My bookcase is in my office, which is a tiny room full of books and a desk that is in constant danger of disappearing under – well – still more books. The office also finds room for a nineteenth century sea chest (full of books), a whaling harpoon, a very noisy printer and a quite noisy boiler. The window overlooks the playground of my son’s primary school but I try to limit my leaning out and telling him off to once a day.
The photograph you see here of the bookcase is a lie told by me. You’ve probably heard the assertion that all novelists are professional liars. I certainly have. The last time it was from a large man with a missing eyebrow who pressed his tattooed forefinger into my forehead as he made his point. For some reason, I found myself agreeing with him. Anyway, to get back to the point, this bookcase has been as carefully staged as a West End play – books have been removed, statuettes have been placed and Shaun the Sheep has been carefully angled. It looks much better than it normally does. Incidentally, I made that Shaun the Sheep myself out of plastiscine. I’m very proud of it.
I’m not saying it’s a tidy bookcase even in its altered state – you can see it isn’t. It’s just that normally this bookcase is double-shelved, even triple-shelved. It’s where I keep the books I use when researching the Korolev novels and there are a lot of them. Sometimes you can’t see the bookcase for the books – they cling to it like limpets, rather than resting on it like normal books on normal shelves. Often, like drowned bodies, they are dragged under by a mysterious current, before emerging, looking a little more worn, wedged in between Gulag Slave Ships and A History of Soviet Jazz. Books go missing for several years in that bookcase. Sometimes there is an undersea eruption and a lava flow of Stalinist novels tumble down to the carpet beneath, releasing a gust of the stale tobacco that impregnates their pages. It would seem that the previous owners smoked hardy quantities of very strong cigarettes. I can’t imagine them bothering with filters.
What kind of books will definitely not be found in your bookcase?
I don’t have any horror books. I once accidentally took a trip on a very expensive rollercoaster and the thought, afterwards, that I had spent twenty something hard-earned dollars to terrify myself half to death bothered me. So, on principal, I don’t spend any money on anything that is intended to frighten me. Which rules out bungie jumps, reading certain tabloids and, sadly, horror. Incidentally, the rollercoaster incident is also the reason why I wear my glasses when out and about and always read the small print.
That having been said the next Korolev novel is going to be a bit of a mash-up between a crime and a ghost story, so I’m going to start reading more in the supernatural line. I don’t know where to start though – has anyone got any suggestions?
What author have you discovered and loved recently?
Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Well, Zlatan and his ghost writer David Lagercrantz. I think his football autobiography I am Zlatan is a work of genius. It reads like a novel, each chapter ending on a cliffhanger – and anyway I’m a sucker for stories where bad boys from the wrong side of the tracks make sporting good. Aside from being very funny – it’s also surprisingly moving. I heartily recommend it.
Where is your favourite place to read?
Outside. In a comfortable chair. Ideally some distance from any overhanging branches. I used to like reading in hammocks until a snake dropped from a Tuscan tree under which I was enjoying a mildly erotic novel, as you do sometimes on holiday. It landed on page 247 and slithered away across my chest, hissing. It very much spoiled the mood.
Can books change lives? If so, which one changed yours?
I suppose it would have to be Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry. I picked up a copy of Babel’s short stories almost by accident, back when the Soviet Union still existed. They’re short, incredibly vivid and set in the Russian Civil War and the Odessan underworld. What is most striking about them is how cinematic they are and I wanted, at one stage, to adapt them for screen so that’s how I came to research the Soviet Union, and Babel, in more detail. At the time I started trying to find out more about him, it wasn’t even clear when he’d died. Some books said 1942, some said as late as the 1950s and some left it open, as no one really knew for certain. We now know, since the opening of the KGB archives, that he was executed on Stalin’s order in January 1940. He was buried in the same grave as Nikolai Ezhov, head of the NKVD during the worst years of the Great Terror and with whose wife Babel had probably been having an affair with. Which you would have to think was a dangerous think to do in the late 1930s.
The more I found out about Babel and about that period in Russian history, the more fascinated I became and the more curious as to how ordinary people survived in such a difficult time and place. The Korolev novels are the direct result and, to bring things full circle, Babel makes appearances in the first three.
What’s the book you’d choose as your Desert Island read?
The Collected Works of Alexander Dumas. I love Dumas and would be hard-pressed to name a favourite novel, so the collected works sounds like a sensible compromise. They’re also quite long and I have a poor memory – so, if I read them sequentially, I like to think they’d continue to be fresh each time I came around to reading them.
What book did you give last as a present and to whom?
When I was wooing my now wife I sent her a copy of Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons. There were other books that were part of the gift but I think that Cold Comfort Farm, which she hadn’t read, piqued her interest.
What are you reading now?
I’m re-reading The Manual of Detection by Jedediah Berry. It’s a fantasy crime novel that I’m going to be talking about to next year’s students on the Crime Writing Masters at City University. It’s a lovely book – very elegantly written and with a wonderfully fantastical world which, for some reason, I always think of as Philadelphia.
What are your top ten books?
- My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell
- The Siege of Krishnapur by JG Farrell
- Count Belisarius by Robert Graves
- The Code of the Woosters by PG Wodehouse
- The Thought Gang by Tibor Fischer
- Flashman and The Great Game by George MacDonald Fraser
- A Hero of Our Times by Mikhail Lermontov
- Love in a Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford
- Fludd by Hilary Mantel
- The White Company by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
This was a very difficult list to decide on – in the end, I chose ten books that I’ve read over and over again and still enjoy many years after I first encountered them. They’re not necessarily the best books in the entire world – although several of them are excellent by any measure and all of them I would defend against most comers. I suppose they are, generally speaking, comfort books – the kind of book that can turn a grey day into something more colourful.
I’m embarrassed to see there’s only one novel on the list that could be considered a crime novel and the Conan Doyle book doesn’t even feature Sherlock Holmes. I enjoy reading crime and many of my favourite novels are, indeed, crime novels but they didn’t make it into the top ten for one reason or another. As I said, it was a tricky list to compile.
What’s your most treasured book on your bookcase?
My first edition of Count Belisarius. I’m not sure where it came from – but I’ve had it since I was ten, I think. Even if it’s a first edition, I’m afraid I’ve read it so often that no sensible bookseller would give me more than a smile for it. Also, it’s been lost several times but always made its way back to me which makes it more precious for some reason. I’ll admit to skipping large parts of it so I can get to the good bits.