Hello and welcome to the latest in the series of Other People’s Bookshelves where we get to have a good old nosey through other peoples book collections. Grab some Kendal mint cake, or even better some Grasmere gingerbread (nothing on earth like it), as we are off to the Lake District to join a man who has seen me at my worst, on both a long haul flight (I hate flying) and in an air balloon (I hate heights) when we both went to Philadelphia on a travel writing trip many moons ago. Today we join Simon Sylvester (another SS, they are the best) and I will hand over to him to tell us more about himself before we go routing through his shelves…
I live in Burneside, just outside Kendal on the southern edge of the Lake District. I moved here about three years ago with my partner, the painter Monica Metsers. Last year we bought a house, which took us six months to strip down and make habitable. We always wanted to have big bookshelves, and my father-in-law made us these to fit the living room. I work part-time teaching film production at the local college, and I make short films for local bands and businesses. Whatever spare time is left goes to my writing. I started writing in 2006, and my short stories have been published occasionally over the years. My debut novel is coming out with Quercus Books in 2014, which is almost as terrifying as it is exciting. Regarding my reading, it’s worth mentioning that I spent a miserable year at boarding school when I was younger. I remember virtually nothing of that time except the library, devouring Hardy Boys books. Reading has always been an escape for me.
Do you keep all the books you read on your shelves or only your favourites, does a book have to be REALLY good to end up on your shelves or is there a system like one in one out, etc?
Once upon a time, I kept them all, but those days are long gone. A book stays if I’m certain to read it again because it’s useful, it’s beautiful or it has personal value. Even with these huge shelves, space is at a premium, and those standards get higher as my collection grows. And despite strict monitoring of what stays and what goes, the books quietly multiply and migrate into other parts of the shelves. I think the board games will have to move elsewhere, soon.
Do you organise your shelves in a certain way? For example do you have them in alphabetical order of author, or colour coded? Do you have different bookshelves for different books (for example, I have all my read books on one shelf, crime on another and my TBR on even more shelves) or systems of separating them/spreading them out? Do you cull your bookshelves ever?
The big shelves have fiction alphabetised by surname, which is dull, perhaps, but then I know where to find things when I want them. I used to work in a record store, and filing is hardwired in me – I get antsy when they’re out of order. Anything borrowed from friends sits flat. On the other side of the room, poetry and graphic novels have shelves of their own. I don’t own enough of either to warrant alphabetising them. I’m actually a little intimidated by comics. I love the ones I read, but it’s so vast and varied a genre that I don’t really know where to begin. Every year or so, my friend Ali Shaw suggests something else, and I’ll give it a go, and invariably enjoy it, but still not know where to take my reading next.
Literary journals and fiction anthologies live on a shelf with my published short stories, good and bad. Above them, nonfiction is a bit of a free-for-all. I’m a sucker for obscure non-fiction book, so the shelves here have sumo wrestling and saints, bikes and kites, whales and weather. Mon’s non-fiction is totally different to mine, so we have shelves of stunning art books as well as rock’n’roll autobiographies and tomes on yoga. I’m pretty sure she’s trying to organise the art books by ascending size, but I get in the way by absently taking them off the shelves to read them. Upstairs, the shelves by my desk are a bit more spartan, but that’s where I gather anything relevant to my current project. My next novel is about a woman losing her way in a huge swamp, so at the moment there’s everything from historical accounts of draining the fens to Finnish folktales. I also keep my finished notebooks and diaries here. The final set of shelves belong to my daughter Dora. She’s two and a half years old, and there’s no point arranging her books, because her first job every morning is to hurl them to the floor and pretend she’s reading them. It’s been a joy beyond measure to rediscover some children’s classics.
What was the first book you ever bought with your own money and does it reside on your shelves now?
My memory is abominable, so this is a little fuzzy; but I’ve always been hooked on second-hand stores. I grew up in Inverness, where there’s an extraordinary bookshop called James Leakey’s. It’s an old church with shelves jammed with books, books in double layers on the floor, and banana boxes of loose books stacked three deep behind the counter. I spent a lot of time in there. Although my first purchase was probably something and somewhere else, I clearly remember buying a very tatty copy of Dune by Frank Herbert from that amazing place. I must have read it half-a-dozen times. I don’t own it any more, unfortunately, though I still love it – one of many books that have escaped over the years. I bought a lot of Iain Banks, too, after I discovered The Wasp Factory. I loaned three Banks books to a passing acquaintance, back in 2001, and never saw them again.
Are there any guilty pleasures on your bookshelves you would be embarrassed people might see, or like me do you have a hidden shelf for those somewhere else in the house?
No secrets in our house, Simon! Mon has books on the shelves that I probably wouldn’t read, just as I have books she wouldn’t read, but they’re all up there. The only one I make a habit of hiding (behind a picture of my daughter) is the True Blood collection by Charlaine Harris. We loved the first two seasons of the TV show, but never enjoyed the books, and after the show withered, neither of us summoned the strength to go back to Sookie and Bon Temps. I don’t know why they’re still there, to be honest. It’s something we don’t talk about, like the cupboard under the stairs.
Which book on the shelves is your most prized, mine would be a collection of Conan Doyle stories my Great Uncle Derrick memorised and retold me on long walks and then gave me when I was older? Which books would you try and save if (heaven forbid) there was a fire?
I don’t own anything financially valuable, but there are several books on the shelves that are peculiarly important to me. The Battle At Sangshak by Harry Seaman is an account of a small but pivotal fight in the godawful jungle war in Burma and India. Sangshak was crucial in turning the tide against the Japanese army in World War Two, and it was nothing less than hell on earth. My grandfather fought there. When he died, his annotated copy went to my dad, and I received my dad’s copy. Inside the back sleeve is a photocopy of a note to my grandfather from the man who led the fight. It’s very humbling to reflect on what they went through. I have another letter, somewhere, that his brother, my great uncle, sent him from a military hospital in Egypt. He’d been injured while fighting in the tank campaigns in Northern Africa. His leg had been smashed in six places by a cannon recoil, and he waited all day in the baking heat, under shellfire, before being rescued. “Still,” he wrote to my grandfather, “I prefer my war to your war.”
My first attempt at a novel was about the war in Burma. I wanted to write about my grandfather’s experiences. I didn’t get anywhere near it, but I don’t think he’d have minded. Funnily enough, the most prized thing on the shelf isn’t a book, but a missing bookmark. Buried in one of those hundreds of books is a photo of me fishing with my grandfather. I must have been eight or ten, and I don’t remember being there. He’s dead now, and that picture means a lot to me, but I have no idea which book it’s hiding in. I often use different bookmarks – especially the ones I find in second-hand books – cheques and postcards and bus tickets – but I’d like that photo back.
What is the first ‘grown up’, and I don’t mean in a ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ way, that you remember on your parent’s shelves or at the library, you really wanted to read? Did you ever get around to it and are they on your shelves now?
The earliest one I remember, again when I was ten or so, was Jock of the Bushveld on my grandparents’ shelves. I read most of it, I think. They gave me Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls for a birthday around then, too. I still own that one. It’s strange, writing this, to realise how often my grandparents are cropping up. I can also remember borrowing some Dean Koontz nasty from the mobile library when I was about thirteen. Days after I’d finished reading it, my dad had a quick flick through – he was so horrified that he hid it until the van came again. I remember thinking it was no worse than the Alistair MacLeans and Desmond Bagleys on my parents’ shelves.
If you love a book but have borrowed the copy do you find you have to then buy the book and have it on your bookshelves or do you just buy every book you want to read?
Guilty of this one – I’ve absolutely bought my own copies of borrowed books. Neil Gaiman was a massive gap in my reading until only a few years ago, when a friend loaned me Neverwhere and Fragile Things. I devoured those and promptly bought my own copies – as well as all his other fiction. I still can’t believe it took me so long. Again, when I was 26, I spent a year working and backpacking round Australia. Months of swapping books in youth hostels led me to discover David Mitchell. Travelling light, I couldn’t carry them with me, so I swapped them on, and promptly bought second copies when I came home. I’ve even done this with books I already own; my favourite novel, The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano, has been on loan to different friends for more than two years. I crumbled and bought a second copy because I couldn’t be without it. It has the best ending of any modern novel.
I’ve just noticed that the only Pratchett I’m missing is Soul Music. When I was fifteen I went on an exchange trip to France. I managed to forget the stack of books I’d put aside for the month abroad, and took only Soul Music in my hand luggage. As a result, I read it continuously over that month. It suffered in rain and sun and rucksacks, becoming ever more curled and dog-eared. It went through some abuse, that book, but it stayed with me. I was still reading it on the plane home. I’d like to get another copy of that.
What was the last book that you added to your bookshelves?
Tales of the Fenlands by Walter Henry Barrett. It’s on longterm loan from my storyteller uncle Rich Sylvester. He was in Cumbria a couple of months ago, when we both read some of our work at the amazing Dreamfired storynights in Brigsteer. I hadn’t seen him for a years, and we talked through some of my next novel. A few weeks later, this book arrived in the post. The mythology of the Fens is incredibly concentrated and well-preserved. We’re hoping to go for a few days walking round Wisbech next year.
Are there any books that you wish you had on your bookshelves that you don’t currently?
Hundreds! Like your post on Doris Lessing, I’m acutely conscious that there are dozens of gigantic gaps in my reading. My ongoing issue at the moment is time, time, time. I used to read two or three books a week; I’m so exhausted at the moment that I barely manage ten pages a night before falling asleep. If I can recover some more time to read, then I have Toni Morrison and Alice Munro in my sights. I’ve only recently discovered Haruki Murakami, having read Wild Sheep Chase, 1Q84 and Norwegian Wood in the last year. My friends rave about Kafka On The Shore, and I’ll work my way through the rest of his writing in the next couple of years.
What do you think someone perusing your shelves would think of your reading taste, or what would you like them to think?
I had something of an epiphany two years ago. It was a bright summer day, and sunlight was streaming into the room Mon and I stayed in at the time. I was sitting on the end of the bed, considering my bookshelves and thinking about what I wanted to achieve as a writer. I’d received some great praise for the novel I wrote about Burma, but the agents and publishers who read it generally felt it was too dark for a first novel, and nothing had come of it. I now had the kernel of an idea for another book, and I was considering whether it was worth the heartache, the effort and the time away from my family. Looking at my shelves, I noticed a distinct line between the authors I admired as ferocious artists, and who had inspired the combative style of my first attempt at a novel – William S. Burroughs, David Peace, Hubert Selby Jnr – and the authors I returned to time and time again because I simply loved to read their stories – David Mitchell, Jasper Fforde, Sarah Waters, Terry Pratchett. The first group experiment with language to deliver emotional punches; the second achieve emotion through characters and situations the reader comes to care about. On making that distinction, I realised that I very seldom returned to the first group, and that I kept them on the shelves almost as proof that I’d read them, rather than because I’d enjoyed them. I felt a little ashamed to realise that they’d stopped being books, and they’d become badges. With that understanding, a huge weight fell from my shoulders. I no longer felt that my stories needed to be experimental, obscure or deliberately challenging. They needed to deliver what I wanted in my own favourite books – the joy of escaping somewhere new. That was the moment I understood not only that I needed to write for myself, but also more about who I was.
Knowing I wouldn’t read them again, I boxed up dozens of those dark literary heavyweights, and took them to a charity shop. Then I started work on my second novel. Two years on, I have a wonderful agent and a very exciting publisher, and a clear path of where I want to take my work. I suspect every writer has that epiphany at some point on the journey to finding their own voice. That was a gigantic turning point in my life, and it couldn’t have happened without my books and my bookshelves. This is a long-winded way of saying that now I’ve challenged myself over why I keep certain books on my shelves, I’m no longer troubled by what other people think of my reading taste or me. These are my books, and I’m proud of them. In any of the new houses Mon and I have moved to, I’ve been unable to settle without shelves on the wall and my books on the shelves. They’re a comfort to me. They remind me of where I’ve been and what I’ve done. Books are part of what make our house a home.
A huge thanks to Simon for taking part in Other People’s Bookshelves. Don’t forgot if you would like to participate (and I would love you to – hint, hint, hint) in the Other People’s Book Shelves series then drop me an email to email@example.com with the subject Other People’s Bookshelves, thanks in advance. In the meantime… what do you think of Simon’s responses and/or any of the books and authors that he mentions?