My Life in Books

Damian Barr, writer and literary salonnier

Favourite book you read as teenager

The Color Purple, by Alice Walker. My pal "Mark", who I wrote about in Maggie and Me, would pretend to be Nettie and I was Miss Celie. We were "sisters" like the two sisters separated and treated so cruelly in 1930s Georgia, two gay boys who did not fit into the very macho culture of secondary school in Lanarkshire in the 1980s. Those sisters were resilient and confided everything in their letters to one another. Mark and I faced the world together. Until we didn’t, but I won’t say more for those who haven’t read my memoir. The Colour Purple showed me that a book can sound "real": the voices in it were of that time, place, class and colour. I felt the same way reading Their Eyes Were Watching God, the 1937 novel by Zora Neale Hurston, much more recently.

What was the first book that made an impact on you?

That would be The Witches, by Roald Dahl. Our primary seven teacher read it aloud to us and I was desperate for everyone to get their work done so we could get the story. It’s all about keeping secrets and hiding your real self from the world. It spoke to me on a couple of levels. As a gay boy I was hiding who I was, and I was also hiding the bruises I got at home and trying to hide the fact that my home life was chaotic. It's also about how evil wears a mask and hides in plain sight, themes I explored in my memoir and my recent novel, You Will Be Safe here. It's something I think we must all be vigilant of – baddies don’t generally announce themselves.

Which books have made you laugh or cry?

I broke my heart reading Waiting for the Last Bus, by Richard Holloway. I’d just lost a very dear friend, the writer and editor Diana Athill, and his book gave me permission to grieve but also to be happy that she had a "good" death. It also made me sad because Richard is one of the wisest, kindest souls to walk this earth, so even his intense insights into leaving it – which I hope will not be for many years! – was enough to leave me in bits. Laugh? That’s harder and not always for the right reasons! Mapp and Lucia make me smile. David Nicholls makes me laugh out loud and his new book, Sweet Sorrow, makes teen angst hilarious.

Favourite character

Depends on the day. Right this second I am thinking about the trees in The Overstory, by Richard Powers. The book almost turned trees into people for me, making me think about how they relate to us and how we need to take action to save them and ourselves.

Least favourite genre

I am not a fan of Game of Thrones, which puts me in a minority, I know. I used to lose myself in fantasy as a teenager. Now I want to get back into sci-fi because there is such innovative work being done in the genre. And I miss being among the stars.

Book you wish you’d written

Their Eyes Were Watching God; I mean, it’s amazing. Zadie Smith wrote the introduction to it after it was "rediscovered". Like the Color Purple, it tells of people and places we don’t get to see in pale male stale literary fiction. Set in in rural Florida during the depression, it's about a woman and the three men in her life. It’s bleak and violent, but the language is as alive as Janie, the central character. I cried when it was over!

Book you think is overrated

The Old Man and The Sea, by Ernest Hemingway. It made me think overfishing might actually be a good thing. I wanted the fish to eat him. For all it’s celebrated brevity, I find his prose in this book ponderous and the whole thing just agonising. It was like watching the Fishing Channel. And I say this as a man with a fishing rod who lives by the sea and dreams of catching a big sea bass.

E reader or print?

I’d read a tattoo on the back of your neck if you had one and were standing in front of me in a queue. My only gripe about ebooks is that it makes it harder to glimpse the title of what people around you are reading, which has lead to people thinking I am checking them out when I’m not (honest).

Where do you like to read?

Wherever I am. In bed is best, I think. I just travelled from Washington DC to New York City on the train and devoured the first half of Edinburgh, by Alexander Chee. I am sure I missed a lot of scenery.

Last book you didn’t finish

Many years ago I left a copy of Sex And The City at a guy’s house the morning after, and I really think that’s why he never called me back. More recently I gave up on Manhattan Beach, by Jennifer Egan.

Last book read

Constellations, by Sinead Gleeson.

Favourite three novels

Name your favourite three vital organs and I’ll attempt to answer this. But, aside from the ones I’ve mentioned, A Place of Greater Safety, by Hilary Mantel; We The Animals, by Justin Torres; Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi.

Favourite three non-fiction

In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote; Dark Days by James Baldwin; Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, by Reni Eddo-Lodge

Favourite Scottish book

All Made Up; Janice Galloway is the queen of whatever she chooses to write and I hope if she’s reading this she puts the paper down and cracks on with her novel. Her memoirs take you into the over-heated, bubbling atmosphere of her Mum’s house in Ayr with her sister Cora looking glamorous and furious all at once. She is the embodiment of understatement and one of Scotland’s best writers.

Guilty pleasure

Forever Amber, a restoration romp by Kathleen Winsor about Amber, who goes from village doxy to royal mistress. It was banned when it was published in the 1940s for being too sexy.

Most interesting or unusual use of a book

Presently Shakespeare – collected – is propping up my laptop and I like to think suffusing it with genius. Poor Shakespeare, being put to such pedestrian use.

Damian Barr's debut novel, You Will Be Safe Here, is out now on Bloomsbury (£16.99).

He will present The Big Scottish Book Club, which starts in the autumn on BBC Scotland.