A Classic Career
What options are there for a girl leaving school or university having specialised in English literature? A job as a librarian? Or teaching school students how to pass exam questions on a Dickens novel or a Shakespeare play?
I could not see myself taking up either of those options. I hated the thought of facing a class where half the kids didn’t love reading and were only going through the motions; and, much as I love libraries, I’m far too fond of chatting to people to want to work in a silent library full time. So after university I took office jobs, had an unsatisfying career for some years, then stopped work to stay home bringing up my children.
Then in my mid 30s I suddenly found my ideal job! I began to share my passion for great novels and poems with other adults, teaching classes at adult education centres and giving talks at conferences and fund-raising events. This all happened gradually, which suited me when my children were still young, but over the years one thing led to another. Today, in my role as a public speaker/ literary lecturer, I meet thousands of Australians and encourage them all to turn to classic novels. It has been said that “a classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say”, and I firmly believe this is true. A great novel demands to be read and re-read, as at different stages of our lives we find new meanings, new messages, in the pages of a great work of fiction. Books have given me so much joy – I want to spread that joy around. There are no rights or wrongs about classic novels – just depth, psychological insights, the chance to develop empathy and try on different lives for size. Classic novels teach us about ourselves and other people, enable us to travel from an armchair, enrich our use of language, bring us new friends. Great books have changed my life!
Many authors have led such fascinating lives. I also love to talk about the people behind the books – their struggles to get published, their love lives, the forces that shaped them and their works. And I give history talks, discussing the eras which shaped famous writers, and the position of women and how this is reflected in fiction.
My new career also involved writing books. I wanted to show other readers just what greatness can be discovered in the pages of a Jane Austen novel. For my book Brief Encounters: Literary Travellers in Australia I followed 11 amazing writers on their journeys around Australia, discovering what they saw and did in this country and how the visits influenced their future writings. I recorded two audio CDs, one on fellow NZ writer Katherine Mansfield whose superb short stories made Virginia Woolf go green with envy, and one with readings of much-loved poems (Poetry to Fill a Room). I now publish a monthly blog, Notes from a Book Addict, which gives thousands of readers around the world tips on what to read next, a gorgeous poem to appreciate more fully, literary anniversaries to celebrate, and book group suggestions.
I started leading literary tours in England, the USA and Europe, taking groups of people to the places I love – homes of famous writers, graveyards where they are buried, libraries which display rare manuscripts and first editions, and to restaurants where fellow authors dined together. I now lead several tours each year and am delighted that they book out to quickly. I also now lead literary guided walks in Sydney, for those who cannot travel overseas.
I am an example of how an enriching and unique career can come quite unexpectedly after being at home with small children. It was a real thrill to be awarded an OAM for services to literature and to be made a Fellow of the Royal Society of NSW, but the biggest thrill is when I look out at an audience and know that I have filled my listeners with a desire to go away and open the pages of a good book.