Centre for Stories: In the collection of books you gave us, do you have a favourite?
Susan Midalia: Oh, I can’t even remember half of the ones I have donated!
CFS: Put it this way, do you have one that you were ‘umming’ and ‘ahhing’ about whether or not to give it away?
SM: There’s a collection of stories by Henry James called The Figure in the Carpet. I’m a big short story fan and Henry James is one of my favourite writers. But the print—it’s a really old Penguin—the print is pretty tiny; single spaced and eight-sized font and I just can’t read it anymore. Yeah seeing as it’s a Penguin from about 20 years ago and I figured if I ever want to read them again, I’ll read them on a Kindle, or I’ve also got some of his other stories in other collections, but it’s just part of the problem. I’ve got a lot of old Penguins and they just have really tiny font. I can’t read them anymore! I look at the price on the back. You know, I bought it at the University of Western Australia bookshop in 1979 and it cost me $2.50. It’s crazy isn’t it.
CFS: Physical book or Kindle?
SM: I like the tactile experience of a book. I like the fact that I can see how long I have to go until the end of the chapter. I mean, you can do that on a Kindle, you can flip it over and see, but it’s not the same. And I love the covers of books, the smell of them, all that. All the senses.
CFS: How many books are in your collection?
SM: I have no idea. My husband and I moved house about a year and a half ago and I did a big cull of them. Mind you, I took them down to the Save The Children book fund. I came across a friend and we both went, “Oh, what have you got in there?” So I did a big cull then. How many have I got? In my study I’ve got floor to ceiling book cases, there is about six of them. I’ve got more books in the living room. I honestly couldn’t tell you. A couple of thousand maybe? Does sound right? I don’t know. Well like this (referring to our bookshelf), I’ve probably got more than that, yeah I’ve got more than that. I’m very methodical. My system is I have all my Australian fiction alphabetised and I have all of my short story collections alphabetised and then I have all of my non-Australian alphabetised, otherwise I would never find anything. Then I’ve got non-fiction in another section, I’ve got poetry, I’ve got memoir and auto-biography. But I know someone, Annabel Smith the writer, she organises her books through colour. Not as an aesthetic thing, not because it looks great, but she just knows where everything is. I say, how do you do that?
CFS: Have you always read a lot? When did you start reading?
SM: Oh yeah. There were two books I remember as a child that I loved, and I don’t come from a reading kind of family which is kind of odd, so no one in my family read, my parents, my brother. So what did I read? The two books that really stayed with me were Anne of Green Gables. I loved Anne of Green Gables and I went back and read it a few years ago and I still think it is fabulous. The other book was a book called A Wrinkle in Time, which is about time travel. I just didn’t know you could write a book about that. It’s also about cult-thinking. And family. It’s a really interesting book, yeah. I was maybe 11 or 12 when I read it. They are the two that really stay with me. I know there’s been a lot of controversy about it and some critics have argued against it. So you absorb all of things as a child without knowing what they are really about. But in saying that, there is a level of sophistication which you don’t understand as a child but it opens something up for you, even if you don’t understand what it is. There’s something this sense of an imaginative world and a conceptual world that is bigger than your understanding.
I do re-read books, not often. But for me, it’s about being ready for certain books. When I first tried to read W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, it had become a revered book, and I just could not get into it at all. I just thought it was boring, I couldn’t understand why so many people admired it.
“When I read a book that I think is really good, I see it as a gift as something that the writer has given to you. You are grateful that the book is in the world.”
And then two or three years later, for no particular reason, I picked it up again and this time things fell into place. So much of reading is contextual. I think it’s the mood you’re in, it’s the kind of psychological space you’re in and what’s been happening in your life. Certain books resonate at certain times. I often think that there are books in the past that I missed out on because I wasn’t ready for them or I wasn’t in the right space for them.
CFS: If you had to summarise the role of books in your life, what would you say?
SM: Well before I became a writer, reading for me was, well, primarily a pleasure and still is, obviously, it was partly escapism because in my early life my family moved around a lot so I found it quite difficult to make friends. We would leave and then I would make friends and then we would leave again. So books became a form of friendship, I suppose. I think just that sense I had even as a child, this kind of miracle of making marks on a page and creating a world. As I got older I think reading became a way of learning about people that are different from me. That’s my chief source of pleasure as a reader. One of my chief sources as a writer is psychological, I’m just fascinated by characters. I really take great pleasure in the craft and the skill in which books are written, the skill with which language can be used. It’s an aesthetic pleasure, it’s an intellectual pleasure and it’s a gift. When I read a book that I think is really good, I see it as a gift as something that the writer has given to you. You are grateful that the book is in the world. You always learn something from a good book, a different way of thinking about something. Even a single word—you think, “Oh, I don’t know that word,” as simple as that. And you learn tricks as a writer. You learn different strategies that writers can use.