Brought to Book: Linda Spalding on her literary life

‘I had to remould my brain to write “The Follow”. It involved three trips to Borneo and years of reading and studying and thinking hard about human beings and our place in the natural world’

Linda Spalding: “Since no Irish author could be overrated, they must all be underrated. Ireland is the origin of authorial species.” Photograph: Jeff Nolte

Linda Spalding: “Since no Irish author could be overrated, they must all be underrated. Ireland is the origin of authorial species.” Photograph: Jeff Nolte


Linda Spalding won the 2012 Canadian governor-general’s award for The Purchase (Sandstone Press, £8.99), and was longlisted for the IMPAC award. In this provocative and starkly beautiful historical novel, a Quaker family moves from Pennsylvania to the Virginia frontier, where slaves are the only available workers and where the family’s values and beliefs are sorely tested. Spalding was born in Kansas and now lives in Toronto. She is married to fellow novelist Michael Ondaatje.

What was the first book to make an impression on you?
There were two in my early childhood. The first was about a white rabbit and a black rabbit who were not allowed to be friends. This was written in the 1940s and must have been radical at the time since the rabbits prevailed. The second was called The Bear That Wasn’t – and it is such a classic that I’ve persuaded the New York Review of Books to republish it.

What was your favourite book as a child?
No contest. I read and reread A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett a thousand times. This was the edition with the wonderful coloured glossy pictures and it surely provided all the direction I needed for later life

And what is your favourite book or books now?
That would be a contest! I’m reading Willa Cather at the moment and finding new depth in her view of the world, but my reading is varied and constant and my favourite all-round author is John Ehle, who is the most under-rated of American authors.

What is your favourite quotation?
“Why is there something rather than nothing?” Liebnitz

Who is your favourite fictional character?
At the moment, I’d vote for my very own Daniel.

Who is the most under-rated Irish author?
Since no Irish author could be overrated, they must all be underrated. Ireland is the origin of authorial species.

Which do you prefer – ebooks or the traditional print version?
But of course I prefer books. They smell good (usually) and I like the touch of paper to finger. Some are too heavy, unwieldy, but at least I know where I am and what progress is still to be made and I can reread sentences as I like, look for lost names and check the author’s photograph now and then for a sense of friendliness.

What is the most beautiful book you own?
A beautiful question! I have a very, very old book of Hunting and Hawking , but the most beautiful and most precious book I have is a letter press limited edition of Michael’s [Ondaatje’s] Tin Roof , published by Greenboathouse Press. Thick rust-coloured fold-over covers, black end papers and pages that feel like they’ve grown in a wild forest of white leaves. This book is very personal to me but is an astounding object to read and hold dear.

Where and how do you write?
Just about anywhere but I’m happiest in my upstairs study at home in Toronto. That’s where all my books and toys and photos are.

What book changed the way you think about fiction?
Move Over Midnight , by Jean Rhys

What is the most research you have done for a book?
I had to remould my brain to write The Follow . It involved three trips to Borneo and years of reading and studying and thinking hard about human beings and our place in the natural world.

What book influenced you the most?
Long ago I read all of Oscar Lewis, who translated first-person accounts of people of all types and classes in Mexico. His integrity, his standing aside to let them speak, changed my way of looking at the world.

What book would you give to a friend’s child on their 18th birthday?
Oh but that depends on the child! At that age I loved Hermann Hesse, but for a special child I might choose The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge by Rilke. It formed a bond between me and my step-son when he was that age. But ... hard to know what this generation would care to read ....

What book do you wish you had read when you were young?
The Adventures of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table

What advice would you give to an aspiring author?
Read. Read well. Write. Rewrite.

What weight do you give reviews?
I like to know how my own books are perceived. I admit to using reviews at times to choose what I might read next.

Where do you see the publishing industry going?
The industry is struggling. Perhaps there are too many books! I sometimes wonder about that when I enter the few remaining bookstores and see them piled high with what appears to be crap. But marketing a good book is a nightmare. Everything these days comes down to marketing and distribution and how is anyone to know which books are worth reading? The publishers have to find real authors, edit them, produce the books and then find some way in this crazy marketplace to tell people about them. It’s a lot to expect!

What writing trends have struck you lately?
God, I’m not sure what a writing trend is....

What lessons have you learned about life from reading?
Well, we have our heroes as we go along. Hesse, Montaigne, Emerson – when I was young. Everything I read teaches me something. That’s why I do it.

What has being a writer taught you?

Which writers, living or dead, would you invite to your dream dinner party?
I once met Doris Lessing and was so excited I grabbed a drink out of another guest’s hand and gave it to her. I’ll ask Doris and Emily Dickinson and Emily Bronte. I think they’d like each other. Lady Murasaki would be the guest of honour and we’d have a fine translator at her side who would also pour her tea.

What is the funniest scene you’ve read?
Maybe Michael reading aloud from Moss Hart’s Act One

What is your favourite word?

If you were to write a historical novel, which event or figure would be your subject?
I think I did sort of write a historical novel, although I didn’t call it that at the time. It’s about my Quaker abolitionist ancestor, who bought a slave in 1798. It’s called The Purchase .

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