Portrait

When it comes to being well read, Jason Steger's up there with the best. By Maxine Beneba Clarke.

Between the covers with The Book Club’s Jason Steger

He sits upright in his armchair, with a straight-backed poise that’s effortlessly deportment-school. He folds long thin fingers into his lap. Blinks thoughtfully. Nods his head gently but emphatically at a fellow panellist’s comments. Laughs at another’s theatrics. Jason Steger’s gestures are floating, elegant. His enunciation is impeccably roauw-end vow-elled, in that more English-than-English Michael-Parkinson-meets-Mr-Darcy-meets-David-Attenborough way. Steger’s eyebrows raise to emphasise his point: faint furrowed lines slowly climbing towards the titanium-hued hair that make-up have casually spray-sheened back. His slim shoulders jut dead-square corners into his collared navy shirt.

The camerawoman calls time on the April filming of ABC Television’s The Book Club. The studio audience applauds. Steger and the other panellists – host Jennifer Byrne, regular Marieke Hardy, guests Zoe Daniel and me – relax back into our chairs.

“See?” Steger says. “It’s not that scary – it was just a chat.”

“Yeah, it was fun.” We make our way round the back of the tiered seating. “You know, Jason, I write Portraits for The Saturday Paper. I’d love to write yours, if you’d be happy to sit down with me in Melbourne?”

Steger laughs. Shakes his head. He looks back at me, realises I’m serious.

“Bu— errr. But… I… really? Really? Why? I— what? Nooo.” He’s suddenly trapped in a stammering Hugh Grant in [insert any Hugh Grant movie of your choice] discombobulation.

“Think about it, Jason,” I urge, as he disappears into the bowels of the ABC’s maze-like Ultimo studio building. 

Several days later, Steger phones me. “Yes I’ll, erm… I’ll do the interview... But I don’t— I’m not sure… why you want to… I mean— I…”

We sit at a cafe on Collins Street, just beneath The Age building, where Steger works as books editor. Studio slickness long gone, the winter sun illuminates his three-day-old pearl-tinted stubble. He wears a slightly crumpled charcoal T-shirt, dark pants, tan boots. 

“Well, this is strange.” He raises the coffee glass to his mouth so subtly it barely skims his lips. Shifts uncomfortably in the metal chair. “I’ve never been interviewed before.”

As the gentle interrogator of many authors over the past decade, it must indeed be strange to suddenly find himself on the other side of the table.

When I ask Steger about his role as a literary taste-maker, he talks regretfully about receiving mountains of books – more than he could ever get through – knowing even the excellent reads might not get a hearing.

“What happens? To the books, I mean?”

“This lovely bloke Barry collects them. He sells them to raise money for Oxfam.” 

I ask Steger about the worst feedback he’s ever had from a disgruntled author. He pauses. The frown lines stack. He tilts his head slightly to one side. 

“Actually, a book was once mailed to one of my reviewers after somebody’d taken the effort to shoot a few bullet holes through it. That was pretty bad. I didn’t pass it on. That would be the worst incident though. A few times, people have sent anti-Semitic rants…”

On his father’s side, Steger’s family originates from Austria. As a young man, Steger’s father migrated to England. His uncle fled to what was then Yugoslavia. Steger’s paternal grandparents did not fare so well. Remaining in Austria after the outbreak of World War II, they lost their lives during the Holocaust.

Steger’s father lay claim to being the first Austrian in the British navy. As a small boy, Steger frequently pestered him about what he did there. “He’d tell me his job was to bring cocoa to the captain!”

It was Steger’s English mother who fuelled his love of literature. Though an avid crime fiction reader, The Times Literary Supplement was also one of her mainstays.

Despite an English literature degree, Steger’s journalism career has been varied. He started out reporting on English football, then worked for the Financial Times, even worked for a DIY home improvement publication for a bit. 

“I sometimes wonder how many houses blew up because of my advice.” He looks genuinely guilt-ridden.

A woman came along. The woman. Steger followed her to Australia. They made a life together here, had two boys (now adult, not super bookish). The proud father in him puffs up when he talks about his sons.

“What do they think about The Book Club?”

“I think it’s kind of… almost an embarrassment that their dad’s occasionally on television. Sometimes if they’re over, and it’s coming on, I’ll just casually say. ‘Oh look, The Book Club’s about to come on!’ ” he laughs. 

Half a lifetime after arriving in Australia, Steger still returns to England and Austria as often as he’s able. When he speaks of the mountains in Austria, his eyes glaze over a little, do that faraway thing.

“I’m incredibly lucky. I feel completely at home in three different places in the world.”

“Is there anything else we should talk about, Jason? Anything we’ve missed?”

Steger laughs, looks away. “I lead a very quiet life these days, Max,” he says, apologetically. “I live in a small terrace house. I minister to my beloved old dog, Pluto, of which I have joint custody. I swap homemade jam for lemon and basil with the two elderly Greek ladies who live on either side of me. I play soccer with a group of Greek guys every Saturday afternoon.”

With all these books around him, I ask, has he ever had writerly ambitions?

“I suppose if I really wanted to write, I would have done so by now.” 

“Really?” I probe. 

“Well…” 

Steger acquiesces, divulges the story he would write, if ever he did decide to start that novel. The story begins in 1938 Vienna…

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 2, 2015 as "Between the covers". Subscribe here.

Maxine Beneba Clarke
is the author of The Hate Race and Foreign Soil.