Australian author Alice Nelson is a rare talent. She has the capacity to take some of the most challenging, heartbreaking and horrific topics and write about them in ways that are accessible and engaging without compromising on their oftentimes brutal honesty. In the wake of the release of her latest novel, The Children’s House (Penguin Australia), I’ve been remembering the impact of an earlier work — After This: Survivors of the Holocaust speak (Fremantle Press) — a collection of interviews with Australian-based survivors of the Holocaust. It was released in 2015, to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, and it remains one of the most compelling reflections of strength, resilience and the healing powers of hope that I have ever read.
Alice was named one of the Sydney Morning Herald’s Best Young Australian Novelists for her first novel, The Last Sky, and her short fiction, essays and reviews have appeared in publications such as The Sydney Review of Books, The Asia Literary Review, Southerly Magazine and The West Australian.
I took great delight in reading her responses to my questions, and was mesmerised by the image of the magnificent floor-to-ceiling shelves that house her collection of books. I’m confident you’ll also enjoy reading this post from my latest Shelf Aware guest.
Q. Alice, how would you describe the work that you do and how you do it?
A. My first love is fiction, and I’m happiest when I’m immersed in work on a novel, though I do find the writing process frequently agonising and usually very slow. I write as much as I possibly can; in whatever spells of time I can carve out for myself.
Q. What can you tell us about your latest writing project/book release?
A. My latest novel, published this month, is called The Children’s House (Penguin Australia). The book had a complex genesis. One level it grew out of a cluster of questions that would not leave me. How do we reconcile ourselves with great loss? What do we do with the complicated burdens of inheritance? How do those whose psyches have been profoundly damaged care for children? What are the best ways to remember and to memorialise? Why is the cost of love sometimes so heavy? These are all questions that inherently have no real answers, but writing the novel was a way for me to immerse myself in these concerns.
On a more tangible level, The Children’s House was very much inspired and influenced by my work over many years with refugees and asylum seekers, and some of the complex friendships I have formed with several individuals.
The novel is out soon and it’s an exciting, but also rather nerve-wracking, time to know that the book is on the cusp of its journey into the wider world.
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’m extraordinarily fortunate in that I have a dedicated library with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves and a sliding ladder. It’s been one of the dreams of my adult life to have such an arrangement, and it gives me immense joy. Of course, despite this extravagant amount of shelf space, my house is also full of stacks of books in various other places, including the ever-expanding pile of books to be read that I keep beside my bed.
Q. How are your books organised/arranged?
A. Despite my much more pragmatic stepson’s efforts to entice me to apply the Dewey Decimal System to the ordering of my library, I’m afraid that it is rather more haphazard than anyone scientifically minded would approve of. Fiction is ordered alphabetically, but non-fiction is arranged far more idiosyncratically, with clusters of books that just seem to belong together. There are sections for various books I’ve used for research, a poetry shelf, a section on birds, a shelf of art books, and assorted other thematic groupings which are mostly intelligible only to me.
Q. What sorts of books predominate?
A. Literary fiction seems to make up the vast majority of my collection, though there’s a substantial amount of poetry, essays and various non-fiction books too. There are also various esoteric clusters of books I’ve collected as research for writing projects. There’s a character in The Children’s House who is an avid birdwatcher, so I have a whole shelf of books on birds and birdwatching. The research for the novel also lead me into explorations of the Romani people of Eastern Europe, the Hasidic Jewish community of Crown Heights in Brooklyn, kibbutzim in Israel and the lives of Catholic nuns, so there are little pockets of all these mysterious and seemingly unrelated texts I’ve accumulated on the strange circuitous journey of writing a novel.
Q. What are your favourite books and/or who are your favourite authors?
A. There are so many writers I adore and who have been so profoundly important in my life that it’s always hard to narrow it down. I love Anne Michaels, Michael Ondaatje, Chekhov, Siri Hustvedt, Lorrie Moore, Edwidge Danticat, W.G Sebald, Helen Garner, Tolstoy, Louise Gluck, Stanley Kunitz, Marguerite Duras, Colum McCann, Michael Cunningham, Toni Morrison. I have so many favourite books that it’s almost impossible to nominate them in a list but I do think that Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient is a perfect novel; to me it is completely inexhaustible. I could read it a thousand times.
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 would choose my copy of Let The Great World Spin, which Colum McCann signed for me in New York, the copy of The Rings of Saturn by W.G Sebald that I took with me on my own pilgrimage in his footsteps along the Suffolk coast and a tiny, limited edition collection of essays by Anne Michaels called Infinite Gradation because it is such a rare and beautiful book.
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 think I would have to invite Marguerite Duras, Michael Ondaatje and Anne Michaels. We would sit in the sun under a plane tree (ideally in the south of France) and drink Lillet blanc and talk about life, love and the complex inheritances and hauntings of the past. Although in reality, writers are often reclusive and introverted so perhaps I would need to stock up on the Lillet!
Alice Nelson is also the author of After This: Survivors of the Holocaust speak (Fremantle Press).