2016 has been a pretty rubbish year so far. My morning routine begins with a cup of coffee and the online version of the morning papers. After the last few weeks however, I’m quite frightened to read the latest news as it seems that almost every day someone I admire or who has influenced me or been a part of my life has died. I don’t need to mention how devastated I was at the loss of David Bowie, possibly the biggest love of my life after my family (but if you want to wallow in my misery along with me you can read my blog post here), but he is unfortunately only the tip of the iceberg.
The world of music has already lost the irreplaceable Bowie, and he’s been joined by Jefferson Airplane’s Paul Kantner, singer Black, Glenn Frey of The Eagles and Mott the Hoople drummer Dale Griffin, among others.
Add to that the broadcaster Terry Wogan, actor Frank Finlay, and the gorgeous Alan Rickman, and I’m beginning to think that those tributes they have during awards ceremonies are going to have to have more air time than the awards themselves.
And of course we’ve already lost three of the most wonderful writers. English novelist, biographer, memoirist, historian and literary critic Margaret Forster died on 8th February. Best known for her wonderful novel ‘Georgy Girl’, Forster came from a poor, working class background and built a hugely successful literary career – she was one of the first ‘women writers’ that I read and her death has made me realise how many of her books I still haven’t got round to. They have all been added to my towering TBR pile.
And a few days ago the world lost the talented, brilliant mind of Umberto Eco. One of his quotes has always stuck in my mind, and I think it’s something all writers, whether we feel we are worthy of thinking like the great man or not, should bear in mind:
“I don’t know what the reader expects. I think an author should write what the reader does not expect. The problem is not to ask what they need, but to change them… to produce the kind of reader you want for each story.”
A breath of fresh air in a market-driven, money obsessed publishing world that is scared to take a chance on new voices and ideas and that seems hell bent on producing formulaic books (another post is brewing on that!).
But the death that has come closest to upsetting me as much as that of my beloved Bowie is that of Harper Lee. I cannot put into words exactly what ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ meant to me. But as this is a blog post, I’ll try.
I studied the novel at school, at the age of fifteen or sixteen. As you’ll know if you read the post about David Bowie, I was a very unhappy teenager. As well as escaping through music, I absolutely loved to read, losing myself in Enid Blyton, devouring the adventures of Pippi Longstocking, and then moving into the terrifying world of Stephen King, all alongside the well-thumbed Catherine Cookson novels so loved by my mum. But ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ was different. It was – while totally readable and entertaining – accomplished, thought-provoking, intelligent and utterly brilliant. It was the first book to make me cry.
‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ made me realise what a book could be, what words could achieve, how important literature was in the world – how writing, how novels, could be political. And it also led me to discover other writers – writers whose work said something about the world, whose words made you think, made you see things differently and clearly. It made me realise that writing a novel could be so much more than telling a story. And just as Bowie led me to Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, The Smiths, The Cure – so many bands and musicians – so Harper Lee led me to read ‘Invisible Man’ by Ralph Ellison, essays by James Baldwin and to Toni Morrison, whose ‘Beloved’ is still one of the best books I’ve ever read, and Alice Walker’s ‘The Colour Purple’. To a white, working class young woman in the eighties, these books were a revelation. This was pre-internet days and although I wasn’t stupid, and I read the papers, I didn’t have much of a clue about what was really going on in the world – what had gone on in the world. These writers gave me such an insight. And my appetite for reading became voracious – Jean Rhys, Muriel Spark, Dodie Smith, Sylvia Plath, Maya Angelou and the incomparable Virginia Woolf. I spent a great deal of time browsing the Virago section at the local book shop! (pre-internet and pre-Amazon!).
So I owe Harper Lee a massive debt. She sparked something inside of me in a miserable classroom in 1985. My love of reading was already there, but reading ‘To Kill a Mocking Bird’ helped that love to blossom into something bigger, something more profound and necessary.
So I’ve lost two people this year who, thought I never met them, meant a great deal to me. And just as I will continue to listen to Bowie’s music, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ is one of the few books that I’ll read over and over again.
Alison Williams lives in Hampshire with her husband, two children, and a variety of pets including a mad cocker spaniel, a rescue Labrador, a psychotic cat and two of the most unsociable rabbits in existence. She is a freelance editor and writer. As an editor, Alison works mainly with independent authors and has edited everything from erotica, memoirs and poetry to children’s books and fantasy. When she has any time left at all, she enjoys blogging, reading, going to the gym and listening to music (she has an obsession with Johnny Marr), and watching The Sopranos (again). From 2011-2012 she studied for a Masters in Creative Writing with the University of Glasgow. As part of her studies, Alison wrote her first novel ‘The Black Hours’ – available now from Amazon, Smashwords, Barnes and Noble, Sony and the Apple Store. ‘Blackwater’, the prequel to ‘The Black Hours’ is available free as an eBook from all the above outlets. Both can be read as standalones.