Kirsten Alexander was born in San Francisco, raised in Brisbane, and now lives in Melbourne with her partner and two sons. Half Moon Lake is her first published novel.
Half Moon Lake is a work of fiction but it was inspired by the true story of an American boy named Bobby Dunbar. How did you learn about his story, and what was it that inspired you to write your novel?
Kirsten Alexander: The novel was inspired by a real-life story I encountered as a podcast. ‘The Ghost of Bobby Dunbar’ first aired as an episode of NPR’s This American Life in March 2008. I didn’t hear it then, but the episode was popular enough that they rebroadcast it in 2012. That was my introduction to the story of the four-year-old, lost-then-found Louisiana boy who was claimed by two women. The podcast is terrific, but it raised so many questions: how could a woman not recognise her own son, why didn’t the boy tell them who he was, why would anyone take a child she knew wasn’t hers? I read the factual telling of it – A Case for Solomon – written by the NPR podcast creators Tal McThenia and Margaret Dunbar Cutright (a descendant), and then at some point decided it could be an interesting novel. I had no intention of sticking to the facts – I was interested in letting my mind roam around the mysteries in the story, the parts that made no sense to me…
You’re a co-founder of short story site Storymart – can you tell us how this came about, and what it is about short stories that appeals to you?
Kirsten Alexander: Every length of writing appeals to me – novels, short stories, long nonfiction, essays, poetry! But I found I regularly wanted to read a well-crafted short story. And the options on offer for me to do so were limited and unsatisfactory. If I bought a print magazine, I could read the few stories selected by the editor, and they might be good but they weren’t of my choosing and often weren’t what I was in the mood for. And the rest of the expensive magazine usually went unread. If I bought an anthology, I might be drawn to four or five of the dozen stories. If I went online, I could choose from sites that were showcases for writers (uncurated, everything goes, often with feedback from users, a whole lot of teen romance!) or by deceased authors (fine, but again, limited) or places that offered so many other types of writing that the short stories were lost in the mix.
What I really wanted, and what I thought other people might enjoy too, was a friendly, easy-to-use, single-minded, ad-free website where I could choose one, two or ten short stories that suited MY moods and interests. I wanted to have an alternative to reading social media feeds and terrible news when I was commuting or waiting in a cafe… And as both a reader and a writer, I thought some money should go to the writer, in a new way, so they weren’t offering their labours for free. This mythical subscription-based Netflix/Spotify of short stories that I wanted didn’t exist. So I set about making it.
Storymart is new, and definitely not perfect, but we’re edging forward in a way I truly hope will please readers and writers. And I listen to every bit of feedback that’s offered, so suggestions are always welcomed!
Did you grow up using libraries? Did they influence your reading in any way?
Kirsten Alexander: I’ve had a library card in my wallet for my entire life. Often more than one.
My earliest library memory is of Toowong Library in Brisbane, a small, single-storey, round 1960s building like no other I’d seen before. It was designed by Melbourne-born architect James Birrell whose unusual vision was controversial, opposed, but made for a gloriously odd building. I remember walking past a patch of lush green grass and flowering tropical plants up the stairs and into a cool, airy, welcoming room, and of sitting cross-legged on the floor for story time. The whole experience of going to the library was a treat, which meant I regarded reading as a treat – at school, at home, even at uni where the enormous sandstone building was significantly more intimidating.
I’ve never lost my amazement at the core generosity of libraries – the fact you can walk into a public building, take whatever interests you – for free – then walk out. It’s remarkable if you think about it. And that generosity influenced me and my two sons (all of us hungry readers) by allowing our curiosity to roam uninhibited by expense. I think that’s incredibly important, because even though I buy a lot of books, a library permits people of any age or means to explore a topic for free that may turn out to be a passing fancy or a lifelong passion. I have read about so many people and places and activities, and read so many stories, that I may not have been able to otherwise. A library can offer up the whole world to everyone.
Whose book recommendations do you value?
Kirsten Alexander: I love the cards at libraries that offer suggestions: ‘if you liked this, you may like these’. Librarians are really good at this because they see so many books, and know who’s borrowing what. I’ve often been guided to great books and writers I didn’t know about.
Podcasts including the Booktopia Podcast, ABC Radio The Hub on Books, the New York Times Book Review, Between the Covers, the Guardian Books Podcast, the Times Literary Supplement, and BBC Radio 4’s two programmes: Bookclub and Books and Authors.
Reviews by people I trust, like the staff at Readings and the Avenue bookstores (on their websites), the writers at the Age and Sydney Review of Books, James Wood in the New Yorker, Pamela Paul and Parul Sehgal at the New York Times Book Review, Claire Armitstead at the Guardian.
And friends. Friends who love to read are my most valued source of what to dive into next.
What books are on your nightstand right now?
Kirsten Alexander: If I sent you a photograph of my nightstand pile you’d call a health and safety official to come to my house. I recently moved my dog’s bed to a different spot in the room in case there was a toppling incident. Here are the some of the books I tell myself I’ll read any day now.
The second two novels in Rachel Cusk’s recent trilogy: Transit and Kudos. Also, I have to reread the first one, Outline, because I’ve forgotten too much of it. I do recall though being struck by her resolutely unusual, serious, surprising way of telling her story.
English historian and living legend Mary Beard’s Confronting the Classics. I have no words for how much I admire Mary Beard’s ability to use her deep knowledge of ancient civilisations to examine the past and the present.
Michael Ondaatje’s Warlight, lent to me by a friend who works in a bookstore and always knows what the good books are!
P.J. Wodehouse’s Laughing Gas. I bought this secondhand at a market, reminded by the peppy illustrated cover of how much joy Wodehouse’s comic English gentry stories gave me when I was younger.
Chloe Hooper’s The Arsonist about the man who lit the fires that led to Victoria’s Black Saturday. She’s such an impressive researcher, as well as empathetic, insightful, and a wonderful storyteller. I’m partway through and transfixed.
Not on the nightstand really, but I’m also reading, via audiobook, Michele Obama’s autobiography Becoming, which I’d recommend because she’s such a warm, honest and encouraging storyteller.