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Fridays with Featherstone, Part 3: Using the Arts and Landscape in fiction

December 28, 2012

Today, I bring you the third part of Nigel Featherstone’s Wet Ink interview with Susan Errington. One of the things that stands out in the two novellas I’ve read by Featherstone is the way he uses the arts. Even though the title of the first novella, Fall on me, is a direct reference to the REM song of the same name, Featherstone’s use of and allusion to the arts is not heavy-handed in his writing. It’s there however, suggesting that a life that incorporates the arts is important to him. And don’t we all (readers here, at least) agree! In this part of the interview, Susan talks with Nigel about the way he uses the arts in his writing, and they talk a little at the end of landscape as well. I was intrigued when I first read the interview to discover that Featherstone grew up in the part of Sydney that I spent my teen years in. Small world. Anyhow, here goes part 3 …


In Fall on Me, the main character, Lou, must deal with his son’s decision to open his art exhibition, which consists of naked photos of his seventeen-year-old body. What attracted you to this idea?


Three years ago I attended a final-year student exhibition at the Canberra School of Art. One of the pieces was a large photo – a self-portrait – of a young man dressed as a woman reclining on a bed in a dilapidated house. I became aware that two friends of mine – a husband-and-wife couple – were standing next to me. I said, ‘Isn’t this a striking image?’ And they replied, ‘We’re glad you think so because our nephew is the artist.’ That set off my imagination: were the aunt and uncle at the exhibition because the young man’s parents had refused to attend? Back home later that night I jotted all this down in my journal. When I was in Launceston I rediscovered the idea and still felt curious about it. In the planning of the story, the young man became a high-school student, because that would be more dangerous. Enter Luke Bard, who’s someone else I’d like, because he too refuses to be anyone but himself.


Nakedness has often proved to be dangerous terrain for visual artists over the centuries and still is. What are you saying about this in your novella?


Some people have commented that in Fall on Me I’m drawing on the whole Bill Henson saga. I don’t recall Bill Henson cropping up in my thinking at any point during the writing and editing of the novella. To make the story have impact, Luke Bard simply had to do the most radical and, yes, dangerous thing he could: which was display photos of his naked body in public. But why is this dangerous? Why are we so hung about images of naked bodies, no matter what the age? I think it taps into something deep within us that makes us feel terribly uncomfortable. As I worked on Fall on Me, and reworked it, I realised that Luke’s nakedness was less a physical act and more a symbolic act: it was all about being revealing, not so much himself, but his father. While we’re on the topic, I was surprised how some readers initially found Luke’s actions – and his father’s actions – quite difficult to accept, but, thankfully, it all seemed to make sense at the novella’s conclusion. That’s my mission as a writer: to gently lead people into the darkness and show that there’s not a lot to be scared about.


A number of writers have spoken of the importance of visual art to their writing; I’m thinking of Steven Carroll and John Banville, for example, where visual art has an important part to play in their stories just as photography does in your novella. Robert Hughes is an art critic but also a poet, essayist and biographer. Patrick White actually wanted to be a painter. Why is your character Luke a photographer and not, say, a performance poet?


The short answer is that I think I can imagine how a photographer’s brain might work; who can imagine a performance-poet’s brain? Also, for Fall on Me to come together, I needed to put in the reader’s mind the images that Luke had made of himself, and I did this by describing them to the best of my ability. A better writer than me might have been able to achieve this through having Luke use performed words rather than pictures.


Are the visual arts integral to your writing or is it simply that words have lost the power to shock?


Oh words can shock. They’ve always been able to shock, and they’ll continue to be able to shock. You only have to look at a cleverly crafted newspaper headline or a sound-bite prepared for a politician to see how words can deal blows. However, I’m also a fan of visual art, particularly photographs – there’s nothing like a haunting black and white image. And there’s a parallel between photography and writing: both start with the blank page and through artistry people and/or places come to life and a story is told. I’m going to use that word again: both are magic.


Remnants is much more about the revealing power of words, in personal letters and secret novels for example. What are you trying to say there?


When I wrote Remnants, which was between 2000 and 2005, letter-writing was still a part of my life, albeit a rapidly fading part, so it felt natural to bring letters into the story. Also, I was writing about people in their seventies and eighties – they’d be well and truly in their nineties now – and most people of that generation would have collected boxes or suitcases of handwritten correspondence. More broadly, as each day goes by, I’m astounded by how story-telling is an integral part of life. A status update on Facebook or a few flicked off words on Twitter or a brief piece of correspondence sent by the increasingly old-fashioned email is about character and event, if not story, as rudimentary as it may be. And it’s all to do with words and how they’re used.


Fall on Me is the title of an REM song and this band’s music is important to the character, Lou. I think writers who refer to contemporary music are quite brave because they risk dating their work or limiting their audience. Tell us about your decision to use this music and whether it is also important to you.


During the writing of the first draft, REM’s pop-song gem ‘Fall on Me’ just – well – fell into the story. I’ve always liked the song, but I wouldn’t say it’s one of my all-time favourites, or one I’ve played regularly; it just seemed to fit Lou and his life. But as the writing of the story progressed, the song became more and more important, until by the end it had become a physical presence in the story, before it eventually took over the whole thing and demanded to be the title. Shockingly, it wasn’t until after the novella was published that I understood it had a deeper meaning: Lou lost his wife through tragic circumstances and he is, in effect, saying to her, fall on me and I’ll save you. Now that I have even more distance from the making of the story, I realise that it’s an example of character being very real to the author, even if the author doesn’t know it at the time.


What is the role of music in your writing generally?


Music is the foundation of my life – it means the world to me. But I don’t write to music; I get too distracted. However, if I’m trying to get in a certain mood to write, or trying to bring to a story a certain aesthetic, I might listen to a particular song or piece of music, but it’s always turned off as soon as the pen goes down on the page. Just to prove that every project is different, I wrote some of the drafts of Remnants to Arvo Part’s Alina. It is such simple and repetitive music that I was able to play it and still hear the words in my head. I think I needed it to access the sense of longing that was required for the novel.


In Remnants the different landscapes are a powerful presence and richly described. It seems as if the changes in landscape are reflecting the mood and action of the novel. Was this your intention?


My childhood was spent exploring the wild edges of the Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park, the sea-and-sand-scapes of the northern beaches, and the almost prehistoric Blue Mountains. Even today, as I drive around the Southern Tablelands, I’m struck by the character of the landscape, its moods, its reticence, but always the amplification of self. As a writer, I’m interested in place as character as much as I am in human beings as character. Remnants was set in a small village in the Blue Mountains that I know very well; in a way I spent the first eighteen years of my life there. The vast majority of the story is concerned with the train trip from Perth back to the Mountains, so the narrative becomes a cross-section through the heart of the nation.

Look for Part 4 next Friday …

If you missed Part 1, click here, and for Part 2, here.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. January 6, 2013 3:09 am

    Always so fascinating when authors talk about other kinds of art forms that influence them and how they make their way into books.

    • January 6, 2013 8:08 am

      Yes, I agree Stefanie … I think this is a great itnterview for the topics it covered.

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