Books of my life by Liam McIlvanney

Liam McIlvanney (MA 1990) had been teaching and researching Scottish literature for over a decade before he considered the possibility of writing fiction himself. His third novel, 'The Quaker', won the McIlvanney Prize for Scottish Crime Book of the Year in 2018, an award named after his father, fellow writer William McIlvanney. It is the book he is most proud of having written, he says. "The fact that I worked harder on it than any of the others may have something to do with that!"

The book that makes me laugh the most
PG Wodehouse is the finest comic writer I’ve ever read or can imagine reading. ‘The Code of the Woosters’ is his masterpiece, featuring Bertie Wooster’s trademark blend of fastidiousness and vagueness: "He spoke with a certain what-is-it in his voice, and I could see that, if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled." I’ve always thought that there are strong stylistic correspondences between Wodehouse and Samuel Beckett (another masterful comic writer), though they do make an unlikely pair.

The book I come back to again and again
Every novel I’ve written has been, in some way, a version of Graham Greene’s ‘The Quiet American’. I’m not sure why I remain so obsessed with this novel. I was introduced to it as a Politics undergrad by Dr Christopher Mason, who told us that we couldn’t understand colonialism in Indo-China without reading this novel. I’ve been reading it pretty much on a loop ever since. 

The book I loved most as a child
As a child, my favourite writer was Ray Bradbury. I’m not a big fan of science fiction, but I loved Bradbury. His short stories, which often feature a surprising twist, are perfect for kids but also taught me a great deal about how stories work. ‘The Golden Apples of the Sun’ is my favourite of his books.

The book that gets me through the hard times
There is something in the chorus-like narrative voice of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s ‘Sunset Song’, that I find deeply consoling, attuned both to the values of the "folk" and to the vivid specificities of (heroine) Chris Guthrie’s consciousness. It’s a book about how nothing endures, but the novel’s own narrative voice remains one of the enduring treasures of Scottish literature.

The book I wish I'd written
'The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie' is an absolutely note-perfect novel. Muriel Spark never puts a foot wrong or uses a needless word throughout the whole course of the book.

The book that changed my mind
Joan Didion’s ‘The Year of Magical Thinking’ made me look at grief in a whole new way. But then, everything Joan Didion writes makes me look at things in a whole new way.

The book I’m currently reading
I always have lots of books on the go. I’m currently savouring Hilary Mantel’s magnificent Wolf Hall trilogy, which is very clearly one of the landmark literary achievements of the early 21st century. I’m also re-reading Ross Macdonald’s criminally underrated Lew Archer novels and filling in the gaps in my reading of Michael Connelly’s Bosch novels. Connelly is the absolute master of the police procedural. There’s no-one who comes near him.

Liam is currently completing the sequel to 'The Quaker', set in 1975. DI Duncan McCormack, back in Glasgow after a stint down in London with the Met, is investigating the brutal murder of a local businessman and former politician against a backdrop of strikes, terrorist bombings and gang feuds.

This article was first published June 2020.