A respite this week from Monday Musings because I did want to bring you the Canberra launch of Nigel Featherstone’s My heart is a little wild thing, which happened on Saturday. Normally, I would have published the post on the weekend, but I was otherwise engaged, and so have decided to usurp Monday Musings to post it now. The launch, which took the form of an interview with Featherstone by Anna Vidot, was to take place at Harry Hartog Bookseller’s ANU campus location. However, interest was so high that it was moved to a small lecture theatre next door. Such is the support for local author and arts activist Nigel Featherstone.
Nigel Featherstone is no stranger to this blog, as checking out the link on his name will demonstrate. I have reviewed his 2019 novel (Bodies of men), the three novellas that preceded that, and a song-cycle. I have worked with him as litblogging mentor for the ACT Writers Centre’s New Territory program. And I have reported on myriad events that he has organised and/or been part of, most recently F*CK COVID: An Online Literary Affair organised during you know what.
Anna Vidot is a presenter on ABC Local radio – since 2019 – before which she had been ABC Rural’s national political reporter. I enjoyed her questioning. She had clearly engaged with the work.
Anna commenced by saying that this was one of those books she clasped to her chest on finishing … and then launched into the discussion.
On where the book came from
Nigel said that after completing his manuscript, he came across his writer’s journal from July 2007 which had the words “two people, farm, quoll”. This core had been with him since then but it hadn’t come together until he spent a week on the Monaro after the 2019/2020 fires. He had tried various ideas and locations, but this is when the novel clicked. (My post on the Monaro, which includes a mention of Nigel.)
As for the quoll, the Tiger Quoll has been extinct in the region for some time but conservation efforts are bringing it back. It is a quoll which leads his lonely protagonist Patrick to a meaningful relationship.
On how the Monaro bled into him
Nigel had gone to a remote little heritage-listed barn in Bobundra, in the Monaro/Ngarigo Country. While there, he realised, when he was more interested in a Stephen Fry book than in writing his novel, that it wasn’t working. So he walked, and walked, until his character Patrick came to him. He then wrote the main draft by hand in 14 days. It took 12 drafts, way less than the 40+ for his last novel!
On how much of Patrick is in him
It is a work of the imagination, Featherstone reiterated. He described it as being a “ghost writer” writing Patrick’s memoir, the story of a dutiful son who has denied his own self.
On “what if” or “sliding door” elements, particularly when you borrow from yourself
While the book is not about Nigel, things in his life did inspire it. When his mother died a few years ago, he immediately thought, he said, “who was she?” He wanted to write about a mother-son relationship. What would his life have looked like if he had “obeyed his mother”, who didn’t want him to be a writer or to love men, and who never came to one of his events? Patrick, to some degree, is that person. (At the end of the interview, Nigel told us that when he and his brother were clearing out their mother’s house, they found a scrapbook in which she’d kept all the articles he’d written, and all the articles/reviews/advertisements about him. It told him, “If you think I wasn’t paying attention, I was.” What a gift, he said!
On his understanding of being a good child
Nigel quoted novelist George Saunders who said that “our characters are better versions of ourselves”. Patrick was loyal and faithful to his mother. This is a three-way love story: man and his mother; a man with another man; and a man with a place. Nigel said that he also wanted the novel to be a loving portrait of a mother.
Continuing the discussion on family, Nigel noted that Patrick also watches his siblings’ relationships with their parents, which in turn affects his relationship with his siblings.
On how he found Lewis, the love interest
Nigel responded by mentioning an essay, “The opposite of glamour“, by Delia Falconer, which discusses climate change, the extinction crisis and the loss of nature – and the deep impact this is having on our beings. He came up with the idea of Patrick seeing a man, Lewis, planting trees. But, he said, you can’t write, “Oh you’re planting trees, let’s shag”, though a poet could! He talked about the Tiger Quoll, again, encouragement from novelist John Clanchy, and finding the link with his character Patrick. He talked about the “revegetation” motif, with its layer reflectin the revegetation in Patrick’s heart.
He also laughed about The Saturday Paper review which described some of sex scenes as “a bit smutty”, but the reviewer had gone on to say that they were “perfectly appropriate for a man finding his sexuality”.
On finding Patrick’s voice
Voice, said Nigel, is a mystery. In fact, everything about writing is a mystery. He wanted the voice to be concise, simple, and had tried third person but it wasn’t working. He talked of being inspired by Tsiolkas’ fearlessness (and mentioned his essay in Reading like an Australian writer, on which I posted recently.) He also quoted Irvine Welsh’s advice that “it’s your page you can do whatever the f*** you want to”. And, he mentioned a residency he, Robyn Cadwallader and Julie Keys had had with Charlotte Wood. Discussing his opening sentence –
The day after I tried to kill my mother, I tossed some clothes, a pair of hiking boots, a baseball cap and a few toiletries into my backpack, and left at dawn.
– with Wood, she asked him, “has it got heat in it?” because “heat” should be an indicator.
On tackling being fearless
He said there was an element of being “shit-scared”, and that there was a balance between “caring and letting go”. He quoted Tim Minchin’s statement that any piece of art is about “How much time you had” combined with “how much energy you gave to it”.
He shared here that he’d given an early version to his agent, who called it “rubbish”. “Her business model,” he said, “is to follow people around with an axe.” Clearly though, she knows what she’s doing – and, she knows what Nigel can take!
On the role of music in the work (and Nigel’s life)
Music is one of the three loves of his life he said – which, anyone who knows Nigel’s work or reads his blog, would know. So, he realised Lewis would be a composer, and that it would create opportunities for him. Then he told us that he had just heard from London-based composer, Ben P Moore, who had written a suite of music inspired by the novel. Nigel was chuffed. Moore, he said, had never been to the Monaro, but had captured it beautifully.
On the book’s exploration of happiness
Anna suggested that the book grapples with “what do we decide is enough in our lives” and/or “what is enough for happiness”. Nigel agreed that his novel was partly driven by considering “happiness”. He had once heard Patrick White say that “happiness is a red herring. It’s not the point”, but Nigel disagreed. He said he’s always been interested in happiness, though it’s a fleeting thing.
This led to a little more on Lewis’ role. Nigel described Lewis as part-animal and the tiger quoll as part-human. Lewis gives Patrick permission to be himself.
Q & A
There was an engaged Q&A. Here are some highlights:
Do you find the words or do the words find you?: Both, said Nigel. He does love a dictionary, and a thesaurus. Writers are not just vessels, but do a lot of work to produce what they do.
It is the the absence or presence of joy/contentment that stimulates good writing?: (I might have lost the connecting thread here!) Nigel feels that readers are satisfied when characters get what they need more than what they want, but what do they yearn for? Nigel shared that he yearns to be an artist. A someone in the audience called out, he is. Patrick needs to get a life, said Nigel, he needs to live deeply, wildly (which reminded me a little of Nigel’s novella, The beach volcano.)
Did the two violent events in the book happen as a surprise or were they planned?: Nigel answered that the writing was very much a stream of consciousness process. He mentioned poet Melinda Smith’s idea of duende, of having two muses, an angel and a devil/goblin one. The “goblin muse” encourages you to say things people say you shouldn’t say, of going to “the dangerous place”. So, with his opening line, he realised the response was to “let’s follow that”. I saw a theme here – Smith’s dangerous place, Tsiolkas’ fearlessness, and Wood’s heat.
Do you depend on honest criticism to produce a work like this?: Nigel had already shared his agent’s response to an earlier draft, but he shared here David Malouf’s advice that there are no wrong steps, that if you go down one path, you needed to go there, and then it’s “now we are going here”. Tim Minchin, he said, talks of “spine tingles” (for Nigel it’s the “tummy buzz”) that tell you you are on to something.
How do outside stresses affect the ability to create art?: Paul Verlaine spoke about love, said Nigel, but for him it’s also about the hope to live in an environment that isn’t dying. The novel is about people, the environment and animals wanting to live again.
It was an intense and fully engaged launch – and I hope I got the gist. I can’t wait to read the novel now.
Book Launch of My heart is a little wild thing by Nigel Featherstone
Cultural Centre Kambri (organised by Harry Hartog Bookseller ANU)
Saturday 28 May 2022, 12noon-1pm