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REGULAR readers will know I am a fan of the British Library’s Spoken Word CD sets. Today I am going to review The Writing Life: Authors Speak, a two-disc, 138-minute compilation of contemporary writers talking about the writing life. It is utterly marvellous, the best of the series I’ve listened to so far. Anyone interested in writing, and especially anyone interested in being a writer, will find this collection a treasure trove. There’s lots of real nuts and bolts stuff, with successful writers discussing things such as Starting Out; Choosing a Genre; Researching; Finding Ideas; Creating Characters; Structure; and Endings. It’s a masterclass and the teachers include Hilary Mantel, Beryl Bainbridge, Ian Mcewan, Howard Jacobson, Michael Frayn, P.D. James, Penelope Lively, Philip Hensher, Ian Rankin and Peter Porter. It’s wonderful to hear Porter, the great Australian poet who died in April 2010. ‘‘Writing is fighting with words,’’ he says, ‘‘because they will pummel you . . . you’ve got to get the better of them.’’ The novelist Paul Bailey prefers to duke it out in daylight: ‘‘I like writing first thing in the morning . . . when one hasn’t talked to too many people. The silence is important.’’ While it’s fascinating to hear acclaimed authors on the nitty gritty of the craft, the real pearls come with their reflections on why they became writers in the first place. Jacobson is hilarious on his teen years: while his mates had posters of football stars and pop singers on their walls, he had ones of George Eliot, Jane Austen, Ben Jonson and Henry James. Mcewan talks engagingly about his transition from an ‘‘existential writer’’ of ‘‘outsider’’ stories to the author of Atonement, a very English novel that ‘‘looks over its shoulder to Jane Austen and Agatha Christie’’. Several authors recall childhood influences: Lively, an aspiring writer at age 12, had a charming letter from Somerset Maugham advising her to ‘‘read a lot’’; Frayn’s schoolboy eureka moment came when a teacher read aloud Shelley’s Ode to a Skylark; Mantel remembers graduating to an adult library card at 14, borrowing Brideshead Revisited and thinking ‘‘and this is only the beginning’’. Mantel is a delight throughout, by turns charming and surprising. Her analysis of why all writers should have a religious upbringing is acute and amusing. I’ll give her the last word, on critics: ‘‘From time to time you are going to be horribly misunderstood, but after all, you gave that book into the world to be misunderstood. You can’t staple yourself to it and go around explaining yourself.’’ The Writing Life: Authors Speak retails for $34.95 and should be available from most bookstores. The Australian distributor, Inbooks, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. OUR regular book columns — Crime File, Kids’ Lit, The Lab and so on — return from this week in an expanded format. There will also be some new columns. See page 21.