Novelist John Niven tells Marianne Taylor about the books that have inspired - and enraged - him.

Favourite book you read as child

Harry by the Sea, by Gene Zion. Wee dog goes to the seaside and adventures ensue. It reminds me of my Mum teaching me to read when I was three or four, sitting in the chair by the window in our flat in Martin Avenue in Irvine.

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

Catch 22, by Joseph Heller. My English teacher Jean Doole pressed it on me when I was 16. Given the subject matter I fully expected to be horrified, which I was, but what I didn’t expect was for it to be so very, very funny. It was the first time I remember laughing out loud when reading. This was a revelation, that a book could do that to you.

Which book made you cry?

The last half-dozen pages of Lunar Park by Bret Easton Ellis always make me well up. I think it’s easily his best book and in these last pages he reaches for a high style you very rarely associate with a writer of such famously cold prose. I just finished his memoir, White, which I’d kind of put off reading because the excerpts I read in reviews all focused on his various Twitter spats and it kind of sounded like nonsense. But the first half is a vivid account of his growing up in LA, filled with really brilliant film criticism. After that, when it drifts into his current politics, you do kind of tune out. He seems to take the position of "yeah, Trump’s an idiot but he was democratically elected so get over it and move on", and I’m not sure that’s such an easy place to be when you look at the situation in the migrant detention centres at the southern border, or the fact that we’re probably about to go to war with Iran. As they say, it would be ideal if the worst person in the world and the US president weren’t the same person. That’s a lot to get over, Bret.

Favourite character in literature?

It would have to be someone from Martin Amis. Probably Keith Talent in London Fields. He’s just such a compellingly realized horror show. But I could easily have chosen John Self from Money. Over the years I seem to flip back and forth between those two in terms of which one I prefer. Although "prefer" is probably not the word we’re looking for here. That said, as I’ve got older and lived the life of a working novelist I’m more and more drawn to Richard Tull and Gwyn Barry in The Information. They’re two writers who are best friends, though obviously hate one another. Richard is an abject failure and Gwyn is hugely successful and much joy is had by contrasting their lives. I think most novelists probably have days when they feel like Richard Tull and the odd moment when they’re treated like Gwyn Barry.

Least favourite genre

Fantasy. As soon as the wizards and dragons appear I’m out. I’ve never read a page of Tolkien. Perhaps it’s a generational thing – it just reminds me of my friends' older brothers' bedrooms, when we were teenagers into punk rock and they all had Deep Purple posters on the wall, joss sticks burning and patchouli oil all over the place. The very words "Frodo" or "Bilbo Baggins" still fill me with deep rage. I even managed to avoid Game of Thrones for years and then finally started it very recently only to realise it’s basically Shakespeare meets the Romans in medieval England. So maybe I’ve been missing out.

Book you wish you’d written

So many. Lolita by Nabokov, but what novelist doesn’t wish that? The Secret History by Donna Tart. More recently The Girls by Emma Cline gave me total premise envy. I tend to get premise envy more frequently. Rather than wishing I’d written the actual book I think "ooh, I wish I’d thought to write a book about that."

Book you think is overrated

Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace. I’ve tried and I’ve tried but I just can’t get along with it at all. I don’t think that fruity bandana he wore around his head helped. I find that image tough to get past.

E-reader or print?

Print. I need to make notes, marginalia. And I need to flip back and check earlier information. Yes, I know that technically you can do that on a screen but it’s just not for me. You also lose the satisfaction of placing the finished book on top of the pile of other books you have finished, of seeing the "to read" pile start to shrink and the "have read" pile start to grow. Although I think e-books are very useful for when you're reading something and it makes you think "ooh, I really want to read X after this" and you can just click and do so. Obviously, when you’re on a long book tour you’re going to favour the e-reader. In earlier times I’d cart a stack of paperbacks around, say, Germany for three weeks, the load gradually getting lighter as you leave them in hotel rooms as you make your way from Berlin down to Munich.

Where do you like to read?

I read anywhere. It’s very rare I don’t have a book on me. Though the preferred spot is in the chair in my study. I tend to read for a bit around lunchtime, as a way of breaking the morning's work off before starting the afternoon's. If I’ve already eaten this will often be accompanied by the "thunk" of the book falling to the floor as I nod off.

Last book you didn’t finish

Infinite Jest. I think we’ve covered this.

Favourite Scottish book

Marabou Stork Nightmares, by Irvine Welsh. It’s such a dark, vicious onslaught on a certain kind of nightmarish masculinity. A long time ago I told Irvine this was my favourite book of his and I think he thought I was a bit mad, though I sense he’s come around to this view himself in recent years.

Guilty pleasure

I’m so bored of the guilty pleasures concept. If you like it, you like it – don’t bloody apologise. I’m much more into the concept of innocent pain: things you are supposed to like but can’t stand. David Foster Wallace would fit the bill here I guess. Ian McEwan’s more recent work would also be in this category. As well as the music of Nirvana and anything to do with the theatre.

Most interesting or unusual use of a book

I once used knowledge gained from a book to save someone’s life. I’d read in a biography of the country singer Gram Parsons that when he overdosed on heroin at the Joshua Tree Inn, one of the ways they attempted to revive him was by inserting ice cubes into his rectum. Many years later I found myself in a situation where a neighbour at the time had accidentally overdosed on heroin. Reader, I put that biography-gleaned information to good use and the patient lived. True story.

Kill 'Em All, by John Niven, is out now, priced £8.99. He appears at the Fringe by the Sea Festival in North Berwick on August 07.