I was a big reader as a child, which probably isn’t unexpected. And Ian Seraillier’s The Silver Sword (1956) is one of the books that really resonated with me as a child and stayed with me. It was my first introduction, I think, to the Second World War, and to the part played by children at different times in the war – which would eventually lead to my book, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. I remember reading it when I was about maybe nine or ten, and feeling quite frightened by it.
I was a quiet child, definitely quite introspective, and I think I was drawn to the to the fact that that those children were very much on their own as well, that they were isolated and having to find some form of heroism and bravery inside themselves. I didn’t really have that myself. I used the library a lot; I think around the age of eight, I was already starting to write stories.
I read The Cider House Rules (1985) by John Irving a little later, when I was 18. When I did my A-levels, that summer I went to England for the first time. I was working in a hotel as a waiter and it was my first time away from home, living on my own. I bought some books with my wages, including The Cider House Rules. That book was the first, I think, real adult fiction that completely took me over, where I felt, ‘I have never read anything like this story’.
Homer Wells grows up in an orphanage, and the man running the orphanage, Dr Larch, is an abortionist, and he hopes that Homer will take over. Homer decides this isn’t the thing he wants to do, and he goes off to the orchards of Maine. It’s full, as most of John Irving’s books are, of sexual misfits, and being gay I felt very much like one at the time. I found myself relating to those kinds of characters, and to the journeys that they were on.
I became a huge fan of John Irving’s. Later, when I published my first novel, The Thief of Time, I sent a copy and a letter to John saying how much he’d inspired me – in fact, I have a tattoo on my arm: “We are all terminal cases,” from The World According to Garp – and he got back to me, which was incredible. That was 21 years ago, and we’ve become friends since.
My third pick, L. P. Hartley’s The Go-Between (1953), was one of those books that for many years I’d heard about, and it’s got one of the most famous opening lines, of course – “the past is a foreign country, they do things differently there” – but I didn’t read it until a producer on the movie of Striped Pyjamas told me that it was her favourite book.
It’s about an old man looking back to his childhood, and to this moment when he’s a little boy, and falls in love with the rich girl of the manor, who is having an affair with the farmer next door. She’s using him as a go-between: he’s sending letters for her, bringing messages back and forth, but he’s falling in love with her too, and it’s his first experience of it; he thinks that she loves him.
It’s the best book I've ever read about the awakening of young love, recognising that you've got no shot but thinking that if it's not going to be this then life isn’t worth living. As we get older, we still get our hearts broken now and again, but probably we've become better at being able to deal with it. But in this book, the young boy Leo just can't, and as he looks back at his life, you know, he can trace it all back to that.
We all have those books that we've just never read, but I read Moby-Dick (1851) for the first time about two years ago. John Irving and I were having some drinks, and he had just gone the day before to get a new tattoo: “only found another orphan”, which are the last four words of Moby-Dick. (Inspired by that, and in serious hero-worship mode, I went out the next day to get my Garp tattoo.) He said Moby-Dick was his favourite book.
When I got home I decided to give it a go. To my surprise, it turned out to be quite the page-turner; there’s a real story to it, and incredible characters. And by the time I was about a quarter of the way through, I was completely hooked. You read one of those big books, and you say, “Yes, I've finally read it” – but it’s even better if you loved it.
The older I get, there seems to be fewer and fewer books that really blow me away the way like when I was young, but The Slap (2009), by Christos Tsiolkas, is definitely my favourite novel of the 21st Century. I love when you can sum up a book’s premise with a clever, simple line, and in this case it’s: “at a suburban barbecue a man slaps a child that isn’t his own”. I just went, “Yeah, I want to read that.” I was going to Australia in 2009 and I heard about this book that wasn't yet published in England; I knew that when I got off the plane, the first thing the next day I was going to a bookshop to buy it.
The book is structured by eight long sections, each narrated by a different person who was at the barbecue, but they're not retelling the story; each time, the next narrator kind of picks up the story from there. When the man does this, to this little boy who's running around screaming like a lunatic, he just slaps him once, but it has this massive effect on this group of friends. And because the family at the centre of it are Greek Australians, there’s a lot about racism and immigration. The guy who slaps the child is a bit rough around the edges, definitely, but he’s a good person, and the minute he does something wrong, society turns on him. It’s so complex; I just think it's a brilliant piece of novel writing.
It occurs to me that this is another book where the catalyst for the action is a child, which I hadn't thought about before; most of these books feature children in very prominent roles, and I guess I feature them in my books, too. I’m not that interested in stories about myself, I suppose, which is why most of my own novels are not set in Ireland and are not really inspired by anything in my own life. Sometimes what books do best is they let you read about these lives other than your own: I’ve never been whaling, but I loved Moby-Dick. Those things outside myself draw me in as a reader, so they compel me as a writer too.
The Jack Reacher author on evolution, writing technique and why he always checks his boots for scorpions, as we discuss five books that have shaped his life.
The author of More Than A Woman on five books that shaped her life, from loving Little Women to discovering Germaine Greer to recently taking the plunge with Moby Dick.