There’s something voyeuristically thrilling about knowing what other people’s reading habits are. The Reader is a brief interview inspired by the Proust Questionnaire, which was itself inspired by a 19th century party game. We ask readers, writers, publishers and book-lovers everywhere (including our own staff) to answer eleven questions about the books they love, what they have been reading and their literary habits.
Fergus Barrowman is the Publisher at Victoria University Press, New Zealand’s leading publisher of new fiction, poetry and scholarly non-fiction, where he has been since 1985. This year VUP has an amazing list of eight books of fiction (including four first books and two second books) and nine of poetry (one first and two second).
He also edits and publishes the literary magazine Sport, which he co-founded in 1988 along with Elizabeth Knox, Damien Wilkins and Nigel Cox. The 41st issue of Sport, published on 14 June 2013, includes fiction and poetry by 57 writers, from Pip Adam to Ashleigh Young.
And he now has the challenge and pleasure of learning the music business, as he assumes oversight of Rattle, the leading new music label which has recently been acquired by Victoria University. Rattle will continue to be run by producer/sound engineer Steve Garden, with the security of ongoing VUW support. Rattle’s roster stretches from classical musicians like Michael Houston and John Psathas to Maori music experts like Hirini Melbourne and Richard Nunns, in addition to jazzers like Norman Meehan, Reuben Bradley and Dave Lisik.
What are you currently reading and how did you discover the book?
A lot of my time is spent reading manuscripts and proofs, and around that I read things on the internet (most of which I find following links in tweets) or the LRB, NYRB and other magazines. A good novel is the best counter-therapy, and especially good recently have been William Gass, Middle C; James Salter, All That Is; Meg Wolitzer, The Interestings. I’ve just finished Neil Gaiman, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, which I loved – it’s a great example of an all-ages novel – and I’m well into Tao Lin, Taipei, which could hardly be more different.
Who are your favourite writers and what do you love about them?
I’m a promiscuous and restless reader, often reading several books at once, but I do get read-everything crushes. I remember when I was 11 or 12 being obsessed with Joan Aiken and Desmond Bagley; that didn’t seem strange. Several years ago I discovered Elizabeth Taylor and Roberto Bolano at about the same time; sadly I ran out of Taylor, but I’m really enjoying the posthumous Bolano industry (despite the irritating lack of proper editorial information). Sometimes I get the same crush again decades later, and read everything again and find it different because I am. It happened with Vladimir Nabokov, and more recently with Tove Jansson’s Moomin books, which had the wonderful side benefit of leading me to her recently-translated books for grown-ups.
What books are on your bedside table?
I don’t read in bed (I’m a bad enough sleeper as it is). Amongst the many books around the sitting room couch are the FSG anthologies of Italian and Latin American Poetry; Glyn Maxwell, Pluto; Charles Boyle, The Manet Girl; Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby; The Poems of Alfred Starr Hamilton; Elizabeth Taylor’s Complete Short Stories; Paul Ewen’s London Pub Reviews; Daniel Mendelsohn’s translation of C.P. Cavafy’s Complete Poems; ECM—A Cultural Archaeology; and many issues of the Paris Review, LRB, NYRB and Listener.
What is your favourite book to film adaptation?
The Jungle Book. Later The Godfather.
What book have you re-read the most and why?
I seldom reread novels, I think because I do so much rereading in my work. I reread poetry a lot. In fact I’m a slow reader of poetry. A new collection will take me months, and by the time I feel I’ve got to the end of it I will have reread some poems many times, and likely completely missed others.
Who is your favourite literary character?
Right now, all of Bolano’s young avatars.
What book have you always been meaning to read but still haven’t got around to?
There are so many. I ticked off Jude the Obscure last summer. Devastating. To start with there was a hint of homework, with the Max Gate edit coming up, but I wasn’t distracted for long.
Which three writers would you have over for supper?
Dante, Lord Byron, Emily Bronte.
What would you cook them?
Depending on the season, ika mata or oxtail soup.
How are your books shelved and organised at home?
There are the ghosts of several attempts at organisation in the shelves that dominate three rooms. There are “sections” – poetry, essays, NZ books, YA books, art books, music books, books I read in the 1980s, books I read in the 1990s, books Elizabeth wants to be able to find – but they’ve been mixed up by moves and renovations and people not putting things back where they belong. Books acquired in the last couple of years which one of us means to get around to reading are piled up on the sitting room floor or in the kitchen with the cookbooks. Once upon a time I could find everything.
What is your favourite literary quote?
‘a novel is a prose narrative of some length that has something wrong with it’ Randall Jarrell (while recommending Christina Stead, The Man Who Loved Children)