It’s wonderful to welcome a dear friend and very talented writer back to the blog today. Last year Trisha Nicholson shared her writing life from a treehouse in New Zealand with us. Now she’s back to share her literary influences. Over to you, Trisha:
Strange though it may seem, I didn’t grow up in a reading household. I don’t recall seeing my parents read anything other than a newspaper. Times were too hard to buy books, but an old box of battered volumes in the living room would occupy me for hours if I was forced to stay indoors instead of scrambling across the fields.
At that age, it was probably the subjects of these books that had the greatest influence on me. The ones that stick in my mind are: Stanley’s explorations in Africa, which I think was called In Darkest Africa; one on the discovery of the White Nile; and a traveller’s guide to Spain with beautiful illustrations of Gaudi’s buildings. I led an alternative life in these books. They set a pattern of reading and a yen to travel.
I’ve forgotten which Joseph Conrad book I read first, but I have since read everything he published, including an odd little volume called A Personal Record in which he says there is no explanation of how he came to write: the pen was there, he picked it up. It gave me confidence that I didn’t need reasons for everything – I could simply write.
Conrad spent years at sea before the days of steamships; a life physically hazardous and socially intense in a confined space, but also lonely for a captain. And yet, in his stories he shows a deep understanding of human nature even across different cultures.
I think Conrad impressed me a great deal, too, because there is something intimate about the way he writes, as if I’m sitting in his cabin hearing the creak of ship’s timbers around me. I find the same quality in Salmon Rushdie, in The Moor’s Last Sigh for example – it encouraged me to write as if I was talking to someone close by. There is no need to shout. With the reader beside you, subtly is powerful if you choose the right words.
But it was Steinbeck who demonstrated for me the emotional power of imagery. He often uses physical features, hands for example, to show a character’s personality and feelings. Although it must be forty years since I read Of Mice and Men, I can ‘see’ Lennie still, like the memory of someone I once knew.
Another much-travelled author and early influence was George Orwell. I discovered him in my late teens when I wanted to be a journalist, and puffed at illicit cigarettes, scribbling in a notebook late into the night as I imagined journalists did. Down and Out in Paris and London and his stories of oppression in Burma stirred my youthful indignation. His essays taught me that whether we realise it or not, a writer’s voice expresses values – writing is political in the broad sense that it reveals our deeply held ideals and principles.
It’s impossible to be aware of all the influences over years of reading, but a more recent one I do recognise is that of Peter Ackroyd, particularly the way he approaches his subjects. Whether writing fiction, history, biography or poetry, he is essentially a storyteller and a master of synthesis – he finds connectedness which shines a new light on facts. And I admire his concise, dense style of writing.
Nowadays, my house is full of books – thousands of them. Many are old. Not collectibles or first editions, they’re just bruised and tattered. I can’t resist rescuing them from junk stalls – probably another result of my early literary experiences.
Trish Nicholson, an anthropologist and writer of short stories and narrative nonfiction, is the author of travelogues and a popular science book on the origins of storytelling. Her latest title is Inside Stories for Writers and Readers, a book of inspiration and craft on creative writing. She lives in New Zealand and shares a tree house with herons. You can follow her on Twitter @TrishaNicholson, and visit her website here www.trishnicholsonswordsinthetreehouse.com