LEONE ROSS’S MESMERISING third novel This One Sky Day recounts events over the course of a single “strange day, full of surprises and moments with sharp teeth” across an imaginary Caribbean archipelago called Popisho. It’s a place peopled by seers and healers, rebels and dancing ghosts; a beautiful, twisted world full of magic and trauma, stunning nature and sensory overload. We catch up with her in the midst of a big move as she considers which of her vast collection of books and the knickknacks they sit among will be keepers…

Tell us about the bookshelves in your home. 

I am feverishly conscious of books at the moment, because I’m packing to move in with my partner in ten days! I have books in every room and teetering along the walls of my small, yellow, soon-to-be abandoned one-bedroom flat. Two years ago I would have said that a healthy 70% were read, but these days I get sent a LOT of freebies by lovely publishers and I have been buying a ridiculous amount of new stuff partially for research so I think it’s a shameful 60:40 ratio now. They are pretty well organised: alphabetised novels and short story collections with Latin American literature and Black writers pulled out into separate categories; Toni Morrison, Gabriel García Márquez and Stephen King have their own shelves; 127 books on creative theory and practice because I teach the subject; a non-fiction section including travel writing, books about bodies, sexuality and race politics; biographies; poetry; self-help and psychology; spirituality and astrology; Asterix comics, Bizarre and Mslexia magazines before Bizarre became incel soft porn, and finally a glorious shelf with all the titles I have authored, edited or been collected in. Forty-eight books and counting! How special that is for the child me who dreamed of being a writer.

Which books are your most recent bookshelf additions?

Black and Female – a series of intimate essays on race and gender by Zimbabwean novelist, filmmaker and playwright Tsitsi Dangarembga. Slender and intense and mercifully light to pack. And Kit de Waal’s latest memoir, Without Warning and Only Sometimes. God, they’re good writers.

Do you judge people by their bookshelves?

Oh, absolutely. No fiction at all on a man’s shelves is hard to bear; I knew my present publisher and I would get on when I saw we shared so many of the same titles; I’m always interested if other people’s books are as battered as mine. I’ve been known to repurchase books I love because I abuse them in the reading: I crack spines, drop them in puddles and gravy, scrawl across the margins. You know I’ve loved a book because it’s so damaged. Alice Walker’s The Color Purple is a mere rended garment on the shelf and there are three copies of Jean Toomer’s Cane in various states. So I thoroughly expect people to judge me. I remember one date backing away from my shelves quite dismayed: “There are SO many sex books!” There aren’t that many – Anaïs Nin to Nancy Friday – but them being in the same place sure made him judge me!

Ultimately, what I’m giving away during packing tells me about my own evolution: all the diet books have to go into recycling, not to charity, because I’m not passing on that toxicity.”

Which is your most treasured book?

A copy of Where Did I Come From? The Facts of Life Without Any Nonsense and with Illustrations by Peter Mayle, given to me when I was very young and wanted to know where babies come from. Mayle describes penetrative sex as “the closest two people can get” and is so body positive. I’m also lucky enough to have so many signed copies of books – a delightful array including Margaret Atwood, Walter Mosley, Roxane Gay, Rob Shearman, Toni Morrison, John Edgar Wideman, many who I interviewed in another life in the nineties.

Bookshelf images courtesy Leone Ross – click to enlarge and view in slideshow

Travel books and DurrellsWhat do your bookshelves say about you?

Dark and light. An obsession with bodies, perhaps. And justice – there’s lots of gender and race politics. I have a lot of titles I grew up reading on my activist mother’s shelf – Audre Lorde, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa by Walter Rodney, the poems of Gil Scott-Heron, the same edition of Ntozake Shange’s ‘choreopoem’ for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf as on my mum’s shelf. Ultimately, what I’m giving away during packing tells me about my own evolution: all the diet books have to go into recycling, not to charity, because I’m not passing on that toxicity. Them and the nine books on “how to get and keep a man” might just be redundant…

My shelves are also littered with sentimental bric-a-brac – a gargoyle statue from France when my dad took me at 14; a balloon lady figurine that belonged to my grandma; a 16-year-old pack of cigs that I promised would be my last – if I get the urge, I have to smoke them before any other and who’d want to do that? My dear friend collected tiny tins of Leone sweets on a visit to Italy and I put them by the horror fiction books.

What’s the oldest book on your shelf?

Two books, central to my childhood: Charlie & The Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl and The Talking Parcel by Gerald Durrell. It’s excruciating when you grow up to realise your favourites are both bigoted old colonialists and dreamers who gave you great joy and identity.

Do you rearrange your bookshelves often – and where do your replaced books go? 

My last big rearrange was in 2019 before the present aggressive moving-house cull. In the end I’ve given 407 books to charity via icollection.co.uk who take clothes and books, and the Ziffit app who give you a bit of money for your trouble.

Do you have any books from your childhood on your shelf?

Yep, all the Gerald Durrells, Roald Dahls and the All Creatures Great and Small vet book series by James Herriot. I wanted to be a veterinarian when I was a kid. I read a lot of Shere Hite’s seminal work on human sexuality when I was a kid as well; mine was a really open and liberal household! My complete set of hardback Asterix comics are not copies from back then, but a present to myself in my twenties because I so adored them as a kid.

Book lender, book giver or book borrower?

Buyer. I rarely lend – I give gifts. And I never borrow books. We’ve discussed what I do to them if I love them, right?

Whose bookshelves are you most curious about?

I want to visit Gabriel García Márquez’s house and have a look at his books. Though a lot of them will be in Spanish, of course. Mostly I just want to go to his house and breathe the air he did. I was very, very bad at Antoni Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona – I sneakily sat the chair he used in his office before he died, but all there was on his bookshelf above me was an ancient cheese sandwich in a bundle.

Introduced and compiled by Farhana Gani

Leone Ross is a novelist, short story writer, editor, reviewer, and teacher of fiction writing. She was born in Coventry, and when she was six years old migrated with her mother to Jamaica, where she was raised and educated. After graduating from the University of the West Indies in 1990, she returned to England to do her master’s degree in International Journalism at City University in London, where she now lives. Her first novel, All The Blood Is Red, was nominated for the Orange Prize in 1997. In 2009 Wasafiri magazine placed her second novel, Orange Laughter, on its list of 25 Most Influential Books from the previous quarter-century.  Her short-story collection, Come Let Us Sing Anyway, was nominated for the V.S. Pritchett Prize, Salt Publishing’s Scott Prize and the Jhalak Prize, and was shortlisted for the 2018 Edge Hill Prize. Her latest novel, This One Sky Day, nominated for the Ondaatje Prize, the Women’s Prize for Fiction and the Diverse Book Awards and shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize, is published by Faber & Faber in paperback, eBook and audio download.
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Instagram: leone.ross
Twitter: @leoneross

Author portrait © Hayley Benoit

The Italian 'Leone' sweets in front of horror fiction

The cigarette pact with myself

WATCH LEONE ROSS with Andi Oliver, Elizabeth Day and Sarah Vaughan on Sky Arts Book Club (Wednesday 14 September 2022) on catch-up at Sky Arts, Now and Freeview.
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