Monique Roffey: ‘William Golding’s The Inheritors gave me ideas for how I could write a mermaid’

The Costa winner on the James Baldwin novel she most cherishes, devouring Willard Price adventures as a child, and the sex scene she wishes she had written

The book I am currently reading
How Much of These Hills Is Gold by C Pam Zhang is a fierce and compelling debut, the tale of two recently orphaned Chinese American sisters dragging their dead father’s body across the American wild west. Crazy good, richly poetic in the telling, I devoured 100 pages at first sitting. The story of immigrant experience, but one we’ve rarely read or imagined. A rollicking adventure story to boot.

The book that changed my life
Another Country by James Baldwin is about love and the longing for love; it’s also about the drama of masculinity. Set in Harlem in the late 1950s, a time of racial segregation, it features a Bohemian community of black, white, gay and straight people who fall in love with each other and also fight and let each other down. A book I cherish and need to read again and again.

The book I wish I’d written
In Bear by Marian Engels, a librarian examines a collection of books left to the library she works for and spends the summer in a house on the banks of a river in the Canadian wilderness. The house has a resident bear chained in a shed. Over time, the two become lovers. It’s a perfect book and the bear-woman sex scenes, yes, I wish I’d written them.

The book that had the greatest influence on my writing
William Golding’s The Inheritors is told from the point of view of a Neanderthal man, Lok, and his family, who encounter the New People, ie Homo sapiens, ie us. Golding reimagines thought and language for our pre-verbal ancestors. It gave me ideas for how I could write a mermaid, how she might speak.

The book I think is most underrated
Gabriel Byrne’s memoir Walking With Ghosts. It’s the diary of a poet who also happens to be a famous movie star.

The book that changed my mind
A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies, by Bartolomé de las Casas. If you want to know anything about the Caribbean, start here. It’s written by a Spanish priest who sought to spread Christianity to the natives. This is an account of the hideous crimes and barbarism he witnessed perpetrated by the Spanish on the indigenous Taino people. A horrifying account and yes, a game changer; witness testimony of how a region was Christianised. Should be compulsory reading.

The last book that made me cry
The Snow Line by Tessa McWatt. I didn’t see the end coming.

The book I give as a gift
Where Hope Comes From by Nikita Gill.

My earliest reading memory
My brothers’ Willard Price adventure stories. I read all of them voraciously and have had a love of adventure in life and in books ever since.

The Mermaid of Black Conch by Monique Roffey (Vintage, £8.99) won the Costa book of the year award. To support the Guardian and the Observer buy a copy at Delivery charges may apply.

• This article was amended on 12 July 2021 to remove a line saying that Las Casas sailed with Christopher Columbus.


Monique Roffey

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