“Despite the heat she shivered. This wasn’t … foreboding anymore – the nervous feeling that warned her of trouble. It was the sense that she had already made a wrong turn somewhere, and was in deep trouble already.”
(The Grandest Bookshop in the World)
Amelia Mellor is an impressive new talent. Her first middle-fiction novel The Grandest Bookshop in the World (Affirm Press) is high-stakes and inventive, full of curiosities and with a rich textured atmosphere. It is published in hard cover. Although based on the real bookshop Cole’s Book Arcade, which also produced the Coles Funny Picture Books in 19th century Melbourne, it takes us to a darker and deeper place without losing impetus or engagement. This is an original fantasy.
Thank you for speaking to PaperbarkWords, Amelia.
Where are you based and what is your background?
I’m a secondary-school teacher in Alpine Victoria, but I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was three. I grew up in the bush on the Mornington Peninsula with my parents, three siblings, and a lot of pets.
The Grandest Bookshop in the World is your debut novel. It certainly deserves to be published but we know that finding a publisher as a new author is extremely difficult. How did you manage this?
I had a feeling that the premise had strong market appeal, with its Melbourne history and distinctive setting. However, it certainly helped that Affirm was encouraging unsolicited manuscript submissions and wanting to build their children’s list when I approached them.
The cover of your book is a wonderful window into some of its contents. Could you tell us about one or more of the elements it evokes? Which part of the bookshop would you most like to visit and why?
The cover has so many details that I love. The bright rainbow against a dark background pays homage to Cole’s Funny Picture Books, which had rainbows on the covers and were great resources for my research. The silhouette of the Book Arcade against the starry sky is the shape of the real Arcade. The coloured windows give a glimpse into some of the Book Arcade’s different departments and rooms. The characters are my favourite part, and I particularly like that Pearl and Vally are inside the Book Arcade while the Obscurosmith is outside – exactly where they belong.
I would most like to visit the main Arcade, because that’s the heart of the place. It was huge and beautiful, with golden columns supporting the balconies, mirrored obelisks down the centre, paintings hanging from the balcony barriers, rainbows everywhere, thousands of books on the shelves, and the golden rule: Read For As Long As You Like – No One Asked To Buy.
How have you used the rainbow symbol?
Mr Cole used the rainbow as his logo because to him it represented peace and unity between all the people of the world, as well as being eye-catching. But for me, the rainbow is bittersweet: it represents the ephemeral nature of existence. Rainbows never last long, so they must be enjoyed while they do. Cole’s Book Arcade was the same – it’s very sad that it no longer exists, but it’s wonderful that it ever did at all.
Could you describe some of the fascinating curiosities found in the Cole’s Book Arcade?
Cole’s Book Arcade isn’t just a bookshop – it’s a kind of literary theme park crossed with a department store. As well as the main Arcade full of books, it includes a Tea Salon, a live band, a lolly shop, a toy shop, a room of illusions including funhouse mirrors, a perfumery, a stationery department, a vast display of ornaments, a monkey exhibit, a Fernery with talking parrots, a photography studio, a Symphonion music machine, a mechanical chicken, and the little flat at the top where the Cole family live.
How much of this is based on fact?
All of it! I’ve only fiddled with the layout and the time frames, since some of the departments hadn’t been added yet in 1893.
Where have you diverged into magic, enchantment, deception and fantasy?
There are three main things I made up: the plot, the magic and the villain. The other characters’ names and backstories are based on real people.
Like a visual art style, magic in the book is unique to each person, and might involve objects, writing, gestures, speaking, singing, or combinations of these. I invented the magic, but I grounded its rules in concepts that I think help people achieve marvellous things in real life. Mr and Mrs Cole can use magic, as can some of the Book Arcade staff. But like playing an instrument, it takes years of dedicated practice to master and isn’t for everyone, so Pearl can do a little magic but Vally isn’t interested.
The most skilled magic-user in the book is the Obscurosmith, who is completely made up. He is created from turning Pa Cole’s best traits upside-down: intelligence into cunning, generosity into selfishness, a love of fun shared with others into a love of fun at others’ expense. He transforms some of Pa Cole’s ideas – such as Cole’s Whipping Machine, a humorous cartoon – into nightmare versions of themselves.
What is one of the favourite clues in your story?
I like the rhyming riddles the most because writing them is like solving a puzzle myself. Some of them, like the one in the first challenge, are adaptations from the real Cole’s riddles in his books. Others, like the one about monkeys in the sixth challenge, I had to invent. I had to rewrite that one a lot to make sure people could understand it!
Could you briefly introduce the Cole family of your novel?
Pa Cole is a bookseller, writer and king of the dad jokes. Ma Cole loves theatre and drama. There’s Linda, the bossy teenage sister; Eddie, the naughty teenage brother; and Ivy, the youngest, who’s seven. Vally, one of the main characters, just turned thirteen – he’s good at solving problems but he worries a lot. Pearl, the other main character, is ten – she’s brave and determined but tends to rush into things. But there’s one sibling missing: Ruby, the fourth child, who died when she was eight and is terribly missed by the others.
How does the relationship between Pearl and Vally change?
At first, Pearl sees Vally as boring and pedantic, and Vally sees Pearl as chaotic and silly. But as they lose their memories throughout the story, they forget some of their differences, and as they help each other through the tasks, they show their strengths and challenge each other’s biases.
Your creation of atmosphere is excellent. I couldn’t read The Grandest Bookshop in the World before going to sleep. How did you make it so sinister and terrifying?
On the night of my first birthday, a good witch and an evil witch visited me as I slept. One blessed me with imagination. The other cursed me with anxiety. Ever since then, I’ve lived with a head full of marvels and monsters. I would write letters to the fairies that lived in our hollow gum tree, and run away from the basilisk in the laundry. I still struggle with the marvels and the monsters sometimes, only now they have different shapes. I get a thrill out of writing terrifying scenes because it makes me feel like I’ve mastered my fear.
Either that, or I just have some malicious desire to make sure no one else can sleep either.
What do you enjoy and appreciate in bookshops or libraries you visit?
I like the ones with character! Beautiful inside and out, a bookseller who’s fun to talk to, an interesting tradition such as Blind Date with a Book, or a combination of these!
What are you writing next?
I’m working on a prequel set in Paddy’s Market, also called the Eastern Market, in 1871. This was where Mr Cole first started selling books and where he hired Billy Pyke, who was an adolescent at the time, and grew up to be the manager of Cole’s Book Arcade for forty-five years. There are just as many strange locations and characters in the market as there are in the Book Arcade, including fortune tellers, tattoo artists, frauds, carnies, and a particularly nasty phrenologist. And of course, there’s more magic, more riddles, and more nightmare fuel.
What else have you been reading recently that you would like to recommend?
Lately I’ve been enjoying funny middle-grade books featuring girl heroes across a range of genres: Jaclyn Moriarty’s Bronte Mettlestone books, Sophie Deen’s Agent Asha books, and re-reading my friend Carly Nugent’s Peacock Detectives.
How can your readers contact you?
Within your atmospheric oasis of illusions, you have conjured a remarkable tale of children who develop agency and resilience for children who love to be intrigued and challenged.
Thank you for your fascinating responses and all the best with The Grandest Bookshop in the World, Amelia.