• Damien Wilkins

Damien Wilkins: The Books that formed me

Damien Wilkins has written over a dozen books for adults, including novels, short story collections, and poetry, and this month he releases his first novel for young adults, Aspiring (Annual Ink).

Aspiring is set in a town in Central Otago that is growing at an alarming rate, similarly to its protagonist, 15-year-old Ricky. 'With sunlight, verve, and humour, award-winning writer Damien Wilkins brings us a beguiling boy who’s trying to make sense of it all.'

I have a bad memory for books. I’m in awe of writers who can reel off their childhood reading, their favourite characters, the key moments when they understood their calling. These days my eyesight does funny things adjusting to different focal lengths and I often strain to read the titles on spines in bookshops. That is what it’s like inside my head, trying to itemise the books I read when I was young. It’s blurry but I know I’m among friends.

I’m in awe of writers who can reel off their childhood reading, their favourite characters, the key moments when they understood their calling.

I learned to read, and started school, when my family was living in London for three years in the late 1960s. We stayed in student accommodation while my father did his PhD in pharmaceutical chemistry. There was a little lending library for the international students and a few shelves of children’s books. I remember working rapidly through the Narnia series. My older brother and sister joined the Puffin Book Club, set up in 1967 by legendary editor Kaye Webb. They got Puffin badges and attended book events. I longed to have my own badge but I was too young to be a Puffin.

I’ve just read on the internet that there were Puffin holiday camps – ten days at a summer resort for fifty British kids who loved reading. Imagine that! Immediately I would like to write the film. But then the film would probably require the kids to turn feral. What if these fifty nerds just lay about . . . reading? I’ve spent my life doing that.

One of the writers who visited the Puffin summer camp for strange (and potentially murderous) kids was Ian Serraillier, whose novel The Silver Sword was a significant book for me. At least I remember reading it. I still have my copy. Though it turns out not to be about silver swords in the expected fantasy mode but Nazis and desolation and refugees. Kids wandering through bombed cities. I’d forgotten that.

One of the writers who visited the Puffin summer camp for strange (and potentially murderous) kids was Ian Serraillier, whose novel The Silver Sword was a significant book for me.

Back in New Zealand, I read the Swallows and Amazons series. These are books from the 1930s about English children, so of course it was perfectly normal for me to be hoovering them up in 1970s Lower Hutt. The title refers to the names of dinghies the children sail—I have no memory of that. Again, I’m pretty amazed that with this kind of recall I went on to be a writer. What was happening to all the language passing through my head?

The biggest impact on my young reading life was probably Biggles, the endless stories of the flying ace from World War One. I’m afraid to check but I presume these aren’t very “good” books, in the way that books by Alan Garner and William Mayne are good. I still have my collection of about a dozen Biggles books. (Reading is often about collecting.) They were a kind of escape hatch from the Hutt Recreation Ground and the Riddiford Baths. My first published story—serialised in the Catholic weekly, The Tablet—was a rip-off of Capt. W.E. Johns. I was 11. And Johns, it turns out, promoted himself—he was never a captain. His first novel was called Mossyface. He died in 1968, aged 75, in the middle of writing another book, Biggles Does Some Homework. We’ve all felt like that.

In standard four (year six), there was a school-wide competition to borrow the most books from Lower Hutt Public Library, whose back entrance led onto an old cemetery and a creek that smelled of ducks and wet bread. It came down to me and David Martin, who was also a very good reader, and we were both fiercely competitive. David Martin had another talent. He liked falling from heights and breaking his arm. Once I saw him fall into that dead creek. Who turned the pages for him? No doubt it was his mother.

I liked reading and could do it swiftly. Even earlier at school I was attracted to the colour-coded reading books in class, and loved the idea of going from red to green to blue and that you were one box ahead of someone else. These weren’t deep attachments to the written word or to something expressive. I think they were simply things that I could do and I was good at and there was a degree of showing off involved.

I liked reading and could do it swiftly . . . I think they were simply things that I could do and I was good at and there was a degree of showing off involved.

Then, books and I had a falling out. Reading is not a natural fit with adolescent boys. Suddenly a book feels like a tiny boring box and your body is a wondrous unknown collection of, you know, energy and stuff, and it’s too big to fit inside that box. When I see an adolescent male reading, I get a pain. It’s like watching a balloon inflating or a timebomb. The book is about to fly across the room. The boy is almost gone. Off! Outside or somewhere. Time to fall from a branch or run into a post. Poor literature.

So began a period when I read ‘non-fiction’ almost exclusively, or actually just one magazine. For my birthday I got a subscription to Shoot! magazine. It was about English and Scottish football. Every week I had to go to the counter at the rear of Whitcoull's on High Street and a woman would disappear into the back room and come out with my copy, wrapped up. It never appeared on the shelf. You had to order it and be handed it rather furtively, like pornography. I left fast and ran home.

Shoot’s columnists were the star footballers of the day: Alan Ball, Billy Bremner, Kevin Keegan, Bryan Robson. They wrote about tough away grounds, overcoming injuries, their favourite foods before a game. Drivel. I’d learned to play football in London when England were still World Cup Winners. Shoot! was my lifeline back to that time—and forward to the time I would be a professional in the English leagues. I remember a column by England captain Gerry Frances in which he posed beside his car: a green Triumph Stag. It was instantly my favourite car. The closest I got to it was when somehow I acquired a stiff green sweatshirt with the Triumph Stag logo.

I remember the consuming pleasure of reading that magazine. And I would never treat as minor any child’s attachment to the specialist magazine. Instantly I understand my Timaru nephews lost in Rod & Rifle, stroking the invisible hair on their arms.

I remember the consuming pleasure of reading that magazine. And I would never treat as minor any child’s attachment to the specialist magazine.

There’s a great Les Murray poem in which he writes about going home to his farm at Bunyah, New South Wales, ‘where I am all ages’. The known place collapses the chronology of his life, and the orderly distinctions of moving from young person to mature adult no longer apply. I think that’s what reading is to me—the place where I am all ages.

I mean that the sensations of pleasure and fright and alertness and irritation and puzzlement and contentment and boredom and fun which reading fiction produces in me are themselves layered through and by the years, so that reading, say, Peter Pan, or James and the Giant Peach, is of a piece with reading 2666 by Roberto Bolaño or Enormous Changes at the Last Minute by Grace Paley. When our two daughters had picture books I remember the 'Frances' series by Russell Hoban as a reading highlight of that year across all the books I read. That took me to Hoban’s The Mouse and his Child, as great a book as, I don’t know, The Great Gatsby.

. . . the sensations of pleasure and fright and alertness and irritation and puzzlement and contentment and boredom and fun which reading fiction produces in me are themselves layered through and by the years . . .

When I read children’s literature, I’m back there but also here. This is the strange everywhere and all ages of powerful writing. So many books. And—terribly, wonderfully—I tend to forget them all!

Aspiring by Damien Wilkins Published by Annual Ink RRP: $22.00

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damien wilkins

Damien is the Director of the International Institute of Modern Letters, at Victoria University of Wellington. Damien He is a New Zealand novelist, short story writer, and poet. He is also a singer and songwriter who has released songs through his project the Close Readers.