Reading itself was my first great passion, I fell for it straight away. Words got right under my skin, tugged at my root, and there I was, gone. It’d be wrong to say that I devoured books: they devoured me. Willing victim, I slipped quickly between the lines and was lost. I loved anything that smelled of edges, hidden worlds and transformations; anything that confirmed my suspicion that nothing is ever quite what it pretends to be—not even books. For me, they were the secret door, the cave behind the waterfall, the underground river, the magic spell.
I must have been quite unsocialised when I arrived at boarding school. On my seventh birthday, a few weeks later, I made a mortal enemy when I sat in a corner reading a book while a nun organised some girls to sing ‘Happy Birthday’. I didn’t mean to be rude, I just didn’t notice what was happening until she made a loud, huffy speech about manners and some people being best left alone and herded the girls away. I was mystified for a bit, then went on reading.
There were two books in particular that got me, again and again. One was an illustrated volume of Greek myths and legends. The other was Eileen O’Faolain’s Irish Sagas and Folk-Tales. When I had to stop reading to do something else, my imagination took over and I became one of those shady Greeks with unpronounceable names, tumbling through the sky or crossing water to the Underworld; or else I entered the surreal world of the Fianna with its shape-shifters, its compulsions and its revenants. The bell would ring and there I’d be: Cúchulainn in school uniform, on his way to Games.
When I was eight, I was expelled by the same nun for a series of crimes including planning a midnight feast. The other nuns eventually relented and took me back, but they banned Enid Blyton (whose influence they blamed) instead. This was a mistake. We already knew that authority was suspect, but now it had made itself ridiculous. Didn’t the nuns know that Enid Blyton was on their side? We did. Her best characters always ended up as prefects.
The revelation that stories could be subversive made them all the more thrilling. Some of us took to meeting to swap and read stories that we’d written, in out-of-the-way places behind doors that no one ever thought to lock: on little-used stairwells, or in the boxroom under the stage. I suppose that’s how my writing career was launched.
Right now I’m loving the second volume of The Paris Review interviews as much as I loved the first, and George Moore’s Hail and Farewell. I have a stubborn affection for George Moore, in spite of everything. I’ve just finished Janet Malcolm’s The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. I’m always amazed by the books I manage to miss when they first come out, but I love knowing that the supply is inexhaustible. A world without reading would be my idea of hell.