This is a transcript of Recommended Season 5 Episode 5.
You’re listening to Recommended, where we talk to interesting people about their favorite books. From childhood favorites to classics, to new and forthcoming reads, you’ll hear how the people who make books happen have been influenced by the ones they’ve read.
Today, Jackson Bird has chosen The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, and Kim Scott has chosen The Vintner’s Luck by Elizabeth Knox.
Jackson Bird is a writer, internet creator, and LGBTQ+ advocate dedicated to demystifying the transgender experience by sharing his and others’ stories online. You can hear some of those stories on his podcast, Transmission, as well as on his YouTube channel, jackisnotabird. A TED Resident and Speaker, Jackson’s TED Talk “How to talk (and listen) to transgender people” has been viewed over a million times. Jackson was also a 2018 GLAAD Rising Star Digital Innovator, a YouTube NextUp Creator, and a LogoTV Social Trailblazer nominee. He is also known for his past work with the Harry Potter Alliance (HPA). His memoir Sorted chronicles how, after a childhood of gender mishaps and an awkward adolescence, he finally sorted things out and came out as a transgender man in his mid-twenties.
Trigger warning for discussion of suicide.
My name is Jackson Bird. And The Perks of Being a Wallflower is my recommended.
Basically, in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, the story is told through the main character, Charlie’s eyes, as he writes to an anonymous person that we never know. And the story kind of follows his freshman year of high school. And Charlie is a very sort of passive kid that as the story goes on, you realize he’s dealing with of a lot of repressed trauma, which causes him to be a bit of a passive actor. But it’s a really earnest look at someone coming into their teenage years. It’s definitely like my favorite coming-of-age novel out there, I think.
I feel like I definitely heard about it for a long time. It’s one of those titles that I think just sticks in the cultural consciousness. Everyone heard the title The Perks of Being a Wallflower, but I don’t think I actually knew what the book was.
But I didn’t actually get my hands on in and read it until junior year of high school, when my boyfriend recommended it to me, and he actually lent me his annotated copy of it.
As I started reading the story, I was just like, “Oh my gosh, you are Charlie. This is why you like this book, because this is you.” That was sort of a little , revealing also to read … I’m not sure how he was consciously aware of how similar to the main character of Charlie that he was. But it was very obvious to me reading it.
So he lent me his annotated copy, and I really enjoyed reading it and getting to see some of his insights. And I don’t remember, maybe he gave it to me, or after we broke up I just never returned it, as happens with high school relationships. I know I still had his beanie through college as well, somehow. But it remained an important book to me, I always really liked it.
I do remember that he must have lent it to me over the summer, and for my junior year English class we had to write an essay about a book we had read over the summer, and my teacher gave me a C purely for choosing The Perks of Being a Wallflower, because she thought it wasn’t a challenging enough book for. Like, my paper was fine. She was just like, “I don’t like this book choice.”
I’m still mad about that, because I specifically asked her permission to write about it, and she just forgot. And she said, “Well, you should have put a sticky note on your paper.” I was like, come on. So I still have a chip on my shoulder about that.
So several years later, shortly after I graduated from college, a couple friends of mine, we decided to start what we called ABC, an annotated book club, where we would read books and annotate them, and then exchange them, so you could see your friends’ annotations, add more to them, keep exchanging them. And this is I think right about the time that The Perks of Being a Wallflower movie was coming out, so we decided we wanted to do that book. So I lent one of my friends the copy that I still somehow had from my high school boyfriend.
I lent it to her and then the ABC book club just fell apart, I don’t really remember. It was always a good idea, but we didn’t ever do too much with it, we didn’t actually exchange too many books. But then several years after that, unfortunately my high school boyfriend died by suicide, so similarities to Charlie continuing to be endless there.
And I was in that moment of my grieving and processing, very desperate for any physical memories of him. We had dated just before Facebook got big, we had MySpace wall comments, but MySpace was gone by then, so those were all wiped. We didn’t even have any pictures together, because I was always the one taking pictures. So there weren’t any of the two of us.
And I finally remembered this book that he had given me and annotated. So I was trying to find it, and I could not find it, and I off and on kept looking for it for months, and just decided I must have lost it in the move, where I lost some of my high school journals. So that was always a really hard thing for me, and I always remembered that.
Then fast forward a couple years after that, I was in a book club with some friends.
And one of my friends in this book club was at the time working at Barnes and Noble. And she told us this great story about how she was at work, and someone came in asking for The Perks of Being a Wallflower. And as she was leading him to where the book was, she starts telling him this whole story about our book club, and about when she read it, and just goes on and on about how it’s such a great book. And they get to the book on the shelf, and he turns to her, and he’s like, “Well, I’m so glad it had such an impact on you, because I wrote it.”
It had been Stephen Chbosky the whole time that she was just raving about this book to, and he’s like, “I’d love to buy you a copy and sign it for you.” So she’s telling us this at book club, and she’s like, “So now I have two copies,” and we’re all like, “Oh. Why do you have two, you already owned the book?”
And she’s like, “Yeah, Jack, it was your book. You lent me this book years ago.” And I was like, “You’ve had this book this whole time,” this book that it just meant so much to me, because it had all these annotations in it. And she had had it safe and sound that whole time, so it has now been returned to my possession and this book, I feel like has just gone through so many stories of its own and exchanged so many hands at this point. So it’s probably my most valued book possession that I own.
So The Perks of Being a Wallflower, especially if you ask my English teacher from high school, is maybe not the most challenging text to read. But I think that’s very purposeful. I think what Stephen Chbosky did there is pretty impressive, actually, because it’s just a very conversational tone, Charlie even says himself that he writes how he talks. But you also see it evolve throughout the book in a way that I think is similar to Harry Potter. You see the language throughout the Harry Potter series gets a little more complex as Harry grows up and his thoughts and his perception of the world gets more complex.
YA novels and that form of conversational writing has always been some of my favorite genre and styles of books. And I think that has probably come across a little bit in my writing and the style of voice I’ve always had, is that I write very much how I speak. Sometimes I’ll make it sound a little fancier, more professional, I’ll throw in some of those vocab words and edit my run-on sentences, but I like keeping things accessible like that, I like trying to really get across what I’m saying in a way that people will understand.
And I think for my upcoming book, because it is a memoir, that is so heavily based in journals that I kept my whole life growing up, dating back to the age of six, hopefully I think I have some of that conversational earnest voice. But what I really have been thinking as I’ve been rereading this book this time, having now written one of my own, which still feels so weird to say, is as I hope to move into fiction in the future, I hope I can achieve this kind of true, honest, conversational voice when it’s fiction and not just talking about myself. Because I think that’s what’s so impressive about this.
I think that because it is such a heavy book, the subject matter, the things that happen in it are so intense, that that’s probably the only way it would really work, is to have the voice that it did, of just Charlie’s very innocent, discovering the world perspective on things. Because otherwise you might just get way too pulled down into the tragedy of it all. But also at the same time, you still can get pulled into it all, because he is just saying everything exactly as he sees it, and understands it, or misunderstands it, as the case may be a lot in the book.
And yeah, I think it’s just so real. He’s writing to some anonymous friend, and you really feel like you are that friend, or you really feel like you’re reading a letter that a real friend of yours wrote, or a conversation you’re having with a real friend, so you can get drawn into those characters a little bit more. Yeah, it is a pretty intense book. So it is funny that my high school teacher would have said that it wasn’t a high enough level, because certainly content-wise it was pretty advanced and serious.
That was Jackson Bird, recommending The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky. His memoir, Sorted: Growing Up, Coming Out, and Finding My Place, is published by Tiller Press and is now available wherever books are sold. You can follow him on Twitter at jackisnotabird.
AD READ: The Infinite Noise by Lauran Shippen
Kim Scott is a multi-award winning novelist, having twice won the Miles Franklin Award for Benang and That Deadman Dance, among many other Australian literary prizes. Proud to call himself one among those who call themselves Noongar – the people indigenous to south-western Australia – Kim is also founder and chair of the Wirlomin Noongar Language and Story Project. Kim is currently Professor of Writing in the School of Media, Creative Arts and Social Inquiry at Curtin University. His most recent novel, Taboo, takes place in the present day, in the rural South-West of Western Australia, and tells the story of a group of Noongar people who revisit, for the first time in many decades, the site of a massacre that followed the assassination of a white man who had stolen a black woman.
My name is Kim Scott. My recommended book is The Vintner’s Luck by Elizabeth Knox.
What it’s about, what attracts me to it is it’s by a New Zealand writer, and it’s in the guise of a 19th century French novel. So I’m a little nervous even talking about it because it uses French terminology for language. It’s divided into chapters year by year, each of which uses a French term to do with wine making and gives us a translation.
And it begins with this same time each year when the protagonist meets an angel in the vineyard and the angel returns year by year. And where that gives us a window into the whole narrative. It’s extremely audacious sort of novel that has, not only does it have an angel, but we meet Lucifer at a later section and it’s very much about time and mortality and Eros, it’s quite remarkable.
So one of the reasons I wanted to talk about it is because it affected me in the reading, but I’m not sure quite how it does it. There’s a lot of artifice in the novel. It controls access to point of view in quite interesting ways and it has a number of sort of teasing ways to maintain suspense, which are minor but are part of what keeps you reading.
So it’s a remarkable novel and it’s audacity as much as anything, I think and the other things it says. Some beautiful descriptions, so bold as to at times describe the angel entering heaven and the language of God. I recommended that everyone reads it, that’s for sure.
This will make me sound very cheap. I was on the short list for a prize, literary prize, about 20 years ago with this book and it won. And I read it on the plane home, returning home from Tasmania to Perth, Western Australia. And naturally at the beginning I thought, I was a little bitchy and jealous, but as I was reading the novel, it’s a four or five hour plane flight, I remember thinking, oh no, that makes sense. It deserved to have won. So I think that’s a strong recommendation for .
I liked the artifice of this novel and I haven’t worked it out. So yeah, I study, I read it initially a long time ago, liked it, and then returned to it a few years ago to try and I’ve read it a number of times, trying to work out how it works, trying to understand how it works. And as is often the case, the level of artifice is such that you can sometimes wonder, is this deceitful of the author, the way you get access sometimes to point of view and other times you don’t. And one of the things that occurs to me is…
So you rarely get, you rarely see completely through the eyes of a character except with the occasionally the female Aurora, the friend who late becomes a lover of Sobran. You see through her eyes, but it’s only a few occasions. The other times it’s more mediated, you’re with Sobran, but you’re not quite seeing through his eyes. And that’s partly because he has such a strong-willed character and there’s a level of self deception because of his strength of will.
There’s a number of women that are murdered through the novel. And the murderer, you don’t get this until late in the book, is someone very close to Sobran and he refuses to see that. And the control of the point of view is such that we get hints, so we’re not quite looking through Sobran’s eyes, but we get hints and particularly the way he responds when others, the angel in particular, lead him in conversation close to a realization who is doing this killing and why the killings happening and Sobran, his will being so strong, doesn’t want to see that.
So you’ve got that. What are you, some sort of, is a dramatic irony or something, where you’re negotiating with the narrator about what’s going on with this character and what is he concealing and does he realize and he doesn’t want to see it and do we know more than him or not, if you understand that. So those sort of structural things are really interesting.
I’m a re-reader. Yeah, I’ll read something that I think is a good book that is worthy. It’s different. This is something going on here that touches me or I haven’t encountered before. There’s something different here. Yeah, I’ll reread something, definitely. Yeah.
I enjoy the rereading a lot, savoring it and recalling how it affected me and how it’s affecting me again and what’s done that, what are the triggers versus what’s in me that… Yeah, I enjoy that, working that out.
I read all the time. I work as an academic a little, so I read quite a bit of nonfiction and I read in sort of… Despite that, I like to read in random ways if people recommend things or to follow recommendations within texts one to the other. And I do, my last novel Taboo was informed by my work in indigenous language recovery, so that’s a different sort of reading. Some of those are texts that are usually not published, that are collecting indigenous language, Noongar language. I do a lot of that sort of reading as well, which is trying to find the sounds and the real words behind the way they’ve been written down as well as trying to find the orthography for that language.
Taboo comes out of that research. Look, frankly, the language research work’s been going on for a long time virtually since one of my earlier novels, Benang. I won some a major literary prize in Australia and it created some sort of existential crisis in me, if that doesn’t sound too pretentious, in terms of who’s my audience, who am I writing for? And I subsequently did a nonfiction book with a Noongar elder, an Aboriginal elder, and then chose, I think I chose to have a sort of split focus continuing to work with the literary novel, for want of a better phrase, but also to work at a community level with language, story and song recovery.
And that’s workshops where you bring archival materials, sometimes really old, sometimes freshly collected from current contemporary elders to community gatherings and share them, try and enable access by others there and develop a new story and sometimes songs out of that process, which is a great test of one’s chops, literary chops, capacity and an enormous and very rewarding emotional intensities on those occasions. I won’t talk about this too long, but the first time we got together in a serious way to start this sort of process about 14 years ago, there was about 60 people and we were returning archival material to the children of the informants. And within two or three minutes of starting formalities, everyone in the room was crying for various reasons.
So that whole project is really important to me and it gets out of that sort of, for want of a better phrase, that postcolonial dilemma of the community with whom you identified being a minority of your audience. When I’m doing that sort of work, that is the audience, and there’s a whole lot of healing and transformation that goes on there, which I try and explore and play with in a different way in Taboo.
That was Kim Scott, recommending The Vintner’s Luck by Elizabeth Knox. His novel Taboo, published by Small Beer Press, is available wherever books are sold. You can find out more about him and his work at kimscottauthor.com.
Many thanks to Jackson Bird and Kim Scott for joining us and sharing some favorite reads.
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