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the influence interview

Caricature of Damian Barr by Anthony JenkinsAnthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail

Talk about timing: Margaret Thatcher died just as Damian Barr's new memoir, Maggie and Me, which documents the author's childhood in a Scotland firmly under the Iron Lady's rule, was published. But the book, warm and wise but also unflinchingly in its exploration of dark material, can stand on its own. Here, Barr, who's also the host of a popular UK literary salon, reflects on the books that shaped him.

When you started to write, which writers did you revere?

Diana Athill. Jeanette Winterson, because she's very difficult. She's not interested in being likable. She's interested in telling the truth – her truth. When I was started writing I found it difficult to privilege myself – why would anybody want to read me talk about myself? In her memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal, she constantly says, "this is my story, we're talking about me, by the way, we're talking about me, we're not talking about anybody else here, it really is all about me." It's such a massive dose of herself, it enabled me to talk about myself.

What is the most dangerous type of influence for a young writer?

The sense of entitlement that happens when you get published too early. I did a book before this, and it was published when I was very young, and I had no idea what publishing was. It gave me a very skewed sense of the experience. Publishing too young – it's like putting a newborn baby in the sun. Some people should be kept back. In publishing, there's this trend of buying hot, young authors' books. If somebody tells me an author's date of birth as a selling point, I'm predisposed to be incredibly suspicious of it. Partly that's probably envy: I'm never going to be that 25-year-old person. That time has passed for me.

If you could influence your own younger self, what would you try to change?

Don't try and overdetermine the reader's reaction. I was overly concerned about making people not hate my parents, or love my siblings as much as I do. And the question of self-privileging. It's okay to tell your story – no one else is going to do it. It's inherently arrogant. I'm going to talk about me for 70,000 words, and you're going to listen. And you're not my therapist, I'm not having sex with you and you're not a priest. That is a hard thing to get over.

Which authors do you think are most influential today?

William Trevor, I think – people don't talk about him very much, but he's very influential. J.L. Carr, A Month in the Country , which shamefully I only read for the first time recently. I hated myself. I love that that still happens, that I can still feel bad about a book that I haven't read that everybody else has read. And the high-concept thriller, things like Gone Girl. You see it in book jackets and catalogues, everybody is trying for that. But if you can see a bandwagon, it's because you can see it from the back. And it's already gone, so don't try to follow it.

This interview has been condensed and edited.