How long have you had this job? What route did you take to get here?
I came to the Guardian’s books desk in a rather roundabout way. I studied journalism and international relations in Australia, my homeland, then began working as a radio producer for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. But reading has always been my most beloved pastime, so I simultaneously worked as a bookseller for four years. When I moved to the UK, I initially found it very hard to get into the media. It felt as though there were still a lot of closed doors for people taking less conventional paths. I began working as a bookseller again while I hunted for work, writing for free after hours and on days off, and using my holidays to do internships. But bookselling was unexpectedly helpful for my job now – I understand the trade from the inside. I’m so thankful I was able to do it for so long – yes, customers can be as weird as you think, but it is one of the best jobs you can do. And maybe I will return to it one day.
I managed to get two weeks of work experience on the Guardian books desk in 2014, baffled them with my youthful charm, and they’ve been unable to get rid of me ever since.
What appealed to you about working on the books desk?
Even in Australia, where I could only ever buy Guardian Weekly, the Guardian has always had a reputation for the high quality of its literary journalism. I see it as a good blend of the focused literary criticism found in the likes of the Times Literary Supplement or Paris Review, and a broader view of the world that only a big, international-facing newspaper can take.
How do you go about selecting the books, writers and topics that you’ll cover?
My focus is split between daily news and the weekly literary magazine, Review. In terms of news, we like to keep a balance between what we think a general reader will be interested in and more specialised, esoteric joys. News can be anything from an author revealing something spectacular in a new biography, to a poet being imprisoned for their writing, or even something a little more in-depth about the neighbourhood libraries of Indonesia. But we also love to do deep dives into old manuscripts and archives to find interesting stories that need telling – like the nun who pretended to be dead to escape a convent. We get lots of great tips from academics and researchers on things they’ve found. They’re always my favourites.
In Review, we tend to focus on literary fiction and popular non-fiction, so all our interviews, essays and reviews will touch on those areas. As Review tends to do a lot of the heavy lifting for featuring big names as writers and subjects, I like to do as much as I can with lesser known writers online, like our First Book interview series or the Books podcast.
Do you have a favourite book/author/genre? Which author – living or dead – would you most like to meet?
Ack! All readers have had nightmares about answering this question. I read a lot of fiction, particularly Americans – George Saunders, Shirley Jackson, Paul Bowles, Flannery O’Connor; in summary, novels and short stories with a lot of uncanny strangeness and violence.
I am most reverential to fantasy authors when I find a new series to love. Patrick Rothfuss, Nnedi Okorafor and Tamora Pierce are my go-to writers when I need a comforting reread. I also love comic books, particularly Alan Moore and Bill Willingham.
As for the second question, I’m going to be greedy and suggest one of those imaginary dinner parties where I can have as many guests as I can fit around a table – Jackson, Raymond Chandler and Daphne du Maurier, so we can talk about the best ways to knock someone off. And then James Baldwin can bring some culture to the table, and Oscar Wilde can come for pudding, because I imagine he’d be a bit of a nightmare for a whole night.
Which pieces are you proudest of? Do you have a favourite interviewee?
My biggest honour was interviewing Helen Garner, an Australian writer of novels, short stories and non-fiction that picks at the darkness found in ordinary lives. I think she is chronically under-read, even in Australia, so I was glad to have the chance to write about her and explain her significance for readers internationally. I have read everything she has ever published, so I was very nervous to meet her. But she was fantastic – just as fierce as you might expect from her unsparing writing, but also very kind. We did a marathon interview for almost two hours, then went halvesies on a Cherry Ripe on the way out. All Australians will understand what a treat this is.
Why do you think this area resonates so much with readers and podcast listeners?
Literature is tied to issues of national identity, censorship and freedom of speech. I think you can tell a lot about a country by how it treats its library service, and a country’s leader on how they treat their authors. Authors are the canary in the coalmine for so many social issues – we can see in the fluctuations on the bestseller charts how people value their guidance on anything from women’s rights to sovereignty.
And while you might like sci-fi and I prefer poetry, those who we might call “book people” tend to gravitate to each other owing to the sheer love of reading. At the Guardian, we are blessed to be able to dedicate the resources and time to cover books properly when a lot of places are cutting their culture journalism back.
As wonderful as it is to do as a job, it is really hard work to write about books. You need to read a lot to understand the wider context a book is working in, and getting a sense of a book naturally takes more time than watching a film or seeing a play. I think people like what we do because they can see the effort that goes into what we produce. And we also provide them a home for them to talk about books back to us, like our weekly Tips, Links and Suggestions callout, or the Reading Group, where we select a different book to dissect every month. We have regulars who have been with us for years. I love them all, even when they hate the books that I like.
What are the big challenges facing the industry?
The biggest influence on publishing right now is Amazon. It utterly dominates online bookselling, and while people are beginning to see value in the presence of physical bookshops and libraries, a lot of power lies with one retailer and I don’t think that is ever healthy. And while I think self-publishing is in itself a good thing, I think there are a lot of questions that need to be asked about whether it was the great democratising force we wanted it to be, or whether it has introduced new problems like piracy and scamming.
Have you ever, or will you ever, turn your hand to writing?
I’m asked this question quite a lot, often by very generous authors and publishers who then go to great lengths to assure me that I’d likely do an OK job. Perhaps I would, as I read so much; nothing else gives you such a finely tuned radar for rubbish writing. But I can honestly say that I have no urge to write a book. For now, I only love writing about them.