Jane Sullivan’s interview for The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald

Published: October 27, 2012 – 3:00AM

People sometimes come up to Ramona Koval and say (she puts on a hushed, funereal voice), ”Hi. How are you? What are you doing?”

”They feel very sorry for me,” she says. ”It feels as if the lack of The Book Show has been a real hole in their lives, and they still want to talk about it.” But they shouldn’t feel sorry for her: ”It’s a hole in my life, too, but I’ve filled it.”

It’s been a year since ”Australia’s literary microphone mistress”, as The Times Literary Supplement once called her, parted company with ABC Radio in the most acrimonious way. First, she launched a blistering attack on proposed changes to the Radio National schedule that would see her much-loved Book Show reduced to a hybrid books ‘n’ arts program. She called it ”management by panic” and revealed there hadn’t even been any interest in telling her if she had a role to play on the network in future.

So while her many fans were distressed and furious when she left the ABC last November, they probably weren’t surprised. And Koval, who once said, ”the ABC will break your heart now and then”, had clearly had her heart broken once too often.

But today, Koval doesn’t look or sound the least bit heartbroken. She’s bubbling with enthusiasm in the way her fans remember so well: about reading, about the miraculous properties of sand, about the Large Hadron Collider, about the Rover exploration of Mars … ”I get such a kick out of it,” she says about everything.

The hole in her life has been filled by writing. It’s not a new profession for her: all her broadcasting career she was producing articles, essays, lectures and books, ranging from a novel (Samovar, 1996) to collections of her interviews with writers, as well as two Jewish cookbooks.

Now the writing has taken centre stage. There’s a book on the way she describes as ”philosophical, about evidence, identity and genetics, with a component of memoir”. There’s an essay, On Turning, which has been commissioned to be interpreted by a group of artists. There’s an anthology she has edited, The Best Australian Essays 2012, out for Christmas. And right now there’s By the Book: A Reader’s Guide to Life, a collection of her essays on the subject closest to her heart.

Why do we love books? ”Something chimes with you at a certain point,” she says. ”The voice is the one you hear inside your own head, or you think ‘I’ve thought that’, or ‘I’ve never thought that’, or it intrigues you to be inside the universe someone is creating.

”It’s like falling into sleep, isn’t it? When everything is right and you’re just tired enough and comfortable and you get to sleep and you dream. It’s like that, reading a wonderful novel. You have to trust the writer is going to take you by the hand and show you a world.”

Hence her perennial fascination with having conversations with writers. ”I’m interested in how it is a writer can shape the first page to a story, or any kind of book, and what it is about the mechanics of the way the words are placed together that makes you forget that you’re reading and invite you into a new universe … And there’s a great emotional connection, you want to know the person who has made this thing, which aroused feelings in you.”

By the Book came about when talking to Text publisher Michael Heyward. ”He said: ‘There’s a book I’d like to read of yours, a book about reading’. I thought it was a fantastic idea.”

She went home and looked at her bookshelves – the results of 25 years of intensive reading.

Some books she’d read, loved and kept, some she’d brought home to read later.

”They fell into odd categories. Why were they here, why did I have them around me, what did I think they were for?”

She began to group them, to read them again. ”Sentences would jump out at me … They are fantastic time machines to hurtle back into memory. You can reflect on what was going on at the time and how books were important to you.”

Koval’s eclectic rereading takes in more than 100 books: childhood delights, literary classics, intriguing non-fiction and some truly obscure choices (Home Management: Volume 1, which told you how to have the perfect family in the perfect home).

The hardest thing, she says, was to do what Heyward wanted her to do: to put herself into the essays. ”It’s revealing and embarrassing and surprising. As a grown-up person you feel a little bit protective of the girl you were. You feel the vulnerability of the young you. But also amazed by what she thought, how courageous she might have been in the face of various things, and how wrong she might have been. She muddled through.”

One of the things she rediscovered was that gaining wisdom from books doesn’t translate into gaining wisdom in life. She knew her Flaubert, yet at 19 she still married her version of Charles Bovary. ”How much can you know when you’re 19?” she says. ”You sort of know it, but it’s not at the front of your head. There were other pressures: it was time to get married. My mother was dying, my father had left, and I had this feeling I needed to make a family … And I’d never had the experience of seeing a happy marriage from the inside.”

Her parents were early influences on Koval’s reading, both in what they gave and in what they withheld. They were Holocaust survivors from Poland who arrived in Melbourne in 1950 (Koval was born in 1954), and their experiences scarred them both in different ways. ”My mother gave me books, but we didn’t discuss them … She never asked me what I thought of them. It was like a meal – she prepared a meal and we ate it.”

Her mother’s choices were quietly subversive. She didn’t approve of Koval seeing war books or pictures of death camp victims – she and her husband once had a screaming row about it – but she liked to read books that had been banned, and when asked, she bought her 12-year-old daughter a copy of the Kama Sutra. Not that Koval made much sense of it.

Koval’s father didn’t give her books and he never listened to her radio programs, because he was worried she might do something to make trouble. ”The whole point was to make trouble, but he didn’t really understand. He would have been happy if I’d married well and never divorced and never had to work and had someone to look after me. He was always worried I’d never find another husband. I was divorced by my mid-20s and always had to support myself and my children.

”It didn’t matter what I was doing, what programs I was making. He grew up at a feudal time and in a feudal place.”

As Koval puts it now, the girl muddled through, fuelled by optimism, a strong sense of romance and a passionate curiosity about the universe. Her early passion was for science: ”I found it comforting as a girl to think there were rules for the way the world worked, and you could predict things.” She wanted to be Marie Curie, but decided that was impossible with a baby in a bassinet under the lab bench.

Her science career led to a radio science show on Melbourne’s RRR, the Marie Curiosity Show, and that, in turn, led to ABC radio work.

When she was sacked from the Radio National Drive program in 1994 (she dared to air a long interview when management wanted only short ones) it felt like the end of the world. Then Robert Dessaix asked her if she’d fill in for him for a year as presenter of the Books and Writingshow.

It was the beginning of 17 years of stellar literary journalism. Koval forged an international reputation as an interviewer of writers, on air and at festivals, including the Edinburgh and Cheltenham book festivals in Britain. She could coax confidences from the most reluctant and curmudgeonly subjects, and in By the Book she writes movingly about friendships she formed with writers.

All that time, was she studying to be a writer without knowing it? ”I’ve been studying how to be a human being, by reading everything I could get my hands on.”

And what does she think about Radio National today? For the first time, Koval pauses. ”Oh, I don’t know what to say, I don’t want to sound like someone who’s suffering from sour grapes. I really have moved on. Writing has saved me from wrestling with my romantic vision of what broadcasting could be, versus the harsh realities about the organisation that was ultimately running it.

”I don’t often quote Oprah [Winfrey], but I remember her saying, ‘When life gives you a lemon, make lemonade’. I feel as if I’ve been happily making an awful lot of really delicious lemonade.”

By the Book: A Reader’s Guide to Life is published by Text Publishing, $29.99.

This story was found at: http://www.theage.com.au/entertainment/books/interview-ramona-koval-20121025-286j6.html

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