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 Liz Nugent.
Before becoming a full-time writer, Liz worked in Irish film, theatre and television. Her three novels - Unravelling Oliver, Lying in Wait and Skin Deep have each been Number One bestsellers in Ireland and she has won four Irish Book Awards (two for Skin Deep). She lives in Dublin with her husband.
How have books impacted your life?
I could never have been a writer without first being a reader, and I associated books with love. My parents separated when I was about seven years old, and when I got to see my Dad, he always took me to the library and we would both withdraw two books each. We would then return to his house and eat sweets and read for an hour, before discussing our books with each other. It made me feel very grown up and that my opinions mattered. If I have a gift at all, it came from him.
The childhood book that's stayed with you...
I recall wondering why the wicked stepmothers in fairy tales were so evil. I definitely wanted more of their back story. But because of my Dad’s influence, I moved on from children’s books pretty quickly. He never censored what I read, so I read Jaws and The Godfather when I was about eleven. I liked to scare myself, so it was hardly surprising that I turned to a life of crime (writing) though my books are more about the psychology of my sociopathic characters than anything else. When everyone else wanted to be the princess in the school play, I wanted to be the witch. Far more interesting.
Your favourite book of all time...
The Book of Evidence by John Banville. It is about a bungling art thief who accidentally murders a young maid in the process and then goes on the run. He hides out in the home of an aristocratic friend.
It is beautifully written, not a single word is wasted and it clearly demonstrates the trauma of the murderer as he tries to escape his living nightmare through alcohol. It is based on a true story and I have met the real murderer (released after a thirty year sentence). He gave me the creeps.
It was the inspiration for my first novel, Unravelling Oliver. I worked on a stage adaptation of the book in 2002 and the story really got under my skin. I thought if I ever wrote a book, it would be about a deeply flawed man like Freddie Montgomery.
The book you wish you'd written...
Perfume by the German writer Patrick Süskind is all about a murderer who is enthralled by the sense of smell. He chooses his victims for their scent and while his treatment of their bodies is gruesome, it is not rapacious or violent. The reader gets sucked into his world and begins to understand the motivations behind his serial killing. You might think that a book that is so much about scent, stench and perfume would be a chore to read but it is utterly compelling and the finalé is unique in the history of storytelling. It has certainly influenced my own work. I write first person narratives told from the point of view of the murderers, although I also play out the consequences for the victims.
The book you wish everyone would read...
My Name is Leon by Kit de Waal is a heart-breaking story of a young biracial child who is separated from his white brother when they are taken into care, after his addicted mother is deemed unfit to look after them. The white baby brother is adopted but Leon ends up in a series of foster homes. He misses his baby brother, but he makes his own community on an allotment with a strange bunch of characters, all of whom are outsiders in their own communities. This book has so much to teach about tolerance, community and love. It has never been more relevant, or perhaps it is always relevant.
The book that got you through a hard time...
There are two, very different, but with quite a lot in common. The first is Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen and the other is Rachel’s Holiday by Marian Keyes. They are both hilariously funny, they both deal with social issues (addiction in Rachel’s Holiday, inequality in P & P) and they both have a protagonist who is surrounded by a sprawling family.
Women tend to write comedy exceptionally well, even though there are serious issues hidden within. I read both at the beginning of Covid lockdown as a means of escape and I read Rachel’s Holiday again more recently when I was suffering from a dose of the blues. We need books like these to lift us up when we are down.
The book that uplifts you...
Apart from the books listed above, I tend towards the darker side in my reading, but I thoroughly enjoyed Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman. Eleanor is so wonderfully hapless and gets herself into situations that are laugh out loud funny. But we are laughing with Eleanor and not at her. It is a wonderfully empathetic story of a woman who, although it is never declared, is probably neuro atypical. Again, it’s a book that teaches tolerance and we can all do with more of that.
Our Little Cruelties by Liz Nugent is released in paperback on 21 January.
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