Writers Ask Writers: The Books That Changed Your Life


‘A very long time ago, in the Golden Age, every one was good and happy. It was always spring; the earth was covered with flowers, and only gentle winds blew to set the flowers dancing …’

And so begins the book that changed my life.

I’ve been pondering which book to write about for this post ever since Dawn Barker asked if I would contribute this month to the ‘Writers Ask Writers’ initiative, set up by six talented WA authors. I was delighted to be asked (thank you for having me, Dawn BarkerEmma ChapmanAmanda CurtinSara FosterNatasha Lester and Annabel Smith) but when the topic was emailed through, I was a bit stumped.

The books that changed my life.

I have no doubt that words carry power, for every book I’ve loved has affected me in some way; tears, anger, joy, inspiration – I’ve found them all between the pages of a good book. But is being affected by a book the same as being changed by one? I wasn’t sure. I started to feel a bit worried about how to contribute to the topic and studied my shelves, nervously scanning the spines … until suddenly, there it was, right in front of me: a book that really had changed my life.

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I was about eight-years-old when my Grandmother gave me this book. ‘I think you might like it,’ was all she said, passing me the dusty volume from her own bookshelf. It didn’t look a bit like the Enid Blyton, Noel Streatfeild and E. Nesbit books I was so enamoured with at the time, but I accepted it (graciously, I hope) and started to read that night.

Inside were the Greek Myths, stories of brutal gods and powerful goddesses, fallible mortals and amazing, mystical creatures. They were fairy tales on steroids, filled with the sort of racy content that boggled my young brain and left a lasting impression. I read them over and over, often by torchlight, and returned to them many times throughout my childhood.

At school a few years later I chose to study Classics and Latin, hoping for similar excitement and inspiration. The reality was, unfortunately, a little disappointing (Caecilius est in horto, anyone?) but I persevered and I can see now how those myths not only steered my education, but also fed my passion for language and words, as well as my ongoing yearning for stories with a real sense of tension and drama at their heart.

Later, I went to university then found a job working in publishing and I forgot all about that tatty orange book. But ten years on, when I began to write my first novel, I was reminded of it all over again.

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Writing Secrets of the Tides had me thinking long and hard about why terrible things happen, and about what’s left behind for a family when the very worst has occurred. Re-reading the myth of Pandora brought me a new level of understanding, and by referencing the myth in a small way within my novel, I felt able to add an extra layer to the story. It’s no mistake that the three key female characters in the book are named after famous classical women (Pandora, Cassandra and Helen), nor that the character of Helen is a Classics Lecturer. Their names say a lot about their experiences as women.

With the benefit of hindsight, I can see quite clearly the big role this book has played in my life. I don’t think I’d be travelling the writer’s path now if it weren’t for that early grounding in storytelling, and I honestly don’t know if I would have found the inspiration to continue with the earliest draft of Secrets of the Tides if it hadn’t been for rediscovering the myths again, at exactly the right moment.

My grandmother’s book looks a little sad and worn now, and while I don’t think it would hold much value to anyone else, I’m wondering about having it restored.

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Perhaps, one day, I will take it down off my bookshelf and hand it to a grandchild? They’d probably think me an eccentric old woman, but just maybe they’d give me the benefit of the doubt and open it one night by torchlight, surprised to find their own world changing, word by glorious word. Wouldn’t that be nice?

‘Writers Ask Writers’ is a group of six authors living in Western Australia who blog about a bookish question a month and then link to each other’s pieces, sharing their ideas, processes and inspirations. It’s been fascinating to be a guest with them and see everyone’s life-changing book selections, as well as to note how many favourite books we all share. 

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Amanda Curtin has picked some of my favourite children’s books, as well as two non-fiction titles I didn’t know. I absolutely love the image she paints of the ‘brittle flower’ falling out from between the pages of an old text book. Read more from Amanda here.

Emma Chapman has chosen, amongst others, The Magic Faraway Tree. Yes, yes, yes! If there was ever a book to set a child’s imagination alight it is this one. I loved Silky and Moonface like old friends and I am in complete agreement with Emma. Read more from Emma here.

Dawn Barker has chosen a list of books that could be pulled from my own bookshelves. I completely relate to her experience of reading We Need to Talk About Kevin – it was so visceral and it’s for that reason I haven’t watched the movie. I’m not sure I could take it! Read more from Dawn here.

Sara Foster‘s list of life-changing books includes a section of ‘inspiring, absorbing, twisty fiction’ which includes some of my most favourite contemporary fiction reads – we’re clearly on the same page when it comes to a good page-turner. Read more from Sara here.

Natasha Lester has cleverly broken her selections down to various stages of her life. I share her love of Judy Blume and am now intent on searching out Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem after her fervent endorsement. Read more from Natasha here.

Annabel Smith has chosen three books that she says ‘you will probably never see grouped together again because they couldn’t be more different from each other’. Want to find out what they are? Read more from Annabel here.

And finally what about you? Will you share the books that have changed your life? Feel free to comment below … we’d all love to hear from you.

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