Lisa Appignanesi is an award-winning author, who has written numerous non-fiction books and novels. Her latest book, Trials of Passion, was published in 2014. Here, she recalls how books have provided a constant source of pleasure from her childhood in Poland, France and Canada to her many successes as an author.
Fresh bread and fairytales
“I was very small when we left Poland and my only real memory is the smell of bread. We lived very close to a bakery and my mother would send me round to get fresh bread, which I liked to carry it because it was hot.
“But there is one photo of me as a toddler sitting at a table with my mother beside me in a chair holding a book. I scanned the photo to enlarge it and saw that the book was an English primer – my mum was trying to teach me English through fairytales.
“My other early childhood book memory is being asked to read at a little convent nursery school in Paris. I can picture myself sitting on a stool, which felt extremely high and rather precarious, and reading out loud to all the other girls, who were sewing. I obviously never liked sewing much!
“We got to Canada when I was five-and-a-half and by the time I learned English I had three other languages I could understand – Polish, French and my parents also spoke Yiddish occasionally.”
Growing up: from Nancy Drew to Lady Chatterley
“The first memory I have of reading myself was when I started reading Nancy Drew and the Bobbsey Twins. I read pretty voraciously but with no particular guidance. My parents didn’t speak English all that well even then. They had a whole reading list of writers who weren’t available in English.
“My older brother started building up a library so I’d go and forage in there. I remember reading Plato’s Republic when I was about 11 or 12 and thinking it was a novel.
“My brother had Somerset Maugham and when Lady Chatterley’s Lover came out we read that secretly under the bed clothes with a torch. We all knew it wasn’t permitted but somehow my brother got this American expurgated version – I don’t know how.
“There were also the drugstore books – the equivalent here would be the old railway book shops with popular paperbacks from doctor and nurses stories to Gone With The Wind.
“One of the things about growing up outside Britain at that time was that until you got to university there was no canon. I didn’t have proper children’s literature or high and low culture, I just had a great, eclectic wodge of everything.
“I read Proust very young but I thought it was pronounced ‘Prowst’ and nobody said anything. I found it on a friend’s father’s bookshelf and he said ‘sure, have it’. I was in my early teens and I read all of it! I did re-read it later because I did my PhD thesis on Proust.
“I think children who like reading will read pretty indiscriminately and just understand it differently. But that’s part of reading. Each time you read Jane Eyre you read it completely differently – that’s one of the books that has been through life with me.
“I love re-reading books – Pride and Prejudice, Middlemarch, Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina . . . and, of course, Shakespeare and poetry.”
Writing for fun and pressure to please parents
“Although I spoke French fluently and started going to a French school, I was then told I couldn’t because my parents weren’t Catholic. We had to learn French in my English language school but I kept failing because I didn’t speak the right French.
“Then at university I realised I could speak French and began to have fantasies of Paris, as one does as a teenager. But I didn’t want to be a writer and never thought I’d be anything. I didn’t have any grand fantasies.
“I just wanted to leave home and travel. I did that by going to university abroad. I didn’t have a dream of myself as an author and that may be partly to do with women of my generation.
“But it may also be to do with where I came from – it just wouldn’t have occurred to me. I always wrote and won all sorts of prizes in school but I never thought of authorship as a way of life. So far as my parents were concerned as long as I got married, everything was fine.
“I think one of the things about growing up in what used to be the colonies is we just wrote and then it would get published. It’s not like going to university now and doing creative writing, that just didn’t exist. I did journalism and wrote a lot for a daily newspaper at university. But it wasn’t like being an author and I always did things because I enjoyed them.”
Outsiders and observations: does migration inspire the urge to write?
“I’m a great believer in the shaping forces of the child on the adult and all that. It would be great if every person who emigrated became a writer because writing is such a pleasure.
“But generalisations are difficult. People say madness is creative – well, it is for some but not for all. A lot of people emigrate but don’t necessarily become writers. It might be that the sense of being an outsider in a given culture comes into play because it makes you very observant and makes you feel almost like an anthropologist.
“You see the peculiarities and maybe that’s one of the things that can feed fiction because when writing fiction you’re observing the world and seeing it through prose, whether character or place.”
Fiction and literary fashions
“I fell into writing fiction. I loved the idea of it but I’d never have done it unless this rather wonderful agent called Caradoc King approached me and asked if I had any ideas. I’m one of these people who can do things when I’m prompted – but if I’m not I won’t necessarily do them.
“So, I started writing fiction and it was great. I was in London then, I spent ten years working at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) and was eventually deputy director.
“I did popular fiction of a kind, sagas. I think the first one, Memory and Desire, was actually quite good. Half of the second one is very good too! I know because I had to re-read it to do a digital version.
“But like so much else in the world of fiction, these things have fashions and I was very, very lucky. Then I decided I was tired of that and I wanted to do thrillers.
“Memory and Desire was very close to my own story of migration and, in a very different way, it uses historical moments that I understand. Dead of Winter was closest to my Canadian life, which looks at Quebec and French Canada and a small town outside Montreal where I partially grew up.
“Place is always important because you have images of places that rest in your inner eye and they are wonderful to conjure up in fiction. Fiction is a strange place because quite often the images within books are like the imagination – even when they’re vast, they’re still describable from all points.
On Freud, the family and memory in fiction
“Freud makes you aware of repetitions and family patterns acquiring new editions. Memory for him is rarely exact: it is in fact what many of the more recent memory and neural researchers talk about.
“It’s recollected for particular purposes at the time of recall. In that sense it’s very like memory in fiction. What characters remember is a version of the truth, but it’s their own truth and tells readers a great deal about them. For example, Humbert Humbert’s recollections at the beginning of Lolita.”