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Fridays with Featherstone, Part 2: Writing about men

December 21, 2012

Today, as promised last week, I bring you the second part of Nigel Featherstone’s Wet Ink interview with Susan Errington. But first, a brief intro. Back in early November, Nigel wrote a guest post for my Monday Musings series on writing about family, on how this is what he finds himself writing about. In this part of the interview, Susan talks with Nigel about his writing about relationships, and particularly his writing about men. Read on …


Your first novel Remnants asks the big questions about life’s meaning. Fall on Me seems to be on a more intimate scale, about the relationship between a father and son. Do you agree? Tell us about the different development of these works.


Remnants began as a manuscript developed during my studies for a Master of Creative Arts (Creative Writing) at the University of Wollongong, which I completed in 2001. The idea was to pit a conservative older brother against a radical younger brother and send them across Australia in the Indian-Pacific train. But after graduation, the characters and their story wouldn’t leave me alone, so for five years I kept working on the manuscript, until Ian Templeman at the now defunct Pandanus Books accepted it for publication. The novel has a quote from George Bernard Shaw as an epigraph: ‘Man can climb to the highest mountains; but he cannot dwell there long.’ I wrote the book during the long, twisted guts of John Howard’s reign over Australia, and even though it’s a gentle tale it’s a rallying against the one-eyed – and treacherously arrogant – culture of wealth that was so prevalent at the time (and hasn’t really abated). Where Remnants took six years from idea to bookshelf, the first draft of Fall on Me was written in seven days during that crazy month in Launceston, and then reworked over eighteen months before it was published at the end of 2011; it was a quick gestation. And you’re right: it’s a more intimate book. Being a novella its stage is necessarily smaller, focussing on a father-son relationship under strain. Perhaps there’s something about Tasmania that’s in Fall on Me, a sense of smallness, inwardness even.


Central to your work is the variety of male relationships, fathers, sons, brothers, friends, colleagues, lovers, husbands or partners. These relationships are sharply and distinctly drawn and matter a great deal to your characters. Why do you explore these relations so deeply in your work?


I’ve always been nosy about what makes men tick. I’m the youngest of three brothers. I went to an all-boys private school on the north shore of Sydney, although it was sufficiently enlightened to have girls for the final two years. Growing up in the seventies and eighties, those post-women’s-movement decades, might have given me a sense that women were – at last – able to claim what was rightfully theirs. As a result, perhaps, some men have been asking themselves: where do we fit in, what are we meant to be, how are we to contribute? I’m not sure that they’ve found the answers. As a writer, I’m interested in the grey areas (it’s my middle name – literally), so I want to know how men relate to each other: unreconstructed men, reconstructed men, gay men who find themselves attracted to women, straight men who find themselves having an intense relationship with another man. Having said that, I’m interested in the feminine as much as the masculine. The feminine is alluring, because it feels powerful, whereas there’s a flatness to masculinity that can be difficult to penetrate.


Why do they matter to you?


Well, they say it’s important to write about what you know. More seriously, I think I’m writing about what I’d like to know better. I think gender and sexuality is endlessly intriguing; it’s rarely black and white, and it always makes rich pickings for fiction.


Do you believe male relationships have been neglected in literature or overshadowed by female ones?


The only way I can answer this question is by saying that as reader I look for life on the page, or, as James Wood in How Fiction Works calls it, “lifeness”. It doesn’t matter whether the story is about men and men or men and women or women and women. As a reader I want to be moved. As a writer I want to move readers. I’m not aiming to address any kind of imbalance.


Do male writers often view this as a difficult or even dangerous area?


I don’t know what male writers consider difficult or dangerous, but someone like Christos Tsiolkas has shown that stories that traverse the full spectrum of gender and sexuality can be popular.


In Fall on Me, the principle character Lou grapples with the idea that his son is open to male influences beyond his parental one, in this case the artist Marlow. Yet as a character Marlow has already left Launceston and the novel. Why remove him before the action starts?


Good old Lou – the more I think about him, the more people ask about him, the more I love him. He’s someone I’d enjoy being with in person: he’s open-minded and progressive, but also aware of his limits, even elements of his thinking that are conservative; he knows he’s a contradiction; he also fights to be himself, and will fight for everyone else to have that right. But to your question. Sometimes in smaller communities someone – including an artist – can have a profound impact. For the past two years I’ve lived in Goulburn, a regional town on the Southern Tablelands of New South Wales, so I’ve been able to observe how some individuals can have considerable influence. In Fall on Me, Marlow flies over from London to live in Launceston for a month; he plays his role of inspiring people and then leaves. Luke, an intelligent but impressionable teenager, is stirred to take risks, very real risks, which may put his somewhat precarious family-life in danger. In the writing of the novella I was keen to explore the father-son relationship more than the artist-boy relationship, so the novella starts with Lou being forced to find out what his son has done.


In Remnants, the role of absent but influential male is played by the dead father. Are you saying something about male power here?


I think I’m saying more about the power of the past than male power, or any kind of gender power. The novel’s main character, Mitchell Granville, a retired barrister, has gone through his life believing that he’s done the right thing by his father, who wanted his younger son out of the family and never to return. However, during the course of the story, Mitchell is forced to realise that he did the wrong thing. There’s a line in the novel that I’ve never forgotten: ‘obedience breeds loneliness’. (It may seem big-headed to quote dialogue that I’ve written, and perhaps it is, but in this case I feel as though the dialogue is the novel’s, and that novel no longer feels like mine.) To me, I was writing about how sometimes it can take us years, decades even, to find the right path by being disobedient. And sometimes it’s important to disobey men, and sometimes it’s important to disobey women.


By contrast your female characters in both novels are very nice people, some might say too nice to be true. How do you develop a female character in your writing?


This is probably a fair criticism of my work and perhaps one day I will do something about it. In my own life, my closest female friends are such strong women, witty and clever and independent and brave and tenacious and – sometimes – contrary. They are loving, and they can be sweet, but I’d hardly call them nice because they’d hate me for it. In terms of writing, regardless of the character’s gender, it all comes down to this: what sort of people need to be in the story so that it becomes breathtakingly alive? When a character is working they have a spirit, a moral fibre, and a sense of history. I’m not the kind of writer that has a checklist of characteristics: black hair, short of stature, a pink plastic ring on the left-hand forefinger, that kind of thing. As much as possible I try to go with instinct: who am I really seeing in my mind’s eye? Perhaps my mind’s eye is better at seeing men than women.

Look for Part 3 next Friday …

4 Comments leave one →
  1. December 22, 2012 7:24 am

    “I think I’m writing about what I’d like to know better.” <- Love this!

    • December 22, 2012 8:46 am

      Yes, I do too, Hannah … Love the sense it gives of exploring and discovering as you write, of letting the characters grow under your fingers rather than having them all plotted out in advance.

  2. January 6, 2013 3:03 am

    This continues quite interesting especially what he has to say regarding his interesting in the varieties of male relationships.

    • January 6, 2013 8:06 am

      Thanks Stefanie …I agree, because it’s not a perspective we hear a lot of in a ways it? Or not quite n that same way.

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