It's Lit: Sophie Mackintosh, Author Of The Water Cure, Shares Her Reading List

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.
Writer Sophie Mackintosh is one of a very small number of It’s Lit subjects I’ve interviewed who belongs to a book club. "I’m part of a very sporadic science fiction one," she tells me. "We meet in Wetherspoons, eat chips, and get into nerdy arguments," says Sophie. Sounds like my kind of book club.
Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, Sophie’s debut novel The Water Cure is a disconcerting, feminist dystopia in which the author explores "being a woman in a world that so often hates us". The book has drawn comparisons with Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, Emma Cline's The Girls and Jeffrey Eugenides' The Virgin Suicides, which Sophie cites as an early influence.
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Currently at work on her second novel, we visited the author at home and found out how she manages to make her "out of hand" book collection work in a small rented flat.
Who taught you to read?
I actually don’t remember a time when I couldn’t read, so I think it must have been my mum or my dad. One of my earliest reading memories is being deeply annoyed in my school classroom at finishing the picture book we were all reading together, and not being able to move on to the next one before everyone else was ready. I mean, I was really on tenterhooks waiting to find out whether Spot the dog would get his ball back, or whatever was going on.
What were your favourite books as a child?
I was obsessed with Emily of New Moon by Lucy Maud Montgomery – the way she described the Canadian countryside was so vivid, and I also love the attention she gave to the complex inner lives of children. I never felt patronised by those books. Also Emily wanted to be a writer and was a little spooky girl with a fringe, and as a narcissistic child I think you really respond to books where you feel seen. I was really into adventure books like Journey to the Centre of the Earth by Jules Verne, too. Even now I get excited at the idea of travelling down a volcano, though I know realistically there are no dinosaurs there.
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Photographed by Matilda Hill-Jenkins.
I loved L.M. Montgomery too. So much so that I wrote her a letter – unfortunately I was too young to understand why I never received a reply from her… a good 40 years after she had died! Did you ever write a favourite author a letter?
I remember writing one to J. K. Rowling – very original – with the slightly ominous address of 'J. K. Rowling, Postman You Know Where She Lives'. I wonder if it ever got to her…
What are you reading right now?
I'm currently reading We That Are Young by Preti Taneja, a retelling of King Lear set in contemporary India. Normally I'm reading several things at a time, but I'm so absorbed by this that I've put aside other books for a while.
Photographed by Matilda Hill-Jenkins.
When and where do you read?
Anywhere and everywhere, except for the bus and in cars, which makes me motion sick. My favourite is to read in the bath or in bed, but the risk in bed is that I’ll fall asleep, so I compromise by lying on my uncomfortable couch, which takes some effort to fall asleep on. This year I’ve travelled a lot for book events, so I’ve read a lot on trains too.
Where do you buy your books? Do you have a favourite bookshop?
I really love Pages of Hackney in Clapton – it's a beautiful shop and they've been so supportive. I’m trying not to buy too many new books, but if I do I try and get them from my local, Phlox books in Leyton, or the Foyles in Stratford Westfield, which is the most convenient for me. I admit that I buy a lot of Kindle books as my book situation is getting out of hand in our small rented flat. My dream is to own somewhere one day where we can actually get some beautiful built-in bookshelves that are big enough to hold everything. I literally have books in drawers at the moment, which is a shame.
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Any tips for displaying books in small spaces?
With imagination, anything can be a shelf! I have a big ugly radiator in my living room that I prop a lot of nice-looking books and magazines up on, to make it sort of a giant picture frame.
Photographed by Matilda Hill-Jenkins.
Photographed by Matilda Hill-Jenkins.
How do you organise your bookshelves?
The short answer is that I don't – they are a horrible mess. I'm forever waiting for the bit of my life where I'll have ample time to get organised, but this summer hasn't been it. Maybe in 2019.
What do you use as a bookmark?
I’m sorry to say that I’m a page-folder, though I have been known to use a note or a receipt when I'm feeling less wilfully destructive.
Is there a book you’ve read more than once?
Photographed by Matilda Hill-Jenkins.
So many! I read Morvern Callar by Alan Warner and A Sport and a Pastime by James Salter about every year or so, usually when starting a new project. It feels good to revisit and remind yourself of the writing that makes the hair on your neck stand up.
Were there any books in particular that influenced The Water Cure?
The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter definitely had a big influence on me, as well as her fairytales. I also read The Virgin Suicides as a teenager and never forgot it – the dreaminess and choral narration seemed incredibly fresh and exciting to me.
How do you choose what to read next?
I have a giant to-be-read pile at the moment, so it’s often a matter of randomly grabbing the first one when I’m off somewhere. When I seek out books I go off recommendations from friends, reviews, or sometimes pure impulse.
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What makes a good holiday read?
For me, something that I don't mind re-reading at least once during the trip, because I try and pack as lightly as possible. Something compelling and interesting. I took Agua Viva by Clarice Lispector on one of my last holidays and it was a good choice, because I got a lot out of it by re-reading.
Are there any magazines you read regularly?
I love The White Review, which really helped me get started as a writer and which I think publishes some of the most exciting fiction, interviews and criticism today. They were the first place to publish me in print, and they put me next to an interview with George Saunders. It remains one of the best things to have ever happened to me.
Photographed by Matilda Hill-Jenkins.
Favourite George Saunders book?
I love Pastoralia – it was a set text for one of my undergraduate modules at university, and it completely blew my mind and made me rethink what the short story could accomplish.
Which three books would you recommend to a stranger?
This would change all the time but at the moment I would recommend Women Talking by Miriam Toews, The Changeling by Joy Williams, and Outline by Rachel Cusk. These books have stuck in my head over the last months and refused to leave.
Photographed by Matilda Hill-Jenkins.
Was there a book that made you want to be a writer? Or one you turn to when you need reminding of why you are?
I re-read Bluets by Maggie Nelson and The White Book by Han Kang whenever I feel down on writing and the world. They are both crystal clear and formally innovative, and remind me of the sheer possibility of words, the importance of purpose, and what it feels like to have your heart cracked open – which is what I'm always trying to achieve.
Sophie’s Reading List
Emily of New Moon by Lucy Maud Montgomery
Journey to the Centre of the Earth by Jules Verne
We That Are Young by Preti Taneja
Morvern Callar by Alan Warner
A Sport and a Pastime by James Salter
The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter
The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides
Agua Viva by Clarice Lispector
Pastoralia by George Saunders
Women Talking by Miriam Toews
The Changeling by Joy Williams
Outline by Rachel Cusk
Bluets by Maggie Nelson
The White Book by Han Kang
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