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May 5, 2015

Harriet Evans: My Mum, My Daughter and Me

Posted by emily

Internationally bestselling author Harriet Evans’ latest book, A PLACE FOR US, is about a woman who, on the eve of her 80th birthday, decides to reveal a secret that may destroy her perfect family. Harriet herself comes from an extremely literary family; it was her mother who taught her early on to read everything for enjoyment. Here, Harriet shares how her parents influenced her early reading, and why --- especially now that she has a little girl of her own --- she can’t help but revisit the books she loved as a child.

We moved three months ago, and many of my possessions are still in boxes while we have shelves and cupboards built. In one of those boxes is one of my favorite photographs. It’s of me, aged about five, and my older cousins, Clare and Ann. We are huddled together on a sofa at our grandparents’ house in our nighties, knees drawn up under chins, mouths open. Ann is chewing her finger. Next to us, my mother is reading from a book. We are rapt. I’d love to know what the book is, but in a sense it doesn’t matter. My mother could make reading the phone book aloud interesting.

I grew up in a house full of books. My father was an editor and the author of several thrillers, and my mother is an editor. Dad was in a car accident when I was nine months old and is in a wheelchair, so I grew up knowing how important your imaginative world is when your own physical world has become more limited. Dad and I have similar taste in films (The Godfather and Woody Allen all the way), but it’s Mum with whom I share much of my literary tastes. From the earliest age, she read to me and my younger sister, and when she wasn’t reading, she’d tell us stories --- myths and legends, the stories of operas and films --- to help us go to sleep. In winters, every Sunday evening she’d read aloud to us in the sitting room in front of the fire: BALLET SHOES, THE SECRET GARDEN, the Narnia books, the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

I think what Mum really impressed upon us was that reading itself is important, no matter what. It doesn’t have to be great literature; you should enjoy it. She has a strong love of old murder mysteries, which I have inherited: I read all her green Penguins, her Agatha Christies, Ngaio Marsh, Margery Allinghams, and my own favorite, Dorothy L. Sayers. It was her battered old Pan paperback copies of Georgette Heyer, perhaps my favorite novelist of all, which I read first. (I’ve stolen quite a few of them over the years; sorry, Mum…)

As a writer, you’re always trying to create realistic situations for the reader to buy into. I find more and more that I return to the books I loved in childhood and the idea of childhood. My latest book, A PLACE FOR US, coming out June 2nd from Gallery Books, is about a family reunion in a rambling English country house. I adored filling the bookshelves in my imagination with all the kinds of books you want to find in a home like that: PD James mysteries, Peanuts cartoons, Rosamunde Pilchers and, of course, Georgette Heyers, as well as all the classics of my childhood. I loved making up this house and filling the rooms with furniture and people and the shelves with books and games. I read so much as a child and teenager --- thanks to my parents --- that I find it quite easy to conjure up all sorts of worlds in my mind’s eye, and I feel so lucky that I have them to thank for that.

I have a three-year-old daughter now and can’t wait to share my favorite books with her when she’s older. Cora already loves books, and we love reading to her. She likes sitting at the table and looking at the pictures, making up stories and chatting away to herself about them; they usually don’t make much sense! I want her to enjoy exploring the world of books through her own eyes, and make up her mind about what she likes: I was into fairy stories and all of that, and she might not be, although I’d love it if she enjoyed the books I was given by my mother, too. We have already read books I loved when I was small, like THE VERY HUNGRY CATERPILLAR, THE TIGER WHO CAME TO TEA and THE QUANGLE WANGLE’S HAT. It’s the best feeling in the world, having someone sitting on your lap while you trace with your finger the words of stories you were read yourself when you were young.