In one of those delightful moments of literary serendipity, I had the great pleasure of meeting my latest Shelf Aware guest blogger Portland Jones through a mutual writer friend here in Perth, Western Australia. At the time, my friend was keen to start a book club and, as someone who knows the value of a good book club, I offered to help set it up. The first book my friend had chosen was Portland Jones’ breathtaking and heartwrenching debut novel, Seeing the Elephant (Margaret River Press), which had been right at the top of my “to read” pile. Best of all, Portland had agreed to be a guest at the book club’s inaugural meeting.
Seeing the Elephant is an unforgettable story about the friendship that develops between an Australian soldier and his Vietnamese guide, during the Vietnam War. The language is lyrical and evocative, the characters beautifully drawn, and the plot compelling and emotionally charged. In short, it offers everything I always look for in a novel.
Portland has proven that, as well as being a gifted novelist, she’s also incredibly patient — for which I’m immensely grateful. Portland answered my Shelf Aware questions several months ago, but as I had so many posts organised so far ahead, it has taken me until now to be able to share her responses. I’m confident you’ll agree they are well worth the wait.
In another delightfully serendipitous twist, in her answers to my final question, below, Portland reveals that one of the guests she would invite to afternoon tea is emerging author Louise Allan — the “writer friend” of mine who hosted that inaugural book club meeting (and who will be a guest on Shelf Aware around the time her debut novel, The Sisters’ Song, is released early next year). Another of Portland’s preferred guests is Rashida Murphy, who was also at that inaugural book club meeting, and whose debut novel, The Historian’s Daughter, was my choice for the club to read (Rashida’s Shelf Aware guest post can be revisited here).
For now, sit back and enjoy reading about Portland’s other job in the equine industry, the new novel she’s working on, and some of her favourite books and authors.
Q. Welcome to Shelf Aware, Portland. How would you describe the work you do and how you do it?
A. I’m a horse trainer. Which is a lot like being a nanny for a classroom full of 600kg toddlers on cocaine… It’s quite dynamic at times. It’s a fairly physical job, occasionally dangerous but very rarely boring.
My partner and I start young horses under saddle and retrain difficult ones using an evidence based approach. We coach, give demos and I also lecture in horse behaviour at university. Last year we published a book about horse training called, Horses Hate Surprise Parties and we write for the equestrian press – mostly about various ways of ensuring horse training is ethical and sustainable.
Our days start at 5am and running the business takes up most of the day. We’re usually inside for a couple of hours in the middle of the day and that’s when we answer emails, blog, write and make sure we look after our team of sponsors via social media. I try to spend an hour each day managing the writing side of my life but it doesn’t always work out that way – which is why I am writing this in the horse truck with my laptop balanced on my knees.
I love all animals and I feel very strongly that they must be treated with respect and kindness. We try to advocate for the horse and to teach people that there is always a better way. I like to think that if I stand up for what I know is right I’m making my small corner of the world a better place.
Q. What projects are you currently working on or do you have in the pipeline?
A. At the moment I’m working on my second novel which is based on some of my family’s history. My great-grandfather was captured by the Japanese in Sumatra during WW2 and imprisoned. Like many of the prisoners he was put to work building a railway line through the jungle and, like many of the prisoners, he died. The railway that he helped to build was finished on the day that Japan surrendered and never saw a train. It’s an interesting story.
Sometimes I think I choose to write about places that I want to go to as an excuse to get there. I’ve always wanted to see Sumatra. My grandparents lived there for many years and I grew up on their stories. When I decided to write about the railway I finally had justification for a visit. I went in 2015 and loved it. Now, thanks to the internet I have befriended a New Zealander living over there who has plotted the entire course of the line with a drone and a four-wheel drive and we’re really excited to be going back in May to drive parts of it with him.
We also have another horse training book planned and I would really love to write some children’s fiction – but my main priority at the moment is the novel.
Q. Where are the main bookcases in your home or office?
A. We have books everywhere at home. Mostly they are in the two living areas but I have stacks on my bedside table and on my office desk. One entire wall of our living room is taken up with book shelves and my partner, Sophie, made me a beautiful ladder so I can reach the top shelves. We also have books about horses in our outside office and tack room. I am a minimalist in everything but books.
Q. How are your books organised or arranged?
A. I keep non-fiction books arranged (sort of) according to subject and I have a filing system for my fiction but it’s probably more about how they make me feel than any objective and demonstrable criteria. I read by theme, so when I was doing my PhD I read lots of books about the Vietnam War. They all lived in piles on my desk while I was writing but now they live together on the shelves. The day I submitted my thesis I transferred them from my desk to the shelf. The day of the great book migration was a particularly satisfying one.
I also keep my favourite children’s books together. I couldn’t face the thought of giving away books like, Guess How Much I Love You. I read that book to my three children so many times that I think I can recite it all without looking at the text.
Q. What sorts of books predominate?
A. I think my books are pretty evenly split between literary fiction and non-fiction, particularly history. I love poetry too. I also love travel books – the Lonely Planet guides are definitely a guilty pleasure; I have heaps of them. And cookbooks… I really like cookbooks because they have nice pictures and always have a happy ending.
Q. Describe your favourite reading place.
A. I read in bed at night before going to sleep. It’s a lifelong, unbreakable habit. No phone, quiet and warm – bliss.
Q. What book/s are you reading right now? Why did you choose that book/those books?
A. I always have several books in circulation. I have just finished Anthony Doerr’s, All The Light We Cannot See and just loved it. But I’m also reading The Desert Anzacs which is primarily about the light horse, Walking Wounded, about a group of combat veterans walking the Kokoda Trail and The Diary of Prisoner 17326, about a boy interned in a Japanese POW camp in Sumatra. I also have 2 academic papers to read and I am very eagerly awaiting the arrival of another biography of T.E Lawrence because I am absolutely fascinated by his story.
Q. What are your favourite books and/or who are your favourite authors?
A. I love Patrick White, Voss is so darkly complex and lyrical – and so perfect. And Tim Winton of course, just a monstrous talent. Richard Flanagan is a wonderful storyteller. Annie Proulx has the best ear for the spoken word I’ve ever come across, her gift is extraordinary.
I love Abraham Verghese, his novel Cutting for Stone is beautiful on every page. Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried is the most evocative book I have ever read about the aftermath of war. Michael Herr’s Dispatches started my love affair with modern history.
Randolph Stowe writes place beautifully and Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things is a masterpiece in every way. I love everything that David Mitchell has published (quite honestly I would read his shopping lists) but Cloud Atlas is one of the most immense, ambitious and wonderful books in my collection.
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. If there was an emergency the first thing I’d save is my library ladder. Not just because it’s beautiful but because it reminds me every day that hard work and optimism are the cure for almost everything. If I lost all my books I would need to be reminded of that.
Once I’d packed my ladder the first book I would save would be my much sticky-taped copy of Hamlet. I read it for the first time at 17 and cried for the impossible beauty of it. The two eldest of my three children also love it. My third child is perhaps a little young, so I would save the book for him in the hope that he, also, will find something truly extraordinary within its pages.
I would also save The Collected Works of Banjo Paterson – not just because his are the rhythms and the words of my childhood but also because my father gave it to me when I was ten in the hope that it would start a lifelong love of writing and reading. That love has been the best gift anyone could ever wish for.
Lastly, I would save my family’s copies of the Harry Potter books because, quite frankly, if I didn’t my children would disown me. They have been read and reread many times over and to me they represent what is unique and magical about the experience of reading. I think that books find you at certain times of your life – maybe they show you the way, or offer some kind of comfort, perhaps they inspire or support you. But, in the end, it doesn’t matter why a book speaks to you, it just matters that it does. The Harry Potter series helped inspire in each of my children a love of fiction and so, for me, it holds a special place in my heart.
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 you like to talk to them about?
A. I have to admit that if I was asked to plan my perfect afternoon tea I would, without hesitation, choose my best friends and family as guests. Life is very hectic and I realised with sadness a while ago that I spend more time with my dogs than I do with the people who matter most. I really love my dogs but I have to say that their conversation is fairly limited.
However, that’s not really playing by the rules of this game… So I would choose three West Australian writers because I think it would be great fun. I would invite Richard Rossiter, not just because he is a great writer, editor and mentor but because he is my friend and always interesting. I would also invite Louise Allan and Rashida Murphy – I met them both quite recently (since Seeing the Elephant was published) and to me they represent the tip of what is an enormous iceberg of supportive local writers. I think there must be something very therapeutic about ink because writers are some of the kindest people I know.
I’m not sure what we would eat or talk about but champagne would definitely be on the menu. Any day when you get to sit down and spend some time with interesting people who love books is a day worthy of celebration.
Buy Seeing the Elephant, by Portland Jones, here.
Visit Portland’s website here.