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)