Six degrees of separation is an idea of Kate’s at Books are my Favourite and Best, where the idea is that everyone begins with the same book and links to six other books to form a chain. To find out more take a look here.

The start book this month is The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, a gothic, ghost story.


The Turn Of The Screw/ Henry James: Annotated by [Henry James]

In 2004 Colm Tóibín wrote a novel about Henry James called The Master. It was shortlisted for the Booker prize.

It’s great incidentally. If you can’t stand Henry James then I recommend reading this and you might feel differently about him! Six months after Tóibín’s book came out, David Lodge’s novel Author, Author also about Henry James, came out but was sort of lost in all the adulation that had been heaped on The Master. A much earlier book by David Lodge, published in 1962, was called Ginger, You’re Barmy and was about a young man doing National Service.

Ginger, You're Barmy by [David Lodge]

A wicked red-haired villain in fiction is the dreadful, unctuous Uriah Heap of Dicken’s David Copperfield.

David Copperfield (The Penguin English Library)

Dickens was one of the great London writers. Bleak House opens with one of the best descriptions of fog in fiction. Another book set in London during a pea souper is Margery Allingham’s 1952 novel Tiger in the Smoke. The fourteenth of her Albert Campion mysteries and one of the best.

Smoke and Ashes is the third in Abir Mukherjee’s crime series set in 1920s India, featuring Captain Sam Wyndham and ‘Surrender-not’ Banerjee. It’s a series I love and highly recommend.


Finally, Smoke and Ashes makes me think of another novel set in India, Heat and Dust, written by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala of Merchent Ivory fame. This book won the Booker in 1975. I read it a very long time ago and my main recollection is of it being a bit thin and decidedly unsatisfying in its ending but I do remember enjoying the film!

This was great fun. I think I might do it again. The next one (November 7 2020) starts with the last book used in this one, so Heat and Dust for me or the last book you read if it’s the first time you’ve done it.  Now, let me think … Dust …Dusty… no, don’t answer!


This from The Notebooks of Henry James:

“I heard some time ago, that Anthony Trollope had a theory that a boy might be brought up to be a novelist as to any other trade. He brought up – or attempted to bring up – his own son on this principle, and the young man became a sheep-farmer, in Australia.”

January 22nd 1879

This made me laugh and I never thought I’d say that about Henry James. For some reason it also reminded me of attending a careers evening at my old school some time ago. It had coincided with me feeling rather dispirited about my writing life but I went because I had said I would and I thought it might do me good. It was a surreal experience but the main thing I came away with was that I spent more time talking to the parents who were there than the children and my impression was that the parents were curious and somewhat wistful on their own account about the writing life but eager for me to deter their children from pursuing it. The main reason being the difficulty and unlikelihood of them ever making much money at it.

Coming back to the Henry James quotation I wonder how Trollope raised his son? What would be the ideal upbringing for a child who you wanted to become a novelist. A traumatic childhood? That’s a cliché, surely but then there is the much repeated expression that happiness ‘writes white.’ In the scheme of things there must be as many novelists with perfectly happy childhoods as unhappy.  However what I would say is that every family has its silences, its secrets and its sorrows. Those still deep pools that we stand at the edge of and wonder about. Maybe if you’re a writer you’re compelled to dip your toe in, skim a stone across and see what rises. The stories you end up writing are part solace part explanation.

On the basis that children tend to rebel against parental expectations maybe the simple moral of this tale is that Trollope should have raised his son to be a sheep farmer and then he might have produced a writer!

On the subject of sheep farmers and writing I’m currently reading the most beautiful book The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks. I think it’s the book I’ve enjoyed most this year. Here is a man who is both a fantastic writer and a shepherd. One of the many things I like about the book is that it’s not about a man going on a journey, a narrative much overused by unimaginative TV producers. This is instead the story of a man who stayed put (other than a brief stint at Oxford) and did what his father and grandfather had done before him became a shepherd in the Lake District. Writing a compelling book about staying put is, to my mind, a much more difficult thing to do well and James does it very well indeed. I just love the book and don’t want it to end.

Now over to you. What were you raised to be? Did you defy parental expectations?Any suggestions as to how you would raise a child to be a novelist?


How do fiction writers name their characters? I’m frankly a bit rubbish at this and tend to change my mind a lot. With my crime novels I finally settled on Sam (‘Samantha’) Falconer as the name of my main character, the Sam coming from Sam Spade and the Falconer from The Maltese Falcon, one of my favourite films.

There can be distinct problems however if the name you give a character in a story titled The Liar is a particularly rare and unusual one. This is how Henry James tried to get himself out of trouble in response to an ‘amiable inquiry’ (I wonder!) by a member of the Capadose family on 13 October 1896:

My dear Sir

You may be very sure that if I’d had the pleasure of meeting a person of your striking name I wouldn’t have used the name, especially for the purpose of the tale you allude to.

It was exactly because I had no personal or private association with it that I felt free to do so. But I am afraid that (in answer to your amiable inquiry) it is late in the day for me to tell you how I came by it.

The Liar was written ten years ago – and I simply don’t remember. 

Fiction-mongers collect proper names, surnames, etc – make notes and lists of any odd or unusual, as handsome or ugly ones they see or hear – in newspapers (columns of births, deaths, marriages, etc) or in directories and signs of shops or elsewhere; fishing out  of these memoranda in time of need the one that strikes them as particularly good for a particular case.

“Capadose” must be in one of my old note-books. I have a dim recollection of having found it originally in the first columns of The Times, where I find almost all the names I store up for my puppets. It was picturesque and rare and so I took possession of it. I wish – if you care at all – that I had applied it to a more exemplary individual! But my romancing Colonel was a charming man, in spite of his little weakness.

I congratulate you on your bearing a name that is at once particularly individualizing and not ungraceful (as so many rare names are).

I am, dear Sir,

Yours very truly

Henry James

The old smoothie. No wonder they called him The Master!

Are there any particular fictional names that you like or dislike?

If you’re a writer do you find it easy to name your characters?