Monday musings on Australian literature: Listen to Indigenous Australian authors

BannerSome years, I’ve written an indigenous Australian focused Monday Musings post to start and conclude NAIDOC Week and Lisa’s ANZLitLovers Indigenous Literature Week. I have been researching a topic for this year’s second post, but it’s taking longer than I expected, so have decided to hold it over to next year. Meanwhile, having committed to a second post, I decided to change tack and instead share some podcasts comprising interviews with Indigenous Australian authors …

So, I’ve put together a sample list of interviews conducted this year with Indigenous Australian writers. They are from ABC RN programs (AWAYE!, The Book Show, and Conversations) and The Wheeler Centre. You can search those sites for earlier interviews with these, and other writers.

I am listing them alphabetically by author to make it easy for you to see if your favourite is here! And I am providing website links, but most if not all of these will be available through podcast services on tablets and smart phones.

Tony Birch

Fighting for family in Tony Birch’s The White Girl, The Book Show, (ABC RN), 24 June 2019, 17mins

Book coverBirch speaks to Claire Nichols “about trauma, bravery and writing stories of the past” regarding his latest book The white girl (my review) He discusses, among other things, the “contradictory and unpredictable” way in which the Act (which limited the freedom of indigenous people to travel, and made children wards of the state) was enforced in towns, and how this increased the level of insecurity and anxiety felt by indigenous people, somehting experienced by his character Odette Brown. The reason for this unpredictability could be incompetence in the local police, or the presence of a genuinely benign policeman, or because there was no law in the place or town.

Stan Grant

Book coverConversations: Stan GrantConversations (ABC RN), 24 April 2019, 52mins

Coinciding with the publication of his latest book Australia Day (about which I reported in another conversation with him), Grant talks with Richard Fidler about his book, and specifically his thoughts about the push to “change the date” of Australia Day. He believes, as the show’s promo says, “that … for now, 26 January is all that we are and all that we are not” and thinks that there are deeper questions to discuss about who we are than simply changing the date. I like his comment on protest – his dislike of “certainty” and of “slogans” – because I feel similarly uncomfortable, much as I agree with the heart of most protests. “I like to live in the space between ideas”, he says.

Melissa Lucashenko

Melissa Lucashenko in conversation at Sydney Writers Festival, AWAYE! (ABC RN), 11 May 2019, 33mins

Melissa Lucashenko, Too Much LipConversation with AWAYE!’s Daniel Bowning, including Lucashenko reading from Too much lip (my review). The show’s promo says “we talk about our grannies, the meaning of place, the role of humour in serious literary work, the fetishisation of Black suffering and why she would never kill off one of her characters.” Lucashenko talks about how the book is about oppressed people (of whatever ilk) standing up. (As she says on another podcast, “if you don’t fight you lose”.) Because she included some negative depiction of indigenous lives (particularly black-on-black violence), she expected backlash from the black community, but it hasn’t come. She feared being honest about this issue at this time in Australia’s history – was it the right time, she wondered – but then realised that “silence is violence”. She says the job of the writer being “to see what’s going on and write about it”.  Oh, and she wanted to write a funny book – which she certainly did.

Other interviews with Lucashenko on this book are available on ABC RN’s The Book Show, including one after its Miles Franklin shortlisting (12 July 2019, 10mins).

Bruce Pascoe

Book coverA truer history of Australia, AWAYE!, 25 May 2019, 12mins

Pascoe talks about Young dark emu, his junior version of his bestselling Dark emu (my review). It includes a reading by Pascoe from the book. He talks about the importance of teaching the true history of Australia to young people in schools, arguing that “ignorance makes you scared, knowledge makes you wonder”.

Alison Whittaker

Book coverAlison Whittaker in conversation at Sydney Writers Festival, AWAYE!, 18 May 2019, 32mins

Whittaker talks about (and reads from) her latest work, Blakwork, reviewed for Lisa’s ILW week by Bill and Brona. She talks about the “transformative power of poetry” and says her aim is “to provoke and upset white readers because they are the main readers” of poetry. This issue, that we middle class, white, educated people are the main readers of indigenous writing, is something I often think about. It’s a complex interaction, methinks. Whittaker talks about the paradox of using the English language, the language of the imperialists, to convey feelings and ideas from a very different culture.

An aside. I appreciated her discussion of the word “important” as in, “an important book”. I agree with her dislike of it, and avoid it in my reviews, albeit the temptation can be great. She says that “important is not an interesting thing to say”. The challenge for me, often, is to find the “interesting thing to say” that is also succinct!

Tara June Winch

Book coverDocumenting ‘the old language’ in Tara June Winch’s The Yield, The Book Show (ABC RN), 15 July

Winch talks to Claire Nichols about her new book, The yield (reviewed by Lisa/ANZlitLovers), and also reads from the book. In the book, the character Albert Gondiwindi is writing a dictionary of Wiradjuri language. He says that “every person around should learn the word for country in the old language, the first language – because that is the way to all time, to time travel!” Given the current interest in reviving indigenous languages, and the criticality of using our own language to express our own culture, this book sounds really timely.

Alexis Wright

Alexis Wright, TrackerAlexis Wright in conversation with Elizabeth McCarthy, Books and Arts at Montalto, The Wheeler Centre, 14 January 2019 (though recorded in 2018), 1hr 3mins

Wright talks to Elizabeth McCarthy about her collective biography Tracker, which won the 2018 Stella Prize and the Non-Fiction Book Award in the Queensland Literary Awards. The interview focuses mostly on Tracker Tilmouth himself, rather than on the form of the book, and the approach Wright took to writing it.

Do you listen to literary podcasts? If so, I’d love to hear your favourites.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Interviews with Aussie writers

Those of you who read my December Six Degrees meme will know that the starting book was Stephen King’s It. Not surprisingly, a couple of bloggers – Kate (booksaremyfavouriteandbest) and Lisa (anzlitlovers) – made their first link Stephen King’s On writing. Lisa then went on to link to an Australian book on writing, Kate Grenville’s The writing book.

Now, I’ve written about Aussie writers on writing before, so I thought that in this post I’d share some books containing interviews with Aussie writers, which I’ll list in order of publication.

Jennifer Ellison’s Rooms of their own (1986)

Ellison’s book, of course, takes its title from Virginia Woolf’s wonderful, pleading book on behalf of women creators. It comprises interviews Ellison conducted with significant writers at the time: Blanche d’Alpuget, Jessica Anderson, Thea Astley, Jean Bedford, Sara Dowse, Beverley Farmer, Helen Garner, Kate Grenville, Elizabeth Jolley, Gabrielle Lord, Olga Masters, and Georgia Savage.

Naturally, the gender issue is explored, but other issues relating to writing, publishing and the role of writers in society are also discussed. I often refer to it.

Candida Baker’s Yacker: Australian writers talk about their work, Vols 1, 2 and 3 (1986, 1989 and 1990)

Candida Baker, Yacker 3The three volumes of Yacker were the result of author-editor-festival director Candida Baker’s multi-year interview project which was inspired by the Paris Review’s “on writing” interviews. By the end of the project she had interviewed 36 Australian writers, representing a wonderful resource – both on writers no longer with us, and on the early or mid-careers of writers still here. Her interviewees were:

  • Yacker: Christina Stead, Peter Carey, Nicholas Hasluck, David Foster, Helen Garner, Blanche D’Alpuget, Dorothy Hewett, Elizabeth Jolley, David Malouf, Thomas Shapcott, Thea Astley and David Williamson.
  • Yacker 2: Jessica Anderson, Marjorie Barnard, Sumner Locke Elliot, Barbara Hanrahan, Jack Hibberd, Thomas Keneally, Ray Lawler, Roger McDonald, Gerald Murnane, Les A. Murray, Janette Turner Hospital and Kath Walker (Oodgeroo Noonuccal).
  • Yacker 3: Randolph Stow, A.D. Hope, Glenda Adams, Kate Grenville, Peter Porter, Robert Drewe, Peter Corris, Louis Nowra, John Tranter, Frank Moorehouse, C.J. Koch and Gwen Harwood.

Kate Grenville and Sue Woolfe’s Making stories: How ten Australian novels were written (1993)

This book takes a slightly different tack to the other books in today’s post in that it comprises authors discussing a particular book, demonstrating their creative process. The authors and books included are: Jessica Anderson’s The commandant (my review), Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda, Helen Garner’s The children’s Bach (my review), Kate Grenville’s Lilian’s story, David Ireland’s A woman of the future, Elizabeth Jolley’s Mr Scobie’s riddle, Thomas Keneally’s The chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, Finola Moorhead’s Remember the tarantella, Patrick White’s Memoirs of many in one, and Sue Woolf’s Painted woman.

Annette Marfording’s Celebrating Australian Writing: Conversations with Australian Authors (2015)

Regular readers here might remember this book, as I’ve published several posts inspired by the interviews contained within. Marfording was, for several years program director for the Bellingen Writers Festival. She was also a radio presenter for the Bellingen community radio station, 2 bbb fm, on which these interviews were aired from around 2009 to 2014.  Her aim was, she said,

not to produce interviews “like those commonly done, focusing primarily on an author’s latest book. I wanted to inform listeners of their body of work, strengths – as I saw them – writing methods and work associated with their lives as authors, such as judging literary awards, editing short story collections, reviewing other writers’ works.”

Her interviewees are: Robert Dessaix, Cate Kennedy, David Malouf, Gregory Day, Charlotte Wood, Georgia Blain, Kate Howarth, Kristina Olsson, Larissa Behrendt, Debra Adelaide, Alex Miller, Kevin Rabalais, Di Morrissey, Peter Goldsworthy, Robert Drewe, Jon Bauer, Bryce Courtenay, Chris Womersley, Marele Day, Michael Robotham, and Barry Maitland.

In a really lovely, generous gesture, Marfording has directed that all profits from the sale of the book go to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation. A worthy cause and one that I support too.

Charlotte Wood’s The writer’s room: Conversations about writing (2016)

Wood’s book draws on interviews she did for her digital or on-line journal, also called The writer’s room, which ran from 2013 to December 2015. She, like Baker, was inspired by the Paris Review, and wanted to use their model which allowed writers to review and change the edited transcript of their interview. Her reason was that “having been interviewed about my own work so many times and then been embarrassed by my awkward words in print, I wanted ‘my’ writers to know that they would have complete and final control over anything that appeared in the magazine.” In the end, she says, they changed very little, mainly making “small but important clarifications” or expanding something “they’d been oblique about” or making statements or opinions more “definite”.

Because her project started in 2013, her interviewees include very recent writers on the Australian scene. The book contains a selection of the interviews she did: Tegan Bennett Daylight, James Bradley, Lloyd Jones (New Zealand writer), Malcolm Knox, Margo Lanagan, Amanda Lohrey, Joan London, Wayne Macauley, Emily Perkins, Kim Scott, Craig Sherbourne and Christos Tsiolkas.


So, seven books containing interviews with writers, books that I believe provide a valuable contribution to Australia’s literary culture. And yet Marfording, in the Introduction to her self-published book, writes that publishers told her that “books of interviews don’t sell”. Who says, I want to know. I have bought three of the seven books I’ve listed here and wish that I’d bought them all!

What about you? Are you interested in reading interviews with authors? 

Author interview with “word hustler” Catherine McNamara

Catherine McNamara

Catherine McNamara

I haven’t made a practice of doing author interviews on my blog. In fact, the only other interview I’ve presented was one the now defunct magazine Wet Ink did with Nigel Featherstone. However, when Catherine McNamara asked whether I’d be happy to host her as part of her blog tour, I was more than happy to oblige. Authors published by independent publishers work hard to get their name and books out into the public domain – and Catherine is no exception.

As I wrote in my review of her first book of literary fiction, Pelt and other stories, Catherine is an Australian expat currently living in Italy. She’s led a rather peripatetic life since she went to Paris as a student a couple of decades ago, including working in an embassy in Somalia, and co-running a bar and traditional art gallery in Ghana. Clearly she’s seen much and thought a lot about people and how they relate to each other – and loves to hustle* words in the service of her stories. Catherine has been a regular commenter on this blog for a couple of years now. I’m sure that’s partly about getting her name out there, but it’s also obvious that she loves talking about books and reading. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed getting to “know” her. Promotion may be part of her game – and who could blame her – but she comes across as genuine, thoughtful and a lot of fun.

Anyhow, enough from me. You can decide for yourself when you hear what she has to say …

You clearly love writing short stories. What attracted you to this literary form? Can you tell us your favourite short story writers?

I do love writing stories and fortunately they seem to be appreciated a little more these days, with more and more collections receiving positive coverage, lots of competitions and a rise in small publishers less averse to this “risky” form. I think it’s a wonderful moment to be a short story devotee.

When I was young I fell in love with Katherine Mansfield’s stories – as many do. I also loved Joseph Conrad’s long stories set in the south seas. I published quite a few pieces with Australian Short Stories initially, received encouragement, and found it quite easy. My first published piece was called ‘Elton John’s Mother’ and  was about welfare mums living in a caravan park on the Central Coast who gave their kids pop stars’ names and lived rather desperate lives.

My favourite short story writers include Cate Kennedy, Grace Paley, James Salter, Flannery O’Connor, Simon Van Booy, Nam Le, Kevin Barry, Emma Donoghue, Alison MacLeod, Sarah Hall, Junot Diaz, Amy Hempel, Robin Black, T.C. Boyle, Kevin Barry. I even read a wistful D.H. Lawrence short story recently, and O. Henry for the very first time. One can never read enough!

In your collection, Pelt and other stories, you have written in 1st and 3rd person, and in diverse voices including a gay male. How do you choose the voice to use? Are there any stories in which you changed the voice because it wasn’t working?

Catherine McNamara, PeltI think that when a story or a story springboard presents itself you immediately feel whether it is a 1st or 3rd person piece. You already know if you want the incisive and selective view of an onsite narrator, or a little more distance from the story crux through a third person character, where more description is allowed. For me it’s as clear as the very gist/illumination/transformation you’re heading for, or hope you are.

I’m very attached to first lines and for me they set a tone I rarely veer away from. But if the story feels fumbling, or as though it doesn’t really need to be written, I’ll bin it and wait for something else. I don’t think I’ve ever tried shifting voice. I think if my doubts were that substantial then something in the mix of the story wasn’t going to work anyway.  Perhaps if you were working on a novel where there were larger themes and plot devices to move around, changing person might enhance the work.

You’ve clearly thought about the order of the stories in Pelt and other stories. What factors did you consider when ordering the stories?

I did have great difficulty putting the stories in order. Initially I tried to vary first or third person pieces, then I didn’t want too many African stories in a line, and I wanted an even progression between male and female protagonists, and short and longer pieces. Then there was also the chronology or backwards chronology of the some of the interlinked pieces! Eventually, I worked through all of this and focused on beginnings and endings that seemed to match up. I had first and last sentences and a key chart on bits of paper on the floor, and tried to make them move along. The frightening thing is that I might even change the order again if I went back to revisions.

You have spent most of your adult life as an expat, which is reflected in the diverse settings for your stories. How has expat life has affected your writing?

When I was first living in Somalia I wrote several stories with traditional expat characters reckoning with their place in an exotic, exploited world. I think I saw things as any Westerner would – even though I had studied modern African independence movements at university and thought I knew something – I didn’t know a thing. “Expat life”, so removed from thrumming everyday life and, at its base, an us-and-them construction, was quite shocking. It nearly drove me crazy! Somehow I stepped through a barrier and found a way to live a more valid life. As I went deeper into my own experiences in West Africa I was largely living, earning a living, surviving. Not writing much at all. After nine years in Ghana I wasn’t so much an expat as someone who remained visible, but just lived there. That way when I came to write some of these stories I had a great variety of voices inside.

Pelt and other stories is subtitled “tales of lust and dirt” – and many of the stories deal with the darker side of sexuality, such as incest, sexual violence, sexual jealousy and infidelity. Yet humour is also clearly important to you. How do you reconcile the dark and the light in your writing?

I’m trying to think of incidences of humour in the stories! “Pelt”, the first story: I remember thinking it quite humorous and was floored when an early reader called it a complete tragedy. For me the African mistress was powerful and sassy and knew her game; she made the Westerners look as though their agonies were clumsy and inarticulate, whereas she “would have pulled his hair out by now” and ends up in the kitchen with a pan of hot oil. I think she was great. I wanted to show the contrast between African pragmatism and Western dithering and diplomacy, often so spineless like Rolfe, who can’t even bring some photos back to show his bird the snow in Germany. But I don’t think I consciously set out to meld dark and light, that’s just voice.

Photographers appear in several of your stories, often as a secondary or supporting character, such as Reece in “Stromboli” and Seth in “Nathalie”. They tend to be passive or even negative forces. How does this fit into your world view, at least as you present it in your stories?

When I was much younger I was torn between image and word and took a while to favour writing. I began a graphic arts course and loved photography and film-making – in fact in Ghana it cropped up again when I co-ran a graphic design agency and art gallery. One of the factors that probably made me sway towards the written word was that photography seemed so arbitrary, almost accidental, however I do realise it involves skill, vision and patience!

In the African context I saw that image is often manipulated to show what the West wants to see of the continent – power remains with the photographer. This can seem like the colonial process all over again.  In “Gorgeous Eyes” I wanted to express my irritation at the way the contemporary African condition is often trivialised, glamorised or showed partially to suit the Western palate. There are some brilliant African photographers out there whose work is more real.

You maintain two blogs, one for each of your recently published books. How important is it for you to engage in social media activities such as blogging and what do you see as the pros and cons for authors of engaging in social media?

As you know the blogs are hard work and time-consuming, and yet I feel they can be very rewarding. As a writer, a weekly blog post (that’s all I can manage) can keep you on your toes and remind you that apart from your creative task, you have an audience at hand whose interest you must sustain, perhaps with a topic that has a soft connection to your book. The rub is having to voyage the internet to attract possible new followers, while being sincere and perceptive in your blog comments. I like to engage with my blog readers, and have met quite a few over the past few years (anyone for a drink in Venice?). We have exchanged guest posts, interviews and reviews – something that kills the isolation of the job and makes you feel knitted into a community (even if it’s to share the various difficult aspects of the task). That can renew energy and ideas, and provide useful contacts (festival and reading invites) in a much faster way than letter-writing or serendipity!

The pitfalls are becoming hooked on your platform and social presence at the expense of your development as a writer. I think it’s unwise to dilute your creative energies, and essential to remember that social media time must serve a purpose – contacts, exchange or potential sales, or just light relief. As it can become very draining, it’s important to keep it in its box.

I’m finding it challenging to maintain two blogs but at the moment my two books have quite different audiences – although many readers have bought both books. Eventually I guess I’ll have to merge everything together. The DLC blog veers towards life in modern Italy and speaks of my writing pursuits, racism, politics and also handbags. The Pelt blog stays strictly with short story info, interviews, festivals and musing.

Both your books are also available in electronic format. Are your readers embracing e-books? What impact, if any, do you think electronic publishing will have on the nature of fiction writing in the future?

I’m still very old-school and like to stumble upon a physical book – mostly through recommendation or random browsing or reviews. I don’t think I’m putting enough time into pushing e-book sales, though I noticed when my publisher placed the book on sale just before Christmas that quite a few blog readers made immediate purchases. Also my Facebook friends who are nearly all work-related gave great support.

I’ve had quite a few stories on a smartphone application called Ether, which is at the forefront of the short story download movement in the UK – they have done a lot of groundwork to stir interest in the short story. E-readers have also opened doors for flash fiction writers over the past few years and there has been a surge of competitions. Trends like these do change what is being written – flash fiction seems to make more noise than poetry currently. Also, with many literary magazines failing to survive I think greater respectability has been given to e-zines, some of which are dynamic hives of writing activity and sharing – interesting both for the reader and writer. And downloads mean that the often-neglected novella form has received fresh attention.

Self-published e-books have of course changed the shape of publishing and I worry that this is a sales-driven sphere – there are endless websites devoted to how to improve your Amazon rankings and broaden your fan base. I imagine this is less applicable to literary fiction which has a smaller readership anyway. What seems positive is that there are more books of every type out there, and it seems as though more people are reading – I don’t know if this is true. I’m just glad that short stories are mentioned more often, and with passion.

As this is a blog written primarily for readers, would you tell us some of your top reads over the last year?

Though I love to write I am very much a reader. However I do have to be careful when reading while I am working on a story or novel – I think that subconsciously the tone or cadences of another writer’s language can easily seep in. This year I read several books I’d read about on this blog – Gilgamesh, Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living, Five Bells and Tall Man, also Tête à Tête – all books I savoured. I am particularly pleased that I picked up an early novel This Side Jordan by Canadian Margaret Laurence set in pre-Independence Ghana, a favourite era of mine. I also discovered Simon Van Booy’s short stories and philosophy books, and even met Simon by chance at my reading in December. (This was one of the most thrilling moments of my year.) I read Iris Murdoch for the first time – The Sea, The Sea – which as soon as I finished I wanted to begin again. I also read James Salter’s Dusk and Other Stories for the first time – I read each story three times over and wished they would not end. I read some contemporary short story writers – Tom Vowler and Alison Lock – and I’m now reading The Devil that Dances on the Water by Aminatta Forna. That’s all I can see on my book shelf from here!

Thanks very much for having me WG!

… and thank you, Catherine, for sharing your thoughts with us. I, and I’m sure Catherine, would love to hear any comments you have on what she has shared with us.

If you would like to read Pelt and other stories, you can order it from the publisher, Indigo Dreams Bookshop or The Book Depository. It is available in e-version from Amazon (Australia, UK or USA). You might also like to chase up her first novel, The divorced lady’s companion to living in Italy, which I reviewed back in 2012.

* Catherine called herself a “word hustler” in a comment on this blog some months ago. A wonderful description, I thought, of someone who is passionate about words and writing.

Fridays with Featherstone, Part 5: The wrap

Today’s post concludes my Fridays with Featherstone series. It comprises my follow-up interview with Nigel wherein I … well, you’ll see soon enough …

INTERVIEWER (C’est moi!)

I enjoyed reading your interview with Susan Errington of Wet Ink, Nigel, but of course that was prepared before the publication of your latest book, the novella I’m ready now. What intrigued me about this and your previous novella, Fall on me, is that the main characters in both are somehow stalled by their pasts. What is it about the past that draws you to write about it?


Milan Kundera wrote that the novel mustn’t be the writer’s confession, and I agree with his statement, but it does seem as though most writers find themselves exploring the same or similar ground over a series of works, perhaps it’s all they’ll ever write about; whether this is a confession or not I’m uncertain, but perhaps these patterns point to something important in the writer’s psyche.

Nigel Featherstone, I'm ready now

Cover (Courtesy: Blemish Books)

In his illuminating On writing: a memoir of the craft (2000), Stephen King talks about how he has really only one theme – that it’s difficult to put everything back in Pandora’s box once it’s opened.  Tim Winton, of course, has his lifelong infatuation with the south-west coast of Western Australia and the men who people the place, especially the men who are trying to work out their masculinity and what role they can play in the family environment.

In terms of my own writing, you’re spot-on that both I’m ready now and Fall on me are about people – men and women – who are trying to work through something from their pasts.  What are these things we all have that might hold us back or anchor us down?  What stops us from becoming the people we want to be?  What if we pretend that there’s something in our past that seems fine but really isn’t?

In Fall on me, Lou Bard has had to survive the murder of his wife, and he’s done this with considerable focus and tenacity, but it’s meant that he’s never found anyone to share his life with in a romantic way – though by story’s end things are looking much more hopeful.  In I’m ready now, mother Lynne finds herself remembering a great but fraught love from her late-teen years, while son Gordon believes that a year of running amok will ameliorate the impact of what happened to him at the very beginning of his life.

Novellas/novels are always about time, and the past is an endlessly fascinating element of time. The past is also about the present and the future, so it’s the foundation of all of us.  Done well, the exploration of a character’s past can be analogous to a country’s past.  If a character’s past is difficult then their country’s past may well be difficult too.  Australia’s past is difficult.  Perhaps all its fictional characters must be difficult?


In the third part of your Wet Ink interview, you say, ‘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’. As a reader, I’m intrigued by writers’ intentions and would love you to tell us what’s behind this mission of yours.


Featherstone, Fall on me

Fall on me bookcover (Courtesy: Blemish Books)

This is something that I’ve only recently started to think about, primarily with the publication of my novellas.  I try to write in a very accessible way – I want to be read and I also want to be read by a diversity of people.  That’s not to say that I’m disinterested in the musicality of prose, or that I’m not fond of the odd literary firework or two.  It’s just that I don’t aim to be difficult.  However, I do write about things that some readers may feel is difficult, and indeed correspondence I’ve received seems to indicate this.  As mentioned, Fall on me is about a man struggling to come to terms with the senseless end of his wife’s life almost two decades ago, and how their son, who’s now a teenager, persists in doing bravely creative – if not ridiculously dangerous – things with his body and life.

I’m ready now is dark in other ways: just after her husband’s death of a heart-attack, Lynne Gleeson finds herself thinking about a love affair from her childhood, a love affair that gave her a son; meanwhile that son, now an adult, is papering over the fractured start to his life by conning himself that he’s happy and simply being playful.  Whilst I’m not a horror writer, nor do I read horror, in some ways these are horrible – as in ghastly, shocking, almost unspeakable – predicaments for these characters to be in, but my intention is to write about it all in a way that allows everyone inside.

In his profoundly moving collection of essays A way of being free (1997), Ben Okri says, ‘A true storyteller suffers the chaos and the madness, the nightmare – resolves it all, sees clearly, and guides you through the fragmentation and the shifting world.’

Whether or not I’m a true storyteller, I have no idea, but I do adore Okri’s words.


Your novella Fall on me is told in third person, while I’m ready now is told in alternating first person voices. How do you decide what person/voice to tell a story in, and can it change during the writing process?


These are the choices a writer makes, and sometimes the choices are made at the very beginning of the writing process and they stick, other times there’s a change of mind (or heart) halfway through the writing, even during final editing, and things are altered.  However, with both these novellas I was clear from the first few marks of the pen what I wanted to do.  I’m ready now would be told in the first-person voice – I wanted the sense of intimacy that this brings – and also that the story would be told through both the mother’s and the son’s point of view, so we see their similarities and differences.  Even though Fall on me was published first, it was actually written after I’m ready now, and I made the decision that having just finished writing a first-person narrative I wanted to write a third-person narrative; thankfully this particular story works much better for the distance and perspective that the third-person mode brings; as the writer I was able to be less emotionally entangled.

It’s true that there can be changes through the writing/editing process.  My novel Remnants was drafted first-person but much later was changed to third-person.  I’ve heard that other novelists have done similar last-minute surgeries.  However, I do think that the point-of-view schema of a work is so important – so incredibly integral – that if there needs to be such a significant change then it’s quite possible that something at the core of the story’s construction isn’t working.


Another comment you made in the third interview struck me. You said: ‘I’m interested in place as character’. Many years ago I was in an online reading group in which this topic caused much angst: some members argued that place can’t be a character, and others argued just as vociferously that it could. I’d love to know what you mean by “place as character” and the role you see it playing in your writing.


Oh yes, place can be character!

There’s a fantastic book that’s very relevant here called Place and placelessness (1976) by the urban geographer Edward Relph.  It’s as rare as hen’s teeth, but thankfully the National Library of Australia has a copy.  I’d like to offer two quotes:

A deep relationship with places is as necessary and perhaps as unavoidable as close relationships with people; without such relationships human existence, while possible, is bereft of much of its significant. (p41)

A deep human need exists for associations with significant places.  If we choose to ignore that need, and to allow the forces of placelessness to continue, then the future can only hold an environment in which places simply do not matter. (p147)

So, houses and farms and towns and cities, even whole countries, can be places that we connect with as though they are living and breathing entities, and this notion is such a great thing for writers to explore.  A fiction writer’s job is to make all the elements of a narrative come truly alive for the reader, and we do this through drawing connections and relationships that matter to the people of the work.  As mentioned earlier, Tim Winton writes about the closeness but almost unknowable vastness of Western Australia, and Randolph Stow did something similar, particularly in The merry-go-round in the seaMarion Halligan often writes about her relationship with Canberra, and, of course, Kate Grenville has a long-time fascination with the Hawkesbury – I have no doubt that the river is as alive to her as the characters.


Can you let us in on your next writing project?


For some years now I’ve not discussed works-in-progress, primarily because I believe that I’ll jinx it, and jinx it in a negative way (as I hinted with Susan Errington).  It’s as though the work is unravelled as soon as it’s discussed publicly.  It’s not a superstitious thing.  All the effort and energy and intelligence one can muster should be focussed on the writing of the work.  If I tell someone the story of what I’m working on, then the telling is done and there’s no need to finish the thing.  So I’ve always found that it’s best to leave the discussion until the work is properly primed for the world, as in it is published, or very soon about to be.  Then I’m happy to talk about it until the cows come home!

Having said all that, I’ve always believed that Fall on me and I’m ready now are two novellas in a set of three, each of them explorations of modern Australian family life.  So we’ll see what happens with that.


You are the founder of the online literary magazine Verity La. What inspired you to start it, and what are your aims for it?


One night back in mid-2010 I was watching High fidelity, the fine movie adaptation of the excellent novel by Nick Hornby.  In it, the main character owns and runs a record shop but he also has a record-label, which impressed me.  I thought, I’d love to make a contribution in a similar way but to writing.  I’d been running a personal blog, Under the counter or a flutter in the dovecot, for a year or so, and even though I enjoyed writing for the thing it did seem a little self-focussed.  What if I created a blog that other people wrote, and all the writing was fiction or poetry?

As soon as the movie finished, I poured myself a glass of wine, fired up the laptop, and started work on Verity La – by the time I went to bed the guts of it was more or less ready to go.  The mission statement I wrote that night remains the same: ‘Bravery is essential in the Verity La neck of the woods, which means creative risk-taking, freedom, and – above all else – being no one but yourself.  We are interested in new voices, different voices, progressive voices; we like writing that gets you in the head as well as the gut, that has a point, that isn’t afraid.’

Realising that it would be difficult to run a literary site by myself, I contacted Melbourne writer Alec Patric, who whole-heartedly embraced the idea.  Alec left Verity La at the beginning of 2012, and since then the site’s been considerably redeveloped so it’s now as much a fully-fledged journal as possible.

My aims for Verity La haven’t changed – I still want it to be one of the edgiest Australian literary journals.  In some ways I’m inspired by Oz from the 1960s, but I’m also inspired by the little photocopied and hand-stapled zines that sometimes you find at markets.  I don’t want Verity La to be polite or precious or pretentious; there’s enough of these things in literature already.  I continue to want the journal to provide maximum opportunities and exposure for the writers it publishes, but for it also to be light-weight infrastructure – by this I mean that I don’t want it to be administratively burdensome.  My main game is being a writer, not an editor, so I have to keep this in perspective otherwise Verity La could end up occupying the majority of each week.

Having said that, even though there’s no money in the Verity La universe and everyone involved volunteers their time, I’ve always wanted it to be as professional as possible.  Despite the sometimes hand-made aesthetic of the journal, if we are going to publish writing then we’re going to do it to the highest possible standard in terms of editorial practices.  At the end of last year, Verity La received a Canberra Critics Circle Award, which recognises all those who’ve contributed to the journal, either as writers, readers, editors, or web-developers, but it’s a sign that we’re doing something worthwhile.

As is, it must be said, Whispering Gums.


Given the recent demise of Wet Ink, how does the future look for literary magazines?


It was very sad to see Wet Ink disappear towards the end of last year – in a relatively short period of time it became one of the most eminent journals in Australia.  However, and I apologise if this next comment appears a little callous, I’ve been writing for twenty years now and journals have always come and gone during this time, and this continual evolution is important to a healthy literary community, even though the changes can be difficult to swallow.

The online environment provides many opportunities for new and exciting journals – there used to be the problem of design and production and distribution, but the internet, to a certain extent at least, has solutions for these things.  Verity La has proven that free blogging software can be used to start up a journal within a matter of hours (though it should be noted that more recently we’ve had professional assistance from the very generous Canberra-based graphic design/web-development firm New Best Friend).  Social media together with smart phones and tablet-computers offers extraordinary opportunities – in the past, we had to physically search out a journal, but these days once we’ve subscribed to a site then the literature comes to us and we can read it wherever we are.  Poetry in particular will thrive in this environment.

That’s not so say that everything’s peachy.  It continues to be a challenge to build an audience around literary writing, and I have no idea how an economy can develop in this context where writers can be paid.  Will readers pay to subscribe to an online literary journal?  If newspapers can’t make it work, then what hope do we have!  There are the other challenges of professionalism, standards and quality control.  It might be very easy to establish an online journal, but I’m a firm believer in the importance of excellence at all levels of the operation.

Here’s a thing.  There are approximately 30 tertiary creative writing course in Australia, and enrolment numbers for each are somewhere between a dozen and two hundred.  So that’s potentially a couple of thousand creative-writing graduates each year.  If only 1% started up a literary journal, then we’d be all better off!  So I’m a practical optimist and on the whole am excited about all the opportunities that we have now or will have very soon for writers and readers.

Despite all this, it’d be wrong if I misrepresented myself: I do read short works on-line, but I much prefer a hardcopy book, a cup of coffee, and a long afternoon spent on the couch.


You are also involved in an arts advocacy group, the Childers Group. Given there are many groups advocating on behalf of the arts, what particular role do you see this group playing?


This is an interesting question because whilst there are organisations that have been established to develop various art forms – the ACT Writers Centre, for example – there are very few whose sole mission is to be an advocate for the arts in general.  In fact, up until the Childers Group was established in late 2011, there was no arts advocacy body in the ACT region, and there’d been only one or two in the last couple of decades.  Nationally, there’s Arts Peak, which is made up of the various art form associations, like the National Association for the Visual Artists as well as Ausdance, but regionally-based advocacy bodies around the nation are very rare indeed.  So, for the ACT and surrounding area, the Childers Group certainly fills a gap; it may well be that this model and style of operation is actually a first for the arts in Australia.

The Childers Group was originally inspired by the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists, which brings cool, calm, considered thinking to environmental conservation matters, so we aim to bring cool, calm, considered thinking to the arts.  The arts are too important for there not to be a unified voice based on logic, research and thoughtful conclusions.  The ACT is very lucky to have, generally speaking, bipartisan support for the arts and at approximately $15M per year is by far the most important ongoing investor into the creative life of the region.  However, step over the border – I’m a Goulburn resident – and things are a bit different, so much so that the NSW Government will no longer be subsidising a range of fine-arts courses.  There’s poverty and substantial social and economic hardship in the regions and involvement in the arts provides many people with a way of building their skills and self-esteem.  This decision is short-sighted and, for want of a better word, ugly.

Going back to Ben Okri and his way of being free, he says two things: ‘Creativity of any valuable kind is one of the fullest expressions of the human and the godlike within us’ and ‘The imagination is one of the highest gifts we have’.

He’s right.


And now, for fun.  What is your favourite gum tree (because, of course, as an Aussie, you must have one)?


Angophora Costata

Angophora Costata (Courtesy: Eug, using CC-BY-SA 2.5, via Wikipedia)

Ah, you know I love this and when I first scanned the list of questions I thought, well, that last one is easy – the Angophora costata, that’s my tree.  But then I realised that it’s not technically a gum, because it’s not a eucalypt.  Except I just can’t change my mind.  So, the Angophora costata it is.

I grew up on the North Shore of Sydney, right on the edge of the Kuringai Chase National Park.  The angophora, or Smooth-barked Apple, loves that hot and dry sandstone country, and we had a very large one in our front yard.  They’re magnificent trees with great, smooth, orange-red trunks and twisted, gnarly, sculptural canopies.  My mother must have been worried that our tree was getting too big and maybe one day would drop something on me or my two older brothers, so she got around a tree surgeon to take out the odd precarious branch.  She must also have been worried about its health in general – being a keen gardener she didn’t want the tree gotten rid of – so, using screwdrivers, we dug little holes in the ground and filled them with a fertiliser called Poplar Special and the tree continued healthily.

One year when I was about fifteen or sixteen – I’m not making this up at all – I was mowing the front yard, which was never a task I enjoyed, and still don’t, to the point that I have next to no lawn, when a sugar-glider floated down out of the angophora and landed on the handle-bar of the mower.  The animal was so small and delicate and cute, it’s little white-tipped ‘wings’ folded up on each side.  I was utterly entranced, enthralled.  Not wanting to frighten the thing, I carefully turned off the mower’s engine.  The sugar-glider stayed there on the handle-bar, and I thought that maybe he’d come for a cuddle, maybe even some love.  So, extra gingerly, I went in to pick him up.  My hands got closer and closer.  Just as my fingers reached his fur, he turned his head and bit me badly on the finger, drawing blood.  He leapt off the mower, and sprinted to the angophora’s trunk and made his way back to the faraway crown.

This was such a magical event that maybe, in old age, when I’m about to draw my last breath, it’ll be this story that’ll dart through my mind.


Thanks Nigel for these wonderfully thoughtful – though I’d expect no less – responses to my questions. I can see myself coming back to them a few times to digest the ideas you’ve shared with us. I love your favourite gum, by the way. Eucalypt or not, it’s still a gum, and what a pretty one.

Finally, thanks again to you and Susan for offering the Wet Ink interview to me. I’m thrilled to have this record on my blog.

Fridays with Featherstone, Part 4: On writing and admired writers

Today, I bring you the final part of Susan Errington’s Wet Ink interview with Nigel Featherstone. In this part Nigel talks primarily about some of the writers he admires or who have inspired him – and how they relate to his writing. I love the fact that many of the writers Nigel admires are also favourites of mine, such as … but no, if I tell you now that will spoil the interview. Read on …


You seem interested in troubled or fractured families, especially in Remnants. Is the family dynamic something you want to expand on in future writing and perhaps bring to the forefront?


Families are both fascinating and frightening.  As a writer I’m asking, what makes up a family?  It’s not just husband and wife and two children.  A family can be a group of people living in a share-house.  It can be a rock band.  It can be three kids on a road-trip.  It can be an old woman and her twenty cats; Eva Hornung explored human-animal relationships as family in her extraordinary novel Dog Boy.  Families can be forces for good, and forces for evil; more often than not, they are both at once – this is what Anne Enright was doing in her Man Booker prize-winning The Gathering.  Whenever I hear someone say that family is ‘the bedrock’ of society I want to reach for my pen and get to writing.  Family might be the traditional bedrock in terms of procreation, but it certainly isn’t the emotional bedrock for many individuals.


Your Australian families lack the hysteria of Patrick White’s and remind me more of the quiet honesty of Randolf Stow’s. What’s important to you in creating a family in your work?


You’re not the first person to mention Randolf Stow in relation to my stories, and it always fills me with a warm inner glow.  I read The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea back in high-school and I was rapt, and that rapture has continued after all these years – and I haven’t read it since, although recently I bought another copy and it’s on the bedside-table pile.  Quiet honesty.  I like that.  Is that what attracted me to Stow?  Who can tell?  In terms of technics, what’s important in creating a fictional family is life, depth of character, and conflict.  It’s also important, I think, for the family to want something, resolution, revelation, salvation, disintegration, even if they don’t know it.


Who are the important novelists for you?


J.M. CoetzeeDisgrace is the perfect contemporary novel.  Colm ToibinThe Blackwater Lightship, a story about three generations of Irish women, is told in the simplest, most direct voice, but it dives so confidently into the depths.  Alan Hollinghurst – the language in The Line of Beauty never ceases to amaze me, and the author is invariably hilarious.  Kazuo IshiguroA Pale View of Hills and The Remains of the Day are two gorgeous novels, both being vast wells of intimacy.  Graham SwiftLast Orders is a novel I return to regularly.  Morris WestEminence is built around a terrific what if (what if the next Pope was agnostic?).  Truman CapoteIn Cold Blood is a book that has had a huge impact on me because it’s the portrait of friendship and family and landscape.  Harper Lee – the burning desire for justice in To Kill A Mockingbird.  The verse-novelist Dorothy Porter – what she could conjure on the page!  Helen Garner – although not fiction, Joe Cinque’s Consolation shows all the hallmarks of what makes a novel.  It may appear odd in this company, but Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman is the most audacious of stories.  The names Tolstoy and Chekhov have to appear in this paragraph.  As does Flaubert’s; Madame Bovary is the truly great novel.


Writing is a tough and often lonely gig.  Where do you draw your inspiration?


From the things that happen around me, or happen around other people.  That makes it sound easy.  You’re right: it’s not.  There are days when I’d like to chuck it all away, but my life would be dreary without writing and reading.  And music.


What are you working on at present?


Nigel Featherstone, I'm ready now

Cover (Courtesy: Blemish Books)

Going back to where we started, the second of those Launceston novellas is being published by Blemish Books in November this year*, so over the coming months I’ll be working on the nips and tucks required by the publisher (it’s already been through quite a few rounds of these), getting the story as perfect as humanly possible.  What can I tell you about it?  Perhaps, after all this talk about men and their trials and tribulations of forming relationships and trying to have meaningful lives, it might be a surprise to tell you that this second novella, which is called I’m Ready Now, is a story about a mother and son.  The mother has reached a fork in her life, and so has the son, and both are in the midst of making decisions that will change the course of their lives and their relationship(s).  It’s told from both points of view, and I enjoyed writing the mother as much as the son, perhaps even more so.  And I’m always working on short stories, and creative journalism.  And, yes, there’s a bigger project but I can’t talk about that because I’ll jinx it.  But for the next few months, much of whatever brain-power I have will be occupied with bringing I’m Ready Now into the world.

* This interview was prepared many months ago for publication in Wet Ink during 2012. Readers of this blog will know that I’m ready now was indeed published in November and reviewed by me that month.

If you missed Part 1, click here, for Part 2 here, and for Part 3 here.

Thanks again to Susan Errington for supporting my running this interview after the demise of Wet Ink. I’m sorry that Wet Ink no longer exists, but it’s been a pleasure to share this great interview with readers here.

Fridays with Featherstone will finish next Friday with my follow-up interview with Nigel…

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

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.

Fridays with Featherstone, Part 2: Writing about men

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 …

Fridays with Featherstone, Part 1: Thoughts on literary form

What do writer Nigel Featherstone and the now sadly defunct literary magazine Wet Ink have in common? An unpublished interview, that’s what! When Nigel approached me, with the agreement of his interviewer Susan Errington, asking whether I would like to run the review on Whispering Gums, I of course said yes – for several reasons. Over the last year I have reviewed two lovely novellas by Nigel Featherstone, Fall on me and I’m ready now. Nigel also wrote a guest post for Monday Musings on the relationship between family and children in some recent Australian fiction, including his own. And, yesterday, Nigel won the fiction section of this year’s ACT Writing and Publishing Awards for Fall on me. Then I read the interview – and I enjoyed it. Not only does it provide insight into Nigel’s writing, but he speaks on a range of issues regarding literary style and form and, of course, divulges some of his favourite writers. How could I not take up the offer?

It’s a long interview – magazine essay-length – but it breaks neatly into some thematic sections, so with Nigel’s agreement I am running the interview over a few weeks, followed by an updating interview between Nigel and me. So, with thanks to Nigel Featherstone and Susan Errington, here is Part 1 …

Featherstone, Fall on me

Fall on me bookcover (Courtesy: Blemish Books)


You describe your latest work, Fall on Me, as a novella, but many current novels are not much longer. What is it about this story that makes it a ‘novella’?


Perhaps the best way to answer this question is to briefly talk about how Fall on Me came into being. In early 2010 I spent a month in Launceston as part of the Cataract Gorge Artist-in-Residence Program. Up until that point I’d spent five years working on a major project that had gone close to publication but in the end it got the red-light, not the green-light. More than a little wounded, I took the opportunity of the Launceston residency to return to where I’d started my writing ‘career’ back in the early 90s: creating short stories. I set myself a goal of writing the first draft of six stories. But there were other goals, too: write by hand, as in pen to pad; write what I wanted to write and what I’d like to read; and take creative risks, meaning don’t censor myself.

At the end of the first week I had the sketchy draft of what I supposed was a very long story, something around the 30,000-word mark. The second week I again tried to write a short story, but at the end of that week I again had the sketchy draft of a very long story around 30,000 words. And so it went until, after a 28-day mad storm of writing, I had the sketchy drafts of three of these very long stories. What had happened to me in that dark, dark Launceston gorge? I remember jumping on the plane to come home and thinking, what on earth am I going to do with these? What I did was keep working on them – editing, rewriting, polishing, editing some more – until, damn the bloody things, they grew in length; I’d had hoped they would go in the opposite direction. But there was something about the length that I really liked: story concentration, but also character expansion, and it intrigued me.

Thankfully Blemish Books, a Canberra-based independent press, was looking for fiction manuscripts up to 40,000 words so I submitted the first two of my novellas. And here we are. In the end, I think, that time in Launceston was all about psychology: I conned myself into believing that I was only writing short stories, and I certainly didn’t want to attempt another novel, so somehow I decided to write in that halfway space that novellas like to inhabit. Of course, there’s more to it than that: as a reader I love a book that can be gobbled up in one sitting, for example Hemingway’s The Old Man in the Sea, or The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes. What these two books achieve with a minimum of words is astonishing.


You have also published a large number of short stories, at least forty I think, as well as two collections. What attracts you to the short story?


Short stories are closer to poetry than novels: they’re great at suggesting, rather than explaining every crinkle in the forehead. And they have focus – amazing focus, the focus of poetry. A well-structured short story is exquisite. Although it’s at the longer end of the spectrum, Annie Proulx’s ‘Brokeback Mountain’ is mind-blowing. Or Chekhov’s ‘Gusev’ – what that man achieves with this story, which is one of his shortest works, is truly miraculous. The making of short stories is interesting, too. Sometimes I’ll have an idea logged in my journal for months, if not years. Then something happens – the stars align – and I’m ready to write the thing. I like to write the sketchy first draft in a day, type it up the next day, and then there’ll be months, if not years of rewriting, editing and polishing; one story took five years to find a home in a journal. In terms of short stories, I always come back to that word: miraculous. Short stories are indeed almost inexplicable, especially those that do so much with so few words. Take Hemingway’s classic six-worder: ‘For sale: baby shoes, never used.’ Or Margaret Atwood’s: ‘Longed for him. Got him. Shit.’ See? Miraculous.


What for you is the critical difference between short stories and novels, or novellas for that matter?


I wish I knew. That sounds off-hand, and for that I apologise. But every short story is different, every novella is different, every novel is different – in the writing, in the reading. Every story has its own internal logic, its own ecology, if you will. Established writers say that each time they start a new story they have to relearn the craft, and they’re speaking the truth. However, perhaps we can define the categories, just for the heck of it. If short stories are about brevity, novels are about complexity. So that’s what I might love about working with the novella: they offer the best of both worlds: succinctness and sophistication. Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice and George Orwell’s Animal Farm are cases in point. Of course, these definitions of story form are ultimately meaningless: some short stories are about complexity, while some novels use up 200,000 words by saying not much about anything. A story must find its natural length, that’s the beginning and end of it.


Which short story writers are important to you?


I mentioned Chekhov before, and Tolstoy is a hero, too – what he does in The Death of Ivan Ilyich is almost hard to believe. (At heart I’m a melancholic, and the Russians know all about melancholia, don’t they.) Proulx, of course, needs a second mention. I much prefer Peter Carey’s short stories to his novels – ‘The Last Days of a Famous Mime’ has had a huge influence on me because of its playfulness. Speaking of playfulness, the last collection I read that I fell in love with was Shooting the Fox by Marion Halligan – she really knows how to put words and sentences and characters together so sparks fly. But if my house was burning down and I had only a nano-second to make a decision, I’d clamber for my Chekhov and Tolstoy books. These two men strip back life until the truth is almost too much to bear.

Look for Part 2 next Friday …