Welcome to the Book Marks Questionnaire, where we ask authors questions about the books that have shaped them.
This week, we spoke to After Me Comes the Flood author Sarah Perry.
Book Marks: A book that blew your mind?
Sarah Perry: Amy Sackville’s novel Painter to the King is an historical novel about the painter Valesquez in the court of King Philip of Spain, and is utterly exhilarating to read as a practitioner, because of her astonishing ability to locate the reader inside the consciousness of the artist, so that by the end of the novel one begins to see the whole world as a kind of wet canvas—it is both deeply scholarly and somehow very playful in its willingness to experiment, and it ought to have won everything going.
BM: Last book you read?
SP: I have been working on my fourth novel, and I find it difficult to read novels while I am writing for fear of some kind of cross-contamination or undue influence, so I have been reading a lot of poetry—mostly the collected RS Thomas, who I think of as being a little like TS Eliot, if Eliot had seen God in a Welsh Methodist meeting hall.
BM: A book that made you cry?
SP: It’s quite easy for me to cry over a book for sentimental reasons, but there are more important tears, I think, and I recall a few months ago reading Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad on a plane, and at one point bursting into helpless tears of distress and rage and indignation.
BM: Favorite book to give as a gift?
SP: The book I give away most of all is Fred Uhlman’s Reunion. It can be read in the time it takes to drink a glass of wine (albeit a large one), and it manages to distill all the tragedy and horror of the second world war into a brief and piercingly sad novel about the friendship between two schoolboys. It is perfection.
BM: Classic book on your To Be Read pile?
SP: I tend to avoid reading long novels, since I have a very short attention span and have a tendency to want to devour books quickly and move on, which is a terrible acquisitive habit. To help cure myself of this I have just bought a three volume edition of War and Peace—which really is how it ought to be read, since it was originally serialized.
BM: Favorite book no one has heard of?
SP: In 1907 Edmund Gosse published Father and Son, a memoir of his childhood in a strict Christian sect in the 1860s. It is generally thought to be the first ‘psychological memoir,’ and the genre which is so fashionable now really has roots here. It was the first book to only acknowledge but revel in objectivity: many of the facts are demonstrably false, but this does nothing to diminish the essential truthfulness of the book.
BM: Favorite book of the 21st century?
SP: The Underground Railroad is one of the most accomplished books I have ever read and surely one of the most important books of the 21st century for its righteousness and moral indignation. I remain awestruck at Colson Whitehead’s ability both to craft an utterly satisfactory and richly drawn historical novel, and a novel which is absolutely and urgently about the way we live now, and about the inherited and ongoing trauma inflicted on black bodies by structural racism and acts of individual racial hatred. I will never forget it.
BM: Favorite book you were assigned in high school?
SP: We studied Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day at A level, and I recall being absolutely staggered by it, for reasons which I doubt I comprehended fully at the time. Whenever I return to it, I am reminded of that sensation of being confronted with what the full possibilities of the novel, and of how the whole class of teenagers had an impassioned row about the nature of love and duty and responsibility.
BM: Favorite children’s book?
SP: I don’t think anything has ever given me as much pleasure as the scene in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s novel A Little Princess, when the poor, impoverished, and friendless girls goes wearily up to her cold attic room to find it has been transformed into a paradise of beauty and food by a kind stranger! I must have read it dozens of times.
BM: Book you wish would be adapted for a film/tv show?
SP: I am going to ignore the forthcoming adaptation of Terry Pratchett’s peerless novel Night Watch, pretend it isn’t happening, and say that I wish someone would do justice to Pratchett’s wisdom, acuity, warmth and faultless world-building.
Sarah Perry’s After Me Comes the Flood is out now from Custom House