on realising authors are people too

Like most of you, I’ve loved reading since I was a kid. Presumably in my situation this was because my parents read to me, but I can’t really remember this in specific moments and I hate having things read to me now unless it’s my two-year-old doing the reading (because it is never quite how it’s written on the page, and she does excellent hilarious voices.) When you’re a kid, authors seem completely magical. They can create anything – characters you feel as close to as your own friends, worlds you wish fervently were in your back garden (how many times I tried to eat the plants in our backyard like fairies do in Enid Blyton books I can’t even count), entire alternate realities and new ways of looking at things that blew my mind (and can continue to do do today.) I started trying my hand at writing when I was a kid, from my four-sentence reimagining of Alice in Wonderland when I was five to elaborate stories of my dogs getting up to shenanigans as I became a canine-obsessed upper-primary bore, and I realised that everyone had some of this power inside them. Despite this, authors themselves, ones who wrote the books that I read over and over again curled up in bed, seemed like an entirely different species. I saw them talk about readers writing to them but the idea of actually doing so seemed terrifying and pointless. I loved them, so surely everyone else did too, and they must have hundreds, thousands, BILLIONS of letters sent to them each day. So why bother? And, bar writing to Margaret Clark after seeing physical evidence of a reply from her from someone else I knew, I never did. They remained these distant, wonderful creatures, impossible to know and perfect in my unknowing.

So I wonder what my youthful (sporty, healthy, sigh) self would think of me now? Young Fiona, I have news for you: you’ll meet writers. So many of them. You’ll get a job in a bookshop for work experience when you are fifteen, and seventeen years later you will still be working in bookshops, because they have always felt like the right place to be. You’ll meet writers because they need somewhere to buy their books too, and eventually you will work in a place that holds author events and you will meet mountains of authors. You will – and hold onto your hat for this one – actually be friends with them, sometimes dear friends with them.

And some of them are jerks. Some of them might get anxious before their events and be short with you, because – don’t forget – they are people, not unicorns. Some of them have politics you don’t agree with. Some of them just aren’t good with people, and that includes you, even though you shouldn’t take it personally. The rise of the internet (you don’t know what this is but trust me, it’s great) will sometimes break your heart when it makes it easier to hear your favourite author saying something stupid, or finding out that they like to eat small white puppies for lunch. It can hurt you, a little.

But then sometimes they can be wonderful. Sometimes if you are anxious before an event (because sorry, young Fiona, but you grow up to be a fairly anxious person) they are kind to you even though the night is about them. They brush off your mistakes and thank you profusely for your help. They give you a hug or a book or a smile and all seem like such gifts. Sometimes they are just normal levels of friendly and that is fine, too. I would like to tell you that you become so blase around all of them that you no longer blush when they talk to you, but you will completely forget how to speak when you meet Jane Hawking, past wife of Stephen Hawking (you probably don’t know who he is either but trust me, he’s important) and she won’t be even slightly mad about it. Because she’s a person, see. (And she’s the subject of a movie coming out soon and you can look at the previews and squeal, “I met her, you know!” and also still feel a faint tremor of anxiety about her.)

Eventually, though, you will get to a place where you have a bestselling author’s number in your phone and other famous authors who are frequent customers and who smile at you when they come in and it won’t seem like such a big deal, because you do know, on some level, that they are not frightening or otherworldly; they are just good at their job, and their job is one that benefits you directly. Like doctors, but for your imagination.

And the best thing is, even though they lost some of their lustre when you realise that writers are people, just people who go out and buy carrots and say stupid things at parties and burp when no one is looking, you will still pick up a book and read it and it still feels like it came from somewhere else, somewhere magical, somewhere not in a person’s mind but just them writing down something that is already true. Young Fiona, I wish so much for you: don’t get that perm when you’re twelve, and write to those authors, tell them how you feel. Maybe they would like to hear from you. Maybe they’re jerks. But discover they are people and break that illusion earlier. The real world is a fine place to be.

your precarious pile

Gosh, I love crime fiction. Reading it and talking about it and telling customers which crime book is my favourite and finding out what authors are doing with it. (Are they putting another woman in a box? No? Oh, thank god for that.) Recently I’ve read The Girl Who Wasn’t There by Ferdinand von Schirach which I probably should write a review for but it spent the first half being just too frustratingly clever for the sake of trying to be clever, then had some very interesting twists by the end. I’ve also read Walter Kirn’s Blood Will Out but it left me feeling a bit flat, as well—the cover insisted that it was the new In Cold Blood and Amy Tan (whose One Hundred Secret Senses is just beautiful) marvelled at it, which probably raised my expectations to unrealistic levels. Anyway, I’m now at the time of year when I don’t have any reviews I have to write for work, and I usually spend December having a break of sorts from crime books, lest I learn some devious way to murder all the customers who are mean to me in the lead-up to Christmas. This doesn’t necessarily mean I won’t post anything, mostly because I enjoy the sound of my own typing too much and will inevitably read some crime anyway because it is far too tempting, but in the meantime, I have the following books on the precarious reading pile next to the couch:

Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (I have started this and it is completely wonderful, and, when I thought about it, possibly the only African book I’ve read not written by a British man who plays the tuba)

The Book of Strange New Things, Michel Faber (This is Very Thick and, let’s face it, I am too, so I may not get around to reading it, but the actual tactile experience of the cover could convince me)

Nona & Me, Clare Atkins (an Australian young adult book about a white girl growing up in an Indigenous community. I’m also part of a young adult book club, because I like to have a vaguely broad range of knowledge at work, and also who needs spare time after all, and I’m hoping to convince everyone to read this next.)

The Wife Drought, Annabel Crabb (I’ve read the first two essays and have been very annoyingly interrupting C as he tries to get things done, reading out all the interesting-slash-depressing statistics and then the hilarious bits too)

Springtime, Michelle De Kretser (a beautiful gold and black novella, I finished this in one afternoon in the sunshine after work, in the springtime no less. It’s a ghost story, the tale of Frances working out her place in Sydney, and in her partner’s life, all the while encountering a ghostly figure in outdated clothes and her dog, as Frances walks her own dog through her new streets. It is excellent and unnerving and lovely visually.)

So there you have it—my current reading list, ever-changing as it is. Do you have any non-crime books on your own precarious pile? Do you ever give yourself a break from crime? I sometimes need a breather if I’ve read something particularly violent, like Robert Gott’s The Holiday Murders which made me afraid to pick up just about anything for a while there. This time, I still feel fondly towards the genre but am giving myself some self-imposed time off so I don’t burn out on it and can spend a luxurious January reading in the front yard on the picnic rug with an ice cream. Well, this probably translates to: sitting awkwardly on the couch fitting in chapters around a kid who doesn’t believe in personal space or naps, but a woman can dream.

the gone girl who was on fire

There are always trends in books, especially crime books. You’ll notice everything released one month suddenly comes from Norway, or has a misty tree on the cover, or has the same plotline as the book you just started writing the other day and was convinced was the most original piece of literature to ever exist. Well, let me become unnecessarily enraged about a recent trend: The Girl Who Was In This Book.

I’m sure there were other books with this type of before, but let’s blame Stieg Larsson and his multi-kazillion-copy-selling Millennium Trilogy: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl who Played with Fire, and The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. Fine, they’re part of a trilogy, it’s understandable that they share similar titles. But then what happened? This happened: The Girl with a Clock for a Heart, The Girl with all the Gifts, The Girl on the Train, The Girl who Wasn’t There, The Girl in 6E, so many more that you’ll get bored before I finish listing them. That’s what a successful series will get you. Endless imitators, not of content, but of titles. It’s almost like when you send your grandmother into the video store to pick you up a copy of Guardians of the Galaxy and she comes home with something with a name like Galaxy Guardians, the knockoff version immediately filmed on a budget of $11.70 in the hopes that people who aren’t paying attention pick it up accidentally.*

But, of course, these books aren’t cheap imitations of Larsson, or of anything—they are good. The Girl with all the Gifts is an unnerving zombie/vampire (zompire?) thriller with an ending that made me almost chew the book in a frenzy of emotion. The Girl with a Clock for a Heart is a shifty little number with disorienting characters and a whole lot of twisty moments. I almost threw The Girl who Wasn’t There across the room when I saw it, so frustrated I was with the title alone, but instead was caught up in a completely original and bananas plotline that I immediately tried to share with everyone who came near me. I continue to learn my lesson about not judging books by their covers. (I’m a slow learner.)

What does genuinely bother me about these titles is the word “girl”. Only in The Girl with All the Gifts is the girl actually a youth of some kind. The other women these books are named after are all adults, yet here they are, consistently referred to as girls. Larsson’s prickly twenty-something mega-hero Lisbeth Salander fights the whole way through her series to be an adult deemed capable of making her own decisions; the titles don’t even give her the benefit of the doubt. In contrast, could you imagine Raymond Chandler’s incredible Phillip Marlowe books with names like The Boy who Looked at Gams? Or Poirot starring in The Boy with the Grey Matter? No, it’s just women left to be infantilised and nameless in covers. The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is indeed a boy; The Boy who Could Tickle Clouds, who spends the majority of the book as a growing boy before becoming an adult, getting up to shenanigans, losing his dad and making me cry. I hunted for more, but they seemed, essentially, to be about children.

Book fashions come and go, but like the mullet, this one needs the chop. Women are not girls. Marketing departments: you’re doing an ace job, guys, keep it up—but we need new titles. And to my fellow readers: continue to not judge books by their covers.

Regards, The Woman at the End of her Rope.

*Analogy may not work in 2014.