This month’s reflection is from Alice Bishop, whose debut story collection A Constant Hum is out now from Text Publishing. Join us at Readings State Library Victoria on 18 July for a free in-conversation event with the author.
What are you currently reading?
Tony Birch’s The White Girl. I love Tony’s writing. A subject he used to teach, ‘Genealogies of Place’, really fuelled the beginnings of A Constant Hum. Tony writes about landscape and place in such a respectful and nuanced way, and I think that’s where my heart is – writing that captures different people’s connection to the land and weather. It’s such an important topic with climate-flared natural disasters already destroying so many communities around the world.
I’m also reading Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. And Ottessa Moshfegh’s collection of short fiction Homesick for Another World. I just finished an advance copy of Josephine Rowe’s Here Until August too, a beautiful book, and Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, a collection that hits you in the chest.
Borrowed or bought?
I pre-ordered The White Girl from Readings. Pre-ordering books you’re looking forward to gives titles a bit of a head start. Especially for an emerging writer, like myself, it was so comforting to have people pre-order A Constant Hum before its official publication date – and to see photos of the (beautiful) cover (thanks to Text designer, Imogen Stubbs) pop up online.
Also, friends make fun of me but I love Westfield Doncaster. The Readings there is the best. I wrote a bit of A Constant Hum in the noisy stark cafe, diagonally across from the shop. It’s a bit of a contrast to my other writing spot in Christmas Hills – with the valley view and the clouds of white cockatoos, flying over – but hey, it’s good to mix things up I think.
What kind of reader are you?
I always have a few books on the go. It’s a cliché, sure, but life is too short to finish books you’re not into. But, in saying that, sometimes reading should be difficult or uncomfortable. I’m usually a one-off kind of reader, but there are a few books I’ve gone back to, over and over. They are Josephine Rowe’s Tarcutta Wake, Deborah Levy’s Black Vodka and Lucia Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women.
I read anywhere and everywhere, but I also do get pulled into my phone a bit too much at the moment. You spend half an hour scrolling through Instagram and you can feel okay, but then spend half an hour reading a good book, you can feel brand new.
You spend half an hour scrolling through Instagram and you can feel okay, but then spend half an hour reading a good book, you can feel brand new.
What are people surprised to find you enjoy?
I inhaled Dolly Alderton’s memoir Everything I Know About Love. Alderton has such a fresh, interesting and unpretentious voice. Her frank discussions about dating in your early 30s, about love and heartbreak, books and politics – and so much more – have been a big comfort to me this year. Her podcast with Pandora Sykes, The High Low, also gets me through an office week at my day job.
What does your book collection look like?
I don’t really organise my book collection! But I’m lucky that my Dad built me a beautiful wooden A-Frame bookshelf, so everything just looks nice – even in awkward stacks.
I really love books bought from any literary events, or writers’ festivals, that I’ve been lucky enough to go to. I recently flew up to Northern Territory Writer’s Festival and I came home with so many good books: Paul Collis’s Dancing Home, Kirli Saunders’s Kindred, and Charmaine Papertalk Green and John Kinsella’s False Claims and Colonial Thieves. It was a really special weekend. The different books remind me of all the great people I got to meet.
Which book have you owned for the longest time?
Our house burned down on Black Saturday so all our older books – along with everything else – disappeared. I still remember going back after the fire and finding a pile of cookbook ash where the kitchen bench used to be. That’s something I lace through A Constant Hum: the idea that things we build up – all these possessions – can go in a flash. That Paul Kelly song, ‘You Can’t Take it With You’, it’s spot on.
I still remember going back after the Black Saturday fire and finding a pile of cookbook ash where the kitchen bench used to be.
What’s one book you found critical to the writing of your own book?
We studied Richard Ford’s Rock Springs in high school and it was the beginning for me, I think. I just remember being really moved by the stories, especially the more ‘ordinary’ characters Ford gives space to. Relationships too. But also, after experiencing natural disaster first-hand, I was really driven to write about the bushfires, and writers like Tony Birch, Richard Ford, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Arundhati Roy, Raymond Carver (another cliché, I know) and Josephine Rowe really teach you a lot through their work. It’s the empathy they all show; how characters are layered and nuanced – you don’t ever feel like they’re there just to entertain.
If you had to pick one book to live in for the rest of your life, which would it be?
Josephine Rowe’s Tarcutta Wake. It’s perfection. Maybe not to live in, though, but with, for sure.
Would you be a new character or take the role of an existing one?
I’ve spent way too much of my life, already, trying to squeeze myself into a kind of character – especially in regards to the pressures so many women and girls face (the need to always be that little bit smaller, quieter, smoother, prettier). But I just turned 33 in May, and I am so happy to be freer from that damaging white noise – especially compared to how I felt in my teens and twenties.
Overall though, I reckon A Constant Hum is coming out at a good time for me; I stand in my own space a bit better. I’ve put a lot of work into the book, and I feel like it’s saying things about bushfire, women, relationships and gender roles – things that need to be said (even if it’s a bit more quietly, sure).
As Deborah Levy writes, ‘To become a writer I had to learn to interrupt, to speak a little louder, and then louder, and then just to speak in my own voice which is not loud at all.’