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Author Anna Hope on writing: ‘I felt free when I realized I didn’t have to be brilliant’

Anna Hope

TONIA COWAN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Anna Hope's first novel, Wake, has at its centre the stories of three women whose losses in the First World War are entwined with the fate of the original Unknown Soldier, felled in northen France. Here, she talks about the influences that have shaped her as a writer.

When you started to write, which writers did you revere?

Virginia Woolf, Hemingway, Sebastian Barry, Colum McCann. (There are many, many others too.)

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Did you imitate any of them?

Indeed I did. I once wrote a short story based on Woolf's Street Haunting: A London Adventure and flew to the states to read it at a Virginia Woolf conference in NYC. I'm not sure quite what I was thinking. The story was about a student on a drug comedown in Bloomsbury and I read it to a side-room of five baffled mid-Western professors. Bizarrely though, that story has made it onto the national exam syllabus in Denmark. I'm not sure what that says about the Danes, but it pleased me no end.

How did you forge a distinct voice? How did you escape their influence?

By writing more than one novel. But really, I think old T.S. Eliot had it right when he wrote about "the anxiety of influence." I studied English at Oxford. I suffered from a sort of literary anxiety for years. I felt free when I realized I didn't have to be brilliant. I could just be myself.

What is the most dangerous influence or type of influence for a young writer?

For me it was that – thinking that I had to be brilliant. Writing to please the voices on my shoulder (often male and sneery.) They still appear from time to time, but I can shut them up more easily now. That and writing to please some nebulous "market." A market is where you buy vegetables. Readers read your book.

Which perhaps unexpected book(s) share a commonality your new one? What would you think of as its distant cousins?

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Colum McCann's NYC novel Let the Great World Spin. It blew me away, and I kept returning to it to see how he managed to make one event – in his case Philippe Petit's tightrope walk between the twin towers in 1974 – tie together a multiplicity of characters, and give us an insight into a city, a society, a moment in time. That's what I wanted to achieve with the burial of the Unknown Warrior in Wake. Distant cousin? I suppose, if it's not too dangerous to say it, Mrs Dalloway. It was always there somewhere in the background.

Which author(s) do you think are most influential today?

There are different types of influence aren't there? There are writers that wield great power in the industry, like JK Rowling, but she has also have carved a space in the imaginative landscapes of countless children and young adults and that can't be a bad thing. Then there are literary writers who we are all in conversation with: the Hemingways and Scott Fitzgeralds and the Woolfs. There seem to be a lot of writers of a certain age and gender who is still obsessed with those mid-century American men, the Roths and Mailers and Updikes. We could give those boys a rest for a while and not be any the poorer for it I reckon.

Who do you wish were more influential?

Writers like Rebecca Solnit; part essay, part social manifesto, part autobiography, part call to arms, her writing is always playful, serious and surprising, and refuses to be categorized. Her biography of Edward Muybridge is still one of the finest books I've ever read. Her latest, The Faraway Nearby, is a masterpiece. We need more writers and thinkers like her. She deserves a place in the canon.

Whose sentences are your favourite, and why?

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Virginia Woolf's, and Hemingway's. They're sort of opposing poles, aren't they? I love writers that are utterly intoxicated by language but utterly in control. I also love writers who strip it all back to the bone, but those bones have to know how to dance.

When you are in a period of writing, do you change your reading habits for fear of being unintentionally influenced?

I always thought writers who answered yes to this were being precious. Until recently I'd read anything that came my way when I was writing and not be bothered at all. But for the novel I'm writing at the moment I've been unable to do so. When I've finished for the day I'll watch a box set, or even some reality TV. I'm just too freaked out by other people's fictional landscapes on the page at the moment. I need to stay within my own imaginarium to keep sane.

This interview, conducted by Globe Books, has been condensed and edited.

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