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Shelf Reflection is our series where we explore the bookshelves and reading habits of authors. In this latest instalment, Pip Finkemeyer talks to us about re-reading favourites, unreliable narrators and her debut, Sad Girl Novel.

Images: Supplied.

Tell us a bit about your debut Sad Girl Novel. How did it come about?

The voice of Kim came to me when I was doing a writing exercise in my writing group in Berlin. I was responding to a prompt about a character who is ‘lost’, and that’s when I thought to have Kim get lost at Herrfurthplatz, a church one block away from her house in Schillerkiez. The novel basically unfolded from the first page to the last, chronologically. Not that it was effortless to write! But, I did feel like the story was hanging there in the air, a product of lots of young literary women (readers, writers and characters) and I was the right person to try and pluck it from the air and write it down. Kim’s voice didn’t come out of nowhere though, I have always experimented with a slightly unreliable narrator in all of my short stories, so she was the natural evolution of that. Kim and I started off in a similar place (Schillerkiez), then she spun out farther and farther away from who I am. I was trying to play with an anti-hero or ‘anti-me’ type character, but she took on a life of her own and became more complex than that.

I also have studied the book industry and worked in bookstores for years, so I wanted to use that knowledge as a backstory to try and talk about the publishing industry and genre in a meta way. That allowed me to comment on things at the same time as having a lot of fun playing around with the meta-ness. So sending my character from Berlin to the Frankfurt Book Fair in the opening chapter was a good way to do that.

You’ve talked about your ambivalence towards the sad girl trope. Were there any literary sad girls that were formative reading experiences or crucial to the development of your own book?

Perhaps my ambivalence comes from the fact that if ‘sad girl novels’ were being written by men I think we’d just call them literature. Maybe I’m in a bubble of the type of book I like to read but, isn’t every good protagonist quite sad, at times? Because we are in someone’s inner monologue, we are all of a sudden privy to their melancholy, which is something we aren’t supposed to express socially, so the medium of novels lends itself to sadness. But on the flip side of that, as opposed to the much-maligned term ‘women’s fiction’, I think the term ‘sad girl novel’ came from readers on the internet, it came from women and queer people, so it’s kind of nice to step into it and enjoy it. To beat the larger literary world to the punchline, so to speak.

If ‘sad girl novels’ were being written by men I think we’d just call them literature.

Another point of ambivalence is that I don’t actually think sad girl novels are that sad. I think there is a sense of humour in them, a sense of joy, and a sense of honesty and necessary moral transgression, which fiction is such a perfect playground for.

As for influences, I’ve always been inspired by Vendela Vida and basically all of her books (Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name, The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty, The Lovers, And Now You Can Go). After writing the first draft of my novel, I came across Intimacies by Katie Kitamura, which I somehow name as an influence even though I read it after, because it helped me make sense of what my book was or could be. Also, I need to mention My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh, I remember devouring this book and being so intrigued by the protagonist. Since it came out I think it’s become somewhat of a poster child of the sad girl novel. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath is also book I completely adore, and I think Esther’s voice in that book is beyond genius.

Book covers: Intimacies (2021), My Year of Rest and Relaxation (2018) and The Bell Jar (1963).

What are you currently reading?

I just finished Yellowface by R.F. Kuang. I was talking at one of my launches about my love of the unreliable narrator. Someone came up to me after and recommended this book based on that. I’ve also been doing a lot of bookstore visits for my book, and I kept seeing this one on the new release table next to mine. So I picked it up and I’m so glad I did! I would describe it as a literary thriller, as in, it’s a thriller about the literary world, but it’s actually commercial fiction. It explores race and publishing, or ‘who gets to control the narrative of narratives/the publishing world’, which may make more sense after you read it. It’s a woman writing a novel about a woman writing a novel (my fave genre). I won’t go into any spoiler territory, I’ll just say that the premise is genius, and I was gripped like I haven’t been in a long time.

What kind of reader are you?

I tend to graze until I find something that I want to read the whole way through, and then read it quickly and urgently. I don’t hesitate to abandon a book or put it to the side if it’s not doing anything for me. There are so many books in the world! You can always come back and try again later if it calls to you. I re-read books often and I get a lot of pleasure out of that, particularly reading books I was very fond of a decade or so ago and seeing how my reading of it differs. Sometimes, if I really love a book, I’ll finish it and then turn it over and start it again straight away, but only if they did something very clever in it and I want to figure out how it was done (so basically, when I’m jealous). I read in bed, on transport, lounging around. When I can I find a square of sunlight to sit in like a cat I will do that.

I don’t hesitate to abandon a book or put it to the side if it’s not doing anything for me.

I think my reading tastes are pretty predictable, and I’m quite private with what I read. I don’t really ask anyone else’s opinion or tell anyone what I’m reading! When a friend recommends something they think I’ll like I always give it a try, that’s how I discovered Mary Gaitskill.

What does your book collection look like?

Sadly my book collection is a lot punier than it should be after moving overseas and back a couple of times. I had to give a lot away and I regret it dearly. I wish I went the extra mile to schlep them all around and get them together in one place.

There’s no rhyme or reason to the way they are placed on the shelf. Usually, I have a smaller pile next to my bed of my TBR pile and books that I am grazing from. I like shopping at bookstores, so I buy a lot of new release and contemporary fiction. Sometimes if I want to pad out a shelf I’ll put some face out for aesthetics. Bookseller habits die hard…

I am super sentimental about books, so if I’ve loved something I’ll go to great lengths to keep it. I did post a select few books home (to Melbourne, from Berlin) in the middle of the pandemic at great expense. No regrets!

What books are you constantly recommending other people read?

Intimacies by Katie Kitamura, How Should a Person Be by Sheila Heti, Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name by Vendela Vida, Trust Exercise by Susan Choi, The Secret History by Donna Tartt, Sorry to Disrupt the Peace by Patrick Cottrell, Collected Short Stories of Grace Paley, A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin, anything by Helen Garner, and anything by Lydia Davis.

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

The Man Who Saw Everything by Deborah Levy. I would like to live before the internet. It’s set in 1988 in London and Berlin, and the character lives in one a little garden allotment, schrebergarten, for a while. I always thought they were so extremely cute.

I think Levy writes in a way that allows you to see things in a new way. She hovers over an object, delves into symbolism, and goes into so much detail, in a way that I think takes a lot of confidence as a writer. I picked this one in large part because it’s one of the only books on my bookshelf that’s not extremely grim. This question threw me because I realised I wouldn’t want to live in any of my favourite books! Living too far in the past generally wouldn’t be great as a woman, and all the modern women on my bookshelf are massive downers I guess (creative geniuses, but downers).

What’s next for you?

I have just finished up with a lot of events, with Emerging Writers Festival, Willy Lit Fest and launches for Sad Girl Novel up the east coast. I’m now working on another novel. Future events will be promoted via my Instagram @pipfink.