Jane Gardam’s latest novel, Last Friends, closes her remarkable (and universally acclaimed, including in these pages) Old Filth Trilogy, which tells the story of a man named Sir Edwards Feathers. Here, she reflects on the influences that have shaped her as a writer.
When you started to write, which writers did you revere?
I started to write as a child as soon as I could read, or even before, when my mother read me Beatrix Potter at bedtime. Writing seemed to me to be the only sensible way to live and be happy. Soon I was reading funny books – children’s comics, Richmal Crompton’s William books, Three Men in a Boat, which I adored, then my mother’s Victorian novels, which she had kept from her childhood: What Katy Did, Little Women and I have them still. Then a public library opened in the town and I devoured everything and demanded more. But I don’t think anything “influenced” my own stories. Their content came from outside somewhere and I was conceitedly fierce about keeping my own style. I discovered Mrs. Gaskell at 11 and still like her better than Austen or the Brontës.
What is the most dangerous influence or type of influence for a young writer?
I think the most dangerous influence for a young writer is to be treated with cynicism or discouragement. At my high school, in the North East, when I was 12 there was an English teacher who was very good-looking, quiet and confident and most of the class adored her. She, however, was most suspicious of me. She gave us homework one night to write about our summer holidays. Mine I had spent blissfully on my grandparents’ Cumbrian farm and I wrote her 22 pages. This enraged her! She had me out in front of everybody, by her desk, and told me that I had no idea how to write. I remember smirking because otherwise I would have cried. She set me back years. I totally lost confidence in all aspects of myself because I knew that writing was what I had to do. She left soon, but the damage was done – until I was at London University with a County Scholarship in English.
Which perhaps unexpected book(s) share a commonality with your new one? What would you think of as its distant cousins?
Now 70 years on, I don’t think my latest book has been influenced by another novel or novelist however much I revere them, but it began perhaps because of a book published in 2006, Miracles on the Water by Tom Nagorski, about the torpedoing of an evacuee ship in the Atlantic when over 100 children drown in WWII. All my novels are about the influence of early childhood. (See Dickens: The Old Curiosity Shop – “Keep the child in view.”)
Whose sentences are your favourite, and why?
Do you mean “style”? You either are born with it or you are not. The most interesting “sentences” are in poetry. Hard to say who is “favourite.” Keats, of course and in particular his letters. Blake, too. In novels I would have to say Jane Austen and she can be absorbed and studied without being copied. In modern novels there is no one I want to copy. My style “is a poor thing but it is my own.”
When you are in a period of writing, do you change your reading habits for fear of being unintentionally influenced?
Certainly not. But while writing a novel I don’t read anything new in fiction. I am too engrossed. My characters fill my life.
This interview has been condensed and edited.