About three years after Jan Mark died, her daughter Isobel was living in Norfolk, not far from where they’d been based when Jan wrote her first, life-changing novel Thunder and Lightnings in 1974. (The year I was born, incidentally; I like to think she knew I was en route.)
Isobel needed space. She mentioned she had a lot of Jan’s books that we were welcome to, and that we should probably bring a van. She wasn’t exaggerating. If getting the front door to open properly was a struggle, manoeuvring around the boxes once inside defied the laws of physics. But we managed it, and drove the boxes back to London, making movement within our own flat impossible.
A white van, not dissimilar to the vehicle that conveyed the books to London.
Jan researched her books methodically – she had no internet – so there were lots of reference books. Mostly science. Some folklore. There were plenty of novels – she loved Margaret Atwood, and the science fiction of Ian M Banks. It turned out she was a Brian Moore fan and a devotee of Muriel Spark. No surprise with those two – economy was one of Jan’s own great strengths. There were many books by Ursula le Guin because the two writers were close friends and exchanged books.
However, instead of reading Jan’s library, I found myself going back to Jan’s own body of work, and rereading, and filling in gaps in my collection. At that time I was not particularly happy, but I immediately returned to a time when I was amazingly happy – when I first discovered Jan’s books, in the early 90s when I knew I wanted to be a writer myself and was beginning to think of novel-length projects.
But years had passed. I moved around. I read a lot – which I needed to do – and got distracted. When I discovered Anne Tyler I went immediately back on course and knew what I wanted to write. But I got distracted again, and tried to write crime fiction, because I enjoyed reading it, especially the work of Ruth Rendell.
I tried to emulate Ruth Rendell, for various reasons. But by the end of that year of claiming Jan Mark’s library and reclaiming my love for her books, I realised I couldn’t, and actually didn’t want to.
(Jan Mark was very sniffy about Ruth Rendell. ‘Oh, her books. It’s always the lonely degenerate on page two who turns out to be the killer.’ Never mind. You can’t like everything.)
I’ll always be grateful for that time, because I really didn’t know what I’d write but knew I had to do it. Rediscovering Jan Mark was just what I needed. It reminded me of the sort of writing I prized amongst all others because it was what I most enjoyed reading.
Which is the only sort of writing to attempt yourself, isn’t it?