Bedtime Stories for Grown-Ups
Ben Holden is a writer and film producer. He lives in London and studied English at Merton College, Oxford. With his father Anthony, Ben edited the bestselling Poems That Make Grown Men Cry and Poems That Make Grown Women Cry. Now, in Bedtime Stories for Grown-ups, he challenges how we think about life, a third of which is spent asleep. He deftly explores not only the science of sleep but also why we endlessly tell stories - even to ourselves, as we dream. Some of today's greatest storytellers reveal their choice of the ideal grown-up bedtime story: writers such as Margaret Drabble, Ken Follett, Tessa Hadley, Robert Macfarlane, Patrick Ness, Tony Robinson and Warsan Shire. The book is published in partnership with Readathon, a children’s charity that provides books for children and their families whilst in hospital. http://www.readathon.org/
Below, Ben introduces his book exclusively for Foyles.
Seize the Night
One of the reasons that the anthologies that I edited with my dad Anthony – Poems That Make Grown Men Cry and Poems That Make Grown Women Cry – seemed to work was the way our contributors not only selected the verse that moved them but also explained – in the most revealing and brilliant ways – why that is the case.
With my new anthology, Bedtime Stories for Grown-Ups, I planned to excavate again, lightly, some scientific and sociological themes via great literature. This collection would explore storytelling, dreams and sleep (a state, of course, in which we spend a third of our lives), much as my other books had delved into tears, gender and emotions. It would be produced with the children’s charity Readathon, just as the Poems books are in partnership with Amnesty International.
While Bedtime Stories would prove a more personal offering – I have chosen most of the pieces myself – I remained faithful to our previous approach by writing my own introductions to many of them (though not all, as I wouldn’t wish to ‘talk over’ everything).
Moreover, I recognised from the outset that my selections would inherently lead to some personal emphases in milieu. To temper this subjectivity, I enlisted twenty or so great storytellers to select a favourite too: something that they would recommend as the perfect bedtime story for an adult. It could be prose or poetry, fiction or non-fiction. I decided that this select group of experts should all be writers (as opposed to actors, say, or filmmakers). I was soon blessed to have some brilliant people taking part. Their choices were fascinating, not least by way of insight into their own different sensibilities as authors.
I figured a good number of the contributors should have written tales for younger and older readers alike. The book is a celebration of the bedtime story routine, after all.
Anne Fine, former Children’s Laureate and creator of Mrs Doubtfire, selected a pastoral poem by Kipling that I had not come across. Called ‘The Land’, Anne acutely frames its powers via personal touches about her own life.
Patrick Ness, whose adaptation of his own A Monster Calls (2011) soon opens on the big screen, mischievously subverted my invitation. This was not a huge surprise. Patrick’s writing is frequently iconoclastic and always ingenious. He writes: ‘‘Dual Balls’ by Nicola Barker has nothing to do with sleep or circadian rhythms, but it is the funniest short story ever written and, as such, belongs in every anthology on earth.’ So it’s in this one.
Writer Daniel Hahn edited the Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature. He is also a celebrated translator and alighted on ‘She Frequented Cemeteries’ by Danish author Dorthe Nors (seek her work out). The story is captivating and, as its title suggests, amid lovelorn wanderings, contains gothic flourishes.
On which note: this book is not designed to give anyone nightmares. Far from it! Yet a collection of nocturnes (edited by the producer of The Woman in Black films) would hardly be complete without at least a touch of chiaroscuro. I was thrilled therefore when novelist Joanne Harris chose a stretch of Shirley Jackson’s masterpiece 'The Haunting of Hill House'.
Along the way, it was important to me that contemporary masters of the short story, a form the book celebrates, were represented too.
Tessa Hadley kindly selected a story by Jean Rhys. This pairing brought some pleasing serendipities of its own. First, because Diana Athill, who of course was Jean Rhys’ editor, would go on to write the afterword for the anthology and, secondly, because Deborah Treisman, who as the Fiction Editor of The New Yorker has published many of Tessa’s own stories, is another contributor.
Indeed Deborah’s selection immediately precedes Tessa’s. It is a remarkable Haruki Murakami short story called 'Scheherazade': a contemporary version of ‘A Thousand and One Nights’. As such, Deborah’s choice, in turn, led to another happy symmetry! Dame Marina Warner, author of landmark studies of folk and fairy tale traditions, herself picked out and introduced one of those timeless 14th century tales (that of ‘King Yunan and the Sage Duban’).
It is amazing how these third-party offerings – which could have felt like interruptions amid my own streams of moonlit consciousness – all seemed somehow to make their own nests. Each immediately found a nook within the manuscript, the shape of which follows that of a single night’s sleep.
Robert Macfarlane’s choice is a good illustration. I had already incorporated a very moving passage from his book The Wild Places into the manuscript when Rob agreed to select something himself too. His chosen extract from Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupery – ‘nocturnal, dreamy, astral’, as he puts it – is exquisite and otherworldly. Its landscaping reminded me of the wonders his own writing brings. The passage resides, dreamily, alongside two glittering poems – as selected by Malaysian novelist Tan Twan Eng and Somali poet Warsan Shire. Though very different, the three pieces form a triptych of sorts – they belong together, as all sweep us away in flights of the imagination.
The final contribution in the book comes from Ken Follett. The author of The Pillars of the Earth reveals that he always has a PG Wodehouse novel by the bed. Just as Ken vividly introduced Thomas Hardy’s poem ‘During Wind and Rain’ in Poems That Make Grown Men Cry, so here he expertly tees up the first chapter of The Code of The Woosters, breaking down Wodehouse’s unassuming artistry by explaining how ‘popular fiction is fractal’. It’s a succinct masterclass from an author whose novels have sold more than 155 million copies worldwide. The mind boggles as to how many people have one of his books on the bedside table!
Thanks to these contributors and others, there should be something for everyone in this book – fairy-tales and fables, reveries all – hopefully enabling readers not just to sleep well but also to seize the night.