With this year’s edition of the Word on the Street festival set to run from September 28 to 30, we asked some of the writers on the wildly diverse bill to tell us about the reading experiences that shaped them. Which book left deep impressions early on? Which one overhauled the way they see and think about the world, and set them on a path to a literary life?
Here’s what Anakana Schofield told us. She’s the Irish-Canadian, Vancouver-based author of the widely praised debut novel Malarky.
Schofield will be reading from her work at 12:20 p.m. on September 30, in the Canada Writes Tent outside the central branch of the Vancouver Public Library.
Since March 15, when I published a novel, I have been asked multiple times in interviews: which book changed your life?
If honest, I have not had a Pentecostal-change-of-my-life moment as a result of reading any book.
The things that changed my life were my father dying one night in 1977, my son being born in 1999, getting a council flat or its equivalent in Vancouver, and a diagnosis of reflux in my left kidney.
It occurs to me that I have not considered the original question in broad enough terms. Which book has ruined my life?
BBC Radio 4 provides the answer. Last Thursday, not long after the above inquiry yet again ding-donged into my email ("Tell us about the book or author that changed your life"), I came upon a serialization of Geoffrey Household's Rogue Male, Episode 5 of which was streaming live.
Rogue Male was a novel I studied and the only novel I have any memory of studying (do I need to check into a clinic?) for O-level English 25 years ago. It was a profound experience. We had to read it aloud. I was never ever asked to read aloud because I desperately wanted to read aloud. I had to suffer the most awful rendition of this novel aloud, which I duly tackled by reading the entire novel ahead silently. Chapters ahead, I'd read the whole book at my desk, while everyone else was still plodding through early chapters aloud. It was a racehorse reading of Rogue Male.
Mr. Household's novel was a visceral experience. I read a novel about a man who lived under the ground like a mole. Just because. It didn't matter why he lived under there. I was only captivated by the idea that people could live underground and therefore, obviously, did live underground. Right now. All around me. And because there was an authoritative male voice telling me. I too could go there.
With hindsight, perhaps the central heating wasn't very good in our house because I can't understand why I wanted, in the words of the Jam, to be Going Underground. I was an overly imaginative adolescent likely damaged by enforced listening to BBC Radio 2.
In anticipation of going back underground with Radio 4 last week, I searched up the novel online and felt a retroactive kick to the kidney to learn the book was a spy thriller! A classic spy thriller! Episode 5 delivered itself along with a sentence describing a man holding sight of another man in a crossfire.
There was no man killing any other man in the novel I read at that school desk. There was no spy on the run. There was just a man who wanted to live underground for a reason that made no impression on me, because I was too impressed by the concept you could live down there. Beneath Clarks Shoes. I was impaled on that image. Household could say whatever he wanted after that. I was gone. Underground.
Twenty-five years after the fact I learn that my most visceral literary influence may explain why I have never been able to imagine owning a home and flunked science.