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Louise Doughty: ‘Read as if your life depends upon it’

Detail of caricature of Louise Doughty

ANTHONY JENKINS/The Globe and Mail

Louise Doughty, whose previous work has been shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award and longlisted for the Orange Prize, is back in bookstores with Apple Tree Yard, a suspenseful novel about a geneticist who engages in a spontaneous affair, and the effects of that affair on her otherwise tranquil life. Here, Doughty reflects on the influences that have shaped her as a writer.

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

I read anything and everything when I was younger: I loved nineteenth-century novelists, the Brontë sisters, Dickens – but a lot of twentieth-century writers too, E.M. Forster, Graham Greene. Among contemporary writers I'm a huge fan of Canadian authors: Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, Alice Munro, Carol Shields. Is there something you put in the water? In the U.K. I love Hilary Mantel, Helen Dunmore, Rose Tremain. Life is too short to read all the wonderful books out there.

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

I think it's dangerous to get a bit…how can put this?…up yourself. If you read a lot of Beckett and Kafka and come to believe that your own sense of alienation is an incredibly important topic, you're not going to be thinking about your reader, about how your reader receives your work. Beckett and Kafka are both great writers, but both very much of their time – the world has moved on, and so should you. I'm very suspicious of writers who say they read only classics.

Which perhaps unexpected book(s) share a commonality your new one? What would you think of as its distant cousins?

It seems grandiose to claim literary cousins but I think what Graham Greene did was fascinating. He used the tropes of genre but in way that was so acutely insightful there is no doubt his work was great literature. Books like Brighton Rock and The End of the Affair are perfectly compulsive and filmic yet still great art. In Apple Tree Yard, I was writing the story of a woman who has a passionate affair and ends up on trial for murder – I wanted to do it in a way that was "thrilling" but also had some very serious things to say about human nature. If I did it one hundredth as well as Greene, I'll be happy.

When you are in a period of writing, do you change your reading habits for fear of being unintentionally influenced?

No, the opposite – I read as many great writers as I can in the hope that I will be influenced. I like to read books that I think were doing what I want to do but probably a great deal better. The new book I am working on will be – I hope – somewhat shorter and perfectly poised. So I'm reading lots of short, perfectly poised books. I am baffled by authors who claim they don't read when they are writing. That seems to me as daft as not speaking a language when you are trying to learn it. Read as if your life depends upon it, because your life as a writer does.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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