Sebastian Faulks: ‘George Orwell showed me that authorities are usually wrong’

The British novelist on the excitement of Alistair MacLean, the passion of DH Lawrence and the irreverence of Jane Austen

My earliest reading memory
Something called the Beacon Readers at a small village school, in the corner of a field. I can picture the jacket’s conical torch design on a brown cloth background.

My favourite book growing up
I liked books about witches, of which there seemed to be quite a lot lying around. A little later, aged about 11, I discovered Alistair MacLean whose formula – a group of desperadoes on a wartime mission but with a traitor in their number – I found almost intolerably exciting.

The book that changed me as a teenager
Sons and Lovers by DH Lawrence opened my eyes to the fact that a novel doesn’t need action. The development of a character can be story enough. I was bowled over by the affection that Lawrence seemed to have for his characters. He actually loved them.

Sign up to our Inside Saturday newsletter for an exclusive behind-the-scenes look at the making of the magazine’s biggest features, as well as a curated list of our weekly highlights.

The writer who changed my mind
George Orwell. I remember, aged 14, reading his essay A Hanging, set in Burma. In simple prose, he describes a condemned man walking to the scaffold, at one point stepping aside to avoid a puddle. Orwell showed me that the authorities are usually wrong. This was appealing to me since I was at a school I didn’t much like. I read all his essays after this, and he set my mind at a liberal slant to the world.

The book that made me want to be a writer
At the same time, I read David Copperfield and Pride and Prejudice. I was amazed by Jane Austen. She was so rude about the figures of authority. Apparently you could be a national treasure and a rebel at the same time. With Charles Dickens, there’s this exuberance of invention. But there was something else that was inspiring: his ability, through focusing on the idiosyncrasies of his quirky characters, to reveal the entire structure of the society from which they came. Miraculous.

The author I came back to
I couldn’t stick Evelyn Waugh at first, but I got there eventually by reading the Sword of Honour trilogy in 1991, when we were living in a remote farmhouse in Italy with our first child, who was a year old. Afterwards, I found A Handful of Dust and my ear became attuned to his prose. I still wish he’d used that gift on more worthwhile subjects, but there you go.

The book I reread
The Catcher in the Rye seemed to me at age 15 to sum up all my adolescent discontents. At 31, when I was a journalist in London, I saw it as an almost clinical description of a mental breakdown. When I was 48, by which I time I was a full-time writer, it didn’t seem to be about Holden at all, but about a country undergoing mysterious change.

The book I discovered later in life
Naples ’44 by Norman Lewis. I had often heard of it, but didn’t read it till I was nearly 60 and at a literary festival in Bali. A wonderful book.

The book I am currently reading
How to Argue with a Racist by Adam Rutherford. Popular science (in this case, genetics) is hard to get right, but Rutherford is both scholarly and entertaining.

My comfort read
I read in order to be discomfited, or at least to learn something new, so I can’t answer this one; though I must say there is usually a welcome light on at 221b Baker Street.

• Snow Country is published in paperback by Vintage (£8.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply.


Sebastian Faulks

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Sara Paretsky: ‘The story of Joan of Arc made me long for a vision’
The crime writer on enjoying James Joyce, rereading Charlotte Brontë; and diving into Wide Sargasso Sea

Sara Paretsky

05, Aug, 2022 @9:00 AM

Article image
Sam Byers: ‘JM Coetzee made me vegetarian’
The novelist on being inspired by the Beats, discovering Chekhov, and taking notes from Pierre Boulez

Sam Byers

23, Sep, 2022 @9:00 AM

Article image
Karen Joy Fowler: ‘I resolved to stop pretending I’d read books I hadn’t, like Moby-Dick’
The Booker-nominated author on discovering Jane Austen, taking a crash course in Moby-Dick and falling for fairytales

Karen Joy Fowler

19, Aug, 2022 @9:00 AM

Article image
Maggie Shipstead: ‘Elena Ferrante made me reconsider how I write’
The novelist on polar exploration, Middlemarch and reading Donna Tartt in the pool

Maggie Shipstead

03, Jun, 2022 @9:00 AM

Article image
Sunjeev Sahota: ‘I’ve never thought of novels as sources of comfort’
The novelist on being inspired by Rohinton Mistry, surprised by JL Carr and captivated by Chekhov

Sunjeev Sahota

04, Nov, 2022 @10:00 AM

Article image
Michael Morpurgo: ‘The war poets were the reason I left the army and became a writer’
The War Horse author on his love of the sea, an invaluable study of the environment, and reading his debut to 10-year-olds

Michael Morpurgo

18, Nov, 2022 @10:00 AM

Article image
Julian Barnes: ‘When I first read EM Forster, I thought he was a bit wet’
The author on being impressed by Dostoevsky and influenced by the dictionary – and wanting to drive Noddy’s famous yellow car

Julian Barnes

01, Jul, 2022 @9:00 AM

Article image
Charlotte Mendelson: ‘Susan Cain’s Quiet made me realise I’m a noisy introvert’
The novelist on why she finally gave Tolstoy and Dickens a whirl, being a noisy introvert, and reading crime in the bath

Charlotte Mendelson

10, Mar, 2023 @10:00 AM

Article image
Ian Rankin: ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a perfect gem of a story’
The crime writer on being fascinated by A Clockwork Orange, inspired by Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and taking comfort in Muriel Spark’s novel

Ian Rankin

07, Jun, 2022 @9:00 AM

Article image
Denise Mina: ‘All my reading is comfort reading’
The author on the underrated brilliance of PG Wodehouse, taking inspiration from Harper Lee, and the play that made her think differently about Northern Ireland

Denise Mina

30, Sep, 2022 @9:00 AM