Mary Hooper, a writer of both historical and contemporary novels for teenagers, is talking after lunch on Saturday at this year’s FCBG Conference. I recently got the chance to ask her to select eight books that reflect pivotal moments in her life so far, with particular reference to her journey towards becoming a published author. Here’s what Mary had to say…
“I come from a working class background and there were no books at home, so as a child I was very reliant on my local library. Unfortunately, this was when librarians were stern and scary creatures, so I never dared approach them to ask if they had any recommendations. I was a very quick reader, and as you were only allowed to take two books at a time, in the school holidays I’d sometimes have read the day’s allowance by noon, then try to exchange them for two others. I never managed it!
So, with no one to guide me, it was Enid Blyton all the way for me and my contemporaries, especially THE ISLAND OF ADVENTURE and the like, and I never realised until I bought a copy in Oxfam last year how racist, sexist and class-orientated they are. The adventure was the thing, of course: buried treasure and maps and disappearing parents. And it’s strange to my mind now that the other books that I loved, the JUST WILLIAM books, are similarly middle class with the family having a cook and a maid, but can still be read today without bridling. They remain funny, too, whereas Enid Blyton sounds completely humourless.
As no one told me they weren’t quite the thing, I went onto Dennis Wheatley next, and loved his black magic books (eg THE DEVIL RIDES OUT) so much that these were the only books I ever bought in hardback. I haven’t revisited them but I don’t think I’d like them now. I went on to read Science Fiction and fantasy, and THE PAN BOOK OF HORROR STORIES was a particular favourite. (Just think; if only I’d remembered my early love of Dracula and vampires, I might have been first with the Twilight titles). I’ve done younger books about witches and supernatural, though, so perhaps these may have been as a result of what I read as a teenager.
After this I read FOREVER AMBER, and loved it. When I decided, years and years later, to write a historical book, I remembered how equally fascinated and horrified I’d been to read about the Great Plague, and this made me decide to set AT THE SIGN OF THE SUGARED PLUM at the same time.
After FOREVER AMBER – what? I have always been a reader so there was a pile of stuff I can barely remember, but I don’t think there was anything inspiring. And then when I was forty I decided to get educated and took a part-time degree at my local university. How I loved it! All the authors and playwrights I should have read at school, from Shakespeare up to Fowles. And I’m naming Fowles because I particularly remember reading THE FRENCH LIEUTENANT’S WOMAN and yelping with delight at the bit where the narrator appears in the story. I keep meaning to have it happen in one of my books. One day…
I remember a fierce debate on my degree course about which was the better book: JANE EYRE or WUTHERING HEIGHTS, and finding out that we fell into two distinct camps. I am WUTHERING HEIGHTS, naturally. The book they refer to as the first Gothic mystery? Of course! I read it about ten years before I started writing historical fiction, so maybe it’s why I so enjoy writing books like NEWES FROM THE DEAD and FALLEN GRACE.
We studied poetry too, and I was captivated by Philip Larkin and grateful that he spoke in ordinary words and on subjects which I could understand and empathise with. I do love it when I’m going about my everyday life and something clicks in my mind so that I think of a line or two of appropriate poetry, and it’s usually Larkin’s.
Finally, whilst researching my next book, which is set at the time of the Great War, I’ve come across the wonderful, heartbreaking and inspirational TESTAMENT OF YOUTH. Everyone I sing its praises to has already read it, but I’m glad I saved it until now.”
So if you’re coming to conference later this month, and any of these books are your favourites, do say hello to Mary – I’m sure she’d love to chat with fellow one-time fans of Dennis Wheatley or others who fall in the the Wuthering Heights camp!