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 Stacey Halls.
Halls grew up in Rossendale, Lancashire, as the daughter of market traders. She studied journalism at the University of Central Lancashire and moved to London aged 21. She was media editor at The Bookseller and books editor at Stylist.co.uk, and has also worked as a journalist for Psychologies, the Independent and Fabulous magazine. TV rights of The Familiars have been sold to The Bureau production company. Bought in a nine-way auction, The Familiars was received with much praise and was nominated for an HWA award. Say hello on Twitter and Instagram.
How have books impacted your life?
If I was asked to think who I’d be without books, I’d draw a blank. I wouldn’t be an author, that’s for certain. I wouldn’t have half as many memories – sometimes just by scanning my bookshelf I can conjure a particular time in my life. Jane Eyre takes me back to a girls’ holiday to Majorca when I was 15, Wuthering Heights to the train platforms of my uni commute. Kate Atkinson reminds me of my first flat, and Harry Potter conjures the time I spent working in my dad’s shoe shop, reading under the counter. Without books I wouldn’t have half as much empathy, or imagination. As a child I had two slim shelves above my bed, stacked with Beatrix Potters and Animal Arks, Goosebumps and the Wordsworth Children’s Classics. When I was sixteen I gave them all away - a decision I bitterly regret - to one of my babysitting charges. But it’s nice to think that they might have shaped someone else, page by page.
The childhood book that's stayed with you...
I was obsessed with Alice In Wonderland as a child - the Lewis Carroll novel and the 1950s Disney film. I couldn’t get enough, and even had a blue dress like Alice’s, though oddly I’ve never owned the book; I used to borrow it from the library. I’d wear my blue dress and act out scenes in the living room, using crisps as the mushrooms she eats to make her grow taller. Alice is probably responsible for my fascination with all things Victorian, and childhood in particular, though I’m yet to write a novel set in the era. I was quite a self-contained child, and the idea of this little girl going out on an adventure by herself, relying on her own instincts and meeting all these fascinating characters was something that really resonated with me. It’s probably also why I had pet rabbits growing up, and I can still recite some of the Jabberwocky.
Your favourite book of all time...
It would have to be Wuthering Heights, with Great Expectations a close second. I read both in my impressionable teens and turn to them often. Wuthering Heights isn’t a perfect book, and Nelly can be a bit of a drip, but it’s got so much soul and energy and atmosphere. I lived in West Yorkshire at the start of this year and reread it while I was there. I connect so much with the landscape; it’s my favourite place in the world. There’s something so horrible about the book that you can’t stop reading - how the characters act and treat one another, how they all die so young and unfulfilled, Heathcliff’s psychosis and sheer determination to make everyone around him miserable to the end of days. But its spirit and passion is what makes it so compelling. There’s also something intensely fascinating about the fact that it was Emily Bronte’s only novel, and she, too, died so young.
The book you wish you'd written...
I think writing style is so individual, it can be forged but not copied. It really is unique, like a signature, and as much as I try and write a certain way it just comes out as it does. When I experiment it makes me cringe. I tend to stick to my own abilities, and I think there’s something to be said for working out what you’re naturally good at and not fighting it. That said, the living writer I admire most is Sarah Waters. I met her once at a party and just clammed up. I’ve loved everything she’s written, and I’ll buy everything she writes. Her detail, the depth, the settings, the characters… I think she’s unparalleled. Fingersmith is one of the few books I reread over and over and find something new in each time, so if I had to choose one book I wish I’d written it would be that one. Though I’m not convinced it would be as fun to write as to read, with that magnificent twist; you’d have to spend a lot of time making sure all the plot points fit. There’s a nod to it in The Foundling – I won’t spoil it – but there’s an iconic line I’ve reimagined when a deception is revealed.
The book you wish everyone would read...
I’m partway through it, but Reni Eddo-Lodge’s book Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race is a very important, confronting read. 2020 has been such a year of colossal change; it’s every individual’s responsibility to face up to what’s happening in the world and not just acknowledge it but engage with it and educate ourselves. It’s easy to say “I’m not like that, it doesn’t apply to me,” and disengage, but it’s crucial to have conversations, read up on history and be active and compassionate. When I was researching The Foundling I discovered that the Black population of London in the mid-18th century numbered some 30,000 people, and it took me by surprise, I think because we draw a perception of history from fiction and period drama, and it's a community that isn't commonly represented. I decided to include a Black family in the novel to reflect the diversity of the city, and also to highlight the fact that, though Bess’ daughter has gone missing, which is the worst thing that can happen to a mother, Keziah’s children are always at risk of being stolen and sold into slavery. So she and her family are forced to live very privately and discreetly despite being ordinary members of society.
The book that got you through a hard time...
I find Elizabeth Jane Howards’ Cazalet Chronicles extremely comforting, but there’s a bit of a negative connotation when that word is used to describe novels, as if they are junk food or a guilty pleasure. I hate the term guilty pleasure; I don’t feel guilty about anything I enjoy. The novels that are “easy to read” require just as much work and effort to make it seem that way. The Cazalet Chronicles are set during the Second World War in London and Sussex, and follow the extensive Cazalet family with all their various dramas. There are five books in the series and I envy anyone who hasn’t started them; they’re the literary equivalent of settling beneath a warm blanket with a huge cup of tea. Pure bliss, and a cure for most things. Also, Elizabeth Jane Howard is vastly under-appreciated; she should be fifty times more lauded than she is.
The book that uplifts you...
I recently reread Bridget Jones’ Diary after listening to Caroline O’Donoghue and Ayisha Malik discuss it on the podcast Sentimental Garbage, and it put me in a good mood for days afterwards. I should have been working but read it in a matter of hours in my garden, and instantly wanted lockdown to be over so I could meet my friends and gorge on white wine in central London. It hasn’t dated well – Bridget’s attitude to weight and the slightly problematic pre #MeToo bum grabs should certainly stay in the ‘90s where they belong – but it’s such good fun, and it’s not often the Bad Guy is believably fanciable, but Helen Fielding nails it; you’re rooting for Daniel Cleaver even though he’s a total f**kwit (Bridget’s language, not mine). It makes me nostalgic for a life I’ve never had but feel like I’ve lived. I think all the best books do that.
Stacey Halls received a Betty Trask Award for her novel The Familiars as part of the Society of Authors’ Awards 2020. Her second novel, The Foundling, is published on 3 September by Manilla Press in paperback (£8.99).
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