The Stella Prize interviews Emily Maguire, the award-winning author of Your Skirt’s Too Short: Sex, Power, Choice and a Stella Prize Schools Program ambassador.
Stella: What were your favourite books as a child and a teenager? What factors or influences shaped your reading habits?
Emily: I read everything I could get my hands on, so there was a lot of really inappropriate stuff I snuck off my parents’ shelves (Stephen King and Barbara Taylor Bradford, for goodness’ sake), plus all their old childhood books (Peter Pan, Gulliver’s Travels, the complete works of Enid Blyton), as well as an occasional brand new book when I managed to save up enough pocket money. Although I read anything, the stories I loved best were science fiction, fantasy and adventure. I spent a lot of time imagining myself as the (almost always male) hero of the stories I read, conquering worlds and slaying dragons and saving the planet.
Stella: Do you remember the first character you saw yourself in? How old were you?
Emily: The first time I remember feeling ‘That’s me!’ in response to a character, rather than ‘I wish that was me’, was when I read Jane Eyre at around eleven years old. My life couldn’t have been more different to Jane’s, but she had this enormous, unashamed emotional hunger which I recognised and which I realised I’d never seen expressed by a girl – real or fictional – before. I’ve since re-read Jane Eyre at least a dozen times and I still detect myself in Jane, though I see different aspects of myself each time. Every time, though, when Jane, heartbroken and betrayed and frightened, looks in the mirror and asks, ‘Who will care for me?’ and then answers herself, ‘I will care for me’ – every time – I smile and punch the air.
Stella: Why is it so important in literature to find characters that are familiar? Why is it important to find characters that are unfamiliar?
Emily: Part of the reason we read – or the reason I do, anyway – is to expand my worldview. To experience worlds I didn’t know about and to understand how things work, how people live, what it feels like to be someone else, living somewhere I’ve never been to (and never can, in the case of historical and fantasy fiction), going through something I’ve never been through.
The other reason we read – or I do – is to feel less alone in the world. Alan Bennett said it beautifully: ‘The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. And now, here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.’
What’s really thrilling is that the hand-holding moments can come while reading about someone incredibly different to you and the world-expanding moments can happen when reading about someone whose life is very similar to yours. Turning the familiar strange and the strange familiar is one of the superpowers of a good book.
Stella: Why should boys read books about girls? Why should girls read books about girls?
Emily: It’s incredible to me that any avid reader wouldn’t want to read the widest variety of books possible. I mean, why on earth would you cut yourself off from half of all available stories? That’s bonkers!
Stella: What Australian authors should young readers get to know?
Emily: I think every young reader should go hard and far and wide with their reading, explore, take some risks and come up with their own list of must-reads. But just for starters, definitely look out for Melissa Keil, Ambelin Kwaymullina, Kirsty Murray, Erin Gough, Gabrielle Wang, Justine Larbalestier, Fiona Wood and Rebecca Lim.