More like this

Shelf Reflection is our series where we explore the bookshelves and reading habits of authors. In this latest instalment, Robert Skinner talks to us about short stories, bookselling and his debut memoir, the original and utterly hilarious I’d Rather Not.

Left: a bookcase filled with books. Right: Robert Skinner. He has shoulder-length hair, a handle-bar moustache, and wears a spotted shirt, a watch and a big smile.

Images: Supplied.

Your new book, I’d Rather Not, is out. Can you tell us how it came about?

I was swanning about and writing occasional stories for The Monthly when Black Inc. editor Chris Feik asked me if I was interested in writing a book. I said, Absolutely not. Some months later, I thought it might be an easy way to make some cash, so I agreed. Cash-wise, it went about as well as my other money-making schemes; book-wise, it turned out well.

The stories were pretty wide-ranging—about hitch-hiking, tour guiding, homelessness, running a literary magazine… But they all took place during the ten years I’ve lived in Melbourne, and they shared a voice and a spirit. From those stories, a book emerged. Only seven years late.

You are one of the rarer birds of Australian literature, a humorist. Which writers and books have been critical to the writing of your own?

When I was nineteen, I walked into a second-hand hand bookstore in Fremantle and said, ‘I’m looking for a book with some SHEBANG.’ The guy said, ‘It just came in.’ And handed me a copy of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. I remember being thrilled by the way he used humour, absurdity and aliens to explore serious themes.

The books/essays that really freed me in the final stages of putting I’d Rather Not together were:

The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction by Ursula Le Guin. It’s a thrilling and radical reimagining of what a book/story can be, and it stopped me trying to shoehorn the chapters of my book into some tired and worn-out formula. Plus everything else of hers.

Also, Slow Days, Fast Company by Eve Babitz, for reminding me of the pleasure and delight that comes from reading smart and funny writing, whose artfulness is always at work but never on display.

Chris Feik asked me if I was interested in writing a book. I said, Absolutely not.

For general influences I would suggest: Ursula le Guin (again), Donald Barthelme, Annie Dillard, my friends, anything that causes a traffic jam, turtles, echidnas, the short stories of Jim Shepard, the Far Side cartoons, Douglas Adams, Eucalypt forests after a rain, poems, calamities and that moment at a dinner party when everyone realises they’ve had too much wine.

What kind of reader are you?

I love opening lines. And opening paragraphs. (Like, for instance, the opening paragraph of Moby Dick. That by itself creates enough delighted momentum to get you through the chapter on whale genealogy.) I love a sentence that you can recite to your friends later on at the pub.

After four years reading submissions for The Canary Press, I find myself completely incapable of reading for any reason other than pleasure, delight and curiosity. I follow my nose a lot.

When things are going well, or when things are going very badly, I read poems (for example, ‘Tarantulas on the Lifebuoy’ by Thomas Lux, or ‘The Swan at Edgewater Park’ by Ruth L. Schwartz). They tend to make things much better and much worse. Like being pierced by a ray of sunshine right where it hurts.

I have bad habits, too: I spend way too many hours reading the Adelaide Crows football forums. It’s madness. Sometimes I stop and think, What am I doing? I could be reading Tolstoy! And instead, I’m reading some guy called ‘CrowsB4Hoes’ complaining about our selection policies again…

I find myself completely incapable of reading for any reason other than pleasure, delight and curiosity.

What does your book collection look like?

I arrange them alphabetically by the second letter of the author’s first name. No one can work it out.

In I’d Rather Not, you talk about your work as a bookseller. What books are you constantly recommending other people read?

Recently, I’ve been recommending Michael Winkler’s Grimmish and Claire Keegan’s Small Things Like These. (Both wonderful books in different ways.)

There’s a peculiar thing with bookselling: sometimes it’s easier to recommend a book that you haven’t read. Maybe because it’s easier to sum up. Once you read a book, it often seems un-sum-uppable. You find yourself trying to describe it with words like, ‘Gah!’, and by waving your arms around… Not many people go for that.

Images: Grimmish (2021), Robert Skinner on his first day as a bookseller at Brunswick Bound (supplied), and Small Things Like These (2020).

What are you currently reading?

I’m halfway through Naomi Klein’s eye-opening The Shock Doctrine. The problem with the book is that, after the first few chapters, I felt this terrible burden to go around telling people about it at parties. It was awful. And a waste of a good party. Parties should be for dancing, not for trying to crowbar neoliberalism into conversations.

I just finished reading Milan Kundera’s Immortality. Coincidentally, I was already reading it when we got word of his death, but it seems churlish to keep insisting on that.

As the founder of The Canary Press, it’s fair to say that you are a fan of a short story. Do you have any all-time favourites?

For people whose reading habits are becoming staid, I recommend the wild and wonderful stories of Donald Barthelme. Especially ‘Rebecca’, ‘The School’, ‘I Bought a Little City’, ‘The Sandman’ and ‘Chablis’.

What’s next for you?

I’d Rather Not came out on 4 July. I intend to rest on my laurels for as long as my laurels can bear it. (Probably not long.)