This week’s Inheritance Books come from writer and academic Julie Maxwell.
I learned to read and write when I was very young. Ever since I’ve been contriving ways to avoid doing anything else. One of my earliest memories is of being scolded for hogging the toilet (there was only one in the house) because I was actually sitting there reading a book. Maybe it was The Billy Goats Gruff, which I loved so much I wanted to get ‘inside’ it and more than once ripped it up in an attempt to do so! I also remember getting very worked up by my inability to get the tails of my y’s and g’s to go neatly under the line of my exercise book. My mother tried to tell me, ‘It doesn’t matter, Julie.’ But I insisted, ‘It matters to me.’ (Yep, I’ve always been like that.)
After reading English literature at Christ Church, Oxford, I became an academic who specialises in researching and teaching early modern English literature (i.e. Shakespeare and his contemporaries). I also publish pieces on contemporary fiction. But in 2003 my life changed when I was given a three-year Junior Research Fellowship at New College, Oxford. I had the time to do nothing but read, research, and write. That was where I wrote my first novel, You Can Live Forever. To my delight it won a Betty Trask Award (for the Best First Novels by Commonwealth Authors under 35). Last year I published a second novel, These Are Our Children – a tragi-comic story about the problems that so many women experience during pregnancy and childbirth.
Which book have you inherited from the generation above? Why is it special?
Tales of Long Ago retold by Enid Blyton. When I was about 7 or 8, we had next-door neighbours whose own kids had grown up. One day the dad casually mentioned over the garden fence that he’d give us all their old books. When exactly? we wanted to know. Tomorrow, he said. So my sister and I went round there the next day, at some over-zealous hour like six in the morning, dragging him out of bed. He stood wearily at the front door in his caramel-and-cream striped dressing gown. No, he didn’t have the books to hand. However, we got a huge boxful pretty quickly after that – presumably so that his next lie-in would not be disturbed. There were loads of brilliant children’s novels, but what stood out to me was Enid Blyton’s retelling of the tales in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Being a kid, I didn’t really register the force of the word ‘retold’ on the front cover. I thought that Blyton was the original author of the masterpiece! I was already a fan of the Famous Five, etc, but my opinion of her really went up after that. I gave the story of my encounter with ‘Blyton’s’ Metamorphoses to a character in my novel These Are Our Children.
Which book would you like to leave to future generations? Why?
Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall. You never know what’s going to happen next and Decline and Fall is what I’d call emergency reading. You can read it in a day any time you’re in despair. If the end of civilisation envisaged by so many novelists materialises, forget the search for tinned goods and stock up on Evelyn Waugh! For the struggling novelist in particular, Howard Jacobson’s Zoo Time (which I’m currently halfway through) seems to have a similar curative effect.
Thank you for sharing you Inheritance Books with us, Julie. All the best for your new book.
Julie’s book These are Our Children is available now. You can contact Julie through Quercus books.