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Maggie Shipstead: ‘Elena Ferrante made me reconsider the way I write’ | Books

Maggie Shipstead: ‘Elena Ferrante made me reconsider the way I write’ | Books

My first memory of reading
I remember lying in bed with my mom while she read picture books to me when I was three or four, but I think that’s probably an amalgamation memory, since she was doing it every night. I also remember her reading aloud to the whole family as we drove across the country. Bunnicula by James and Deobrah Howe, about a vampiric rabbit, and its sequel Howliday Inn were great successes.

My favorite book growing up
I loved children’s novels that were a little starchy, a little exotic (for me), more or less outdated: The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin, Ballerinas by Noel Streatfeild, The Twenty-One Balloons by William Pène du Bois, Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh. Also, books on horses.

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The book that changed me as a teenager
Terra Incognita: Voyages to Antarctica by Sara Wheeler sparked an enduring fascination with the polar regions in my mid-teens. Around the same time I read Maiden Voyage by Tania Aebi, who recounts how she traveled around the world alone as a teenager. My jealousy of both authors has made me start to think I’m adventurous, even though I’ll never be as daring as either. But I internalized that you can get to even the most remote places if you are determined enough.

The writer who changed my mind
Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet made me reconsider the way I write about people who change their minds. In fiction, character decisions often have a lot of finality. I think it has to do with how the epiphany is seen as a lofty narrative goal. But Ferrante’s characters are sure of something one minute and the next believe the opposite. After reading it, I let my characters change their minds more.

The book that made me want to be a writer
It’s tricky because I became a writer semi-accidentally, more because I discovered that writing fiction was something I could do than because I felt a deep need to be a writer. I think it was useful to me, having no dream to achieve. But I’ve always enjoyed reading, so I think a slow, natural, imperceptible accumulation 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 along with Middlemarch when I was supposed to read it in college, plus that I was too lazy (or considered myself too busy – ha!) to read such a long book. Then, a few years ago, I remedied the situation. I also had to try twice with A tale for now by Ruth Ozeki, but it’s love at first sight.

The book that I read
Possession by AS Byatt. I listened to it first, on a road trip in my mid-twenties, which was perfect as my bulky iPod made it hard to skip the poems. I’ve read it through at least twice, but I’ve skimmed through parts dozens of times just to linger. Then there are other parts that I will never read again, but I see this as a useful lesson about books that don’t have to be perfect.

The Book I Could Never Read Again
I suspect John Updike’s Rabbit novels would rub me the wrong way.

The book I discovered later in life
The secret story by Donna Tartt. I came across an orange and white Penguin edition in a second-hand bookstore in Bali when I was 30. I liked the title, bought it without knowing anything else, and spent the next few days binging it while standing in a pool under a huge hat.

The book I am currently reading
I’m in French Polynesia right now, reading The Happy Isles of Oceania, Paul Theroux’s 1992 book about homelessness in the South Pacific. I love his books for the same reasons everyone else does: the precision of his language, the cleverness of his way of emulsifying facts with impressions, and his ruthlessness.

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

Maggie Shipstead’s Great Circle is up for the women’s award. To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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