Five Books that Changed My Life: Lisa Ballantyne

Five Books that Changed My Life – Lisa Ballantyne

Choosing five books seems an easy task until you realize that so many books have been inspirational and life-changing, particularly at different stages in life. After much agonizing before my bookcase, I have narrowed it down to these:

The Poems of Norman MacCaig – I am a great fan of a number of North American writers: Toni Morrison, Joyce Carol Oates, Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, Anne Tyler to name but a few. Sometimes I feel guilty as a Scottish writer not to be naming my heroes from home. When I first started writing, like many future novelists, I began with poetry. Sylvia Plath was a huge influence, as she was on numerous women of my generation, but I have chosen here to cite Norman MacCaig, the late Scottish poet. It is impossible to visit New York without a line from his Hotel Room, 12th Floor coming to my mind: “the Empire State Building, that / jumbo sized dentist’s drill…” We studied his poems when I was in High School and I remember him visiting our school. I was a very shy student, but I remember I was driven to ask him a question. I asked what inspired him to write his poem, Byre, and he teasingly answered, “a byre…of course.” A prolific and sensitive poet, MacCaig’s reputation as the ‘grand old man’ of Scottish poetry is unquestionable and he has been much missed since his death in 1996.

Negotiating with the Dead, Margaret Atwood
Atwood is one of the few authors that I can say I have read everything she has written. This non-fiction book subtitled ‘A Writer on Writing’ was exciting for me as an unpublished author to read, for even although Atwood is a great writer whose genius I could not hope to emulate, I still identified with so much in this book. Reading this book changed my life as a writer because it gratified me, and gave me fuel to keep trying. Some people are very respectful of books but my favourite books are always well-thumbed and marked with notes and underlinings. This book on my shelf is marked in this way, so that I can read my favourite passages with ease again and again.

The Story of an African Farm, Olive Schreiner
I was political from a young age and also an ardent feminist. At university, my thesis was on feminist Victorian authors. The great thing about the nineteenth century is that the cannon of literature from that time is so vast – so many books were published – that it is difficult for even senior professors to have read all the significant books of the period. This novel is not well-known, but it is a stunningly progressive study of gender and a hauntingly moving tale. A South African writer of the late nineteenth century, Schreiner was an outspoken critic of racism and the lot of women in society at the time.

Beloved, Toni Morrison
Another of my favourite North American writers, I have read almost all of this Nobel Prize winning writer’s work. Like many readers, I began with Beloved and fell in love with the dark, emotionally intense, spare prose that is the mark of all Morrison’s novels. As I writer, I try to be as succinct as possible and I think that Morrison is one of those writers where all the words on the page are essential.

Simone de Bouvoir, The Second Sex & Jean Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness
This is definitely cheating to squeeze in two books and two authors, but I excuse it because they are books best read together. I never formally studied philosophy but became very interested in reading philosophy in my twenties and thirties. I came late to these great writers but became obsessed with them both (as writers of fiction and philosophy and as real life lovers and friends). Both are simultaneously celebrated and vilified, but whether inspirational or dated, they are best enjoyed together. Sartre’s work is best illuminated through The Beaver’s as he liked to call her, and similarly her own work is contextualised by Sartre’s. Even as people, I find them fascinating: Simone’s detached beauty and Sartre’s lazy eye. In my mid thirties, while avidly reading both writers fiction and non-fiction output, I created two large, bright-coloured screen prints of them in conversation, which still hang in my home.

Lisa Ballantyne was born in Armadale, West Lothian, Scotland and was educated at Armadale Academy and University of St Andrews where she studied English Literature. She spent most of her twenties in China, working in international development, education and latterly for small English and Chinese magazines. She speaks Mandarin. She returned to the UK in 2002, to work in higher education, most recently for University of Glasgow. The latest book by Lisa Ballantyne is THE GUILTY ONE.