Edinburgh-based writer and activist Sara Sheridan tells Marianne Taylor about the books that inspired and shaped her.

Favourite book you read as child

I was obsessed with Wuthering Heights. I longed for my very own dark, dodgy Heathcliff and couldn’t sleep because I was so afraid after reading the scene where the ghost of Cathy knocks at the window. The reading of your childhood stays with you forever, I think. You don’t know stories yet so it’s all fresh.

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

Puck of Pook’s Hill, by Rudyard Kipling, because it was so awful. My father got a copy somewhere and read it out loud to my brothers and me and we rolled around begging him to stop. My mother is dyslexic so she couldn’t tell us bedtime stories and Dad took that on. Usually he based stories on what he’d been up to that day. He was an antiques dealer so he’d tell us what he’d bought or sold – stories about who’d owned that item and how it was made. Anyway, he got this book from somewhere and it was very, very dull. We were scarred for weeks.

Which books have made you laugh or cry?

Water Music by TC Boyle makes me laugh. Flowers for Mrs Harris by Paul Gallico makes me weep.

Favourite character

Bella Caledonia in Poor Things by Alasdair Gray. I like her no sh*t approach. My favourite Gray novel is Something Leather because it’s so funny.

Least favourite genre

I find sci-fi really difficult to read. When I was writing The Ice Maiden I read some HP Lovecraft because he sets things on the ice, and I enjoyed that but in general I don’t get sci-fi. I wish I did.

Book you wish you’d written

The Princess Bride by William Goldman. It’s one of my favourites. He’s a story genius.

Book you think is overrated

Lanark by Alasdair Gray. I have tried. Some of his other fiction ranks amongst my favourites – see above – but I just don’t get Lanark. I very much enjoyed the play though [the 2015 adaptation by Royal Lyceum artistic director David Greig], so it can’t be the actual story that I didn’t like. The book somehow seems too male. Is that crazy?

E-reader or print?

E-reader when travelling and print all the other times. It’s all story to me. I don’t think of a book as being a paper item. It’s a series of ideas, so I never felt that e-readers weren’t real books, which it seems, is the case for lots of people. I don’t have a lot of respect for physical books – I give them away all the time. I take notes (that’s marginalia, I guess, if you’re being posh). My husband is the exact opposite. We tiff about it all the time.

Where do you like to read?

There is nowhere I don’t like to read. But if I’m choosing, I like reclining – sofa, bed, wherever. Lying down reading is an absolute joy.

Last book you didn’t finish

Babylon Berlin by Volker Kutscher because I realised I had read it before. Sometimes books are like medicine, aren’t they? You just need a bit of them. I gave up on Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth recently (I was re-reading it) because I got the thing I wanted in the first 100 pages. The sense of pre-1914 British middle-class life.

Last book you read

The Familiars by Stacy Hall. I loved it.

Favourite three novels

Anything by Georgette Heyer (I idolise her). Water Music by TC Boyle (I get thirsty to read this book). It’s about Mungo Park’s doomed trips up the Niger in 1799 and 1803. It is glorious. The Amazing Adventures of Cavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon is also a favourite. It speaks to me with a different voice every time but always with the accent of my Jewish heritage. If I can have a bonus choice, The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber would be up there too. I feel it’s an historical book even though it’s set in the future. Reading – and writing – history is about looking at where we come from. That’s the fascination.

Favourite three non-fiction

Choosing causes me major difficulty because I devour good non-fiction and there’s plenty of it. Most recently it would have to be Natives by Akala. We saw his event at the Edinburgh Fringe in the summer. It’s an astounding and brilliant book about black identity. I'm also choosing Bodyguard of Lies by Anthony Cave Brown, which is an absolute classic about the SOE (British Secret Service) during the Second World War. I’m fascinated by Churchill. I mean he was brilliant and I’m not sure anyone else could have led Britain through the war but God, what a bastard – sexist, racist and just awful in so many ways.

If you’re holding me to only three non-fiction picks, I’d go for Gay Berlin by Robert Beachy which is about sexual identity in Germany in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, where the very earliest transgender operations took place. Germany was interesting because it legislated against gay rights but was also extremely tolerant in many respects. There are photos of these enormous gay balls in the 1910s – hundreds of people – which were organised beneath the radar. You had know somebody who could get you a ticket. And then the police would turn up and just be cool about it. Extraordinary. The writing of Elizabeth Robins Pennell is amazing too. She was the biographer of Mary Wollstonecraft and also a food writer at the turn of the twentieth century. Her collected works are called The Diary Of a Greedy Woman. She gives tobacco and liqueur recommendations for all meals, including breakfast.

Favourite Scottish book

The short stories of Lorna Moon. She is the best short story writer. She also ran away to Holywood, wrote early silent movies and had an affair with Cecil B DeMille’s brother. She has the most fabulous sense of structure. She set all her prose work in the fictional town of Dromerty. Basically, it’s Strichen, in Aberdeenshire, where she was born and brought up. Her work was banned from Strichen public library for decades because the locals were so annoyed about it. She died tragically young. Bonus favourite Scottish book for those looking for a novel would be Self Control by Mary Brunton. She knocks the socks off Jane Austen. She also died young, in childbirth. It’s said Austen got her idea for Emma from Brunton’s work. Honestly, Brunton is cracking, kind of a grubby Jane Austen – a lot less middle-class.

Guilty pleasure

Poetry is my medicine cabinet. Current obsession Roseanne Watt’s Moder Dy. In my head I hear her reading it – she has a wonderful voice. It’s very calming. I’m carrying it around with me in my handbag right now. You know what, I don’t even feel guilty.

Most interesting or unusual use of a book

I think I must be boring with books. I mean, I don’t throw them at miscreants. I don’t prop up wonky furniture with them. I just read the blighters. What do people normally say in response to this question?