Interview: Secret Book Stuff

Interview by Emily Fuller

As a lot of you readers may already have gathered, here at The Banksia Woman we love to relish in our love for literature and its everlasting relationship with our social and cultural identities. Even more, we consider ourselves so lucky to be surrounded by those of you who share in this passion of ours for all things books. Our wonderful friends Amy Lovat and Laura Kebby are all too familiar with this all-consuming passion. Being two halves of Secret Book Stuffthese lovely ladies work tirelessly to spread this love for books and for indulging your imagination. Here is what they have to say about their fun and rewarding project!

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Can you tell us a little bit about yourself, and the concept behind Secret Book Stuff?

My name is Amy Lovat and I am a writer, editor, lecturer, bookseller and selenophile. Together with my partner Laura, I run a kindness project called Secret Book Stuff, which is all about spreading the love of literature and creating a little more magic in the world.

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How/when did you find your passion for literature and reading?

Wow, we’re going to have to travel back in time a bit here… Mum likes to talk about reading to me when I was in the womb! With two book-loving parents, I really didn’t have a say in turning out as a bibliophile. I was a passionate and voracious reader (and writer) from a young age, and that part of me really took shape when I went to Uni. Even though I was studying law, I did every creative writing subject available and was eventually accepted into a Creative Writing program at Oxford University in the UK. Being surrounded by aspiring writers from all around the world really turned the spark into a flame and I realised that it was a legitimate dream, to build a life and career around a love of words. So I came back to Australia, quit law, did my Honours in Creative Writing, a PhD in Creative Writing, and now I teach creative writing at the uni and work as a freelance writer and editor. Plus I get to also work casually as a bookseller and donate hundreds of books to the people of Newcastle… I am literally living my dream!

This is what Laura has to say for herself…

“This is one of those existential crisis questions, right? Ok fine, I’ll deep dive for a minute. I have always (always) loved books and words and I’ve been a reader and a writer from a very young age. I remember putting together mix tapes (yes, literal tapes) of collections of book and tape stories and would listen and read along with them for hours at a time. I’ve always been described as one of those “head in the clouds” types and I guess like any adult (well, sort of adult) creative I never really grew out of it. My parents always encouraged me to read and my dad in particular swallows books like nobody’s business. Writing for me was always this secret hobby, though, something I knew and felt I was pretty good at but didn’t really know what to do with. I bounced around uni courses, everything from psychology to law to underwater basket weaving, but finally realised that my passion for writing, words, and books wasn’t going anywhere no matter how hard I tried and now I’m studying a Bachelor of Creative Writing via distance.

But it was really Amy who turned that slow-burning warmth into an undying love for books and words. Ask the girl about books and words and I promise you, you’ll fall in love too.”

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What motivated you to embark on this project?

I’d been thinking about starting a random act of kindness project but no idea flowed well… until I decided to move overseas and wondered what to do with my almost-1000 book collection. Every time I move house, I have to lug boxes and boxes of books, so I always end up gifting some to friends and family. But this was larger scale! I came up with the name, had a stamp made, bought some recycled brown paper and biodegradable hemp twine and started leaving my wrapped books in cafes and bus stops and random places around town for people to find. The Instagram exploded and people started asking if they could send a book to a friend somewhere else in Australia as a random act of kindness, so I set up a simple website and Secret Book Stuff was officially born. I was constantly motivated and inspired by the stories coming to me from the community… people would message me to say they were having a shitty day until they found a secret book and it put a smile on their face. Then others started donating their pre-loved books so I could keep going. It was the most organic, amazing process. Topped off by meeting Laura and falling in love thanks to our mutual love of books and words… I obviously didn’t end up moving overseas!

What charities do you donate to, and why have you chosen them specifically?

At Christmas last year, I had an excess of donated books and wanted to do something larger scale with them, so I recruited four Secret Book Elves and gave them books and wrapping materials so they could spread the love in their area. I also contacted the Newcastle Basket Brigade, as I’d been following their work for awhile and knew they put together hampers of food, toys and gifts for disadvantaged families at Christmas time. So I took along 200 secret books and volunteered on their wrapping day… we distributed 800 baskets in Newcastle and the Hunter! This year, I’m on the board of the Basket Brigade as their Book Coordinator. When we were in Bellingen in June, we did a few local markets and raised money for the Centre for Ecological Learning because, as eco warriors ourselves, it was the most appropriate non-profit to align ourselves with and we made some great friends out of the collab too. From August this year, we will be raising funds and book donations for Camp Out 2018, which is a camp for LGBTQIA+ teens that runs every year outside of Sydney. With the inaugural Newcastle Pride Fair coming up, we thought it was an appropriate organisation to align with, and being in a same-sex relationship, it’s a cause close to our hearts.

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What is the most rewarding part of your project?

Honestly, it’s the pure joy of being surrounded by books, talking about them at all hours, and passing them on to loving homes. By working with local organisations, we are connecting with the community and spreading kindness. My favourite part is hand-picking the perfect book recommendation for someone and I like to think of myself as a “book doctor”. Laura is a spreadsheet queen and loves writing the clues on the backs of the books for the market stalls. Her handwriting is better than mine too! It’s psychologically proven that the fastest way to feel better in your own life is to do something kind for someone else. So the roots of a project like this really do bury deep. You just can’t put a price on that!

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Where are your books available for us literary lovers?

Laura and I are regularly at markets around Newcastle, such as Olive Tree and Hunt and Gather, plus we occasionally take Secret Book Stuff on the road. The best way to send a book to the literary lover in your life (or yourself!) is online via www.secretbookstuff.com where you tell us what your friend likes to read and why you’re sending them a secret book, so we can pick the perfect read and write a handwritten note.

Does there appear to be future plans for broadening Secret Book Stuff and its role?

This is a big question and something we talk about near-daily! We now have a few Secret Book Agents doing random acts of bookness in other cities and towns around Australia, and are always open to hearing from others willing to spread the love. We are expanding our product range to include prints of bookish quotes and original poems, and we’ve collaborated with a few local gals to launch our Secret Book Boxes at the Newcastle Pride Fair on 25 August! They contain a secret book in a genre of your choice, coffee by Floozy or tea by The Tea Collective, and a print by amazing local artist Noods Creative. They are also available on our website for pre-order and we are so excited to donate $5 from every box to Camp Out 2018. We also want to take Secret Book Stuff on the road around Australia, we’d love to have a shop front, and broaden the scale of what we can do for the community. Now, we just need to #manifest!

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Secret Book Stuff Instagram: @secretbookstuff

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