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)