Books of my life by Julie Bertagna
“From childhood, I always had a head full of stories, alternative realities that felt real to me,” says award-winning author Julie Bertagna (MA 1984). Julie’s books for children and young adults are published globally and five have been nominated for the Carnegie Medal. 'Zenith', 'Aurora' and 'Exodus' (shortlisted for the Whitbread Children’s Book Award) are set in a future world devastated by global warming. Julie is passionate about raising climate change issues with young people and thinks they are more informed than ever on the challenges facing the planet.
The book I come back to again and again
'The Age of Innocence' by Edith Wharton. Not just a searing story of star-crossed lovers, it’s full of amazing wild and savage imagery because it’s about the brutality of civilisation, the lies and suffering and soul-bargaining that families and societies are built upon – how the individual spirit is stamped upon and what it does to us – so that the human tribe can survive and thrive.
"Young adults read differently. They often live deeply in the world of the book, obsessed with the characters and the details. It's a privilege and a challenge to write for readers like that.
The book that made me cry the most
My mother found me crying in the garden on my 17th birthday and assumed a boy had broken my heart. I’d just finished reading 'Sunset Song' by Lewis Grassic Gibbon and was in pieces. The brutal beauty of it destroys me anew each time.
The book I loved most as a child
Alan Garner’s 'The Weirdstone of Brisingamen'. I suffered badly from asthma and bronchitis as a child, in the days before inhalers, and can still feel the suffocating terror of the scenes with Colin and Susan worming their way through a maze of mine tunnels where the walls, roof and floor fit them like a second skin. Nevertheless, I read it again and again.
The book I wish I’d written
'Housekeeping' by Marilynne Robinson. A diamond of a book. Unique, heartbreaking, luminous and odd. Nature and water seep into every crack of the book. I’d love to write such a subtly powerful, extraordinary story.
"I seem to begin with a landscape, and my characters grow out of that. I need to see where they are before I can imagine who they are.
The books that get me through the hard times
New Scots Makar Kathleen Jamie’s explorations on nature, landscape, life’s beauty and brutality. In 'Findings', 'Sightlines' and 'Surfacing' her poet’s eye and the way she knits meaning has taken me beyond an enclosed life this last year and helped me see and feel small wonders in the world around me when I felt numb. Exceptional writing.
The fictional character I'd like to meet most
Lord Asriel from Philip Pullman’s 'His Dark Materials' – a man who can shift the fabric of the universe and step into other worlds. You don’t get more exciting than that.
The book I’m reading now
Just before lockdown, I read and loved Pat Barker's 'The Silence of the Girls', her story of the voiceless women in Homer's 'The Iliad'. I began 'Circe' by Madeline Miller, a feminist spin on Homer’s 'Odyssey', straight after this, but have had a hard year when I’ve struggled to read. Now I’ve begun it again in a changed world. So far, it’s beautiful and dazzling. Just what I need.
The book that changed my mind
I read 'The Handmaid’s Tale' when it was published, in my twenties, after four years of studying mostly male writers for Honours English Literature & Language. It turned the world on its head for me as I saw how frighteningly fast the hard-won freedoms we take for granted can vanish, if we don’t pay attention, and told the story from a then-revolutionary female point of view. Also James Lovelock’s 'Gaia', his revolutionary book on the planet.
The book I am proudest of
'Exodus' has been published all around the world and won awards, so I’m obviously proud of that. But what means the most is all the young readers who have said it’s a book that has stayed in their imagination for years, that will always stay with them, has even changed the way they see the world. It’s amazing to me that almost twenty years after publication, readers and schools are still contacting me about the 'Exodus' trilogy.
The book I recommend to others
Currently anything by Elena Ferrante and also the dreamy, lyrical memoirs and meanderings of Patti Smith who (akin to Kathleen Jamie) makes magic out of the mundane.
Julie is working on her first adult novel, with the setting her own home in the 1890s. “The week before she died suddenly, my elderly neighbour bequeathed a secret to me about the first inhabitants of our Victorian house. I was left with a tantalising half-story that led me on a detective trail and unearthed an amazing story involving Alfred Nobel, dynamite, suffragettes, and the Mackintosh set. It’s the Glasgow novel I always wanted to write but, until now, never had the story!” Julie is also currently writing a mystery novel with strong eco themes for young readers, inspired by the Ancient Caledonian Forest.
This article was first published September 2021.