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.
Sarah Laing is a novellist, short story writer, cartoonist, illustrator and book designer. Her illustrated novel, The Fall of Light, was published this year, as were four comic books from her popular Let Me Be Frank blog.
What are you currently reading and how did you discover the book?
I’m reading A Heart So White by Javier Mariás, a book that was recommended by Sue Orr. It’s striking how dense it is, how everything is examined in one rolling thought, and how hypnotic that feels. I’ve come across a number of passages where I’ve thought yes, that’s exactly how it is, and I can feel the text shifting the way that I see the world. I’ve also been reading a bunch of comics I got for my 10 year old son – Erin Faith Hicks’ Friends with Boys, Vera Bosgol’s Anya’s Ghost and Joseph Lambert’s Annie Sullivan and the Trials of Helen Keller.
Who are your favourite writers and what do you love about them?
Margaret Atwood – her writing is so feisty and beautiful and true. Katherine Mansfield – I am in awe of her way of becoming other people, and how horror stains the edges of her stories. Jennifer Egan – I’m a recent convert but am busily reading everything she’s written. Jhumpa Lahiri – oh God, her writing is weighted with exquisite sadness. Jonathan Lethem – I love the surreality that impinges on his gritty New York realities. Jeffrey Eugenides – I have a crush on him, particularly over Middlesex and The Virgin Suicides. Margaret Mahy – I often read her stories to my kids and I delight in them for the hundreth, thousanth time. I could go on – these are just the favourite writers that have floated to the top of my brain.
What books are on your bedside table?
I’ve got a couple lined up – I’m still bracing myself to Elizabeth Knox’s Wake but I’m sure I’ll have nightmares. I also want to read the Peter McLeavey bio because I’ve always been intrigued by him. I bought myself the latest Donna Tartt and Jonathan Lethem because I knew they’d be perfect summer reads. I also have David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest taunting me – I started it in February and got up to page 100, put it down for a breather, and felt too scared to pick it up again.
What is your favourite book to film adaptation?
I adored A Room with A View when I was a teenager, and all of those Merchant Ivory adaptions – A Passage to India and Howard’s End. So much pent-up desire that colluded with my adolescent state, and the incredible landscapes, which were a world away from suburban Palmerston North.
What book have you re-read the most and why?
I don’t re-read books normally – there are too many new books to be read. But I have been re-reading Katherine Mansfield’s short stories, and as a teenager I read and re-read The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. I also recently re-read Cat’s Eye because Emma Martin mentioned that she was doing so and I was struck by how I loved it just as much as I did the first time round, and how it was a blueprint of sorts for my own writing.
Who is your favourite literary character?
Mo from Dykes to Watch Out For. And maybe Elaine from Cat’s Eye.
What book have you always been meaning to read but still haven’t got around to?
There are so many! I have managed to avoid vast tracts of Victorian literature. I don’t read nearly enough non-fiction. And there’s that David Foster Wallace that I really need to get through. Actually I really want to read Bolaño’s 2666.
Which three writers would you have over for supper?
Because I’m working on a graphic novel on Katherine Mansfield, I think I’d have to invite her, DH Lawrence and Virginia Woolf, because they’d all be able to answer important questions that I have. Or else I’d invite a bunch of cartoonists – Alison Bechdel, Lynda Barrie and Gabrielle Bell.
What would you cook them?
Last night I made roasted whole snapper with chermoula and artichokes, green salad from my garden, and butter beans fried in garlic and sage. Then we had strawberries, raspberries and ice cream for pudding. I think I might pull that one out again.
How are your books shelved and organised at home?
I have them all double shelved in my floor-to-ceiling bookshelves in my front room, lining the hearth, stacked on the piano stool and packed into the kitchen bookshelf. There are books in every single room – the only room there aren’t books in is the bathroom.
What is your favourite literary quote?
“A writer must stand on the rock of her self and her judgment or be swept away by the tide or sink in the quaking earth: there must be an inviolate place where the choices and decisions, however imperfect, are the writer’s own, where the decision must be as individual and solitary as birth or death.” Janet Frame, The Envoy from Mirror City.
To view an archive of previous interviews, follow this link.