I’m sitting against a wall of the Adelaide Festival Centre, behind a table piled with books, blowing my nose into a series of tissues. It’s the last day of JLF Adelaide, a three-day pop-up version of India’s premier literary event, and I’m working a bookshop shift here.
One of the first people I see is Rebekah, the writer friend I made at Adelaide Writers Festival, before I moved here, our bond cemented when we sat under a tree outside the book tent one sweltering afternoon and, after two wines and two hours, decided to edit an anthology together, on love & lust in the digital age. (We never did, though it was the engine for several passionate emails.) I hug her impulsively over the desk, snuffling as I retreat.
‘Sorry!’ I say. ‘I’m sick.’
Rebekah tells me I have to read Dry Milk, one of the books from the panel she just chaired, so we can then go to dinner together and talk about it.
‘I can’t tell you why,’ she says. ‘It has to be a surprise to you.’
‘Okay!’ I say. This is Rebekah’s effect on me: she makes me want to do things. Whether or not I follow through is a different question.
Jason and I sit during the lull between sessions and talk about our kids, and bookselling, and the books we’ve been reading, and whether it’s okay, in certain scenarios, to tell a customer they’re not actually right. Jason says yes, it is: for instance, if they’re being obnoxiously racist or sexist. I tell him I usually just nod and smile through gritted teeth in these scenarios, or wait blankly for it to be over.
‘You don’t have to,’ he says.
I think about this, slightly amazed – both at my boss for allowing this, and at myself for being amazed that moral values can trump commercial ones.
‘I don’t know if I could say something,’ I admit sadly. ‘After decades of customer service, the need to be accomodating no matter what is too ingrained in me. In the moment, all I can do is smile and be polite. Later, I think about what I might have said. But at the time, I can’t do it.’
I tell him about the time, at Readings Doncaster two years ago, that a customer took me outside to show me a book in the window and slid an arm around me as we stood there, resting it on the curve of my waist, almost on my arse, and squeezing. And I just laughed and ducked away from him, instead of protesting. Trying to pretend it hadn’t happened. Because that was my instinct. Because it felt too hard and awkward to do anything else.
I blow my nose, cough, and load another Strepsil into my mouth.
The sessions let out, and a stream of people descends. Jason works the register while I work the EFTPOS machine, punching in the numbers he calls out and swiping cards and smiling, pushing books into paper bags at speed.
This festival is unusual in that there is a substantial Indian audience, mixed in with the white Westerners, some of the latter in floating scarves, gold-threaded tunics, or patterned kaftans, as if dressing for the occasion. When I worked at Melbourne Writers Festival, we were – like all Australian festivals – keen to attract diverse audiences, so much so that we hired a staff member, in partnership with another festival, for the purpose. We programmed authors from diverse backgrounds, but our audiences stayed majority white: grey-haired women in artful blocks of black; young women in colourful Gorman prints, the occasional man in skinny jeans.
A steady stream of customers greets Jason by name; they’re shop regulars. Some of them are familiar, while others are introduced to me.
‘Are you new at Imprints?’ asks one.
‘I’ve been there about a year,’ I say, realising it’s now more than a year. ‘But mostly on Thursdays.’
One man buying Tony Birch’s new novel, The White Girl, says to Jason, ‘I’m buying fiction!’ in a note of triumphant surrender.
Later, the customer returns to buy a second Tony Birch novel.
‘Two novels!’ says Jason.
‘That’s my allocation for the year,’ says the customer, as I put the second novel in a paper bag.
‘I don’t really read fiction,’ he tells me, ‘but I heard Tony Birch speak and he was very impressive. And then I was talking to him afterwards, about class, and he said I’d bought the wrong book, and so I’m getting this one.’
I tell him that Tony’s first book, Shadowboxing, is especially good on class, and it’s autobiographical too, ‘so almost non-fiction’. But though he nods, he doesn’t take the bait, maybe because he has bought his two fiction books for the year now.
A woman wearing intricately layered black earrings that bob at her shoulders over a black top and leather jacket peers closely at me as I hand her her book.
‘Are you … Jo?’ she says.
‘Yes,’ I say.
She was a member of a book group I ran for Readings, based at the Carlton head office, several (maybe seven) years ago. Readings discontinued the book club at the end of my year running it. I remember sitting around the meeting-room table in Carlton, presiding over platters of cheese and crackers and fruit, and carafes of wine.
‘We’re still together!’ she tells me. The club now runs out of a cafe at the nearby university. ‘I’ll have to tell them all I saw you!’
‘Say hi for me!’ I say.
And then she asks what I’m writing, and says nice things about my book, which I don’t think I’d yet published at the time I ran the book club. ‘It was just so honest and real,’ she says, and I thank her, genuinely flattered and a little bit embarrassed.
We chat until another wave of customers arrives, clutching books and credit cards.
It feels so long ago that I wrote a book, published a book. I wonder if I will ever do it again; if I will find the discipline.
I remember the last time I caught up with my old Readings boss in Melbourne. We drank cider in the front bar of Jimmy Watson’s, and then I followed him back across Lygon Street to head office, so I could say hello to more people.
‘I don’t know what you’re up to these days,’ he said to me as we descended the escalators in Lygon Court, gliding past the organic supermarket with the salad bar. ‘I’m not really on Facebook anymore,’ he continued. ‘I don’t look at it.’
I laughed nervously, sensing what was coming next.
‘Are you still oversharing on Facebook?’
‘No,’ I said. ‘Not really.’
And this was true; since I’d been happy, since I met Luke and moved to Adelaide and found a new stillness in my life, I’d largely lost the restless urge to spill my life on social media.
‘I’d rather read it in a book,’ he continued. ‘When are you going to write another book?’
During oncologist Ranjana Srivistava’s talk, three groups of customers trickle out to buy A Better Death.
‘She’s very, very good,’ says one white-haired woman, leaning in to take her book from me. ‘You’d better be ready – a lot of people will be buying this.’
Jason accordingly scurries to the book table to check the size of our priced piles. I stay seated, and take the opportunity to luxuriously cough.
‘It’s a conversation we don’t have,’ says the next customer to buy it. ‘But we should. We need to think about it.’
I look at her and nod, yes. I don’t really know what to say to this. What I’m thinking is, I don’t want to.
The session finishes, the next wave hits us, and we sell some more copies of Ranjana’s book. Jason re-checks the piles afterwards.
‘I would’ve thought we’d sell more,’ he says, ‘after what those first customers were saying.’
‘Maybe they don’t want to keep thinking about it,’ I say.
But I don’t really know why.
Jason tells me that he gets up early to read, these days. I remember hearing him say this in the shop recently. He’s getting up at 5.30am. I tell him I’ve read a lot in the past week, while I’ve been sick in bed.
Louis Theroux’s memoir, which was okay; Charlotte Wood’s The Weekend, which I loved; a ‘poor in America’ memoir called Maid which I found suspiciously one-note and evasive. A book about synthetic drugs exported from China to the US, via Mexico. Which I compulsively shared facts from with Luke, as he looked at me increasingly dubiously. (‘Are you a conspiracy theorist now?’ he asked eventually.) And a book of short stories coming out in February, by a bookseller I worked with in Melbourne.
‘What’s it like?’ asks Jason of this last one.
‘Good, mostly,’ I say. ‘The last few stories, about a climate-change future, scared the shit out of me. So, you know, that means they were good.’
‘Oh, you can’t think about climate change,’ says Jason. ‘We’re all just fucked.’
That’s become my position too. If I could do something, I would, but I can’t see how I can, and it makes me sleepless and teary, so I turn the page, walk out of the room, keep scrolling my Facebook feed. I’m the kind of person I used to despise.
‘These stories kind of ambushed me,’ I admit.
I ask Jason if he has a water tank; he says he did, but the bottom eroded in rust and it’s impossible to fix because of the way it’s built. Does he have a vegetable garden? His block doesn’t get enough sunlight, he says.
‘I’m planting a vegetable garden next weekend,’ I say. ‘Or, I will in the next few weeks.’
Luke and I have plans to use the $200 worth of Bunnings vouchers we got as wedding gifts to buy raised garden beds. Or rather, I have the plan, and Luke amiably agreed.
‘Do you have cans of food stockpiled?’ I ask, half-joking this time. I’ve joked with Luke that we should start amassing them in the cellar that currently holds bags of old clothes and stacks of sheets and blankets we don’t use.
At Melbourne Writers Festival, I programmed a stream of climate change events that I was proud of. I thought that if people thought about it and talked about it enough, we’d build momentum for policy change. But public policy has only gone backwards since.
Fear doesn’t seem to make people act; it makes us close down.
Not all of us, of course.
Some people I know are regularly protesting, even getting arrested.
An ex-publishing colleague quit the industry this year, and currently campaigns full-time for climate change action. She has two young children.
‘Jo!’ The face beaming back at me over the counter, a speaker’s placard hanging from her neck, is familiar but I have no idea why.
I take her credit card and gratefully read the name; the context clicks into place. I remember names for decades, but faces flit easily away.
‘When did I last see you?’ she says, and I’m able to give her a solid answer.
‘At Melbourne Writers Festival,’ I say. ‘We had a meeting.’
She nods, a little uncertainly.
‘I thought it was the Wheeler Centre?’ she says.
My Melbourne jobs bleed into each other, from a distance of kilometres and time. Other people often forget which of my jobs they met me in: I had so many, at so many similar organisations, over 21 years in Melbourne.
‘Maybe,’ I say, though I’m pretty sure it was at the festival.
Last week, in the hour I spent checking books off an invoice behind the bookshop counter before I was sent home to bed, I was telling a story that began, ‘when I worked at Australian Book Review …’
‘Is there anywhere you didn’t work?’ said Katherine, laughing.
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Probably.’
I’ve worked in so many places, but none long enough for long-service leave. And I have no savings; maybe that’s connected to my transience?
I look back on myself, ten years ago (I was editing a bookshop publication, and the books pages of The Big Issue, and on the editorial team of a literary magazine, and running book groups, and freelance reviewing, and bringing up a child) and I don’t know how I had the energy to spread myself so far. And so thin.
My boss at the publishing house that is my main job texts me, to ask if I can put aside a copy of William Dalrymple’s new history, Anarchy. He asks if I know if the new John Le Carre is in stock at the bookshop, a few streets away. (I ask Jason: it is.)
I look at the multiple piles of Anarchy and text Michael that yes, I have a copy here for him.
Jason and I are talking about Helen Garner; or rather, I’m telling him that a copy of her new edited book of early diaries is coming to me on Monday, from the publisher.
‘Did you know her, in Melbourne?’ he asks.
‘Kind of,’ I say. ‘Not really, but I met her a few times.’
I don’t say that when I first met her, at a festival party, years before I worked there, I introduced myself, and she said, pleasantly, ‘I know who you are. You’re from Readings.’ And I was so awed that I’ve never forgotten it.
‘She’s really nice,’ I say instead. ‘Really down to earth.’
Jason read the same interview with Helen that I read this weekend, in the Australian. The journalist wrote it in the form of his own diary entries, of reading the diaries and going to interview Helen, and then interviewing her. I couldn’t help thinking that a woman journalist would never dare to do that – to emulate Helen in a piece profiling her – though of course I could be wrong.
It was a terrific read, and I wished I’d written it, that I’d sat with Helen in her sparse office in North Melbourne (she now has a policy of not being interviewed at her house) and looked at the boxes holding the diaries themselves.
Somewhere at home, there is a scrapbook I kept when I was in my early twenties, of examples of great magazine journalism, with a carefully stapled profile of Helen Garner by Margaret Simons, from the Australian magazine (I think), conducted at Helen’s kitchen table in her Flemington house.
‘I never knew Monkey Grip was written from her diaries,’ says Jason.
‘I did,’ I say, a little too eagerly. ‘She says she sat at the State Library and typed them up and put them together and took them apart, and moved them around.’
As someone who finds it difficult to make things up, who compulsively writes her life, I found this image profoundly comforting. That you can do something like that and be one of Australia’s best writers.
Of course, I don’t fool myself that anyone can do it.
Mid-rush, I look up and see Michael walk past with his pineapple-haired, brightly clothed teenage daughter. Head down, punching prices into the EFTPOS machine, I hear Jason chatting to him, further down the table. They come back and Jason processes his copy of Anarchy. I present the machine for him to tap with his credit card.
‘Are you going to the session?’ I ask.
‘No,’ he says. ‘I’m just going for a walk. I’m with my brother. Got to keep moving!’
I am too busy to pause and ask why he came all the way here just to buy a book I was going to deliver to him tomorrow. But perhaps he wanted to check out the crowd.
It’s the last hour of the day. I am looking at a slight, elegant, silver-haired woman in a pale blue tunic; a Sydney literary editor I used to write for before she retired. We’re Facebook friends.
Like me, she uses Facebook as something like a blog, so I know about the neighbour’s cat she adopted and her ageing father and her travels overseas.
‘Hi!’ I say, and tell her how much I liked her review of Charlotte Wood’s novel last weekend. We talk about the book a bit, and Matthew Condon’s diary interview with Helen Garner, and then I ask her when her review of Helen’s diaries will be published. ‘You’re getting some great reviews lately.’
‘So are you,’ she says. Surprised and suddenly a little bit proud, I realise she’s right.
‘I am,’ I say. ‘I feel really lucky.’
I’ve had my best year of reviews for the Age ever: five reviews, all of really interesting books, many of them in my personal sweet spot of cultural journalism/feminism.
‘I can’t believe you’re selling books here!’ she says. ‘It’s so funny to see you.’
And then she asks if she can take my photo; she was going to photograph the book table anyway.
‘Sure,’ I say, and smile across the table, through my blocked nose and heavy throat. I’ll probably look like a sick ghost, but I don’t mind.
‘I’m so glad you’re so happy,’ she says, getting ready to leave. She has a place to catch. ‘Here in Adelaide.’
‘I am,’ I say. ‘Adelaide is great. Luke is great.’
‘You’ve been through so many ups and downs!’ she says. ‘And we’ve all watched them play out.’
I am momentarily embarrassed, at my incontinent emotions and the (often failed) struggle to be valiantly okay, day by day, that was on show through the worst of my divorce. Not because I wanted it to be, but because I couldn’t keep it in.
But I take in the warmth of what she’s saying, her genuine happiness at my happiness.
And I decide to take in only that; to slough off my instinctual shame at my public private self.
I decide to be okay with who I am, at least for today.