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Shelf Reflection is our series where we explore the bookshelves and reading habits of some of our favourite authors. In this latest instalment, award-winning author Siang Lu talks to us about Paradise Lost, being silly on Bookstagram and his new novel, Ghost Cities.

Images: Supplied.

Your new book, Ghost Cities, features an uninhabited metropolis. Where did the inspiration for this story come from?

I used to see the ghost cities of China reported in the Western news and I was utterly absorbed in the images of empty streets and apartment complexes with no one to live in them. To me, they seemed like modern ruins, completely novel in their newness. And the longer these ghost cities remained empty over the years, the more my mind desired to fill them with stories from my own imagination.

Which writers or books influenced the writing of this book the most?

Off the top of my head, Michael Chabon, David Mitchell, Jorge Luis Borges and especially John Milton’s Paradise Lost. But before I explain, I have to backtrack a little. My partner and I were on a trip to China. Our itinerary was tight, and we weren’t able to make it out to one of the ghost cities, as I’d hoped. So we did the next best thing and hired a driver to take us to an abandoned theme park on the outskirts of Beijing. Our driver waited while we explored the ruins. We spotted a handful of travellers like us—Westerners—who must’ve heard rumours of the place as well. On the journey back, our driver admitted that, while waiting, she’d taken a moment to wander around too. She marvelled at how it was that we knew about this place when she—a local—didn’t.

I was utterly absorbed in the images of empty streets and apartment complexes.

But back to Milton: I’d been reading Paradise Lost in various airports and the skies above China, not thinking that the book might be in any way connected to the landscape. Yet there was this odd passage that tripped me up. It’s where the Tempter takes Christ to the highest mountain and surveys all the visible kingdoms. Milton name-checks all the nations but errs (or does he?) in describing China twice: once as Cathay, and some lines later, Paquin (Beijing) of Sinaean Kings. To me, this was the secret genesis of Ghost Cities. What if Milton had actually been correct, somehow? What if there were two Chinas? A real China, and a China of the imagination? What might this second China be like? And who might be qualified (or uniquely unqualified, as in my case) to tell its story?

Left: Abandoned theme park, China. Image: Supplied. Right: Paradise Lost (1667). Image: Penguin Books Australia.

What are you currently reading?

Cadance Bell’s Audible Original title, Letters to Our Robot Son. It’s a bonkers feat of imagination. An amnesiac robot, Arto, becomes best friends with a kitten and explores the post-apocalyptic landscape of Earth.

Cadance and I came to know each other through this thing I do online called #SillyBookstagram, in which I (lovingly) deface the covers and titles of my author friends’ books. Cadance had asked me to do one for Letters to Our Robot Son in the funniest way possible, by first defacing the cover for Ghost Cities. Touché! We’ve been firm friends ever since.

#SillyBookstagram post. Image: @sianglu_author.

What kind of reader are you?

One of the joys of #SillyBookstagram—besides being a great excuse to make new author friends—is that it’s turned me into a curious and enthusiastic reader of all genres: crime, romance, memoir, sci-fi, fantasy. I’m here for all of it.

I (lovingly) deface the covers and titles of my author friends’ books.

There are so many great books to catch up on, any author will tell you the pressure of the TBR is real. But I’ve been encouraging folks to PTR instead (Pretend to Read). Oh, you’d be shocked at how quickly you can speed through books when you move them from the TBR pile to the PTR pile. Thanks to this method, I’ve now read all the works of Tolstoyevsky. That’s his name, right? I like his sci-fi stuff the best.

What does your book collection look like?

I can’t pretend I’m aesthetic lest I annoy the aesthetes. And I’m definitely not alphabetical. I like to place books next to the book neighbours with whom they might get along. Barry Divola’s Driving Stevie Fracasso—a New York road trip story—next to Rachel Coad’s New York City Glow. Chris Flynn’s excellent short story collection Here Be Leviathans next to Laura Jean McKay’s Gunflower.

Siang Lu’s book spinner. Image: Supplied.

What books are you constantly recommending other people read?

All the above authors are fantastic. I will also never not be recommending the works of Hayley Scrivenor and Kate Mildenhall, two of the most generous authors in the industry and geniuses with plots and characters and creators of such sentence-by-sentence beauty. To the slow handful of book buyers in Australia who haven’t gotten their hands on Dirt Town and The Hummingbird Effect yet, stop reading this article now and go buy them.

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

Courtesy of #SillyBookstagram, I already live inside lots of books. Or on their covers, at least. I’d pick the fantastical world of Grace Chan’s Every Version of You Every Version of Lu, or else Kate Langbroek’s memoir Ciao Bella / Siang Bella, which is set in scenic Bologna, Italy—and is apparently about me for some completely unknown reason. I’ve got no idea why they wrote books like these, but I suppose I’m weirdly flattered. Great books. Five stars. Highly recommend.

What’s next for you?

I’ll be launching Ghost Cities in Brisbane at Avid Reader (Friday 3 May) and in Sydney at Better Read Than Dead (Monday 5 May). I’ll also be at various festivals this year, including Kyogle Readers and Writers Festival and Melbourne Writers Festival in May, Brisbane Writers Festival in June, and more. Come and say hello!

Ghost Cities is out now via UQP.