Books that built me



Hagen Engler, author of In The Maid’s Room, lists some of his most bizarre influences.

[This piece appeared in the Sunday Times.]

I’m most satisfied with my writing when I’m a bit nervous about it. When I’m not sure how it will be received. It might be an experiment with form, topic or style, or just pushing the boat out further than usual. I take solace in the fact that these people did it before me, and better…

Trainspotting – John Hodge

I read this as a screenplay when it came free with a copy of Loaded magazine in the Nineties. It was this bizarre combo of lad humour, women in their underwear and unpretentious fiction that grabbed me. I was so stoked that a story so visceral, surreal and utterly uncompromising could be nominated for an Academy award. The swearing, the drugs, the bodily fluids and the raw Scots dialect from Irvine Welsh’s original novel made me realise there are no limits to writing and that dialogue in local dialect can be amazing.

Thirteen Cents – K Sello Duiker

The later Quiet Violence Of Dreams was more literary, and maybe better, but I read this first. This tiny book, with its magic realism, and how he made street life so compelling and real showed me a city I knew in such a fresh way… That helped me empathise from my position of privilege, but also to fantasise. Cape Town became a place of dreams, monsters and people who fly. “I take out my money. Thirteen cents. I must have lost one cent on the mountain.” So powerful.

‘Master Harold’ …And The Boys – Athol Fugard

Another great book that was not a novel. It gave me a broader understanding of what a book is. Of course it also taught me that as a white person, much of whatever I had was built on the exploitation of other people. It’s also an intensely human story told in 60 pages. The play opens, “The St George’s Park tearoom on a wet and windy Port Elizabeth afternoon.” I grew up 500 metres from there, so it couldn’t be closer to home.

House Of Leaves – Mark Z Danielewski

The opposite of those short, intense books, this is like a Horror Bible. Hundreds of pages, parallel and intersecting nightmare hell stories. FootIMG_6458notes that grow and grow and take over the main text… Drawings, photos, poems, indexes, appendices, scripts… Insets, pages upside down, vertical text! Some pages have thousands of words, some nothing, patterns of repeated characters… The creepiest, most ominous, disturbing book ever! Taught me to be episodic and unfettered by form and typography. And that if you’re going to write evil, do it properly.


City Of Nine Gates – Zebulon Dread

I bought this from the author himself, hand-to-hand in Melville. I’ve always believed in self-published authors and I am one myself. This book of three stories is just so unfiltered. He drops two f-bombs on the copyright page and goes hard from there. Dread was an independent voice who would not be edited or constrained. With vertical dreadlocks, a gown and a pair of underpants, he was living his aesthetic. Confirmed to me that you can write what you like, and publish what you like. You will be called to account for it, though, so you must be brave.

* Hagen Engler’s novel In The Maid’s Room (Jacana) is about “the surfer, stoner culture of Port Elizabeth, but also the slow death of white entitlement. There’s also lank pomping.”




Writer, editor, ghostwriter, writing coach. I've been involved in 30+ book projects - for myself and for clients, partners and colleagues. Experience in marketing, PR, advertising, television, print and digital, corporate and editorial. Former editor of FHM magazine. Currently Director, Editorial and Content at Ogilvy PR, Johannesburg. Musical performance, spoken word as Inspector Ras. Guitar/vocals for The Near Misses, (Worst Band In JoburgTM). @hagenengler

(2) Comments

  1. Reading In The Maid’s Room. Loving it! Decided to check out your website again. Came across Books that Built you. Cursed you again for that damn House of Leaves that you suggested. Bought it for my book club. Have never lived it down. LOL!

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