Samuel Rutter is a new, exciting voice in Australian fiction. His story ‘Comfort Inn‘ appears in Issue Two of Kill Your Darlings, and he was recently published in The Big Issue’s fiction issue, alongside stalwarts such as Christos Tsiolkas, Linda Jaivin and Toni Jordan. Unfortunately, we’re losing him to South American shores, but we managed to speak to him about his Recommended Reading before he hopped on the plane.
1. What books did you read as a child?
As a child I can remember reading a lot of Roald Dahl, and I also loved the Asterix comics. I was fairly nerdy so I also liked those history books for children, the ones with lots of pictures.
I can remember reading a book in primary school called 100 Pink Balloons or something like that. It was about a little girl who has leukemia, and for every birthday she’d have a cake with the corresponding number of pink balloons made of icing on her cake. Then she gets HIV from a bone marrow transplant and starts dying really quickly. She says all she’s ever wanted is 100 pink balloons, so friends and families and nurses start giving their birthdays to her, so she can get to one hundred, but she dies before that happens. I remember being being absolutely devastated by that book, it’s the first book I can remember that made me cry. From memory I think it was a true story written by the mother of the girl. I was only about eight years old, I was pretty upset by the whole thing, I’m not sure how I even got hold of a book like that.
(Here’s the book – thanks bookdepository! http://www.bookdepository.co.uk/book/9781863881753/Pink-Balloons)
2. Who’s the one author you would never give up reading?
When I come across an author I really like, I tend to go right through and read their whole oeuvre. The first author who really had an impact like that on me was George Orwell, whose books I read as a mopey high school student in John Howard’s Australia. I devoured them and at the time they spoke so much to me – they’re still on my bookshelf now, but I can’t see myself reading them again for a long time, if ever. I think Orwell might be one of those ‘phases of youth’ authors, like Hesse and Sartre, or Kundera.
Other authors who I continue to re-read and admire, and whose works continue to give up fresh meanings include Georges Perec, Enrique Vila-Matas and William Faulkner.
The author who has probably been the greatest influence on my writing would be Roberto Bolaño – part of the reason why I went to Chile to learn Spanish was to read his and other contemporary Latin American writers’ works in their native language. I’ve read all of his stuff and am now working back through his short stories, which I think are better than his novels. Who knows, maybe in five years I’ll feel like leaving his works on the shelf too.
At this early point in my reading and writing life I still feel like there are oceans of great works out there to read, and so I tend not to re-read very much. There’s nothing quite like stumbling upon an author who is totally new to me and who brings something new to the table.
3. What books, recent or otherwise, have amazed you?
This year I’ve read a few books that have really impressed me. One is Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson, a Norwegian author. It’s a book about an older man remembering his youth during World War II and about his relationship with his father. It’s such a restrained and subtle book, and each of the details about place, or time, or character seems just right, as if the book has been drafted and redrafted hundreds of times. For all its polish it doesn’t lose any raw power, though.
I’ve spent much of the year reading Proust’s cathedral, In Search of Lost Time, which is one of those books that remind you that a ‘classic’ is a classic for a reason – not just because it’s long or boring or difficult or respected. It’s the sort of book you could read again and again for your whole life, because it continues to yield up lucid moments, and its meaning will change over the course of your life, just as you do, because the book itself is pretty close to life.
4. Do you think you started reading differently after you started writing fiction?
I’m not sure if it’s a question of before or after, but there is definitely such a thing as reading like a writer. On a basic level it can come down to things like ‘Why is this being narrated in the present tense?’ or ‘Why this metaphor here, now?’ but on a more aesthetic level I think it’s important to consider why you like a book. I think if you can pin down exactly what it is you like about Faulkner’s sentences or Nabokov’s stylistic panache then you can start to think about your own writing from a more technical point of view. In that way, I’d say I read to learn rather than to escape or relax. I prefer to read sitting up in a chair rather than under the covers in bed. But that’s not to say that reading shouldn’t be pleasurable…
5. How do you decide what to read?
I’m one of those people who buys more books than they can conceivably read in the near future, although I’ve been cutting down on that. Moving overseas is a good way to kill the love for heavy books. I had a housemate who had a quote stuck to his bookshelf that said something like ‘Buying more books than one can read is just an expression of one’s desire for universal knowledge’ or something like that. Reaching out to the stars.
I try to keep a rotation going in my reading, so that I can say to myself that I read broadly. If I’ve just read an American modernist, I might then go for some contemporary Latin American narrative or maybe a classic. I’m a student of languages so I try to read in other languages too.
I feel that reading broadly and in other languages means that you can learn the lessons from other authors and enjoy their works without falling into the trap of pastiching their style.
I don’t force what I read either. There’s so much out there that I do want to read, that if I’m not engaged by a book, I’ll put it down, no matter who wrote it or what its reputation is. I’ve picked up and put down Crime and Punishment three times because I can’t stand the damn thing.
6. Is it possible for a book to change your life? Which books would you say have changed yours?
I’m not sure if books have changed my life but I do find that they intertwine with and speak to my life. A few years ago when I was struggling with a law degree I hated, Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives made me feel just great about abandoning said law degree to ‘become a writer’ and then to jaunt off to South America for a year. Lately Finding Time Again and The Prisoner and the Fugitive have been books that I feel have been speaking directly to me. Maybe that’s the mark of great literature – a book that you feel speaks directly to you.