The 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)?
A. 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?
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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