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What Helen Walsh has learned about writing: ‘All influence is good’

Known for her fearless, unflinching examinations of the darkest corners of the female psyche, Helen Walsh is the author of the novels Brass, Go to Sleep and, most recently, The Lemon Grove. Here, she talks about the influences that have shaped her as a writer.

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

When I was 14, a librarian handed me a copy of Hubert Selby's Last Exit to Brooklyn, with a caveat: "Don't tell your mum." It had a profound effect on me. I wasn't aware that those types of worlds could be depicted in fiction, and that you could subvert language and grammar in that way.

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Did you imitate any of them?

The language that Selby employed is impossible to imitate but as a gauche young writer I limited myself to writing about deviant drug subcultures. The first person to whom I ever showed my fiction was a sociology lecturer at university. He said, "Well, you can obviously write, but I can't think for the life of me why anyone would want to read about this shit."

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

I think imitation as a young writer is not necessarily a bad thing, it means that you're alive to a text. Imitating your idols is a bit like warming up, flexing your muscles before the big run. Once you start running, you realize you can only get so far in someone else's shoes. I knew that when I started writing my first novel, Brass, I was writing in a Voice that was my authentic creation, because I didn't run out of steam.

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

I think as long as a young writer is reading outside of their comfort zone, then all influence is good. I occasionally lecture and I'm amazed at how many students come to creative writing degrees without having read – or not wanting to read. It's like wanting to be a jockey and disliking horses.

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

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Right now in the U.K., it seems everyone is still talking about John Williams's Stoner and Kevin Powers's The Yellow Birds. Believe the hype.

Whose sentences are your favourite, and why?

Raymond Carver. Every sentence is an event.

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

I tend to limit myself to non-fiction. I read The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh whilst writing The Lemon Grove, if not least to remind me why I step over the mounting pile of unpaid bills on the doorstep each morning, and go to my desk and write.

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