The Books That Inspire Emma Donoghue


My earliest reading memory
We had a big crack-spined hardback of Hilda Boswell’s illustrated Treasury of Children’s Stories that had survived my seven siblings to come down to me. For years, whenever my mother asked which bedtime story I’d like out of the Treasury, I demanded Pinkel and the Witch, a folk tale recorded in the 1850s. My mother was so bored of it she would groan and beg me to pick something else, but she always caved. I don’t know why this tale about a risk-loving boy thief and the scary/seductive witch whose island he repeatedly sneaks on to gripped me like nothing else. But the reason I remember it so vividly is the implicit lesson I learned from my mother: give those you love what they crave, rather than what you think they should want. I try to treat my readers the same way.

My favourite book growing up
Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes, which I realise now was not only about an alternative family (including all-but-spelled-out lesbian couple) but was probably the first thing I read that said you should follow your dreams, a message children get from all sides today but didn’t so much then. Those penniless little tough cookies scrabbling to make careers in the arts were my role models.

The book that changed me as a teenager
I adored Alan Garner’s Red Shift, a YA novel set in Cheshire in three different eras, which (without time travel or any such clunky device) suggests that the history of a landscape haunts that landscape. I suspect Red Shift is why I’ve ended up writing historical fiction.

The book that made me want to be a writer
Sylvia Plath’s poems gathered posthumously in Ariel made me feel that putting the right words side by side was the most vivid satisfaction life could offer.

The book I came back to
Antonia Forest’s series about the Marlow family; I breezed through the school novels first, then sought out all the others, and went back to them over and over for their engrossing and subtle exploration of human relationships in and outside the home.

The book I could never read again
I’m squirming as I admit that when I discovered Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull, this allegorical fable of a seagull’s spiritual evolution blew my tiny mind. I’m currently attempting my first animal novel, which I attribute to the lingering effect of Jonathan, Richard Adams’s Watership Down and Robert C O’Brien’s Mrs Frisby and the Rats of Nimh. I haven’t managed to reread Jonathan because its westernised Zen feels too dated, whereas the other two still hold up as solid stories.

The book I discovered later in life
I stayed away from Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick because I thought it would be unreadable, but when I went whale watching in Boston I felt I simply had to try it, and it was utterly brilliant. (The trick is to skip the madder stretches.)

The book I am currently reading
Hervé Le Tellier’s highbrow suspense novel The Anomaly. I’m having some trouble remembering who’s who, but that kind of adds to the profound confusion of the sci-fi premise.

My comfort read
Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, full of wisdom and footnotes that make me laugh out loud. If I ever get a terminal diagnosis it’ll be Terry I turn to in hopes of keeping the timor mortis at bay.

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Learned by Heart by Emma Donoghue is published by Picador in paperback on 20 June. To support the Guardian and the Observer, buy a copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.



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