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Shelf Reflection is a monthly series where we explore the bookshelves and reading habits of our featured First Book Club authors.

This month’s reflection is from Allee Richards, whose debut Small Joys of Real Life (Hachette) is a poignant and unpredictable novel about how the life you have can change in an instant. Read Ellen Cregan’s review, and join us for a free online conversation event in partnership with Yarra Libraries on Tuesday 21 September!

A tall timber bookcase filled with books and decorated with framed photographs and certificates, old cameras, and various other items. On the left of the bookcase is a potted rubber plant underneath a framed photograpg of legs on a beach, and to the right of the bookcase is a glass door leading to an outfoor area.

Allee’s bookcase. Image: Supplied

What are you currently reading?

The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer. It’s been on my to-read shelf since last November when a good friend gifted it to me for my birthday. I’m currently writing my second novel, which spans a lot more time than my first, so I’m actively seeking out books that do the same. I didn’t realise before I started reading The Interestings how similar the premise and themes are to the novel I am trying to write (which is probably lucky, as if I had, I might have avoided it for fear of realising my book has already been written).

The Interestings follows a group of friends who meet at a performing arts summer camp and all aspire to stardom. It traverses their friendships into adulthood as some of their dreams are realised and others are left behind and they remain connected always by a crime that was (allegedly) committed. I’m so glad it’s over 400 pages as I can read it all the time and not feel like I’m finishing soon. It’s brilliant.

What kind of reader are you?

I’m a monogamous reader. I never have two books on the go, but I am happy to give up on something if I’m not enjoying it. I used to commit to finishing everything I’d started, but once I allowed myself to put things down, I found I read a lot more. If I’m forcing myself to stick with something I don’t like, I’ll end up watching TV and a whole month will go by and I’m still carrying around a book I’m not into.

I read in bursts. Thirty minutes in bed in the morning, thirty minutes on each leg of my commute. I work in the theatre so I’m often standing by in the dark. I have a reading light that I clip to my books. I manage to block out most of my colleague’s fodder coming through the ears of my headset, while making sure I don’t drift away so much that I miss something I need to hear (although that has happened before). There’s a comfy couch behind the fly-floor of one of the theatres I work at that I often occupy during the one-hour call (an hour of reading time). The flymen know me by name and greet me hello, but rarely do we engage beyond ‘how are you?’

If I’m forcing myself to stick with something I don’t like, I’ll end up watching TV and a whole month will go by and I’m still carrying around a book I’m not into.

I love rereading books so much that of the books on my to-read pile, I’m actually most looking forward to the ones I’ve already read—What Are You Going Through and The Last of Her Kind both by Sigrid Nunez, and Islands by Peggy Frew.

What does your book collection look like?

It’s much smaller than the number of books I’ve read. I used to hang on to everything, but as I’m not rich enough to own a large house with a beautiful built-in library, I ended with towers of Paul Auster and other things I read in my early twenties collecting dust in the bedrooms of my rentals. I am asthmatic and prone to eczema—dust isn’t my friend.

I hang on to books for a long time if I absolutely adored them and am likely to return to them. I own a lot of short story collections, as I return to those a lot. I happily gift-on other books I’ve read to keep the shelf from overflowing. During lockdown I started putting books in neighbourhood book exchanges in my area. I used to think those exchanges only held copies of Dan Brown or Twilight, but anything I’ve put in there has been snapped up within an hour, so I’ve realised the water-stained copies of The Da Vinci Code are perpetually there because nobody wants them. ​

My books are organised into sections: Australian fiction, general fiction, short stories, non-fiction, the Pool Room (where my absolute favourites are), and the most crowded of all, the to-read shelf.

My books are organised into sections: Australian fiction, general fiction, short stories, non-fiction, the Pool Room (where my absolute favourites are), and the most crowded of all the shelves, the to-read shelf.

What’s one book you found critical to the writing of your own book?

What to Expect When You’re Expecting. One of the first writing exercises I did after thinking of the premise of my novel was reading chapters of What to Expect and describing its symptoms in Eva’s voice. Once I really got stuck into writing and redrafting, I realised I couldn’t be too specific about her pregnancy in the early drafts, as when you’re still working on the structure of a book scenes move. It may only be one month in time, but depending on what month that is in a pregnancy, the physical experiences could be very different, let alone if it were two months. Once I was confident the structure was set, I wrote how far along Eva was, 12 weeks, 24 weeks etc., at the top of each page and I did a draft while reading What to Expect along with the manuscript and inserting the relevant symptoms into each section. I did this once while I was working on the original draft I submitted to my publisher, and once again during the structural edit.

It was an intensely boring and often infuriating (heteronormative, cisnormative and not body positive) read, and I can confidently say I won’t return to it, even if I ever decide to have a baby.

What book/s are you constantly recommending other people read?

Heat and Light by Ellen van Neerven, and Look Who’s Morphing by Tom Cho. I first read both these books years ago (I think I first read the Tom Cho over ten years ago!) I’ve reread each of them and they both sit proudly on the Pool Room shelf. They’re brilliant books that are accessible enough for an irregular reader to approach, while having the depth and originality to please a snob. Each book exploded my idea of what I thought books were capable of doing.

If you had to pick one book to live in for the rest of your life, which would it be?

Sadly, I would choose Small Joys of Real Life. The setting of my book was all taken from my life three years ago. Since I signed the publishing contract so much of that world doesn’t exist anymore. I have a deep yearning to be standing in a packed, sweat-stinking band-room with a stranger’s drink held too close to my face, their conversation in my ear disrupting my enjoyment of the show. I want to go to the local pool on a whim without having to book. I want to know that Golden Plains is happening next March and that even if I decide not to go, someone else will have a good time. I’d be so happy to be there that I’d be saved from becoming as miserable as any of the characters in my novel.

Small Joys of Real Life is available now from your local independent bookseller.