More like this

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 Katerina Bryant, whose debut Hysteria (NewSouth), a memoir of illness, strength and women’s stories throughout history is our October pick. Read Ellen Cregan’s review, and stay tuned for more on our podcast later this month!

Katerina’s bookshelves. Image: Supplied

What are you currently reading?

I just started Fathoms by Rebecca Giggs—a stunningly written meditation on whales. (Editor’s note: Listen to our First Book Club podcast with Rebecca Giggs here). I’m also dipping back into Tara June Winch’s short story collection, After the Carnage, after a long time away from it. One story, ‘Happy’, was such a devastating portrayal of a relationship breakdown that I had to put the book down for a while. Now, four years later, I found it on my shelf and I’m so grateful to return to it.

Borrowed or bought?

Both bought. I have loved Rebecca Giggs’ and Tara June Winch’s work for years. I can’t imagine not buying their books. I bought both when they were released—Winch’s when I was visiting Melbourne and went to Readings, and Giggs’ at Mostly Books, an independent bookstore in Adelaide.

What kind of reader are you?

I go through spells of reading. When I’m reading, I find it hard to write. I just want to soak up—or maybe fall into?—the pages. I might read as many as three books a week for a month and then I’ll stop and write. The books don’t necessarily have to inform what I write but I find it is a process of absorbing then producing. I’ve tried to read in my own writing stage, but I find I’m too restless. I’ll read half a page then get too excited by the ideas, the rhythm of the sentences—so I’ll have to get up and find my computer.

I think people would be surprised to hear I wasn’t much of a reader as a child. I remember thinking I mustn’t like reading because I didn’t really ‘get’ the fantasy and sci-fi books my friends loved. I read big tomes on dog care (I know) and biographies. Looking back, I can so clearly see the connection of child-me to who I am now as a reader. I can see that endless curiosity and wanting to inhabit other people’s lives was a constant, even if it felt like I didn’t fit in with the reading habits of the people around me (now I’m much more open to reading all books). Also, the love of dogs hasn’t gone away!

The books don’t necessarily have to inform what I write, but I find it is a process of absorbing then producing.

What does your book collection look like?

I just moved so I’ve just recently opened up my boxes of books; they’ve been sealed away for almost a year. It has been such a pleasure being reacquainted with them. I have what I think is a small collection. I’m used to moving and with each move, there’s a cull. This house is the first I’ve been in that has an inbuilt bookshelf so I’m looking forward to growing into it. In saying that, there is not much organisation of the books themselves. I’ve plonked books directly from boxes onto the shelf. I’ve organised both alphabetically and aesthetically in the past, but I like this current disorganised state. I can look through a shelf searching for a particular book and stumble upon three more I’d like to return to. The only organisation I’m keeping in place is the separation of my partner’s side and mine. Even though we read each other’s books, I like to keep mine together on the left side of the shelf so I can easily reach them from my desk.

My books are a mix of second hand and new. I borrow from the library a lot. I love the Oxfam on Hutt Street in Adelaide. When I lived in the city, I’d go there every other week. It often felt like it was a library to me—I’d buy books and donate them back as my bookshelf became too full. I also love to give away my books. When I read something I love and think a friend would like it, it gives me a lot of joy to pass it on.

When I read something I love and think a friend would like it, it gives me a lot of joy to pass it on.

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

When I first began experiencing non-epileptic seizures and was not yet writing about them, Mum handed me her copy of Siri Hustvedt’s The Shaking Woman. She told me she thought I needed to read it. I recently went to Barry Lee Thompson’s online book launch and Catherine de Saint Phalle said that we don’t find books, they find us. ‘An appointment’, she called it. I think The Shaking Woman was an important appointment for me, not just in understanding what I would eventually receive as a diagnosis but in raising questions of mind/body dualism and how to structure a life with chronic illness. I reread it six months later, post diagnosis and when Hysteria was published, Mum gifted me that copy. I think of it as not only as a book that has informed me throughout writing Hysteria, but an object that is tied to this part of my life.

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

This is tough because I have such a reputation in my family for reading bleak books! I also have a reputation for taking hypotheticals seriously, as you’ll soon see. Thinking this through, I thought I’d have to choose something within the mystery genre as otherwise, my life would be too grim. I could imagine myself in the fictional comic book world of Scooby-Doo! I toyed with the idea of being Scooby himself but thinking it through, it seems kind of a hard life always being bribed into overcoming your own terror for a treat. Then my mind went to being Poirot. I would love to be bold enough to make all my suspects sit in a circle while I go through my drawn out wrap up speech. But then, Poirot is alone in many ways and characters often comment on his body/appearance. So I think no matter the book, there is always a quality of sadness to one’s life. Perhaps then I would have to choose to be in something by Kazuo Ishiguro or Madeleine Thien or Elizabeth Strout, because then at least while sad I’d be beautifully written.

Hysteria is available from your local independent bookseller.