Jessie Greengrass: 'Frog and Toad Are Friends contains one of the best jokes ever written'

The author on underrated ‘great of feminist literature’ Gaudy Night, looking forward to every Ian Rankin novel, and never finishing Middlemarch

The book I am currently reading
Danielle Evans’s The Office of Historical Corrections, which I’m reading for the second time, because it has haunted me since I read it for the first time a few months ago. The stories in this collection range widely, but the thread of race runs through them. She articulates with great precision the inescapability of racism for those who are subject to it, and, having read it, I feel as though she has patiently explained something that I should have known already. That I hadn’t thought to know it before has left me ashamed.

The book that changed my life
There are honestly so many. I think my whole mind, broadly speaking, boils down to an accumulation of text – it’s how I’ve always come at the world. I can remember as a teenager reading Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus, and feeling like the world had opened up – reading Doris Lessing’s Shikasta and feeling extremely clever. I lay in the sun and read Agatha Christie novels and it was a kind of peace, because it let me out of my life for the duration. I read The Waste Land and ached a lot about it and, at university, Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, of all things, broke my heart. John Donne’s sermons showed me what language can do when it is allied with thought. Kyril Bonfiglioli’s Mortdecai trilogy made me laugh absolutely without restraint at a time when laughter otherwise was hard to come by, and when, in my 20s, I was too ill to do much else, I read Jilly Cooper’s Rutshire novels and John Berryman’s The Dream Songs alternately because they felt like counterweights, which might with luck allow me to cling on to the rope. Books have always been everything – respite, joy, escape, explanation, puzzle. The whole lot of them have both changed my life, and made it.

The book that changed my mind
Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search For Meaning made me realise that trying to pin down an exact aetiology for my unhappiness was not only futile but also a waste of the only life I was going to get. There was no objective truth which, once found, would allow me to quantify exactly how awful things were. There was only my experience and what I did next. Oh well, I thought. I’d better try and get on with things.

The last book that made me cry
I can’t remember. I’m not a big crier. Maybe I’m dead inside?

The book I couldn’t finish
I’m a great non-finisher of books. There are too many books I might enjoy to slog through ones that I definitely don’t. But I’ve never finished Middlemarch, despite enjoying it enormously every time I try, which just seems perverse.

My earliest reading memory
I remember my mum reading to me, every evening, squidged next to me in my bed. She always had a cup of instant coffee while she did it. And I remember getting a book that had something to do with horses from the library, and reading it inside an otherwise empty duvet cover on a Saturday afternoon and thinking that I’d found the secret of absolute happiness.

The book I wish I’d written
The Owl Service by Alan Garner – partly because it’s brilliant, but mostly because I’d like to be the sort of person who could write it. I’d like to have that sort of mind. I’d like to have that talent and mastery, and confidence. I’d like to be able to do that kind of sleight of hand with narrative, to be able to write the sort of story that leaves you feeling that you have almost – almost – grasped it. That it’s a secret you’d be party to, if only you could read it carefully enough. And, in short, I am extremely jealous.

The book that had the greatest influence on my writing
Again, it’s so hard to think of any single one out of all the thousands I’ve read and enjoyed, or not enjoyed, or argued about. It’s the multitude that’s the point, isn’t it? I was a reader way before I was a writer, and everything I know about writing comes from reading. I’ve never studied creative writing and am perversely untechnical about doing it. I don’t know why a thing works, and I’m not really interested in knowing. I just know that it does, or that it doesn’t. It feels, to me, much more like being able to hear when a piece of music is in tune – I can just tell. And I think that’s only a matter of having absorbed the work of all those other writers, an embarrassing number of whom, of course, did it first, and better. But if there’s something I’m always trying to write, then I think it’s Philip Larkin’s poem “Aubade” – not the subject, particularly, or even the sentiment. Just that sense of a thought being wrestled with, laid out – articulated – and then the reverberating space after the last line. I can’t think of another writer who can make an echo in quite that way, and I’ve always wanted to be able to leave the same emptiness behind.

The book I’m ashamed not to have read
There’s a lot of books I haven’t read. I’m not ashamed, particularly. I only have the average number of hours in the average number of days, and there are, like, a million books. Maybe 2 million? But I am ashamed that I haven’t made more of an effort to read beyond what was easily and obviously available to me. I should have made more of an effort to read books by people who are not white, straight and writing in English. I’ve done a better job of reading books by women, which only makes my failures more obvious. Also, I still haven’t finished Middlemarch.

The book I think is most underrated
It mystifies me that Dorothy L Sayers’s Gaudy Night doesn’t have the status it rightly and truly deserves as one of the real greats of feminist literature. I’m listening to it as an audiobook now after having read it uncountable times, and it’s such a quietly angry, occasionally despairing book about how to balance heart and mind in a relationship, and whether it’s even worth trying, given that compromise will be the seemingly inevitable result. Is it possible to love someone without losing part of oneself in the process? This is a question we’re still asking now. It’s also a very good detective story, and those two things are inextricably linked. Also, no one else but me seems to have read Mary Wesley’s extraordinarily creepy, very weird children’s novel The Sixth Seal. Why not? Everyone should definitely read it.

My comfort read
Detective stories. Agatha Christie and Sayers. Ian Rankin’s books are a highlight of any year he has a book out. Also, I was recently introduced to Sara Gran, who has turned out to be that rare thing, a writer of books to block out days for. Although to say that these are comfort reads makes it sound like they’re somehow lesser – as though the fact that a book is a pleasure means it can’t also be anything else. But it takes real talent to write a book that is both entertainment and challenge, and three out of these four authors are that. Christie just wrote really, really good mystery stories, but it’s not like that’s so easy, either.

The book I give as a gift
Frog and Toad Are Friends, by Arnold Lobel: 100% joy 100% of the time. Also contains one of the best jokes ever written, which is to do with a poorly Frog who looks green.

  • The High House by Jessie Greengrass is published by Swift (£14.99). To order a copy go to Delivery charges may apply.

Jessie Greengrass

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