18 October 2011

Why read? Interview with Harriett Gilbert

Harriett Gilbert is a writer and broadcaster. She presents World Book Club and The Strand for the BBC World Service and A Good Read for BBC Radio 4. She is the author of six novels, and of non-fiction books on sexuality, feminism and journalism.

Harriet GilbertIn your work you speak to a lot of people for whom writing is now a viable way of making a living. Is there anything you have discovered in these conversations that you would like to share with aspiring writers?

Most writers who make a living from their craft say that the key is to keep writing – to keep trying, regardless of setbacks or distractions, to tell the story you want to tell in the most effective way possible. (Implicit in this, of course, is that it helps to have a story you really want to tell.) Also, most successful writers agree that aspiring writers need to READ – to learn from those who have gone before them.

Which novels or novelists would you consider must-reads for aspiring writers?

I don’t think WHAT an aspiring writer reads is important. What matters is that she or he should read. It also helps to RE-read books that have particularly spoken to you, to try and work out how the author did it, and to find solutions to your own problems. For instance, how does the author you admire move the action forward? How does he or she let readers know what a character is thinking?

Who are your favourite writers?

Too many, too fluctuating and too invidious to name.

Whose writing do you read to engage with current affairs and whose do you read to escape them?

To escape current affairs I read golden-age detective fiction: Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, Margery Allingham.
To engage with current affairs I read present-day detective fiction: Santiago Roncagliolo’s Red April; Mike Nicol’s Black Heart; Mukoma wa Ngugi’s Nairobi Heat; Peter Temple’s Truth. Also, almost anything by Margaret Atwood, whose finger is very firmly on a wide variety of pulses: technological, environmental, political.

Do you think that fiction can be used to encourage cross-cultural understanding?

Absolutely. I value and enjoy fiction most of all for the insight into other people’s lives, minds, emotions, imaginations… and neuroses.

Which book depicts a place where you would like to live?

Loads of books have made me want to live where they’re set – at least, while I was reading. Naguib Mafouz’s Cairo trilogy, for instance; Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News (Newfoundland);Alexander McCall Smith’s The No1 Ladies Detective Agency (Botswana); Ardashir Vakil’s Beach Boy (Bombay/Mumbai); Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City (San Francisco)…. But two books by Orhan Pamuk – his novel The Museum of Innocence and his memoir Istanbul,  Memories of a City – have tumbled me head-over-heels in love with the Turkish capital.

What should we go away and read right now?

If I have to choose just one, it’s David Grossman’s To the End of the Land.

Hear more from Harriett on the BBC World Service.

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