Sophie Kinsella on the books that changed her

I discovered Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl (1964) in my Christmas stocking. I was young, six or seven, and I woke up very early and rummaged around, it was all just delightful thing after delightful thing. Then I came across Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, put on the bedside light and started reading. I didn’t stop. I just kept reading it all Christmas day. I don’t think I really engaged with anyone at all until I’d read it. It just blew me away.

Not only is it just the most perfect book in terms of magic and chocolate and hope and overcoming great deprivation to glory, and the really quite severe comeuppances, but it’s just such a page turner too. I had obviously read books before, but it’s the first one I overwhelmingly remember the power of, that I would prefer to read this, even at Christmas with new toys, than anything else. If you genuinely had Wonka’s factory to explore, that would basically trump anything, and that’s how it felt. I wasn’t going to step away.

I read The Rector’s Wife by Joanna Trollope (1991) when I was a commuting financial journalist of around 23. It’s one of the books I remember reading and thinking: ‘I want to do this’. I always knew I liked words, but I never knew quite what sort of book I might want to write. I knew I wasn’t going to write a very heavy literary book, but I felt that nor was I going to write a big thumping blockbuster in which people jet off to Acapulco and run multi-million-pound companies. What I loved about this book was it was just very recognisable. Joanna Trollope has this ability to describe things minutely, in a way that makes you think ‘yes I know that, that feeling, I know that pair of misted-up spectacles, that teacup on the kitchen counter.’

It's the story of a woman who has married a man who becomes a vicar during the course of their marriage, and she finds herself a rector’s wife, forced to adopt the role that is expected of her. She breaks free during the course of the book, motivated by wanting to earn some school fees to put her bullied daughter into a different school. Against the advice of everyone around her, she takes a job, and this decision creates all sorts of ripples. It works because the set-up is so restrictive, these disapproving parishioners, the church hierarchy, everyone is against this idea. I wrote my first book, The Tennis Party, about a year after reading it.

I came across Story by Robert McKee (1997) because I went to a seminar run by him – he’s a screen-writing guru. I had never done any writing training, I didn’t go to creative writing school, I just read a lot and winged it, essentially. So this was the first time someone had spoken in a language I understood. It was just amazing for me to sit and hear somebody discuss the principles of storytelling, some of which I thought ‘yes I already know this and do it’, and some of which opened my eyes.

So I sat in his seminar and started replotting the book I was working on, The Wedding Girl, even as he was talking. One of the things he says is that humans are inherently lazy, they generally do the minimum required of them. And I think this is such a useful mantra for anyone telling a story. Your characters shouldn’t make gestures that the reader is going to think, ‘why have you done that?’ He talks about the negation of the negation, which is the ‘all is lost’ moment. It just stayed with me – you’ve got to have a real low before you can resolve.

There’s such a difference between having some ideas for characters, having the idea for a setting, and then actually structuring it into a story. It’s a big old ask and that’s why I couldn’t believe my joy to hear someone talking about what I did for my job, for the first time in my life. It was as if I’d been doing a job for several years and then suddenly the team came in and said this is your job description. It was a big moment for me. I would say I mentally refer to it most days I write, in some shape or form.

I discovered A Field Guide to Lies and Statistics by Daniel Levitin (2017) because my husband read it on a plane ride to a family holiday. He kept quoting things from it, and I was intrigued. It tells you all the ways in which data and information is manipulated, and how gullible we can all be. It has changed the way I perceive things. If I see a graph on Twitter, I’m now less likely to say, ‘oh my god have you seen this?’ I might just pause. Or if it says, 65% of people think X, I might think ok – which people, how many people was that? 

It’s great because it’s so anecdotal, there are so many real-life examples of misinformation, and it leaves you feeling slightly more determined to check sources. One of the slightly depressing messages is how hard it is to verify the truth, but we’ve got to keep trying. So my husband read it and then I grabbed it and read it and then I became the really boring one going around saying ‘no way, look at this graph, do you see how this is completely misleading?’ 

My last book I read recently, so it’s me looking into the future and hoping it will change my life. It’s The Finnish Way by Katja Pantza (2018). I am a complete sucker for ‘let’s learn from another culture’. I loved hygge. I even invented a new term for my new book, Christmas Shopaholic: sprygge. Becky invents it and it takes on a life of its own.

I think if I’m honest though, my interpretation of hygge was just to buy candles and blankets, not to change my mindset, just use it as a shopping opportunity. But I learned in this book about this Finnish concept called sisu: it means being tough, which I find quite inspiring. Don’t give up, be resilient, get on with life, challenge yourself.

There’s a lot of practical stuff about going into the forest, spending time outside. But what really appealed to me was sisu – the idea of something that encourages you to be a bit ballsy and a bit punchy as well as buy the candles and the blankets.  The idea that there’s actually a word for it. Instead of ‘I can’t’, or ‘I won’t’, how about, ‘how can I?’.


Sophie Kinsella's latest book, Christmas Shopaholic, is out now. 


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