EIBF2014: A chat with Samantha Ellis

At the weekend, Samantha Ellis took part in two events, one a reading workshop on The Hunger Games and the other a discussion with Rebecca Mead, the author of My Life in Middlemarch, on The Joys of Reading Too Much. The latter event was chaired by Lee Randall. I met Lee and Samantha on Sunday morning and listened in (mostly quietly, the occasional unformatted interjections are me poking my nose in) while they chatted about growing up as avid, even obsessive readers.

We opened with a discussion about a well-loved copy of Henny Penny that Samantha has brought along, and the regional variations of Chicken Licken and Chicken Little, then on to the serious business.

Lee Randall: “We’re here with Samantha Ellis, the author of How to Be a Heroine, though I take umbrage with your subtitle, which is ‘What I’ve learned from reading too much’. I don’t like that phrase “too much”. Is there any such thing as too much reading and too many books?”

Samantha Ellis: “I think no, but it was a jokey subtitle. I think I read quite a lot but I’ve discovered, having had this book out, that other people read quite a lot too. I’ve discovered quite a lot of fellow obsessives. That’s been the nice thing, as you always think of yourself as this obsessive reader on your own.”

LR: “I’ve been saying since I was a teenager that learning to read was the single most important thing that ever happened to me.”

SE: “Absolutely, my mum taught me to read. I remember her and my father reading to me from a book called Raggedy Ann and then the Henny Penny read-along-with-me, which has the pictures replacing some of the words. English was their third and second language, so I really admire them for sitting down and doing that. I was their first child and it can’t have been easy to teach your child to read in what was not your first language.”

LR: “How old were you?”

SE: “Four, I wasn’t an early, early reader, but before I went to school.”

LR: “I think girls do read a little earlier than boys for reasons that are neurological but which I don’t fathom. My father, who was a professor of education, taught me to read by making me write a book, My Family. I don’t still have it, but I’ve blogged about it because I remember it very vividly. It had stick figures and it was a book. I can’t remember if it had a plot. I remember him sitting on the kitchen floor with me going through a Dick & Jane book, because in the early 1960s that was what we were taught with at school and making sure I understood it.”

SE: “I watch my god-daughter learning to read, and she’s at this point where she can just escape into a book. It’s a just amazing moment and I think I remember that feeling of, ‘I’ve got this book in front of me now, I’m not in this world, in this room, I’m somewhere else,’ and that being very exciting.”

LR: “How much of your childhood was spent like that?”

SE: “Some of my family distrusted reading a bit because I’m from a traditional Iraqi-Jewish family where girls are supposed to marry young, and I remember being told this story in a slightly pointed way about how my great-grandmother had been taken out of school at about 14, maybe 16, because reading was spoiling her eyes and she wasn’t going to get a husband.” She laughs. “I’ve got contact lenses in by the way. I spent a lot of time reading as a child, I found it very comforting and escapist.”

LR: “Was your house full of books or did you have to go and get them yourself?”

SE: “Because my parents were refugees they only had a few books, not in English. I couldn’t read them, and they were in different alphabets. I can’t read Arabic, and I can just about read Hebrew, but not for pleasure. So all the books were mine. I was the first grandchild.”

Did they not try to teach you other languages?

SE: “They were very keen that I didn’t get confused. They spoke in Judeo-Arabic, which is their language. It’s to Arabic which Yiddish is to German, so it’s a Jewish dialect with a different accent. It’s very richly idiomatic, like Yiddish, so they did teach me little phrases. I had a party trick where I had to come down and say this very long phrase which means: ‘You can put the curly tail of the dog into a sugar-cane tube and leave it there for 40 days and 40 nights and when you take it out it will still be curly.’ Which is the same as ‘the leopard never changes its spots’ but so much slower! I have a few phrases and I can follow a recipe because I was always in the kitchen with the women. My brother was always with the men, so he doesn’t know food words, he knows politics and business words, it’s very gender-aligned.”

LR: “Did you get books from the library or were you bought books?”

SE: “Both. I was at the same school from seven to 18 and they had a fantastic library. The librarian there was really fantastic and was always pressing books on people who seemed to want them. I had an aunt who had been brought up in the UK, so she had more of a sense of the literature here and she gave me my first copy of Pride and Prejudice and a few others. She gave me a complete works of Shakespeare as well, very early on. I think I was only about eight, too early to read it, but having it meant I could start it a couple of years later.

LR: We had a paperback copy of four Shakespeare comedies, one of them was A Midsummer Night’s Dream and one night it was going to be televised. My parents turned it on and, being precocious, I went running over to the bookshelf and read along. I was much too young to have read the play at that point, but I could read along and see how what they were doing corresponded to what was on the page.

SE: “I think A Midsummer Night’s Dream is all right for kids because at that age you’re always going ‘I love you. You’re stupid. I hate you!'”

LR: “And there’s fairies and people being turned into things which is familiar from fairytales. Did they also tell you stories?”

SE: “One of my earliest memories is sitting under the kitchen table while the women were above it and we were making tabbouleh and my job was to take the stalks out of the parsley, so I’d have a tray for the leaves and a bag for the stalks, it was like a factory. You need a lot of parsley.”

LR: “That’s what people always get wrong, too much bulgur wheat not enough parsley.”

SE: “We’re on the same page here. And if you’re making it for 16, you need a LOT. The stories would be over my head, and at that stage I didn’t understand a lot but I understood enough. I’d hear these fragments and they were really good stories, and they wouldn’t expect a child to be listening.

LR: These were stories about their lives rather than sitting down and saying ‘Once upon a time…’?

SE: “There wasn’t so much of that but they did read to me from the Arabian Nights, which I suppose is the obvious thing for Baghdadi Jews to read but to me, those were fairytales. But they came from this fairytale country that I didn’t know about and as a small child it was only later that I heard the bad stuff. Early on they used to tell me great stuff — and I’d overhear stuff I wasn’t supposed to — about sleeping on the roof every night, that they saw shooting stars and thought they were UFOs and they used to have buffalo milk cream for breakfast, very thick with date syrup on the top: we used to have date syrup with clotted cream and they’d say, ‘It’s nothing like it,’ about the nicest food I’d ever had in my life. They had a gazelle as a pet, which died because it jumped off the roof. ‘How did the gazelle get to the roof, mum?’

“Growing up in North London the idea of a gazelle, even one that hadn’t jumped off the roof was pretty exciting. They talked about sandstorms where the sky used to go red, it was all quite fairytale to me because we couldn’t go there, and I still haven’t been there — I couldn’t go before 2003 before the government was got rid of and now I’m too scared to go — so it was a fantasy world. Then later on they would talk about the darker things that had happened, the reasons they had to leave, so it got deeper as well. There was this great kind of storytelling progression.”

LR: “It’s like when I was growing up and read the story of Cinderella; it was years before I read the version with the stepsisters hacking off bits of their feet to fit into the shoe.”

SE: “I don’t think I noticed how dark some of the fairytales were until later. I think children want that darkness. I think I probably noticed it as a child but sanitised it in my own memory.”

LR: “In your book you talk about so many different books that were seminal. Would Anne of Green Gables be the one that really was your first and your favourite?

SE: “I think it was the one that I read again and again and again, and all the sequels again and again, and scribbled all over it and made it my book. Also, having a brother, he wasn’t interested, so it was just mine. Anne’s got all that imagination. They used to say to me that I had an overactive imagination because I had a lot of nightmares.

“My recurring one, that I still have, is being pursued across a desert by men with moustaches, because I had heard these stories of people escaping Iraq. It’s still, though, completely inaccurate. The desert has cactuses in it, because I watched westerns. It irks me now that I still have inaccurate desert in a really quite frightening recurring dream. I had nightmares about witches and vampires and all sorts of things.

“My parents said I had an overactive imagination, so I thought this was something terrible that I had to get rid of. Then Anne of Green Gables is always told she has too much imagination — but she works out a way to live with it, temper it and use it. She becomes a writer and I thought, that’s what I’ll do, it’s what you do with an overactive imagination. It’s an awful flaw you can’t get rid of but you can turn it into something. They are gorgeous books.”

LR: “I’ve never read them, but as a kid I used to read the same books over and over. I’ve read the story of Helen Keller more times than I can count, I don’t know why. Classical Myths that Live Today, which is actually a book for teachers, every chapter is on a god or goddess and it gives the Roman and Greek name. It also has pictures of statues, so when I went to Rome and walked into the Borghese Gardens there was Bernini’s Rape of Persephone, one of my favourite pieces of art since I was tiny. There it was in real life, and it felt like an old friend because I had looked at the picture so many hundreds of times and I knew the story, and it was so alive to me.”

SE: “Children often read a book that is slightly mad and they gain a familiarity with something that is too grown-up, but I think we can cope with that as children, these dark stories. Even in Anne of Green Gables there’s quite a lot of darkness, there’s death and mean-spritedness and financial collapse, betrayal; consumption comes up in a lot of Victorian books, but it’s a really brutal description of it and the progress of the disease. Little Women has illness and death in it…”

LR: “And romantic disappointment because all the girls want Jo to marry Laurie. I’m sort of pleased she doesn’t.”

SE: “I don’t like who she does marry, though.”

LR: “I don’t have any reaction to him, really. By the end of the book I think I was spent as a kid. I’d read Beth’s death so many times.”

SE: “It’s sad that in many of these books the girls, when they become women, lose something of themselves. And I think that’s sad to read when you are a girl because you expect to have to shed something, but as we grow up we should be taking on more things, growing. I think the expectation is that you leave some of your spirit and passion and wildness behind.”

Why is it that so many women writers have, in the past been much better writers of children’s books than men?

LR: “Perhaps because back in the day they spent more time with children?”

Which is maybe why there are more and better male authors around now?

SE: “The thing I’ve realised is that the girls’ canon is much smaller, so I can talk to someone who is, fourteen, eight or eighty now and they will have read a lot of the same books as me, but boys seem to read…”

Well, we read everything, but as I recall we didn’t read novels quite as often as girls did.

SE: “Lots of non-fiction? This is vastly generalising, but I think girls tend to want to talk about what they’ve read with each other. I would finish a book and talk to my best friend in school about it the next day. We still do that, in fact she’s the same person.”

I never did that. Other boys never did either.

SE: “Someone said to me that boys want to read the book that no-one else is reading, whereas girls want to read and discuss in a more collective experience. I think maybe that’s why boys will end up reading 1930s sci-fi or whatever, even though they’re growing up in the 80s in London. They go down these obscure paths that no-one else will be reading.”

You make a point of, say reading The Silmarillion just because everyone else has caught up with Lord of the Rings. I know people who did that even though they knew it would be terrible.

SE: “I think it does change when you grow up but it’s interesting that on Twitter a lot of women are talking about books more than men, but maybe that’s because I talk about heroines a lot. I didn’t know that before having these conversations. There is a sort of boys canon…”

LR: “My brother had the Hardy Boys books, but I don’t think he loved them the same way I loved Nancy Drew and the Bobbsey Twins.”

I think it’s more of a consumption thing: I’ve read that, I’ve read that. It’s like the collecting impulse matters more than the involvement. I tried the Famous Five. I never liked them that much but I would plough my way through just to say I’d ‘done’ them. I think there’s a competition element rather than an involvement.

LR: “I remember being read to at school, story time. My third-grade teacher read us Charlotte’s Web.”

Did you have a whole class crying at the end?

LR: “Pretty much. I read that book almost every year and I still cry at the end and now I cry harder because now I’m in my fifties and that sentence ‘no-one was with her when she died’ resonates a lot stronger.”

Did your parents read to you?

LR: “I don’t remember them reading to me much. But, except for the bathroom, every single room in our house had books, and the rule was I could read anything I wanted, off any shelf, as long as my mother knew that I had it.”

SE: “My parents hadn’t read the books I was reading so they didn’t know what was in them. In some ways I had more freedom. They didn’t know that Pride and Prejudice was different from Anaïs Nin. It’s not like I was actively trying to read naughty stuff but I was in some way freer than people whose parents would say, ‘This is too grown up for you.’

LR: “After reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach I saw that my parents had Kiss Kiss, a collection of short stories by Roald Dahl and I said, ‘I’m going to read this next.’ They said ‘you’ll find it’s quite different and it was. I still loved it but it was a complete other animal.”

SE: “You go on these journeys, you discover things. I was trying to discover the world here because I didn’t have anyone who knew, so I was reading the Western canon, I suppose, because my parents didn’t know stuff about this world we were living in. Our community was so small, it was like Little Baghdad: we spent time with each other and went to each other’s weddings and bar mitzvahs all the time.

“I didn’t go to a Jewish school so I was suddenly thrust into this other world. It was in London, so it was cosmopolitan and multicultural school, so it wasn’t like I was the only ‘foreign girl’, but it sometimes felt that way. They were useful primers of information about life. Sometimes I was actively looking for that, so if I picked up a book, say Roald Dahl, that was different, I’d wonder ‘What’s new, what can I find out here?’

LR: “I don’t remember reading with intent, but I could not have a book, or several books, on the go. My brother says all he remembers of me is that my nose was in a book.”

SE: “Mine would probably say the same thing. Was your brother a reader?”

LR: He was not a big reader until suddenly in his teens when he started playing the trumpet and discovered jazz. He suddenly dove head-first into the African-American literature canon, so he read stuff that to my eternal shame I still haven’t, like James Baldwin, which I’ll go to hell for. And he started talking like Miles Davis, which was quite embarrassing, and he got mad at my parents because we were white.

SE: “My brother isn’t still a great reader. he’s interested in music and sport and all sorts of other things. Much more of a renaissance person than me in a way, I’m so focused on books and theatre. I don’t know what made that difference.”

LR: “Are your parents appalled that you work with words for a living and you’ve not married in the community?”

SE: “They were very supportive. I think they were surprised. When I said I was going to be a writer I don’t think they realised what that was because we didn’t know any writers. I didn’t know anyone who did that. I started quite young and they thought, ‘Oh, she’ll grow out of that’. They’ve always been proud when things have gone well. When I’ve done plays they’ve come to every show and been lovely about it. I think they were anxious about my writing a book that had so much personal stuff in it. They’ve said they’re mostly glad to have some of these stories told. I think they were glad that I went into the story of their experiences in Iraq, because they wanted that story down.

“My mother left Baghdad in 1971 . There was a massive Jewish community in Iraq and she lived there very happily for a long time. In 1950-53 quite a lot of the jews were airlifted to Israel, including my father who left in 1951. My mother’s family chose to stay and they were fine for a bit then in the 1960s there was horrible persecution and they were in prison and all sorts of things so they got out in 1971 and came here.

“A lot of people have written about the people who left in 1951, because it was a huge story, hundred of thousands of people, but there’s not much about the people who stayed through the 1960s. It’s an interesting time. There’s a film called Baghdad Twist and there’s a wedding video of Baghdad in the 60s and they’re all wearing these fabulous minidresses and doing the twist. It’s amazing to see it now because Iraq used to be a secular country. You could look at this wedding and if you didn’t see the food, you’d imagine it was in Paris or Rome or London. Then you see the piles of rice.


Baghdad Twist , Joe Balass, provided by the National Film Board of Canada

“My mother is very engaged in my storytelling, so she read drafts of the book because she wanted to get her bits of the story right.

“My first ever literary criticism was a conversation with with my mum. I used to sit on the end of her dressing table when she was putting on her makeup. She had these fabulous eyeliners, kohl in pots. One was the shape of a peacock, and you could twist its tail. It was lead, poisonous eyeliner, but very beautiful and I was desperate to use it.

“I said: ‘I’ve decided I am going to get married that I’m going to marry a prince, so don’t worry mum, I’ll be fine.’

“She said, ‘Well, there aren’t any Iraqi-Jewish princes.’

“It hadn’t occurred to me that I might not get married or that I might not marry an Iraqi Jew, so I was completely destroyed by this. I think that’s partly why I was looking for other characters to cling on to. It was probably the first moment I realised there’s a difference between what you are reading about and what you’re living.

“When you’re a child everything is new, so it’s completely possible that in another country there is a princess who has been asleep for a hundred years and is woken up by a kiss from a prince. I was being told my parents had a gazelle that jumped off the roof. I’ve never seen either of these things, what’s more unlikely?”

How to Be a Heroine by Samantha Ellis is published by Random House

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