Melvin Burgess' Desert Island Books

Melvin Burgess' Desert Island Books

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

This is the book that made me fall in love with books.

My parents read it to me, I read it myself, and then I took it into school to have it read to the class. I think I might have learned to read just so I could get this one into my skin. I loved and adored it for years, and used to read my favourite passages over and over again.

People often ask me where my love for gritty realist fiction came from, and I can safely say, not from my own childhood. Realist books for children simply didn’t exist back then. The nearest you got to it was Enid Blyton, who wrote about supposedly real children. But even then I knew that I had nothing in common with any of her heroes. It gave me a deep suspicion of all realist literature that lasted for years.

By the time I was a teenager, I was a major fan of fantasy. Fantasy writing was a different beast in those days, mind you; of course we had Tolkien already, but it was a much broader genre than we know it today. The great and wonderful Angela Carter was writing back then and edited a fantasy collection that included such writers as Lord Dunsany, James Branch Cabell (a sort of Pre-Pratchett Pratchett). But the king of them all for me was Mervyn Peake and the Gormanghast trilogy. Fantasy as a genre is usually plot driven, but Peake was able to invent characters – grotesques, cartoons, caricatures – who took on a life of their own.

Shooting an Elephant by George Orwell

George Orwell was the man who made me love real things. It took quite a while – I was deeply suspicious for a long, long time. Reality always seemed so much duller than imagined things. How wrong I was.

What is it that makes you feel a writer is telling you the truth? David Almond once suggested it was to do with syntax; I’m not so sure. Perhaps it’s Orwell’s ability to pick out odd elements of any situation – not just the obvious things, but the things behind the obvious, that make you certain that he’s somehow developed an instinct to peer behind the surface. I’m certain that’s not a gift he was born with. He had to learn it. And if he can learn it, so can we.

The essay – or is it a story? – that set me thinking along these lines was Shooting an Elephant. Truth is an odd beast, especially fictional truth. There’s debate about whether this story, presented by Orwell as an essay, ever happened. Either way is fine by me. The truths he’s talking about aren’t factual. They’re about attitudes, ways of looking at things, ways of understanding the dynamics. It’s an object lesson in how fiction can help us understand the real world we live in, while operating purely within invention.

The Collected Poems of Brecht by Bertolt Brecht

It’s been a while now since The Collected Poems of Brecht were available in English, but they were available in paperback in the 1980s. I was a fan for several reasons, perhaps the main one being the use of simple language. Brecht has in common with Orwell the wonderful gift of being able to talk about politics - potentially the most boring of subjects – in language a child could understand. He also uses a number of other techniques I’ve adopted for myself, such as the use of common speech rhythms and broken speech rhythms, to communicate accent, emotion and action.

This was the last poem in the book and it still sums up for me a lot of what I want to achieve in my writing, despite the slightly hectoring note at the end …

AND I ALWAYS THOUGHT

And I always thought: the very simplest words
Must be enough. When I say what things are like
Everyone’s hearts must be torn to shreds.
That you’ll go down if you don’t stand up for yourself---
Surely you see that.

The Woodlanders by Thomas Hardy

I studied The Woodlanders by Thomas Hardy at school, and I’ve and I loved Hardy ever since. I adored the language, the richness of it, the characters (who always seemed so three dimensional), and Hardy's ability to turn away from conventional happy endings. There’s something about those plots – great big heavy things, that seem so inevitable that you think he’s writing about fate, not human affairs. People complain about the doom and gloom, but it always seem to me that even if the outcome may be tragic, the people he writes about are full of love, hope and commitment, which is something I always try to bring into my own books.

Mrs Warren's Profession by George Bernard Shaw

Funny books don’t win prizes they say, and very often they don’t last. But there are exceptions to every rule, and the exception is this – they can last if they are wise. The first person I came across who made me laugh while making me learn was George Bernard Shaw. Although, thinking about it, maybe he’s not so much wise as confrontational.

Slaughterhouse 5 by Kurt Vonnegut

Joseph Heller was a cult at the time of course, and always will be for me. But Kurt Vonnegut – he’s the man. No one else took sci fi as far as he did, or bent it to his own purpose the way he did. Apart from being a serious experimental novelist, apart from being hilariously funny – I was reading a piece of his just yesterday and laughing out loud – he was a man who loved humanity not just warts and all, but especially for our warts. It’s easy to love humanity for our glories, but to love us for our inadequacies – and be funny at the same time - that really takes something. Thanks, Kurt. You’re much missed.

Out by Natsuo Kirino

The great thing about books is that the adventure never ends. A while ago I was getting fed up with the things. UK novels were beautifully written but empty, US books seemed to be about another continent (not surprisingly, really) and most translations I came across seemed stale. But with books – well, you know they’re out there, don’t you? Sometimes it’s just hard to find the right ones, though.

Japanese fiction. I love it! Check it out. I could suggest Snakes and Earrrings by Hitomi Kanehara, but perhaps you’d best start with Natsuo Kirino. Out, for example, is a very fine book indeed. If you like YA stuff, try Real Life. The Japanese are much more open to odd plot lines, playing with narrative, trusting that a story will tell its own truths and play its own games. So refreshing. I recommend it to you all, and thank you for your time in reading this.

The Hit by Melvin Burgess is published by Chicken House.