The New York Times Asks Thriller Writer Ruth Ware About Her Favorite Books

From a New York Times By the Book interview titled “Ruth Ware Won’t Read ‘Bleak House’ Until She Retires”:

Too many to list. I mean, literally about 20 or 30 titles. Some are old favorites that I like to dip back into after a hard day — “Howl’s Moving Castle,” by Diana Wynne Jones, would fall into that category. Some are books I finished a while ago and just haven’t moved to the shelves in my office — Sarah Pinborough’s “Insomnia” or Dorothy Koomson’s “The Ice Cream Girls,” for example. Some are books I’m in the middle of or have yet to get to — Lisa Jewell’s “The Family Remains” is one of those. I’m halfway through and got distracted by something I had to read for an event, but it’s waiting for me!

I only recently read “The Shining,” by Stephen King. I had always considered myself too much of a scaredy-cat for King’s work, having been traumatized by “Christine” aged about 13, but actually “The Shining” wasn’t as horrifying as I had feared. Or maybe I’ve just toughened up with age! Regardless, I’m sorry I waited so long. I also took a long time to get into Dickens. I had to read him at school and university and found him by turns boring, twee and irritating. The only one I really liked was “Great Expectations,” but I think now I’m old enough to see the humanity in his work. I’m saving “Bleak House” for my retirement. There’s a temptation to rush through the canon as young as possible, but you can only ever read a book for the first time once, and I like the idea of having that to look forward to.

It used to be “The Blessing,” by Nancy Mitford, but the Mitfords have become much better known in recent years; although that’s one of her less famous titles, I think a lot of people probably do know it now. Maybe a rather obscure memoir called “A London Child of the 1870s,” which details the author’s very ordinary upbringing in Victorian London. Absolutely nothing remarkable happens, but there’s something so charming and real about the characters that you feel they’re your personal friends by the end of the book. Molly Hughes wrote it, in part, to debunk the idea that the typical Victorian childhood was strict and gloomy and suffused with punishment — certainly the one in the book comes across as one you’d want for your own kids, full of friendship, laughter and scrapes.

The two authors that made me fall in love with the genre were probably Daphne du Maurier and Agatha Christie. But my entry drug, one of the first real “crime” stories I encountered, was Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Speckled Band.” My mum read it to me and my sister as a bedtime story when I would have been about 8 or 9, and I had nightmares for weeks. It definitely showed me the power of the imagination!

This is a very hard one to answer because there are so many excellent possibilities. Sherlock Holmes has to be up there for setting so many of the tropes of the genre. Lord Peter Wimsey was one of my first literary crushes. Agatha Christie’s two brilliant outsiders — the war refugee Hercule Poirot and the “superfluous spinster” Miss Marple — both showed that you didn’t need to be part of the establishment to make a difference. Chester Himes’s Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones did the same in a powerful way. I honestly don’t think I could pick just one. Best villain is probably easier — I think for me it would have to be Tom Ripley. I’m not so interested in shadowy Moriartys or psychopathic serial killers. I love antiheroes who let you see through their eyes, ones that you can both hate and cheer on at the same time. Ripley fits that bill.

As a reader, I can read almost anything as long as I feel invested in the characters. I don’t have to admire them; some of my favorite books have deeply unlikable main characters. But I have to care about them. There are some subjects that do put me off in a blurb — violence or abuse, mainly, particularly involving children. As a writer, I suppose what pulls me into a story is a conundrum or “what if” that resonates with me, and that I want to explore. Some fear or phobia or personal terror of my own is seeded through the pages of most of my books — some obviously, some perhaps not so much. The French writer Colette said, I think in reference to what makes for a good writer, “Look long at what gives you pleasure, and longer at what pains you.” I think that’s good advice, although in my case it’s probably more: Look longer at what scares you.

I think empathy is in short supply at the moment, so probably anything that encourages that. Perhaps “Razorblade Tears,” by S.A. Cosby, which shows two very different men connected by their unbearable grief over the loss of their sons, or the memoir “Lowborn,” by Kerry Hudson, which lays painfully bare the reality of the harsh choices facing many families.

The temptation here is to say “Chaucer, Shakespeare and Emily Brontë” to show how well read you are, and there would certainly be something quite fascinating about the chance to solve some of the mysteries of Shakespeare’s life, like why did he leave his wife nothing but his second-best bed? However, honestly, I think it would be too much pressure for me to enjoy my food. So, in reality, I think I would have a better time with just a load of crime writer mates. It’s very hard to pick just three because what I would really like to do is have a huge potluck with about 40 writers all crowded around sharing serving spoons and gossip — but I think I would have a very good time with Clare Mackintosh, Laura Shepherd-Robinson and Abir Mukherjee, and I know they are all foodies so they would appreciate my cooking.


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