“I didn’t become a novelist until I was forty-one. I never had an ambition to write [fiction] until I was about forty,” said Anthony Quinn at The Books That Built Me earlier this week, “It was possibly because I thought by then I could do it. Until then I’d been a journalist for twenty years, and a journalist is a sprinter whereas trying to write a novel is like going out on a really long run. It’s more pleasurable than you think.”
Anthony’s first book, The Rescue Man, won the Author’s Club Best First Novel Award in 2009 – since then, he has published five novels, of which the latest is Freya. Over a glass of Bollinger, we talked about six of the books that have helped build his considerable writing muscle.
The Books That Built Anthony Quinn
1.The Compleet Molesworth, Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle – now available as ‘Molesworth (Penguin Modern Classics)
“When I was a kid, I wasn’t a great reader. I loved The Beatles, I loved football and I loved drawing most of all. I noticed on my mum’s shelf a book called ‘Down with Skool’ by Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle and I thought these amazing spindly gothic illustrations were magical and so I spent my whole time just copying Searle’s pictures. It wasn’t until three of four yeas later that I started reading them [the Molesworth books]. I’d never been to public school and I didn’t know anyone who’d been to public school but as soon as I’d read Molesworth, I knew exactly what a public school was. I could smell what a public school was: chalk, boys farts and wet socks. It was evoked in those spindly lines but also in the terrific, parodic, clever language.”
2. Raffles: The Amateur Cracksman, E.W. Hornung
“This is the first proper grown up book I read. I was twelve years old and on holiday in Ilfracombe and I was transported by it. The Raffles stories are by a man called E.W.Hornung, Arthur Conan-Doyle’s brother in law, and they’re the B-side of Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson. Raffles lived in Albany: he was three things – a Mayfair man-about-town, the finest slow bowler English cricket had ever seen and by night he robbed the hostesses of Mayfair of their spoons. And their jewels. He’s the amateur cracksman….I always had ideas above my station: I grew up in Liverpool in a very lower middle class family but Raffles just transported me: I wanted to wear topper and tails, to smoke Sullivan cigarettes in the Burlington Arcade, to have a set of rooms at Albany and generally to swan around Mayfair as a man of leisure and as a dandy. I got the cigarettes in the end….. I put a character in Freya called Nat Fane into Albany, so that was the next best thing… he’s the spiritual heir of Raffles.”
[if Anthony Quinn could only keep one book of the six, he’d keep Raffles]
“I remember reading Brideshead and it was the first novel where I actively slowed down my reading because I couldn’t bear it to end. It was one of those books that completely bewitched and enchanted me. I wasn’t prepared for it really: I suppose it was the first serious English novels I’d read. I started it in ’81. I was seventeen. Two things happened – I was applying to Oxford and the famous ITV serial came out in the Christmas of ’81, just when I’d applied. Those Oxford passages [in Bridehead] still seem to me beautiful and magical and the whole first section is called Et In Arcadia Ego which as any fule kno [q.v.Molesworth] means ‘I too was in Paradise’…it’s a real Innocence and Experience book.”
“It has such intelligence and depth and complexity: it is a wonderful distillation of everything that’s great in the Victorian novel. It’s a unique book to me: this is the book that made me think the novel was the great form….I am totally in awe of [Middlemarch]: you know that you’ll never ever come near it as a writer, and yet it’s a shining beacon to you too.”
5. New Grub Street (Vintage Classics), George Gissing
“There are some writers you seem to wait your whole life for: it’s the discovery of a writer whose voice you instantly identify with, and you feel lucky when you do, and for me George Gissing is that writer. This is just one of the great novels about money and marriage in lower middle class Victorian London but it’s an absolutely unsurpassed novel about creativity, about writing, about how to earn a living from writing…. It was a hot topic then and it’s an even hotter topic now. “
6. In A Summer Season (VMC), Elizabeth Taylor
“This lovely salon that Helen has invited me to is called The Books That Built Me but what we all know about builders is that they never quite finish the job and I never consider myself – as a reader or a writer – the finished article. I hoe that I will still be reading new stuff, discovering new stuff and he writer who I feel so grateful for discovering in the last three years is Elizabeth Taylor….She is one of these writers who, as soon as you read her, you realise you’re absolutely in the hands of a master. It’s no exaggeration to say that this woman is a modern Jane Austen…just because your canvas is small and your milieu is small it doesn’t mean to say you’re going to write a small book.”
I asked Tony what he felt Elizabeth Taylor had taught him as a writer. He quoted from one of her earlier books: A View of the Harbour –
“I’m not a great writer, whatever I do, someone else has done it before and better. In ten years time, no one will remember this book. The libraries will have sold all of their grubby copies of it second hand and the rest will have fallen to pieces, gone to dust. And even if I were one of the great ones, who, in the long run, cares? People walk about the streets and it is all the same to them if the novels of Henry James or Jane Austen were never written. They could not easily care less. No one asks us to write. If we stop, who will implore us to go on?”
Me, I said, me! I will implore you to go on, as will all the guests you’ve captivated this evening. If you haven’t yet discovered Tony’s work, try the first chapter of Freya (you can read it by clicking Freya 1st chapter)- spend just a few minutes in the worlds he so cleverly conjures and I challenge you not to implore him to go on writing too.
[You can buy Freya by clicking the underscored link.]
With thanks to Tatler and to Prestat for supporting the salon and to the Club at Cafe Royal for hosting The Books That Built Me – the Cafe Royal is a fabled literary destination; it has played host to the great and the good of British writing since Oscar Wilde managed to get a writ served on him there, and crops up in countless novels, not to mention its walk on part in Raffles, Brideshead Revisited, New Grub Street, and Tony Quinn’s Curtain Call and Freya.