Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Jonathan Stroud

Jonathan Stroud is the author of the Bartimaeus Trilogy and other books.

After I read Susan O'Doherty's enthusiastic praise for Stroud's work, I got in touch and asked him what he was reading. His reply:
At any one time I tend to have several books on the go, ones which I am dipping into for research purposes, or just on a whim, and ones that I am seriously trying to read properly. It's a fairly chaotic scene, and usually I feel pretty guilty about not reading more than I do. At the moment one of the titles on my desk is an old favourite, Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino. I'm writing a novel which is going to have some folktaleish pieces embedded in it, and in order to remind myself of the flavour such things ought to have, I'm checking out this fine collection. It's a vast and brilliant mix of oral history, literary scholarship and modern storytelling. Calvino aimed to create for his own nation a collection equal to the Grimms' famous work; as such he spent years gathering tales from all over Italy, checking variants, choosing the best and most representative, and then rewriting them to give them a unified tone. He provides notes on each one, explaining what he did and why, and this is part of the joy, together with the pungent earthiness, the humour, violence, beauty and magic of the stories themselves. Highly recommended for anyone who likes such things. Hopefully it'll inspire me when I come to attempt my own fragments...

On a similar quest I've also been reading some of the Icelandic Sagas, which though written in the thirteenth century (or thereabouts) are often amazingly modern in the realism they bring to relationships, character and scene. Mind you, they're often not above throwing the odd troll or evil ghost into the equation also, which appeals. I've recently read Njal's Saga for the first time, and reread my personal favourite, Grettir's Saga, with its doomed, swashbuckling hero. I love the vitality, the sinewyness in this northern tradition.

On a completely different note, at bedtime I'm currently wading through the biography of Evelyn Waugh by Selina Hastings, which is hugely readable and for some reason is perfect for that hazy period just before sleep. Waugh is a very odd fish, and his books, though stylistically brilliant, often somehow lacking at the last analysis: reading the life one senses a certain absence that he was aware of in himself, a dissatisfaction that made him prone to depression and general unhappiness, but he wrote beautifully nonetheless, and in Men at Arms (first part of the Sword of Honour trilogy) turned out one of the funniest extended sequences I've ever read (involving something called a 'thunder-box'; I say no more).

I'm also in the middle of a lovely out-of-print autobiography by E Nesbit, one of the first stars of children's literature. It's called Once When I Was Very Young. I found it in a local second-hand bookshop, and it's really charming, giving details of her mid-19th century girlhood, together with enchanting illustrations by Edward Ardizonne. It's the kind of unexpected pleasure one goes into second-hand bookshops for. Ardizonne also turns up in some of the books I'm reading to my three-year-old daughter before bed, chief among them his great Little Tim and the Brave Sea Captain.
Visit Jonathan Stroud's website to learn more about his work.

--Marshal Zeringue