Justine Picardie

Justine Picardie at The Books That Built Me

Justine is Editor-in-Chief of Harper’s Bazaar and of Town and Country, and author of five bestselling books, including ‘Chanel, the Legend and the Life’, and ‘If the Spirit Moves You’, a moving memoir of the year following the death of her sister, Ruth Picardie, and it was a great treat for me to play host to someone I so greatly admire. Listening to the recording of the event, I’m struck by how much advice for writers Justine gave when she was talking about The Books That Built her – writers and readers are entirely co-dependent.
Coco Chanel: The Legend and the Life, Justine Picardie

1. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (The Chronicles of Narnia), C. S. Lewis
Books at their best can feel like they’re part of your life. This was my first lesson in how to read and how to write.’

My parents didn’t raise my sister and I in any religion. My mother had a very Christian High Anglican upbringing and she was educated by nuns, and my father was Jewish but anyway, we grew up in a household that really was very atheist. But I believed in Aslan, and I believed in the magic of the wardrobe. So in this little flat in Marylebone High Street, my sister and I would go and sit in my mother’s wardrobe and wait to fall into Narnia.

I do always say to people who are beginning to write, ‘remember it’s a journey’… all great narratives, from The Odyssey, the Bible onwards, are quests… but you have to take the reader with you. And that’s what The Lion The Witch and The Wardrobe taught me. It was probably my very first lesson both in how to read – because it’s the first book I remember reading – and also in how to write

2. I Capture The Castle (Vintage Classics), Dodie Smith
Everyone should read [I Capture the Castle] to learn about the art of writing: when I was writing When The Spirit Moves You, I wrote it in the form of a diary, even though it goes into the distant past, into my childhood, but also into 19th Century Spiritualism and psychical research, so when I read I Capture the Castle, it helped me think very carefully about how you can take a diary form but also use it to get you backwards and forwards in time as well. Writing is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration. You write in the hope of that 1% inspiration and you write in the hope of that 1% moment when it does feel the spirit is moving you and something feels automatic and just begins to take over you. The rest of the 99 is hard work and discipline and doing it over and over again. I can’t tell you the number of drafts of every book I’ve written. Dodie Smith sweated blood over I Capture the Castle and yet it reads as if it has flown off her pen and just been written by a 16 year old child.

3. Rebecca (VMC) Daphne du Maurier
“A book of hauntings – you can feel the ghost of the Brontës in all of Du Maurier’s writing.”

“It’s a book that once you read it, it holds you. It’s brilliantly constructed – I’ve found it very inspiring as a writer. It has this narrative device which is incredibly difficult to do but she makes it seem very easy – which is that you never know the name of the narrator. she’s nameless and the woman whose name is given to the book is a ghost. To summon up this character from the dead is amazing….if Du Maurier had been a man that had done the same, she would have been much more accepted by the literary establishment.”

4. The Pursuit of Love, Nancy Mitford
“On the surface a light and sparking read, but also about loss and death.”

5. Oxford Street Tide, Selected Essays (Oxford World’s Classics) Virginia Woolf
Woolf wrote essays and short stories for Harper’s Bazaar; she always recognised the importance of tiny details. She has reminded me how important journalism is, and how it can survive at its very best – this essay seems very appropriate as it’s just around the corner from where we are now. She used to come to the Cafe Royal. When I was walking here, struggling through the tide of Oxford Street and Regents Street, I was like ‘Oh For God’s Sake, what are all these stupid people doing in my way?’ But when you read this book you’re reminded that everybody has their own story to say and there’s no such thing as a literally irrelevant persons: Everybody has that powerful story.

Without readers we can’t exist. I believe passionately in this and it’s why I love Helen for doing this. These books are beautiful and precious objects that should be treasured. You can’t delete a book or a magazine. You can keep it, or give it to a friend, to people you love. You can return to it, turn its pages. You can go back and come forward. It should feel like a friend. A book at its best and a magazine at its best should get you through the longest, darkest nights and we’ve all had those long, dark nights. I could have chosen so many other books tonight, but one of the books [that I didn’t choose but] return to again and again is Heartburn by Nora Efron, such a brilliant and funny but heartbreaking book about heartbreak. I couldn’t hae read that online, I would have gone crazy. I needed that friend, that voice reaching out of the darkness, which is what all of the books we discussed tonight should be. Which is what Harper’s Bazaar should be as well. Please carry on reading – we can’t carry on without you.”