"Best of the Year" reading lists are like the December issue of celebrity tabloids. Each publication negotiates an obscene budget for a distinguished panel of judges to round up the most hyped-about works of fiction produced in the last 12 months - more often than not, they wind up with near-identical lists. TIME's Top 100 Novels of All Time, and the more ambitious (and underrated) Best of the Millennium by The Millions have made commendable attempts at expanding the "best book" criterion both historically and geographically, identifying the mark of quality writing as a work that has been able to stand the test of time.
Yet with time and money running scarce (as they tend to do), perhaps it would do the reader well to retrace his steps, past the protracted ubiquity of the best-sellers list, and back to the individual authors who made them. What was it about Tolstoy that made Norman Mailer tick? What novels inspired Joyce Carol Oates or Margaret Atwood to write the way they do? (Crime and Punishment and Hjalmar Söderberg's Doctor Glass, respectively). "If you were stranded on a desert island with only one book to read, which would it be?"
Canadian-born DW Wilson is the author of the short story collection Once You Break a Knuckle (2011, Hamish Hamilton). A graduate of the Creative Writing MA at the University of East Anglia, he is now completing a PhD in Creative and Critical Writing while working on his first novel, Ballistics. His story, The Dead Roads, was awarded first prize in the 2011 BBC Short Story Awards.
1. Which book are you likely to pick as your ultimate survival manual?
DW Wilson : I'll go with Richard Ford's The Sportswriter, because although it doesn't help with the avoidance of death, it would act as a spiritual reassurance through the worst times of desert-island-strandedness. Also, it'd remind us that no matter how grim our situation, someone, somewhere, is sadder.
2. Best book about trips or journey?.
Best? Not sure I can say. My favourite? Tim Winton's The Riders, though it perhaps doesn't work as a how-to guide.
3. Which author would you most like to go on a vacation with, and what would you do doing?
Bill Gaston [author of Sointula and Mount Appetite], and we'd drink a lot of beer and fish off the coast of British Columbia, and after a tough day of trawling for salmon we'd blitz back to his cabin on a nearby island, where his wife or my girlfriend would decry us two manly men for the softies we really are, and then we'd all spend the night playing inane parlour games and thinking about how good everything is. Actually that already happened, but I'd go again in a second.
4. The Lord of the Flies was once described as embodying the "diversity and universality of. . .the human condition in the world of today". Which character do you reckon you are most like?
It's been a good long time (maybe twelve years?) since I read Lord of the Flies, and the only character I can drag from memory is Piggy, who dies in a horrible and not-altogether-honourable way, and is a bit of a hoser the rest of the time. I'm more inclined to liken myself to someone like Sodapop, from The Outsiders.
5. If there was one book you had to burn for firewood, which would it be?
Probably one of the Twilight series, or all of them.
6. Which paragraph or line from a novel would serve as your final 'message in a bottle'?
"All alone now beside the humming train cars, I actually do feel my moorings slacken, and I will say it again, perhaps for the last time: there is mystery everywhere, even in a vulgar, urine-scented, suburban depot such as this. You have only to let yourself in for it. You can never know what's coming next. Always there is the chance it will be - miraculous to say - something you want." (Richard Ford, The Sportswriter)
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