Last weekend, I went to the Open the Door festival at Glasgow Women’s Library, where I heard (among other people) Ali Smith talking about the books and writers who had opened the door for her. It got me thinking about the writers that did that for me – both for poetry and for prose.
In poetry, I think this is slightly more complex, as a lot of the poets who have opened the poetry door for me have done it not just through their own writing, but also as individual people I’ve worked with. But what about fiction?
I’ve talked before about how Penguin Random House’s WriteNow scheme gave me the confidence to think of myself as a fiction writer in general – but what about the specific novel? What were the books that opened the door to My Name is Monster?
1 – Robinson Crusoe, by Daniel Defoe
Robinson Crusoe is probably one of the more obvious influences on the book, as in many ways My Name is Monster is a reversioning of Robinson Crusoe. It’s the story of a woman who believes she’s the last person left alive on earth – and then she finds a girl. The book echoes Crusoe’s solitude on the desert island, his quest for survival, and his subsequent finding (and enslaving) of Friday.
I’ve always had quite a complicated relationship with Robinson Crusoe, ever since I had to read it during my first year of university. On one hand, it’s a story that occupies such a prominent place in our culture. It’s amazing how many people know the story (or at least the basic elements of it), without having read the book itself.
It’s also amazing how many of those people think they’ve read the book, even when they actually haven’t. And understandably – on both counts. There are numerous retellings of the Crusoe survival story, from The Martian to Castaway to Bear Grylls, so it makes sense that we think we know it. But the book itself is actually pretty heavy going. There are a lot of pages before Friday even appears (and before the famous ‘footprint in the sand’ moment), largely narrating Crusoe’s religious transformations, or going into very great detail on the mechanics of building a shelter. Despite being a story so many of us think we know, it isn’t exactly a page-turner. At least, not until the pirates show up.
And of course, there’s also the problematic colonial aspect to the book: its positioning of Friday as the enslaved native who Crusoe proceeds to ‘civilise’; Crusoe’s ability to lay claim to the island solely by virtue of his having been washed up there; the problem of his naming of things.
These were all aspects of the book that drew me in, and that made me want to answer it in some way. My Name is Monster is in many ways a reversioning of Robinson Crusoe, but it’s also a response to some of its themes.
2 – Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley
As well as being a retelling of Robinson Crusoe, My Name is Monster is also very heavily influenced by Frankenstein.
Unlike Crusoe, I’ve loved Frankenstein ever since I read it – again during my first year of university. In some ways, the themes of the two classics are quite similar: both deal with one human’s desire to create and control another, and ways of coping with enforced isolation. Both ask who has the power to name a person or a thing.
But whereas Crusoe puts Friday in a position of subservience, Frankenstein presents two individuals with a much more complex creator / created relationship. They are really equal protagonists, and the questions this allows the book to ask are much more complex – questions that have shaped the genre of science fiction ever since, such as to what extent can a created being be considered human?
The question of how much we can truly create another conscious being is one that feeds directly into My Name is Monster – as, of course, does the name ‘Monster’.
3 – The Road, by Cormac McCarthy
Given that My Name is Monster is set in an empty world, it’s perhaps unsurprising that there’s a post-apocalyptic novel on this list. I first read The Road when I was at secondary school, and it made a huge impression on me.
What I loved about the post-apocalyptic element to the book, was that that wasn’t the story. The story was the man and the boy, and the relationship between them. The post-apocalyptic setting was just the circumstances needed to tell that relationship story. This is something that interests me: the way something huge can have happened / can be happening in the world of the book, but we remain focussed on the central characters, and on the relationship between them.
Of course, The Road is also just a beautiful written book. The prose is so precise that it feels incredibly simple. But, like most things that appear simple, it’s a demonstration of huge writing skill, and an ability to cut away all the details that don’t really matter – something that’s much harder than it sounds in something the size of a novel!
4 – The Shepherd’s Life, by James Rebanks
The most recent book on this list, The Shepherd’s Life, is only a few years old. It’s a non-fiction book about sheep farming on the Cumbrian fells. It’s a sort of love letter to the landscape I’ve grown up in, and to its agriculture.
When I first moved back to Cumbria after university, I was feeling a bit of resentment. It wasn’t that I didn’t love Cumbria (it’s beautiful, for one thing, and there’s a sense of individuals mattering here in a way that sometimes gets lost in cities) – but it was more that I felt like I ought to have gone somewhere else; this was where I started, and being back here felt like I hadn’t moved forward at all. Like a lot of people who move home / near home, I was worried I would revert to the person I was when I last lived here, aged 18.
Reading The Shepherd’s Life helped me fall in love with Cumbria again. Rebanks’ experiences of Cumbria are very different to mine; although I grew up surrounded by farms and fields and sheep, I’m not from a farming family, so I don’t have the same inter-generational relationship with the land. But the book is so connected to the physicality of the landscape that it helped me to feel connected to Cumbria again. I felt I understood the landscape in a way I’d only ever guessed at before – and that fed into the characters’ lifestyles in My Name is Monster.
5 – Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, by Jeanette Winterson
Probably like a lot of queer people, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit opened so many doors for me, not just in terms of fiction, but in life as well. Like The Road, I read it while I was at secondary school, and it shaped my understand of who and what could belong in a novel.
But it also influenced my understanding of character – the bold details that can make a character leap off the page, till you feel as though they’re somebody you’ve met – and of the unreliable narrator: something that was compounded when I read Winterson’s Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal several years later.
The nods to history and fairytale and mythology in much of Winterson’s work is something that I often think about – something that also captures me in Ali Smith’s writing. I’m interested in the way in which all of this provides intertextuality, and gives the novel breadth, so that it seems to breathe beyond the confines of it’s 200-ish pages. Like in The Road, the focus remains on the character(s) at the centre of the story, but there’s so much more happening in our peripheral vision.
My Name is Monster is due from Canongate on 6th June 2019, and is available for pre-order from all good bookshops.