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off the shelf: interviews with our book donors

Dennis Haskell

Dennis Haskell is an Australian critic, poet and academic.

Our beautiful Centre for Stories reading room and library was made possible with book donations from generous people, including staff, volunteers and friends, all with one very important thing in common: their love of books. We decided to sit down with three of our donors who have delivered us books by the box load on several occasions. Their love of the written word is inspiring, thought-provoking, and will remind you how powerful books really are.

Dennis Haskell is an Australian critic, poet and academic. His key areas of research are Australian Literature, Poetry from the Medieval period to the present, Creative Writing, South-east Asian Writing in English, Literary Modernism (1890-1939), Modernism and after, and Post-colonial.

Centre for Stories: Out of the books that you donated to us, which are your favourites?

Dennis Haskell: Some of the Asian books are my favourites. I’ve done a lot of work on Australian-Asian links and on Southeast Asian literature in English. Some of it’s quite hard to get a hold of. It’s stuff I’ve picked up when I had been in Asia. I went up to teach at the National University of Singapore in late 1987, so ‘87 into ’88 for a semester, and that alerted me to a lot of writing, especially Singaporean, but also Singapore-Malaysian writing.

CFS: What role have books played in your life?

DH: Books have played an enormous role in my life, I’d say. I grew up in a house without books. My father used to read Zane Grey and Peter Carter Brown, literally paperbacks. He used to swap them with my uncle, they were the only things in the house to read. When I think about it, my father was very knowledgeable in a way. We could never figure it out. He used to sit in front of the TV with the quiz shows and answer the questions. We could never figure out how he knew the answers. I guess he must have read. I still don’t know the answer to that. My mother, on the other hand, wasn’t a reader at all. She never read books until later in life, and even then, she read the Mills and Boon kind of romances. But she used to take us to the local library, regularly.

My parents never had any money, but I was able to choose, every fortnight, I could have either a Little Golden Book, or an issue of the Chuckler’s Weekly, which was this thing published out of the local paper. So I used to have that. But I was someone that was always a reader. I used to read, I still would read, anything. There was nothing I wouldn’t read. I’d read the backs of chip packets, signs on the streets…like compulsively.

“So I came to poetry third and I never left it. I’ve never gone away from it.”

So I’ve always read. I think I was just born that way. I desperately wanted a set of encyclopaedias. The people next door, who I think never read anything, had a set of children’s encyclopaedias and I used to go in there and just read them. I still remember it was one of the Christmas presents I got, it must have cost my parents quite a bit of money really. I must have been eleven or twelve, and I got up Christmas eve night to go to the loo and tripped over this box and I knew what it was. I didn’t look at it, but I knew was it was. I was so thrilled; I still remember it.

CFS: Are there any books that have been significantly influential?

DH: I’m sure there are certain books that have influenced me in ways I couldn’t quite pick. Treasure Island would be one. Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, I remember reading them as a kid and being absolutely enthralled. I still love Robert Louis Stevenson’s work. I like literature that’s kind of plain-speaking, that doesn’t look down on an audience.

When I got interested in writing, I started writing short stories, which is probably what everyone did. Everyone probably does that. I was rather late to it, I was in my twenties, whereas most people that are writers start when they’re kids, I was at uni. Then I went on to writing scripts. I wasn’t any good at writing short stories. I was quite good at writing scripts, but it was hard to know what to do with them. So I came to poetry third and I never left it. I’ve never gone away from it. It was the first form of literature. You know, prose writers envy poets in a way. Of course the poets don’t sell anything… [laughs]. It’s kind of good in some ways, it keeps poetry pure.Copyright © 2018 Dennis Haskell

This story has been licensed to the Centre for Stories by the Storyteller. For reproduction and distribution of this recording please contact the Centre for Stories.

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