How did you get into bookselling?
I started working in publishing after finishing university and really loved being an editor. But I always felt I needed to know how the entire industry worked and see the bookselling side. So after a restructure at the publishing house I was working at, I went and saw Andrew Robertson at Hill of Content and asked him for a part-time job. I was very lucky as someone had recently left. I ultimately went back to a full-time publishing role and then moved to Switzerland for five years where I worked as a freelance editor. When I moved back to Melbourne seven years ago I went to see Andrew again and was lucky enough to slot right back in at Hill of Content and I haven’t looked back.
What do you love most about being a bookseller?
I love recommending books. I love thinking about the exact right book for the person standing in front of me and what I know about them. I want the right book to meet the right person at the right time. Being part of that process is pure joy. It’s also ridiculously gratifying when that person comes back to tell you how much they loved the book you recommended.
How has bookselling changed this year?
This year has been tough as we started the year with a flood at the shop and the first floor closed for a month. And then Covid hit. Being an online-only bookseller while Melbourne was in lockdown was really hard and it’s weirdly only been since we reopened that I realised just how hard it was. All the incidental interactions you have with customers and staff and friends and locals were gone and it was just you and a computer and the post office. I felt I spent months putting rectangles into rectangles and really missed the joyous parts of bookselling. But now that we’ve reopened, our regulars have flooded back in and the hardest thing has been not to hug them all. They’ve all been reading a lot (and were so supportive ordering from us all through lockdown) and we’re having those wonderful bookish conversations again. So bookselling is back! The thing that really changed was how we ordered and reordered for the shop while we were closed, but I won’t bore you with that! We’ve also stopped hosting events and I really miss that.
What kinds of books do you gravitate towards?
This has changed so much over the years. I love good writing and will read anything that’s well-written. That said, give me a disaffected woman protagonist adrift in the world and making terrible but understandable decisions and I’m yours. Give me a campus novel about female friendship and I will not put it down. Give me anything Curtis Sittenfeld chooses to write. Give me a high-concept short story collection and I will devour it whole. Ultimately though, what the story is about is less important than how it’s told. I love writers who can set and maintain mood and tone. I love writers who play with form. I love dialogue that leaps from the page and rings true. But what I love most of all are writers who tell a story that I cannot stop reading, and whether that’s a romance novel from Jasmine Guillory or literary fiction from Elizabeth Strout is almost beside the point.
What is a recent Australian title you loved?
I started reading Lucky’s by Andrew Pippos last night and it is already proving to be quite delightful. I ADORED Smart Ovens for Lonely People and Elizabeth Tan is officially one of my favourite Australian writers.
It’s been a truly fantastic year for Australian fiction. Kokomo, The Octopus and I and Sorrow and Bliss were all breathtakingly brilliant. Gail Jones’s Our Shadows was incredible as was Amanda Lohrey’s The Labyrinth. Stone Sky Gold Mountain sets a new standard for Australian historical fiction. Ordinary Matter by Laura Elvery is exactly what a short story collection should be.
I have a few remaining Australian books to read before the year is out and I suspect they might all be worthy of mention: Life After Truth by Ceridwen Dovey, Revenge by S. L. Lim, Dreams they Forgot by Emma Ashmere and Song of the Crocodile by Nardi Simpson.
And then I start on all the incredible Australian titles being published in 2021! And so it goes. Being a bookseller is the best!
Your book recommendations are legendary in the biz. Can you give us some recommendations for a book to make you laugh, a book to make you cry, and a book to change your life (no pressure…)?
That’s very nice of you to say. Here goes:
To make you laugh (and I’m sticking to fiction): Less by Andrew Sean Greer, Spoiled Brats by Simon Rich, Single Carefree Mellow by Katherine Heiny, Skippy Dies by Paul Murray, Made for Love by Alissa Nutting, if dark and weird makes you laugh (it makes me laugh), The Throwback Special by Chris Bachelder.
To make you cry: Mayflies by Andrew O’Hagan (I haven’t cried like that in a while), Heavy by Kiese Laymon, A Little Life by Hanya Yanigahara, One Hundred Years of Dirt by Rick Morton, Did you Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg, Imagine me Gone by Adam Haslett.
To change your life: I need to know more information about the person whose life I need to choose a book to change, but for me I would say The History of Love by Nicole Krauss, What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt, Pastoralia or Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders, and Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. Oh and Bel Canto by Ann Patchett. And American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld. And Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. I could go on … A really good book can change your life – you can be a different person at the start of reading it to who you are at the end.
What’s on your summer reading list?
A lot! I’m desperate to get my hands on the new Katherine Heiny and George Saunders and they’ll go straight to the top of the pile.
Then I start on 2021 and I’m really excited about The Performance by Clare Thomas, The Newcomer by Laura Elizabeth Woollett, A Room Called Earth by Madeleine Ryan, The Price of Two Sparrows by Christy Collins, Eating with my Mouth Open by Sam Van Zweden, The Prophets by Robert Jones Jr and Born into This by Adam Thompson.