Lucy Barker’s debut novel The Other Side of Mrs Wood has been hotly anticipated since the manuscript-in-progess finished as runner-up in the inaugural Curtis Brown First Novel Prize back in 2019 – since gathering praise from literary luminaries including Marian Keyes, Sophie Irwin, Frances Quinn and Katie Fforde. The book whisks readers to the competitive world of séances and spiritual theatre in Victorian high society, where the eponymous Mrs Wood, London’s most celebrated medium, is challenged by a young protégée she invited into her confidence to learn the tricks of the trade…

Tell us about the bookshelves in your home.

I have books everywhere – much to my family’s annoyance (heathens). We’ve just moved to Bath and I was forced to do a desperately painful cull before we packed. The house we moved into didn’t have any shelves at all (who were these people?) so for a while my books were all in boxes but my husband just built some either side of the fireplace in the living room so they are once again free. Unfortunately, I couldn’t fit them all in this miniscule offering, so some of my stash are still feral until I can bribe him to build some more.

As chaotic as it all looks, however, there is order:

Living Room Shelves = The Beloved Books

These are the books I’ve read and love and would need to be prised from my cold dead hands before I would ever consider culling them. Nothing brings me greater pleasure than glancing over their spines and remembering the stories within. My TBRs have also had to migrate here from my bedside table as the pile was becoming a health-and-safety hazard.

These are all in strict alphabetical order until we get to my Recently Read/TBR shelf – I just don’t have it in me to shift the shelves around to squeeze the RRs in at the moment so I am having to live with the eye twitch I experience every time I see a B next to an R until I do.

I also have non-fiction and bios across the bottom shelves which are arranged by subject. I did go rogue when I arranged the shelves this time, though, and put some bios in with fiction. I’m hoping the anxiety I feel when I see Demi Moore next to George Moore’s Esther Waters will subside soon.

Study Shelves/Desk = Research/Inspiration Books

I share a tiny basement study with my husband (who is regularly on conference calls talking about flanges and penetration and shafts – he’s a structural engineer). I take great inspiration from other writers and so I have a bookcase next to my desk with comp titles and books I especially, especially love or mean something to me so I can see them the whole time I’m writing. I also have a shelf of broader research books within arm’s reach so I can flick to who wore what hat when in a heartbeat, as well as books about writing which I can cry into on tough days.

Behind me I have a smaller bookcase which has more specific research books in. I have an MA in Victorian Studies, and because my study interests mirror what I’m now writing about, the books I worked from back then are still wholly relevant. Which is good as I love them. You’ll also find guidebooks in there, mostly of New York, all massively out of date.

Bedside Table/Dresser/Stairs/Spare Room Bedside Table/Husband’s Desk/Bathroom/Hallway Console/Dining Room Table = Books I Absolutely Will Read/Shelve Soon

I promise.

Which books are your most recent bookshelf additions?

I’m part of the Debut 2023 Twitter group and so every Thursday is Christmas when a pre-order of one their brilliant debuts arrives. I am slightly biased because she won the Curtis Brown First Novel Award in 2019 where I came second, but Chikodili Emelumadu’s Dazzling is especially cherished. I was also treated by my mum to a Book Spa Day at Mr B’s Emporium bookshop in Bath recently and came away with a stack of books that I’m working my way through which included True Crime Story by Joseph Knox, Fup by Jim Dodge and Plainsong by Kent Haruf. I’m currently on Sugar by Bernice L. McFadden and it is just gorgeous. And my wonderful editor, Katie Bowden, sent me Elizabeth McKenzie’s latest The Dog of the North and it’s so good! I can’t recommend that enough.

Second-hand reference books don’t count when it comes to book buying, right? Like eating standing up doesn’t count.”

Oh, and I’ve also just this morning received a stack of books about Victorian seaside culture – these are all second-hand and well thumbed and piled up on my desk ready for quick reference. But second-hand reference books don’t count when it comes to book buying, right? Like eating standing up doesn’t count. You can buy as many reference books as you want.

Do you judge people by their bookshelves?

Yes. I’ll always walk into someone’s house and discreetly scan their bookshelves to see if we can continue to be friends. I will become immediately suspicious of their worth as a human being if they don’t have any books on display. What are they hiding? What’s WRONG with them? When I moved into my first flatshare in London, I joined two other women I didn’t know. I will never forget the moment I discovered that one of them kept her books SHOVED IN A KITCHEN CUPBOARD WITHOUT EVEN THEIR SPINES OUT. I mean she’s now my best friend, but that was a difficult time.

Which is your most treasured book?

Oh now, that’s like asking which is your favourite child. I genuinely don’t have just one. If the house was burning I’d be scooping them all up in armfuls before I even thought about anything else.

What do your bookshelves say about you?

In my head they’re saying that I’m wise, discerning and devastatingly clever. But I think in reality they probably say something more like “chaotic and eclectic but tries hard to be organised.”

What’s the oldest book on your shelf?

I’ve got a first edition of Martin Amis’ The Rachel Papers which is pretty old, but in terms of the book that’s been with me the longest it would probably have to be Moffatt’s Road by Rachel Anderson. It’s a big, thick-for-a-kid hardback and was my favourite book as a child.

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

I try not to rearrange my shelves very often as while I find alphabetising therapeutic I rarely have four days to sit in a pool of books going “Bronte before Bryson”. So basically, once a shelf is full I just start piling on top of that shelf. In terms of where replaced books go, I don’t replace, I generally keep and shove everything else along.

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

Absolutely. I have a small stack next to my desk. There’s Moffat’s Road as mentioned and Bogwoppit by Ursula Moray Williams which I cannot tell you how much I still love. I was obsessed with the States as a child and so the rest are American tweenagers’ books from the 80s: there’s a Betsy Byars, some grade-school books I bought when I went to Canada as a 9-year-old and Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret which I have standing face-out on the shelf because I love its cover: it’s an illustration of four all-American girls and reminds me so much of how I felt when I discovered Judy Blume: what I wouldn’t have given to go to an elementary school, put my backpack in a locker, get my braces fixed and jump through sprinklers in a borrowed bathing suit. I’m not sure much has changed on my Wish List if I’m honest.

Book lender, book giver or book borrower?

Lender and giver. While I love all of my books, I’m not precious about them. I don’t care if I lend you a book and it comes back battered – I only care that you loved it too. I’ll also send friends books if I see something I think they’ll like because who doesn’t love a surprise book? I try not to borrow though as I never remember to give them back and then I feel terrible every time I see them on my shelf.

Whose bookshelves are you most curious about?

Everyone’s! I think most people have at least one book on their shelf that I’m desperate to talk to them about. 

Lucy Barker holds an MA in Victorian studies from Birkbeck, University of London, and has a passion for uncovering the real lives of women from this period. Born in Sussex, she now lives in Bath with her husband and two small children. The Other Side of Mrs Wood is published by Fourth Estate in hardback, eBook and audio download.
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Introduced and compiled by Farhana Gani