A Reading List For Those Who Agree "Tragic Love Stories Are The Best Love Stories"

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.
Debut author Sara Collins is quick to correct herself when she shows us around "the library" in her new house. "It’s a book room, not a library – that sounds far too grand," she laughs. The room was the first to be decorated when she moved there earlier this year. "It doesn’t feel like home without my books," she says.
Sara was a lawyer for 17 years before she gave her first love – creative writing – a proper go. She hadn’t even finished her second year at Cambridge University when she submitted a "very rough" manuscript to the Lucy Cavendish Prize, where it was shortlisted. Several drafts later, that gothic page-turner, The Confessions of Frannie Langton, is one of the most talked-about titles of 2019. Out this month, Frannie, as Sara affectionately calls it, is a Guardian Debut Novelist Pick, Woman’s Hour Book to Watch and has already been optioned for television. With the end of a busy press tour almost in sight, Sara has begun working on her second book: "It’s about a cult but that’s all I can really tell you because that’s all I know myself," she laughs.
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An avid reader since childhood, we visited Sara at her Chiswick home to find out more about the books that shaped her love of writing, and reading. "Reading should be enjoyable, it shouldn’t feel like you’re having to do it for your own good. You can lose yourself in well regarded, canonical books but you can also do that with bestsellers – there shouldn’t be any rules."
Photographed by Matilda Hill-Jenkins.
Photographed by Matilda Hill-Jenkins.
What are you reading right now?
I just started Toni Morrison’s collection A Mouth Full of Blood; I’m only three pages in and I already think it’s amazing. I’m in a nonfiction phase at the moment; I just finished André Aciman’s Alibis, which is about his experience as an immigrant but also looks at memory, longing and nostalgia. He writes beautifully.
How do you find out about what to read next?
I read The Guardian reviews and have done for a while. There are some authors I will always buy, like Toni, Margaret Atwood, Jennifer Egan, Sarah Waters, Maggie O’Farrell, Sadie Jones, Elizabeth Strout, Alice Munro – there are so many. I’m always on the lookout for those writers who make me want to order their backlist on Amazon: authors who will forever be an auto-buy for me.
Other than Amazon, where do you buy your books? Do you have a favourite bookshop?
I love finding new bookshops in London, it’s one of my favourite things about the city – they all have such distinct characters. My local is Waterstones; I can never walk past without stopping in and buying something. I really love Foyles because it’s massive and has everything I’ve ever looked for but I also love the sense of history and intimacy you get at somewhere like Hatchards. Size and convenience is important but I also like the tradition of bookselling going back hundreds of years.
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Photographed by Matilda Hill-Jenkins.
What do you use as a bookmark?
Anything to hand: receipts, bills, postcards…but I also challenge myself to do without one and remember what page I was on. I feel like it’s very civilised to use a bookmark, it’s aspirational! I used to have this idea that all books were mystical and should be kept pristine but now I don’t mind abusing them – they’re just books to me now. I think a book looks better when it’s been beaten up.
Do you have a Kindle?
Yes. People can be snobby about it but it’s so convenient for holidays and travelling. If it’s a book I want to treasure though, I have to have a hard copy of it.
When and where do you read?
Anywhere, at any time I have a spare moment – standing in line, on the Tube, waiting at the doctor’s office – the only place I don’t read is the car, or funnily enough in the bath. I don’t know why. If I’m reading on the move I do find it’s easier to have the Kindle or, I confess, sometimes it’s my phone because if I have 10 minutes I’ll just dip into something, especially essays. I read everywhere I can – it’s my comfort object I suppose, having a book or my Kindle with me. It just takes me away from where I am.
Photographed by Matilda Hill-Jenkins.
Photographed by Matilda Hill-Jenkins.
What are three books you would recommend to a stranger?
It changes all the time but at the moment I would desperately press upon anyone I came across Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin. I’ve always read his nonfiction and I was actually always a bit apprehensive about reading his novels because I thought they’d be too message-heavy but Giovanni’s Room is a perfect, self-contained, beautiful love story. It’s one of the best love stories I’ve ever read, albeit a tragic one, but maybe tragic love stories are the best love stories? I’d also recommend absolutely anything by Margaret Atwood, I couldn’t pick one. And then, to round out the list, probably Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, which I have a sort of strange relationship with because I think I like it less as an adult than I did when I first read it as a teenager. But I still feel strongly enough about it and her to recommend it. Can I have Beloved by Toni Morrison too? It was one of the most formative books for me. I have several editions of it.
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What other books did you read in your formative years?
I grew up on a small island so there wasn’t always a lot to read and I exhausted everything our library had. Books were really precious because I had to go to a lot of effort to get them, there was no Amazon or Kindle back then. I had lots and lots of teenage obsessions and I would just read around them. I must confess, I was really into regency romances! I think they actually stood me in good stead though because I’ve now written a quite literary novel about the regency. I also loved the Sweet Valley High and Nancy Drew books. Apart from those though, that are very age-specific, I don’t think my tastes have changed much. I loved the classics – Jane Austen and the Brontës – then I discovered Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston and Alice Walker. I was also obsessed with Helter Skelter, about the Charles Manson cult, and I had a Stephen King phase. I think he’s massively underrated, he’s a phenomenal writer. The short stories he [King] wrote as Richard Bachman were great.
Photographed by Matilda Hill-Jenkins.
Is there a book you’ve read more than once?
I used to do that a lot in my teens and my 20s; I reread Wuthering Heights once a year. I’m a sucker for a tragic love story.
I feel this sense of nostalgia for the way I used to read because since writing a book I read very critically. I like to say I do autopsies of books now, and you can’t have the same immersive experience when you’re looking for the tricks and how they’re done. As soon as you start it, everything becomes something to study so I don’t come back to books anymore because I don’t want them to lose their magic.
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Photographed by Matilda Hill-Jenkins.
Were there any books you read during the writing of your book that you think may have influenced it?
The one in particular that I kind of read by accident while I was writing my book that really heavily informed it was Frankenstein. I was reading a lot of gothic stuff at the time of writing my book to become imbued with the language and the evocative nature of the writing. The other one I did that with was Rebecca; I was just trying to get that sense of how vivid and terrifying everything was.
The plot is quite complicated – how did you keep track of all the different threads when you were writing it?
I had pieces of paper stuck all over the walls, which for an obsessively tidy person drove me mad. I also had an 80-page spreadsheet with a scene-by-scene breakdown that was colour-coded so I knew at a glance what appeared where and whether it was well balanced. I didn’t start like that but when I had a lot of material I had to organise it somehow and the spreadsheet really helped. My spreadsheet was so beautiful, I wish someone had seen it!
Were you surprised by the process?
I think there’s this sort of romantic idea of a novelist that you see on screen; you sit in front of an old-fashioned typewriter and the novel comes out from beginning to end in exactly the form it’s published in. But it’s a job almost like any other and actually there’s nuts and bolts that are sometimes quite boring and tedious to put together. A lot of it is not magic, it’s just forcing yourself to come up with ideas and make them work because you don’t have another choice and you’ve got a deadline to make.
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Have you ever been part of a book club?
Yes, I really miss mine – it was back in the Caribbean with a group of mums from my children’s school. It was more about friendship and wine but I came across some really good books too; it’s where I discovered Gone Girl and Gillian Flynn, who is definitely one of my favourite authors. I’m a huge fan of psychological thrillers and she writes about angry, "bad" women so well. I’m trying to find a book club here because I think it’s so great to talk about what you’re reading and I love reading absolutely everything.
Photographed by Matilda Hill-Jenkins.
Photographed by Matilda Hill-Jenkins.
Do you read poetry?
I love poetry. Ocean Vuong is another one of my auto-buy authors. I keep recommending his Night Sky With Exit Wounds to everyone; I can’t shout loud enough about it. I also read Mary Oliver every morning when I was writing Frannie, and Kei Miller. He’s a Jamaican poet who wrote about a cartographer having a conversation with a Rastafarian; it’s truly amazing stuff. Those three are my recommendations. I really do love poetry but unfortunately we’re taught it in a way that doesn’t make it accessible. I have quite a complicated relationship with what’s considered "classical poetry" but then someone like Ocean Vuong comes along, and he’s doing something so exciting that you can’t help but get caught up in it. It’s the same with Kei Miller, I think.
Is there a book you give as a gift?
I generally give books as gifts more to kids than adults, which is weird. I gave each of my children To Kill A Mockingbird, Pride and Prejudice and The Handmaid’s Tale at a certain time, and I feel like those are indicative of the stages of a woman’s education in a way.
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Are there any magazines you’re faithful to?
I’m really unfaithful to my magazines – I frequently dip in and out of different ones! I regularly read Vanity Fair for their longform profiles and essays, The New Yorker and "The Art of Fiction" bits in The Paris Review. Before I was a published author I would read "The Art of Fiction" with authors I loved in the same way other people might read about football players. It was my fangirl moment.
Have you had any fangirl moments since writing your book?
Yes, actually it was just before I’d finished writing it, I was coming back from Cambridge from my creative writing class and I was struggling to get the train door open. A woman really kindly came by and helped me to get on the train and I blurted out: "Oh my god, you’re Ali Smith!" She was really taken aback, and I think she did say: "How did you recognise me?" I told her I was a huge fan of hers and I knew what her author photo looked like and we had a good laugh about it. Now I like to say that Ali Smith has opened doors for me. I took it as a good sign.
Photographed by Matilda Hill-Jenkins.
Sara’s Reading List
A Mouth Full of Blood by Toni Morrison
Alibis: Essays on Elsewhere by André Aciman
Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
Beloved by Toni Morrison
The Colour Purple by Alice Walker
Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders by Curt Gentry and Vincent Bugliosi
The Bachman Books by Stephen King
Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
Night Sky With Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong
The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion by Kei Miller
To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
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