What I’m Borrowing: Amanda O'Callaghan

What I’m Borrowing is a new blog series exploring our affection for libraries, loans, and sharing great reads. Each post we ask a Queensland writer and reader to tell us about their recent lending-loves.

This month we welcome author Amanda O’Callaghan. Amanda is an award-winning short fiction writer from Brisbane. Her debut short story collection, This Taste for Silence, was shortlisted for the Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction. She is currently working on her second book.

Tell us about the last thing you borrowed from the library. How did you discover it? Did you return it on time?

The last few books I borrowed from the library are a fairly typical mix, for me: a collection of short stories (Tenth of December by George Saunders); a memoir by the human rights barrister Geoffrey Robertson (Rather His Own Man); and a children’s book by Ali Smith that caught my eye on a display shelf. It’s The Story of Antigone, told by Smith from the point of view of one of the crows in the Greek myth. Yes, the crow. It’s delightful – part of a wonderful series called “Save the Story” which asks famous writers to tell their version of ancient stories for modern children.

These library books are not due back until next week. I try to return them on time but don’t always succeed. I love the way Brisbane libraries do an annual collection of imperishable food items for charity which absolves the giver of their library fines. A great idea that will (hopefully) survive the pressures of Covid.

Calmness in Amanda's lovely primary school photo and chaos in the shelves behind her

Do you remember your first library card? Can you describe the library you visited as a child?

I came to libraries quite late, and it was later still before I grew to love them. I don’t remember having a library card until I went to school. When I was small, the nearest library was about 20kms away. Also, my parents both worked full-time and, at that stage, had five children under five. Time was very short! So, mostly I relied on the books we had in the house. These never seemed to be modern books, and they were rarely new. Quite a few classics, I recall, and the typical stack of Reader’s Digests bought by my grandparents and passed around. My brother had been given a book of Russian fairy tales for his birthday and I remember loving that – the deliciously scary Baba Yaga, flying around in her mortar and pestle. And comics. Someone had given us a huge pile of old American comic books and I loved them: Batman, Spiderman, Casper the Friendly Ghost, Richie Rich. My mother was a teacher, so reading was important, but we were never pushed to read anything in particular. I believe in that myself. Always a late bloomer, I can honestly say I was not an avid reader until I was in my twenties. 

My first school library was a bit miserable. It was built under a classroom block, with a low ceiling. It was the kind of hot, airless space that only the mix of louvre windows – usually jammed, semi-closed – and Queensland summers can create. School photos were taken in that library, with our tiny hands folded on some huge, unfathomable book like The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire. Far worse, the school injections were given in there. I clearly remember being wedged firmly between the knees of a matronly woman who was having nothing of my pre-jab jitters. So, that library was not a relaxing space in any way. Strangely, I have a clear memory of borrowing The Black Arrow by Robert Louis Stevenson, from that room. (Many years later I would write my doctoral thesis on Stevenson.) From these inauspicious beginnings, I grew to love libraries. The shadowy nooks of London’s Senate House Library, scented with old paper, leather, and wood polish, where I first re-engaged with Victorian writers like Stevenson. The gorgeous curved ceiling of the Old Library in Trinity College, Dublin, remains one of my favourite places in the world.  And I love its modern counterpart, just a few miles from there: the vast, ship-like space of the dlr Lexicon Library, pointing towards Dublin Bay and beyond. In Brisbane, I love to work alone on Level 4 of State Library, looking across to the CBD, watching the City Cats pass up and down the river. In between cloud watching, part of This Taste for Silence was written there.

Short stories! Memoir! Gruesome Ancient Greek tragedies re-told for small children!

What other items are you, and people in your house, borrowing right now?

I have patient friends, who lend me books that end up sitting in my house for a long time, waiting to be read and returned. However, I always do return them, which is the main thing. It’s the usual issue: too many books, not enough time. I keep that stack of shame in one particular place so that I don’t mix them up with my own books. Other than books, I don’t seem to borrow much at all. As we’re currently selling my parents’ home, my house is full of boxes that need to be sorted. It’s made me want to give away practically everything I own. Except my books, of course!

Thinking about your own bookshelf, what is your favourite book to lend out from home?

Two books, recently. I enjoyed The Searcher by Irish writer Tana French. I lived in Ireland for years, and I thought she captured small town life there very well.  And an old favourite: Sharon Olds’ magnificent poetry collection, One Secret Thing. She has important things to say about war, birth, family, life. I love her work.

Amanda with her stunning short story collection, published in 2019 with UQP

About the author

Amanda O’Callaghan’s short fiction has been published and won awards in Australia, the United Kingdom and Ireland. Her work has been awarded and shortlisted in the Bridport Prize, Carmel Bird Award, E J Brady Award, Bristol Prize, Bath Flash Fiction Award, Fish Short Story Prize, Aeon Award, Flash 500 Award, and others. She is a recipient of a Queensland Writers Fellowship. She holds a PhD in English from the University of Queensland. Her short story collection, This Taste for Silence (UQP, 2019), was shortlisted for the Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction (2019). She lives in Brisbane.. You can find out more about Amanda on her website.  

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