An ode to Independent Bookshops from Charlotte Wood

We’re hugely proud that Charlotte Wood and her remarkable novel The Natural Way of Things picked up both the Fiction prize and the overall Book of the Year prize at the Australian Indie Bookseller’s Awards and gave a rousing speech about literary awards, and the power of independent bookstores and their incredible staff, which we’re delighted to share here: 

CharlotteWoodAusIndiesI am so very, very touched by these awards, and so grateful. Thank you so very much for this honour. I would like first to thank the Independent Booksellers of Australia for your support of my novel. From offering me the chance to speak at the Leading Edge conference in May last year to choosing it for book clubs, to all the bookshop events, social media postings – and, most of all, the truly enthusiastic hand-selling of my novel, I owe you all so much.

I would also like to honour my fellow shortlistees. Gail Jones, Stephanie Bishop and Geraldine Brooks are writers I have long admired and whose accomplishments I celebrate. Book prizes are a strange phenomenon, and the way they are discussed can sometimes give rise to the depressing idea that the creation of literature is a contest, with one writer pitted against another. I honestly feel that nothing is further from the truth. All writers work in quiet, often lonesome isolation, each pursuing our own particular truth, each trying more than anything to make a strong and beautiful work of art. Yet despite this essential seclusion and the equally necessary differences between our literary projects which thankfully makes comparison impossible, we are also a community. Not a competition, but a flourishing community of quiet creators. I thank my fellow writers for their encouragement and solidarity over the years – and I offer mine to them, always. Independent booksellers in so many ways connect and support and build this community of writers. We could not make our work without you.

I also thank my beloved publisher Jane Palfreyman and editor Ali Lavau and all at Allen and Unwin who have been so overwhelming in their support.

I’m sure every author in this room has faced moments in the writing of a book where you can’t see a way forward. The book defeats you – uneven, unresolved, shameful in its ragged, state. You have a deep urge to finish it but every logical part of your mind wonders, why?

It was at one such moment, about fifteen years ago, that I left my desk in a state of despair and went for a walk. My first strange little novel, Pieces of a Girl, had mercifully been published but died soon into its short life, sent to the great pulping station in the sky. I kept writing, struggling along with a second novel that wasn’t working. All the time I was working against these questions: Why am I doing this? Who wants this? Who will even notice, let alone care, if I never write another book?

Brooding on those questions that day, I found myself wandering – perhaps riskily – into my local bookshop, Better Read than Dead in Newtown. I drifted along the shelves, looking for I don’t know what: consolation, inspiration, a reason to keep going. I bought something – quite possibly considering my finances at the time, not even a book but a card, a notebook. Behind the counter was a friendly bookseller I’d seen there before, but didn’t know by name. As I handed over my five bucks, she said to me quietly, ‘And Charlotte, can we expect another beautiful book from you some time soon?”

I was utterly stunned.

I have no idea what I said in reply. I am sure I was ungracious, from shock. But I can tell you that this moment of generous noticing from the bookseller, Karen Ferris, was a watershed moment in my writing life. If Karen cared that I finished my book, maybe someone else would. More importantly, maybe I could care, and keep going.

Since that moment I’ve felt the same kind of noticing, and caring, from so many independent booksellers, quietly urging me on through the writing of all my six books. Some of those books sold okay, and some didn’t, but the support I felt from these people never wavered. I want to particularly thank Barbara Horgan (formerly of Shearers and now of Boffins Books in Perth), Karen of course, now with Berkelouw, Kathryn Bancroft and Jenny Barry at Books Plus in Bathurst, Anna Low and her beautiful team at Potts Point Bookshop, Natalie Yabuka and Jeremy and all at Oscar and Friends in Double Bay and Surry Hills, Scott Whitmont at Lindfield, Lindy Jones and the team at Abbeys, Fiona Stager and Krissy Kneen and everyone at Avid Reader in Brisbane, David Gaunt and Morgan Smith at Gleebooks, Gillian May at Berkelouw Mona Vale; and Mark Rubbo, Chris Gordon and everyone at Readings in Melbourne for their sustaining care over the years.

One of the pleasures of sending The Natural Way of Things into the world has been meeting a whole new lot of booksellers, whose enthusiasm for it has been astounding to me. As well as those already mentioned, I thank the unstoppable Amelia Lush at Better Read than Dead, Gavin Williams at Matilda’s in Adelaide, Dan Sanderson and Nikki Anderson at MUSE Canberra; Clive Tilsley at Fullers, the amazing Natasha Boyd of Book Bonding in Essendon, Jay Lansdown from Constant Reader, Paul Macdonald at The Children’s Bookshop and the indefatigable Suzy Wilson at Riverbend Books in Brisbane.

Of course, I know there are so many others I haven’t named, and others not met, but who have gone out of their way to press my novels into readers’ hands, and I cannot thank them enough.

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Recently I saw a news item about the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, a bombproof storage bank built deep into a mountain in Norway, in the remote Arctic Svalbard archipelago, about 1300 kilometres from the North Pole. Countries from all over the world send seed samples there to be protected and preserved; the Vault’s mission is to provide a safety net against accidental loss of diversity in traditional gene banks.

In thinking about tonight, and Australia’s independent booksellers, it struck me that you are like that seed vault. You are storehouses for the kernels not only of our literary culture but our history, our music, our food culture, our health and legal and technological culture, our visual arts, our politics. You are the safety vault for the seeds of our country’s cultural and intellectual life, and your customers are the spreaders of those seeds out in the world.

A few years ago, the outlook for our independent bookselling scene looked gloomy. But like those seeds packed into the cold mountain in Norway, you have survived, you are thriving, and because of your noticing and care, your love of words and your determination to flourish, you have kept Australian literature and our culture alive and thriving too.

On behalf of us all, I thank you so very much.

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We love the Indie Book Awards as they’re nominated and voted on by Australian independent booksellers, who do so much to champion Australian writing, so a huge thanks from us for their sterling efforts. Learn more about the awards on their website.

The Natural Way of Things is also up for The Stella Prize, and was recently announced in contention for both the Australian Bookseller’s Association Awards and the Australian Book Industry Awards, so we hope this will be the first of many prize wins for Charlotte with this hugely deserving book.