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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 Clem Bastow, whose debut memoir Late Bloomer (Hardie Grant) is a a heartfelt coming-of-age memoir that will change the way you think about autism. Read CB Mako’s review, and stay tuned for more on our website and podcast later in the month!

A dark-coloured grid-style bookshelf, full of books of various shapes and sizes, decorated with handing plants and fairy lights

Clem’s bookshelves. Image: Supplied

What are you currently reading?

As I’m currently in the third year of my PhD, I ‘have to’ read a lot of theory (I should add I really enjoy this—non-fiction and theory are actually my preferred reading modes), which means I sometimes get to the end of the day and try to do some recreational reading but pass out a few pages in. But there are a few books I’m enjoying even if I do only get a chapter or so in before sleep assails me.

Sarah Dingle’s Brave New Humans, an expose of the donor-conception industry sparked by the discovery that her dad wasn’t her biological father, is exactly the sort of breathless page-turner I am drawn to: just when I think ‘My God, surely it can’t get any worse’, the next chapter reveals something even worse. Sarah’s rage, insight and courage, and her advocacy on behalf of donor-conceived people, is remarkable. We’re blessed to share an incredible publisher in Arwen Summers at Hardie Grant, who recommended Sarah’s book to me as I had been similarly critical of certain Autism-adjacent ‘industries’ in Late Bloomer (there is even some overlap between our areas of inquiry; there’s a growing demand, but not yet the technology, for in-vitro screening for Autism, something I really wanted to address in my book).

I’m also reading Autistic nature writer Dara McAnulty’s Diary Of A Young Naturalist. Dara won the Wainwright Prize for Nature Writing in 2020 (at just 15!) and Diary hums with such a specific Autistic texture and engagement with the natural world. I also really relate to something he told The Guardian about the process of writing the second draft of the book: ‘I had to drag myself back through that thornbush. But I understood myself all the better because of it.’

The next few cabs in the rank, which I plan to be very strict about not leaving to languish on the ‘to finish reading!’ pile for eternity are Elizabeth Tan’s Smart Ovens For Lonely People, Sasha Geffen’s Glitter Up The Dark: How Pop Music Broke The Binary (possibly the only book with a cover as sparkly as mine), Craig Brown’s One Two Three Four: The Beatles In Time, Jeremy Atherton Lin’s Gay Bar: Why We Went Out, and Richard Owain Roberts’ Hello Friend We Missed You. I’m a big Slavoj Žižek fan but he’s so bloody prolific I fear I will never in my life finish one of his books before it’s time to buy the next one; in saying this, I have recently purchased A Left That Dares To Speak Its Name, and assume he’s published another five books since then.

I read a lot of screenplays, both as part of my research and for enjoyment; there are some screenplays I’ll re-read in the same way some people might rewatch a favourite film

What kind of reader are you?

Chaotic. I like to read both pages of an open book at once, a bit like Johnny 5 from Short Circuit. There are some books that I read quickly (and will reread for comfort) and others that I know I’ll finish ‘one day’ (RIP Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity Is Near). I tend to have five or ten books on the go at once because I like to jump between themes and topics. My bedside table/shelf/thing houses all the books I’ve started or am planning to read this year. I really love the nostalgia hit of movie ‘storybooks’ from the 1970s and 80s, the ones illustrated ‘with colour photos from the hit motion picture’; my most treasured ones are The Black Stallion and Dragonslayer (the underrated fantasy movie, not the equally excellent skateboarding documentary). I also read a lot of screenplays, both as part of my research and for enjoyment; there are some screenplays I’ll re-read in the same way some people might rewatch a favourite film, like Diablo Cody’s towering Young Adult and Brian K. Vaughan’s Roundtable, which has remained bafflingly unproduced despite being one of the best comedy-adventure scripts in recent memory.

I find it quite hard to absorb things I read electronically, so even though I recently caved and added a second monitor so that I can read texts while I’m writing, I’m trying to find second-hand copies of all of my key research texts to give some respite from PDFs and ebooks. (If anyone has a hook up on Claudia Sternberg’s Written For The Screen, please get in touch.)

timber bookshelves filled with old children's books and novels, decorated with a devil's ivy plant and various soft toys and objects.

Clem’s bedroom bookshelf. Image: Supplied

What does your book collection look like?

It’s smaller than it used to be. About ten years ago, I was barely getting by on a handful of freelance articles a month, so I had to sell most of my books so that I could pay rent. That’s been a great regret of my life, so I’m slowly trying to replace things that I remember fondly if and when I see them in second-hand shops.

I very much like lining things up by colour order (#ActuallyAutistic) but aside from one section of one of my bookshelves where I’ve managed to maintain that approach, everything else is a bit haphazard. I attempted to arrange my office shelves according to theme or topic, but even that went to hell after a few weeks of grabbing things to make notes on then shoving them back in to clear space on my desk. Consequently, Ron Burgundy’s Let Me off At The Top! is next to Mike Figgis’ Digital Film-Making…which actually works pretty well, now that I think about it.

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

It would be very hard to nail it down to just one. Melanie Yergeau’s Authoring Autism was already guiding my PhD research, so I think there was some slippage there in terms of influence. All through the writing process, I wanted Late Bloomer to be (at least in part) Autistic in nature, not just in terms of its topic, and reflect the associative way I think and engage with the world. We have had too much ‘non-Autistic Autism discourse’, as Yergeau puts it, and I didn’t want it to be another bummer book about how an Autistic person will never say ‘I love you’ with a puzzle piece on the cover.

I tried not to read too many other memoirs while I was drafting, in part due to the terror of accidentally tuning into someone else’s voice (an eternal fear when you’re prone to running a mental Rolodex of interesting turns of phrase or quotes that you enjoy repeating), but I did find Rick Morton’s One Hundred Years Of Dirt and Rita Therese’s Come both instructive and inspiring. Though hers is a graphic memoir, I really admired how Kate Charlesworth blended the personal with social history in Sensible Footwear: A Girl’s Guide, which is both autobiography and history of the LGBTQI+ community in Britain. More broadly, I just wanted to make sure Late Bloomer wasn’t a ‘misery memoir’—I’ve been through quite a bit, and my own coping mechanism has always been humour, so I wanted it to be engaging and even funny despite returning to some difficult times in my life—so memoirists like Carrie Fisher and Clive James were never far from my mind.

I wanted Late Bloomer to be (at least in part) Autistic in nature, not just in terms of its topic, and reflect the associative way I think and engage with the world.

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

Andrew Smith’s thrilling Moondust: In Search Of The Men Who Fell To Earth, in which he tracks down the surviving Apollo astronauts to find out how going to the Moon changed them, is absolutely my favourite book; I really have to stop lending it to people, because I’m due to read it again. Tove Jansson’s Finn Family Moomintroll and Moominland Midwinter, too. But really, there are so many others: Distinguished Professor Aileen Moreton-Robinson’s Talkin’ Up To The White Woman, Kate Charlesworth’s Sensible Footwear, Susan Dworkin’s Making Tootsie, Ruby Hamad’s White Tears/Brown Scars, Yvonne Tasker’s Spectacular Bodies, Stella Bruzzi’s Men’s Cinema

I’m also a big-time recommender of long-form magazine writing (which is often more likely to mesh with my limited brain space than a whole book). My three go-tos are Kathryn Schultz’s ‘The Really Big One’, a New Yorker essay about the earthquake that may one day devastate the coastal north-west of the USA, Sam Knight’s Guardian thriller ‘‘London Bridge is down’: The Secret plan for the days after the Queen’s death’, and Dana Goodyear’s ‘Man of Extremes’, a hugely entertaining New Yorker profile of James Cameron, written while he was finishing work on Avatar, and which features a magnificent quote from the late Bill Paxton: ‘The words “No” and “That’s impossible” and phrases like “That can’t be done”—that’s the stuff that gives him an erection’. Same, Jim!

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

Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Ginger & Pickles. It’s a tough choice, because I also rate The Tale of Two Bad Mice very highly, but despite there being ‘no end to the rage and disappointment of Tom Thumb and Hunca Munca’, I resent the fact that Tom and Hunca Munca cave in to the ruling class (i.e. the dolls whose house the mice have just trashed and ransacked) by paying for repairs with a crooked sixpence and returning to clean for them in the resolution. In Ginger & Pickles, however, from a very young age I recognised something of myself, and formed my life’s approach to work, business and accounting based on Potter’s hysterical tale of a terrier and a cat who try (and fail) to run a shop together. The pair give unlimited credit, eat their own stock, and are always avoiding police (Beatrix ‘1312’ Potter), eventually abandoning the shop to become sole traders. In their stead, the economy returns to its intended state: Tabitha Twitchit raises her prices and continues to refuse to give credit, and there is no better crystallisation of capitalism than Mr John Dormouse refusing to accept returns on his faulty candles, staying in bed and saying only ‘Very snug’ to his disgruntled customers.

What’s next for you?

I’m involved in four really excellent Melbourne Writers Festival events that I can’t wait to do, and at the ripe old age of 39, I’m about to start learning BMX. The latter’s not really an ‘event’ but I expect plenty of people will be there to point and laugh, and maybe cheer.

Late Bloomer is available now from your local independent bookseller.