Post originally published on Literarily Speaking on 13th November 2017 (link).
The Book That Changed Everything
I grew up in Croft, a small village in the north west of the UK, a stone’s throw from Manchester. Only 3,000 people lived there, and it was a sleepy community bordered on all sides by farms. Once a year, they had a village carnival that the whole calendar seemed to revolve around, and the village sports field was covered in small tents of bricabrac sellers, tombola stands, coconut shies, donkey rides, candy floss machines and a beer tent. When I was 12, I had two pounds pocket money from my Mum and Dad, and after gorging on sweets and pop, I ended up at a charity book stand, where stacks of tattered paperbacks sat, each stickered with a price tag.
I saw a copy of Peter Benchley’s ‘Jaws’ for 25p, and having seen the film, I grabbed it (along with a copy of Tom Clancy’s ‘Patriot Games’, which I hadn’t seen and still haven’t got round to reading). Two years previously, Jurassic Park had come out and had blown my mind to smithereens, and I’d watched all the Spielberg movies I could get my hands on. Jaws was one I’d re-watched fairly recently, so the chance to read that same story was one I was not going to miss. I remember that same Saturday night, reading it in bed.
It changed everything, for all sorts of reasons. It was so apparent from the opening paragraphs that this was a different kettle of fish to what I’d been reading previously (no pun intended but I’ll take it). This was an honest-to-God grown up book, for adults. Not for kids. And at twelve I was reading it – I felt like an utter king. I had never read an adult fiction book before, but I knew my thirst for reading had taken me almost to the limits of what kids fiction at the time had to offer.
Two pages in, and it had gone hugely visceral. There was an unapologetic openness to the blood, the matter-of-factness to the carnage that had me reading it three or four times in sheer disbelief. ‘You can actually write that?!’ I kept asking myself. My eyes were opening.
The story was going off in a different direction to the film too, and the characters were changed. The story was fundamentally the same, and again I was asking questions, knowing that the book had come before the film: ‘was Stephen Spielberg allowed to change things!? Can you do that?!’ My expectations of the fiction world was being blasted to bits.
And then, in the book, Ellen Brody had an adulterous moment with Hooper. I almost dropped the book – that was not in the film at all, but the way that the characters and their relationships had been drawn to this point actually had me feeling a tad sympathetic towards her. I was reading and learning about marital strife and alcoholism, and the darker corners of people’s characters that seldom see light. I am blessed to have had a very peaceful, very reliable and love-filled childhood, and this was eye-opening in the grandest of ways. It’s like the blinds to the rest of the world were slowly peeling back, and I could see certain things for the first time.
And then there was a sex scene. An actual sex scene, with the description of anatomy and actions and good Lord all the rest. As a late bloomer, this was pretty watershed. I hadn’t a clue what I was reading, the quaint images of what I’d learned in the rather stuffy sex education classes at school rendered utterly obsolete by Hooper’s frantic tryst with Chief Brody’s wife. I still shake my head with laughter thinking about reading that for the first time, reading the page with my jaw hanging and my eyes widescreen.
By the end of the story, and Quint had used a dead dolphin foetus as bait for the great white (again, way way more than what I had bargained for), all bets were off in terms of what fiction could give me. I could never go back to reading kids books, never. A new world was
opened to me, a world where darkness was explored and talked about, where happy endings weren’t a given, and the physical, bare reality of life was given voice. I was writing a lot myself at the time, but I know that nothing was ever the same after that. I still have that book, the one that means everything to me, and I’m sure every reader does too.
And you never know – if I had bought an extra stick of rock or bag of penny mix, I might not have had enough coins to take to the book stand in the first place, and may never have even written a book at all.