Joseph O’Connor: ‘My scepticism about monarchy began at six with a Ladybird book’

My earliest reading memory
I’d say I’m four, nearly five. The year I start in school. I’m in our house near Dún Laoghaire in Dublin, sitting under the kitchen table, and I’m trying, and failing, to read a book of fairytales by the Irish writer Sinéad de Valera.

My favourite book growing up
I’m going to cheat a bit and choose a series – Richmal Crompton’s Just William books – so arch and funny and tongue-in-cheek. And exotic. The version of suburban Englishness she gently skewered was like something from another planet.

The book that changed me as a teenager
The New Journalism, an anthology edited by Tom Wolfe and EW Johnson, was published in 1973. Six years later, on a trip to London, I bought a copy in Collet’s on Charing Cross Road. To read Joan Didion, Barbara Goldsmith and Hunter S Thompson at that age was a revelation. Also, John Cooper Clarke came into Collet’s as I was paying for the book. So, somehow, he’s a part of the experience.

The writer who changed my mind
A copy of A Ladybird Book: British Kings and Queens was given to me by the smiling nun who taught me when I was six. I often think it’s where my scepticism about monarchy began.

The book that made me want to be a writer
Encountering the first sentence of JD Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye when I was 17 was like hearing the brilliant X-Ray Spex for the first time. “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.” It had never occurred to me that fiction could be so defiant. By the time I finished the novel, I wanted to be a writer.

The book or author I came back to
I hated Ulysses when I was young, perhaps because the student character in it, Stephen Dedalus, is so unlikable. I tried it again in my 40s and was blown away. Bits of it are like listening to Brian Eno or Laurie Anderson: it isn’t asking to be understood, just experienced.

The book I reread
I have two novels that I come back to every couple of years because I loved them so much when I was in my 20s: Toni Morrison’s Jazz and Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda. Rereading them is a pilgrimage and a pleasure.

The book I could never read again
Anything involving a hobbit.

The book I discovered later in life
Proust’s Swann’s Way, with those extraordinarily beautiful long sentences. He suffered from severe allergies and asthma, but his writing is so full of spaciousness. Prose as breathing.

The book I am currently reading
I love books about Rome, where my novel My Father’s House is set. Just Passing Through is a collection of the diaries and photographs of Milton Gendel who lived there for 70 years, documenting fashion, art and la dolce vita. The photographs are good, but the writing is knockout. One acquaintance is “like a lizard with a high IQ”.