Shelf Aware — Amanda Curtin


amandaThe first time I read the opening lines of Amanda Curtin’s novel Elemental I was utterly captivated by its protagonist, Meggie Tulloch. The wee Scottish ‘herring girl’ has rich red hair, which makes her a target of suspicious fishermen in the village where she lives, at the turn of the 20th Century. By the time I’d finished this poignant, sometimes harrowing but exquisitely crafted story, I knew this book deserved a place among my all-time favourites. I am now also utterly captivated by the gracious, soft-spoken and incredibly talented woman who created the tale. Amanda Curtin is a freelance book editor, occasional workshop presenter and an author of immense talent. Her other books include The Sinkings, a novel inspired by a mysterious death in the campsite of the same name, near Albany, Western Australia, in 1882, and Inherited, a collection of finely wrought short stories, as well as other short stories published in assorted anthologies. Grab a cup of tea or coffee, sit back, and enjoy her contribution to the Shelf Aware series. 

Q. Amanda, how would you describe yourself, as a writer?

A. A slow one. But, to be more specific, I’m a writer of literary historical fiction (novels and short stories), with a particular interest in Western Australian history.

Q. What projects are you currently working on or do you have in the pipeline?

A. I’m working on two projects and, strangely enough, neither of them happens to be historical fiction! The first is a novel set (mostly) in the present time; the second, a work of narrative non-fiction on the life of artist Kathleen (Kate) O’Connor.

Q. Where are the main bookcases in your home or office? Do you also keep books in other places at home (or elsewhere)?

amanda-section-of-fiction-shelvesA. In our family room we have a large double bookcase, and the coffee table (see below) acts as another receptacle for books. There are also three bookcases in our dining room and three in my studio.

Q. How are your books organised/arranged?

A. We have different bookcases, or sections of the larger bookcases, for different things—for example, our collection of crime fiction (mostly my husband’s but it’s also a genre I like to read when I get a chance), my small collection of antiquarian books, reference books associated with my editing career, books that I’ve edited or proofread, books I’ve amassed for research (an eclectic bunch, that one!), books on WA history.

My huge collection of fiction occupies half a wall, and I finally got around to arranging it alphabetically a few years ago, after being shamed into it by my sister, who is a librarian and didn’t care for the haphazardness of my own ‘system’.

Q. What sorts of books predominate?

A. Literary, historical, YA and short fiction would probably occupy most of my shelf space, but as I like fiction that makes you think, and such books can be found in many genres, there’s a sprinkling of crime, fantasy, dystopian and junior fiction too.

Q. Describe your favourite reading place.

A. I usually read in the family room, on the sofa, with my feet up on an ottoman. I seem to be one of the few people who never read in bed.

Q. What book/s are you reading right now?amanda-to-be-read

I have a lot of books waiting to be read, and no doubt I’ll add to it at the Perth Writers’ Festival, no matter how many hand-on-my-heart resolutions I make! * I keep them in little piles on the lower shelf of our coffee table, which tends to visually minimise their number, so I thought I’d pull them out and take a closer look—here’s the result!

The reason the pile is out of control at the moment (although there’s never a time when it is under control) is that all my reading time is occupied with research-related books. I’m currently reading The Letters of Frances Hodgkins (University of Auckland Press, 1993).

Q. What are your favourite books and/or who are your favourite authors?

A. Too many favourite books but the list of long-standing favourites would include Perfume (Patrick Süskind), Sixty Lights (Gail Jones), Tirra Lirra by the River (Jessica Anderson), The Hours (Michael Cunningham), The Shipping News (Annie Proulx), The Winter Vault (Anne Michaels), Possession (A.S. Byatt), The Blind Assassin (Margaret Atwood), Little Women (Louisa May Alcott), The Travel Writer (Simone Lazaroo) and Black Mirror (Gail Jones).

More recent additions: A Little Life (Hanya Yanagihara) The Last Painting of Sara de Vos (Dominic Smith), The Fishermen (Chigozie Obioma), The Reunion (Andrea Goldsmith) and Coming Rain (Stephen Daisley).

I have a strong interest in Australian women’s fiction—YA as well as literary—and many of my favourite authors are women I am fortunate enough to know. I’d find it agonising to list them in case I unintentionally left someone out!

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. As most could be replaced, I’ll choose three that could not be:

• my first edition of Coonardoo by Katharine Susannah Prichard (it isn’t signed by the author but I do love the inscription: ‘To Bert with best wishes from Dad Xmas 1929’)

• a leatherbound copy of Tennyson poems, published in 1892, that is the most beautifully tactile book to hold and in whose pages I found a perfectly preserved frond

• a copy of The Sinkings that might look like every other copy but is the first one I lifted out of the box of author copies my publisher sent me when my first book was published in 2008.

* Amanda later told me she came away from opening night for PWF with a sizeable pile of new books for her shelves…

Elemental, by Amanda Curtin, is published by UWA Publishing, rrp $29.99.

Find out more about Amanda:

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#amandacurtin #elemental #thesinkings #uwapublishing #uwap #shetlandislands #herringgirls #literaryfiction #perthwriter #inherited #katharinesusannahprichard #tennyson #alittlelife #hanyayanagihara #dominicsmith #chigozeobioma #stephendaisley #andreagoldsmith

Behind the scenes at a writer’s retreat

Karen and Monique from Serenity Press — who will publish my first children’s picture book later this year — have just arrived back in WA after their inaugural Serenity Retreat, at a castle in Northern Ireland. Monique has written this blog post about their amazing experiences. Check out some of the stunning photos, too.


I’ve just arrived back in Perth after two whirlwind weeks in the United Kingdom: the first at the Serenity Press Retreat in Crom Castle, Northern Ireland; the second at the London Book Fair, representing Serenity Press (more on the book fair in my next post).

For me, the Serenity Press retreat was part of my job (not that I’m complaining about getting to work and sleep in a castle for a week). I was there with my Serenity Press hat on, and that involved getting up early to cook breakfasts, look after everyone in the castle, and lots of organising. Karen, my business partner, was amazing – she acted as driver and grocery shopper, in between being mum to her children who accompanied her to Ireland.

But, despite the long days, the retreat was much more than “just a job”. It was a memorable experience that started from the moment…

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Shelf Aware — Norman Jorgensen

Norman IMG_1164Children’s author Norman Jorgensen has been writing stories since he was in primary school, and his latest story, The Smuggler’s Curse (Fremantle Press), details the rollicking adventures of young Red Read, whose mother “sells him to an infamous smuggler, plying his trade off the north-west coast of Australia in the closing days of the 19th century”.

Norman’s first picture book, In Flanders Fields (with illustrations by Brian Harrison-Lever), set in World War One, tells of a homesick young soldier who risks his life to rescue a robin caught in the barbed wire of no man’s land. In Flanders Fields won the Children’s Book Council of Australia (CBCA) Picture Book of the Year Award in 2003 — the first of many awards for Norman. He has since written a dozen books for children and young people.

Born in Broome, in Western Australia’s tropical north, he now lives in a 100-year-old house near Perth with his wife, and his collection of books and old movies. He loves to read, travel and take photographs, especially of castles, cathedrals, villages, battlefields, sailing ships and all the things that make history exciting.

Norman Jorgensen will be the guest author at Koorliny Arts Centre’s Stories on Stage on Wednesday, March 29, from 7pm. If his responses to my questions are any indication, it will be a lively and highly entertaining event.

Q. How would you describe the work that you do and how you do it?

A. Chaos is probably the best description. My mind flits from one shiny thing to the next, looking for a distraction, and then, somehow, among all the mental noise and confusion, the faint ideas for stories appear. After the really enjoyable time writing the first draft and creating the characters, the plot and locations, the hard slog of reshaping and polishing the sentences into something hopefully readable takes over.

Q. What is your latest project, and/or what do you have in the pipeline?

Norman The-Smugglers-Curse-1-780x1100.jpgA. The Smuggler’s Curse was published in October, and is the story of young Red Read from Broome, who is sold by his mother to a sea captain in the dying days of the 19th century. Black Bowen, the captain, turns out to be an infamous smuggler plying his trade off the north-west coast of Australia and up to Singapore. From terrifying encounters with cut-throat pirates to battling the forces of nature in a tropical typhoon, to encounters with head-hunting guerrillas, and even being nearly hanged by colonial troops, Red is in for the adventure of a lifetime. As the newest member of the crew of The Black Dragon, a sleek, fully-armed clipper, he is forced to quickly grow just to even survive. 

I have started the sequel to The Smuggler’s Curse. I had left the ending open for the next adventure, and my editor suggested I get on with it reasonably quickly so that any young fans of it will not grow too old before it comes out.

I am also working on a non-fiction book called In Search of Constable Jack Kelly. Constable Jack was the half-brother of Ned Kelly, the infamous bushranger. Unlike Ned, Jack had a glittering career as a world-famous circus performer who travelled the world and became rich and successful. For a couple of years, though, from 1906, he was based in Perth and had a job as a mounted policeman with the WA Police Force, before joining Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and travelling throughout the USA.

Q. Where are the main bookcases in your home or office? Do you also keep books in other places at home (or elsewhere)?

Norman IMG_1149

A. Jan and I have a dining room lined with floor to ceiling bookcases, a spare room with more shelves and my writing studio has three walls lined with shelves as well. We both have been collecting books all our lives, cannot bear to throw books away, and even get upset seeing them mishandled or damaged in any way. I am in favour of capital punishment for people who mistreat books — or at least, public flogging, stocks, branding and medieval pillories for public abuse, attack and ridicule.

Norman IMG_1174

Q. How are your books organised/arranged?

A. The non-fiction books are in very rough order of subject, and the fiction is everywhere – anywhere I could find a space to squash them in. Even though Jan was a librarian most of her working life, she has resisted Dewey-ing them. I have a large collection of film history books that take up several metres of shelving. Other than that, I can never find the book I am looking for.

Q. What sorts of books predominate? (ie general fiction; specific genres such as romance, science fiction or historical fiction; non-fiction; reference books; short stories; novels; poetry; drama; children’s or young adult fiction; picture books, etc.)

A. All of the above. We have a great collection of kids’ books signed by the authors, having met loads of them at festivals and on book tours over the years. I also love historical fiction, especially 18th-century sea stories like those of CS Forester and his Hornblower series, Julian Stockwin’s Kydd series, Alexander Kent’s books featuring British naval hero, Captain Bolitho, and Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander books. I like too the historical novels of CJ Sansom, like Dissolution and Lamentation, set in the times of King Henry VIII. They are so descriptive of Henry’s London that you feel grubby just reading them, and nervous that the king will come after you next — after he has finished chopping off the heads of those close to him. He was certainly keen on that.

Q. Describe your favourite reading place.

A. My favourite place of all is soaking in a hot bubble bath with water up to my eyes, soft music playing, and me lost in the story in some exotic location. The only downside of this is dosing off, dropping the book in the water and nearly drowning. And if you do that you deserve to drown. Having said that, I cannot sit anywhere alone without reading something, even if it is a newspaper, a 10-year-old magazine, a menu, street signs or even a Vegemite label.

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 am reading ABC broadcaster Richard Fidler’s Ghost Empire about him and his son visiting Istanbul, describing it now and writing about what the same place was like during its years when it was named Constantinople. Even being addicted to history as I am, I had little knowledge of the Byzantium Empire of Constantinople, so was surprised to find out about the huge numbers of mad emperors, unhinged queens and countless other crazies who lusted for power over the 2000 years of its turbulent history. I’ve almost finished it, and have been fascinated by every page.

Why did I choose it? It was new, historical and I enjoy Richard’s interviews every day on ABC Radio. He is a clever, interesting bloke who shows plenty of care and kindness with his guests.

I’m also re-reading an old 1980s adventure called High Citadel by Desmond Bagley, about a group of plane crash survivors sheltering in a mine in the Andes Mountains and under attack by Communist forces. I picked it up in a second-hand bookstore just for nostalgia’s sake as I remember enjoying it when it was first published during the Jurassic period.

Q. What are your favourite books and/or who are your favourite authors?

A. My favourite authors are Leslie Thomas and Tom Sharpe, both British  writers who generally wrote satirical comedy novels about ordinary people living suburban lives while mayhem surrounds them. When Leslie died in 2014 and Tom in 2013 I was shocked at how saddened I was each time, as if I had suddenly lost a part of me and a whole chunk of my early reading years. I didn’t know either of them, though I met Leslie Thomas briefly at a book signing after a talk he gave here in Perth. He answered ALL my questions then afterwards signed my book, “To my greatest fan, Norman”, and he wasn’t the least bit wrong.

I love the work of Bill Bryson and have read every word of his. We are much the same age, and his gentle sense of humour matches mine exactly. The Lost Continent: Travels in Small Town America, about him looking for the small town America of the old movies, is funny but also so sad as he slowly comes to realise that it has been lost and the towns have been devastated by enormous Walmarts, huge car parks, endless fast-food joints, closed factories, empty shops and despair.

His most successful book, Notes From a Small Island, about him revisiting the places he went when backpacking around Britain in the 1970s, is a joy to read. He gave his humour free rein, and I loved it, as I did with all his other books. He has since written 20 more.

The first writer to keep me awake all night was John Steinbeck and his book The Pastures of Heaven. In his interwoven stories in this one, nothing much happens, but you become trapped in the lives of his characters and can’t stop reading until you find out what happens to their dreams and plans. After that, I read The Grapes of Wrath, and then all his others. I greatly admire his spare style. Most of all, though, I love how he treats ordinary people, giving them a voice and highlighting their suffering and the widespread unfairness of their situations, caused, usually not by their own fault, but by uncaring banks, greedy landlords, exploitative employers and even just sandstorms, bad weather and bad luck.

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’d save my signed Leslie Thomas book, The Dearest and the BestAfter that, The Million Pound Bank Note, by Mark Twain, that my great grandfather, John Hansen Jorgensen, was reading when he was killed in a mining accident in Coolgardie in 1906. He signed his name in the front of it and, other than his wedding photo, it is the only keepsake I have of him. Finally, I’d save Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson. That, along with RSL’s other pirate book, Kidnapped, was the inspiration for The Smugglers’ Curse. If I could have a fourth, it had better be The Coral Island, by RM Ballantyne, as I suspect that may be a major influence on the upcoming Smugglers’ sequel.

Q. If you could sit down for afternoon tea with your three favourite characters or authors, who would they be, what would you serve them, and what would like to talk to them about?

A. Winston Churchill, war correspondent, England’s First Sea Lord, wartime prime minister, Nobel Prize-winning author of more than 30 books, including The History of the English-Speaking Peoples, and deeply flawed genius. I wouldn’t talk to Winston very much at all. I’d just sit and listen. Can you imagine what it would be like? The huge intellect, the voice, the history, and people he must have known over his long career. What would I serve him? Pol Roger, his favourite champagne, then his usual whisky, Johnny Walker Red Label, then, finally, Hine Brandy and a big fat cigar. I don’t imagine he’d be bothered with tea or sandwiches too much.

A fictional character I’d like to meet would be Captain Blood, the original swashbuckling pirate who was created by Rafael Sabatini in 1922. Actor Errol Flynn played him perfectly in the movie made in 1935 by Michael Curtiz and co-starring Olivia de Havilland. In fact, sharing afternoon tea with the three of them at the Admiral Benbow Inne, at Port Royal, Jamaica, would be so much fun. We’d have to be served up pewter goblets overflowing with Captain Morgan Rum, of course – arrr! And what would we talk about? In a pirate bar? In Jamaica? You wouldn’t be able to shut me up.

Then, like most people, I think I’d like to have afternoon tea with Atticus Finch, the hero of To Kill a Mockingbird. We’d discuss dignity, bravery, compassion and empathy, and all the other decent attributes that Harper Lee gave him in spades. We would discuss the Great Depression and Prohibition, which I find fascinating, and am intrigued at how those two elements led to an upsurge in socialism in America in the 1930s, as well as the appearance of the gangsters. And we could talk about Deep South racism, white poverty and the intolerance of the time. I think it would be a pleasant, warm afternoon chat on his verandah with Scout sitting and listening nearby. Oh, and I’m sure he would serve up Jambalaya, Crawfish Pie and Filé Gumbo, all washed down with Mint Juleps or Moonshine. Perhaps we’d even drink some Tequila Mockingbird…

For more from Norman, visit his website.

#normanjorgensen #childrenswriter #booksforkids #fremantlepress #thesmugglerscurse #koorlinyartscentre #storiesonstage #pirates #adventures #historicalfiction

Shelf Aware — Jane Rawson

Jane Rawson headshot

Author Jane Rawson.

Melbourne-based Jane Rawson’s new novel, From the Wreck, is both historical and speculative fiction, and unlike anything I’ve ever read before. Its unique premise combines a fictionalised account of the life story of her ancestor George Hills – who survived a shipwreck off the South Australian coast in 1859 – with that of an ethereal alien being, seeking refuge on Earth from another dimension.

The prose is, quite simply, breathtaking, with language used in innovative, sometimes startling and often visceral ways. It’s so good, in fact, that I ACTUALLY FOLDED OVER SEVERAL PAGES to mark significant or particularly beautiful passages.


Jane’s day job is in a communications role for the Victorian government. She’s a former travel writer, with her work appearing in Lonely Planet guides and other publications, and the co-author (with James Whitmore) of The Handbook: surviving and living with climate change.  Jane describes her previously published novella, Formaldehyde, as “an adorable little book about arm transplants and bureaucracy”, and fellow Melbourne author Steven Amsterdam describes her first novel, A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists, as a “free-range and funny apocalyptic time-space road trip”.

I was incredibly fortunate to interview Jane for Good Reading magazine, ahead of the release this month of From the Wreck, and I was captivated for every minute of our hour-long conversation.

 Jane has the sort of dry, self-deprecating humour that I particularly enjoy. She is smart as a whip, widely read, and modestly brushed aside my compliments about her writing. She graciously agreed to answer my ten questions for a guest post in the Shelf Aware series. I’m confident you’ll find her responses as entertaining as I did.

Q. How would you describe what you do and how you do it?

A. I’m a reader and a thinker and sometimes I get obsessed enough with an idea that I’m also a writer. Those ideas get written (sometimes multiple times) into short stories, novels and non-fiction, depending on how I feel.

Q. What projects are you currently working on or do you have in the pipeline?

A. The ideas that I’m fixated on at the moment are about extinction and about wild animals and how few of them are left – some of this is a continuation of ideas I was fixated on while writing From the Wreck. I’m collecting piles of information and thoughts that might turn into a novel or might turn into a long essay. They might also turn into nothing.

Meanwhile, I’m working on a project with my sister-in-law, who has made a series of beautiful and disturbing prints of alternative gods: I’m trying to write stories to accompany them.

Q. Where are the main bookcases in your home or office? Do you also keep books in other places at home (or elsewhere)?

A. I have three bookcases at home – one in the bedroom, one in the spare bedroom (which is also my writing room) and one in the lounge room. There are books on the floor next to my bed, on the night stand, on the kitchen table and in all my various handbags and backpacks.

Jane Rawson 1There’s no more space for books on my bookcases or bookcases in my house so I try to mostly borrow library books and stick to a ‘one-in-one-out’ policy – I can only buy a new book if I give an old one away. I fail nearly every day.

Q.How are your books organised/arranged?

A. I did once file my books by colour but I couldn’t find anything anymore so I went back to the much more conventional alphabetical order by author. Fiction and non-fiction are separated and non-fiction is clumped into a few not-very-specific groups.

Q. What sorts of books predominate?

A. Most of my books are fiction, and most of those are ‘literary fiction’ novels. But I also read stories, experimental fiction, speculative fiction and a little bit of crime, or anything else that takes my fancy. I have a poetry shelf and it’s almost entirely for show – beautiful volumes, entirely unread. I like books about science and the environment; I like books about Australian history; I like graphic novels and books about or full of photography.

Q. Describe your favourite reading place.

A. In bed at 6am, drinking a cup of tea and procrastinating from getting up and going to work. At a bar with a dirty martini, particularly when no one knows where I am. On the couch when I should be grocery shopping. On the train to work, when I forget I’m on the train to work.

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’ve just been in Mexico for a month and my reading habit is much disturbed. I started The Revolutionaries Try Again, by Mauro Javier Cardenas, and I started A Zero-Sum Game by Eduardo Rabasa, and I started Sidewalks by Valeria Luiselli – all Latin American books I thought it would be good to read while I was away – and I stopped all of them.


Theoretically I am reading them right now. Really I am reading Griffith Review’s new State of Hope edition about South Australia, because I have a story in it and they sent me a free copy. I’m loving it! The essays and stories are extremely well chosen, and I’ve fallen a bit in love with South Australia. I almost want to move to Adelaide.

Q. What are your favourite books and/or who are your favourite authors?

A. The book I have read the most times is Alive: The Story of the Andes survivors, by Piers Paul Read – it’s not a great book but I was obsessed by the tragic story of doomed young Latin American rugby players when I was 13 and I read it over and over and over. I think it kicked off my general fascination with Latin America, which I later claimed was based on a deep affinity with revolutionary politics. What a liar.

But that’s probably not what you mean. Books I have loved most recently are Ali Smith’s How to Be Both, Kevin Barry’s Beatlebone, The Solar Bones, by Mike McCormack, and Their Brilliant Careers, by Ryan O’Neill.

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. Honestly, I don’t think I would save any. I’m not that into books as objects or talismans, and in some ways it would be a huge weight removed if all my books disappeared. My to-read pile is stupidly big and a little anxiety-inducing. As long as the library always existed I think I’d be OK not to own books anymore. Remind me of this if you find me weeping in the street after a catastrophic fire.

Q. If you could sit down for afternoon tea with your three favourite characters or authors, who would they be, what would you serve them, and what would like to talk to them about?

A. I would invite Edith Campbell Berry, of Frank Moorhouse’s Grand Days trilogy, and no one else. I prefer talking one-on-one and anyway, I don’t want to share her. I’d serve her manchego cheese, roasted almonds, honey and slices of green apple, as well as some small slices of halva and nougat. She could choose from a very good dry sherry, sparkling wine or a martini (or all three: whatever she wants). We would talk about the public service, and also frocks, and maintaining decorum under the influence of alcohol.Grand Days

From the Wreck, by Jane Rawson, is published by Transit Lounge. RRP $29.95.

Find out more about Jane:



#janerawson #fromthewreck #transitelounge #speculativefiction #historicalfiction #australianauthor #formaldehyde #australianwomenauthors #awrongturnattheofficeofunmadelists #climatechange #thehandbook

Shelf Aware — Jennifer Ryan


Jennifer Ryan — author.

Let me introduce you to the delightful Jennifer Ryan, whose new novel, The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir, is in book stores now. It’s a wickedly witty, heart-warming and thoroughly entertaining glimpse at life in an English village in the early part of World War II. When the men from the village choir leave for the war front, the women who are left behind decide the show must go on — but not everybody in the village is keen on the idea of an all-female choir. Inspired by some of the reminiscences of her “Party Granny”, Mrs Eileen Beckley, who “loved nothing more than a pink gin and a jolly good knees-up”, the novel perfectly captures the voices of the women and men who inhabit its pages. Not surprisingly, it has been optioned for a TV show by the makers of Downton Abbey.

Jennifer grew up in Kent, but is now based in the Washington DC area. I had the great pleasure of interviewing Jennifer for the cover story for this month’s Good Reading, and found myself wishing I could fly across to DC, to sit down and share a nice hot cuppa (or perhaps a pink gin) and a good, long chat with her. She is as warm and witty as the nicest of the characters in her novel, and I’m sure you’ll enjoy her responses to my Shelf Aware questions.

Q. Jennifer, how would you describe yourself, as a writer?


The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir is out now.

A. I think I’m a number of different writers. I’m the writer who gets inside people’s brains and pretends to be them, writing down their thoughts and dreams. I’m also the writer who loves those moments when the pen runs away with you, and you’re writing beautiful, descriptive literary prose; sometimes you might even feel like Virginia Woolf during these moments! Then there are those times when I’m cleverly taking something I learnt in college and using it in my work, seeing an allusion fit perfectly, or a mesmerizing twist at the last minute.

And then I’m the writer who’s an editor. I used to be a nonfiction book editor, so I regularly can’t wait for the whole thing to be written so that I can get on with editing it. The transformation of something good into something wonderful happens most often for me at this stage. It’s like a puzzle that needs unravelling.

Q. What projects are you currently working on or do you have in the pipeline?

A. I have started a new book, which is also set in the Second World War but isn’t all that similar to The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir. It is, however, about women again, as I love to see how much they evolved through the war, being given new freedoms and interesting jobs, having more control over their lives, and of course facing the horrific realities of war. They have such spirit and energy, not to mention their wonderful voices.

Many people want to know if there’ll be a sequel to The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir, and I would love to write one, so maybe in the future.

Q. Where are the main bookcases in your home or office? Do you also keep books in other places at home (or elsewhere)?

A. We moved recently, so my books are scattered throughout the house, and are rather higgledy-piggledy, with work books mixed with novels and travel books and even some of my kids’ books intermingled. Some of the Second World War books that I’m currently using a lot for research are sitting in a shelf unit behind me here at my desk (which is the end of the dining room table). There are also some in the kitchen as there’s a built-in book shelf there and we don’t have many cookery books. The sitting room has shelf units that house most of my oldies, such as the Dostoyevskys and EM Fosters, and then there’s the inevitable pile next to the bed, which has grown to the extent that there’s a spare pile on the floor.


My book storage is all rather chaotic, and I’d like to say that I know where everything is but, well, that’s probably not the case. In fact, I have a suspicion that some of my books went astray during our move, or that we have a guest who steals books on a regular basis. My husband suggests that I might find the missing books if I simply reorganised them.

Q. How are your books organised/arranged?

A. No filing system, no colour coding, nothing. They’re a mish mash of everything, and although I keep thinking I’ll sort them out when I get the time, I’m not sure if I ever will.

Q. What sorts of books predominate?

A. It’s mostly fifty-fifty novels and nonfiction research books, with a few plays and short story volumes and the occasional travel guide. Of the novels, there are the classics and then a lot that are funny, from PG Wodehouse and EF Benson to Nick Hornby. There are many historical novels too, as I love that genre, especially Second World War books, such as Chris Cleave’s Everyone Brave is Forgiven and Marcus Zusak’s The Book Thief. There are a lot of collections of plays, and I still draw on them now for inspiration, such as Noel Coward, Oscar Wilde, and George Bernard Shaw. The nonfiction are largely Second World War memoirs and reference books. I have my favourites, such as Don’t Forget to Write: The True Story of an Evacuee and her Family, by Pam Hobbs.

Q. Describe your favourite reading place.

A. I read in bed every night before going to sleep, and look forward to it with a passion, sometimes going to bed early if I’m reading an especially good book. It could be a novel or nonfiction research material, where I usually take notes on a folded-up sheet of A4 tucked in and serving as a bookmark.

Trains, planes and waiting rooms are other favourite places. When you’re sitting in a train, you don’t need to be doing something else; it’s a time to indulge in the things we love doing the most.

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 The Trouble with Goats and Sheep, by Joanna Cannon. I’ve only just started and I’m already hooked. It is, unquestionably, the kind of book I enjoy: rich with humour, a great plot and fascinating characters. I can’t wait to get back to it!

Q. What are your favourite books and/or who are your favourite authors?

A. Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice has to be the best book ever written, and I don’t care that it’s everybody’s favourite too. Every time I read it, I get more from it, and I must have read it at least thirty times. It has a prime position beside my bed, as one never knows when one might be in need of a little Sir William Lucas or, my current favourite character, Caroline Bingley.

My second would be Mrs. Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf. I love the way the lyrical sentences carry me into a different world, almost to a higher spiritual plane.

Another favourite is Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh. I just love that compounded passion, the subtlety of the events, and, mostly, the powerful language. Sebastian has to be one of the best characters ever drawn.

It’s frivolous, I know, but another book I go back to time and time again is Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity. It’s set in north London, where I used to live, and inhabits a world that I miss; the chaos and the creativity blended with the comedic coming-of-age story. I love his use of lists, and have to say that everything I’ve ever written has to contain at least one, good list.

As for authors, Kate Atkinson has to be up there. Her Life After Life is a particularly excellent work. I love the way she plays with concept and form, and takes us into a double-meaning of everything we’re reading.

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’m thinking that the emergency is a nuclear explosion, and I’m trapped in a metal bunker for 15 years with only three books to help me through, so they’d have to be long and/or with potential for re-reading. The first would be Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, then Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, and finally Charles Dickens’ Bleak House. The last one has been sitting in my book shelf these past ten years, and I really need an excuse to get reading.

Q. If you could sit down for afternoon tea with your three favourite characters or authors, who would they be, what would you serve them, and what would like to talk to them about?

A. The first would have to be Virginia Woolf. I’d just like to get inside her head, work out who she really is, how she sees the world. I think I have an idea of her and I’d like to see if she fits with that. I’d also like to talk to her about sentence construction and the poetry of her work. I don’t think it would matter what we ate and drank. Tea perhaps?

The second would be Dorothy Parker. I think I’d just let her lead the conversation, perhaps prompting her with questions like: What is your favourite memory? Who in history would you have liked to marry? How would you like to be remembered? I’d serve fancy hors d’oeuvres with cocktails, of course!

My third would be Kate Atkinson. I adore her books, and have a thousand questions about them and how she created them, especially her lateral thinking through the concept and plotlines. She always brings so much to the table with every novel, and I’d love some insight into how she does that. My guess is that she’d be a tea and scones kind of woman.

The Childbury Ladies’ Choir, by Jennifer Ryan, is published in Australia by HarperCollins, rrp $29.99.

Find out more about Jennifer here:

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