Pat Barker: ‘For women, European literature begins with silence’

The author on life-changing Homer, Antony Sher’s humour and a poem by a man condemned to die

The book I am currently reading
The Gallows Pole by Benjamin Myers. Powerful, visceral writing, historical fiction at its best. Benjamin Myers is one to watch.

The book I wish I’d written
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. She seizes the stereotype of beauty that damages so many girls and shakes it until its full cruelty is revealed. Her innovative language conveys what had never previously been said.

The book that had the greatest influence on me
The Way to Write: A Complete Guide to the Basic Skills of Good Writing by John Fairfax and John Moat – simple advice for beginners that takes an hour to read and the rest of your life to implement.

The last book that made me laugh
Antony Sher’s Year of the King, the diary of his struggles – both mental and physical – to create the role of “sick Dick”, Shakespeare’s arch-villain Richard III. Sher’s Shakespeare diaries – he has published two others: Year of the Fat Knight and Year of the Mad King – cast more light on his chosen roles than many a scholarly tome and are a lot more fun to read.

The book I’m most ashamed not to have read
Beowulf in the Seamus Heaney translation. I love his poetry, everybody says the translation’s marvellous, so why haven’t I read it? In fact, I’m so ashamed, I’ve just ordered it.

The book that changed my life
The Iliad. As Philip Roth said in The Human Stain, the whole of European literature starts here, with two powerful men, Achilles and Agamemnon, quarrelling over a young girl abducted in a war. She herself says nothing. So it begins with a quarrel, if you’re a man; but if you’re a woman it begins with silence. The urge to fill in that silence, to give the captive girl a voice, was powerful enough to send my own writing off in an entirely new direction.

A book I think is underrated
No Name by Wilkie Collins. As good as The Moonstone or The Woman in White. It has Collins’s trademark ability to create powerful female characters who then make him so nervous he can’t wait to put them back in their box.

My earliest reading memory
When I was four, my grandfather brought a schoolgirls’ annual home from a jumble sale. I pored over an account of a lacrosse match, desperate to work out what the words meant and pursued adults all over the house nagging them to tell me. I got to the end of the page still not knowing what lacrosse was, but that didn’t matter. I’d read a whole page. Triumph.

My reading guilty pleasure
Detective stories or thrillers, ideally in front of a log fire with a glass of wine. We live in the second golden age of crime fiction and since I don’t write in that genre myself, reading it is pure pleasure.

The book I give as a gift
The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris, inspired by the decision to leave out 50 nature-based words – such as “conker” and “otter” – from the Oxford Junior Dictionary because they are no longer needed by the modern, computer-literate child. A book aimed at children, but so beautifully produced whole families will treasure it.

The book I’d most like to be remembered for
The Silence of the Girls.

A book that made me cry
One poem that moves me to tears is “Elegy” by Chidiock Tichborne, who was executed in 1586 for plotting to kill Elizabeth I. Young and facing an agonising death, he included this poem in his farewell letter to his wife. “The day is past, and yet I saw no sun / And now I live, and now my life is done.”

  • Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls is published by Hamish Hamilton.


Pat Barker

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