Libraries and books were an escape route to me as a child and teenager. Home life was noisy and stressful, with a step-mother who was impossible to please. Our library was a lovely old Georgian manor house, and it had a padded window seat I could curl up on with a book. To me it was the best place in the world: cool in summer, warm in winter and always quiet.
Many people I know remember librarians as being dragon ladies, but the ones I met were kind, and I believe they recognised me as being as escapee from real life as they put special books aside for me.
On Saturdays and school holidays I often stayed all day reading, before choosing another to take home with me. I don’t think there was one Enid Blyton that I overlooked – something that wasn’t approved reading at home. I loved Noel Streatfield too, especially Ballet Shoes, and there were dozens of thrilling boarding school stories that I got lost in.
Finally, at 13, the kindly librarian suggested I was old enough for the adult book section, and I felt so grown-up picking my first – even if it turned out to be hardly appropriate for a young girl – a risqué book by Emile Zola!
Through books, my narrow little life in London’s Lee Green was widened to the whole world. I knew what the Mississippi River was like from Tom Sawyer, would recognise the craggy coastline of Cornwall from Daphne DuMaurier, and authors who’s names I can no longer remember informed me about Canada, Australia, the tenements of New York, jungles, prairies and war, too.
I had always been told I had more imagination than was good for me, but oddly enough I never once imagined myself becoming a writer. All I wanted then was to be a wife and mother – even the odd little ideas about being an actress or having a flower shop never matched up to domestic bliss! They said I didn’t have enough sense of responsibility to be a nurse, so I became a nursery nurse. At least that way I could read to the children I cared for.
But it was to be a library book that finally showed me my true path. I was reading The Thornbirds while feeding my youngest, then a few weeks old. It was 10pm when I began; the next thing I knew the sun was streaming through the window, baby fast asleep – I’d been reading all night. I remember thinking then that I had to try writing and utilise all those images of places, battles, tragedies and triumphs that the thousands of books I’d read over the years had left in my head.
It took another ten years to get my first book published, but then I never expected it to be an easy ride – nothing worthwhile ever is. As I hold my latest book, Survivor, in my hands, I marvel that it is the 22nd book I have written. And it all began with a library ticket.
Survivor by Lesley Pearse is published by Michael Joseph on 13 February. Lesley is the first Ambassador for National Libraries which takes place on 8 February 2014.