April 15, 2021

Jenny Offill: ‘When I read Jane Eyre I thought I would keel over from boredom’

The novelist on being inspired by Denis Johnson, the genius of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytales and comfort reading Etsy listings

The book I am currently reading
Flights by Olga Tokarczuk. I knew nothing about it when I started and have been pleasantly surprised to find it is filled with weird anecdotes such as the one about the 17th-century Belgian anatomist who kept his amputated leg in the headboard of his bed so he could study it whenever he fancied.

The book that had the greatest influence on my writing
Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson. And yes, I know, I know, it’s like the Velvet Underground thing. (Not that many people bought the first album but everyone who did started their own band.) Dept. of Speculation is written very much in its shadow. For his part, Johnson liked to claim he just ripped off Red Cavalry by Isaac Babel.

The book I think is most overrated
My daughter had to read Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre over the summer and I gamely agreed to read it with her. Oh my god, I thought I would keel over from boredom. All the long monologues about truth and virtue. The endless part where she might marry her tedious cousin and become a missionary. The only interesting part was the wife in the attic but for that bit you can read Jean Rhys’s infinitely superior novel, Wide Sargasso Sea.

The last book that made me cry
No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood.

The last book that made me laugh
I just reread Out of Sheer Rage by Geoff Dyer and I love how the narrator is so insanely cranky about his life.

The book I’m most ashamed not to have read
The one I promised to blurb that is sitting on my desk.

The book I give as a gift
I like to give people The Principles of Uncertainty by Maira Kalman because it is a serious book disguised as a whimsical one.

The book I’d most like to be remembered for
That super geniusy one I am no doubt any day now going to write.

My earliest reading memory
I had a book based on Hans Christian Andersen fairytales that someone gave me when I was little. There was one story I particularly loved. It was about a boy who went off to seek his fortune and traded his sheep for three dogs. The first dog was named Salt and his power was that he could always find food; the second was named Pepper and his power was that he could tear attackers to pieces. The last one was Mustard, whose power was that he could break iron or steel chains with his teeth. Oh, how I wanted these dogs! I can’t even remember what happened in the story except to say that all the dogs were put to good use by the end. As a bonus, the book was illustrated in a wonderfully lurid way that made me feel happily nervous when I looked at it.

My comfort read
I like to read the listings for miniature foods and furniture and animals on Etsy sometimes late at night. I never buy anything, but I always think I will.

Weather by Jenny Offill is published in paperback by Granta (RRP £8.99) on 28 January. To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.