'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?