Felicity Pulman grew up in Africa, but never writes about it. Instead, her writing explores the mysterious and unknown in our world like ghosts (Ghost Boy) and time travel. Her Shalott trilogy (published by Random House Australia) takes five teenagers back in time to Camelot which, she says, involved a lot of research but was a wonderful introduction to Arthurian and Celtic myths and legends. This, in turn, led to an abiding love affair with England and the Middle Ages, which is reflected in her new award-winning medieval crime series for teenagers, The Janna Mysteries, also published by RHA. Set in the 1140s at the height of the treacherous civil war between King Stephen and his cousin, the Empress Matilda, the novels also reflect Felicity's interest in crime-writing as they chart Janna's progress through love, danger, triumph and despair, in the search for her unknown father to help bring her mother's killer to justice. Felicity has a BA Communications degree and an MA in Children's Literature. She has published 12 novels to date. Here she remembers books that have meant a lot to her.
Felicity Pulman on books she has loved
I soon realized, after receiving Norm's invitation to contribute to this wonderful forum, that it would be too difficult for me to choose a particular book (or writer) when I have so many favourites, all of which have influenced me in some way or another during my writing career. So, with Norm's indulgence, I thought I'd share with you those books that I have known and loved through the years, along with what reading them has taught me with regard to my own writing.
As a child growing up in a small bush town in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) I soon realized that books were my window to the world - and when I ran out of books to read, I wrote my own stories. Back in the 1950s there wasn't the wide and wonderful choice there is now in the world of children's literature. Nevertheless, I loved to lose myself in the page-turning stories of Enid Blyton. From her, I learned about hooking the reader and keeping him or her spellbound until the end of the story - a valuable lesson for any writer! I also discovered the seduction of the magical otherworld and, to some extent, elements of the Faraway Tree still creep into some of my stories.
I learned something else, although this lesson didn't become apparent until comparatively recently. I read all of Blyton's boarding school stories in primary school but the reality, when I had to leave home to board at a school in Salisbury (Harare), was so dreadful and so different from St Clare's and Mallory Towers that I stopped writing for many years. There were probably other reasons for this but I suspect, with the benefit of hindsight, that the main reason for my writer's block was that I no longer trusted stories to tell the truth and so lost my way when it came to story-telling.
Even though I was no longer writing, I continued to read anything and everything I could get my hands on. Agatha Christie was a great favourite with her intricately plotted crimes and casts of characters, all with secrets to hide and motives for murder. I never could guess whodunit, and the denouement always took me by surprise. It's thanks to her that I grew to love the genre, that I went on to read a great many other crime writers and that I now delight in writing crime stories for adults as well as my medieval crime series for teenagers, The Janna Mysteries, which have been greatly influenced by another doyen of the crime genre, Ellis Peters and her Brother Cadfael series.
C.P. Snow's Strangers and Brothers series was another find during my teenage years. His knowledge of human nature fascinated me. While not a great deal happens plot-wise in his books, the exploration of his characters, their strengths and weaknesses, their desires and foibles, kept me mesmerized. From him I learned the importance of creating interesting, well-rounded and convincing characters and challenging them with personal and moral dilemmas. His novels also gave me an insight into the fascinating politics of power, both within a university and within government.
Perhaps the greatest (and most abiding) influence in my teenage years were the novels of Ayn Rand. I began with The Fountainhead and moved on to Atlas Shrugged, and I was overwhelmed by the capacity of the human spirit to overcome all odds, to triumph against adversity. She taught me about the power and glory of the individual, and the need to resist the dead hand of the collective. 'Who is John Galt?' was the cry. Who, indeed? With the benefit of age, experience and wisdom, I realize that her concept of Utopia is frightening in its implications. Hopefully, John Galt will never rule the world - but he did rule my heart for a long, long time. Consequently, all my characters tend to be loners who act with courage to fulfil their dreams and destiny. But, unlike Ayn Rand's characters, they're not perfect; they make mistakes, they do the wrong thing even if for the best of reasons. In other words, they're 'human'.
Back at school in the dark ages, before it was de rigueur to equate an episode of the Simpsons with the plays of Shakespeare, we studied (and sometimes performed) some of those plays and thus were exposed to the power and seduction of the English language. There was the eerie otherworld of A Midsummer Night's Dream, with its exploration of romance and love; the sinister witches with their fatal prediction for the ambitious Macbeth; the heart-lifting exhortations of Henry V on the eve of battle, and his musings on the nature and responsibilities of kingship; the indecision of Hamlet and his reluctance to stain his soul with murder (or suicide); the pathos of Ophelia and Juliet. With his acute eye for the comic and tragic, and his insight into the darkness of human nature, it's hardly any wonder that Shakespeare is still widely quoted and his plays still performed hundreds of years after his death. (Eat your heart out, Homer!)
I really discovered 'truth' in writing when I read Helen Garner's courageous The First Stone. Widely criticised by feminists, The First Stone looks at the motivation behind an allegation of sexual harassment within a university and the subsequent fallout for those involved. The novel challenged feminist ethos and opened the way for an important debate that is still ongoing. Garner followed this with Joe Cinque's Consolation - a chilling indictment of the Australian legal system whereby a young woman who conspired to bring about the death of a fellow student and then watched him die is now herself a practitioner of the law. Meticulous research and the courage to publish the truth lie at the heart of these two books which are an ongoing inspiration.
Meticulous research also informs another great favourite: Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks. Brooks has woven a compelling story around Eyam, a plague village in England, and the minister who in 1666 persuaded its residents to quarantine themselves so that the plague could not spread to other villages. The novel perfectly captures the thinking and mores of the time, and how isolation and the terror of the disease affect the population. This level of historical accuracy is a challenge I endeavour to meet in my own writing.
Another novel centred around the time of the Black Death, Connie Willis's award-winning Doomsday Book, is one of my all-time favourites. Her humour and skilful weaving of past with present are a benchmark to which I can only aspire. The novel begins in Oxford with an experiment in time travel that goes horribly wrong. I'm fascinated with the concept of time travel and exploring the unknown in our world, and several of my novels reflect this fascination. Ghost Boy, for example, taps into the grisly past of the Quarantine Station in Sydney. Disease, death and mistaken identity lie at the heart of my story, as does an uneasy ghost with information to impart.
I guess you could say that my love of timeslip fantasy began with the Faraway Tree series. It was rekindled many years later when I came across Susan Cooper's magnificent Dark is Rising series, with its echoes of Arthurian legend. Guy Gavriel Kay's wonderful Fionavar Tapestry trilogy followed a natural progression, and both were a great source of inspiration when I came to write my Shalott trilogy - a timeslip back into the world of King Arthur, when five Australian teenagers attempt to rewrite the fate of the Lady of Shalott and save Camelot.
I have always believed in the need to write with passion, to tell the story you have to tell rather than trying to second-guess the marketplace in order to find a publisher. I'm encouraged and relieved to find that many successful authors apparently share my belief, and I'll close by naming a few recent 'off-the-wall' favourites that have become best sellers even though they don't fit any obvious genre or conform to any conception of what's currently 'in': The Book Thief (Markus Zusak); The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (John Boyne); The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (Mark Haddon) and A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian (Marina Lewycka).