Ramona Koval: Writer, journalist and broadcaster

Ramona KovalRamona Koval has been living a life richly steeped in words since she learned to read and checked out Kafka’s The Trial at 10 years of age. A writer, journalist and broadcaster, she was Australia’s voice of literature for five years as the presenter of the Book Showon the ABC. She’s written everything from news to novels to cook books.

Ramona joined us to talk about her most recent book, By the Book, a memoir of reading and living. She shares about her writing and reading practices, books that changed her life and the role of critical culture in Australia.

Click play to listen. Running time: 26.01

By the Book

Transcript

* Please note these transcripts have been edited for readability

Rose
Ramona, thank you so much for joining us today. When did you decide to write a book tinged Memoir?

Ramona
Well, when I stopped being a broadcaster I went and spoke Michael Hayward at Text about another project that I had in mind, that he was keen to contract me for. But, he had this idea, he said, “You know what I’d really like to read? I like to read your book about reading.” I thought to myself, “I’d like to read that too. In fact I’d like to write it,” because it’s true that I spent all of the last 25 years reading in all kinds of areas. I noticed that when I came home from that meeting I looked around me and I thought, “What are all of these book that I have around me? Why are they here? Why are these books that I’ve selected to bring home after all of these years,” or some that I had from when I was a kid, or some that I’d gathered all through my life and they been saved through culls, and moves, and all kinds of reasons.

I sort of sat down and I thought, “Well, there’s a story here, because what are all of these books about polar exploration for?” “What are all of these books about the times between the wars in middle Europe?” “What are the science books for?” “Why are all of the classics here, and what story do they tell about my reading?” So that’s really what made me begin, and why I ended up with this book.

Rose
It’s such a huge topic to tackle, how did you get started with the idea? Did you map it out? Did you start with a little and work your way through?

Ramona
Well, I had the sections that I thought, “Well, I must have a chapter on polar exploration,” and, “I must have a chapter on travel books,” and, “I should have a chapter on learning languages,” because there’s a whole shelf of all the languages that I’ve attempted to learn. So that sort of gave me an idea of doing chapters. But, then I thought, “What does reading mean to me?” And then I remembered learning to read, and I thought, “I’m a bit of a storyteller,” I like a story that starts from the beginning, that when people start at the middle have to stop them and make them go back to the beginning again.

So, I think it’s my natural logic – logical mind. So, I started at the beginning and I imagined what it was like to learn to read, and then I remembered what it was like. I remembered episodes in my life and books that were important to me. Then I found them on the internet, you know you can find second-hand bookstores on Google, and then I actually found the covers of some of the books, like that little naughty book. And I remembered that cover, it was an orange cover with all sorts of skewed letters on the cover, and I remembered, “That was the cover of the book that I was reading.” So, it was a very emotional and sentimental journey for me.

Rose
Yeah, it would have been. I noticed throughout a lot of the books that you mentioned how you approached them and which ones resonated with you, it was also kind of a little bit of a memoir relationship with you and your mother, you realizing she was a separate person, as kids have to eventually. What was it like to write that for you?

Ramona
Well, it was interesting because she was a bit of a mystery to me, my mother. She was a Holocaust survivor. She wasn’t very well educated, she was a self-educated person. She learned a lot of languages during her life with all of the moves that she had to make. She ended up in Australia speaking broken English and then getting better and better at it. But, she used books as her way through all of the changes that she was making, all of the changes she was interested in seeing in society, the feminist books, and the books on sociology in the 60s, and the classics that she was really into, and the banned books that she was reading. So her reading influenced me.

When I went back to think about – now, I’m much older than she was when she died, so I can look back at her, as if she was sort of a younger woman than me, and then think about her as a person rather than a mother. And, I had some questions, I mean I realize that when I was learning Russian and thinking I was a young communist she didn’t ever help me with my Russian classes. So, obviously had a position that she wasn’t conveying, because why wouldn’t you help your kid learn Russian if you thought – if you spoke Russian. You know? But, she didn’t. And, she started to give me books – so, she started to read books like about the Gulag Archipelago by Солжени́цын, or Cancer Ward, or some of these critique of the soviet system books that she was reading, and then she would leave and then I would read, and then I would get the idea that, you know, my book about the communist manifesto and Orwell and all of that down in Paris and London might have another side to it.

But, I could see what she was doing, she was trying not to go at it sort of like a bull in a china shop, that she was being subtle in her own way.

Rose
That’s quite a lovely strategy of putting the books that you would like someone to read right next to them.

Remember you wrote about when you were ten she’d walk you down to the library bus and signed you up for your library card, and you took home Kafka’s The Trial at ten, and you felt that you held adulthood in the palms of your hand. Tell me about reading The Trial as a ten year old.

Ramona
Well, I remember noticing that all of the adult books were over in this library, just next to the kids’ books. I was always intrigued by the world of adulthood. I think it was all of those talking animals that weren’t really attracting my attention. So, I noticed the K section was down at the bottom where I was on the floor reading. And, so there was Kafka, and Kerstler, and Kazenzakis – I mean Kafka and Kazenzakis, and Kerstler, because it was alphabetical order. And, I thought Kafka is the skinny one, and it was quite small, and I thought, “Well, I could read this.” And, I open up the first page and I thought, “Well, it’s not really hard writing.” So, I remember reading it thinking, “Well, this is a book about a man who gets sort of woken up at his boarding house, and he is being arrested for something, he doesn’t know what he’s done. And, it’s not very complicated – the writing is not very complex, but the tale is about a sort of confusing, scary world, and a man who doesn’t actually get what big trouble he’s in. He’s just assuming that he’s just going to go ahead and tell them that of course he hasn’t done anything and they’ll just let him go. And, they sort of don’t, he gets deeper and deeper.

But, it reminded me of Alice in Wonderland in that way too, of where she’s in a world where strange things are happening to her, and all of the assumptions that she’s had before are not working, about height, and she cries when she’s taller, and she’s drowning in her own tears when she’s made small, and she’s following her nose, but it doesn’t make sense. And I thought this sort of absurdity appealed to me. And it was the same sort of absurdity in Kafka of… obviously at 10 I wouldn’t have gotten all of the other sort of political levels, but it was a story that you can read on one level and be nourished by.

Rose
And possibly at that age everything is quite confusing anyway, so it’s probably quite a good time to read it.

Ramona
Yeah.

Rose
I was reading that you asked your mother to buy you the Karma Sutra at twelve, and she did, and then she actually let you read it. Reading books like that – you had a fairly unrestricted book diet as a child, a young person. How do you think that shaped not you as a reader, but kind of you as a human?

Ramona
I didn’t realize it was unrestricted, because I didn’t really talk about it to other kids. I didn’t know what they were allowed to read and what they were not allowed to read. I just thought it was part of the world. But, it had just given me a taste for unusual books, unusual ideas. I like nothing better than to find out something, whether it’s something about galaxies, or sand, or mega-fauna, or bees, and start to google it and look it up and find out an essay about it, and find out a really great book about it, and just go along on an interesting journey, and unrestricted, about anything in any way. I mean just like the world is a huge book, and we’re here for a short time, and I feel as if I just need to find out about as much as I can.

Rose
Which would of, I guess, come through in your interest in science and milking your cat?

Ramona
Yes.

Rose
And the experiments you did.

Ramona
That’s right. My kids are really appalled by that, but… most people are, actually. Most people think that milking a cat is a really odd thing to do, but I was going through an experimental phase because I had read a little biography, a chapter in a book of famous women, and Marie Curie was one of them, and I realized that her – she was named Marie Skłodowska, she was Polish, and my parents were from Poland, so I thought, “Oh, they’re Polish, she’s Polish… I could do that. And, so I set up this little laboratory in my mother’s laundry, because I heard that if you take samples. Marie Curie was a physicist, but I didn’t really get into the making pitch-blend in the laundry and creating radioactivity – oh, no.

I decided biology was my thing. So, I would take samples of things and grow them in pineapple jelly. So, samples of, you know, various things that are under the sink and the toilet, and that sort of thing. But, then I decided I would do the cat as well. So, the cat’s paw, getting the cat to put her paw in the jar, and getting some – what are they called, some sort of – cotton buds and getting a sample from her ear. And then I thought, “Well, she’s just had kittens, I wonder how I could get some milk.” So, I sort of watched the little kittens, you know how they press either side of the teet, so I thought, “Oh, I can do that.” So, I laid down on the floor and tried to press either side of her tit to see if I could get some milk.

Then I thought, “I wonder what it tastes like? So, I had a little suck of her teet, at which point she took all of the kittens away and hid them for six weeks, and brought them back when they were almost grown up. And my mother said, “Where do you think the cat is?” “I don’t know.” “What do you think happened to her that she’s hidden her kittens?” “I don’t know nothing about it… no.”

Rose
When you were doing this were you reading a lot of science books at the time, were they fiction or non-fiction?

Ramona
No, you didn’t need to read them, you just needed to read one thing that said, you know, that you can grow interesting organisms if you take the samples correctly. So, I left them in – you know, if you leave them for a few days horrible things start to grow – funguses, and little black colonies, and white colonies, and green colonies, and then you just forget about them, and then your mother goes bananas when she finds them.

Rose
When you were heading into uni were you still reading as much, or did the uni begin to dictate what you were reading?

Ramona
Well, I did science at university, but I was still reading novels, like The 100 Years of Solitude, and what else was everyone reading? Catch 22, Joseph Heller, and other things like that – Hermann Hesse, the books that sort of uni students took seriously at the time, were being passed around.

Rose
What books would you say were, I guess turning points or catalysts for you in your young adulthood?

Ramona
I think that one of the important books that was given to me was when I had my daughter, I was in my honor’s year and I had my first child. I had a friend who was working in the next laboratory to mine, Sally Morrison, who also turned into a writer. But, she gave me this book, I took my thesis to university because I thought I was just going to be able to finish while I was having the baby, that’s how silly I was. And she said, “No, no, you won’t – you’ll only get time to read a short story from now on. Try these.” And they were, I think,Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, and Little Disturbances of Man, two short story collections by an American writer called Grace Paley.

I read them and just the voice in them was a voice that really appealed to me and I adored reading these little stories. I ended up interviewing Grace Paley later on and meeting her in New York, and spending a morning with her walking around Manhattan. It was funny because a lot of those stories are simply about women who meet up and walk around and talk, and there I was doing exactly that.

Rose
Does she talk how she writes?

Ramona
Yes.

Rose
The voice is the same?

Ramona
Yeah, absolutely.

Rose
When you were writing this book was there a lot of books or things you had to leave out? Because it’s a lovely, elegant short story, really.

Ramona
Well, yeah, there’s lots of books I had to leave out. I didn’t talk about a whole lot of poetry that I have at home. I mean there’s all kinds of books that I didn’t write about, but that would have been like an encyclopedia of books.

Rose
That would have been, yes.

When you were writing it – I was reading a chapter on writing and traveling, and reading and traveling. I understand that there are multiple, I guess, approaches to what you read while you’re traveling, if you read in the country that you’re in. Having tried a couple of approaches what would you recommend now?

Ramona
I like to read about the country I’m in when I’m in it. I like to read about the history of the place that I’m in. I’ve just been to Spain, and I read Homage to Catalonia when I was in Barcelona and George Orwell’s book about the Spanish Civil War, and I went to Granada and I went to the Alhambra, this sort of 14th century Muslim castle on a hill, and I read Tales of the Alhambra by Washington Irving, which was a 19th century American writer, and it was fantastic because he’d been in the same rooms that I had been in, and they hadn’t changed, obviously, because that’s why you go to see it, because it’s this preserved fantastic place there. And, I loved his impressions of the place, and they were the ones that I had just been in that day.

And, also it was funny because when you were reading about going to Spain and the economic problems, somebody that I read about said, “Oh, you should take kind of decoy wallet,” so you’ve got your passport and you’ve got some money in your money belt, which is under jeans, but then you should have a decoy wallet, so you just go get a cheap Kathmandu wallet for $20 or something, and then put 10 Euros in it, and if someone holds you up in the street you give them this wallet and they run away, because it’s your wallet, but actually you’ve got more money, ah-ha, in your other wallet.

So, I was reading this – and then that’s exactly what happened to Washington Irving, because he said that as he was coming across the plains in 1840, or something like that, he had a decoy wallet so that when people held him up he could give them something, because they were, they’d get very angry, because they were working and if they didn’t get a reward for working, then they would bash you up. So, I got the same advice, isn’t that fantastic?

Rose
Exactly the same. And centuries on.

Ramona
Yeah, exactly.

Rose
One of the things that does run through your books is books are way to understand life and history and how it influences what we’re doing, especially with your parents as Holocaust survivors, were there key books for you in terms of discovering and really understanding the Holocaust? Because it’s one of those topics that I think a lot of people feel like they get it, but we probably don’t. Were there key books for you?

Ramona
Well, I never really made a practice of reading about the Holocaust, just because it was so horrible, and I could see that my parents were very disturbed by it, and whole circle was very disturbed by it, and I knew something bad had happened it was just really awful, and once my father showed me some photographs from Auschwitz, which really disturbed me and upset me, and I just eschewed really an interest in that.

I read the Diaries of Anne Frank when I was girl, because I think everyone read it at school.

Rose
I think everyone does read it at school.

Ramona
But, I was more interested in her romance between her and Peter in the attic, and her getting her period in the attic, I was interested in the love interest. And, I really didn’t really understand why they were in the attic – I mean I knew why they were in the attic, but I didn’t understand how they got there and what the sort of social/political situation around it was. But, when I grew up a bit, I mean I read Elie Wiesel book, If This Is a Man, and Night, who was a survivor of Auschwitz, but of course he says himself only those who died really knew what it was like, and they’re not telling.

Rose
Yeah. I guess in a lot of the books you have – have been classics, in a world where it can be quite hard to get young people, or even older people, reading in general, what is it about the classics that you think keeps them enduring, why they still matter?

Ramona
Well, you know, I didn’t have a literary education, I did have a scientific education, so I didn’t have a fantastic lecturer. I would love to do that, in fact I’m having a look at those internet university courses that you can do. Coursera, I think is one group, they’re offering these courses that you sign up for, for nothing, and you do 10 weeks of ancient literature, or you know, classical Greek poetry or something, and I’m going to do that. That’s book-marked.

Rose
Fantastic.

Ramona
But, I would love to have somebody take my hand and take me through it.

But, I did – well, classics must be important because they’re classics. I mean somebody must have said, “These…” the texts that have survived. I mean some of them have survived by accident, you know, because we don’t have manuscripts of all of the other things that didn’t survive. The ones that do survive, like, you know, you can read Suetonius’ Twelve Caesars, and you can find out about all of these sort of twelve rulers of Rome and it’s almost like I’m reading a report from Washington or Canberra. You can read the politics of the time and who said what to whom, and what happened next, and you think, “Well, I’m getting an insight into this ancient world,” and the writers are the ones whose memories and whose reports we have.

I find that interesting to hear a voice from thousands of years ago, an amusing voice, like Pliny the younger and Pliny the elder, and somebody who’s at their estate above Bellagio above Lake Como and glorying at his wonderful good fortune because he’s got a lovely, lovely garden and he likes his friends coming and – this is an ancient Roman. I think, “I want to go to his garden. I want to go to some of those dinners that he’s talking about, and share the wine and talk.” Oh, you know, he was – Pliny the elder saw Vesuvius explode, and he has letters that he wrote to his nephew about what that was like. And, you think this is an eye witness to Vesuvius exploding, how interesting that you can hear the voice from ancient times. So, what’s not to like about that?

Rose
Absolutely, and they’re always so dramatic as well. We acted them out in high school.

Ramona
Did you?

Rose
Which was traumatising, but fabulous.

Ramona
Oh, really? You lucky girl.

Rose
Yeah, it was good.

Ramona
Because I would have loved to have done that.

Rose
They’re a lot of fun to actually act it and bring it to life.

Ramona
Yeah.

Rose
But, jumping forward to the present day, there are lots of wonderful Australian authors, I’m not going to ask you for a favorite, who have been the kind of key Australian voices that have spoken to you in your decades of reading?

Ramona
Well, you know, Christina Stead. Her book The Man Who Loved Children was very important to me.

And, I mean I didn’t really make a practice of reading Australian writers when I was growing up, and in fact, Text, who’s my publisher has done this most wonderful last year and this year, and will continue next year, to publish classics – the lost books, the books that have gone out of our minds, and our memories. And, I have started to read those, and you know, I think we read The Getting of Wisdom, Henry Handel Richardson, at school, and Christina Stead, but since then I have read Elizabeth Harrower, and she was published in the 60s, her book The Watch Tower was published last year, and it’s such an amazing book, and I’m now reading the Long Prospect, which is the second book that Text has published of hers. She’s still alive, she lives in Sydney, she’s in her 80s, and she’s a lost classic, and it’s marvelous to be able to say – well, I think she understands now that people are finding her again.

And Patrick White… I didn’t read a lot of Patrick White when I was younger, but recently I’ve read Patrick White and realizing that he’s just a marvelous interesting writer, complex. So, people like that.

And, we need to rediscover them – Helen Garner, a marvelous writer, I just would read anything that she would write.

Rose
It’s been interesting with the release of Text classics, and I guess a strengthening sense of Australian fiction, seeing how we talk about it. I remember an article came out in August that said that the Australian book culture of criticism is too nice. As your role as a broadcaster for decades, what’s your opinion on that?

Ramona
Look, I had to read so much to do a daily show that I didn’t want to read things that didn’t make me interested and I wasn’t happy to read, because I would find that torturous. And, I couldn’t actually get into a book and really devour it, if I wasn’t enjoying it. So, there were books that I didn’t cover because I thought that’s not my cup of tea. So, my philosophy was, “I’m going to tell you about a book that I adore, and this is why you might like to read it too…” And, so I suppose, maybe I’m guilty of being too nice, but I just didn’t have the time to be awful to people’s books. I thought, “Well, maybe it’s just not going to appeal to me,” I mean there is a place for criticism, of course, and we should have critics, and we should have someone who will be able to tell us how a book fits in with a cannon, or how a book fits in with a tradition, or where the book is coming from and where it fits. And, I think that’s important to do. But, I can’t see the point of being vicious about people’s books, I can’t see the point about sort of playing the man and not the ball. I mean there are some rather vicious critics that I’ve read that you think, “There’s obviously something else going on, this is not about the book. I think it’s about being miffed at a party somewhere, or someone taking their lover away from them, or something.” You think, “There’s some other deep reason why this person is so agro about this book.”

But, on the other hand, because there’s always another hand, it’s a very small culture, and people are often unwilling to review books of others, Australian writers will be unwilling to review another Australian writer because that other Australian writer might be reviewing their book in a few months, and they don’t want to set up a difficult situation. So, both things are true.

Rose
Are you working on another book at the moment?

Ramona
I am working on another book.

Rose
Can you give us a detail of what it is?

Ramona
It’s a book about evidence, genetics – it’s part memoir, it’s really a book about how we know what we know, and whether it’s important to know where we’re from.

Rose
OK, it sounds amazing.

Ramona
I hope it will be amazing.

Rose
Finally, what’s your advice to other writers?

Ramona
To write. That’s my advice. Just do it. Don’t wait until the best time, and don’t wait until you’ve got the best room, and don’t wait until you’ve got the best pen, or the best journal… just do it, just write, and don’t make excuses. And, work… and work in other areas, because everything you do is feeding into your vision as a writer and as a human being.

Rose
On that note, thank you so much for joining us today. 

Ramona
Thank you.


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