Favourite book you read as child

The Owl Service by Alan Garner. I re-read it recently. So much going on! Broken families, the seismic shifts of adolescence, the Welsh-speaking servants’ loathing of their English employers. Not that I cared much about subtext at 10. Back then it was just the thrillingly spooky story of a teenage girl on holiday in Wales who finds some old flower-patterned plates in the attic, notices the flowers are really owls, and reactivates an ancient tragedy. Is there a more chilling sentence in children’s literature than: “But the petals were not petals: they were claws”?

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

My parents weren’t readers but, agreeing with Anthony Powell that books furnish a room, held on to my grandmother’s two bookcases. (Gifts from grateful patients she had treated as a colliery nurse.) The Complete Shakespeare had tissue-thin, gilt-edged pages and photographs of Henry Irving, Herbert Beerbohm Tree, Ellen Terry, Lily Langtry and other Victorian thesps striking hammy poses in the classic roles. Hilarious now, but long before I could read Janet and John, never mind Hamlet, I loved that book.

Which books have made you laugh or cry?

I would rather wash the kitchen floor than read a comic novel. Nothing freezes my facial muscles quicker than the cover blurb “laugh out loud funny”. But Lucy Ellmann’s Man or Mango? genuinely (albeit silently) amused me. Recently I have been smirking at The 5 Simple Machines by Todd McEwen, who happens to be Mr Lucy Ellmann. Tears come much more easily. Any old potboiler can have me reaching for the tissues. All it takes is a character in despair being offered a helping hand and…boo-hoo! Proper cathartic crying is something else: the kind that comes when you feel you’ve lived through an experience personally, not just read about the character experiencing it. Alastair Gray’s 1982 Janine did the trick for me. In Don DeLillo’s Underworld, the character is 20th century America, and still I wept.

Favourite character

Twenty years ago it would have been one of Philip Roth’s or Saul Bellow’s mouthy egomaniacs, but as I get older I find myself bored by larger-than-life characters, on and off the page. John Updike’s novels are too priapic to be fashionable these days. His attempts at writing women are, frankly, insulting. Nevertheless, I choose Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, fleshed-out over four novels, Rabbit, Run; Rabbit Redux; Rabbit is Rich; Rabbit at Rest.

A superannuated high-school jock still thinking with his groin, a meathead car salesman who despises his wife Janice (“the little mutt”) and sees his admittedly repellent son Nelson as a rival threatening his identity as the family alpha. Updike smuggles us inside Rabbit’s skin, gives us every venal impulse and selfish thought, the politics he’s picked up from reading Consumer Reports. Why should we care about him? Because every few pages Updike shows us the tender boy buried underneath all that.

Least favourite genre

Horror. Closely followed by fantasy.

Book you wish you’d written

The Green Road. No one does voice better than Anne Enright. Pawky, horny, sweary, bleak, touching. Listening to her characters’ thoughts is like watching Samantha Morton act – so much more real than anyone else around. This story of Irish siblings fleeing from and then returning to their awful mother to stop her selling the family home gives us five virtuoso turns. I’ll be very happy if I write anything half as good as the pages about Emmet in Mali, and the cross-cultural trainwreck when his girlfriend adopts a stray dog.

Book you think is overrated

No names, just a category – autofiction. If you’ve run out of plots, write a memoir. Don’t try to dress it up as some some sort of literary cutting edge. As Martin Amis said of his characters many years ago, “they’re all me”. Also overrated (as he’s dead and past caring): anything by Dickens.

Where do you like to read?

Anywhere and everywhere. On buses and trains, before coronavirus. At the table (see above – a filthy habit). In bed. Sally Rooney’s Normal People deserves honourable mention for keeping me awake till 4am. Also, in the loo.

Last book you didn’t finish and why

Karoo by Steve Tesich, which I heard praised on Radio 4’s A Good Read. The cover has plaudits from Howard Jacobson, Richard E Grant, Deborah Moggach and Arthur Miller, for goodness sake. But it’s a comic novel, so I should have known better.

E reader or print?

Print, every time, although I treat books disgracefully, breaking their spines and staining pages with tea, coffee or soup.

Last book you read

Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light. As spellbinding as we knew it would be.

Favourite novels

One: Women in Love. DH Lawrence is as reviled as Updike in feminist circles and, yes, some of his ideas about female sexuality are pretty iffy. But I’ve loved this novel since I was a 15-year-old babysitter hired by a couple of university lecturers and found it among their wall of books. There are chapters so deep in me they have altered my DNA. Two: Elizabeth Jane Howard’s The Long View takes a vivisectionist’s scalpel to an English marriage. Three: Arlington Park. Before Rachel Cusk turned to autofiction, she wrote this brilliantly-observed, joyfully excruciating satire of 21st century motherhood. Perhaps she’ll find her way back to this sort of novel one day.

Favourite non-fiction books

My partner Jim reads most of the non-fiction in our house, I’ll read more once I’ve got through all the novels out there. I’ll always be grateful to Leah Leneman’s groundbreaking A Guid Cause for introducing me to the Scottish suffragettes and inspiring my novel A Petrol Scented Spring. My current work-in-progress has sent me back to Gordon Burn’s Somebody’s Husband, Somebody’s Son. I wouldn’t exactly recommend a book about a misogynist serial killer written after months of close contact with Peter Sutcliffe’s family at who knows what personal cost. But I remember living in terror of the Yorkshire Ripper, my heart in my mouth every time I went out. I needed an explanation, and Burn’s book supplied it.

Favourite Scottish book

Catherine Carswell’s debut novel Open the Door. As unsparingly honest as any 21st century autofiction – well, unsparing about everything except her bizarre, near-fatal first marriage. If you want to know more about that, you could always read my sixth novel, What We Did in the Dark.

Guilty pleasure

Iris Murdoch. Revisiting her 20-odd novels is getting me through lockdown – though don’t ask me to summarise the plots. Even second time around, one tends to blur into another.

Most interesting or unusual use of a book

Every December my local library makes a Christmas tree out of books. It Drives Me Mad.

Ajay Close’s What We Did in the Dark is out now on Sandstone Press, £8.99.