I can’t remember a time in my life when I wasn’t reading. Growing up, every Wednesday afternoon was devoted to a visit to the Carnegie Library in Dundrum; every Thursday to Tuesday night to reading the books I’d chosen, getting through them so I could choose some more. Tales of adventure stimulated me as a kid, stories of boys my own age getting into scrapes, getting out of them again. H.E. Todd’s Bobby Brewster novels were my favourite. Inanimate objects came to life whenever Bobby was near them. ‘At least he thought he said it to himself,’ Todd wrote, using a familiar construct to begin the latest yarn. At six or seven years of age, I wanted nothing more from life but to be Bobby Brewster.
Ten years later and I was living in Cambridge, the summer of my Leaving Cert. Working in a betting shop by day, a hotel by night, trying to save some money, have some fun. Living away from home for the first time. I read The Cider House Rules by John Irving, the story of the boy who belonged to St Cloud’s. That summer was a hot one, and when the story opened out on to the apple orchards of Maine, I wanted to be there too, picking apples, making cider, living in the cider house, breaking those rules. No author has influenced me as much as John Irving. The depth of his characterisations, the breadth of his epic stories; I wait patiently every four or five years for a new one and there’s no point even trying to talk to me until I’ve got to the end.
I write in a study lined with bookshelves and looking around for the novels that have influenced me the most makes me wish I had more pages to devote to it. The ones I value the most are those that have led me in unexpected directions. Anything by Alexandre Dumas, whose work appeals to my sense of adventure. (Why doesn’t anyone write these kind of books any more?) Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley novels, which I read as a teenager; they introduced me to my favourite anti-hero in fiction: Tom Ripley. I attempted a tribute to Highsmith’s work in my fifth novel, Next of Kin, populating it with evil aristos and morally bankrupt toffs. Jonathan Coe’s What A Carve Up! was a novel which dazzled me for its use of multi-layered plots, mixing wild and extraordinary characters with a storyline echoing Kind Hearts and Coronets. The stories of Tobias Wolff, which I always keep close at hand and dip into whenever my creative energies or emotional spirits are low; each one is a challenge to any story writer to write better fiction. He is a writer of profound intelligence and depth; his Old School is a novel about young writers idolising their heroes, and he’s one of mine.
My first passion was for books, for the art of good story-telling that would keep me awake at night, under the covers with the light switched off and a torch in my hands. It’s a passion that’s never faded.