It’s Lit: First-Time Novelist Francesca Hornak's Favourite Books

Photographed by Matilda Hill-Jenkins.
Welcome to It's Lit – a series of discussions about books. Join us every month to find out who's reading what.
Unlike most first-time novelists, Francesca Hornak does not have umpteen unread manuscripts lying dormant on her desktop. “I didn't expect this one to be published – I thought it would just be my dry run to get the hang of writing fiction,” says Hornak of her debut novel, Seven Days of Us. “In fact, right up until the final edits, the Word doc on my laptop was saved as ‘First_Pancake’.”
With several narrators and as many surprises in Hornak’s page-turner, I am stunned to hear that the journalist hasn’t attempted to write a novel before now. Seven Days of Us is inspired by a friend of the author who spent time in Sierra Leone volunteering during the Ebola crisis. “When she came back, she and her family had to spend time in 'voluntary quarantine'. I thought that device would be a neat way to intensify the standard family Christmas set-up,” Hornak explains. Intense is one way to describe this festive family drama. I’d also add funny, charming and clever. Three adjectives that could also be used to sum up Hornak herself, who spoke to us about her favourite books for this month’s It’s Lit.
What are you reading right now?
I’ve just started Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple, and I’m finishing The Pure Gold Baby by Margaret Drabble. I often end up overlapping, because I can’t help starting a new book if I like the look of it, even if I’m halfway through something else. Sometimes it works quite well though, you can read a couple of quick lightweight novels alongside a slow one.
Who taught you to read?
My parents. I remember laboriously reading Captain Pugwash and Beatrix Potter to my very patient father. My mother was amazing at reading aloud to me and my brother, even after we learned to read for ourselves. We read all the classics: Narnia, The Wind in the Willows, Alice in Wonderland, the Tom Sawyer books, Little Women, The Hobbit, The Secret Garden and loads of others by less well known authors. It introduced me to books and authors I might not have read alone until I was older.
Have you passed on any of these books to your own children?
I do read Beatrix Potter books with my older son but I haven't read him any of the others yet. I'm looking forward to revisiting The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in a few years, but some of the others might be too archaic now... I've already read them loads of picture books that I enjoyed as a child though, which don't seem to date too much. My current favourite is Avocado Baby by John Burningham – surprisingly relevant again!
Photographed by Matilda Hill-Jenkins.
Do you have a favourite bookshop?
Ink @ 84, in Highbury. It’s all new and light and airy, and they do interesting events. The last one I went to was David Nicholls talking about his adaptation of Tess of the d’Urbervilles, before a screening of the film.
Do you have a Kindle?
No. I like the way different editions of books look different, like different people. And I like not having to remember to charge them.
How do you choose what to read next?
Usually it’s a new book by an author I like, or something of theirs I haven’t read yet. Or it’ll be something my husband or parents have just finished, that hasn’t yet made it onto a shelf and is still floating around.
Do you belong to a book club?
No. I’m scared of chancing precious reading hours on a book someone else has chosen, in case I don’t enjoy it. It’s a terrible attitude. Maybe when my children are older and reading time isn’t at such a premium, I’ll try it.
When and where do you like to read?
In the bath, once my sons are asleep. Motherly love is dragging yourself out of a bath (and book) because the baby’s crying.
Is there a book you read regularly?
I’ve re-read my grandmother Rachel Cecil’s only novel Theresa’s Choice several times. I never knew her, so reading it feels a bit like meeting her.
Which book would you give as a gift?
It would depend on the person. But most of my female friends would appreciate Nora Ephron, I hope. And The Diary of a Nobody is a good housewarming gift for the right person.
How do you organise your books at home? Do you have a system?
I mostly manage to separate fiction and non-fiction, and non-fiction into art, cookbooks, and guidebooks – even though they never get read. With the fiction, I try to get novels by the same author beside one another, and when we moved to this house five years ago I attempted a kind of genre separation, but it’s fallen apart now. Part of me likes the idea of perfectly alphabetically ordered books. Another part likes them jumbled up, with Tolstoy beside Candace Bushnell.
What do you use as a bookmark?
Whatever’s to hand. Often a hairband.
Which three books would you recommend to a stranger?
A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton and High Fidelity by Nick Hornby. If they enjoyed those, I’d know we were kindred spirits.
Did you read any books before writing Seven Days of Us?
I’m always reading novels and thinking ‘I wish I’d written this’. But I didn’t read specific writing guides before starting Seven Days of Us. Self-help makes me feel edgy, like I’m procrastinating. I’d rather just begin.
Photographed by Matilda Hill-Jenkins.
Francesca’s Reading List:
Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple
The Pure Gold Baby by Margaret Drabble
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis
Avocado Baby by John Burningham
Theresa’s Choice by Rachel Cecil
I Feel Bad About My Neck by Nora Ephron
The Diary of a Nobody by George Grossmith and Weedon Grossmith
A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton
High Fidelity by Nick Hornby
Seven Days of Us by Francesca Hornak (Piatkus) is available in hardback from 19th October, £12.99.
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