Photo courtesy of Martin Lengemann, Die Welt
Journalist and author Laurie Penny follows up books Meat Market and Penny Red, with Discordia: Six Nights in Crisis Greece, a personal and political account of unrest in a country and culture trying to map out its future. The book is out digitally and showcases Laurie's fiery, articulate polemic with additional material from Molly Crabapple and Paul Mason.
We interviewed Laurie about her favourite books growing up and what she thought of digital trends.
What was your favourite book as a child and why? What was it about that book that you loved?
I started reading very early, and from a young age I was one of those kids who preferred books and stories to the real world and escaped into reading whenever I got a chance. It wasn't so much that I had a favourite book as that I became extremely distressed if I didn't have a book with me at all times, so that I could always disappear into a fantasy world or a world of learning whenever things got stressful. I was always a nervous, anxious child, and I used to walk around with a book open over my arm in the way that some kids will clutch a doll or a teddy bear. If there wasn't a book handy, anything to read would do - catalogues, instruction manuals, the back of cereal packets. I continue to read widely and compulsively - I'm not the best-read person I know by any means, but because of the way I read I'm one of the widest-read, in a rather erratic way.
My first ever favourite book was a picture book called Hangdog: The Loneliest Dog In The World, which was about a gruff and growly puppy who sails across the sea in a grandfather clock to find a friend to have tea with. I always had a particular fascination for fantasy, science fiction and detective stories. Some of the books that I remember loving to pieces were Jane Eyre - in fact, all of the Bronte books - The Hobbit and The Lord of The Rings, the Discworlds series by Terry Pratchett, and The Deptford Mice and Whitby Witches series by Robin Jarvis - fantastic, rather gruesome fantasy-horror books which are now, sadly, very hard to find. I also loved the Sherlock Holmes stories, and was sad when I re-read them recently and found out how dispiritingly racist they are.
Did you have a favourite author when you were a teenager?
I started reading feminist books around the age of ten, and from there I went on to read a lot of philosophy and social history, but I was still in love with fantasy and horror - it was about this time that I discovered the works of Anne Rice, and I remember my first girlfriend and I swapping and sharing two things, The Female Eunuch and The Vampire Lestat, and getting extremely excited by both. At about 13 I started ploughing through the works of Jeanette Winterson, Margaret Atwood, Angela Carter, Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, Oscar Wilde, Virginia Woolf, as well as getting heavily into comics, and into poetry - I loved the modernists, but also a great deal of really old, traditional stuff, ballads and ancient fairy stories. I also read a lot of plays around this time, and I started going through the works of Shakespeare quite systematically. I'm lucky, because the town where I grew up had a small Shakespeare festival down at the old castle, so whenever there was a play on I would take the dog for a walk behind the castle wall, sit on the wall and watch the plays for free!
At 15 I started reading Rimbaud and Baudelaire, which led me to the Beats, which led me into that whole seam of 1950s-1960s American literature, into psychedelia and sex and zen and transcendence, all of which were extremely alien to me as I'd barely had an alcoholic drink at 15, much less drugs or a f**k. I was a late starter in a lot of ways. But I've always suspected that those of us who live our young lives through books get a head start when we finally explode into the world, hungry for love and adventure and sex and danger, because we've read all the instructions first.
What are you currently reading?
I always have a number of books on the go - and the fact that I now have an e-reader means I can carry loads of them around and I don't have to choose, yay! Right now I'm reading two journalism collections by great women writers - The Worst Years Of Our Lives by Barbara Ehrenreich, and No More Nice Girls by Ellen Willis. For work I'm ploughing through Kathi Week's The Problem With Work, and I've just started Junot Diaz' new book This is How You Lose Her. Then there's a fantastic collection of essays on creativity and self-destruction by women artists, writers and musicians, called Live Through This, edited by Sabrina Chapadjiev - I'm finding it deeply emotionally affecting. I'm also re-reading American Gods, by Neil Gaiman, who I'm hoping I might get to interview next year.
How do you approach researching a non-fiction book?
My last book, like the book I'm writing right now, was based on interviews as much as it was on prior reading - I put together a pack of sources, read them, annotate them and then put them aside and let the rest grow organically out of the people I talk to and their concerns. Journalism that arrives with too many preconceptions risks not finding out anything new. For Discordia, which I wrote with the artist Molly Crabapple, who provided the illustrations, I made sure we both read a lot of the same articles and books before we left, so we were working from the same intellectual standpoint.
Who is your favourite author of all time and why?
I reject the premise of the question. But if you locked me in a room for a month and told me I was only allowed to read the works of one author, I'd probably go for the entire works of Terry Pratchett - hilarious, moving, deeply inventive and furiously moral. I was lucky enough to get to interview the great man himself a few months ago - you can read the piece at New Statesman online
What excited you about digital publishing?
The really exciting things about digital publishing are, firstly, that it allows you to write and publish on a rapid turnaround schedule, and secondly, that it lends itself to a length that's much longer than a magazine article but shorter than a traditional physical book - both of which are perfect for journalists and writers who want to explore topics in depth. Unyoking ourselves from the rhythms of print will take time, of course - journalists right now have no reason to constrain ourselves to the traditional boundaries, word lengths and expectations of the physical printed form, but it'll take us some time to adjust, like goldfish released into a stream who swim in small circles, as if we were still trapped in our glass bowls.
Discordia: Six Nights in Crisis Athens by Laurie Penny and Molly Crabapple is out now on all digital formats