The books that shaped me: Hollie McNish

·6-min read
Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

Welcome to 'The books that shaped me' - a Good Housekeeping series in which authors talk us through the reads that stand out for them. This week, we're hearing from poet Hollie McNish. She's the author of five collections of poetry, including her latest Slug, and won the Ted Hughes Award for Nobody Told Me. Hollie performs alongside Wana Udobang in A Toast to the People as part of the Edinburgh International Festival on Wednesday 25 August, 8pm.

What impact have books have had on you as a person and an author?

The biggest. The best. They have taken me to so many more places than one life would allow without them. Undoubtedly, they’ve made me a more imaginative and hopefully a nicer, more understanding person after seeing lives that I wouldn’t otherwise know about. I really cannot imagine my life without books. I never start writing or editing any poems of my own without first reading someone else’s poetry or prose for at least fifteen minutes. A lot of my own poems are scribbled in the pages of other books (sorry!).

The childhood book that’s stayed with you...

There were so many I loved but I have to say The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe by CS Lewis. I haven’t read it again as an adult. In fact, I only read it once when I was maybe 11 or 12 so I didn’t really ‘get’ much of the religious imagery that some people aren’t so keen on. But the feeling that I had at the end when the children came back through the wardrobe and remembered the world they had almost forgotten absolutely blew my mind. The time travel blew my mind. I still remember this tingly feeling rushing through me for ages every time I thought about that ending. It was breath-taking. Plus, my granny had a bungalow and in the attic there was a wardrobe with some old fur coats in that you could walk through and then walk on a ledge around between the walls and come out at another cupboard. It was a tiny wee walkway and you had to watch out for rats, but still, Narnia was there!

I haven’t passed this book down to my daughter. I haven’t passed many books down to her. I’ve never forced that. I know some parents are very keen for their children to read their beloved childhood books, but looking at them now, many of the ‘classics’ of my childhood unfortunately contain quite a bit of racism, sexism, fat-shaming and so on and I think there are enough amazing new authors that she’s reading for me not to worry that she’s not sharing my younger reading lists. Jacqueline Wilson is the one author who we share a love of.

Your favourite book of all time...

This is a horrible question! But I’m going to choose the book that came immediately to mind and that is Glue by Irvine Welsh. It is a novel about four friends, which begins with their births and follows them through adolescence and beyond. I’ve never felt so attached to characters as I did in that book and have definitely never stayed awake all night sobbing after reading a book, but I did when I read that. I finished it at 1am and cried till I had to get up for the school run! My second choice would be The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison.

The book you wish you’d written...

This idea has never crossed my mind and I’m not sure there is one. I normally feel more a sense of awe or relief than wishing in this way. There is a poet Jasmine Cooray who once read a brilliant poem on a topic that I was trying to write about at the time. I remember watching her and thinking ‘incredible, that’s done then’ and leaving it at that! Perhaps, if any, I’m in awe of authors who can keep the attention of a young child. So perhaps Julia Donaldson. I think A Squash and A Squeeze is one of the cleverest ideas for a story (and life philosophy if you ever find yourself jealous of people with bigger houses!).

The book you wish everyone would read...

Probably The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison or Irvine Welsh’s Glue or My Name Is Why by Lemn Sissay or any of the Bare Reality series of photography books by Laura Dodsworth. For various reasons. For children, So Much by Trisha Cooke, just because it’s so lovely.

The book that got you through a hard time...

In all honesty, if I’m feeling a bit down or grief-stricken or worried, I don’t tend to sit still. I want to get outside and remind myself that the world is a big place and things will be ok. In times of need I tend to turn to my bike more than books. Saying this, I find escaping a lovely thing. So I tend to pick up Gormenghast, which I’ve been trying to get through for years and love to dip in and out of when I’m just a bit done with the real world. I also veer towards a poetry anthology by Bloodaxe called Staying Alive. It’s got poems suited to every emotion and I love it. But I’d still rather just go for a slow bike ride or to the pub with some friends or put on some Shakira and dance round my bedroom.

The book that uplifts you...

Calm Down Boris! by Sam Lloyd. This is a kid’s book with a big furry orange puppet inbuilt into it. I was a bit tipsy one night after lunchtime drinks with mates and my daughter, when I was home, asked for this book that bedtime. Because I was, well, slightly drunk, I really went for it; accents, singing, improvising new storylines. I even started an argument with the puppet, who I decided that night thought I was an idiot. After that, my kid asked me to read this book every night for about three years. Whatever bad mood I was in or however tired I was, I always felt better after being forced into silly arguments with this hand puppet. It also allowed my daughter to insult me, which she obviously loved too. I’ll not mention the obvious links with our current prime minister, but that shared name did add something for me.

Slug (And Other Things I've Been Told To Hate) by Hollie McNish is out now

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