Our ‘On The Shelf’ series continues on the website today with these selections from Letty Butler, who was placed first in our most recent short story competition with her story Shindig.
Letty is an actress by profession and has written extensively for stage and screen, with plays workshopped at The Young Vic and short films selected for Aesthetica & LOCO.
In 2017, she was awarded a scholarship to do an MA in Creative Writing at Sheffield Hallam University, where she won the Creative Writing Prize. She has since been shortlisted for a Northern Writers Award and twice for the International Reflex Flash Fiction Competition. She has recently been selected by Sky for their screenwriting scheme Sky Writes, and her poems have been published in an eclectic array of magazines and anthologies.
These are her five ‘must-have’ books.
The Little Engine That Could by Watty Piper
I haven’t read this for years, but it’s a classic ‘unlikely hero’ yarn that remains deeply embedded in my psyche. There’s a battered copy of it in my old childhood bedroom. It’s a story about a little train believing in himself enough to show the snazzy red engines he can bloody well cart his load up the hill too. He has a mantra – ‘I think I can. I think I can’. I try and channel it whenever I’m grappling with self doubt. Which is often. It’s basically an homage to perseverance and resilience which I think are fundamental qualities for any writer because, well, let’s be honest, it’s not all poppies and pop tarts out there is it?
The Witches by Roald Dahl
It’s virtually impossible to choose a favourite Roald Dahl book but I settled on this one because it introduced me firsthand, and rather nightmarishly, to the true power of books. I got my hands on it when I was way too young and by the time I’d finished, was utterly convinced every woman I knew was a witch, my Mum included.
The theory wasn’t helped by seeing the film adaptation shortly afterwards and realising that the location used for the annual witch convention (The Headland Hotel in Cornwall) was where we had holidayed every year since I was about 3. I came to the natural conclusion that my Mum was actually the Grand High Witch in disguise and prone to rip her own face off at any given moment. I didn’t sleep for three days straight. It was a disaster for all involved. Even though it was a terrifying experience, it was sort of exhilarating. I think this book, and indeed, the rest of Dahl’s repertoire, underpins my love of dark, comedic storytelling with a splash of the surreal.
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
Books rarely devastate me. But this one did. In a good way. I found it beautiful, brutal and unforgettable. Never have I wanted pages to keep magically appearing, despite the fact it was already 720 pages long. I cared so deeply about these characters, I was in mourning for about a week afterwards. Which was slightly awkward/antisocial because I was travelling with friends at the time. A must-read for anyone seeking escapism, temporary desolation and catharsis. Oh and another thing – it wasn’t until about two thirds of the way through that I discovered Yanigahara was female. I’d narrow-mindedly assumed the author was a man, because the core characters are all male and so deftly depicted. I’m in awe of female writers who can get under the skin of male characters in such a way. I’m hopeless at it.
What I Loved by Siri Hudsvedt
I read this on holiday in Portugal – the last ‘family holiday’ I had with my Mum and brother. It was an emotionally turbulent time as my Mum had just been diagnosed with breast cancer, and we were having a Final Team Blow Out. I was studying Art at college, so the insight into the NY art scene was an obvious pull, but it was the beautifully drawn and deeply complex characters and their dynamics that knocked me sideways. Again, in a good way. I should probably say that My Mum is alive and well – she loves the book too. In fact, she has a framed painting I did of the book cover on the windowsill in her bedroom. We’re a bit soppy like that.
Tenth of December by George Saunders
This collection detonated everything I thought I knew about writing. I couldn’t get over the anarchy of it – everything from style to form, dialogue to plot. It blew my tiny, conventional mind. It was also my first real ‘a-ha moment’ in terms of short stories, which I previously discarded as a pointless pastime – both in terms of reading and writing. I don’t think I’d be writing shorts now if I hadn’t got my greasy mits on a copy of this. It also led me to discover the joys of Raymond Carver, Mary Gaitskill and John Cheever.