Damian Le Bas is the author of The Stopping Places: A Journey Through Gypsy Britain. His next book, The Drowned Places: Diving in Search of the Real Atlantis, will be published by Chatto & Windus (date TBC).
Thank you so much Damian for agreeing to answer these questions.
1. What are you reading at the moment?
I’m reading The Boundless Sea: A Human History of the Oceans by David Abulafia. It’s a big one, this: it’s like stumbling on the ultimate hoard of seafaring documents and history. One of those books you can’t believe anyone is accomplished enough to write. But luckily for the rest of us, they are! I’m working on a book about the underwater world so this one is kind of research, but I’d have bought it anyway, it’s just my kind of book. It has maps and facsimiles of old coins and documents and treasure, and it takes in so many cultures and vast swathes of time and the sea.
I’m also just finishing The Easy Way to Control Alcohol by Allen Carr. A very different sort of book. A friend bought it for me and I was a bit irritated by the gesture as I didn’t feel I had a drink problem. But he didn’t mean any harm, he just thought I’d find it interesting. That was a month ago. I’ve now stopped drinking and it feels great.
2. Did you enjoy reading while growing up – if so, which comics/books and writers were your favourites and why?
I love that you mention comics in the question because I read a lot of comics when I was younger! My favourites were Wolverine, a mysterious Canadian ex-soldier who ages very slowly, can miraculously heal his wounds, speaks perfect Japanese and has claws that shoot out of his hands; The Demon, who is a sort of mediaeval gadfly character who talks in rhyme and enjoys killing Nazis; and The Darkness, which is about a lineage of Italian hitmen who are wilfully possessed by a demonic force that gives them great power to create and destroy. I think all these comics had something in common: protagonists contending with the savage side of their nature, either battling it or embracing it.
I didn’t read as many books. But when I found something I loved I would devour it very quickly and get upset that it was finished. I loved the short stories of an Australian writer called Paul Jennings: they always had an amazing twist to them. They were adapted for a brilliant TV series called Round the Twist. I read a lot of ‘choose your own adventure’ books which were sort of a cross between books and role playing games. I loved Roald Dahl as well. But I wouldn’t say I was the most avid reader as a kid. I was pretty shocked at university to meet people who’d read the entire English canon by the time they were 18. The first adult book I read cover to cover under my own steam was Albert Camus’s The Outsider when I was 16 or 17. I was ill and it seemed thin enough to read without feeling oppressed by it, so I read it in one go. It blew my mind.
3. Which books do you recommend to others and why?
I tend to recommend the same few books for a few reasons. One, I devoured these books because they were addictive to read – a pleasure as opposed to a noble but arduous task. Two, they had a massive, genuinely life-changing effect on me. So it has nothing to do with genre or length or who wrote them, but these two qualities – powers, really – which don’t occur often in the same book.
I think we can get a bit trigger-happy when it comes to recommending books these days. I’m a slow reader and get mixed emotions when someone suggests I should read something, I think partly because reading has often been an escape for me and being ‘set’ a book to read feels a bit invasive. So I try to be sparing with my recommendations and think carefully before even offering one. And a lot of my favourite books are celebrated classics — Wuthering Heights, War and Peace, Moby Dick, East of Eden, The Second Sex, The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, the Tao Te Ching, the Bible – so rightly or wrongly I presume people know about those and that there’s not as much point recommending them.
I think there’s another thing these books have in common: to say they’re an example of one genre always feels like a bit of a betrayal because they all do things you wouldn’t necessarily expect of that genre. Novels that are rich in history; memoirs that are full of geographical detail or motivational writing; poems that work as self-help tools. I love that sort of thing.
Here are three of those books:
The Son by Philipp Meyer – a blood-soaked multi-generational epic novel of Texas spanning Comanche, ‘Anglo’ and Spanish cultures, multiple narrators, and 150 years. It contains everything I want from a novel. This book pulls no punches about the craziness of the human condition, and the fact that more things have happened than any of us can ever know or hope to understand. Meyer once said that a great work of art should move you without you quite understanding why: it should make you feel like you’ve “discovered some secret code that explains the human race”. Well, he’s accomplished that with The Son.
The Outrun by Amy Liptrot. In theory this a ‘recovery memoir’ shot through with some of the best nature writing I’ve ever read, but it’s more than that: it’s a call to enter a state of enchantment at the strangeness of our world. An ode to the mystery of human existence and its location in the cosmos, seen through the awakening eyes of someone going through the excoriating but miraculous process of gaining freedom from the prison of a drug: in Liptrot’s case, alcohol. The whole thing is swept over with the salt mist and fearless winds of Orkney, and it sparkles with the wildlife and mythology of the far north, with London pulsing away like a sinister character in the distance. This book made me feel like anything was possible. As indeed it is.
Consolations of the Forest by Sylvain Tesson. An account of six months spent living in a log cabin in Siberia, on the shores of Lake Baikal, which is frozen over for most of the book. This book seemed like a miracle to me. It’s written in a diary format in a witty and very accessible style, full of perceptive and funny descriptions – mosquitoes, for instance, are “tiny flying syringes” – yet it ranges over everything from ancient Chinese philosophy to the idea of layered humus on a forest floor being the ultimate symbol of memory. In parts it’s just a beautiful hymn to contentment with simple things like fire and tea. And how can you beat a line like this, written after he has befriended two husky pups? “The courage of dogs: to look straight at what appears before them, without wondering if things could have been otherwise.”
4. If any, which writers have influenced your writing?
Hmm, sometimes it’s hard for a writer to tell who’s had the biggest influence on them. But I can have a guess. Now we come back to the authors of the classics I was on about earlier…
Emily Brontë manages to force such emotional intensity into a sentence that once you’ve read a book like Wuthering Heights there’s a danger that a lot of other writing can seem diluted. I think her work, more than any other, has made me willing to sit there for ages trying to get one sentence to convey an unfeasible amount of emotion. (I’ll never succeed like she does but she convinces me it’s worth trying.)
Ted Hughes has had a profound effect on me, particularly in his striving to inhabit the minds of other animals and express what they might see in human language. I think his animal poems are astonishing and I try to enter that state of empathy with other minds when I’m writing.
Emily Dickinson convinced me that phrases can make sense emotionally without having to make sense analytically. I think that’s incredibly important. Herman Melville gave me the idea that you could somehow address every aspect of human life through a single topic: in his case, whaling. Bruce Chatwin taught me the power of terse descriptions and that – I think – metaphor is generally preferable to simile. Sylvia Plath taught me that you can do spells without mentioning magic: a sufficiently powerful poem is indistinguishable from a spell, it changes what reality is for you with a mere deployment of words.
Leo Tolstoy taught me that writing was already cinema before cinema was invented. Toni Morrison taught me that the spoken idioms of oppressed people can soar in English prose. Charles Bukowski taught me to write what you feel, not what someone else thinks you should write. I could go on and on.
5. Desert Island Question – which book would you take with you?
I was arguing with myself about this the other day. It ended up being a toss-up between The Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson and the Bible. I could be happy with either of those. Dickinson is an endless oracle, and a friend. It would be a real companion.
And the Bible… Well. It’s not just the philosophy and the history and the inspiration and the darkness and the madness and love, the sustenance, the full picture of humanity. What shocked me when I was studying it at university, in the original languages, was the beauty of it. David’s lament for his son Absalom above the gates of Jerusalem just left me stunned. You are there, in this flood of a father’s grief for his son. And sometimes, when I used to live in a trailer and I was walking back to it late at night, I used to recite Psalm 23 to myself in Hebrew. I’m scared of the dark and the sounds of the owls and the wind in the trees used to terrify me, but those words had a power: I was under a protection. And I always got back safe.