authors · Favourite writers

A Sunny Day in Oxford

You know the joyful feeling of being in the right place at the right time? There’s an added sweetness when that place is somewhere you know well but thought you’d finished with. That happened to me on 1 April 2012.

April Fool’s Day. And it could have been a hoax. The idea that Anne Tyler, famously reclusive, was to make an appearance in Oxford to collect a lifetime achievement award at the literary festival, when she never went anywhere, was suspicious. But 850 people cast caution to the wind and fronted up on a warm, spring day – including, in the row in front of me, readers from Baltimore, where the author lives.

Anne Tyler did appear and we clung to every word she said. Not many of us, I suspect, would admit to being starstruck, but you do with Anne Tyler, author of 21 novels. Her latest book, The Beginner’s Goodbye, was just out.

(Don’t you love the hesitation in so many of her titles. Passing. Amateur. Accidental. Maybe.)

In 2012, it had been nearly 35 years since she’d given interviews, but she abandoned her policy and has since been generous with her time. As if in gratitude, last year, the rest of the world seemed to wake up to the genius we fans treasured, and her book A Spool of Blue Thread was a bestseller, shortlisted for the Booker and Bailey’s Prizes. Hurrah.

In 2012, I had just returned from a year in Australia, in an example of being in the right place at the wrong time. Or the wrong place at the right time. Or— Well. That’s another story. In Australia, out of homesickness for London, I started the story that would become Ready to Love. But back to that day in Oxford.

It was somewhere I used to visit often, to see my great friend, the writer Jan Mark, who lived in the east of the city in a book-filled house. In the spaces where there were no books, there were cats. (But Jan was no mad cat lady.)

Jan was one of the most gifted writers we’re ever likely to have. She wrote over 80 books for readers of all ages – picture books, perfect novels for 9-12 year olds, YA dystopia (before they were trendy), an adult novel, non-fiction and endless brilliant short stories, which were her first love.

Jan died, suddenly, in January 2006 and my claim on Oxford weakened. But it seems fitting that Oxford was the place where I went to see Anne Tyler speak because it was through reading Tyler’s books that I was reminded of the kind of story I wanted to write, which was, long before, inspired by Jan Mark’s books.

Is there a place that inspires your reading or writing? Do you return there, like pilgrimage – if only in your own mind?

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