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 Rebecca Giggs, whose debut book Fathoms: The World in the Whale (Scribe) is our June pick. Read Ellen Cregan’s review, and stay tuned for more on our website and podcast throughout the month! 

What are you currently reading?

Olivia Laing’s Crudo (Picador). How to explain this book?! It’s a ventriloquist auto/biography of Kathy Acker, staged over several months of Laing’s life in 2017 (Acker in fact died some twenty years earlier). Before her death and during her time in San Diego, Acker was offered the following provocation by her teacher, the poet David Antin: go into a library, pick out a novel, strike through the protagonist’s name and replace it with ‘I’. Laing’s book holds a mirror to that exercise—she puts Acker in, wherever she might otherwise be writing about herself. You might file it alongside Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy (Faber), or even Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s Fleishman Is in Trouble (Wildfire Books), as an experiment in exteriorising point-of-view. Crudo documents an inner life being tugged to and fro by news streams and soundbites, so it makes sense for Laing to take on an avatar with which to explore the edginess of that experience.

Borrowed or bought?

Crudo has a wonderfully visceral cover—a fly frisking the meat of a cooked crab; all spiny orange shell and cloudy meat. It caught my eye in a bookstore window, and then I bought the ebook. (It’s a shame we haven’t yet found the right balance between preserving cover art and reading via an ereader: I feel for book designers every time I see those thumbnailed, grey renderings on Kindle). Anyhow, I in fact parachuted out of the book not long after starting it. I don’t think I was in the right headspace. But then I saw Olivia Laing speak with the director of the Center for Fiction last week online, and I returned to the book after that. Something in Crudo feels apt for this moment: perhaps because so much of it is about pinning your moods to micro-trends in the news. During the COVID-19 pandemic, it seems we’re all being emotionally puppetted by small twitches in ‘the curve’ and reports of ‘raising the line’.

Something in Crudo feels apt for this moment: perhaps because so much of it is about pinning your moods to micro-trends in the news.

 

What kind of reader are you?

I read magazines over breakfast and novels before sleep. Narrative non-fiction I’ll often read in bursts: if I’m travelling or in a series of afternoons. I don’t listen to audiobooks, but I love short fiction podcasts and interviews with writers about process. I still get some magazines in print (I don’t like screens in the early morning), but nearly all of my book reading is electronic. I use Pocket to grab longform writing online, strip it of any surrounding adverts or distractions, and push it as a text-file onto my Kindle. The only exceptions to this are: poetry (poetry always in print), and if I really want to understand the structure of a particular book or book chapter—then I’ll buy a hard copy to underline and scribble into. Something about having the physical object is helpful then: you want to comprehend where certain transitions and devices are placed, materially. I think there’s something about holding a pencil, too, that also signals to the mind that you’re doing a specific sort of work: that is, you’re labouring to understanding how this writer got the rabbit into that hat.

What does your book collection look like?

I do still have some particularly precious and hard-to-find books, stashed in several boxes in my parents’ garage. I guess there would be about seventy books there: some hardbacks, gifted books with sentimental inscriptions, short-print-run chapbooks. The rest is all ebooks now; more portable and less environmentally wasteful (though not without impact). Plus, I like being about to search for specific sentences and paragraphs electronically—very helpful for the odd book review I write. That being said, I do still love poring over friends’ bookshelves; and a house without books seems cold to me. Plus, receiving ​Fathoms in the mail was a special moment. So I have these double standards! My life has been fairly mobile in recent years: some months I’m in Perth, some I’m in London where my partner has work as an Associate Artist to a theatre company, and then I might be elsewhere, reporting a story or doing a residency. Having books I can roam with has been integral to living like this.

If I really want to understand the structure of a particular book or book chapter then I’ll buy a hard copy to underline and scribble into.

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

For the longest time I couldn’t figure out how to advance-summarise the entire book at the end of the first chapter. It sounds like a simple task, but Fathoms is a big book with a lot of information, so it needed a roadmap, placed early on: i. e. what will we learn together, what are the central questions here, and why are you the one to write about it. It was really hard to spell that out without losing the voice and sounding…dreary, educational and self-involved! Part of the struggle too, was that you don’t tend to do this sort of work so overtly when you’re writing non-fiction essays—it’s a genre convention of the non-fiction book alone. Fathoms is my first book, so I had never wrestled with this before.

Then my friend Nick Tapper put me onto Edmund de Waal’s The Hare With Amber Eyes (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). The Hare With Amber Eyes has nothing to do with natural history or animals, despite its title—it’s a family memoir, told through tiny antiques—but if you want a positively exquisite demonstration of how to set up a book’s architecture for a reader, and how to communicate the ‘why you?’ question, this book has a perfect lead-out in chapters 1 and 2. There were other books that were much more influential in terms of my research for Fathoms, and some that had more sway over style, but The Hare With Amber Eyes saved me at a point in time when I was completely flummoxed and had written myself into a corner. I’m so grateful to Edmund de Waal for writing this book, and I feel very indebted to Nick for putting it in my hands when I needed it.

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

Who doesn’t want to live inside a Shaun Tan book? Maybe Tales from the Inner City (Arthur A. Levine Books) with its immense parrots and snails, sunfish, snowy owls and abundant, fluorescent butterfly flocks. I was missing Perth the other night, and a good hour flicking through Tan’s work online was the remedy called for. Those blazing skies, the quiet streets, the empty lots; it’s a mainline to nostalgia for me. He’s a national treasure, of course. I love his sense of the surreal.

Fathoms: The World in the Whale is available now at your local independent bookseller.