Meet the bookseller with Mike Shuttleworth
Mike Shuttleworth has worked as a bookseller at our Hawthorn shop for close to four years but he’s been an advocate for youth literature for far longer – organising events and writing about youth literature since 2002! We chat with him about literary trends, weird bookshop queries, and which book he would choose to be trapped inside of.
Why did you decide to work in books?
I went to university to study journalism and fell down a rabbit hole called Australian Studies. This turned out to be an invitation to read Australian fiction and poetry, and look at our films and plays. At uni I was involved with radio and music, but found I enjoyed book talk more than music talk and steered off towards library studies. I’m now married to a journalist and wedded to a love of stories and language.
Describe your taste in books.
Wildly eclectic, with a tendency to obsess.
Recent obsessions include Anita Brookner and Patrick Modiano, as well as an ongoing interest in Australian children’s fiction and picture books. It was said of Brookner that she didn’t write 24 novels, but one novel 24 times. I love that sense of recognising patterns, tropes and themes across different works, and that applies to adult and children’s writing. I’ll take obsession over facility any day.
Favourite writers for young people … too many to mention but must include Ursula Dubosarsky, Anna Walker, Kitty Crowther, Russell Hoban, John Burningham, Hilary McKay…
I also love personal stories, quiet, funny stories, so a book like Love, Nina by Nina Stibbe is right on the money for me.
What is your favourite part of your job?
I’m sorry to say, I love everything about the book industry: the people, the creativity, the conversations and the enthusiasm shared among readers of all ages. Every day I come to work I know that I will be surprised by books that are new, unexpected and delightful.
Tell us about an Australian book that made a significant impact on you.
After avoiding it for decades (I could procrastinate for Australia), I finally read The Merry-Go Round in the Sea by Randolph Stow. His intimate, melancholy portrait of the 1950s Western Australia, the struggles of a war veteran to return to anything like normal life, and the gorgeous landscapes sum up everything I love in a novel.
Tell us about a book that changed the way you think.
Recently I read Dora Bruder – or The Search Warrant – by Patrick Modiano. The French author won the Nobel Prize in 2014 and this book walks the line between memoir, history and fiction. Using whatever evidence he can piece together, Modiano traces the disappearance of a Jewish girl from the suburbs of Paris during Nazi occupation.
Modiano makes us know a Paris that is the scene of unimaginable events. Paris fascinates me, but in Modiano’s hands it is not an innocent place.
What is the weirdest thing to happen to you in a bookshop?
Neil Young did once ask me where to find a drug store.
What is the hardest question a customer has asked you in the bookshop?
The question I most dread is: What is your favourite book? Since this changes over time there is no definitive correct answer. And my favourite book might be something others have absolutely no interest in at all.
If you were cursed to be trapped inside the world of a book, which one would you pick – and why?
I enjoyed Never Anyone But You by Rupert Thomson. While there is a good deal of suffering as it moves through the first half of the 20th century, the people – including the gender-defying artists Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore and who’s who of Paris Surrealists – would be endlessly fascinating. The novel then moves to the Channel Islands, where the two women use art to wage resistance against the occupying Nazi forces. Though food was always problematic, these were compelling, turbulent times in great locations.
What is something new you’ve observed in bookselling over the years?
Computers. It still blows my mind that I can be in Hawthorn and tell a customer that an obscure book is in stock in a giant warehouse somewhere in the middle of the United States and that we can have that to them by Monday week. Extraordinary! Of course we take that for granted now, but you have to remember that I started in Perth during the Mesozoic era, when it was printed catalogues and microfiche.
What issues do you hope will be addressed in the near future of bookselling?
I would love to feel that bookshops are reaching audiences that are as diverse as the country we are. This starts at birth and childhood, so engaging parents is crucial. The industry, in the broadest sense, can help itself by working collaboratively and creatively on reading promotion. Melbourne must establish a centre for children’s literature, in order to properly promote and sell Australian children’s books – and create the next generation of readers. We cannot take that for granted.
What kind of trends do you see in books right now? Do you have any predictions for the future?
It’s a plain fact that children are getting smarter. Their knowledge development is deeper and more voracious than before. The rise and rise of high quality non-fiction children’s publishing is a sure sign of that.
I also believe board books will cease to be a niche part of the children’s market. It’s now become common to see picture books go straight from hardback to board book, with no paperback edition at all. And board books are definitely getting bigger – what was once the ‘variation’ is now a flourishing format.
And I suspect there will be more Australian writing published with an eye to the international market. This is probably a good thing if it means writers have a shot at a sustainable career. On the other hand, we’ve also seen a burst of local crime writers kicking off with very Australian settings. So perhaps it all just confirms what everyone knows about publishing: Nobody knows anything.
What’s the best book you’ve read lately and why?
Look at Me by Anita Brookner. Its compressed emotional intensity ends with shattered hearts for heroine and reader. Brookner is unsparing and deeply compassionate in a way that is impossible to replicate.
The best book for young people is The Skylark’s War by Hilary McKay. It’s another World War 1 story, this time following a group of young English people who form a kind of extended family that helps them cope with the trauma of war. It’s probably best for readers 11+ though adults could read this with equal pleasure.
I would say the same about The Blue Cat by Ursula Dubosarsky. This novel is also about the Holocaust, but not in a way that you have read before. Dubosarsky is like Modiano for middle grade and older readers.
Finally… What books are sitting on your bedside table right now?
Less by Andrew Sean Greer. I’ve saved this Pulitzer Prize winner for summer reading.
The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge by MT Anderson and Eugene Yelchin. Too late for the annual best of lists, this hilarious medieval romp really appeals to the teenage me.
Yahoo Creek by Tohby Riddle. This picture book uses nineteenth and early twentieth century oral records of sightings of ‘the hairy man’ or ‘yahoo’ to conjure an atmospheric, enigmatic past. It comes out in March 2019.