I must admit, I usually avoid answering queries about what I’m reading. It seems a question so embroiled in judgement. Is what I read a judgment of what I do not? Will my taste as a writer be judged by my choice—is it too populist, too literary, too genre? Part of me knows that this is absurd, a fear brought on by imposter syndrome or some other unnamed paranoid condition that infects those who write. Even so, the self-consciousness is there and hard to shake.
The reality is that I rarely choose my own list anymore—especially where fiction is concerned. My reading is comprised of the work of writers with whom I speak on panels, new books I’m asked to endorse and the latest releases of friends. I do still browse bookshops and select novels for no other reason than the title, or the cover or the jacket blurb caught my eye. But even as I hand over my credit card and hug my purchase to my chest, I know it will just sit on my shelf. Sit until I get through the stack I must read. Until the world finally slows down.
This is by no means a complaint… reading books that have been selected for me by panel appearances, endorsement requests and friendships has provided me with a superb list of mostly extraordinary Australian writers, and a handful of internationals. It has exposed me to books that I might not have selected otherwise. Books which have entranced and inspired me, in spite of their origin in my ‘must read’ pile. It has kept my reading eclectic, pushing me beyond the comfort I find in historical and crime novels, to memoir and literary novels, science fiction and fantasy and essays on social justice.
The question of what I’m reading is also convoluted by the fact that when I’m working on a new manuscript, I do not read fiction. You see, there are voices in my head. The characters of my novels have taken up residence. When I’m not writing, they are good tenants… quiet, undemanding. But, when I am writing they throw parties and believe themselves entitled to my undivided attention. I wouldn’t be a writer if I couldn’t cope with this, but there are only so many people you can house in your head before the noise becomes unbearable.
When I read fiction, the figments of other writers’ imaginations often stop in to stay awhile in my rather too hospitable fancy. Indeed, the characters of a good book speak to me long after that book is closed and re-shelved. It means reading is a wonderful, vibrant, personal experience, but it’s not conducive to writing. I cannot hear clearly the voices that are part of the story I’m trying tell. Some months ago, I read Marija Peričić’s The Lost Pages (which I adored) and now Franz Kafka (or Peričić’s version of him) keeps trying to insert himself into a Rowland Sinclair mystery. How do you tell Kafka that you have no part for him? How do you get Kafka to listen?
Interestingly, those I meet in non-fiction don’t insinuate themselves the same way—unless of course I have converted them into characters myself for use in my own writing. There seems to be something about the novelist’s art, whether mine or another’s, that gives the imagined a key to the world within my head, and breathes life in a way that even the most beautiful of biographies cannot. So, when I am writing, as I am now, for the sake of my own sanity, I restrict myself to non-fiction. And because I am writing, the non-fiction I’m reading is often research.
Finally, with these provisos and disclaimers—my legal background at play perhaps—I get to what I am actually reading, at and about this moment in time.
Shanghai Grand by Taras Grescoe, sits on the old trunk I’ve made my bedside table. It is an account of the life of American writer and journalist, Emily (Mickey) Hahn, in Shanghai in the lead up to WWII. Grescoe paints a vivid picture of the city as an eastern Babylon—glamorous, exotic and doomed. It is a base from which I have been able to direct further research, and has helped me understand the unique nature of Shanghai as a foreign port.
Also, on this trunk is my iPad onto which are downloaded articles, too numerous to list. They speak to subjects such as politics in the 1930s, a variety of historical figures and their lives, art and artists, race, class, aircraft, and appropriations and re-imaginings of mythology in contemporary literature. Many don’t deal directly with the book I’m writing, but they do speak to the causes and the ramifications of issues I’m examining in and through my work. They are wide ranging because most events in history have significant ripples. And it is the ripples that interest me.
Finally, that iPad maintains my connection to the National Library’s digitised database of newspapers—Trove. Old newspaper articles brim with information on not only what was happening in a particular year, but what people thought was happening. In the end, it is the latter that influences behaviour and gives us an insight into why people loved and hated, fought and died, why some were lauded and others reviled.
When I’m writing, I do miss reading fiction. I miss the presence of other writers’ imaginings and people for whom I’m not responsible in my head. I miss being shown what other authors see, in their minds’ eyes. And I miss being invited to enter a story, that is told by someone other than myself. Still, my current novel is nearly finished; soon I’ll be able to immerse myself in fiction again… until I start writing the next book.
Sulari Gentill is the internationally-published, award-winning author of the Rowland Sinclair Mysteries, the Hero Trilogy and the metafiction, Crossing the Lines. She remains in love with the art of writing.