s novels in my twenties, and their intense vibrancy and wild, heroic drive have stayed with me. I think they would strike me as sexist now, and Bellow’s disturbing attitude toward race would cause consternation.

The book I discovered later in life
Set largely in Harlem in the 1920s, Jazz by Toni Morrison is a complex, surprising, richly textured novel that draws you so deeply into its world that you feel like you’re living in the thin-walled apartment next door.

read my consolation
I go back to The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton, where Miss Roach’s compulsive and brave adventures in the Rosamund Tea Rooms, a guest house in a small English town, in 1943 delight and horrify. The spelling is sublime, the subtle evocation of wartime meticulous, and Miss Roach is a queen.

That book I am reading right now
Annie Ernaux’s memoir The Years is of generous lyrical precision, spanning not only her life, thoughts and hopes but also broader currents in France from 1941 to 2006. Ernaux writes brilliantly about times of great scarcity, both emotional and material, but also over the Spree and powerlessness of the celebrations.

Loved and Missed by Susie Boyt is published by Virago. To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Shipping costs may apply.

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