An Essay by Chris Cleave
When you’re young and impressionable almost any book can change the direction of your life, so you’d better just hope it’s not Mr Brown Can Moo – Can You? I remember going through a time – after the year I read all of Stephen King’s superb horror stories, and before the year I became rather pleased with myself and took to ostentatiously reading Czech poets – when every book I read seemed to disassemble me into my constituent atoms and rebuild me in a new configuration. That was a magical time, when books read me. Heart of Darkness, David Copperfield, Les Miserables, The Red and the Black, Mrs Dalloway, One Hundred Years of Solitude, Germinal, The Waves, The Grapes of Wrath, Blood Meridian – if I had to tell you where I grew up, if I had to tell you where I’m from, well, I’m from the dramatic country created by those huge novels crashing together and forming great ridges and valleys. That was the landscape of my youth, and it’s hard to say at this distance which of those interlocking summits afforded me the clearest view of my future. What is the book that made me decide to be a writer?
I no longer know, but it must have moved me forever because here I am descended from that mountain country of my youth to these sandy plains where I struggle to make my own mountains but achieve mostly sandcastles, or, at best, the foothills of some great new range that I sense is coming - although whether it will be raised by me or by some other hand I do not know. A writer is a reader like any other, just blinder and more vainglorious. A writer finds themselves isolated on the flatlands, reading a book that hasn’t been written yet. They miss the mountains of youth and squint with hope and dread into the unwritten, inchoate mountains of the future and imagine that they see a line there. And meanwhile the sun blazes hotter every day and each night the chill bites more cruelly. What is the book that first made me decide to be a writer, all those years back? I don’t know, I can’t say, I haven’t written it yet.