Niall Williams on the quote that made him ditch the piano and take up writing

‘You remember what the New York Times said about The Great Gatsby? Neither does anyone else.’

Thu, Jul 24, 2014, 18:23

What was the first book to make an impression on you? Boy’s Cinema Annual 1949, a large format annual with an olive binding, an ad for Cadbury’s Bournville Cocoa on the back with a giant drawing of a cup with tiny men climbing ladders up to it. There was a picture of John Mills in Scott of the Antarctic on the front cover and many black-and-white photographs from adventure films inside. In our house this book appeared out of nowhere when you were ill in bed and off school and vanished again when you were well.

What was your favourite book as a child? See above. That led to Biggles, and all took flight from there. Treasure Island was a good landing place too.

And what is your favourite book or books now? I was brought up in a time when the idea of favourites was not encouraged. I did write History of the Rain partly to answer that question, and in it Ruth reads many of the books on the shelves here in Kiltumper, but the list grows the moment you begin. The book I am re-reading at the moment is The Third Policeman, so that’s today’s favourite.

What is your favourite quotation? “In sooth I know not why I am so sad.” I’m 13 years old, sitting in an airless classroom in Oatlands CBS and Mr Mason says “We are ready to begin reading the greatest writer in all of literature.” And he holds his copy of The Merchant of Venice slightly apart and to his right, as if there’s extra brightness in it, and when he reads out Antonio’s line he reads it rhythmically and I decide at once to give up the piano, at which I have no rhythm, and take up words instead.

Who is your favourite fictional character? If Don Quixote was fictional I’d list him here.

Who is the most under-rated Irish author? Carlo Gebler

Which do you prefer – ebooks or the traditional print version? I prefer books.

What is the most beautiful book you own? The Scenery and Antiquities of Ireland by J Stirling Coyne & NP Willis, published by James S Virtue, City Road, London in 1830. It includes 120 engravings. The two volumes were given to my father on his retirement from the ESB, and after his death they came here to the scenery and antiquity of Kiltumper.

Where and how do you write? Mostly with a laptop set up here in the front room in Kiltumper overlooking the garden in the rain.

What book changed the way you think about fiction? One Hundred Years of Solitude.

What is the most research you have done for a book? 56 years. So far.

What book influenced you the most? Great Expectations.

What book would you give to a friend’s child on their 18th birthday? Great Expectations.

What book do you wish you had read when you were young? The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz. I would have set off for the Dominican Republic, or maybe just New Jersey.

What advice would you give to an aspiring author? Every good writer thinks that what they wrote yesterday is rubbish. Sometimes it is.

What weight do you give reviews? You remember what The New York Times said about The Great Gatsby? Neither does anyone else.

Where do you see the publishing industry going? I see it so rarely I couldn’t say.

What writing trends have struck you lately? I’m not very good at trends. I only hear about them years later. Not sure any writer of fiction pays any attention to them.

What lessons have you learned about life from reading? Books are living things. What you learn from a great book slips inside your skin as you read and is no different to anything else you experience. So I cannot separate what I learned from books.

What has being a writer taught you? Humility.

Which writers, living or dead, would you invite to your dream dinner party? Seamus Heaney, Oliver Goldsmith, Flannery O Connor, Alice Munro, Alistair Macleod.

What is the funniest scene you’ve read? The interrogation scene in The Third Policeman.

What is your favourite word? It is unfair to the other words to pick one.

If you were to write a historical novel, which event or figure would be your subject? Samuel Johnson.

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