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 Rhett Davis, whose genre bending tour-de-force debut novel Hovering (Hachette) was the winner of the 2020 Victorian Premier’s Award for an Unpublished Manuscript. Stay tuned for more on our website and podcast later in the month, and join us for a free in-conversation event at Bargoonga Nganjin North Fitzroy Library next Thursday 7 April!

A timber bookshelf against a white wall. The bottom three shelves are filled with old and new paperbacks in various piles and arrangements. The top shelf is empty except for a small potplant in a white container, a partially visible timber lamp base, and four white paperbacks stacked face-down with a white ceramic cup on top of them.

Rhett’s bookshelves. Image: Supplied

What are you currently reading?

I’ve just finished Jennifer Egan’s The Candy House, which my publishers at Hachette kindly sent me. Just like its ‘sibling’ novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad, it’s magnificent. It follows a host of characters—who are all connected in some way, even if they don’t know it—as they navigate a near/alt-future in which you can upload your own consciousness for others to freely access. The chapter in which characters are sending messages to each other is stunning.

I’ve also been reading Jessica Au’s exquisite Cold Enough for Snow, in which a mother and daughter travel through Japan, and have been left both consoled and a little devastated by Natasha Sholl’s excellent grief memoir Found, Wanting.

What kind of reader are you?

I try to have a novel, some non-fiction, and a short story collection on the go at the same time. But it usually doesn’t work out like that. I tend to have many ‘I’m going to finish this soon’ books alongside the books I’m actually reading. Apparently I’ve been reading The Total Library by Jorge Luis Borges since before the pandemic. I tell myself that I’m savouring it—and that might be true, but when does ‘savouring’ become ‘neglecting’ become ‘abandoning’?

I tend to have many ‘I’m going to finish this soon’ books…but when does ‘savouring’ become ‘neglecting’ become ‘abandoning’?

I used to read my favourite books more than once. I’ve read The Two Towers and The Return of the King many times (The Fellowship of the Ring takes too long to get going; shut up Tom Bombadil). But a book has to really be something special these days for me to read it again. There are too many good books and not enough time.

What does your book collection look like?

There have been times in my house where books have been organised by the colour of the spine. I have little involvement in this process, it fills me with dread, and I secretly correct it, bit by bit.

I like my shelves to be rambling and happenstance. Where absurdist short story collections lie next to science fiction epics, literary novels sit between writing craft books, and where there’s no order. It becomes a problem when I’m looking for something, but I prefer the serendipity of stumbling over a book I’d forgotten about. Or I’m lazy. It’s probably that I’m lazy.

I like my shelves to be rambling and happenstance…I prefer the serendipity of stumbling over a book I’d forgotten about.

Mostly these days I buy books new from bookstores. There’s something magical in that transaction that the modern world hasn’t yet taken away. I remember, for example, buying Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep from the awe-inspiring Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon, and devouring the rain-soaked light of 1930s LA as I travelled through Canada for the first time. There are others of course: Don Quixote in Hamburg, Cloud Atlas in London, The Spare Room in Sydney, Station Eleven in Vancouver, Dept. of Speculation in Geelong. Books that are more, for me, than the words on their pages. Books that are moments in time, too.

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

One of the most important books I read while writing Hovering was Flaneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London, by Lauren Elkin. It’s a feminist take on the flâneur of the 1800s who strolled breezily through cities making observations, and related movements in the 20th century like situationism and psychogeography. In Hovering there’s a chapter in which a main character wanders through the city she grew up in, a little lost. Flaneuse reclaims the idea of the flâneur for women and, indeed, anyone who isn’t white, male, and independently wealthy. It’s an insightful and compelling book that changed the way I think about our cities and the way they are designed.

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

I worked for a little while as a bookseller last year and pushed a lot of books onto a lot of people. One of the ones I had most success with was Mammoth by Chris Flynn. It’s a perfect recommendation for someone who’s looking for something refreshing in the dire age we’ve found ourselves in—an intelligent, moving but above all very funny book about extinction.

For writers I’m always recommending The Writing Life by Annie Dillard. It reads, to me, less like a guide for writing and more like consolation. Like:

This writing business is messy and dark and feels a bit useless, doesn’t it, but the world is strange and I’m strange and how can we not write about it? And this inchworm I’m staring at sucks.

I’ll always pick it up and read a couple of paragraphs if my writing day feels particularly muddy.

But also George Saunders and Lydia Davis and Wayne Macauley and WG Sebald and Julie Koh and Stephen Millhauser and Deborah Levy and Jenny Offill and Laura Jean McKay and Teju Cole and Olga Tokarczuk and—look, I can do this all day, but I won’t.

The Writing Life by Annie Dillard reads, to me, less like a guide for writing and more like consolation.

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

This question has demonstrated to me that my bookshelves are full of miserable, awful places I wouldn’t want to visit, let alone live in. But I’ll pick The Baron in the Trees, by Italo Calvino. I’ve adored Calvino’s extraordinary imaginative vision for some time. I worked Invisible Cities into my PhD, and it almost certainly inspired some of the more fantastic ideas in Hovering. In The Baron in the Trees the protagonist lives in the branches of big old trees, never coming down, and the Italian forests stretch over many miles and you can, in theory, travel from town to town never touching the ground. It might be awkward but it sounds wonderful.

What’s next for you?

Other than the KYD First Book Club event on 7 April, I’ll be at The Moat for The Wheeler Centre on 11 April with other wonderful debut authors I’m daunted to be in the company of, and Margaret River Readers and Writers Festival and Sydney Writers Festival in May. After that I’ll be sleeping until the end of winter, as per tradition.

Book your free ticket for our First Book Club event at Bargoonga Nganjin North Fitzroy Library on 7 April here.

Hovering is available now from your local independent bookseller.