Author Susan Hill on Books That Left A Lasting Impression

Author of The Woman in Black and other novels SUSAN HILL describes how re-reading books can lead to NEW UNDERSTANDINGS AND DISCOVERIES 

I re-read a lot, some books frequently, others perhaps every 20 years.

Books change – or rather, a reader changes, and something one understood in a particular way reveals other meanings and new riches, later. Some books do not survive a re-reading. One grows out of them, perhaps. It was sad to discover that some of Virginia Woolf, by whose work I wrote, lived and breathed, has lost something. To the Lighthouse still shows me how it should be done, yet Between the Acts is a shell.

I re-discovered the war novels of Olivia Manning – the Balkan and the Levant trilogies, and though I always thought they were good, now I see that they have greatness in them.
There is nothing else that tells me so much about World War II, as it affected civilians and cities, except some of Elizabeth Bowen’s fiction.

Women writers are thick on my bookshelves. Edith Wharton, was a genius and in re-discovering her Old New York novels, especially The House of Mirth, that unbearable tragedy, I found even more to admire. She wrote as well – sometimes she wrote better – than her much-lauded friend, Henry James.

I should have made more room for Irish writers in my new book, as I have always done on my shelves. Perhaps I will write another book about them alone. I try to understand why Irish novelists of the last 50 or 60 years are not only as good as but usually better than, their English and American counterparts … there is something Irish people are born with. The love of words and the easy command of language runs through their blood and so they write fine novel after fine novel. In no particular order, Colm Tóibín, Bernard McLaverty, Patrick McGrath, John McGahern, Roddy Doyle … and lest you should ask where the women are, Anne Enright, Molly Keane … and of course, Elizabeth Bowen all over again.

At my Catholic convent school I was naughty and got many detentions, in which I had to learn poems. It has served as a treasure trove ever since and there is more poetry in this new book than ever there would be if I’d been a good child. I have a special place in my heart for Seamus Heaney – and on my shelves is a precious copy of The Haw Lantern, inscribed wonderfully for me. But nobody outshines UA Fanthorpe for me as a contemporary woman poet. I often pick up her Collected Poems as I pass and read a stanza or two. That is the way to make your own bookshelves live, to browse around, lighting upon this or that, every day.

I write anywhere, at any time of day or night. I don’t have my own special room, or desk, I am to be found with pen, notebook or laptop where the mood takes me and no one else is near … kitchen, sofa, garden chair. Bed. I am as peripatetic as my books, to be found in all of those places too.

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