Sebastian Faulks: ‘George Orwell showed me that the authorities are generally wrong’ | Books

My first memory of reading
Something called the Beacon Readers in a small village school, on the corner of a field. I can imagine the tapered torch design of the jacket against a brown fabric background.

My favorite book growing up
I liked books about witches, of which there seemed to be quite a few books lying around. A little later, around the age of 11, I discovered Alistair MacLean whose formula – a group of desperadoes on a mission to war but with a traitor among them – filled me with almost intolerable enthusiasm.

The book that changed me as a teenager
DH Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers opened my eyes to the fact that a novel doesn’t need action. Character development can be enough to tell a story. I was overwhelmed by the affection Lawrence seemed to have for his characters. He really liked them.

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The writer who changed my mind
George Orwell. I remember, at 14, reading his essay A Hanging, set in Burma. In simple prose, it describes a doomed man walking towards the scaffold, stepping aside at one point to avoid a puddle. Orwell showed me that authorities are usually wrong. It appealed to me because I was in a school that I didn’t like very much. I read all his essays after that, and he gave me a liberal view of the world.

The book that made me want to be a writer
At the same time, I read David Copperfield and Pride and Prejudice. I was amazed by Jane Austen. She was so rude to authority figures. Apparently, you could be a national treasure and a rebel at the same time. With Charles Dickens, there is this exuberance of invention. But there was something else that was inspiring: its ability, by focusing on the idiosyncrasies of its quirky characters, to reveal the whole structure of the society from which they came. Miraculous.

The author I came back to
I couldn’t stick with Evelyn Waugh at first, but I finally got there reading the Sword of Honor trilogy in 1991, when we were living on a remote farm in Italy with our first child, who was one. Then I found A Handful of Dust and my ear tuned into its prose. I still wish he had used that gift on more interesting topics, but there you go.

The book that I read
L’Attrape-coeurs seemed to me at 15 to sum up all my dissatisfactions as a teenager. At 31, when I was a journalist in London, I saw in it the almost clinical description of a nervous breakdown. When I was 48, when I was a full-time writer, it didn’t seem to be about Holden at all, but about a country undergoing mysterious changes.

The book I discovered later in life
Naples ’44 by Norman Lewis. I had often heard of it, but I only read it when I was nearly 60 and at a literary festival in Bali. A wonderful book.

The book I am currently reading
How to Argue with a Racist by Adam Rutherford. Popular science (in this case, genetics) is hard to master, but Rutherford is both erudite and entertaining.

My comfort read
I read to be amazed, or at least to learn something new, so I can’t answer this one; but I have to say that there is usually a welcome light on at 221b Baker Street.

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