Today I’m starting a new blog series called Shelf Aware, and in the coming weeks and months I’ll feature guest posts from a number of Australian and international authors, poets, illustrators, editors and publishers whose work I admire. As you’ve probably guessed, it has a bookish theme. I’ll be asking my guest bloggers ten questions about the work they do, and the books and authors they love. I’m also inviting them to share a photo or two of their book shelves — so we can all zoom in to check out some of the titles they treasure. I thought it was only fair to start with my own responses to the ten questions (below)… It would be great if you could follow my blog, or look out for shares on Facebook and Twitter. Tune it to read guest posts in the coming weeks from Natasha Lester, Amanda Curtin, Annabel Smith, Jennifer Ryan, Tracy Farr, Alan Carter and others. Let me know in the comments if there are authors, poets, illustrators, editors or publishers you’d like to see featured in future.
Q. Maureen, how would you describe the work that you do, and how you do it?
A: I am a freelance journalist and editor, writing primarily for The West Australian and Good Reading magazine. My essay about anxiety was published in the Rockingham Writers Centre’s Let’s Face It anthology (Serenity Press) in 2016, promoting positive mental health, and my first children’s picture book — with the working title Every Family is Different – will be published under the Serenity Kids imprint later this year.
I used to work full-time from various newspaper offices in and around Perth and regional WA, and I started freelancing from home twenty-one years ago, a year or so after the birth of my oldest daughter. It’s sometimes challenging to stay focused in the face of invitations to lunches and other events, and I miss perks such as paid holidays, sick leave and employer superannuation contributions. But I’ve welcomed opportunities to be actively involved in both of my daughters’ school and extra-curricular activities, and I relish the flexibility and freedom that come with working from home. For example, I just might be typing this at my desk while still wearing my running gear…
Q. What projects are you currently working on or do you have in the pipeline?
A. The process of writing my first novel is proving to be significantly more complicated and challenging than I could ever have imagined. It’s a nostalgic coming-of-age story about a freckle-faced, eleven-year-old bookworm in a blue-collar suburb of Perth (ummm… wonder who inspired that protagonist?), and the eighty-year-old Gallipoli veteran who helps her to overcome a neighbourhood bully. It’s tentatively called Saving Maisie O’Day, and I’ve written almost 20,000 words, so far. You can read more about the challenges of my writing process in earlier posts on this website.
Q. Where are the main bookcases in your home or office? Do you also keep books in other places?
A. Most of our bookcases are in the room of our home that was originally intended as a formal dining area, but you’ll also find them in the lounge room, both of our daughters’ bedrooms, and the guest room (aka Nana’s room). My husband and I don’t have a bookcase in our bedroom (that’s up for negotiation right now), but we both have small stacks of books on our bedside tables. We’ve also got quite a collection of cookbooks on shelves above the fridge and freezer, in the kitchen, and dozens of children’s picture books stored in plastic crates, to be shared with the next generation of our family in future years.
I also have an extensive collection of bookmarks from many different parts of the world, given to me by family and friends who have long recognised my passion for reading (I’ve added a photo of a small selection above).
Q. How are your books organised/arranged?
A. Anybody who knows me well will probably correctly guess the answer to this question – alphabetically, of course! At least, the fiction, memoir, poetry and drama sections are arranged alphabetically. I’ve also got a whole bunch of writing guides, reference books and inspirational books by and about writers, all of which are arranged haphazardly (and I’m not really sure why). Perhaps that explains why my fiction writing is also somewhat haphazard…
Q. What sorts of books predominate?
A. Most of my books are fiction, including literary fiction, some commercial fiction and some short story collections. I have two complete sets of the Harry Potter series, by JK Rowling (one hardback; one paperback), and two complete sets of the Anne of Green Gables series, by LM Montgomery. I’ve also got a full set of other fiction titles by Montgomery, but none quite matches the magic of “Anne” for me.
There are multiple titles by Larry McMurtry, who wrote the Pulitizer Prize-winning western Lonesome Dove, and there are a fair few by John Irving (including The World According to Garp and A Prayer for Owen Meany), Cormac McCarthy (No Country for Old Men and The Road, among others), and British historical thriller writer Robert Goddard, whose Past Caring is a near-perfect example of the genre. Subconsciously, I’ve also accumulated a significant quantity of novels with the Holocaust as a major or minor theme – it’s a subject of great importance to me. I’ve also got a bunch of writing references, and a collection of exquisite cloth-bound poetry anthologies, plus Shakespearean sonnets, purchased on a romantic whim.
Q. Describe your favourite reading place.
A. I can and will read almost anywhere – apart from in a car or on a bus, where I end up feeling nauseous – but most of my reading is done on the sofa in the family room, during the ad breaks (and sometimes during the programs) while the TV is on; or in bed, where I read for at least half an hour every single night – regardless of what time I head to my bedroom. Luckily, my patient, understanding husband is also a keen reader — and he has mastered the art of falling asleep when my bedside light is on. Incidentally, my two daughters love it when I tuck a book under my arm and inform them, in my best Bridget Jones tones, that “I’m going to Bed…fordshire”. Cracks them up (not!).
Q. What book/s are you reading right now? Why did you choose that book/those books and what do you think of it/them so far?
A. I’m reading two books at the moment – Magda Szubanski’s 2015 memoir Reckoning, and Liam Pieper’s compelling The Toymaker. They were chosen for me, respectively, by friends from the First Edition Book Club, in Secret Harbour, of which I’m a founding member (since 2004), and the Writerly Book Club, of which I’m an honorary member for its foundation stage. I already had copies of both books, and had been keen to read them, so I was delighted that the book clubs brought them to the top of my “to read” list. So far, both are totally engrossing – and it’s an interesting coincidence that the Holocaust is a theme in each.
Q. What are your favourite books and/or who are your favourite authors?
A. Oh dear! Once I got started with this I found it very hard to stop… Deep breath — here goes: My long-time favourite books, which I first read many years ago, are To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee; Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry; Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen; Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte; Watership Down, by Richard Adams; and Anne of Green Gables, by Lucy Maud Montgomery. I re-read each of these novels almost every year, and still find them fresh and engaging. I should probably add The Lord of the Rings trilogy, by JRR Tolkein, which has captivated me since I first read it, when I was 12 (and absolutely terrified of the Black Riders), and John Irving’s incomparable A Prayer for Owen Meany, whose eponymous hero’s squeaky voice is represented by the use of all capitals.
More recently, Amanda Curtin’s hauntingly beautiful Elemental captivated me from the first sentence, and I feel a deep, abiding love for the red-headed herring girl at its heart. I adore everything about WA author Craig Silvey’s Jasper Jones (the stage play is fabulous, and there’s a film version due for release on March 2). I’ve singled out Marilynne Robinson’s Lila, the third in her Iowa novels, but could just as easily have listed Gilead or Home, both of which are also sublime character studies to be read slowly and savoured. Chaim Potok’s My Name is Asher Lev was a revelation when I first read it many years ago, and I’ve recommended it to lots of friends in the intervening years; likewise The Shipping News, by E. Annie Proulx, which I still love for its quirky syntax and flawed, lovable hero, Quoyle.
Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, which I read and reviewed ahead of its release a couple of years ago, deserves a paragraph of its own. It had a massive emotional impact on me: I sobbed so many times while reading it, including non-stop for the final thirty pages or so, yet I am certain it will long remain a favourite. I don’t know whether I’m quite ready to re-read it yet, as it is a devastating, heart-breaking tale, but I know that I will, and I’m confident it will continue to teach me lessons about love and friendship for many years to come.
Q. In the event of an emergency, if you could save just three books from your collection, which books would they be – and why would you choose them?
A. I love so many of my books, but this was a relatively easy question to answer: Enid Blyton’s Tales of Toyland and Other Stories, which my magnificent Mum gave to me for the Christmas just after I turned six (the first chapter book I read); my first copy of Anne of Green Gables, given to me by my Great-Uncle John (the man who inspired the Gallipoli hero in the novel I’m writing), and inscribed by him in perfect copperplate with the first few lines of Wordsworth’s “Ode to Immortality…”; and a first edition biography of Jane Austen, by Mrs. Charles Malden (sic), from the Eminent Women Series published by WH Allen & Co, in 1889, given to me by my niece, Veronica, who discovered it in a London bookstore while she and her husband, Michael, were living there.
Q. Finally, if you could sit down for afternoon tea with your three favourite characters, authors, poets or illustrators, who would they be, what would you serve them, and what would you like to talk to them about?
A. This one was a bit more difficult to answer, but I’ve gone with Anne Shirley, from the Anne of Green Gables series; Jane Eyre, from the novel of the same name; and (Jean-Louise) Scout Finch, from To Kill a Mockingbird (you can see them above portrayed on film by Megan Follows, Ruth Wilson and Mary Badham respectively). I would serve them a traditional high tea, including cucumber sandwiches (on ever-so-thinly-sliced crust-less white bread, of course), smoked salmon with sour cream and chives on tiny toast squares, mini quiches, sausage scrolls, scones with jam and cream, lemon friands dusted with icing sugar, and tiny squares of chocolate and walnut brownie (you can tell I’ve really thought this through). We’d drink copious quantities of English Breakfast or Irish Afternoon tea while discussing the historical importance of feisty females, the joys of discovering new worlds in books, and our hopes for a future where equality is reality. After several languorous hours, we might be convinced to sip a small glass (or two) of dry sherry or Champagne from paper-thin coupes.
I know they are no longer alive, but I also toyed with the idea of destroying the space-time continuum to host a separate afternoon tea with Lucy Maud Montgomery, Charlotte Bronte and Harper Lee, so I could tell them how much I adore the characters and stories they created, and ask them about their inspirations and writing habits. If I felt brave enough, I’d also ask Harper Lee what on Earth prompted her to publish Go Set a Watchman…! We’d probably sip iced lemon tea or mint juleps, and eat strawberry shortcake and pecan pie under a shady tree, and I’d ask Harper to read my favourite passages from To Kill a Mockingbird in her Alabama drawl — if my pert question hadn’t completely offended her.
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