I'm so pleased to have Antonia Honeywell, author of dystopian novel, The Ship with me on the blog today. I have worked for my local library service for almost 12 years and couldn't imagine a better a job than being surrounded by books all day. With my job in mind Antonia has written about the impact libraries have had on her and ultimately her writing.
Over to you Antonia
I can’t talk about imagining and writing The Ship without talking about libraries. Libraries have shaped me as a reader and as a writer, and the many and various cuts that have been imposed on our library services make me want to weep. I was a reader before I was a writer, and my love of books started at a small library in the village where I grew up. We went there once a week. I had my own ticket, and I was allowed to take out six books at a time. My mum was allowed twelve (imagine that! Twelve! How old do I have to be before I can have twelve books? Older than you are now…) She claimed this was fair, as she had to use her ticket to take out books for my little sister. But my little sister just used to eat them, which felt like a waste of good book space to me (she’s a university lecturer now, so eating books was clearly a better idea than I’d thought).
The wonderful thing about the library was that I could choose the books I wanted. I had a thing about Thomas the Tank Engine for a while. Mum hated those books, but she couldn’t stop me trotting home with six at a time until I’d read them all. I discovered My Naughty Little Sister, Pippi Longstocking and Clever Polly, strong girls and rebels long before Katniss Everdeen came on the scene. We had the Puffin Book Club in those days too, and I was allowed to choose one book each month from the leaflet. But those books cost money, so my parents had to approve. At the library I could choose anything. I was still taking out picture books long after I’d started Junior school.
At thirteen, I was wrenched away from the village and its lovely librarian who, as I got older, turned a blind eye when I snuck out with Mills and Boon and the irresistible novels of Virginia Andrews at the bottom of my school bag. It took me time to adjust to my new school, although I got there in the end, learning to smoke and introducing that passage of Lace to my English class. The school library there saved my life. So did the one in the school I moved to after that. There’s no limit to the amount of time you can hide in a library, and the school librarian never makes you leave at the same time as everyone else. The house my mum, sister and I ended up in was near another library. I used to do my homework there whilst my sister devoured Jeffy the Burglar’s Cat and the novels of Enid Blyton in the children’s corner.
It’s the sheer promiscuity of the library reading experience that helped shape me as a writer. Teachers and librarians ushered me towards the classics – I discovered the Brontë sisters and Jane Austen and Charles Dickens through the library. But no teacher would have ever ushered a thirteen year old to Norman Mailer, or Shirley Conran, or Jilly Cooper. I devoured pulp fiction for the sheer joy of its predictability. Library books still had date stamps in those days and I’d search out the book which had been left on the shelf for the longest time, take it home and read it (that’s how I discovered Georgette Heyer). The books were my friends, my escape – and, as it turned out, my future.
The ship, of course, has a library in it. It’s a digital library, containing so many books that no one will ever be able to read them all. But it’s sterile. It has none of the joyous chaos that informed my library reading. Nothing new will ever be added to it; no elderly edition of an out-of-print romance will ever be found on its shelves. And there’s nothing to hold, no pages to be turned, no book-dust to be disturbed. Like the Ship itself, it’s a carefully curated, sterile experience. Long live libraries – their vibrancy, their all-encompassing welcome and their fertile shelves.
And long live all who work in them, too. It’s been a privilege to bring my library soapbox to your blog, Sam. Thank you for having me.
For those of you local to the west of London/Middlesex area then Antonia will be visiting Hillingdon Libraries to talk about The Ship and more on Wednesday 27th April. Full details can be found here