This reading life: Emma Neale

Emma Neale • 25 April 2018

Emma Neale is the new editor of the iconic New Zealand literary journal, Landfall. She talks to ARTicle about her reading habits and history.

Photo credit: Jim Tannock

Landfall 235 (Otago University Press) is out early May 2018.

The first book to capture my imagination was

My mother read aloud a lot of AA Milne, Beatrix Potter to me and my sister when we were small; I loved the Narnia books; and one novel that still stands out for me was a copy of The Last of the Great Whangdoodles, by Julie Andrews Edwards - it was a book bought for the plane flight to America when I was 8. There was something momentous about it being a hardback, being written by the person I thought of as Mary Poppins, and its imaginative fantasy world, with moments of ludicrous word play (the sweet tooth - a tooth with a tiny flower tattooed on it) totally transported me.


The books that saw me through childhood were

I had read a lot of Enid Blyton in New Zealand, and loved Dorothy Edwards’ My Naughty Little Sister books; Catherine Storr’s Polly and the Wolf series; and for many years I dipped in and out of The Illustrated Treasury of Children’s Literature, edited by Margaret E Martignoni - it was full of nursery rhymes, Aesop fables, Lewis Carroll, Christina Rosetti, The Brothers Grimm, Dickens, Hans Christian Anderson and many others. Once we were in the United States I also discovered Marguerite Henry’s horse novels - Misty of Chincoteague and Stormy, Misty’s Foal, The White Stallions of Lipizza, Mustang, Wild Spirit of the West - and played a lot of horse games built around them, and tried to write my own horse adventure to send back to a friend in New Zealand. I went through a Nancy Drew mystery phase; a Hardy Boys phase; a Little House on the Prairie phase; a Judy Bloom phase; then as a teenager read a lot of John Wyndham, and other science fiction writers.

"I went through a Nancy Drew mystery phase; a Hardy Boys phase; a Little House on the Prairie phase; a Judy Bloom phase; then as a teenager read a lot of John Wyndham ...."


The character in a book I most wanted to be as a child

Polly from Polly and The Wolf was such a clever, resourceful, un-out-wittable girl; I probably would have loved to be her - but actually the most powerful emotional memory I have of longing to be someone in a fictional world comes from some of the magical novels by Penelope Farmer - one called The Summer Birds, another called Emma in Winter, where the characters in a small English village all share a night time dream world where the children can fly. The fat boy in the village is released from ostracism in this dream life. I loved that aspect of the story.


The book I studied at school that has stayed with me most is

Sylvia Plath’s Ariel.

The author I am most likely to binge-read is

Alice Munro.

The book I am most likely to press on a friend is

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout - it’s like a novel told in separate short stories. I love the way each section gives a new unexpected angle on the title character, and the way Strout makes Olive both realistically flawed - she’s not always admirable or likeable - and yet also deeply empathetic to other people. You get the sense of a hardscrabble life that makes her at once totally unsentimental but also capable of strobing insight, recognising other people pushed right up to their own limits. I’d press this on people so that they could then discover Strout’s Lucy Barton books too.

The books I keep meaning to get around to reading but somehow never do are

James Joyce’s big ones - Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake. I think it was once even a New Year’s resolution to read one of them, but I didn’t achieve it.


The book I have reread the most is

The Collected Short Stories of Katherine Mansfield.

Bookmark, scrap of paper or turning down the corner of the page?

All of the above, and also including autumn leaves, twigs, hair clips, knives, spoons, nail files, unsent letters, combs, swimming class ribbons, electrical cables, earrings.

The first 50 pages or bust? Or always to the bitter end?

Sometimes only the first 15 pages or bust. Life is too short and the world’s bookshelves too full for me to listen to a dead duck.

"Life is too short and the world’s bookshelves too full for me to listen to a dead duck"

My favourite cinematic adaptation of a book is

Kes, from A Kestrel for a Knave by Barry Hines - though I haven’t re-watched it for many years…


A line of writing I can quote by heart:

After a few warming-up revs I can usually recite all of WH Auden’s ‘Look, Stranger’ - but I definitely get the first 7 lines:

Look, stranger, on this island now
The leaping light for your delight discovers,
Stand stable here
And silent be,
That through the channels of the ear
May wander like a river
The swaying sound of the sea

My favourite 19th-century book is

Wuthering Heights


My favourite 20th-century book is probably

The Collected Stories of Alice Munro.

The books beside my bed are

The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride; The Letters Page Volume 2 ed. Jon McGregor; Hard Frost; Structures of Feeling in New Zealand Literature, John Newton; Solar Bones, Mike McCormack; Tenth of December, George Saunders; Poetry New Zealand Yearbook 2018 ed Jack Ross; Blood Dazzler, Patricia Smith; Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems, James Baldwin; Poetry April 2018; ed Don Share; Feel Free, Zadie Smith; Black Ice Matter, Gina Cole; Collected Works Carson McCullers; Landfall 233 ed David Eggleton; Being Alive, ed Neil Astley; Whisper of a Crow’s Wing, Majella Cullinane, All this by Chance, Vincent O’Sullivan Map: Collected and Last Poems, Wislaw Szymborksa; Stranger, Baby by Emily Berry; Jackself, by Jacob Polley; The Poetry Review Winter 2017, ed Emily Berry; Poemland, by Chelsey Minnis.

I guess it’s a little out of control. I really should do some shelving.


Founded in 1947 by the Dunedin writer and arts patron Charles Brasch, Landfall is Aotearoa's longest-running arts literary journal. It showcases new fiction and poetry, as well as biographical and critical essays, and cultural commentary.

Writer and editor Emma Neale is the editor of Landfall. Her novel Billy Bird was shortlisted for the Acorn Prize in 2017 and long-listed in the Dublin International Literary Awards.