First Love

hhgttg-original-recordsFirst Love

What's your favourite book?


Hmm. Not really an appropriate reaction, is it? But this is such a scary question. I was recently asked this at a reading in a small town in Ontario along with three other authors. We were all on a stage and had to answer in turn, so the audience would get to hear and compare everyone's witty responses. I was first.

'Um!' I declared, 'Good question! Um! Well! Hey! Indeed. Yeah.'

Why was this so difficult? Because it's hard to choose just one? Or was I afraid my choice would say something about me, likely along the lines of: 'this person's an unlettered dork - run while you can'? And what if I changed my mind later? Would I be sitting up late with the town phone book on my knee, calling everyone in the audience to tell them what my real favourite was? Well, it wouldn't be out of character.

I remember checking The Magician's Nephew out of the library several years ago. There was a message The Magicians Nephewfrom another reader on the back page, in round, looping kids' handwriting: "This is the best book I have ever read." It made me smile. Children don't seem to have any problems picking favourites, or really falling in love with a book. When I was that age, I didn't worry about whether my reading choices would be considered cool. And I didn't assume there'd be something better coming along next week.

Eventually I did respond to that question from the audience, or like any good politician I rephrased it into something I could answer. I didn't talk about my current favourite – whatever the hell that is. I talked about my first love.

I found this book on the same day I skipped school for the first time. I was eleven, a weird and socially awkward child. Not that I was bullied, exactly. But I'd get angry in very entertaining ways and would rush into fights I couldn't possibly win, usually with gangs of boys; the biggest sport on the playground seemed to be provoking me into rages. One lunch hour just before the bell for afternoon classes, I was having a particularly rotten time. Boys on bikes were circling me, taunting and chanting. I couldn't catch them. I couldn't make them stop. So I let out an insane, ground-shaking yell, turned around and marched off home, in full view of the teachers. Classes? Screw that. (Or whatever I would have thought at eleven.)

My parents were out. But like any good Canadian small town family they'd left the door unlocked. I sat in an armchair in the living room and cried frustrated tears. I hated 150px-H2G2 UK front coverschool. I hated everybody. I was never going back, ever. Gradually I calmed down enough to notice that my dad had left a book by the chair. Books for grownups were still off limits. But I was curious, mainly because of the title, so I picked it up and started reading:

"Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.

Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-two million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.

This planet has – or rather had – a problem, which was this: most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much all of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movement of small green pieces of paper, which is odd because on the whole it wasn't the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy....

And then, one Thursday, nearly two thousand years after one man had been nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change, a girl sitting on her own in a small café in Rickmansworth suddenly realised what it was that had been going wrong all this time, and she finally knew how the world could be made a good and happy place. This time it was right, it would work, and no one would have to get nailed to anything.

Sadly, however, before she could get to a phone to tell anyone about it, a terrible stupid catastrophe occurred, and the idea was lost for ever.

This is not her story."

200px-RestaurantAtTheEndOfTheUniverseDamn! How could I not fall in love? This book was genius. I giggled like mad in my empty house. Then I realised my parents would be home any minute and I wasn't supposed to be here. So I went to the garage, sat in the car (we had two, both Volvo station wagons) and continued reading through the cold October afternoon, until classes were over and I could pretend to come home from school. My mood had reversed itself completely. All I could think about was this great book.

I read it slowly – I had to, I was eleven. It took me all week. The Earth got destroyed, without too much fuss, within the first thirty pages. I found what I still think is one of the greatest sentences ever: " 'Ford,' he said, 'you're turning into a penguin. Stop it.' " The fact that there were no Lifefemale characters except Zaphod's girlfriend Trillian, whose function seemed to involve being competent and attractive and completely unfunny, barely registered. (Although I did feel uncomfortable whenever the other characters started ganging up on Arthur. I didn't like it when characters I liked got picked on.)

Still, these were minor points. I repeated the jokes to friends, even the bits I didn't understand. I attempted to use some of the slang in conversation. (Didn't catch on, strangely enough.) I wrote an in-class assignment from the point of view of Marvin the Robot. There was no online anything back then: as far as I knew, I was the only person in town besides my Dad to have read this book, maybe the only person in the world. It belonged to me in a way that very little can belong to anyone these days.

So there you go: if I had to claim an influence, that would be my one of my biggest, though it ended up having no effect on the style or subject matter of anything I wrote that made it to publication. I still know what a Hooloovoo is and I'm afraid of getting a visit from Wowbagger the Infinitely Prolonged. I'm convinced that Radiohead's song 'Paranoid Android' is about Marvin. I can't read a website's suggestion that I 'share' news of my purchases without hearing the motto of the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation Complaints Department ("Share and enjoy!") in the back of my head. 51U3E6BPgnL  SL500 AA300

When I was writing Cinnamon Toast it only seemed logical that this would be Stephen's first favourite as well. Later he buys the whole set for a friend because "I'd said something about that night with Mark being like going through the Total Perspective Vortex, and I knew he wouldn't be able to understand that without the second book." I suppose what he was really saying was, 'Read this if you want to understand me.' And when I first saw the cover of my novel I was chuffed – bluish background, title in big red font covering most of the page. Remind you of anything?

So there it is. My first love and favourite book, at least until The Brothers Karamazov came along when I was seventeen. But that is a tale for another day.

Your turn! What's your favourite?

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"A stunning debut. I loved it." The Irish Examiner