The books that made me: Karen Campbell, author of This Is Where I Am
Ahead of the release of new novel Rise, the writer discusses the books that have influenced her life
After four novels centering on the life and investigations of Sgt. Anna Cameron, Karen Campbell broke away from the crime mould for her fifth novel, This Is Where I Am, which highlighted the plight of asylum seekers in Glasgow. The profound tale of Abdi and his care worker showed a new side to Campbell’s writing, and this is explored further with Rise, her sixth novel in eight years. Set in the political cauldron of pre-referendum Scotland, the novel explores themes of identity and forgiveness. Ahead of its publication, we caught up with the ex-police officer to chat about the books that have shaped her writing.
What was the first book you can remember being completely captivated by?
Smokey House by Elizabeth Goudge – a gift from my great-aunt Doris. She volunteered in Oxfam, so it was second hand, which made this lovely story about West Country smugglers and first love and talking animals and Cornish piskies even more exciting to my seven year old self. It felt like it was a secret find.
What was the book that made you want to become a writer?
My gran always got me books as a kid – illustrated Robert Louis Stevenson treasuries and so on – and the combination of bright pictures and words really transported me. But I think it was reading Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song when I was a teenager that sowed the seed. I wrote about its impact in a short story for the Edinburgh International Book Festival's Elsewhere series, when I said: 'Later, much later, you will realise this is the first time a book has moved you so completely: the language, the story, the bigger sense of it. The fact it is quite solidly and distinctively Scottish. You didn’t know writers could do that, that you were allowed to paint rhythms and cadences with your words...'
Which book has had the biggest emotional impact on you?
Germinal by Emile Zola . I would never have chosen this novel, set in a poor mining village in 19th century France, but I was meant to read it in first year French at uni – in French. I'm very glad I realised my limitations and read it in English, because I wouldn't have wanted to miss a word. You feel you're struggling through life with the characters, and you're wrung out by the end. I actually don't know if I could go back and read it again – it was immense: claustrophobic, raw, brutal and achingly sad.
What was the first book you reached for when your children were old enough to be read to?
The trick was always to give them a choice of two books, both of which I wanted to read anyway. Nothing by Mick Inkpen was a beautifully illustrated and written favourite, about a forgotten toy in an attic, but then we moved on to the What Katy Did series by Susan Coolidge, before graduating to Philip Pullman's brilliant His Dark Materials trilogy.
Who is your favourite author?
I've got several. There are certain writers that, as soon as they have a new book out, it goes on your must-read list, no matter what. Mine would be folk like David Mitchell, Janice Galloway, Ali Smith, AS Byatt.
What books would you cite as an influence on Rise?
That's a difficult one, because when you're in the act of writing, all sorts of influences and snippets and themes rush in and you don't always know where they've come from, or even what it is that you're trying to convey. Often, it's only after, when you step back and look at the finished thing, that it becomes clear. But probably books like And The Land Lay Still by James Robertson and Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. Although Rise doesn't have the sweep of history that both of these novels cover, that sense of layers of lives intertwining was always at the back of my mind, of time passing, of the ebb and flow of change. And of the land enduring no matter what so yes – Sunset Song was filtering through there too.
In Rise, Justine escapes into the quiet of the Highlands. What book would you take with you on a weekend of complete solitude?
Something dense and magical. I might read Alasdair Gray's Lanark again, or go for a big, sprawling novel by Philip Hensher, The Northern Clemency or The Emperor Waltz.
Rise is a novel with a political angle – are there any political novels that should be on the nation's reading lists?
In Rise I'd wanted to capture that incredible sense of momentum in the lead-up to the [Scottish independence] referendum, that gathering sense of a wave about to break, but I didn't want it to be a piece of rhetoric or a rant, so I suppose it's hard to define quite what a 'political' novel is. The personal is political, and politics bleeds into every aspect of our lives, doesn't it? A book like The Busconductor Hines by James Kelman is a perfect example: through one man's eyes, through his daily frustrations, hopes and fears, we get this striking portrayal of resilience, and of the monotony and grind of living in working poverty – a powerful political message shown through the minutiae of one man's life.
And finally, if you could recommend one book to readers, what would it be?
For the cleverness of the story, the fragmented structure, the historical and emotional insights into war, the compassion and the sheer beauty of the writing, it would have to be Day by AL Kennedy.
Rise by Karen Campbell is out on Thu 12 Mar, published by Bloomsbury