In her responses to my Shelf Aware questions, below, US-based Australian author Goldie Goldbloom describes how Kelly Link’s Magic for Beginners makes her “insides go funny” when she reads it. That’s pretty much what happened to me when I read Goldie’s most recent novel, Gwen, released by Fremantle Press earlier this year. It is an exquisitely crafted imagining of the life of artist Gwendolen Mary John, who studied at the Slade School of Art in the 1890s — at that time, the only art school in the United Kingdom that accepted female students.
Goldie’s book is set a few years later, in 1903, as Gwen travels from London to France with her companion Dorelia, and the two women walk from Calais to Paris, in search of painter and sculptor Auguste Rodin.
Gwen is by turns tragic, comical, erotic, haunting and breathtakingly beautiful, charged with an undercurrent of melancholy yet tinged with hope. I’ve kept it on my bedside table long after I finished reading it, because each time I look at it I experience a surge of bittersweet satisfaction.
As you’ll see from her responses, Goldie is warm, witty, engaging and possesses an enviable way with words. She made me laugh out loud on several occasions and left a lingering smile on my face — especially when she questioned my request for her favourite books or authors. Her magnificent bookshelves had me on the verge of swooning — they are clearly cherished and must bring great pleasure to Goldie and her family.
As you’ll also see, Goldie’s favourite authors include some names familiar to Australian readers, as well as a few whose works I now intend to seek out. Enjoy every line of this delightful guest blog… I’m going to read it again now myself!
Q. Goldie, how would you describe the work that you do and how you do it?
A. What an interesting question! I think of my work as a kind of slow undressing of a character, bringing them back to something elemental that they might not have been aware of in themselves. It’s not easy work, and I spend a lot of time thinking about the psychology involved and also pondering the inner life of my characters. It might just be an excuse for why I’m off with the fairies for much of the day, but I don’t really think so. I enjoy thinking and thinking about a question until I am able to come up with something that feels like a solution.
Q. What projects are you currently working on or do you have in the pipeline?
A. A while ago, I wanted to write a funny book for my son’s birthday, and so I began work on a young adult book and that’s been a lot of fun. I stopped working on it for a while when my son said he’d really rather have a bike, but I’m back on track now.
My favourite project right now is a new novel about two women who were professors at Columbia University in New York around the turn of the last century. They both worked with an organization that promoted peace around the world, but then one of them, a professor of chemistry, ended up working on the Manhattan Project, building the atom bomb. I’m really curious how a person moves from being a peace activist to someone who is enriching uranium. And how she continued to love and be loved by her peace-activist partner.
I am also working on a memoir. That’s embarrassing to admit. I’m not sure it’ll ever be published. Oh, but it’s hilarious!
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 far more books than anyone I know. My kids say that I’m a pack rat but only when it comes to books. That’s probably true. I have bookshelves in every room of my house except the dining room, and they are all full to overflowing. There’s a library with all of the Hebrew and Yiddish books and all of the young adult books on the first floor of the house. There’s a library of all the nonfiction books on the second floor. My study is also wall-to-wall books, but it’s the alphabetized fiction section of my library. I have three metre tall library shelving in my bedroom and another collection of bookshelves in the hallway that are full of poetry. Garden and architecture books live in the lounge room, next to the fire. Sewing, craft, art and costume books are all in the basement sewing room. There’s an eclectic collection to browse in every bathroom, just in case you are there for any time.
Q. How are your books organised/arranged?
A. I was formerly a research librarian, so my books are organized by category, and then within the categories, by either Dewey decimal system (for the nonfiction books) or by alphabetical last names of the writers (for the fiction/poetry/short stories and books about writing)
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. It’s a bit hard to say. I have several rooms full of some of these categories. I’ll do my best. Here goes: I have a ton of general fiction, or perhaps literary fiction might be a better descriptor, since I don’t have any James Patterson books, for example. I really love (and teach) science fiction, fantasy, speculative fiction, weird fiction of any kind, so I do have a lot of volumes from that field. Every time I see a book about death, destruction, tattoos, weird stuff, teratology, circuses, medical curiosties or bizarre things, I usually buy it, so I have a giant collection that lands on my “Weird Stuff” shelves, which are nonfiction, but they are already crowded with natural history, biology, botany, zoology. I have a larger collection of children and young adult books than my local branch of the Chicago Public Library, so there’s that. Gosh…I don’t really know. I have a ton of everything you mentioned except romance books.
Q. Describe your favourite reading place.
A. My bathtub. It’s enormous. There’s a giant skylight overhead. All of this sounds like I’m rich, but actually, I just own a huge and crumbling Victorian house and spend all of my spare cash on used books.
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 read different books in different places/times during the day. I just rounded up my books and there’s quite a pile.
I am currently reading I Forgot to Remember by Su Meck in the middle of the night when I get woken up and can’t go back to sleep. I purchased it to understand something more about amnesia, since I am writing about amnesia. I just finished reading Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir, which was my previous midnight book. It was excellent. Highly recommended!
I just finished The Marrying of Chani Kaufman by Eve Harris which I saved for reading on the plane throughout February when I was lecturing in a lot of different places around the USA. I chose it because it’s about the chassidic community of which I am part, and I was looking forward to a well-crafted novel about my world.
Since I drive carpool for many hours a day and often have to wait for half an hour at a time, I have a special car book. Right now, it’s William Gay’s short story collection i hate to see that evening sun go down. William Gay came to me on recommendation from my friend Judy Smith. She thought I might like the harsh edges and I do. His story, “The Paperhanger,” will put icicles in your eyeballs.
I made a promise to myself to always read a short story every day, and those half-hour periods while I am waiting around are perfect for reading a short story. I keep a short story collection in my car at all times. It’s remarkable what you can get read in a day if you aren’t messing around with your phone.
My main bedside read right now is Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, which is absolutely exquisite. I am insanely jealous of his lyrical writing. If you do nothing else today, run out and buy his book, and then sit down and read it. If I’m not in the mood for fiction (it happens!), I read Andrew Solomon’s book Far From the Tree, another must-read book. He has elucidated things about the world I have never been able to get a grip on before. Brilliant.
Waiting for the moment when I finish my Richard Flanagan, is Ruth Ozeki’s new book A Tale for the Time Being. Most of my books are recommendations from other writers who have some sense of what I like to read, and so I rarely get a dud. Unlike when people rely on certain (swear words) mammoth bookselling giants, recommendations from friends are wonderfully random, and consistently broaden my horizons in ways I couldn’t have foreseen.
Q. What are your favourite books and/or who are your favourite authors?
A. It’s unfair to ask a parent to choose their favourite child.
I can give you a list of writers who are just phenomenal. Everything they write,
every time, takes my breath away. I know that’s not what you asked but it’s what
I’m willing to give…
Richard Flanagan is a new favourite, Elena Ferrante, Andrea Barrett, Tim Winton,
Kelly Link, George Saunders, Peter Carey, Graham Greene, Angela Carter, Colm
Toibin, Shirley Hazard, Colum McCann, Deborah Levy, Ottessa Moshfegh,
Geraldine Brooks, Katherine Dunn, Margaret Atwood, William Trevor, JM
Coetzee, Patrick White.
Now I feel like a bad parent because this list is only a tiny portion of the writers I
really love and respect. See what you made me do?
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 kids first. And then, and only then, if everyone were out, I’d go and say goodbye to my books. But I wouldn’t save any because I’d be crying too hard.
But in the event I’d be able to pull myself together (highly unlikely), I’d maybe save Kelly Link’s Magic for Beginners because it makes my insides go funny when I read it. I’d probaby save the little handmade book I made about the first ten years of my kids’ lives, because it’s not replaceable now that my memory is going down the tubes. And Jim Crace’s Being Dead because then I’d be able to remind myself that things just keep on moving. And because it’s so extraordinarily beautiful, that while I wept over the loss of my library, I could console myself with the beauty of his words.
Q. If you could sit down for afternoon tea with your three favourite characters or authors (or poets, or illustrators), who would they be, what would you serve them, and what would like to talk to them about?
A. Oh! I’d love to meet my own character, Gwen John, from my latest novel! I’d pair her with Andrea Barrett, because I think they’d get on like a house on fire, and because I love them both. I’d sit back and just let them natter on, I think. And I’d have to have Tim Winton, not so much because he goes with the other two, but just because I’m a crazy fangirl and I’d want to talk whales with him. So while we were chatting about sperm whales and animal communication and neural spindles and the gorgeous gorgeous ocean, which would have to be just off to the left, I’d have an ear out for what Andrea and Gwen were saying. Maybe I’d get up the nerve to ask Gwen some big questions, ones I’ve been wanting to ask her. But maybe I wouldn’t. I’m pretty shy. Andrea would have to do all the talking and she would, because she has this amazing unforgettable voice. And I’d serve them all cheese blintzes, because Gwen is a vegetarian. And because they are yummy and quick. And there’d be oranges. With salt.
Visit Goldie Goldbloom’s website here.
You can buy Gwen by Goldie Goldbloom through Fremantle Press here.