Summer seems like a distant memory, but we here at Kill Your Darlings are just getting around to updating you on our summer reading goals. More importantly, we chat about the Stella Prize shortlist, and the ways we eternal book acquirers have dealt with the Marie Kondo 30-items-on-your-bookshelf debate. Storm in a teacup? Probably – but pop some tea in yours and settle in to listen to more book-related chat from Alice Cottrell, Alan Vaarwerk and Meaghan Dew.
Let us know what you think by rating and reviewing in your app of choice!
Find out more about the Stella Shortlist.
Thanks to Melbourne Library Service – Kathleen Syme Library and Community Centre for studio space.
Theme music: Broke For Free, ‘Something Elated’.
Meaghan Dew: Alright, hello and welcome back to the Kill Your Darlings Podcast. I’m Meaghan Dew and I’m the podcast coordinator at Kill Your Darlings, and I’m here with…
Alan Vaarwerk: Ah, my name’s Alan Vaarwerk and I’m the editor at KYD.
Alice Cottrell: And my name’s Alice Cottrell, I’m the publication manager at KYD.
MD: Alright, so last time we were talking we were speaking about our summer reading habits, or more exactly our summer reading goals. We all had a few books we were intending to read over the break – so my question is, how did that go for all of you?
AC: I did pretty well in the number of books that I read, but I didn’t do very well about reading the books already had on my shelf. I got too enticed by new books in new bookshops – which I blame on the fact that I went on a holiday, and every different place I went to I’m like, ‘let’s have a look in the bookstore here!’ I did meet my goal of reading a long book, which I usually do on my holidays just because I’ve got so much sort of concentrated, concentration time. So I read Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, which I loved – which is a kind of multi-generational family story of a Korean family in Japan. And it sort of travels through about 50 or 60 years, this kind of really fascinating historical backdrop of a changing Korea, a changing Japan, Japan as a colonial force, and then the end of the Second World War then the Korean War. So I learnt loads, but it was all wrapped up in, like, a super compelling narrative with really fascinating characters. So that was definitely one of my top reads of the summer.
AV: I can’t remember exactly what I said I was going to read, but I definitely read a lot over the summer, which I was, you know, very pleased with. I kind of spent a bit of time up at my parents’ place, and just sort of sat down on the balcony and got through quite a lot of reading. So I think at the end of last year I mentioned that I was reading Less by Andrew Sean Greer, I finished that, that was that was a really enjoyable book, and like a really perfect summer read. I read a lot of short books, I kind of, I wanted that feeling of finishing something, and so I read West by Carys Davies, which is – I’ve heard it described as like an ‘epic novella’, which is a really good way of putting it, because it’s very short but it’s such a big story – a kind of, a man in the American West but in the sort of Wild West times, who reads about fossils being discovered in California I think it is, and he goes on this big journey to find these animals which, you know, as far as he is concerned are still alive and are still out there. And he leaves behind his daughter in their home in sort of a small village, and kind of follows both of their stories at once, what’s happening to her while she’s left behind and sort of waiting for her father to come back, as well as what happens to him when he’s out in the wilderness and he’s on this quest. And so that was a really good book. I also read Convenience Store Woman by Sayuka Murata, which is another short book but it has a lot going on in there as well. It’s a bit more of a breezy read than than West, I think I powered through that in maybe an afternoon. It’s quite funny and it’s quite darkly humorous, it’s kind of about this Japanese woman who works at a convenience store and is essentially a bit of a sociopath, like she doesn’t really understand how other people work, and enters into this kind of relationship, marriage of convenience, with this really horrible man who just sort of lives in her house and kind of leeches off her, but kind of gaslights her into thinking that it’s sort of a good arrangement. It’s a very weird but really compelling kind of book. What about you Meaghan, how’d you go?
MD: I just got the new books in a couple of series that were ongoing, which unfortunately I guess I can’t really say too much about, because they’re kind of the fourth and seventh book in the series, so I can’t really say, ‘oh, have all the things we’ve been waiting for happened?’ because that will spoil all of the other books. But I read Ben Aaronovitch’s Lies Sleeping, which I think is the sixth or seventh book in the Peter Grant series. So, in the small sub-genre of ‘wizarding detectives’, of which there are a few series that I love – very enjoyable, but probably one of those ones where by book six or seven it’s not quite as good as the earlier books so…
AV: But you’ve bought in now, you have to see how it ends.
MD: Yeah, I’m invested by this point, I need to know what happens with the characters, I need to know what happens with certain plot points that, as I mentioned, can’t mention in order to save the enjoyment for other people. But if you do like your police procedurals with magic I would highly recommend them. I also read Black Is The New White, the Nakkiah Lui play recently. Really enjoyed reading it, and usually I probably wouldn’t pick up a playscript I would think if I’m going to see this, I want to see it in its performed form – but it was really funny, it was, as it’s a script it’s primarily dialogue, it’s a pretty quick read in that sense. And it’s basically that really classic story of, it’s a family Christmas gathering and everyone hasn’t been in the same place for a while, and what chaos is going to ensue – so no spoilers, but chaos ensues, so yeah.
I also read The World Was Whole, the Fiona Wright one, which kind of leads really nicely into speaking about the Stella Prize shortlist, so:
AV: The shortlist is Little Gods by Jenny Ackland, The Bridge by Enza Gandolfo, Pink Mountain On Locust Island by Jamie Marina Lau, The Erratics by Vicki Laveau-Harvie, Too Much Lip by Melissa Lukashenko, and Maria Tumarkin’s Axiomatic.
AC: Everything that I had read on the longlist did not make it to the shortlist, which is very irritating for you know, me feeling like I’m able to participate in discussions with other people, so I’m now like furiously reading three of the books at the same time in order to have an opinion. But yeah, I was really disappointed to see the lack of nonfiction on the shortlist. Because for me three of the huge books of the last year have been The World Was Whole by Fiona Wright, The Arsonist by Chloe Hooper and Eggshell Skull by Bri Lee, and to be honest the Chloe Hooper was my pick to win.
AV: I mean I guess there is nonfiction on the shortlist, like there’s Axiomatic which is a nonfiction book, and then there’s also The Erratics which is a memoir and yeah, so The Erratics and Axiomatic – from what I’ve read of The Erratics, because there’s a whole story there which is interesting in and of itself, that it’s only been kind of re-released quite recently, but from the portion of The Erratics that I’ve read it’s written in a very sort of novelistic style. If you were picking it up just off a pile, rather than off, you know, a memoir shelf or a fiction shelf or whatever in a book store, you may not necessarily know straight up that it is a memoir – whereas Axiomatic is, I think one of the judges’ comments was ‘take everything you know about nonfiction and blow it all up,’ or something like that. It has that really experimental style which I think we can, yeah, talk about a little bit why those are the ones that have made the shortlist rather than necessarily a more traditional journalistic or reportage type of nonfiction.
MD: Do you have any books you were surprised to not see on either of those lists?
AC: I wasn’t surprised because I know it’s a kind of prize stipulation issue, but I would have loved to see Blakwork by Alison Whittaker on the longlist and shortlist. It’s technically a poetry book, but it has elements of prose as well, and it’s very kind of interconnected. I found this really interesting, actually I wrote it down – I noticed a real similarity between the blurb of Axiomatic and of Blakwork so this is the Axiomatic blurb – ‘Axiomatic is a boundary shifting fusion of thinking, storytelling, reportage and meditation.’ Blakwork, ‘a stunning mix of memoir, reportage, fiction, satire and critique.’ I just find it interesting that the Stella shortlist is really experimental in form, and I’m kind of disappointed that poetry can’t be a part of that. I understand kind of excluding things like playscripts, because for a play script a kind of crucial part of the performance is not there, there’s kind of a whole other artistic part to that. But poetry is, you know, primarily a written form, of course it’s performed as well – but I think Blakwork would be really deserving, and not out of place at all in this kind of company. Would really like to see the categories maybe open up a bit more, for a bit more fluidity, particularly if the judges are looking for experimental, interesting kind of boundary-shifting work I really think that Blakwork was one in the way that Axiomatic is, and yeah, I would have just loved to see it get some more recognition.
MD: I think it would be interesting to see that happen, in part because it feels like poetry still is kind of a separate genre in bookstores and in people’s reading habits in a way that no other genres really are, which in some ways is a lovely thing but also can make poetry seeing less accessible or more intimidating if people aren’t in the habit of reading it on a regular basis. And so it’s an inclusion on a, we know that lists like this can prompt people to read books they might not otherwise have attempted, certainly we’ve found that’s happened with our reading habits -it’d be lovely to see poetry on the list for that reason.
AV: I think the Stella has a bit of a record for this in terms of, it’s kind of, I remember there were similar discussions happening around nonfiction when, I think it was when Clare Wright won the Stella and there was a bit of discussion about how nonfiction was being talked about in the same discussion as novels, and how you know, obviously non-fiction writing, like people know it exists as a art form, but for it to be sort of included in that same discussion I think was a really valuable thing to have. And so I think, you know, it’s kind of done it once and I think it definitely has the power to do that again.
MD: Alice, I’m glad you didn’t put any money on The Arsonist in this case, so – but I feel like it’s probably doing well enough on its own. I think one of the really lovely things about this list is there are a lot of titles from smaller publishers that maybe don’t have the same marketing budgets that some other books have, so hopefully the win for whoever it comes to will have even more of an impact.
AC: Yeah, you know, it’s really made me reflect on how I learn about books and how the kind of marketing profile of those titles, or the publishers, or the author affects how much I think the book is being talked about. Thinking through how to separate, like, marketing awareness with what is actual word-of-mouth. How much have I actually heard about those books? I guess also, how does the marketing inform how many people read them, and then there’s a flow-on effect of word-of-mouth, because, yeah, a couple of the titles on this shortlist I had never heard of. But that’s one of the brilliant things about awards, is that they can give a profile to books that deserve a bigger platform.
AV: Yeah, I guess The Erratics is the perfect example of that, like, it was published in 2018 by Finch Publishing I think it was, and it had won I think the Finch Memoir Prize, but then the publisher went out of business and so the book went out of print. And then since being longlisted for the Stella, it’s now being picked up by I think Fourth Estate, who are republishing it, and I think the re-release of at least the ebook version that I was reading off has only come out this week. And so I mean if not for the Stella that book may have stayed out of print, whereas now, now it’s going to reach a whole new range of readers.
MD: It definitely wasn’t on my to-be-read list but it is now. So out of ones on the longlist that we read that we hoped would be on the shortlist, Axiomatic was definitely one of those for me. So I’m really pleased to see it on there, but it is interesting to note that yeah, it is one of the more experimental ones in form, and the other Brow Books one is also one of the more experimental books on the list.
AC: That’s Pink Mountain On Locust Island by Jamie Marina Lau, which I have just started reading and I’m absolutely loving. Of the ones that I’ve picked up, it’s short and snappy and it’s energetic, and I think actually Jamie is the youngest ever shortlistee of the Stella Prize, she’s in her early 20s.
AV: 21 apparently, or her author says 21, which is outrageous.
AC: Wow. The book is incredibly assured and confident and forthright, and kind of sparky and energetic, and yeah, I’m enjoying it a lot. It’s kind of it’s like a brilliant portrait of city life I think. It feels, yeah, energised in that way of cities. There’s people everywhere, there’s little snapshots of different parts of life happening, you can kind of see, if you like, you can see all the city windows and different segments of life happening in them, and you know, the bustle on the street and being in the supermarket, and then your house and then at school, you know. Yeah no, I’m really loving that, so.
MD: It really pulled me along as well, I think like the sort of the first person, the present tense, it feels very almost stream of consciousness in in the way it works, so it’s hard to put down because you’re kind of in her head as it’s moving forward, very hard to turn away from. And I say that as someone who, a little part of my brain still, when something is described as ‘experimental’ translates that as wanky – and I know it shouldn’t…
AC: Or difficult, no, I agree.
AV: Yeah, someone says this is, ‘this book is experimental,’ you like, you sort of, kind of strap yourself in and feel like you need to really have your brain switched on to be able to even comprehend it, let alone engage with it properly. And yeah, that’s what I really loved about Pink Mountain on Locust Island as well, was that it was, it was it was fun to read, it was fun to follow along with, and like you say, it’s punchy, energetic, is a really good way of describing it, yeah.
AC: And it’s funny!
AV: Yeah, it’s a great book, and it’s probably of the ones that I’ve read it’s probably my favorite of the of the shortlist, and I hope that translates to a win, but who can say.
MD: Yeah definitely, I’d be going for Axiomatic at this point.
AC: And what did you like so much about Axiomatic?
MD: I really liked the way it was structured, with axioms introducing each segment. It portrayed some pretty traumatic stories – Maria Tumarkin’s written about trauma before and that definitely carries through to this collection, but she writes about these people in a way that is incredibly compassionate but not sentimental or cliché, and it just felt like, I think, my favorite essayists I feel like I’m riding along with someone who’s very intelligent and, and strong, and it’s just really interesting to see the world through those eyes, but also gives you a window into a lot of different people’s worlds in a way that it does that in a different way to a novel, which is my usual way of engaging with other people’s stories I suppose, so.
AV: Yeah, I think it’s hard to pick a winner for this year’s Stella because all the six books on the shortlist are quite are so different from each other like you know the the tones vary, the sort of subject matter varies, it’s a really even field. Like there’s literary novels, there’s the sort of more experimental ones that we’ve talked about, there’s the memoir, there’s Too Much Lip from Melissa Lukashenko iswritten a very colloquial first person way as well, and so there’s, yeah there’s a real sort of…
AC: Historical fiction, The Bridge…
AV: Historical fiction as well, yeah. It really, it’s a really even field and anyone would be a worthy winner and it’ll be really interesting to see which way they go.
MD: Yeah I think it is really hard to pick a winner…
AC: But if you had to take a punt? What’s your guess? Go on…
MD: Oh my gosh. At the moment I’d actually be going for too much lip.
AV: If I were a betting man I would probably put money on too much lip as well, but I think my kind of sentimental favourite would be Pink Mountain on Locust Island.
AC: I think I’d put my money on Axiomatic – it’s already won prizes, everyone’s talking about it, it’s exciting, it’s new, I think that’s the kind of book that the Stella is looking for to celebrate – but yeah, I’m I’m gonna have to have a read of the others that I haven’t read yet so that I can make an informed decision.
MD: The Marie Kondo series dropped on Netflix in the last couple of months, and it’s had everyone talking about what they keep and what they discard. Now obviously as we are professional book nerds in some ways, what we’ve been talking about is what we do with our books. Do we keep them, do we discard them? have any of you embarked on any Marie Kondo style cleaning, and if so have you taken that to your bookshelf?
AC: Well Marie Kondo actually said that she keeps her collection of books to about 30 volumes at any one time, so she discards as she reads…
AC: Little cry of pain from Meaghan there. So I moved house recently, so I wanted to use that as a bit of an opportunity to get rid of some of my books, and I was quite tough with myself – and it was actually really liberating, because I feel like I hadn’t realised how many books I have on my shelf that I’ve been intending to read, or it’s – a lot of it it’s like classics I’ve seen in an op shop, and be like two dollars – ‘maybe one day I’m gonna read Dune!’ – and just being real with myself, and being like, you know what, you’re never going to read it. It would have been great if you read it when you were 16, it probably would have changed your life. But it’s too late, you’ve missed your moment, and you should just let it go. That’s been really liberating, so I took a bunch of stuff to the op shop and at the moment all my books are in storage, because I’m gonna build a bookshelf, which is like my kind of big project. But I mean, I love having books around me usually, and I am a fan of the like, you know, book as object and I like a nice hardback and ooh, look at the endpapers, all that kind of thing. But I’ve been surprised by how good it feels not to have loads of books around. I think it’s because it makes me realise how much I’ve got to read, or how much I’ve bought that I haven’t read yet, and just having a small pile of like three or four books on my bedside table feels so achievable and exciting. And I think, I mean one of the bad things is that it’s not making me hold myself back when I’m in a bookshop, because I’m like, ‘well I’ve only got three books at home, and all the others that are in storage.’ But I haven’t got the feeling of like, Alice, you’ve got shelves of books that you haven’t read, I’m like what, I’m gonna run out in, you know, the next five days or something? so yeah, I’m evolving, but using it as an excuse to continue purchasing, so I don’t know if that is true evolution.
MD: Well, I don’t think it’s quite Marie Kondo, because definitely I think part of the whole, it is the idea that once you have that perfectly curated collection, be it your clothes or your books or whatnot, you’re far more careful about what you bring into your home – it sounds like it’s got the opposite way for you Alice, you’re even more likely to bring things home now that you don’t have books you haven’t read shaming you from your bookshelf. But do you feel like there’s a certain pleasure in having a curated collection of books you’re particularly passionate about, rather than just ones you’re going to read?
AV: It’s almost a quality versus quantity argument, isn’t it. You could either have a hundred different books at your disposal, or you can have a small pile of ones that you are either really excited to read or really love. And it’s, I guess it’s the way that you view your book collection – whether you view it as kind of a library or whether you view it as kind of an archive I suppose. I know my book collection’s a little bit of both, like you know, I’m in quite a fortunate position to get sent a lot of advance reading copies for KYD, and so there’s a lot of books that I have, like, literal piles of, on and around my bookshelves that are sort of full to bursting of books that look really good and I’m really excited to read, and then there’s sort of, a bit of a gap – and then there’s books that I’ve had for years and years and years, that I’m probably not going to read again because I’m a different person to the sort of person that I was ten years ago, but they’re remnants of a time in my life when books were a really considered purchase that I would deliberate over, whether I could really afford to buy two books in this particular bookshop outing, or just the one. Whether I could maybe spring for that hardback or get, you know, two books off the discount table for the same price. And so…there’s a, yeah, there’s a bit of a disparity there in terms of how books fit into your life, which I think shapes how your, you know, book collection looks.
MD: I definitely think that access to books does change the way, obviously the way your shelves evolve. I can’t say that the Marie Kondo situation has had much of an effect on my bookshelf whatsoever, but I definitely like, like you, I have the books from when they were carefully considered purchases and I was a real completist then, I wanted not only all the books in the series, even if I’d read some of those books from the library, I would then go and buy the book again so that I had all the books in the series lined up, and I would be horrified if the covers didn’t match after a certain point, if halfway through a series they changed the covers…
AC: Or when they change the format, oh my God. I had three big chunky C-format Elena Ferrante books, and then the final…I can’t remember what happened, but one of them was much smaller and it just drove me insane on the shelf, it drove me absolutely wild.
AV: I think my collection of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books was, it starts with the first book in this series is one that I, a hand-me-down from my dad basically, so it’s this really tattered paperback with a sort of 1980s kind of cover, and then when the kind of posthumous, 6th was it? book in the ‘trilogy’ came out, they released it as a like a C format hardback. And so my collection of these books is in no way similar to one another, and there’s a little bit of my brain that, that that bugs me, but also I guess it tells a story in its own way.
AC: And so do you reread books, because I think that was one of the big Marie Kondo things is that yeah, she recommends getting rid of books that you kind of vaguely plan to reread but questions if you are actually ever gonna reread them, so. Do you guys reread books? Which ones, and you know, how much if you do?
MD: It feels like probably when I was a teenager or in my early 20s was the most Marie Kondo-ish my bookshelf has ever gotten, in that each one as Alan was saying was a carefully considered purchase and I would reread all of them, I think because of that you didn’t have the same access, or the same feeling of access to books that I think we’re all lucky enough to have now. Whether that’s through work or just through being able to take ourselves to the library quite easily if we want to rather than having to rely on a trip or something like that, or being at school when it’s open and things like that. But I don’t think I do reread as often as I used to, barely at all. But I still wouldn’t accept that as a reason to get rid of some of my books that I love, because they do kind of hold a memory of a particular moment in my life now. That said, I, like you Alice, have a lot around that are just ones that I grabbed in case maybe, as if there was a grand book shortage that was about to occur sometime in the future, and I would forever regret the book I was kind of interested in and didn’t take home, which seems ludicrous and really I should be getting rid of some of those ones that I’m sure will be loved by someone but will probably not be attempted by me. Also Dune is very good Alice, you should read it.
AC: Well, I gave it away. Next time I see it at an op shop I’ll buy it again…
AV: There’s gonna be a movie soon, so…
AC: Yeah, but I do like to be the annoying person that reads the book and then is like, ‘well, in the novel…’ which I did when I saw Beale Street, If Beale Street Could Talk recently, and I gotta say it’s still gratifying. Definitely still in the kind of archive side of things, I think that was a good distinction you made Alan, about if you treat it like an archive or a library. One of my favourite novels ever is The Watch Tower by Elizabeth Harrower, and I’ve got three copies of that and I love them all, and I wouldn’t part with any of them. So yeah, for me, like, the kind of emotional connection, or the kind of nostalgia for what was like a really meaningful read to you, yeah, is important. And maybe it’s selfish but I would never lend them out either.
MD: So maybe that’s it then, maybe for us, for all of us actually, we’re more satisfied with our collections when we treat them like a collection or an archive, that we are carefully adding to, rather than simply adding things in case we might read them eventually. I certainly, I’ve been working in a library the last couple of years, and I find I’m not purchasing as many books – I’m reading more than I’ve had the chance to in a really long time, but it does mean there’s kind of a gap in my archive of the last couple of years, books that I really loved and previously would have been automatic purchases after reading, and I just haven’t gotten around to that yet. So I might start implementing a certain amount of books a month based on what I’ve loved, simply so that it does represent all of my reading life, rather than just the times when I’ve been in a bookstore working.
AC: And it’s great to support bookstores as well, so I’m gonna perennially use that as my excuse of oh, it’s fine for me to buy more.
AV: That’s the thing about libraries as well, is that if you have a book on your bookshelf that you haven’t read, probably aren’t gonna read, but wanna, but are holding out hope that maybe one day you will, there’s every chance that book is gonna be at a library as well. And so, borrow it from a library – you can, you know, the author’s gonna get some royalties, you’ll support your local library, it’s a very good option that doesn’t necessarily take up room in your house.
MD: And another good thing to note is that while there will certainly be a copy of most books somewhere in Victorian libraries, most of them do evaluate based on borrowing stats. So by borrowing it from your local library you’re also keeping it in circulation for that author, so that’s a really good thing to do for that reason as well.
AC: Well fine, I’ll borrow Dune.
MD: How can you feel smug when the film comes out if you don’t?
AV: I mean the, the thing about, you know, the KonMari philosophy and all that sort of thing is that, you know, it’s not a hard and fast rule of ‘you must only have 30 books,’ or it’s not a hard and fast rule of, you know, ‘if you have not read it in six months you must throw it out.’ It’s very much just a system of really thinking about what books mean to you, and so, like you say Alice, with your three copies of The Watch Tower, sure on paper it’s three copies of The Watch Tower, but if all of those have, you know, a meaning to you, then that ticks the Marie Kondo box, I think in terms of, you know, the philosophy behind it.
AC: That’s true, I’m sparking joy.
AV: Yeah, if they spark joy, then that’s what it’s about. You know, people kind of tied themselves in knots about this thirty books thing that was that was talked about, but I think it is just a matter of that, the midlist of our bookshelves, if you like, this stuff that we have they don’t necessarily have that much attachment. She’s not asking us to throw out books that we’ve grown up with or books that we love, it’s just asking us to think about which ones we do love and which ones we don’t really need.
MD: You’ve been listening to the Kill Your Darlings Podcast. You can find us, along with fiction, essays, columns, reviews and memoir on our website – so make sure to check in regularly online and on our regular first book club events. See you next time!