Words: Bianca Healey
Images: VAMFF, ASOS, Hayley Morgan
Laura strikes me as the kind of person that people are constantly turning their heads to look back at whilst walking down the street. It’s not the model effect (although she gives great face), but she has an energy about her- the kind that draws you to certain circles at parties; the hand that reaches out to pull you into a pulsating dance floor at 3am. You get a sense of this in her writing too- it’s precise, sophisticated and metaphor-driven. Her writing succeeds in creating images that manage to infuse a sentence with something more than the sum of its parts- you can taste, smell and hear as well as see (akin to novelists like Donna Tartt, who can’t help but infuse even abstract ideas with a character, a sense of place).
And it’s that ability to project a sense of the fantastic and exotic onto the everyday that best reflects her startling prolific career as an editor and writer.
Laura has founded two magazines before the age of twenty-six; BRACE, a collaboration between Laura and a friend in New York, and now MUSEUM, which she edits biannually, along with her brother, who serves as Art Director. You can also find her work in print, and across the internet in the likes of The Last Magazine, Two Thousand and Broadsheet. Like all of us, Laura juggles her reading with the demands of a busy life, but is lucky to have determined a career in which the pleasures of personal reading consistently inform and complement her roles as writer and editor. Reading Laura’s responses, I could trace threads of ideas, influences and straight-out subjects of her work in her magazines, from punk and underground drug subcultures, to the very academic grounding that informs her work.
Over email, Laura half-apologised for the serious tone of her responses to my many questions (‘Please see my answers, hopefully they're OK and not too wank-y’). Of course, her written answers to my many questions were perfect, and continually reiterated what is obvious in each word of this interview- a total devotion to the written word, built in as if a character trait, but of course, deliberately honed over years of seeking out texts, to become as natural as an athlete’s muscle memory. Her final lines as we sign off on our correspondence seem to capture her sentiments on reading best;
‘Not sure if I got it across, but I love books, and I've always surrounded myself with them- I spend a lot of time in public libraries and bookstores. I find it a really pleasurable experience, and a total indulgence.’
BH: What kinds of books did you read when you were young?
LB: I lapped up very wholesome British adventure books. There was a lot of Enid Blyton – moving from Adventures of The Wishing Chair to The Faraway Tree series and stories about deviant school children (I believe ‘naughty’ featured in the title), to The Secret Seven, The Famous Five and The Five Find-Outers.
Roald Dahl was obviously a big one, as was C.S. Lewis – and in the very early days I listened to a lot of Beatrix Potter on audio CD. I was a very keen writer myself and determined to be an author, so I would pick up interesting words and write them down in my many notebooks. I remember I liked the sound of ‘soporific’ when I first heard it in 'The Tale of The Flopsy Bunnies.'
BH: What most influenced you as a young reader? Did you have an adult figure in your life that influenced your reading choices?
LB: At the beginning, it was always my mother. She is a boisterous reader; she consumes a book per week. She moves at a rapid pace and she always understood the importance of imagination. Instead of holiday sports, she enrolled me – upon my request – in creative writing classes with Duncan Ball and Morris Gleitzman. Whenever a new Harry Potter book was released, we would line up as a family and purchase three copies. That ensured my brother, my mum and myself could all read it at the same time. We’d sit in silence, slumped across various cushioned surfaces, eyes darting across fresh pages.
BH: Is there a childhood book that you still return to? What value does it still hold for you?
LB: I’m racking my brains and I cannot think of any! My apologies.
BH: Are there any books that made you think of writing in a different way? Not only wanting to be a reader but also maybe wanting to be a writer?
LB: I had always wanted to be a novelist, as far back as I can remember. I can’t really pinpoint a book that did it for me, if you know what I mean.
BH: Is there a book, or books you can think of that profoundly affected the way you approach the world? Is there a book that affected the direction your career took?
LB: See the final question. Authors like Nabokov really demonstrated what language can do.
BH: What are your reading habits? Do you read every day? Do you only read on the weekend? Do you enjoy reading more than one book at once?
LB: Who enjoys reading several books at once?! I’ve never been partial to it, though I am a serial offender, I misplace them, I forget them somewhere, I need something to read and begin a new novel. I read at night or on the weekend. I wish there was more time.
BH: Do you choose books based on the cover? Have you ever sought out a vintage or first edition cover?
LB: When I was in high school I trawled antique shops for hardback copies of Alice in Wonderland. I found, very quickly, that I should have been more original and sought out an author with a less cultish fan-base. Copies were few and far between. But I liked the word play and literary nonsense of Charles Dodgson, and I was intrigued by his slightly disturbing biography – particularly the loss of volumes from his personal diaries around the time of his friendship with the Liddell family.
BH: Do you read magazines or journals? What are your favorite titles and why? What do you look for in magazines that you can’t find in novels?
LB: Of course. Most frequently, I read Document, POP and Arena Homme +, Art Review, ArtForum, etc. I have a lot of Acne Paper and I always buy Mono Kultur, an interview magazine based in Berlin. The Paris Review interview archive is fantastic, and I try to read a couple per week. I also have a nice collection of old BUTT magazines on loan from a friend, Ivan Cheng.
BH: What is your most favoured form? Non-fiction, novels, short stories, poetry, journals, magazines?
LB: Fictional novels and magazines.
BH: What do you gain from reading that you cannot find elsewhere?
BH: Are you protective of your books? Do you lend them to people? Are you strict?
LB: I’m not protective. I always lend books, however I do make mental notes against those who mistreat them. They’re usually a little dog-eared anyway.
BH: Have you read a book on a kindle? Do you have a stance, or preference either way? LB: I have not! I read the paper on my iPad (The Guardian, The New York Times, etc) but I still buy physical books and magazines. I usually have some form of hard reading material in my bag.
BH: What kinds of books do you seek out? Do you read to escape, challenge yourself, learn…?
LB: At the moment I am mainly reading philosophical fiction. And I read it to achieve all of the above.
BH: Do you read books that you know won’t be pleasurable? Do you ever read ‘difficult’ books?
LB: It’s hard to push through when it isn’t enjoyable. I’ve always associated reading with pleasure, so I usually give up if I’m not feeling it. It’s less because a book is too ‘hard’ and more because it’s not engaging.
BH: Where do you look for recommendations?
LB: I usually find that one writer naturally leads me to another.
BH: What kind of reading material have you been seeking out recently? What have you read recently and really loved?
LB: Right now I’m reading The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoyevsy and A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemmingway. Before that, I read Malouf’s The Writing Life and Sartre’s Nausea. I always enjoy Murakami, plenty of space and lightness in his novels.
My brother is a designer and I’ve been considering purchasing The Secret Sense of Japanese Magazine Design from Published Art for him, but really for me to borrow.
BH: Are there books that you’re sentimental about? Do you re-read any books?
LB: I rarely re-read books but I do take notes in them as I read them, or write out particular passages that hold some salience for me at the time. That said, I re-read poetry a lot. It’s easy to come back to. I have a nice little book by Pasolini, a collection titled Roman Poems, that I dive in and out of, and I’ve always liked Patti Smith’s The Coral Sea and Bukowski’s The Continual Condition.
BH: What are your most beloved books? What value do they hold for you?
LB: I think humans are self-involved even in moments of escapism, so sentimentality comes easily when a book reflects something of ourselves, or aligns with personal experience. For me, it’s literature that kick-started a new reading direction or way of thinking. The Picture of Dorian Gray was seminal. It pointed me to Rimbaud and the symbolists and Taoism and the aestheticism and decadence movements. From there, you can also make a tour through once-banned literature. I have a soft spot for Raymond Chandler, though Playback felt clunky. The Trial by Kafka was important for me, as was Lolita and in university there was a lot of basic socialist literature. Predictably, I had a big Beat period too, with Burroughs and Kerouac and Ginsberg. And then The Unbearable Lightness of Being – there was always something about that book. Trainspotting, Skagboys, Porno, Filth, Marabou Stork Nightmares – all the Welsh stuff put me on the trail of heroin literature, and it ended really nicely with Candy, which is a truly beautiful novel. A Brief History of Curating by Hans Ulrich Obrist. Narcissus and Goldmund by Herman Hesse.
Respite, escape and recent reads… care of Laura Bannister
Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast
David Malouf, The Writing Life
Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea
The Secret Sense of Japanese Magazine Design , by Published Art
Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray
Franz Kafka, The Trial
Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita
Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being
Irvine Welsh, Trainspotting
Luke Davies, Candy
Hans Ulrich Obrist, A Brief History of Curating
Herman Hesse, Narcissus and Goldmund
Pier Paolo Pasolini, Roman Poems
Patti Smith, The Coral Sea
Charles Bukowski, The Continual Condition
When Georgia was twenty and I was twenty-four, we worked together at an Australian skincare shop. Georgia’s previous job had been working as the personal assistant to an Australian fashion designer who never paid anyone. The one upside was that she had some amazing clothes- and some amazing stories. On Thursday nights when the store was open late, we would listen to the same Frank Ocean song over and over, eat M&Ms and tell each other all our secrets. I really think that for the both of us, the job was a safe place to exist in- a calm cocoon protected from the elements of the outside world of lives in tumult; uncertain and shifting. Being able to escape, and just be among the geranium leaf body wash for hours was a relief. We would talk about books, sex, relationships all night (in between hours of recommending superlative skincare for the face and body, of course) in a space specially designed to make people feel magical. It felt to us both safe and thrilling.
Georgia now works for the Greens. She’s taken the impulse that’s always been inherent in her personality- and made it her work. Her political worldview can also clearly be mapped on her reading habits. Several months ago, I visited her home in Alexandria and asked her about the books that have shaped the way she sees the world. She was also at somewhat of a crossroad when I recorded this conversation. Torn between the feeling of obligation to finish her law degree and strong desire to continue exploring politics as a career. Below, you can draw distinct lines from her recently read texts to her current path. As a young woman dealing with the trauma of existing with and expressing a sexual identity outside of the sanctioned boundaries of her conservative family. As a political person exploring ways to take action. And as a passionate reader; looking for more, finding herself.
BH: Tell me about the books that have most influenced you.
GT: I saw Roxanne Gay speak at the 'All About Women' Festival and that was amazing- Bad Feminist was one of the most incredible, influential books I’ve ever read. I love her. I love her because that was a book that really shaped my understanding of privilege and really opened up my understanding of feminism.
I’ve always identified as a feminist somehow, but reading that book made me acknowledge my privilege and also start to think really critically about race and think critically about my place in Sydney 2015, the daughter of a father who migrated out and the daughter of a woman who’s first generation Australian. And how that also interacts with my identity as a woman and my identity as a bisexual woman. And how there are so many different levels of privilege and oppression. I’m not doing gender studies at university. I wish I were doing gender studies at university, that would be amazing. But I’m doing law for some unknown reason. So I’m not really exposed to that kind of thinking or texts on a daily basis. So I think it really has to come through fiction and non-fiction that I can somehow fit in.
BH: So it’s self-directed?
GT: Yes. So we’ve had the first wave and the second wave (of feminism). First wave being that really radical feminist, second wave really being about the essence of being female. Which is great to a degree. But it also ignores trans women. Now we have this third wave of feminism, which is really empowering and critical. From what I see, not being heavily involved in university groups and so having this independent study of it. It’s like, Beyonce getting up on stage and saying ‘I am a feminist.’ Or Lena Dunham writing Not That Kind of Girl. And I remember you and I having this discussion when it came out. I really enjoyed the first few chapters. I read it. I felt a little bit uncomfortable about a few of the things that were discussed in this book. I was like, this is from quite a privileged perspective. And then I read Roxanne’s book and it gave me a new lens to view that. And how this third wave of feminism we’re in is really dominated by thinking about class and privilege. And how we all sit around talking about how exciting it is that Hillary Clinton might be the next President of America, but we ignore the way she has treated workers, and particularly workers in retail and hospitality industries, and how these industries that are disproportionately filled with women. I suppose it’s all about the interaction between gender identity and capitalism, basically.
BH: What kind of books did you read when you were young?
GT: I read so much when I was young, and I really miss it. I can’t remember the last time I sat down with a book and was up until 1 in the morning reading it, with my little lamp light on next to my bed getting yelled at by my parents. I didn’t have a lot of friends when I was younger. I wasn’t really close to my parents. So I read heaps. A Series of Unfortunate Events- it was an exposure to a new language. Judy Moody…Lemony Snickett was my primary school experience, but I just remember reading those books thousands of times. The Princess Diaries, Harry Potter, I loved series. Anything that would just never end.
BH: Did you have anyone who influenced you as a young reader? How did you come to find the books that you read?
GT: Not really. I spent a lot of time in the library. And especially in high school I started reading a lot of non fiction, and forming ideas about different things. Like I started reading Michael Moore’s books. Germaine Greer. And just kind of sticking to a category and working my way through it. Looking back at ‘high school Georgia,’ I went through really big phases, and I’m sure that this is a huge part of finding your identity. Like there was this whole phase where I was interested in the French Revolution. And like, really really interested in climate change for a couple of years. And then really interested in government corruption. Now, a lot of this makes sense. Like why do I think this way today? I was reading a lot of these books when I was in high school. And because I don’t really have progressive parents, I never had someone putting a framework around it- it was just like I read all these books and now I can see that it shaped me.
BH: Are there any books that you have read that have made you think about writing in a different way?
GT: As I said, I read a lot more non-fiction than fiction. The last amazing, influential fiction book that I read was Juno Diaz’s This is How You Lose Her. She wrote a whole lot of short stories and novellas, and it’s detailing this one man’s look back on his past relationships and how they changed him as a person. And like being a crazy Pisces and being obsessed with emotions… Yes it was about race and yes it was about class and all these really interesting topics, but when I read that book I really realised how interesting it can be to focus on something really, really intimate. It was really beautiful. It made me re-assess relationships. It made me re-assess previous motivations. It was also about how universal heartbreak is. I read it after a breakup. It was really powerful writing.
BH: You said that these days you read more non-fiction than fiction.
GT: There’s a guilt associated with that.
BH: Really? Why?
GT: Because I have a torts textbook that I should have read through by now, but I haven’t. And even during the holidays I have this whole list of canon texts to read that I haven’t yet. To be ‘well read’ I need to have read them. It’s a lot of pressure! And not even to be well read. To be a ‘good feminist.’ A good feminist should have read The Second Sex. It’s sitting on my floor upstairs. And then I get anxious because I should be reading my law text book, and then every second week there’s a government report I should have read. So then I don’t read my textbook, and then I don’t read the book I should be reading, and I end up in a cycle.
One thing I think helps is having a really good reading spot. So I’ve just re-arranged my room so that I have a lamp next to my bed to read. And the other thing I’ve done is- so I’ve got a work thing up in Byron and I’ve booked my flight two days in advance so that I can just spend two days alone reading beforehand.
BH: Have you ever chosen a book based on its cover? Or sought out a first edition cover? Are these things important to you?
GT: It is important to me. You know Ariel books, don’t you? I always have the thing of ‘should I just save some money and go online to Book Depository, or do I go to Ariel? I love hardcover books. If I can buy the hardcover version I will, because it’s so much more beautiful. I have this beautiful hardcover copy of Silvia Plath’s The Bell Jar- it’s this black hardcover with this gold motif on it. I’m really vain, I judge a book by its cover!
BH: Have you ever read a book on a kindle?
GT: No I haven’t read a book on a kindle or an iPad, I have no interest in that. My dad is a printer- my physical paper is important to me. I have my paper delivered to me on a Saturday, I don’t read it on the web. Same with my books. So much so that I can’t throw out my newspapers. I’m a hoarder. Like, The Saturday Paper is beautiful. Sick paper, beautiful layout. When I moved out of my house in Clovelly, I had all the wrapping paper in the world, because I had about 20 copies of the Saturday paper. And at that point I didn’t even have a subscription. I can’t throw out magazines either. I don’t know in what situation in my life I’ll go ‘I really need that issue of The Saturday Paper from six months ago, or that issue of Russh from 2011…’
BH: Do you read any magazines or journals?
GT: I used to read magazines- I used to read Russh. But I don’t anymore. I think it’s the whole tumblr thing- like tumblr has all the cool fashion images now. Maybe it’s my subscription to the Saturday paper because I’m like ‘fuck I’ve got to read last week’s edition before I read this week’s edition.’
BH: What’s your favourite form?
GT: Short stories. All the books I’ve recently read have been short personal essays, I find. There are also some Australian journals I find really interesting. There’s Archer magazine, which is all about sex and personal identity. Filmme Fatales, which comes out of Melbourne.
BH: Do you ever read books that you know won’t be pleasurable? Do you ever read difficult books?
GT: I used to. I used to read difficult books because I thought I should. Now I don’t. It’s totally a waste of time, and there aren’t enough hours in the day to just waste your time reading something just for your ego.
BH: Where do you look to find new reading material?
GT: I look in online. I know what I like so I know where to look online. But I do love a good book recommendation.
BH: What kind of reading material have you been seeking out recently?
GT: Actually the Socialist Alliance have a really good book section, and Better Read Than Dead up on King Street have a good one too, particularly in their politics, and gender section. I know where to go when I next have the time. I’m the kind of person who prefers to give a book to someone else. I think that all my cousins must hate me because for their birthdays they always get a book about feminism.
BH: To shape their little minds!
GT: I feel like I wish that when I was their age that people… that there were adults giving me books and stuff like that. Like I remember being given The Little Prince when I was their age and thinking, ‘ugh, what a dumb gift.’ I just kinda wish that when I were their age someone had given me these books, and I wish that when I was 15 someone had told me that these 16 year old boys were being idiots and I knew that… well I just feel that the sex education we were given in school was really inadequate and we should get really angry and question it.
I wish when I were their age I had read these texts because then I would have known what this was all about.
BH: Are there any books that you feel sentimental about?
GT: Oh my gosh Looking for Alibrandi, like I’ve said a million times before!
BH: Of course. It’s like a seminal text for teenage girls in Australia.
GT: For second generation wog girls, it’s like our anthem. My mother told me that she was in the year above Melina Marchetta in high school and one day she punched a girl who called her a wog, so she’s convinced that that scene is about her. It’s a really easy read and it’s really fun and I love it.
BH: I feel like it was the first book I read where I was like, ‘oh my god Bondi Junction is featured in this book!’ Like ‘I can relate to this!’ She’s doing the HSC and I’m doing the HSC.
GT: Really, we’re all Josie.
I don’t want to say Anais Nin's short stories was special because a shitty ex- boyfriend gave it to me. It was actually a really good recommendation, because being 21 and thinking about sexuality, and where I fit. And the whole idea of slut shaming. And her ideas about gender and sexuality and fluidity and taboo and all of that. I really enjoyed reading them.
That should be on the year 10 english compulsory reading lists! Imagine that.
I actually started reading her book A Spy in the House of Love, which is less sexual and more of her psychoanalytical work. But I think I enjoyed her short, smutty stories more.
BH: She’s so fearless.
GT: Reading her work was really important to me because I identify as bisexual and how much sex I have with a partner has in the past really confused me because I’ve felt this sense of ‘oh I have to either be gay or be straight.’
I was having this discussion with my friends over brunch- because I know a lot of girls who are queer, or bisexual, and who currently have boyfriends. And I’ve definitely had more boyfriends than I have had girlfriends. That’s fine. And I think there’s this anger and resentment for these cool girls who wear POMs. Like I feel like it was unjust that I had to go through this really traumatic coming out, going through this really intense period of my life with my parents and struggling with that. Um, and me being with a woman when I was 17 and 18 had to be this really big thing and define my identity and has completely defined where I am at 21. And I have this real jealousy of girls who had it so easy. It’s totally easy (for them). It’s just like, ‘hop on tinder!.’ But that’s my own thing.
In summation, I think that’s why being bisexual… there’s this whole thing of ‘you’re too young to know.’ And the other thing is slut-shaming, and that whole idea of ‘oh well you’re just really sexual and you want to sleep with everyone.’ And so reading Anais Nin, for me it was that whole idea of, you can be a sexually liberated person, and it actually has no impact on your integrity.
And for a long time, that was a really big thing for me.
I’ve always been a little bit jealous that Lena Dunham was lucky enough to share a friendship with Nora in the last years of her life. That she was able to have her as a mentor; to take burnt brownies to her Thanksgiving dinner and to have Nora tell her that one day they would make a good story. That she invited her out for lunch and gave her perfect Nora advice, the kind of no-nonsense, illuminating and generous tips that she dispensed to anyone who wishes to read her decades of published writing. A tiny bit (just the tiniest bit!) I resent Dunham because what she sometimes seems to express publically of the worst of her character (her petulant leading characters, the self-indulgent narcissism that has made her famous) seems so completely at odds with the practical, unflappable Nora I have come to know and love over the years. But at the heart of her personal essays, about a life of journalism, filmmaking, novel-writing, New York and the experience of being a modern woman, it’s clear that above all things she loved to spend her time with people of motivation and talent, and that she adored helping others live the kind of enchanted, effortless life that she determinedly created for herself.
Off the top of my head, here are the things that I have learnt from Nora Ephron:
1. Don’t waffle. What stays with people are gems of expressive brilliance, delivered with wit and brevity
2. There is nothing more valuable than having an apt recommendation for a restaurant, café, show or book.
3. The rule of four. This relates to entertaining. You should always serve three dishes: a meat, a starch, some kind of vegetable, and then something completely unexpected.
4. Everything is copy
5. Your luck will always change
6. You can order more than one dessert
I’m one of the very unlucky people who has reached their mid-twenties without having been to New York, but thanks to Nora Ephron, I feel like I lived there for years, and only recently moved back. That’s the effect she has- her New York (much like Woody Allen’s New York), feels like a giant film set, filled with bagel-stores and delightful delicatessens that stock the cheese you love, and dinner parties filled with other writers who work for Vogue and New York Magazine. I am absolutely certain that Nora’s New York doesn’t exist in quite the same way as it does in her writing, but I’m fairly sure that any future trip will involve an itinerary of Ephron touchstones (the Amherst building, Zabar’s) as I seek to inhabit in some small way the very one-sided, imagined and eternally fulfilling friendship I have nurtured with Nora Ephron.
Nora Ephron’s life can be mapped through her vast body of work. Though not one of her books is an autobiography in the strictest sense, one can piece together a life in letters through snippets in her personal essays, her fiction and her films.
Born in 1941 in New York to screenwriter parents, and transplanted to LA for her formative years, Ephron’s parents exposed their children to a rarefied world of Hollywood actors, writers and directors. They would host elaborate parties, and Ephron recalls in her essay collection I Remember Nothing the butter whipped high in bowls on the dining table, as famous directors swanned and her mother served expertly prepared dishes, whilst drinking and talking business- something that would become the basis for Nora’s unique blend of feminism, both irreverent and determined- but most of all inclusive. She decided that she wanted to become a journalist when a high school teacher explained to her that the opening line to a story about a class trip to a conference should read ‘there will be no school today. And her recollections of being a female reporter in New York in the ‘60s read like a romance novel about a journalism that now no longer exists in quite the same way. A world where you would sleep with an up and coming novelist and he’d offer you a copy of his most recent book on the way out the door of your one night stand (ok this probably still happens!) Where the old guard were very much still the centre of New York newspapers, and women were just beginning to break through a glass ceiling that had barely seen so much as a crack in its veneer.
Though she attended the prestigious east coast women’s college Wellesley, she retained little affection for her time there- when women were trained to be ladies, to direct their ambition towards marrying ambitious men. Instead, as you can discover in almost every Nora Ephron novel, book of essays, or film set in her home city, New York became her great educator. It was a city that provided her with the opportunities to reach for multiple careers during her decades there. Over the course of her life she worked as a journalist, an essayist, a novelist, a playwright, an Oscar-nominated screenwriter, a movie director and a blogger (in her later years when most aging writers might have given up and stuck to what they knew, Ephron continued to lust for new experiences- she wrote an article about an addiction to online scrabble in the last years of her life).
It was in New York where a satire she wrote lampooning the New York Post caught the editor's eye, and landed her a job there. It was New York where she penned an article about having small breasts for Esquire magazine and became a writer. And it was New York that she returned, divorced, with a newborn baby, to pen Heartburn, a thinly veiled recount of the breakup of her marriage to Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein. In my opinion, this book is one of the greatest breakup stories ever told, and it you think about it, it maps the DNA for all Ephron’s future work. It’s hilarious, yet very droll and honest about the realities of life. Snippy, sharp and filled with Ephron’s unique ability to capture people’s ridiculousness in a sentence, yet also enduringly optimistic about the possibilities for the future. Also, food is central. The protagonist is a cookbook writer and the story is peppered with stories about food, and recipes that tie into the story. (It is my great wish to one day produce a blog in the style of The Julie and Julia Project chronicling the cooking of each of these recipes). And finally, it was in New York that she wrote her first film script, and persuaded a man to let her direct her first movie.
Kneaded into her devotion to New York was a deep affection for food. As many wrote at the time of her death, she was a foodie before the concept even existed, much less the word. Not only was she friends with the most influential food critics, cookbook writers and chefs in New York, she delighted in domesticity- executing chic dinner parties and producing elaborate meals straight out of the pages of Julia Child’s cookbooks. It’s so interesting to me that to Ephron’s generation, cooking was woven inextricably into the complexities and contradictions of the women’s liberation movement in the ‘60s, whereas to mine, it almost feels like a status symbol (like wearing expensive gym clothes and constantly exercising). Ephron writes in I Feel Bad About My Neck: ‘we all began to cook in a wildly neurotic and competitive way. We were looking for applause, we were constantly performing, we were desperate to be all things to all people.’ To me this sounds strangely familiar to the self-conscious millennial approach to the domestic. We may be posting buckwheat pancakes on our blogs and acai bowls on our instagrams, but doesn’t it have that same sense of competitive energy- and a complex desire to align the new ideals of womanhood with traditional ones, and even just to brag to our friends about having it all? Finally, to the day she died, she gave perfect recommendations for everything from the best pastrami sandwich to the best new restaurant with glee. She delighted in discussing food and visiting new places first, but even when criticizing, she was never mean spirited.
Nora Ephron could produce copy out of anything. In Ephron’s work, food becomes characterization, metaphor, plot. Food is a way of being in the world, interacting with others, expressing one’s self. She once told Maureen Dowd that the head of 20th Century Fox let her direct her first movie because she expertly ordered him the cabbage borscht at the Russian Tea Room in New York. She also found her way into the boys club of the new journalism movement through food, covering the Pillsbury bakeoff for Esquire and everything from feminism to the deliciousness of butter in her essays and columns.
That was another thing about her. Everything she ever did felt inclusive. Whether she was writing about her own life (which despite its dramas, was for the most part glamorous and populated with New York intellectuals, cultural tastemakers and literati), or writing about others, you always feel that she is on your side. She’s the whip-smart friend whose opinion you consider above all others, your confidant, your mentor. In her address at Wellesley, she instructed the graduating class to ‘be the heroines’ of their own lives, not the victims. She sharply reminds them that they don’t have the excuse that the women of her generation had- that they weren’t told that they had other options. She was a woman with a canny gift for making lemonade from lemons- her husband left her when she was seven months pregnant! But in living a life in which every dark day becomes copy, she tells us all that living a successful life is essentially a case of putting in the effort, and good PR. Take control of your story and make it yours.
I came to know Nora Ephron first through her most famous (and quoted) movie When Harry Met Sally. Raised on a diet of teen wish-fulfillment scripts (10 Things I Hate About You, She’s All That), it felt very grown up and completely different to the dramas I had consumed at that point of teenage-hood. The character’s problems were at their heart, themselves, not others around them, and this was the first introduction to me (although I couldn’t have put it into words) of the subject of female self-actualisation. Sally seemed to me to be a dame from the ‘golden age of Hollywood’ transplanted into the ‘90s. Though the prudish aspect of her character can appear clichéd… at the end of the day she was a modern, successful woman with gumption who was equally as neurotic and flawed and wining as the male lead- and she didn’t apologise for any of it. I loved her for it. After that, a friend lent me her essays, and I worked my way through Wallflower at the Orgy, and Crazy Salad, and Heartburn, and I Feel Bad About My Neck, and I Remember Nothing. I rented Silkwood, and re-watched Sleepless In Seattle and You’ve Got Mail, both films I have hazy childhood memories of watching with my mum on Saturday night as a kid, and found new appreciation for their totally authentic and witty brand of romantic comedy. Finally, I completely fell in love with Julie & Julia, which I don’t think did spectacularly at the box office, but provides, if nothing else, the most heartfelt and beautiful rendering of Julia Child, by one home cook to another.
I go to Nora for advice when I feel like I’ve forgotten how to be the kind of woman I want to be. I have a cutout of her New York Times obituary, sent to me by a friend who was in the city that day. I keep it in the top drawer of my desk. On twitter following her death, someone wrote that Ephron proved you could “care about feminism, food and fashion with the same eye.” It’s so nice to remember that. We’re so lucky that she left us so many opportunities to be reminded of it.
'I have a copy of The Goldfinch that Donna Tartt signed ‘happy birthday.’ Of course I’m going to value that more than a kindle. Like if I’d had the book on a kindle, what the fuck would she have signed?'
We met at the back of maths class in year nine and bonded over a love of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and ineptitude in trigonometry. I went to Paris with her for the first time and she took me to her favourite café, Les Philosophes, to eat bread until we could barely walk. Once, at Ariel bookstore in Paddington, she asked me to loan her some money to buy a book and then presented me with The Secret History by Donna Tartt to take for myself. ‘It will change your life,’ she promised. I feel that this anecdote is quite nicely illustrative of the relationship I have with my good friend Genevieve. She’s demanding, and infuriatingly strong-willed, but everything she does is out of love, and it’s often not until later that you appreciate it. Why waste the time convincing me to buy the book myself? She’s pushed books under my nose for years now and very rarely does she get it wrong. We all have friends we value for different reasons: to see movies with or to take to the beach. To fill up with our secrets, or to simply laugh with over a long lunch. Ours is a friendship built on a multitude of things- years and years of drunken nights and advice relayed over text message at three in the morning. European holidays and brunches and vintage clothing purchase mistakes. But in many essential ways, it’s a friendship about reading, and being a reader. I think it’s true to say that I’m perpetually pressing Gen for advice about what to read, not because I know that I will love every book, or because we have the same taste in literature (although both of those things are true), but because I know that what’s she’s reading is what I want to be reading. Books that will jolt me awake, keep me up past bedtime, make me hungry for more.
Over time our friendship has evolved, changed. The ground beneath our feet has shifted and we’ve each clutched at different things to steady ourselves, or swung at branches to reach for something higher. But throughout it all, there’s a paper trail that marks our friendship in printed words. I could give you a reading list of our literary lives that could provide an education in the story of a female friendship. Jonathan Franzen, and Donna Tartt, Lena Dunham and Nora Ephron. More recently, Elena Ferrante. These authors have provided fertile ground for hours of conversations about literature, but also, inevitably about ourselves; what we want as young people, as women, as sometimes writers.
BH: Tell me more about the Paris Review.
GB: Ok, I’ll tell you more about this issue because I think it’s interesting. So one thing I like about the Paris Review is that this issue is clearly themed around translation. In that, you know how they always do, like, ‘The Art of Fiction,’ or ‘The Art of Non-fiction,’ and they’ll interview authors. Very occasionally TV writers like Matthew Weiner. So there are only two interview in this issue, which is called ‘The Art of Translation,’ and the one I’ve read is the interview with this couple, an America man and a Russian woman, who are like in their ‘70s and have been credited with doing these amazing new translations of all of these Russian works of literature. So like everything from Chekov short stories to Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy and everyone. Their work is really interesting.
BH: How can translation shed more light on texts that have already ben translated tens of times already?
GB: Well they work with nuance and what they feel is the essence of the text. And even on a sentence level, they talk about how things that, you know, are completely beyond my level of comprehension. Like, there’s this one sentence where it’s very important that Pontius Pilot gets mentioned at the end of the sentence, so they had to invert the sentence because that’s where they thought the emphasis had to be, end they got in trouble from all these scholars who were all ‘why did you invert that sentence?,’ and they were all like ‘because it was very important to us that ‘Pontius Pilot’ were the final two words of that sentence.' Because apparently there were two other sentences where the phrase gets repeated three other times in the novel, and also it’s the last words of the novel, so they thought it was important, you know, to screw around with that sentence to make that emphasis very clear. I like the way they work because the wife is Russian and she studied mathematic linguistics.
BH: So she’s super technical?
GB: Yeah. So she’s the one who takes the Russian text and translates it very loosely and quite literally into English, and then gives it to her husband who is by training a poet. And then he takes that English and re-works it into what he thinks is a better end point for the translation. And they’re always having this conversation where she’s like ‘no!’ because she's a native Russian speaker and she can point out things that he’s gotten completely wrong, but then he, as a poet, can offer that kind of, artistic insight. It’s kind of an amazing collaboration.
BH: That’s beautiful. When you read about creative couples who literally spend their working lives together, and their personal lives together…
GB: It’s amazing because, like, with these people, it’s not even like they’re a creative couple that spend their working lives… who are both artists and create separate things. These people create something together, and they live together. It’s always a concentrated, collective effort.
BH: Maybe you have to be someone who’s married to your work to be able to do that though.
GB: Although in this case they are literally married to their work! And also you have to feel it. Like the passion and the heart and the crux of the text, that’s not something that you can turn on and off between the hours of nine to five. Translation is very interesting.
BH: Does Lorin Stein translate French?
GB: Yes. He translated the short story in that one.
BH: It’s beautiful that he and Sadie got married.
GB: They got married at City Hall.
BH: I know. And she wore a 'Carrie' suit.
GB: And they had that amazing luncheon at La Grenouille, a very old-school French restaurant, that like, literally gets mentioned in Mad Men, at one point, when Joan books a table there for some businessmen that they want to impress. And that photo of them on the steps of City Hall reading the Paris Review together is lovely.
BH: She wrote a blog post for the Paris Review about how not-funny it is when people ask her if she is going to change her name.
GB: It’s interesting that she wrote that, because I read this book when I was young, I can’t remember what it was called. And it was all about this lady who was a dentist, and her last name was Oldmouse and her grandmother said to her, ‘it’s very important that you always keep the name Oldmouse, because, you know, it means a lot to our family, and you’re the only grandchild.’ And the woman was like, oh ok, well, I guess that means that I’ll never be able to get married, which is really sad, because I’ll have to change my name if I get married. And basically that was the conflict. And the resolution of this children’s book was that she found someone whose name was Oldmouse too, so she could keep her last name. It’s very interesting, I don’t know when this book was written, but I think it sent a very strange message to young girls.
BH: Well was it set in the olden days?
GB: No she was a dentist! So I assume she had some degree of, you know, agency in her life. But not with that. And I guess it was never really clear to me whether this was a very personal story about a girl’s promise to her grandmother. But at the same time you feel like, well she could just get married and not change her name.
So I’m happy for Sadie Stein that she doesn’t have that problem.
BH: What kind of books did you read as a child?
GB: I have two sisters who are much older than me. So I grew up with all of these old, musty children’s books that were twenty years older than me. And the bulk of these old musty paperbacks were Enid Blighton books. I remember the turning point was when my mother was reading me The Enchanted Wood, by Enid Blyton. I was six years old, and she was reading me a chapter every night and then one night we were on holidays and she was going out to dinner with my dad, or something, and basically said to me; ‘I’m not going to have time to read your chapter tonight,’ so I just took the book and read the rest of it myself. And that was the first book that I finished myself. Enid Blyton, so magical.
BH: I never read The Famous Five. I only read The Magic Faraway Tree.
GB: Well, yeah. I went from The Magic Faraway Tree, which is about the three smaller children, to The Famous Five; very realist. You know, very real adventures happening, with real gangsters and smugglers and gypsies.
BH: And Russians?
GB: There were no Russians, but there were some very scary gypsies at one point.
So yeah, The Magic Faraway Tree was about these three siblings who moved to the countryside from London and they live in this cottage and get very frustrated with the dull, country life they seem to have been consigned to. And then one day, they venture cross a ditch into the enchanted wood, and they find this magical tree full of pixies and fairies and weird creatures and at the top of it there’s this land…
BH: You don’t have to give an entire synopsis of the books.
GB: I know, but I’m just explaining it because to me it seemed like the most amazing thing to happen to a child ever, and, I don’t know, just the idea of that kind of that kind of magic, and like, the land of birthdays, everything was really lovely.
So then I just moved onto any other books I’ve had lying around, which was The Famous Five. And again, what child doesn’t want to roam around the English countryside with your cousins and your siblings and your dog, and investigate shipwrecks? So they became very much the first books I ever read. Then I moved onto Judy Blume, who terrified me. I thought Judy Blume was amazing. Oh, and Roald Dahl, I have to mention Roald Dahl. So basically the classics. All the canon. The children’s canon.
Although one point I want to make about children’s books. I read and re-read and re-read all of those books when I was little to the point of… like I have never re-read one of my favoruite books to the extent that I did as a child…
BH: You can return to them so many times.
GB: It’s interesting how ingrained The Famous Five and The Magical Faraway Tree and Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret are to me, because I’ve read them so many times. Whereas now, I don’t know, I read, not simply for entertainment.
BH: The fact that, when you’re a child, you only really do read for pleasure?
GB: I guess so, I guess also when you’re a child you have the time, so you can go back and read things again and again and again. It’s probably also to do with the length and the simplicity of the stories as well. I don’t know.
BH: Do you ever re-read childhood books now?
GB: I used to.
BH: When you were feeling sad, or turbulent?
GB: Yes. I feel that I’ve only ever done that with Harry Potter. But I’ve definitely, well, not even with the whole book, but when I’m feeling super vulnerable, and there is a lot of change happening, you just want to go back to Hogwarts.
I feel like it’s a safe place for many people our age. And like not even the Hogwarts of the later books, where everything’s turbulent. Dumbledore’s death, you know? It’s like I want to go back to Prisoner of Azkaban Hogwarts and just be in charms class, with Professor Flitwick. It’s a very safe space.
BH: What most influenced you as a young reader? Was there an adult in your life that steered you in a certain direction?
GB: Well, that was very much inadvertent steering, because all I had was their books. I don’t know, I suppose very much my parents, probably not directing me, as much, but because I was reading so many throwbacks and older books, they were there as this kind of sounding board, to talk to me about my Enid Blyton things, and if I liked this, then I might like that…So they very much nurtured it. I don’t know that as a young person if I had any one person who was very influential, although I do remember being very impressed of books that Matilda read from the library that are listed in Matilda. Including, you know, Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nicholby, and being like, well, if Matilda can read Charles Dickens, then I’ll read some Charles Dickens, you know. I went and plucked The Old Curiosity Shop, which was the first Dickens book on our family bookshelf, and just read the first ten pages. And was just like, ‘what the fuck is going on here? This is not written in English, or any English that I understand. I’m putting it down and going back to George’s Marvelous Medicine.’ I guess with Matilda, I always felt a sense of competition with her, in terms of reading, you know. She did kind of instill some ambition in me.
BH: Is there any book you can think of, when you were a kid or as an adult, that was in some way formative?
GB: Probably two I can think of, and I’m just going to say them straight up, and then I’ll explain them. The first one was Looking For Alibrandi, and the second one was The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood. Looking for Alibrandi, not in the sense that it’s an amazing book. But I remember reading it when I was eleven or twelve, and thinking- growing up on my diet of English children’s books, and American children’s books- it has never really occurred to me that I could read a novel set in Sydney that I could ostensibly know, or that I could be. So, you know, Bondi Junction was mentioned in the first pages of that book. And just the idea of doing the HSC and year twelve, you know, woven into this great book. I think that Melina Marchetta is very brilliant at creating that sort of, female teenage angst and that searching for identity.
And before that, publishing and books and things never seemed like something that could be immediate, or have immediate relevance. That you can read things that are set down the street from you. And I’d just never realized before that novels could be more than just magical things, or set in Baltimore. They can happen everywhere. And that stayed with me throughout all of high school. Probably also because there was a film made about it. But I remember being in year twelve, and the benchmark being Josie Alibrandi. So that was one of those books that I read five times.
The Blind Assassin, just because I think it’s an amazing book. I remember reading it and thinking it was so fucking weird that there are these intimate chapters that are like a sci-fi novel, and the relationship between the two sisters was just really brilliant and amazing. The whole amazing about- face that happens halfway through when you find out that the love affair is with the older sister Iris. Because the whole thing is about the older sister Iris and the younger sister Laura, and they have all this money, but then Iris has to marry because their dad is like, about to drink himself to death, and then he dies. And Laura’s this very absentminded younger sister that always has to be looked after by the older sister. And there’s this whole thing, where there’s this photo that’s found of this very attractive, not really a communist, but a left-wing idealist kind of person and throughout the entire book, she kind of writes it so that you think that it’s Laura who’s having this affair, but it turns out that it’s the older sister who has this amazing affair. And the fact that it’s written from the perspective of the older, dying character. It was basically the first book where I got two-thirds of the way through it, and I was just like, I’m not going to go to bed tonight, I have to finish this book now. And I guess it was the first book for adults, I read it when I was seventeen, and I finished it at three AM and was just crying by myself. And I got that intense emotional experience that was so private, as well, and so moving. It was a really weird thing… that I really loved.
BH: What are your reading habits?
GB: I try to read every day. Which is hard, because I read a lot for work, and, like, at work. But I read all the time. I don’t always have a novel in my bag. I have the Paris Review now. I try to read a lot of literary magazines and literary journals and things. It’s important, with my job, as well, just to be able to see what’s current, and what’s being put out into the world. And journals are easier than books to read when you’re commuting. You can read a short story. You can read an article or an interview. So it’s good because my attention span is never shorter than it is when I’m on public transport.
I try to read novels every night, but it’s hard because sometimes I’ll be tired and I’ll only read like two pages. I will read all the time regardless, but generally, if I’m only reading one or two pages of a book a night, that I’m not really grabbed by it, or committed to it as I should be. For instance, This House of Grief by Helen Garner, I just picked up a few Sunday afternoons ago, and I didn’t put down until I finished it. But that’s quite rare.
BH: Have you ever chosen a book based on the cover? Would you ever read a book on a kindle?
GB: I would never rule out using a kindle, especially if I was going travelling. But I just really like the idea of a book as an object. And a pretty object, at that. That’s something I really enjoy about books. There’s an amazing story and everything, but it’s also about owning this lovely thing, that more often than not, means a lot to you. And to badly paraphrase Jonathan Franzen, who is the king of ‘anti- kindles,’ but he has this interesting point, that is that when you buy something and download it- but I don’t actually know if it’s true because I’ve never done it- you know, it’s really easy if you get two pages into it, and if you don’t like it to just go back to the store and buy something else. You can kind of equate it with when you’re like, buying something from iTunes where you can buy one song as opposed to buying the whole CD. You can try a sample, and if you don’t want it, there’s something else that is very easily available. Whereas, when you’re reading an actual book, you know, it’s literally just you and that book. And you’ve made that choice, and you’re holding it, and it’s harder to put it down and go searching for something else. So at base, it’s already more of an engagement before you even start reading. Because you have this book that’s not that easy to dismiss.
BH: I’ve never heard it put that way before. Because we live in a society where it’s that much easier to not commit to things than it is to commit to them.
GB: I think there’s some sense to that. I’ve never sought out a first edition or anything. I really like books as objects, especially in the job I have now. I’m coming to appreciate cover design. And especially book design. So there’s this one designer in Australia called W.H. Chong who does really good cover designs. And Charlotte Strick in the US designs really beautiful books. And I think that their covers have made me appreciate it more. Charlotte Strick did the cover of 10:04, with the image of a half-darkened New York. And she also did Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, with the bird. A lot of Jeff VanderMeer’s books. And the cover of The Unspeakable by Meghan Daum. I think she has a really lovely aesthetic that can kind of cut through that idea of like; ‘what is literary fiction,’ ‘what is an arresting image,’ ‘what is appealing to a mass market?’
BH: Do you read other journals?
GB: I have a subscription to Kill Your Darlings, which is an Australian literary journal, run by Hannah Kent and Rebecca Starford, and I think that it’s almost like the Paris Review in that it offers a combination of fiction and essays and interviews. I read The Monthly. It’s very informed and intelligent discourse and insight into literature, because they have reviews, but also politics and current affairs. I really wish I could still read Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar and Vanity Fair, and I still do. Although to be honest the era of Dominick Dunne and his long form crime writing is kind of done. He wrote for Vanity Fair, and you know that age of long form articles that they used to do, especially about true crime, which they still do to a certain extent, and the New Yorker do it too. So Dominick Dunne was this writer from the ‘80s and ‘90s who did a lot of true crime writing and just wrote these amazingly intricate and informed articles about trials.
BH: You know that kind of writing still happens. The guy who wrote the Caitlin Jenner article was given a year to write it. I guess that Vanity Fair is giving that cover story to Caitlin Jenner now instead of to someone else.
GB: Well, but Vanity Fair have always written about celebrities. I think the problem with it is, if I wanted to read the Caitlin Jenner article, I could probably go online and be able to find it very easily, without having to buy the issue of Vanity Fair and have t shell out that kind of money. Which is terrible. But when you buy that kind of print publication, you want to feel like you are buying a whole collection of things that are related to you. You know, for you to buy a magazine just because there’s one article in it that might interest you.
BH: I know what you mean. I feel like I’m more likely to buy a biannual magazine that I can pore over.
GB: But to their credit, I don’t think magazines are failing, or folding or anything like that. If anything, there are more of them, just with more specificity with regards to interests. Because you know, if I’m a carpenter, or you know, if you have a magazine with a couple of different headlines, like ‘’human interest,’ ‘celebrity’…
GB: A carpenter isn’t going to want to buy their magazine. They’re going to go for ‘Carpentry Weekly.’ Or even something like Kinfolk where they feel like the entire ethos of the magazine speaks to them. Whereas, I wish it did, but I don’t know that the ethos of Vanity Fair really reflects my life.
BH: What kinds of books do you seek out? Do you ever read difficult books because you feel that you should, or so that you can say that you did?
GB: Definitely. There are a lot. The books I seek out? I feel like because of my job, and because of my interests, I read a lot about books, and lots of interviews with authors that I like who are talking about other authors that they like, so I get a lot of recommendations from that. And the novels that I read tend to be literary fiction, and they generally get some kind of recognition form a writer I already respect.
Or from online publications like Flavourwire and Lit Hub. I really love Lit Hub, for interviews with authors, and it feels like talking with my friends.
Farrar, Strauss and Giroux have some great writers that I am interested in. I will definitely latch onto a particular publishing house where I feel that most things that they publish are top notch. Like FSG publish Jonathan Franzen, Ben Lerner, Laura van den Berg. Like they published Claire Vaye Watkins. And they also do like, Cuban poets. Lots of people do it well. But they’re a very storied literary publisher. And like right now I’m reading Muse by Jonathan Galassi, and it’s this novel about the golden days of publishing. He came out very late in life. He was already married with semi-adult children when he left his wife and was like ‘I’m gay.’ But the character in this book realizes it in college. So it’s very interesting.
BH: What are your most beloved books? What value do they hold for you?
GB: I can’t pick one or two. In terms of all-time favourites, definitely In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. That was just another book that was an experience to read. Like I sat there hung over in bed one morning and I picked it up because I had to read it for uni and I just did not move. There’s just the tremendous acuity with which he writes; the way he’s honed his craft. And especially with true crime writing, because you’re dealing with real events and you have to mold them and shape them, not only to reflect the truth, but also to a narrative that is interesting to an audience. And the way he does that, and creates tension in that book is just brilliant. And it’s eternal and timeless and I’m always going to love it.
BH: You haven’t mentioned Donna Tartt
GB: Oh yes Donna Tartt. So The Secret History. That can definitely be counted as one of those books I read early on and it just absorbed me. I loved The Goldfinch as well. And I think she’s so good. She’s such a rare bird in literature in that she emerges with a book every ten years and does a little bit of publicity and she’s such an eccentric when you see her. She’s such a brilliant storyteller and it’s very fortunate that she has the time and the space to hone her stories to the point that she does. Because they’re brilliant and entertaining read and she creates these vivid characters and has such an understanding of the modern gothic. I feel that she does it so well.
Speaking of books as objects, one thing that was amazing about living in New York was that I have so many signed copies of these amazing books. Like I have a copy of The Goldfinch that Donna Tartt signed ‘happy birthday.’ Of course I’m going to value that more than a kindle. Like if I’d had the book on a kindle, what the fuck would she have signed?
On the trams, there’s ten or fifteen of us there that just read
How do you measure a good reader? Is it the volume consumed, a commitment to the canon? Or perhaps it is simply a strong conviction of one’s tastes and a clear-eyed ability to boil down exactly what you value in beloved books. One of the things that I’ve been trying very hard to do during this project is to start reading for pleasure the way that I did when I was a child and a teenager- to obliterate an entire afternoon with a novel and not think twice about it. To rush off after dinner to whatever nook I had secreted my book, to slip back into that liminal space of complete oneness, a feeling of completeness that comes when you find pleasure in being entirely alone. My parents built a beautiful modernist art gallery of a house that would have found itself more at home on the Bronte coastline than in the red brick suburbia of Oatley (halfway between the southern beaches of the Shire and the endless backyards and main streets of the Western suburbs). And it was in this white walled, breezy home that I made my clearest, most poignant reading memories. There were the cool, polished wooden floorboard where I would stretch out, belly down in the summer holidays as blowflies hummed against the windscreen. There was a little guest bedroom filled with 20th century furniture that had been replaced during the renovation, with a hand-quilted doona cover and eternally pressed sheets. It felt like the room was constantly waiting, and I would escape into its stillness and read with my head against a leg of the four-poster bed.
Jonathan Franzen writes that ‘the first lesson reading teaches is how to be alone.’ Which brings me to my friend Tom, trams and stealing. Tom plays saxophone in band with a wonderful singer called Alex Cameron. Here, he goes as Roy Molloy, a allusively racist guy in a too-big suit and wraparound sunglasses, forever on the road. With Alex Cameron in painted on wrinkles and gelled hair, the two tour the country and America, using social media to record their 'washed- up' narrative; playing seedy bars, meeting business partners and evoking reckless melancholy. Though glimmers of their routine nod to other Sydney players working similar playbooks (Kirin J. Callinan, Donny Benet), theirs feels unique. Tom's late night, rambling Facebook posts, delivered in a beat style, could be collated into a mini novella. The washed up former Aussie pub rock star, now a bona fide battler, fighting obscurity with every gig.
Tom’s drinking a beer and lights up as we begin to speak. On the recording, I can hear the ice in my whisky and coke clinking; the room is dim even with the lights on.
BH: So what books did you love when you were a child?
TM: Roald Dahl. Killed me, loved it. There’s always a really dark, underlying thing going on, there’s always something dark. Even The Witches, if you think about it, is all these women, killing kids.
BH: The interesting thing about his books is the fact that the adults are always horrible and mean, and have no clue.
TM: A lot of the time the kids die, in his books. There’s not a lot of children’s books that do that.
BH: Do they?
TM: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, a lot of those kids are dead, man. That bit when they go to the fucking chocolate river thing, it’s not like in the movie, where they show up at the end of the film somehow, but in the book, that’s the end of them, you don’t hear from them again. It’s not brought up, but those kids are brown bread.
BH: Did you ever try to read grown up books when you were younger?
TM: No, no, it took a lot to get me reading when I was a kid.
BH: Was there a moment when you got drawn in?
TM: Goosebumps books are the ones that really did it. Um, I don’t know why they got me. I guess everyone else was reading them at school. And like, talking about it. So I started reading them as well.
BH: Goosebumps is one of those ones that has, like series of 200, right?
TM: Yeah there’s thousands and they’re all very similar. But ah, R.L. Stein, he’s a cool guy man. He knew how to write. And then there were the Harry Potter books that defined our generation.
BH: What about when you were coming of age, as a teenager or in your early twenties? Were there any books that really affected your ideas of what you wanted to do when you were older? You like Hemingway, right?
TM: Yeah. For Whom the Bell Tolls really caught me. Just cos it’s like, it’s such an action man character, I can’t remember the name of the protagonist. But he’s just a rough and ready dude, you know, out there.
BH: They’re all old school men. Like masculinist, Don Draper types.
TM: Yeah. But the whole book’s told from that character’s introspective. It’s pretty much, you know, he’s falling in love, and he’s thinking about his dad, he’s suddenly afraid to die, and he’s thinking about things that he’s done. I liked the emotion. It made emotion and being introspective, which aren’t really thought of as masculine traits… it’s just this whole book about this masculine man’s inner turmoils. I was a young guy and I didn’t expect it. It took me by surprise and I liked it heaps.
BH: Are there any books you’ve read recently that have moved you?
TM: Um, I don’t know. Cause I’m working on the trams, I go through quite a lot. They give me these night shifts and I work like 9pm to 5am, and I just get hours and hours of reading time. There’s no one out there then and so I just read. You can knock over your shift so easily, and it’s all just thinking time. If you want to do some self-reflection… it can get fucked up though, you know, sitting out there in the dark.
That’s why I read while I’m out there, man. Or I look on my phone or whatever. The last book that really got me was, I read The True Story of the Kelly Gang, by Peter Carey.
BH: I’ve never read anything by Peter Carey.
TM: Same. An ex of mine tried to force me to read Amnesia, and I just flat out refused, cause I put him in the same category as Tim Winton. I just put him into the same basket as him, you know what I mean. I was just like, nah man that’s gay.
BH: I tend to have a bias against Australian writers.
TM: See lately I’ve just been on this huge tear. I’ve read most of Peter Carey’s stuff. Picked up Picnic at Hanging Rock, which I’m reading at the moment. It’s just a beautiful, beautiful book.
BH: I don’t even know who wrote it.
TM: It was Joan Lindsay. But I haven’t seen the movie.
BH: The movie’s very spooky. The aesthetic is like half gothic horror movie, but set in the Australian outback, it’s really cool.
TM: The book’s just lovely. Really poetic. But the last book that got me emotional was The True Story of the Kelly Gang. It’s Ned Kelly, but I don’t know, it’s just told… well I don’t want to give you the same answer as For Whom the Bell Tolls- you’re going to pick up on a theme.
BH: I get that sense already.
TM: It’s the history of the Kelly Gang, but it’s told in a very, very personal way.
BH: I get the sense that you like to read masculinist books where there’s something else going on.
TM: I guess that’s true. It’s just nice to, to see characters like that be affected by something.
BH: Is he a hero figure, or is he a martyr?
TM: It’s a completely unreliable story, but he’s affected emotionally by everything that he does, and things that happen to him, same as any guy. I guess you watch so many movies that are all about these jocky dudes and you don’t really catch that side of it, you know? It’s not really encouraged in society to talk about, or think about it. The way emotions affect you.
Masculinity for our generation is, not just the Australian male- the Australian twenty-five year old, going around king hitting kids; that’s something that twenty-five year old males have started going around doing for some fucking reason. A group of guys turn twenty-five and decide they have to hit a guy who’s not looking. It’s a strange stage in our country, and it’s because this idea of masculinity is like drinking and footy and get a fuckin job, you know.
BH: It’s interesting, you’re someone who, well, you worked in a field that you studied in for a while, and then you were maybe in a place, where… you felt like you’d sold out. Was there ever a book you read, or something that got you thinking that that’s not what you want to be doing for the next decade? Or was it just like a slow burn?
TM: I don’t know, I feel like it happened pretty naturally. Um, I found myself back at university to complete my studies, and I’d been working as a town planner and planned to use that to pay off this debt that I had, I had a whole bunch of debt. I was working full time for a while, but I was also spending a lot of cash. So I really needed to earn some cash while I was finishing this fucking thesis. And um, so I got on the dole, and just started doing removal work, delivering pizza, just earning money any way I could. And I’d been sitting in an office for fucking ages. And then yeah, for some reason just the change in employment and the change in attitude…
I’d always worked jobs like that, and I’d sort of forgotten working in an office, working jobs like that, it was kind of nice to get back to that. Making money in a way that I can fuckin’ stand. Got a little bit of self respect connected to it, you know.
BH: Working in an office can kill your soul. Well, it can, depending on what you are doing.
TM: You should come and work on the tram. Although they’re gonna get rid of us soon.
BH: The trams are ending?
TM: Yeah. A job like that, it won’t last.
BH: Do you have a bunch of books that you always recommend to people?
TM: Yeah. Another book that really got me was A Feast of Snakes, by Harry Crews. A really great book, written in the ‘80s in the US.
Yeah I went through a Hemingway phase. He’s kinda a cheesy author for a guy.
BH: I don’t know...
TM: In that he’s a little clichéd
BH: Cliché always has a good reason behind it. So tell me about your reading habits. You read on the tram? Do you read during the week, or just on the weekends?
TM: I read on the tram and I read on the bus. I don’t really read on my own time. I mean, sometimes I’ll sit at home and read, like, once a fortnight. I’d need to have a serious day off to read. I get guilty if I read at home.
BH: Really? Do you feel like you’re wasting time?
TM: Pretty much, yeah.
BH: That’s terrible Tom!
TM: But there are like, some dishes to be done, or like, I gotta take the bins out, I should call someone and go do something…
So for that reason, I mean, I’ve always read but generally it’s an incidental thing, in terms of how it goes as a habit. I’m pretty indiscriminate with what I read, you know.
BH: It’s kind of amazing that your job gives you the opportunity to read and feel zero guilt. You’re on another man’s time.
TM: I’m getting paid to go out there. And I’m doing my job. I’m out there, present, I’m ready to go help people out or whatever.
But as I said, because I’m getting through so much at the moment, I’m reading books that I otherwise wouldn’t. You know, Evelyn Waugh always put me off for some reason, because I thought he was so fucking catty. But it’s the funniest shit you’ll ever read. Like you laugh out loud a lot of times when you’re reading it. Like I said, I read a couple of pages of A Handful of Dust a couple of years ago, and I was like, what is this? Like this is gay. Who is this fucken' arsehole, you know? But because I was kinda trapped out on the trams, you know, I ran out of stuff to read, I picked one of his books off the bookshelf. And it’s laugh out loud. It’s pretty rare for a book to get you to actually laugh out loud, especially when you’re sitting in a public place, but, like, their funny, they’re really funny. They’re really good, and cutting, and very unfair to the characters, and like I said, it was something I wouldn’t have read otherwise.
BH: That’s cool.
TM: You got a pile of books in the break room. And on the trams. And there’s ten or fifteen of us there that just read. And all these guys are like, failed rugby league players and ex-cons and stuff. It’s a good bunch.
I’ve read a lot of biographies. This guy brought in a whole pile of biographies.
BH: Sporting biographies?
TM: None of the sporting ones. I didn’t want to touch the sporting ones, read about Michael Klim. Or fucking Kieran Perkins, or whatever. Two swimmers. But um, what did I read? Samuel Golwynn’s biography, I found really interesting. He’s the Jewish guy who took over America, Hollywood. Goldwyn- Meyer? Daniel Niven, who’s an actor from the ‘50s, he’s hilarious, it was an autobiography.
BH: Do you ever take recommendation from other people about what to read? Or do you like to seek things out yourself?
TM: Yeah, if I’m a mate’s house, I’ll generally try to come away with a book or something. Most of my library probably isn’t mine.
BH: A library of stolen books.
TM: Yeah. I told you man, I’m ruthless.
BH: Are there people’s names in these books?
TM: Yeah. There aren’t names in books though, what’s wrong with you?
BH: I write my name in all my books. I leant a book to someone at work today, and I wrote my name and my phone number in it.
TM: That shit is sad, man.
BH: You know what, at least then, even if they don’t return it, every time they open it up and see my name, they’ll feel guilty. And that’s awesome.
TM: That’s sad man.
BH: No it’s not! I don’t care.
I actually hate lending people books, I hate it. But sometimes the desire for someone to experience a book is too great, so you give it away anyway.
TM: Man, just take my approach and steal all your books. You wanna borrow a book? Go ahead.
But if someone said to me; ‘read this book,’ you know, ‘Catchcry of the Walruses,’ that name would be gone by the time I walked out the door. I would never read that book. And there are certain people who if they told me to read a book, I would not read it, consciously. Like, for up to ten years.
BH: So you have people whose opinions you trust?
TM: Yeah, most people.
BH: Have you ever been forced to read a book by someone close to you? And has their effort paid off? I forced Jesse to read one of my favourite books (A Visit From the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan), and he said he didn’t like it, but he read it in like, a day.
TM: Al Cameron does it to me all the time. He gives me a book. I try to return it to him. Rory Gough forced me to read a bit of Arthur C. Clarke. He wrote 2001: A Space Odyssey. Well, it was based on a book he wrote. Rory got me to read Rendezvous with Rama. A great book, man. Fucking cracker of a sci-fi book.
This was five years ago, but it just set me off on this huge sci-fi stint that lasted a long time. And I read some great sci-fi, and you know, that was a really good period of reading for me.
Reading on Trams, with Roy Molloy
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Roald Dahl
For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway
True History of the Kelly Gang, Peter Carey
Picnic At Hanging Rock, Joan Lindsay
A Feast of Snakes, Harry Crews
A Handful of Dust, Evelyn Waugh
Bring on the Empty Horses, Daniel Niven,
Lex Hirst is very chilled. Self-possessed, yet warm, she offers me black tea and we take it on the front porch of her rambling townhouse in the backstreets of Surry Hills. She’s in a long floral dress (‘it’s new,’ she tells me), and bare feet. There’s a tiny tattoo on her ankle. It’s one of those magical, tumbledown terraces that has five levels and an abundance of sunrooms with built-in ledges, hardwood landings and skylights. Filled with curios from the travels of four housemates, the mood is eccentric, relaxed. As Lex takes me and my photographer Prudence on our tour, she picks up books from haphazard piles to comment on. “I’ve read the first three chapters of Not That Kind of Girl, but it’s not really high on my priorities right now.” Her bedroom is decorated in dark, rich tones and there is an annotated manuscript on the bed. Prudence and I both want to linger; we’re both taking styling notes for our own homes, letting the scents of wood, tea and incense invade our senses.
Lex is a member of the rarefied literary community in Sydney. Though agencies and publishing houses are stretched across the twin cities of the east coast, and general consensus denotes Melbourne as the centre of activity, Sydney still possesses a buzzing, close-knit coterie. Because I am involved (somewhat) in this world, but not a part of its machinery, it feels to me like a small clique. But all of Genevieve’s stories about the literary world in New York give the impression of a diverse, stratified ecosystem, where, despite its magnitude, everyone knows everyone by two degrees of separation.
Hirst is active and passionate advocate for young Australian writers. Along with her full-time position as an Editor at Random House, she also helps co-ordinate a monthly series of author talks at Sydney Story Factory in Redfern, and produces the Junkee panel series ‘The Junkee Take On’ at Giant Dwarf. She also, impressively, serves as Co-director at National Young Writer’s Festival, which is held annually during October in Newcastle. She is the kind of spirited enthusiast who treats her profession as an extension of her interests, dedicated to enriching the world of letters of which she is a part.
Lex’s position in the literary industry was the result of a love of reading, and, really, quite an active decision to become part of the literary world as an editor. That this came after dismissing the impulse to write is a poignant and powerful one. I was reading an essay in The New York Times earlier today by Carl Bruni about Hillary Clinton’s campaign strategist Joel Benenson, who started life as an Shakespearean actor before moving onto journalism, and then politics. The message of the piece was about value of non-linear career paths. However, I see commonalities with Lex’s multiplicitous literary roles: as editor, as organizer, as host, as curator. The value here is in how we find ways to use the skills of our past to define the future. To see the universe of which you wish to be a part, to find your way into it, or make a place within it yourself- nothing that you have already done is not valuable to your future.
B: I suppose what I want to ask is; what books have moved you or really changed the way you think about your life, and your career, and perhaps even affected the career path you’ve taken.
L: I guess there are just so many different points, but I suppose the first books that I read that I became completely addicted to as young teen were by an Australian author- so she’s a dystopian author called Isobel Carmody, and it was Obernewtyn Chronicles. And I just remember being on holidays, seeing the cover, hating the cover; ending up picking up the book because I was bored at the beach, and just falling completely into this dystopian world, and then afterwards realizing that she was Australian, and having that moment of realizing: ‘oh yeah, all Australian books aren’t about old bush legends.’ And they’re not all written by old white men. I actually remember having that moment when I was younger. I was always a voracious reader all through my teens, but then at uni, I broke that a bit- I think a lot of people who end up in arts degrees strangely reading less, because you have to read so many essays. Also I did Spanish and French at uni, and I don’t enjoy reading in other languages particularly, because I find it hard going after I’ve always found it such an enjoyable process in English.
I can remember the book that really changed my mind after uni and got me back into reading was recommended by my mum, and I think a lot of people find the same with this particular book, and I’ve recommended it to a couple of friends, and it’s gotten them back into reading, which is The Secret History by Donna Tartt.
B: Oh my god, yes!
L: It really is just one of those books. It’s rare to find a book that completely pulls you in, where you really don’t want to put it down. Where your head is still swirling with these images of this society, which I had no idea about. I don’t know what it is, but there’s something magical about that book that sucks you in. And being so engrossed in a book like that reminded me what that could be like. And I remembered that that’s what I like most about reading.
B: being immersed?
L: Yeah, being immersed in another world. I think it’s interesting- for a long time I decided, because I’m not ever going to be a brilliant author, that book publishing wasn’t something I should go towards, that somehow, if you weren’t the creator, you should do something different.
L: And then I sort of had a think about it, and realized that just being in a world that manages to create these kinds of books, and a world that’s part of the cultural institution, holding onto these images. And then also, a business as well; trying to get this work out to as many people as possible- is kind of where I wanted to head. I was overseas when that happened. I was in Mexico. And I decided to do a Masters of Publishing. And so it’s all gone on from there.
At the time I was travelling with some friends who reminded me. They’re the kind of people who just love reading, and they were obsessed with the Harry Potter books, which everybody was! But it was one of those things where they would still listen to them as audio books at night before they went to sleep. And I’d forgotten how passionate people can be about writing and books and reading, and really how widespread it actually is.
So they’re the first two books that come to mind.
I read a book this year by an Australian author called Maxine Clarke- her full name is Maxine Beneba Clarke. She’s an Afro-Caribbean Australian author and she’s a slam poet. I actually read her memoir first, at work, but a different publisher ended up taking her on, and they’ve released her short stories in a book called Foreign Soil. And once again reading them, I sort of had that, being spirited away to another world, and so many different worlds. It’s so different, and yet so much Australian writing in recent years has been reflected by that divergence. So that’s one of the books that I’ve read this year that’s really inspired me to go out there and keep looking at what young writers are doing, and seeing this next generation of big names.
B: Do you read the slush pile at your job?
L: I do. I was editorial assistant for quite a long time, and the editorial assistant always does it. But at Random House at least, we have people from every department come and read. So we do it once a month or so, in a meeting. So we’ll have someone from editorial, publishing, marketing, publicity- all the areas. And then we then all go through the slush pile and hand on any to the publishers that particularly stand out. So I don’t have to do it now that I’m an editor rather than an editorial assistant, but I still really love doing it. You just never know what you’re going to find. And I’ve found enough things now…
B: That you have faith in it?
L: Yeah! I mean, the vast majority of manuscripts won’t be taken on, but you just never know. And because I’m working on the romance list at the moment, and we’re actively acquiring, and there are just some brilliant romance authors out there. And so knowing that you could potentially take them on… Yeah, I love reading the slush pile. Not always, but most of the time.
B: Are there things that you look for when publishing e-books that you wouldn’t necessarily look for in a printed book?
L: I think there are opportunities that you have with e-books that you don’t have with print. We’re doing one next year that I’m quite excited about, we’re releasing it as a serial, and it’s a crime romance. So we’re looking at, what’s the best way to deliver that at the moment? Whether it’s fortnightly, or monthly or weekly. And the idea of shaping a book so that it works particularly well for a podcasting audience. I guess it’s to fit within the way that people often take I entertainment now. Whether it’s television shows that they download and binge on all at once- translating that to a book so that it has a podcasting feel to it, that’s going to be really fascinating to see.
The serials- there’s quite a lot of them in romance already, but I think that crime and romance together is a bit of a winning combo. So yeah, I’m fascinated to see how people will respond to that.
Novellas, as well. I think e-books have seen a greater resurgence of novellas. Short story writers and novellas. I think for a long time, big publishers steered away from that format because they’ve always deemed it too expensive. Because there’s the idea that the audience is willing to spend a certain amount of money on a book. They feel that they’re short-changed if it’s a novella- and how do you price that? And whether it’s worth the printing cost. There’s this whole relationship to format size that’s quite traditional in the industry. The value that goes along with a novel, rather than a novella length. But with e-books you can afford to have it at any length and you can be flexible with pricing, you can respond to your audience. I think there’s lot of possibilities.
B: I wanted to know your opinion regarding the modern publishing industry; the whole Amazon book- obstructing scandal, how do you weigh in on that issue? I know a lot of authors have made a lot of money writing genre fiction, and releasing it directly through Amazon, defend Amazon’s model and activities, but then there’s Hachette, who had their books and authors blocked and obstructed on the Amazon website, and a lot of well-respected established writers have been very vocal against Amazon’s power and practices within the literary industry…
L : I think the problem is anytime you have a monopoly in an industry it’s dangerous, and Amazon has such a huge market share. I think that self-publishing through Amazon is such an amazing opportunity and I also think that the publishing industry can sometimes need a bit of a shake up. It’s a really old industry, and so any industry that’s been around for so long needs to learn to move along with the times, but at the same time, I think that the biggest challenge for book publishers going forward is the value associated with a book. And Amazon is really lowering that. By selling books that cheaply- across the board, Amazon is dropping prices. It’s fine at the moment, because Amazon pays the book publishers a certain price and that gets handed on to the author and to everyone involved in the editorial process. But it’s just worrying when people think a four hundred word book is worth two dollars. It’s terrifying actually, because there will come a point where Amazon will gain enough market share where that’s what everybody will expect a book is worth. And you actually can’t pay authors for that amount, you can’t sustain the industry.
Unless you’re one of the big authors. Like Hugh Howey, for example, who is one of the biggest supporters of that model of Amazon. He self-released his books, and did very well. It’s interesting though, because he’s now signed with Random House, and now his books are going through them, so he does see the value of having a big publishing company. And I guess his argument, in a way, is to get publicity through them. He is an amazing example of succeeding through self-publishing, but it’s really not representative of most self-published authors. And I just worry for the future. Because there’s a lot of time that goes into making an inherently quality book.
B: There’s a reason novelists go through publishers, which is to create the best possible piece of work they can.
L: Yeah, and I think that there is a process and a team behind that. Which isn’t to say that some authors can’t do that in different ways.
But also, a lot of authors take a long time in their publishing career to come up with that really brilliant book. So a good example of that is Richard Flannigan with The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Richard’s been writing amazing books for a very long time, but this is the book that’s made it for him- to win the Man Booker Prize, to make him the third ever Australian to win it. And it’s an incredible book. But then some of his previous books have ben really incredible as well. But it seems that he’s someone who needed to have, I think, thirty years of writing to crack this sort of masterpiece, and in an industry where he couldn’t have made money from those previous books, he just wouldn’t have been able to be a full-time author for all of that time. Or not even a full time author- just sustained that lifestyle. You can’t expect authors to pump out their best book on their first try. So I think we need to make sure that we’re maintaining an industry that can support that, that can support growth.
B: What do you think about social media and the publishing, or the literary industry? I know that Jonathan Franzen, who I absolutely love, but who can also come off as curmudgeonly, and even out of touch sometimes, hates this assumption, that in the modern industry, a writer is expected to promote themselves on twitter, or have a certain kind of following on social media to be taken on by a publishing house. And he very much ascribes to the idea that a writer should listen to the culture, and comment on the culture, but that this should be through their written work, and their books, and that is the only voice that they should need.
L: Yeah, it’s an interesting one. And I can see his argument, a lot, although he is quite abrupt sometimes. But yeah, I agree that sometimes in the modern world… well we expect all of our artists to perform, I think. We expect musicians to get up and perform their work, and they mostly make their money through gigs rather than albums. Maybe artists are the only ones who are still are sort of, allowed to keep their artistic integrity.
I think social media is just an extension of the publicity tour, really. Authors for a long time have been asked to go and talk about their work, and perform. And not all writers are good at that. And for some people, I guess they would be better off, just focusing on their craft. But the reality is, as a book publisher, that the more publicity you get for your book, then the better it is. And, I mean, I love literary festivals because I love celebrating literature. And I know that a lot of writers don’t like speaking at them. But a lot of them find it to be a really rewarding thing, to speak directly to the public, and also to meet other writers as well.
So in terms of social media, I see that just as another extension of meeting your audience. And I think that some people can write in different ways: they can write across Facebook and Twitter and really enjoy it, and other people can’t. But, it makes sense from a publishing point of view. If you know that being on social media will mean that you’re reaching more people, then of course they’ll want to sign you on. Jonathan Franzen probably doesn’t need to because he’s Jonathan Franzen. And if a book is really brilliant, the fact that they don’t have social media followers is actually not going to make a difference, really. You’re still going to sign them on and do all you can, it just might take a lot longer.
It’s funny, working with romance authors- romance authors all accept that they need to have a social media presence. They’re all really quick on the digital uptake, the romance community is really tight; they’re really supportive. The writers read other romance authors. And it’s been great working with them. Because they just see it as another element of being a professional, you know. And really engage in things like cover reveals, and chatting online and using it as a tool to connect to the community, rather than just blatant self-promotion. Although, you see a lot of that as well.
B: Jennifer Weiner is very much onto social media, and is very much anti Jonathan Franzen. But she is writing ‘chick lit,’ so I guess it must be the same thing, in that there is a divide between genre writers and writers of literary fiction when it comes to social media.
L: Yeah. I wonder why though. Why is it that all of these genre writers are so willing to, you know, be part of the publishing process and so willing to treat it as part of the process of having a professional job, but literary writers we don’t expect to? There is a real snobbery in the industry. It’s like a ‘not lowering yourself to it’ mentality.
B: I feel like I’ve read a lot about this. It’s all very well and good for Jonathan Franzen to be saying these things as a rich, white male author.
L: …who’s already going to be bought by so many people…
B: …to be looking down his nose at women writers who are writing entertainment-based work.
L: Yeah. I do think it’s fascinating. If you think about the choice between writing your book and engaging in social media, of course you should write your book. And a lot of the writers I know will take time off social media. I think it’ll change with generations as well. I think with a lot of young writers in Australia at least, it’s just part of their communication. And they meet different writers through Twitter, through Facebook, and they write through those processes. And it’s become less one thing or another, it’s more just how you interact. So it will become less a question for our generation.
B: You mentioned before that now that you work in publishing, you read a lot more. Is that a consequence of having to read a lot for your job, and then it just becoming a natural part of your life, that you’re always reading?
L: I don’t know if you agree, for me it’s a habit. And you can’t do everything. I don’t end up watching as much TV, or going to the movies as much, because you just can’t do everything in your life. But you just fit it in. When I come home at the end of the day, there’s always a period when I’m reading. Because I’m in this writing community more, as well, you end up in a book club, with a blog- that forces you to put more time aside for it. And once you do that, it all rolls on from one to the other. I feel really adrift if I haven’t been reading a few things at once.
B: So you can read three things at once?
L: I often do. I’d prefer to start a book and read the whole thing through, but there’s just so much to read at any one time. Also, there’s, like ‘train reads,’ and ‘home, relaxing reads.’ I’m often reading manuscripts at the same time anyway, so it’s not like it’s ever uninterrupted.
B: What Australian writers have you discovered in the past few years that you feel people should be talking about and reading?
L: These aren’t writers who people aren’t talking about, but Maxine Clarke who I spoke about earlier- she’s incredible. Another slam poet as well who’s very literary, and has just released his debut book is Omar Musa, who wrote Here Come the Dogs, which is a Penguin release and it’s great. It’s part verse, part prose, and it’s set in Queanbeyan, where he grew up and it’s this sort of gritty, but very literary work about being a young man, and all of the emotions surrounding that. I think he’s someone to watch as well, in the future. Who else recently?
There’s quite a few comedians that I love. And there are quite a few memoirs. I read a few memoirs this year. Liam Pieper, his memoir’s called The Feel Good Hit of the Year, and it’s about him being brought up in a commune, and his slow descent into being a drug dealer. And Luke Ryan, as well, whose book is A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Chemo. Oh, and Benjamin Law of course. Lots of people know know Benjamin Law, but I just read Gaysia and I just love that book. It’s brilliant the whole way through.
The other one from last year that I just absolutely adored was Floundering, by Romy Ash. And that book I just cannot recommend to enough people. It’s this beautiful, brooding book. It’s inherently Australian. It’s about these two young boys, whose mother has left them at their grandparent’s house and whose mother turns up out of the blue to take them away on a road trip across Australia. It’s just wonderful. It’s moody, and it’s great.
And then Evie Wyld, who won the Miles Franklin Award this year, who actually lives in London but who is an Australian English author and whose book All the Birds Singing, just didn’t get picked up in Australia at all until it got chosen by the Miles Franklin Award as a surprise win, and now it’s taking off all over the place. It’s fascinating. It’s set half in an Australian outback town, and half in this misty island in the UK somewhere. You get the sense that the protagonist is running away from something, but you don’t know what and it slowly takes you back in time. It’s great too.
Growing Up on (mostly) Australian Literature:
2. J. K. Rowling, The Harry Potter Series (1997- 2007)
3. Maxine Beneba Clarke, Foreign Soil (2015)
4. Richard Flannigan, The Narrow Road to the Deep North (2014)
5. Omar Musa, Here Come the Dogs (2014)
6. Liam Pieper, The Feel Good Hit of the Year (2014)
7. Luke Ryan, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Chemo (2014)
8. Benjamin Law, Gaysia (2013)
9. Romy Ash, Floundering (2012)
10. Evie Wyld, All the Birds, Singing (2014)
Words: Bianca Healey
Images: Bianca Healey
I met Jonathan on the 8:20 train from Bondi Junction to Waterfall. He was wearing red socks inside brown suede brogues, woolen dress trousers and a three-button waistcoat. His tweed blazer hung as stiff as his posture as he read a thin paperback in the window seat of the top carriage. He seemed a little like a phantom from another time. I’m a terrible starer. Voyeurism is as natural a state for me as breathing or eating. I know it’s terrible. My boyfriend is constantly yanking at my arm to pull me back from a double take- for another glimpse of a girl wearing fantastic shoes or a gentleman in a beautiful suit, and I’ve been given a dirty sneer more than once when I’ve been caught in the act. Public transport, however, lends itself nicely to the stare- people tend to be caught up in their own meditative commute worlds. So this is how I decided that I had to speak with Jonathan- a little early morning commute voyeurism.
It’s so wonderful to see someone who has completely committed to a vintage look. I remember I always loved the ‘communist hipsters’ at uni in their almost ironic uniform of doc martens, finger gloves and camouflage army jackets. And I adored the inner west philosophy and film majors in their tweeds and suspenders- sipping black coffee next to their fixed gear bikes. I stole the tweed, but knew I could never commit fully. University cliques- delineated and defined by their uniforms have a democratic spirit far removed from the self consciousness of high school subcultures- where everything feels reactive- a violent and spirited rejection of the dominant look.
Jonathan made me smile first because I love boys in coloured socks. Then I noticed how nicely he had assembled his black trousers and dark tweed blazer with a pressed white shirt and slim, buttoned vest. He looked simultaneously like a European flaneur and a buyer at Florence’s Pitti Uomo fashion event. Of an earlier era, yet also totally classic in a very modern way. I asked for his Facebook details and we arranged over messenger to meet at the Double Bay library near his home the following weekend. The library proved a beautiful space to discuss the literature of Austria and Germany at the turn of the twentieth century. Jonathan is currently undertaking a PhD, following on from an undergraduate degree in fashion at UTS. His topic: the social and sartorial role of Viennese intellectuals at the fin de siècle. It’s full of quaint glass arches and pokey nooks, with the most breathtaking view of Red Leaf pool and the harbour. Here, on a crisp sunny Sunday, we discussed the evolution of a personal project, the overlapping boundaries of leisure reading and research reading and the curation of very unique reading list that encapsulates both.
B: What brought you to your PhD topic?
JK: My grandmother actually has a series of cook books featuring cuisines from different countries or regions of the world that I found when I was in high school. They’re more than just recipes, they’re kind of like the culinary history and cultural history of this place. And one of them was about the cooking of Vienna’s empire: Austria, Hungary, Croatia, Slovenia, parts of Poland, Ukraine. I just found it really interesting, the whole history of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. But that kind of went away for a while.
And then last year during my fashion course- you have to do a collection for the final year, and it had to have some kind of theme. Whether that’s a specific subculture, or time in history, or person, or if it’s just a concept- like eco-fashion. Anyway, I was interested in looking at Vienna in the 20th Century- coffee houses, Opera, intellectuals who inhabited those spaces. We had to write a nine thousand word dissertation, and I enjoyed that so much. My actual concept was a bit more broad, but I enjoyed it so much that I decided to go on.
BH: What kind of books did you read when you were young? Did you read when you were younger?
JK: I did read a bit, not as much as I read now. I read things like Roald Dahl and nerdy English comic books. But then when I was a teenager, I don’t think I read too much. My reading list wasn’t very particular- it was pretty mixed and there wasn’t a particular genre that I was interested in. But I think towards the end of my teens, or towards the end of high school, I ended up reading a lot of World War ll literature. Contemporary literature about the war- fiction or history. And then that progressed over the years.
A lot of the research I’m doing now is central European history. I suppose it’s a fine line between pleasure reading and reading for my research.
BH: Is there any overlap?
JK: There is. I’ve started reading in the last two years- or at least I’ve bought the books and I haven’t gotten through all of them- English translations of Austrian writers from that time. Part of it is research because I’m analysing the literature of those times. I just finished Arthur Schnitzler’s The Road into the Open, which is a novel that he wrote in the ‘20s, set in Vienna about different figures, fictional figures- capturing the different types of people in the kind of middle class Viennese society.
BH: Was there anyone who influenced you as a young reader?
JK: The influence I had was probably later in my life- my mid-teens to late-teens. My grandmother, the one who had those cook books I mentioned before, she had a lot of history books about European history and World War ll. For example, one of the figures that I’m looking at for my PhD is the Viennese writer Stefan Zweig, who was actually immensely popular back then, but who has, in the non German-speaking world, been lost. Until last year when Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel came out, which was actually based on him. I’ve noticed in bookstores, you see a lot more of his writing because of Wes Anderson I guess.
When I was sixteen I was looking through my grandmother’s books and she had a collection of translations of Zweig’s books, a collection of his short stories. I was quite interested in them. I didn’t actually read them until a couple of years later, and now he’s one of the figures I’m looking at for my PhD.
BH: Your grandmother was an immigrant to Australia?
JK: Yes, both my grandparents are, actually. They both came here in the late forties after the war from Europe. Actually they came from France. I like to tell people, in terms of trying to justify my interest in German culture- my grandmother came from a German-speaking and German-influenced family. They lived in a part of France- Alsace- that was previously a part of Germany and had a very strong Germanic influence.
BH: I went to Alsace a few years ago, actually. There’s a forest there that borders with Germany, and you can accidentally take a wrong turn and end up on the other side of the border.
JK: Is there? I wasn’t that adventurous.
BH: Are there any books that you have read that have made you think differently about reading or writing? Was there a seminal book for you that took you in a new direction?
JK: In terms of taking me in a new direction in my career, or writing style… I bought this book two years ago when I was in Europe- I had heard about it previously, and I wanted to find an English copy. I bought the German copy when I was in Linz in Austria; it’s called The Decline of the West in Anecdotes by Friedrich Torberg or “Tante Jolesc.” So I bought a German copy and although I can read German, I’m not quite good enough that I can read without having to open up the dictionary to find words.
The interesting thing about this German copy is that the author grew up in Prague and the Prague dialect of German, the sentences are structured and phrased a little bit differently- it’s not like reading a standard German book. I didn’t really realize it until I interviewed a Viennese man for my PhD and we were talking about the book and he brought it to my attention. It’s quite interesting. Anyway I bought the English copy as well. It’s anecdotes about the Viennese Jewish culturally assimilated milleiu in the 1920s and each anecdote is separate. They all do fit together in a book and it does all flow, but the stories are all separate and I quite like that. When I do write for fun, I have taken on that practice of writing in little anecdotes.
BH: He's using the anecdotes to form a cultural commentary about the time?
JK: Yes. And it’s more than just his life. He takes figures that he knew, or that his friends knew, and little snippets of stories and things like that. I didn’t remember why I bought it- this was before my final year of my fashion course, before I was even thinking about the fact that I had to write a dissertation that year. I don’t even remember how I heard about the book or heard about him, I must have read about him in someone else’s book. He’s a writer who’s often cited by other writers who write about that time.
BH: It’s always interesting, whether you’re reading for pleasure, or studying, when these seeds are planted and you don’t even realise it. You fall into finding someone and you can’t imagine a time when you didn’t know who they were.
So I wanted to ask you about your reading habits. I’m sure you don’t have quite as much time to read now as you used to. Do you read every day? Do you go out of your way to search for certain reading material?
JK: I still read every day for pleasure. I treat my PhD like a job, in that I’ve started going to uni at eight and I leave at four, rather than nine to five because I miss the traffic that way. And after that when I go home- and because it’s early days and I still have the luxury of doing this, I don’t do anything for my PhD, I just read for pleasure.
BH: That’s a good practice.
JK: My reading habits… it kind of varies. Fiction and non-fiction. I’m reading this memoir by George Clare, who was a Viennese-born writer who fled to London. So this is a memoir about his life in Vienna, but also his family history. It’s research, but I’m also reading it for pleasure. I guess that’s a good example of my reading habits- it’s for both.
At the moment, I’m mostly reading books about European history. Recently I’ve just started reading Philip Mansel’s Levant. I like reading historical works about different cultures. I suppose it just gives you a view about how people lived in those times. You can read a book about current times in the cities of the Ottoman Empire- Alexandria and Beirut, but they’re completely different now to what they were during the Ottoman days. It’s the same reading about Vienna. They’re completely different societies. Completely different worlds to match up.
With Vienna, I was reading the other day for my research, the author mentioned that it wasn’t actually until the ‘60s or even later that the Western world, that Western scholars actually started acknowledging Vienna as one of the major centres of modernism in the early twentieth century. Previously they would have just noted Paris and London. Vienna made a huge impact, it was a hub of culture and politics. But it lost a lot because of World War ll. And within that, the Jewish community of Vienna, who were largely secular and mostly disconnected from their traditional religious practices- they had a huge impact on the culture of Vienna and it seems- a lot of scholars say- that with the destruction of that community, after the war that Vienna was a completely different city. It was missing a huge element that had made it a centre of culture, the arts, music.
BH: I had no idea about that. I’m really fascinated now.
So what’s your favoured form?
JK: A combination of fiction and non-fiction. Sometimes I feel guilty about reading fiction. Only that, I feel that I could be learning so many other things about the world.
I used to only read one book at a time, maybe a fiction novel and then a non-fiction book, but now it’s kind of mixed, because I don’t really have as much time, I’m reading a lot more non- fiction. And the fiction I’m reading is generally stuff that’s related to the topic.
BH: You’ve got to be more discerning as well. It’s got to be worth your time. What do you look for in a book?
JK: I generally prefer historical fiction, as opposed to contemporary fiction, books that are dealing with a specific time and how that affects the characters. I don’t read a lot that is based in the now, dealing with regular day-to-day issues. It bores me a bit. That’s not to say that I’m completely against the idea, but usually the fiction I read is set in the past. Big events. Different historical periods.
It sounds very snobby of me to say that anything written in the present day isn’t interesting. But I suppose that’s just how I read.
BH: Have you ever read a book on a kindle?
JK: I have. When I studied in Toronto, during my bachelor- before I left my cousins gave me a tablet reader for my birthday. Not a Kindle, it’s called a Kobo, it’s the same kind of thing though. Usually though, I’ll only read fiction on that. Generally the non-fiction I read I want to have as a reference, so I can put little notes in it, especially if it’s something that ‘m going to be using for my studies. And then even then, in terms of fiction, if it’s a book I really want, I won’t buy it on a tablet. Tablet is more for airport fiction.
BH: So you would never buy on a kindle anything that you thought was valuable, or that you thought you might want to return to again?
JK: That’s exactly it. I know that people who love tablet readers have argued with me that ‘yes you can go back to certain pages!’ But it’s not the same. I don’t like it as much. You can tag pages, but it’s not really the same.
Although it is great when travelling, rather than carrying a stack of books around with you. I do see the appeal of the tablet for some things.
With books, I suppose inside they all look the same, but there’s one book that I always go back to, Michael Chabon has this book- The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. It’s an alternate history of a Yiddish community set up in Alaska- actually based on historical fact. I don’t know if you know, there was lobbying to set up a temporary Jewish space for Jews who were being persecuted by the Nazis. And they said lets give them this place in Alaska. There was one particular senator who was vehemently against it, and the whole thing was quashed. And the novel is based on the premise that this senator gets killed in a car accident and the motion goes through and this temporary homeland is set up in Alaska. And the novel is set sixty years after this. There’s no Israel and there wasn’t a 1948 war. Whereas it was supposed to return to an American region, it’s actually an autonomous Jewish state. And because the President is an evangelical Christian who wants Jesus to return to Earth, in order for that to happen, all the Jews have to return to the land of Israel. And that’s the whole thing- he wants to cancel this state. It’s kind of like Israel, but not. It’s kind of like if you gathered up all the Jewish centres of Eastern Europe and America. But anyway, the reason I’m telling you this is that this book had a beautiful cover and it didn’t have a dust jacket, but the jacket had a extra part that you could use as a bookmark, and the edges of the pages were all jagged. It was nice. You can’t have any kind of tactile experience with an e-reader.
That was a long way to go to answer your question!
BH: Have you ever read a difficult book just to say that you had read it?
JK: I’d say yes. I have forced myself, or tried to read books that I haven’t succeeded yet. For example, Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame. I just couldn’t get through the first few pages that were all about cathedral architecture- they were just so boring for me. And I know that my friends who have read it say, ‘it’s an amazing book, you have to persevere.’ One day I’ll return to it, Same with Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. It’s on my bookshelf with a bookmark two thirds of the way through it. And it’s not always book that are classics.
I don’t think that there’s any books that I’ve forced myself to read because they are ‘classics.’ I’m quite stubborn like that. And sometimes I think that about certain books, just because it’s a classic, it doesn’t mean that I’ll like it.
Jonathan’s Reading List: the Austro-Hungarian Empire
1. Arthur Schnitzler, The Road into the Open (1908)
2. Stefan Zweig
An excellent interview with Wes Anderson about Stefan Zweig
4. George Clare, Last Waltz in Vienna (1980)
5. Philip Mansel (2010), Levant (2010)
6. Michael Chabon, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (2007)
Words: Bianca Healey
Images: Bianca Healey
I first met Anna when she the came into the showroom of the fashion PR agency I was working at. She had on light blue Levis jeans and a ribbed cotton boob tube. No makeup. A lot of people come in and out of the doors of a fashion showroom; magazine girls in stompy heeled boots and flawless makeup, hairy fashion queers in Nikes and shorts. A British stylist in a pink crop top who threw samples to her entourage of giggling boys uniformed in short shorts and capes worthy of Leon Talley, and who later that night sent me a series of drunken texts mistakenly. Anna made me remember why I actually do care about fashion.
Something you notice very quickly when you are working in an industry where consideration of people’s outfits is not secondary to their actual job, but an integral part of it, is that it’s easy to spot a fake. I don’t mean labels. I suppose it’s true of any sphere where subjectivity comes into play (it’s all about perspective), but I think what I slowly came to realize about fashion people from that job is that it isn’t so much about having a look, or the right sneakers, or knowing exactly how to put clothes together so that it looks like you didn’t give it a second thought. It sounds, to borrow one of Anna’s expressions, ‘cheeseball’ to say, but it really is all about knowing exactly who you are.
Anna has 'it' in the sense that you can look at her styling work, listen to her speak, watch her move about a room and she seems absolutely sincere- there isn’t a hint of inauthenticity, nothing doesn’t ring truthfully.
Talking to Anna reminded me of a line from Lena Dunham’s book Not That Kind of Girl. ‘She is ambling along. She is looking for it.’ The story of herself that she told me was one of forthright self-belief and that youthful sense of possibility that is so easily lost. Not, of course, without pitfalls and moments of doubt, but one in which the central protagonist remained firmly and steadfastly herself. Her approach doesn’t separate life from career- a thread that seems to have run through several of my recent conversations, and it feels reminiscent of advice I have read in interviews with girls like Tavi Gevinson and Petra Collins- the once nascent and now culturally established movement of the amateur creative- of mastery developed through personal discovery rather than at the hands of the establishment. I love that Anna totally embodies that philosophy, and that she has done so well in her field by sticking to it.
I can’t help also thinking of Nora Ephron’s essay about The Fountainhead, in her 1970 collection of essays Wallflower at the Orgy. In it, she describes her own experience with the captivating, polemical novel. Though as an eighteen year-old she was entirely entranced with the book’s potent blend of romantic passion and strident individualism, she surmises: ‘while I still have a great affection for it and recommend it to anyone taking a plane trip, I am forced to conclude that it is better read when one is young enough to miss the point.’ Many people, I would suggest, find great value and are very moved by art that leaves others completely unfazed. I feel that this is the definition of ‘cult.’ And the reason for this reference is not to shrug off Anna’s reading of The Fountainhead, but to point out the value of literature that rouses us, and spurs us to live deliberately. It’s such a wonderful argument in itself- for personal reading that speaks to lingering thoughts and unspoken desires- rather than constantly referencing the rhetoric within the grid.
‘it was just this really amazing story that just kind of wove all of these philosophies, in a non-cheeseball way about you know, doing things because you believe in them and not really caring about what other people think.’
AS: I used to read a lot of fiction when I was younger. I used to read a lot of history, I used to be really obsessed about history. I was really obsessed with war.
I mean, I grew up in California, I grew up in The States, I was really obsessed with Little House on the Prairie.
BH: Me too
AS: I don’t know, I guess it was that sense of how people lived in that time and how they survived.
BH: And wearing calico dresses.
AS: Yes! And I feel like we had the Oregon trail and I was like, ‘yes!’
Umm, and then I feel like I went through this phase where I wasn’t reading as much. It’s hard to make time. But, like, my boyfriend always reads and I’m like, ‘shit, ok, I should read something.’ He makes it seem so easy and he’s so busy.
I feel like I buy a lot more magazines now, and I’ll read those cover to cover. And those will be magazines that I choose to spend money on, that I definitely want to have and I won’t throw out. In terms of my favourite magazines to buy, I’ll buy POP, I’ll buy Purple, I’ll buy Gentlewoman because that always has a really beautiful tone. Another’s amazing as well.
I feel like I have to choose though, because you can get so caught up buying magazines and it’s so much money! To have as a regular habit. I’ve got to be, like “I can’t do this!’
I used to read Apartamento a lot, I like to read about people’s… I’m very voyeuristic about people’s interiors.
Recently, I’ve been more about buying art books. More photography like Walter Pfeiffer and Collier Schorr. I’ve been really interested in their practices, and the way that they work. I’ve bought a few Juergen Teller books.
B: Do you buy photography books and magazines because you use them in a serious way as research, or is it more for leisure?
AS: I think a little bit of both. I think that they’re all, in a way linked together, whether or not you’re directly going ‘I’m doing this for my job.’ More so out of a general interest and then that links back to what you’re thinking about at the time. Cause I know I’ll get really focused on one artist or one photographer, one stylist and be like ‘I’m really obsessed with what they’re doing right now and how they think about things or their mode of practice,’ and then I just want to be a part of that world. So you kind of buy into that when you buy a book of their work, or whatever. I’m very much about the space, and the things around me to be in a way that’s inspiring, quite calming.
BH: Who’s your stylist or artist at the moment? Do you go through phases?
AS: I kind of have people who I’ve always, always been obsessed with. And then there are people I’m rediscovering, or I’ve just recently been introduced to as well. Stylist-wise, I’ve always been really obsessed with Joe McKenna, who’s like a fashion icon from the ‘90s, a really eccentric guy from Scotland. If you think about any sort of old images from Vogue Italia or The Face, i-D- so many iconic images. Not sexy, quite minimal actually. Using amazing archival pieces. And just quite beautiful. He works for T Magazine in New York now, which is a style magazine in The New York Times. He’s an old fashion legend. He used to have his own magazine called Joe’s Magazine, and there were always two issues: it was just Joe’s Magazine 1 and Joe’s Magazine 2. He’s done some really cool stuff.
One book that has been quite poignant in the way that I’ve thought about the way that I work, and the way that I practice…have you read The Fountainhead before? It’s actually one of the books that I sat down, and like, was obsessed with reading. I feel like I’ve gotten in arguments with people about her before, because people are like ‘Ayn Rand, no way!’ Like people get really passionate about the reasons why they hate her.
I don’t know why, but I think that The Fountainhead in particular spoke to me. It’s a fictional take on Frank Lloyd Wright the architect. It was loosely based on a story about a fictional character that was meant to be Frank Lloyd Wright. And he was really amazing in that he was really progressive in his ideas of architecture and what he believed. People at the time, it was all about this decadence and indulgent way of creating architecture with things that had no kind of functionality. Kind of looking back to Grecian and Roman times. With like Corinthian columns and all the stuff that he though was just like so, not relevant. And he was doing all of this minimal, but totally functional stuff. At the time people just thought he was a heretic, people thought he was crazy. Um. And it was just this really amazing story that just kind of wove all of these philosophies, in a non-cheeseball way about you know, doing things because you believe in them and not really caring about what other people think.
It was just kind of this really powerful story. She calls them…She says there are people who are at the forefront, that are doing their own thing. Then there are people called “second-handers” who are doing things because they’re validated by other people’s you know, judgement and their thoughts are like ‘oh, is that good enough? Well someone said that that was good, so it must be good,’ you know?
BH: Like living within the grid?
AS: Yeah, more like not having your own real, true opinion, but having that validated by what other people say. And at the time, I had just started out styling, and that idea was really speaking to me. I’ve always remembered that book, and I can read it and be like, ok, cool and feel really strong and confident about what I’m doing. I think people take away really gnarly things away from it. I do feel like it can go to that extreme. And I don’t feel like I’m a super selfish person. But I think at times it is really important to have a sense of self and a sense of ego and be selfish for yourself. Because you know…
BH: Because no one else is going to champion you if you don’t champion yourself?
AS: Exactly. For that, it was a really amazing read. I’m glad I though of that!
BH: When you were starting out styling, was there a design book, or body of work that you would refer to, or did you try to find your own vision?
AS: I mean, I’ve always been one to love to look at things and be inspired. But I also think it’s very important to know the difference between being inspired, and referencing things too heavily. I’ve never been super aware of trends, or anything like that. Um, maybe looking at things in a much more reactionary way. I like taking something that’s not fashion-related and bringing that back in. I try not to get too stuck into things. It can be a bit of a trap to spend too much time looking at other people’s work.
BH: Did growing up in California affect how you approach your work?
AS: Well, you know, I didn’t come from a fashion background, but I do think that somehow everything filters through.
I studied at Sydney Uni and I did a science degree with a major in Anatomy. So like, I come from a very rational side. And I grew up in California, in a country town with like, one street going through the town. I grew up on a big property, with animals and it was like, ‘go outside, you’re not allowed to watch tv.’ I don’t know how that connects to how I work in fashion now. My dad’s a Marine Biologist, very serious, scientific guy. I know that affects the way that I style in the sense that I’m quite, I don’t know, I love scientific references, I Iove looking at stuff that’s much more disciplined.
BH: How did you go from science to fashion?
AS: I have no idea. It’s such a weird thing. I’ve had a lot of people ask me that. So like, I finished my science degree and was like ‘yep, cool, it’s going to take me a lot longer in school to actually do what I want’- I was going to do physiotherapy. And I was like ‘no I can’t do any more school, I’m going a bit insane,’ because I finished high school and went to uni straight away- I got really burnt out. And then I went away travelling for six months by myself and came back, and worked and had a boyfriend at the time who had worked in the fashion industry, and I don’t know if that sparked any ideas… but literally one day woke up and was…you know when you’re going through your formative years in your twenties? Some people do this, some people don’t. But I was sort of floundering and figuring out what I want to do. And I was like, ‘maybe, I want to do this, maybe I want to do that.’ And you, like, think about fifty million courses you want to apply for, and your parents are like, ‘yeah, yeah sure whatever, what are you doing now?’ And I was like, applying for marketing things… I was so out of my depth. And then, I don’t know why, a friend of mine, Zac Handley, who’s now with The Artist Group, we did our first shoot together, with my sister. We were working together at this restaurant at Palm Beach and we must have had similar thoughts or ideas.
It was someone’s backyard in Warriewood, and we got all our clothes and put them together and we did our first shoot. Then we kind of started making all these little projects happen. I don’t even know. Like I started emailing PRs, and they would have been like ‘who is this girl?’ I’d be like “how many pieces do you need for it to be published?” Just like really abstract type questions that didn’t even make sense because I didn’t even know how the process worked. I was like- I didn’t even understand what a PR was- ‘what do you mean you have to have clothing credits?’ I don’t know. I was so used to being like, I’ll just go to Vinnies and then I’ll pull clothes from my wardrobe- I didn’t really get the process. It as very much a trial and error process, you know, I was just learning as I went along.
BH: Being innocent can be helpful sometimes
AS: Yeah! It can be a good thing. Because I was going in so blind and so like ‘hey what’s going on? Teach me things!’ Um, I guess it maybe worked out. It’s been good and it’s been bad. I haven’t ever really had a mentor along the way, you know. No one that has really pointed me in the right direction. So it’s been very ‘figuring it out as I go,’ which has been really cool, but also really full on as well. I kind of always said to myself that as long as I feel that I’m still progressing, I would stick with it. And if I felt like ‘I don’t really know what I’m doing with this, ‘ I’d kind of put styling aside. But I feel like I’ve been really lucky with all the people that I’ve met, and kind of felt like I’ve always been making forward, progressive steps, so…I’ve stuck with it.
I find it hugely flattering and beautiful when somebody can come up with an apt recommendation for me. If somebody knows me well enough to know what I will enjoy, I find it incredible.
Words: Bianca Healey
Images: Sam Riles
There is something about Amelia Marshall that is wonderfully contradictory. She looks like a Frankie girl; all florals and Heidi braids and pink lip stain. But engage her in a topic of conversation that stokes her passions, and her provocative tendencies come to the fore. There is something of a Kathleen Hanna vein of ‘Riot Grrrl’ brashness that comes across when we speak; this is a girl who knows exactly where she stands.
Amelia is a presenter and newsreader on ‘The Matt and Alex Show’ on Triple J, and it’s interesting that we touch upon dealing with outsized male egos in our conversation, given her line of work and the types of writers she seeks out. Only one male author comes up in the course of our discussion (Ben Lerner), and Amelia makes a point of noting that what she likes best in his work is the search for self-realisation and introspection that she often finds in the work of contemporary female writers.
We know each other through mutual friends and as I knew she has also published poetry and prose in literary journals, I was fascinated to ask her about her reading habits. Our discussion was as much a revelation to me as an interviewer as I’m sure it will be as a reader; I find I am constantly experiencing whiplash in the process of attempting to uncover what matters most to different readers, of probing areas I hope might yield anecdotes of formative significance, and finding myself skidding off the highway when they appear, unscheduled, down the road.
I found this especially true of my conversation with Amelia. In contrast to other female readers I know whose literary tastes find many commonalities with hers, Amelia has no desire to ascribe sentimentality to the physical books that she reads; she doesn’t care about covers, or first editions. She reads large chunks of writing on a kindle. But I was struck by how much emotional stock she puts in to how well those close to her know her personal shortlist. For some readers, our most loved books are closely guarded secrets, texts that connect us to the most secret and essential parts of ourselves. What means most to us in them seems so singularly a part of our own experience with them that it feels like no one else could engage with that essence as uniquely as we did. I love that for Amelia, this is a process most significant in reverse. To ‘get’ her is to recommend the perfect read.
Amelia’s living room is home to an expansive bookcase (really a collection of boxes layed horizontally), which have been filled with a quarter century’s worth of books. It’s a hefty collection, which makes even more of an impression because the various novels, books of poetry and short stories, culture books and memoirs are colour coded, so that each individual nook is a wash of colour- from greys and muted greens to shouty tones of red, pink and ‘Penguin Classic’ orange. It’s here that Amelia and I sit on a humid Summer afternoon to talk.
A: It seems apt that we’re sitting so close to the bookcase.
B: How long has it been this way?
A: Oh, about four years now. Since I lived in Annandale. It actually works really well!
Friends are always asking me: ‘How do you ever find anything?!’ I tend to remember the cover of a book, so you know, you just use your visual memory and pin point what colour it is.
B: Do you choose books based on the cover? Have you ever sought out a vintage cover of something?
A: No, never. That’s just incidental to the actual contents, I think. Not to be all ‘don’t judge a book by its cover.’ Because every so often you’re like oh, that’s beautiful and so that draws you in, but it’s always the content that really seal the deal.
B: What kinds of books did you read when you were young?
I think I was an overly ambitious reader when I was a teenager. I remember reading George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four when I was thirteen years old. And being like, ‘yeah this is the best book ever!’
Then, I did things like trying to read Ulysses at fifteen, and that was just like way too much.
B: So you were a precocious reader at a young age?
A: Well, like I said, I was an overly ambitious reader because some things were lost on me, but I was never into young adult fiction. I didn’t go through the Harry Potter phase, and am still yet to read Harry Potter much to the chagrin of many people I know.
B: Did you have an adult figure in your life that read ‘grown up books’ and made you want to jump straight into that?
A: Not necessarily. I think that the way we were given set texts in high school that were classics and of the canon actually made me feel like I could engage with things that weren’t necessarily pitched at my age group. But I obviously had some kind of understanding of it. So I remember just going to the literary fiction section of my local chain bookstore and spending ages just browsing and looking for new things to read when I was a teenager. Every weekend I’d go shopping with my mum and she’d get the groceries, and as a treat we’d go to the bookstore, and I’d find all these things that really opened my mind. I remember reading Lolita when I was fifteen or sixteen and that was just mind-blowing. Not because of the content, not because it was racy: it was just so lyrically written, and the style was just unlike anything I’d encountered before. And things like The Great Gatsby.
B: Did you happen upon Lolita? Did someone tell you about it?
A: I’m not sure. I think I had some understanding of what its history was, that it had been banned. But I also knew that the accepted thinking nowadays was that it was such a conservative move to ban it in the first place. I think I was probably being a little bit provocative in reading it, but I don’t feel like it was a bad move by any means, because I found it really inspiring, more because of the style of writing.
B: Was it a book that made you think of writing in a different way? Not only wanting to be a reader but also maybe wanting to be a writer?
A: I think I’ve always known that I wanted to be a writer, and there have been books along the way that have opened my mind to different possibilities of writing. And that was definitely one of them. Because of the way that…I’ve always loved poetry as well as prose, and it managed to combine that in a way that I hadn’t seen before.
B: What others?
A: Well, in my recent adult life, How Should a Person Be by Sheila Heti was, like, a revelation to me, because it seemed to deal with a lot of the preoccupations of being a young adult and it was written in a style that’s deceptively simple. And that made me think, oh, we don’t need to have this smoke and mirrors approach to writing all the time, of trying to impress and to really show off your intelligence, you know?
It was just so new to me when I read it. So much about it felt really fresh and contemporary.
B: Do you read books that you know won’t be pleasurable? Do you ever read ‘difficult’ books?
A: Less and less. I am less and less inclined to waste my time on things that aren’t pleasurable. Sometimes I do find books difficult, but also enjoyable. However, if something is just a slog it means that I get turned off reading, and reading is one of the great pleasures of my day-to-day life. And if I come home, and I look at the book that I’m reading and I think, ‘I don’t have any energy for that,’ I can’t engage with the material, or the writing is too dense, then my reading grinds to a halt, and that’s not what I want, so I’d much prefer to just pick up something else.
That’s not to say that I don’t like to challenge myself intellectually, but when it comes to really wanky doorstopper books written by intellectual men who come from the academic literary world- I just don’t have time for that.
B: Do you think that that’s something that’s has changed as you’ve gotten older?
A: Definitely. I think when I was a kid, I really wanted to grapple with the canon and feel like I was worthy and I felt like my brain can be expanded beyond limit. And now I realize that it can’t, and there are certain things that I will never like or enjoy and that’s ok, because there are so many books to read out there, and life is short. Why not enjoy it.
Also, as a writer, the reading that I do does sort of stimulate the part of my brain that goes on to create content. So I don’t want to get writing that I consider bad stuck in my head.
B: Have you ever read a book just so that you could say that you’d read it?
A: Yeah, I definitely have, when I was younger. I remember hating Wuthering Heights, for instance. But you get half way through and you’re like, ‘well I’m here. I may as well finish it.’
B: Do you enjoy having books recommended to you? Or do you like to seek things out yourself? Do you look for different kinds of recommendations from different places?
A: I find it hugely flattering and beautiful when somebody can come up with an apt recommendation for me. If somebody knows me well enough to know what I will enjoy, I find it incredible. I have very specific tastes. And people often assume that because I love reading, I love reading anything, and that’s just patently wrong. There are a bunch of blogs that I read regularly that talk about reading and writing and they tend to have the same tastes as me. And also from twitter- other people who write often have recommendations that I like.
B: Were there any books when you were at uni that affected what you wanted for your career, or what you wanted to spend your life doing?
A: I think it’s a constant push-pull. It’s my bank balance more than any book that’s determined the way I live my life at the moment. But, um, I love advice columns. And I read a lot of advice columns- it’s like a guilty pleasure of mine. And Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed is one of the core places that I go for advice. And the way that she treats career, is, I think, one of the wisest approaches. She says, ‘you don’t have a career, you have a life.’ And I think that that’s a pretty wise approach.
B: I haven’t read the book. But that ‘Dear Sugar’ column where Elissa Bassist is talking about how she can’t write, and about how it feels so much easier for male writers, and Cheryl’s response is just like ‘fucking get over yourself and write something. Anything.’ I love that. And that Wild is like the anti-transformation story. Like it’s about the fact that you can never become the perfect version of yourself, and the acceptance of that is the transformation.
A: I think that’s the perfect way to describe it. I think that she’s a sage of our times.
B: What kind of books have you been seeking out recently? What have you read recently and really loved?
A: I really loved 10:04 by Ben Lerner, have you read that? It’s so good.
B: Do you love it because you can tell he’s a poet?
A: Not necessarily. He writes about things that I often return to in the books I enjoy. My best friend says that I have such specific tastes that if books were boys, I’d be dating twins all the time.
A: The books that I like are almost exactly the same, you know? Which is not entirely true. But…
B: You have a type?
A: I have a type. I have a very precise type.
So I like first-person confessional fiction, written by females. Concerning art, feminism, self-actualisation. Generally set in New York as well, but I think that’s a bit of a coincidence, because it happens the be the centre of the literary world and people who are kind of self-involved, they tend to gravitate to New York and then write about themselves. I think that Ben Lerner deals with quite a few of those subjects despite not being a woman, and not necessarily talking about feminism in an overt way. I thought that the way he wrote that book, structurally is really interesting. Switching around perspective and the idea of ‘what is fact, what is fiction?’
B: Are you protective of your books? Do you lend them to people? Are you strict?
A: I do. The thing is, when I really love a book, and I know that someone I love will enjoy it, I really want them to read it. And I think that makes me careless with them. I don’t force it on them. If someone doesn’t seem as enthusiastic as I am about it, that’s fine, but I will be upset if in six months time, I wonder where that book is, and it’s with a particular friend, and I ask them about it- and they say they haven’t read it. Because, you know, I curated a recommendation for them!
So there are books of mine that are lost forever, but I’ve actually learned to get several copies of my absolute favourite books. So, I have two copies of Bluets, by Maggie Nelson, which is my favourite book of all time, at present. And, I have a couple of copies of How Should A Person Be; one which is signed and one that is my ‘lending one.’ But now I don’t know where that one’s gone. So now I have to give my signed one out, which makes me a lot more careful.
B: Are there books that you’re sentimental about? Do you read, and re-read any books?
A: I often reread Lorrie Moore’s short stories, and Amy Hempel’s because they’re great. I think they both really speak to me on a number of levels. Amy Hempel’s story ‘In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried’ is a short story I tend to read every six months. And it makes me cry every single time. And I also discover new things in it every single time because she writes so perfectly on a sentence level that it’s so rich; there’s so much to be found in it. So rereading that is not a chore. And rereading Lorrie Moore’s short stories as well. It’s kind of like, because I’m not taking on a whole novel, where, perhaps plot is more of a concern, I can enjoy just a holiday in words.
I re-read Bluets by Maggie Nelson often as well. But once again, that one is… she’s a poet and it’s written in this fragmented style. And it’s got a lot of philosophy and non-fiction in it as well. So you learn from it. And each time I read it I take away new things. In terms of novels that I reread…I’m less of a novel re-reader.
B: So female writers in New York. Do you like Girls?
A: Yeahh. I think she’s incredibly hard-working and I think she has to deal with…
B: I’ve just realized that’s a really dumb question. A really redundant question. I’m sorry! I think that any young woman who is interested in feminism and that kind of perspective is interested in what Lena Dunham has to say, but also struggles with what to think about her.
A: I totally respect her, and I think that’s she’s inspiring a lot of people. I think she’s way too scrutinized and that I’m not even entitled to an opinion on her, because she’s just a young woman out there trying to create things and the way that we have now made it a necessity that every young woman has an opinion on her- like she’s this cultural currency, I think that’s far too much pressure for any young person, under any circumstances. Especially under creative ones.
B: Have you read a book on a kindle?
A: I have! In fact, it’s just over there. I love my kindle. I think it’s the ideal way to read when travelling because it’s so light. And you can carry around doorstopper books and it’s only 300 grams or whatever. And you also never run out of reading material. I’m also not one of those people who has an allegiance either way to physical books or kindle books, I think they both have a place. I’m certainly not one of those aesthetes that believes that books are king and there are no other options.
B: I have this friend who went on a pilgrimage once to find a first edition cover of Atonement. She spent hours searching bookshops, and online to find a cover that didn’t have Keira Knightley’s face on it.
A: God, that just sounds exhausting. I’m spending so much time as it is looking for books that I might love, trying to find a nice cover seems beside the point to me, and I beat my books up as well. They always end up dog-eared with spills on every page, so it doesn’t really matter what they look like.
B: What author do you most admire, or would you most want to meet?
A: The great thing about The Sydney Writer’s Festival is that it has brought out writers who I got to meet, like Sheila Heti and Cheryl Strayed. And that was incredible- they were both writers who I admired in print and they were lovely people in person. It feels really clichéd to say that I would love to meet Joan Didion, but it’s true. I think that she’s a giant of literature and a compelling person. I imagine she’d be quite difficult, but I don’t ask for writers to be friendly and charming, and, you know, like, Miss Congeniality. I just think she’d be a great person to interview.
A: There is potentially no male writer that I would care to meet.
It all has to do with having met men who write and a lot of them being, uh, really gigantic egos, and having very little time for that. I mean, it’s kind if the same with the music world as well. Egos galore.
B: What about someone who’s dead?
A: Not really. I prefer to engage with contemporary authors anyway, as a reader. I find that the things that are coming out now are so radical and interesting and there’s fantastic stuff happening, and why not be of the time?
And I’ve always been really unmoved by that question of ‘who, dead or alive would you want to have dinner with,’ because I’ve never really thought ‘gee, I’d really love to have dinner with that person, but they’re dead.’ In fact, I would rather not have dinner with most writers. I think that would just end up being really awkward.
Amelia’s list of Beloved American writers:
1. Cheryl Strayed
Tiny Beautiful Things (2013)
2. Ben Lerner
3. Maggie Nelson
4. Sheila Heti
How Should A Person Be (2013)
5. Lorrie Moore’s short stories
Self Help (1985)
Like Life (1990)
Birds of America (1998)
The Collected Stories (2008)
Bark: Stories (2014)
6. Amy Hempel
‘In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried.’ Reasons to Live (1985)
“Wait, we haven’t talked about BUTT yet”
Words: Bianca Healey
Images: Prudence Blain
Wilfred has a cold. As I listen back to my recording, our conversation is interrupted by his intermittent coughing. On tape, I hear myself repeating how bad I feel, and him insisting that we go on; he has too many books to get through. I ask all of my subjects to think about one or two books that have moved them deeply, that change the way they want to be, or the way they look at the world. I always knew that Wilfred would be the first one I would call- when I was young and impressionistic and fresh out of uni, he worked at the first website I interned at. He was the Lester Bangs to my William Miller, only he was actually very cool (but then really, so was Lester) and encapsulated for me the thrills of working in the cultural media. He approached every day of his job as though it was his first week- a wonderful weirdo who bought socks from SUPPLY store in his lunch breaks and subsisted on takeaway cups of espresso. More than once during the time I was there, he claimed to have coined the word “three-peat.”
At Wilfred’s place the books and magazines are stacked high. It’s clear that he has prepared in advance (there is a sizeable pile splayed across his desk), but I hadn’t realised he intended to speak about all of them.
A thing you notice about Wilfred: he has an irrepressible hunger for the eccentric; subcultures that resist easy marketing into popular culture, or at least the essential parts of them that are left behind in translation. Highbrow comics, countercultural genre fiction, underground teen culture, queer literature. The kinds of texts that mothers raise their eyebrows at when found in school bags. He knows a million things about topics you’ve never even heard of. A conversation with Wilfred is like reading a specialist cultural journal that spans everything from skateboard culture to experimental fiction. Or listening to Bill Cunningham talk about fashion. It’s that earnestness and very serious fascination that compels you to take the same view.
His place is a mess of kitsch and cartoons: that excellent combination of teen fanboy and discerning bibliophile. As we speak, a playlist of downbeat pop and hazy rock hangs a little below the frequency of our speech. Now, thinking back, all I can remember are a couple of Wild Nothing tracks. Sweet teen vocals reverbing and fading out.
WB: One night recently I couldn’t sleep because they (my neighbours) were playing The Smiths, and I was like ‘damn it!’ (because I couldn’t complain). It’s not like when I lived in Redfern and they were playing, like, shitty house music or something.
So which book do you want to hear about?
1. Dennis Cooper, The George Miles Cycle
WB: It’s so weird to talk instead of write. Dennis Cooper got me really excited about reading fiction. I didn’t read a lot of fiction. I’ve realized too that if I don’t trust or like the voice that’s in my head when I’m reading fiction I can get…I have a short patience for it. I get fed up with it. Like if I think that something’s tryjng to be clever, or too manipulative or whatever.
BH: Do you often not finish books?
WB: Yeah I often don’t. That’s why, I mean as far as fiction’s concerned, it was really easy for me to pick.
This book, I found really relatable. A lot of his subject matter is really confronting and intense. And I know that that salaciousness has something to do with me getting excited about reading it, but it’s the thing that people tend to focus on more, and I think people might think I’m like, a serial killer, or a pedophile for liking Dennis Cooper… but I’m not.
We have very different taste in men, Dennis Cooper and I. But his books are fascinating. This is part of a five-book cycle called The George Miles Cycle. He had a friend in high school that he was obsessed with, a straight guy that he had a slight relationship with, but more than that they had a really intense friendship. And he was like, this very smart, very creative, very fucked up teenager. And so, he lost touch with him, he was obsessed with being a writer and he worked… I think each of these books would take like two or three years to write, and they’re really elaborately constructed and they’re fascinating, and they’re all relating to themes about, sort of fucked up teenagers, and relationships, and both, like violence but also intense tenderness.
2. Tao Lin, Eeeee Eee Eeee (2007), and Richard Yates (2010)
WB: Did you see me interview him last year?
Yeah. I mean Tao Lin is really exciting and interesting. I hadn’t read any of his books. And then the director of the 'National Young Writer’s Festival' asked if I wanted to interview him. And I read a little bit because I know he’s really divisive, and I kind of don’t understand the huge backlash against him. Maybe you’ve heard other people say things?
BH: I just know someone told me not to read him, and then told me about a book he wrote where one of the characters was named Haley Joel Osmond, but he wasn’t Haley Joel Osmond, and the other one was another celebrity and I thought it sounded stupid so I never really looked into it. Maybe I should.
WB: (laughs) A lot of what’s… I don’t know. If you’ve read any of the interviews with him, or encountered the way he presents himself on social media and things like that, I find it really fascinating and I think that’s what pisses people off. Because… well, this book is called “Eeeee Eee Eeee,” and that’s very hard to write about, or even talk about, and this book is called Richard Yates- but it has nothing to do with Richard Yates. The characters in it love Richard Yates and they mention him maybe twice, and then the characters in it are named Haley Joel Osmond and Dakota Fanning.
BH: Yes that’s the book!
WB: But I read this interview where he was saying, ‘these characters have these names and the only reason I could think to not do it was because The New York Times would take it more seriously. And then I thought, well that’s stupid and that would be a compromise, so I’m not going to compromise,’ which I think is really, completely logical. A lot of the way he works, there’s like a weird logic behind it, and even when I interviewed him he said that almost every book he’ll have sets of rules. And I kind of noticed that, after reading Richard Yates, I think every time he refers to the characters he calls them by their full name, like ‘Haley Joel Osmond’ or ‘Dakota Fanning,’ so he’ll say “Dakota Fanning checks her gmail,” or something and I think it’s fair enough. Like for some people it pushed their buttons. I feel like it’s a very, I don’t know if this is off-putting to some people, but it’s the definition of the word experimental: like I’m going to do this experiment, where this book is going to be all this, and this book is going to be all that, and then, kind of see how people react to it, what they think of it.
3. Daniel Clowes, Ghost World (1997)
BH: You have heaps of books here. You have heaps. I don’t mind if you don’t talk about all of them.
WB: No I won’t talk about all of them. I’m trying to think… I want to talk about… Daniel Clowes.
WB: So, Daniel Clowes. I mean I grew up reading comic books, and then, without sounding like a wanker, from around eighteen on, I read sort of alternative comic books, like Fantagraphics comic books, Drawn and Quarterly comic books; Peter Bags’ comic book Hate, things that were really funny and interesting.
But Daniel Clowes, all of his stuff is really amazing. When I lived in Chicago I started reading his comics, and he lived in Chicago, there’s kind of a history there. I had a friend and we were kind of both obsessed with this comic book Eightball, which would come out once a year, or maybe twice a year, and each issue we would get and slowly pore over the pages. He does an incredible job of creating a really film noir kind of tone, and he’s just really…. kind of like Dennis Cooper, you can just tell that he has put so much work into each page and each story- and the stories are fascinating, they’re really complex. Like, Caricature, is a compilation of a bunch of his. It’s probably my favourite. When I would teach at the Art School, I would make my students read Caricature. We did a week on Postmodernism and I would make them read it and they’d get really bummed out because it’s really depressing and I like a lot of really depressing things.
Tao Lin used to do a blog called ‘Reader of Depressing Books,’ and that was his thing, he’s like ‘I love depressing books.’ But with Caricature, I would have my students read it, talking about Postmodernism and they would notice things that I hadn’t noticed in it. And with a lot of his stories, you can go back. And he did Ghost World, which was made into a movie. I like the comic better. I feel the movie comes across a little more mean-spirited.
Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron is another of his. They’re all different and they’re all really fascinating. He creates really interesting characters and everything’s really complex. There’s a lot of ambiguity- I think I like that in Dennis Cooper’s writing as well. And when I interviewed Dennis Cooper I was like ‘is this like a satire of your life, is it things that you fantasize about, is it things you want to happen or is it things you’re scared of happening?’ And he was like ‘it’s all of those things, mixed up.’ And I feel like Daniel Clowes does a lot of similar things.
BH: Did you have a book, or a comic when you were younger that made you want to write?
WB: Finding Dennis Cooper made me really excited about reading. Daniel Clowes made me excited about reading. Growing up, it’s kinda funny, but people always told me I was a good writer- like, in school. And I really loved movies and, I liked TV. And so I went to film school and I studied screenwriting. I studied screenwriting and criticism. I started off in Ohio, and then by the time I got to Chicago, I went to Columbia College in Chicago. People often get it mixed up with Columbia University in New York. It’s like an Art School.
4. Big Brother Magazine (1992- 2004)
WB: A friend of mine had a zine in New York, partly just to get free records and to get in to see bands. And I started writing for him. I don’t think you could even email. You had to call Matador Records or whoever and be like, ‘can I get on the guest list to go see, uh, Smog, or whatever’ and just go to shows and that’s how I started writing. That writing was really influenced by Big Brother, do you know Big Brother?
BH: I have no idea what that is. I had really hoped you’d have some cool skate stuff that I would have absolutely no references for.
WB: So the guys who wrote for this ended up doing Jackass. When Big Brother started it was like Spike Jonze wrote for them, and Dave Carnie did a lot of writing for them. They would do…each issue was a different format. I mean that didn’t really appeal to me until later when I realized how ambitious that was. Some of it would be like, inside jokes and they weren’t afraid to be really silly, so they would have reviews of Beverley Hills 90210, and then they would have like poetry and interviews with a homeless person and ads that I don’t even think were real ads- like, they just photocopied a Doc Martins ad.
And, this was what got them a lot of attention. An article on how to kill yourself, you know. And it was very ‘90s: super dark humour, very ironic.
I think Tavi Gevinson was saying, I read the other day, ‘I feel like the ‘90s wasn’t ironic.’ And I was like ‘some of it was really ironic.’ Like Big Brother was really ironic, but I guess she was saying like grunge bands were really earnest. But like this magazine (picks up another magazine) was coming out of Detroit. It was these guys who used to be in hardcore punk bands. And then they formed this funk band that was called Big Chief, and it as kind of informed by punk, but it was really heavy, so it was like, a much better Primus, or something. This magazine was just comics or music, and you can see the work that went into this, and also the fact that they self-published.
BH: Was it easier to self-publish back then?
WB: Back then it was almost more prestigious to. Nowadays anyone can self publish. It might just not sell well. Whereas, with this, it’s like, these guys sold ads, they got it published. Oh, here’s another article: ‘100 Worst Albums of the 20th Century.’ With the Beach Boys at number one, and Pink Floyd at number two. These are so funny, the cartoons, the art in here.
They didn’t make me want to write, but when I did start to write, they really influenced me.
5. Jon Leon, The Malady of the Century (2012)
WB: I kind of bought this on a whim. And I don’t read a lot of poetry. This is was one of the most exciting discoveries I’ve had, because he writes poetry that’s just really complex, and interesting, and relates to the way that I talk, and the things that I’m excited about in life in general. It’s like alternately funny and sincere and ironic and, like, overly romantic. From one sentence to the next, the tone changes.
It made me want to discover other contemporary poets, who are doing interesting stuff. John Leone’s only done a few things and most of them are hard to find and this is easily my favourite. I’ve read it over and over again, and I almost have parts of it, almost memorized.
6. Harmony Korine, A Crack Up at the Race Riots (1998)
B: have you interviewed Harmony Korine?
WB: Yeah, I did. For Two Thousand, when Spring Breakers came out. It was really good. He was very straightforward. He only gave me a couple of answers that were a little bit cheeky, and it was clear that he was goofing around. He was a little bit more straightforward than I wished he was.
7. Kathy Acker, Blood and Guts in High School (1989)
WB: Kathy Acker started out as a poet, and I came across her writing. I borrowed a book called Cult Fiction which is out of print, which is like an encyclopedia of really interesting authors who have a cult following, and I read about her in there and then I bought this at Surry Hills markets. And there’s passages in it that I find unreadable. Like twenty pages that are really tedious but they’re meant to be really tedious. But there are other parts that are beautiful, and incredibly well written. She has this really interesting background. She did poetry and she as also really into punk rock. And you can really feel that in her writing. It’s some of the most visceral prose I’ve ever read. A lot of it reads as poetry. She was also a really outspoken feminist. She’s like a really incredibly talented person. Produced a lot of work. Did a lot of work too where she would appropriate some text from classic works like Great Expectations or Don Quixote and then write around them. And her thing was she was like, trying to understand her relationship to the text, and so she had a lot of heavy theory stuff going on. But also had a big influence on people like Kathleen Hanna from Bikini Kill, and reading interviews with her and watching interviews with her is fascinating.
And this book, Blood and Guts in High School has such a great name. I feel like her cult following group would probably be people who are more super heavy theory, like post-structuralist, de-constructionist people. She was all ‘the death of the author/ there is no originality,’ it’s all just ‘we’re suffering things that already exist.’ But she was also friends with Dennis Cooper, and William Burroughs and Poppy Z. Brite and she was very much connected to the whole transgressive literary tradition. I guess I end up reading a lot of transgressive literature. I don’t really think about that. But a lot of the stuff I read ends up being, like, Brett Easton Ellis.
8. BUTT Magazine (2001-)
WB: The only other one I really wanted to make sure I got to was the BUTT book.
I discovered the BUTT book, (laughs), I discovered BUTT. I discovered BUTT magazine through a friend of mine who was doing a zine called They Shoot Homos, Don’t They out of Melbourne, which is a really great zine. He now lives in New York and works for Printed Matter. But, uh, being a gay man, I’ve never related to gay culture, and felt really alienated. And finding BUTT magazine… not only did they interview interesting people, like John Waters and Marc Jacobs, Karl Lagerfeld, and asked them interesting questions- they would ask them stuff about like drugs, or sex, or, like dance music. But they would also ask them about art and literature. And it was so great to realise that there were other people that didn’t fit the ‘gay’ stereotype and also didn’t subscribe to the snobbery of mainstream gay culture.
Mainstream gay publications are all about like, conventional male beauty and materialism and here they would interview like, a janitor, or like a guy who hadn’t showered in eight months, or whatever. Or they would interview, I mean, someone interviewed someone they met in the park and had sex with. They do all sorts of interesting things.
And sort of…not deny that mainstream gay culture existed, but explore other facets that were super exciting. It started a wave of all these small magazines. And it also exposed me to all these interesting publications, like Honcho and Straight to Hell- not just new stuff that was coming out. Even gay figures from the past that I didn’t know about, like Peter Berlin and Quentin Crisp. And stuff like that made me realise there was another side to gay culture that was awesome. Rather than mainstream gay culture, which is pretty shit.
I liked- I’m sure other people can relate to this, I liked BUTT magazine so much that, we went out of town and asked our neighbour to check the mail. And I saw him the other day and he was like ‘I’ve got some mail for you,’ and he made this funny expression and I was like, ‘oh, did BUTT magazine arrive,’ and he went ‘Oh!’ and I went ‘Ohhh,’ and I realized he must think… Like BUTT’s risqué, but it’s not risqué porno, so I was like ‘he’s gonna think that I subscribe to a gay porno magazine.’ But, like a lot of other people, I liked BUTT Magazine so much that it was like, I almost felt a sense of ownership over it. Like people who love The Simpsons or whatever, people get really personally upset when it’s bad. And I was the same way. And after a while it did get more cliché, a little bit more like every guy in there had like a beard, and they’d talk about hot guys more and stuff. And I think it’s interesting when people get, like personally upset by a publication.
BH: Did you write letters to them?
WB: Yeah. Not a ton, but a couple.
Wilfred’s Reading List:
1. Dennis Cooper,The George Miles Cycle
2. Tao Lin
Eeeee Eee Eeee (2007)
Richard Yates (2010)
3. Daniel Clowes
Ghost World (1997)
4. Big Brother Magazine (1992- 2004)
5. Jon Leon
The Malady of the Century (2012)
6. Harmony Korine
A Crack Up at the Race Riots (1998)
7. Kathy Acker
8. BUTT Magazine (2001- )