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Author of THE HAND THAT SIGNED THE PAPER, Helen Darville, interviewed

Helen Darville won the Miles Franklin Award, a prestigious literary honor in Australia, in 1995, for her novel THE HAND THAT SIGNED THE PAPER. The novel is about Ukrainian war crimes during World War Two. Originally published under a pseudonym, Helen Demidenko, the novel and its author triggered controversy and debate. It's also a good read. I asked Helen Darville about her favorite books.

READERSVOICE.COM: Your website mentioned you once studied the classics. To get a good grounding in the classics what books or plays would you recommend?

HELEN DARVILLE: In order to get a grounding in the ‘classics’, you need to study Greek and Latin.
Classical civilisations and the literature they produced have nothing to do with the books that are considered ‘classics’ of the literary canon.
I did a little Greek, and a lot of Latin. Some of it has gone (I can no longer do a version), but the ability to read and comprehend has remained.
I love the Romans, and once wanted to write a novel about them, but was finally drawn away by the desire to earn some real money.

I’ve formed the view that a degree in English and classics is only useful if you are rich to start with: it’s rather like the ‘adornments’ thrust upon young women in the Nineteenth Century.
Like the young women in question, I am witty, literate and an excellent conversationalist – on top of being handy when you’re trying to figure out what your old school’s Latin motto means – but fundamentally unemployable.
Which is why I’m back at university getting a real qualification (in law).

RV: Can you give any advice on writing for people starting out?

HD: My advice to budding writers is simple: unless you have a sugar daddy or a filthy rich spouse, then don’t bother.

Writing in this country pays atrociously unless you are willing to take government patronage.
And thanks to such patronage, most people write the socially liberal, politically correct piffle beloved of bureaucrats everywhere.

RV: What are your top ten books of all time (and can you say a bit about why)?

HD: The first thing worth noting about my reading habits is that I’m dyslexic.
This makes both reading and writing time-consuming and sometimes tedious, with the result that I’ve always liked short books.
A long book needs to be unusually gripping for me to finish it.
I’ve lost count of the number of works by famous authors sitting on my bookshelves where I’ve ground to a halt about half way through.

I’ve provided a list of my fiction top ten.
Like the characters in Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, I’m an inveterate lister.
I’m told it goes with being dyslexic, so there you go.

This list is in no particular order, and it’s open to revision.
Where a book is representative of a particular genre (eg, science fiction), then it likely represents the tip of a very large iceberg.

1. Animal Farm – George Orwell.

Like Tolkien, I am generally suspicious of allegory.
However, when it’s well done, it’s stunning.
I always finish up describing Orwell’s effort as ‘small but perfectly formed’.
Animal Farm draws brilliantly on the rich tradition of English allegory, and for those with a historical cast of mind and a willingness to master medieval English, I suggest Langland’s Piers Plowman as a wondrous example of the genre.
A clear eyed exposition of Lord Acton’s dictum, Animal Farm did far more to discredit communism for me than any amount of turgid rhetoric…

2. The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams.

I’ve always loved SF, but have long recognised its shortcomings, notably a tendency to be appallingly written.
Adams clearly loves the genre too, and his satire is gentle rather than fierce.
A great piece of comedy, very English in execution (the homage to Sterne’s Tristram Shandy is there if you care to look), and beautifully written.

3. Not Wanted on the Voyage – Timothy Findley

A Canadian who deserves to be better known, Findley is adept at the post-modern reworking of well-known stories.
‘Not Wanted on the Voyage’ takes on the great myth of Noah’s Ark, and is a dark and terrifying vision not only of the Bible story, but of all stories where few are chosen and the majority abandoned to their deaths.
Unlike many trendoid devotees of postmodernism, Findley writes in a clear and compelling style, plots strongly and gives the reader a sense of his characters’ inner lives.
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