F*ck Covid: An Online Literary Affair (2)

This is the second of my two posts on the F*CK COVID online-only event. My first post introduced it and covered the fiction session. This post will report on the non-fiction session. I’ll start by noting that while the first session involved established authors, this one, I think it’s fair to say, involved emerging writers, who were also both from diverse cultural backgrounds.

Past-present: adventures in non-fiction with Shu-Ling Chua and Sneha Lees

While Gold’s and Brandi’s books were both novels, the two books covered here represent different forms, Shu-ling Chua’s Echoes being a collection of essays, and Sneha Lees’ Good Indian daughter (published under the name Ruhi Lee) being a memoir.

On their inspirations

Shu-Ling was inspired by the surprising discovery that a pop song in Crazy Rich Asians, “I want your love”, had been loved by her grandmother. This led her to researching the soundtrack, and exploring “lineages and inheritances” from various perspectives, including cultural, literary, fashion. This core theme held true, she said, through the three essays, which focus on domestic life, fashion, music, and water. Nigel suggested the word “intricate” described her book, but Shu-Ling prefers “intertextual” because she layers different cultural sources. She talked about the pressure she felt to be original (but I’ll leave that to the Q&A where it came up again!)

Sneha‘s book started with her wanting to understand why she was disappointed to discover, when pregnant, that she was having a girl. She came to realise that it was not about the baby but about how she felt as a woman in the world, and that this went back to psychological and physical abuse she’d experienced growing up. Her challenges in writing her story were: how to maintain a relationship with her family on whose watch this abuse had happened; and how to retain her culture. She talked about the high suicide rate for Indian woman, and her wanting to break the silence.

On wounds, scars and critiquing culture

Nigel said there was a heart of forgiveness in her memoir. Sneha laughed and said that Hard Copy program’s Nadine Davidoff had advised to write from the scar not the wound, but she’d often written from the wound. She admitted, however, that she had developed empathy for her parents, as their own stories had been tough, and this had given her a kernel of forgiveness. (This reminded me of Alice Pung coming to understand her parents.) Sneha’s book is about self and inter-generational understanding.

Shu-Ling talked of writing about wounds and scars – regarding sexual trauma – in her earlier writing, and the need to write about these things in ethically, responsibly. You need to consider, she said, the ethical, social, cultural, historical backgrounds. 

Sneha, sort of expanding this, spoke of needing to be mindful when writing about Indian culture in Australia. She was writing, she said, for white editors, publishers, readers, and didn’t want to make it easy for white people to see her critiques of her culture as evidence of their culture’s superiority. She loves her culture, but she also wanted to critique it. She’s interested in what it means to be Indian, what it means to be Australian.

Nigel wanted to explore this more, particularly how to critique dominant Australian culture?

Shu-Ling spoke about being part of a bigger group of writers trying to broaden Australians’ understanding of migrant culture, away from the expected traditional voyage and first generation stories. They need to be able to write about things important to them. Activism can take different forms and newer writers are carving out their own space.

Nigel asked whether the current bland simplification in Federal politics regarding migrants – like the “stop the boats” mantra – makes it hard to write about. Sneha commented on how distressing the short-term understanding behind these policies is. How can a white person proudly say “send back the boats” when they themselves came by boat and ruined the country. This thinking devalues what migrants and refugees bring: it ”feels like shit but you just write through it”.

On writing openly, honestly, respectfully about family …

… when they are still alive!  

Sneha talked to her parents about publishing her story, being anxious about airing “dirty laundry” and not wanting to attack the family. As a result, she agreed to publish under a pseudonym, Ruhi Lee (she’s now out!), but she also quoted Ann LaMott’s

If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.

For Shu-Ling it was different. Her book is mainly about her mother’s side and her mother was part of the process. There were, however, uncomfortable conversations, such as about premarital sex. She agreed with Sneha that it’s not easy to write about family, but said that Echoes is a bit removed. She used music, for example, to create a bridge with her mother (and grandmother).

On the role of place in their writing

Shu-Ling said that, while she wrote the book in Melbourne, it is very much about Canberra because She’s exploring nostalgia. Also, she sees Canberra as “her” city, because neither her mother nor grandmother lived there.

Sneha didn’t feel that where she was writing, Melbourne, had impacted her book, but admitted that, before she wrote it, she had seen India through rose-coloured glasses.

The readings

As in the first session, both authors read. Sneha chose a section about having to talk to her parents about her sex education homework. Her father was horrified by the “the debauched syllabus”. Being taught this was “so veritably un-Indian”. Shu-Ling read from the last essay in her book, “To fish for the moon”, in which she talked, among other things, about what “opting out of motherhood” means. Is this a beginning or ending or both?

Nigel asked Shu-Ling about the tenderness he perceived in her writing. She said she writes as if she is speaking to a friend. She also said that her favourite writers write tenderly.

For Sneha, the question was obvious – her humour. Sneha said that humour writing is her first love, and that books and memoirs by comedians were major influences. She grew up with a diet of humour in her family. Readers need humour, she said.

Q&A

  • On the pressure to be original. Expanding this, Shu-Ling explained that she loved, for example, Alice Pung’s work, but had felt she must be different from her and others, like Benjamin Law and Maxine Beneba Clarke. She wanted to move away from the capitalistic focus on the individual, so used the conversation idea. She sees herself as renovating rather than building a new building. What a great metaphor!
  • On feeling equipped to write about BIG issues. Sneha spoke about addressing the political in a personal way. The advice from Hard Copy was to “just tell your story”, and to “give the reader more credit”, letting them come to it. This lets her stick to what she knows. Shu-Ling spoke similarly on focusing on the personal, and also about not wanting to speak over others.
  • On relationship with editors. Sneha said she had a great editor, and really enjoyed what was a collaborative process. She felt she could push back, but she also respected their suggestions and probings. Shu-Ling didn’t feel comfortable with her first editor, but the second one was collaborative.
  • On whether their families have read their stories. Sneha was sad that she felt she couldn’t celebrate publication with her family, besides her sister, while Shu-Ling said her mother had read her final draft for inaccuracies.
  • On turning memories into memoirs, managing the gaps and creating a narrative. Shu-Ling starts with a moodboard, and writes her first draft using stream of consciousness, winding her way through her question to a conclusion. She then develops her narrative during polishing. Because her subject matter is recent, she has few memory gaps. Anyhow, she says, memoir is not about the past, but about your relationship with the past. Sneha, on the other hand, says regarding narrative that she is a big structure person, so puts that down first. Her memoir was structured along her pregnancy timeline; for her new novel she has mapped out her chapters. However regarding memory, she said her story was complicated by gaslighting so she had to cross-check with sister, husband, and friends. Nigel commented that he loved her memoir’s chapter titles, like “Thanks for the panic attack. Here’s a heart attack in return”.
  • On surprising post-publication emotions. Shu-Ling was initially “down” that her book hadn’t charged the world, but appreciated the positive responses. Sneha didn’t expect ”to feel like shit”, but this was partly due to her the lockdown causing her launch to be cancelled, and to the COVID crisis being so bad in India. She was surprised by how much women “felt” her book.

Tips for writing through the pandemic

Sneha said to go back to what you love, like rereading old favourites. She was reassured about the value of her work by Ethan Hawke’s TED talk’s statement that

art’s not a luxury—it’s actually sustenance. We need it.

Shu-Ling agreed with rereading old favourites, being for her, essays. She also talked about the importance of community, and that the pandemic means she can attend interstate and overseas writing events which revitalise her creative energy. (Hear, hear!)

Overall themes

Interestingly, two ideas recurred in both sessions: one related to trusting readers, and the other to the value of the editing process.

A big thanks to the ACT Writers Centre, Nigel Featherstone and the four panelists for organising and taking part in an event that felt so honest and reaffirming. Art is indeed sustenance.

F*ck Covid: An Online Literary Affair (1)

An initiative of the ACT Writers Centre and its Creative Producer Nigel Featherstone, F*CK COVID, was an online-only event. It comprised two panel discussions, featuring “four of Australia’s most exciting literary voices”, one focused on fiction, and the other non-fiction. I will report on these in separate posts.

Both sessions included the authors reading from their books for a few minutes, which, as always, was a treasure.

Hard truths; Risky fiction, with Irma Gold and Mark Brandi

After introducing the authors and their latest books, Irma Gold (The breaking, my review) and Mark Brandi (The others), Featherstone launched into his gently probing questions, which resulted in some great insights, for readers and writers. We started with Gold and Brandi describing their books, but you can find that info elsewhere if you haven’t read the books! You can also read more about Irma on her novel in my report of a conversation in May.

On their inspirations

Interestingly, both authors’ novels started as short stories.

Book cover

Gold’s started as a story that is now, essentially, her first chapter. It was not initially about elephants and animal cruelty. She feels that if she’d started with that idea the novel would have been more issues-driven that the character-driven story it is. The two characters appeared to her fully-formed she said. She also said that her stories are usually dark, but she wanted to write something more joyful.

Brandi’s novel started as a short story (published in Meanjin in 2016). Unlike Gold’s non-autobiographical novel, Brandi’s story was based on a childhood experience that gave him his first insight into the complexity and contradictions of the adult world. However, he said that as he has talked about the novel post-publication, he has realised that the story was more inspired by his father’s life with his father’s father. It’s about nature versus nurture, and how events affect us later in life.

On challenges they faced writing difficult sections

For Irma, this was writing the animal cruelty scenes. One scene in particular was “very hard” to write. She wanted to not make the book so harrowing that people would not want to read it. Her aim was to give enough for people to understand the situation. Even so, one agent and some publishers found her story “too risky” and did not want to take it on. Gold said what she loves about writing is “seeing the world through other perspectives”, which is just what we readers like too, eh?

For Mark, the whole thing was challenging! He also likes “seeing world though other eyes”. The discussion focused mainly on writing difficult material through a child’s eyes. Brandi spoke about trusting readers. He believes that the reader’s imagination can do a better job than the author, so he creates the prompt to allow readers “to go to the dark place if they are brave enough to”. People, he said, can tolerate cruelty to humans more than to animals. (Why is that?) He also said he’s happy to read “dark stuff”, that it doesn’t give him a negative world view (which I relate to).

Nigel complimented Australia’s publishing landscape, believing we have publishers prepared to take risks.

On style

Nigel asked Mark about his “pared back” style, in which there’s barely a sentence that is exposition or description. Mark responded that this is what he likes to read. He likes to be trusted, respected as a reader. He wants his readers to bring themselves to the work, and to “paint the picture themselves”. Reading, he said, is a “dance between reader and writer”.

This led to a discussion about dialogue. Brandi tries to use dialogue sparingly. It must have meaning. Nigel quoted Francine Prose (Reading like a writer) who wrote that “good dialogue is when character’s thoughts are louder on the page”. Irma concurred, saying that every line of dialogue has to have a reason for being there.

On themes and perspectives

Nigel suggested that Irma’s overall theme was Hannah’s yearning to do the right thing and to find love. Irma replied that she wasn’t consciously thinking of these, but she has later realised that Hannah came from her observation of 20-something tourists she’d seen in Thailand. Their freedom looked “so delicious and wonderful” but she’d realised that, at her age, she had the benefit of knowing who she was, and where she was going. Uncertain Hannah came from this recognition! It’s interesting to explore a character like Hannah, particularly when you throw in someone like Deven who tests and challenges. Nigel commented that in good novels, the DNA is in the opening, and that The Breaking opens with a sense of tension, darkness, and humour.

For Mark, Nigel returned to the issue of writing from the perspective of an 11-year-old (Jacob). Mark confessed that the inner child is “close to the surface for him”! Then, turning serious, he identified the two main issues: a child’s limited understanding of the world, particularly when that world is closely mediated through his father; a child’s language and narrow “vocabulary palette”. He used Jacob’s imagination to convey things a boy’s language couldn’t.

Here a William Faulkner quote was paraphrased, as it seemed to apply to both Irma and Mark. The original is:

“It begins with a character, usually, and once he stands up on his feet and begins to move, all I can do is trot along behind him with a paper and pencil trying to keep up long enough to put down what he says and does.”

On bringing together character, plot and story

Nigel asked about their writing process, regarding how and when they bring all the elements together.

Irma said that for her character and place go together. She also talked about how her work as an editor has given her an insight, particularly, into pacing. She said that her first draft is very much character-based, with plot and pacing honed during editing.

Mark’s response somewhat echoed Irma’s in that he’s very dependent on his editor and publisher for help with plotting. Again, his style of reading aligned with mine, when he said that he doesn’t pay much attention to plot in his own reading, and that he “will stay with good characters through whatever harebrained plot the author throws up“. I loved this, because I don’t care about plot holes. I care about characters and ideas.

Anyhow, he said that he leaves a couple of months after his draft, and will often see plot deficiencies when he returns to it, but there are always more when the book gets to publisher.

Q&A

  • On their writing sessions: Both writers said you need a routine, and described their own. Mark drafts 2-3 hours every day because “voice and character are crucial” and he needs to stay with them. Irma said her process/routine varies for each project depending on what’s happening in her life (as she works full-time and has three children). With The breaking, she could only allocate two three-hour sessions a week, but her subconscious worked away in between, making those sessions productive.
  • On writing violence, and how to dial it back when the subject matter is violent. Irma suggested that people tolerate more violence against humans so it may not be a big problem, while Mark says that you give the reader enough details, then trust them to imagine. The question is, he said: What are the violent scenes in service of? Are they to convey what it’s like day to day, to support characterisation, or? Answering these will help avoid gratuitous violence.
  • On titles, which comes first, the story or the title: For both it was clearly the story, but Mark said that The others came to him very early while The rip started as something else. Irma said The breaking came to her after the book had gone to the publisher.

Tips for writing through the pandemic

Mark said routine and ritual and hard work – and giving it your whole being and heart.

Irma admitted that, until now, we Canberrans hadn’t been greatly affected, but she agreed that routine is important. Now she is in lockdown, and has more time, she plans to grab that! Find your time and your routine, was her advice.

Live events are the best, but online ones like this can be just as good in terms of both content and warmth. Watch for session two’s report …

Writing War: A panel discussion about war and historical writing

In its original guise, I would not have been able to attend Writing war: A panel discussion featuring Nigel Featherstone, Melanie Myers and Simon Cleary because it was going to be held in Brisbane’s Avid Readers bookstore. However, in one of those lucky COVID-19 silver linings, the discussion was transformed into an online ZOOM discussion and, hey presto, I could attend for the princely sum of $5. Having read Featherstone’s Bodies of men (my review) and Myers’ Meet me at Lennon’s (my review), and being interested in Cleary’s The war artist, it was an opportunity too good to miss.

Convenor, and author herself, Cass Moriarty, started by introducing the authors and asking them to talk about their novels, particularly in terms of their inspiration or intention:

  • Nigel Featherstone talked about wanting to explore different expressions of masculinity, particularly as expressed under extreme military pressure. He wanted to look beyond the ANZAC mantra that all men are brave, all do remarkable things, and so on. Can being a deserter, he wondered, be an act of bravery?
  • Simon Cleary described his Afghanistan War novel as a homecoming story, as being about soldiers finding a place in their home countries, as looking at the cost to the community of sending people to war.
  • Melanie Myers introduced a new genre (or sub-genre) to me, the “ensemble home-front novel”, which, she said, was coined by writer and educator, William Hatherell. It encompasses books like Come in spinner. Her novel is primarily about women’s experience of WW2.

On the challenge of writing about past wars with nuance

Featherstone immediately turned to the ANZAC idea, asking how do we talk about ANZAC without being kicked out of the country, and how is it that we have created a day that we can’t critique. He referred to Peter Stanley’s history Bad characters, which is about soldiers who were labelled as “bad”. Stanley’s book counterbalances the traditional ANZAC mantra, and taught him that bravery and cowardice can have many meanings.

Cleary liked the word coined by Featherstone for ANZAC, its “uncriticability”! He spoke of something he returned to a few times during the evening, the idea that sending people to war is political act. It means, he said, that writing about war is also a political act. Too many war novels focus on glory, resulting in the more human facets, including genuine human trauma, often being missing.

On that tricky question of the authority to write about war, when you haven’t personally experienced it

Myers talked about the challenge of being true to the times and values you are writing about, while being sensitive to those of your own era. Writing about African-Americans in Brisbane during World War 2, for example, she had to deal with the “N-word”.

Featherstone confronted the question more head on, asking “who gets to tell what story?” He did question his ability to write about war but, essentially, he believes “writers can do whatever they want”, with the proviso that they be prepared to talk about it. However, he also, a little anxiously but generously, shared his experience of inherited trauma (epigenetics), through his grandfather’s experience of World War 1.

Cleary noted that authority can come from various sources – personal experience, the novelist’s imagination and creative experience, and, returning to that idea of war being “a deeply political act”, he argued that “every citizen has a right to an opinion” about war.

Regular readers here will know that I agree, philosophically, with Featherstone, including that authors need to be prepared to discuss their choices. I also liked Cleary’s argument.

On the de rigueur question of research 

Myers explained some of her research process, saying that she starts with secondary sources, before looking at primary ones, and that in the case of this novel, she also walked the city imagining how it was, how it looked.

Cleary said that it was important to know the details – even those not actually needed in the work – to help avoid clangers. He also said – and I loved this – that writing novels is an excuse for learning stuff!

There was discussion about the impact of war on the social and economic opportunities for women, on values and prejudices, on the bonds forged during war, and on the burdens of war. Featherstone spoke of the physical and emotional scars of war. He pointed to a book titled We were there which reports on a survey of 3,700 World War 2 soldiers. A significant lesson from this book was that there can be multiple perspectives. He exemplified this by sharing a returned soldier’s view of his life versus the wife’s rather different view!

On should you write about war and love

Featherstone reiterated his position that there are no “shoulds” and that, anyhow, he wanted to write about love as a force of liberation. Love, he said, is what gets us through. Cleary noted that being in the proximity of death can make people feel vulnerable and therefore open to new things, and that these are the stuff of writing about war. However, he also said that war and gore can be depressing, and that art and love can provide useful “leavening”.

On whether war fiction is a genre

Myers answered that she specifically wrote in the “ensemble home-front genre” while Cleary didn’t see his book as being in the war novel tradition, but as simply being a story about humans dealing with an issue.

And on whether there are any parallels re society’s response to war and to the current pandemic, Cleary suggested that in war, as in the pandemic, humanity is fragmented, that borders are closed and self-interest reins, but, in both situations, he said, you can also “flip it around” to see a spirit of solidarity.

On the importance of documenting war

Featherstone responded that the work of artists is to ask difficult, dangerous, blasphemous questions, that we need artists to ask questions politicians won’t, that artists can “dream their way into answers”. Getting into trickier territory – though it wasn’t further explored – he also said that artists can explore different versions of history, the “what ifs”. (Kate Grenville would agree!)

Myers suggested that the volume of books still being written about World War 2 implies we still can’t make sense of it, that it is still unintelligible, while Cleary believed that it’s easy to forget the past, and that the role of fiction is to explore “the costs and consequences of the past”.

Ending the session

At this point the evening’s co-ordinator, Krissy Kneen, brought the event to a conclusion with some general questions:

  • Their advice to young writers: “if it feels dangerous, it’s worth doing”, “trust your instincts” and “be brave”.
  • War-related books they’d recommend: Dymphna Cusack and Florence James’ Come in spinner (Myers); Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy (Cleary) and The honest history book (Featherstone).

Melanie Myers

Melanie Myers (with the three novels faced out behind her)

Given the opportunity to plug their new work, only Myers was brave enough to name her project. I was thrilled to hear it as she’s research pioneering Australian filmmakers, the McDonagh Sisters. I look forward to that. Featherstone simply said he was not going near war for a long time, while Cleary said that he had a project but it was early days!

The hour whizzed by. Moriarty’s questions were focused and intelligent, the panelists’ responses were respectful and thoughtful, and the technology held up! It wasn’t the same as being in the room, but then, I wouldn’t have been, would I, so I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to hear these three writers speak.

Writing War: A panel discussion
20 April 2020, 6:30 PM – 7:30 PM
ZOOM Online, organised by Avid Reader (bookshop)

Monday musings on Australian literature: Author blogs on the publishing journey

Most readers, not to mention aspiring authors, love hearing about the writing and publishing process authors go through. What inspired their book? How did they go about writing it and were there any hiccoughs along the way? How hard was it to get an agent and/or publisher? What role did the publisher/editor have in shaping the final product? And, once the book is out, how did the marketing/promotion journey go? How did they feel about reviews, positive and negative? These sorts of issues are often covered in book launches, and on panels and “in conversation” events at writers’ festivals, but some writers go a step further and share them via their personal blogs.

So, today, I’ve decided to share a select few of these, given I can’t possibly capture them all (even if I knew them all, or could remember all those I’ve come across!) All these authors have had books published, and all have written more posts on writing than the posts I’m featuring here. In other words, I’m brazenly inviting you to explore their blogs beyond the posts I’m highlighting below.

Book coverLouise Allan

Louise, whose debut novel The sisters’ song was published in 2018, has a series on her blog called Writers in the Attic. Here she publishes guest posts from Australian authors on what it’s like to be an author. Her guests include authors well-known to me like Heather Rose (A few thoughts about writing), Favel Parrett (When fiction becomes truth), and Robyn Cadwallader (The angel among the chaos). Introducing Robyn’s post, Louise writes:

I’m always deeply grateful to the writers who contribute to Writers in the Attic. Their words never fail to give me something to think about, or bestow a nugget of wisdom or just make me feel less lonely on this torturous journey to a novel.

Book coverAmanda Curtin

Amanda, like Louise (above) and Annabel (below), is a Western Australian writer, and has published a few books, including novels Elemental and The sinkings. She has a couple of special series of posts about writing on her blog, looking up/looking down. One is called Writers ask writers (with topics like early inspirations and tools of the trade), and the other is 2, 2 and 2 (writers + new books) in which writers discuss two things about each of three aspects or ideas relevant to their new book. Two of these aspects are set – things that inspired their book and places connected with it – while the third is chosen by the author. So, for example, Brooke Davis, writing about her novel Lost and found (my review) chose 2 of her favourite secondary characters in her book, while Jenny Ackland talking about The secret son (my review) chose 2 favourite things connect with her book.

Nigel Featherstone, Bodies of menNigel Featherstone

Local author Nigel has been documenting his writing life on and off since 2009 in his creatively named blog, Under the Counter or a Flutter in the Dovecote. However, he has written a special series documenting the course of his latest novel, Bodies of men (my review). The series, called Diary of bodies, takes us from its original inspiration to his feelings about reviews and, woo hoo, being shortlisted for an award. Nigel, like many of the authors in this post, shares not only the practical, factual things about writing and publishing his book, but also his emotional journey. Nigel, a local author, has appeared several times on my blog.

Irma Gold Craig Phillips Megumi and the bear book coverIrma Gold

Irma is also local author who has appeared several times on my blog. She is a professional freelance editor who also teaches editing. She has edited an anthology, and has had a collection of short stories and children’s picture books published. She discusses all this, and many other topics related to the writer’s life on her blog. Like some of the other writers listed here, she has included in some of these posts input from other writers, such as this post on rejections, in which Anna Spargo-Ryan, Sheryl Gwyther and Ben Hobson discuss their feelings about rejections. Hobson, author of To become a whale, writes:

It sucks. But I’m saying to you: you can persevere. You’re a writer, damn it. Get off the floor and clench your fists and edit and send it out once more. You can endure. You are being refined. Collect rejections like UFC fighters collect scars; each one of those things is a mark that has created this warrior you’re becoming. Be proud. And send it out again.

Annabel Smith and Jane Rawson

Annabel Smith (from Perth) and Jane Rawson (from Melbourne) have both appeared on this blog before (see Annabel and Jane). Together, they created in 2017 a series of posts they titled What to expect, which they ran on both their blogs, Annabel and Jane. Their aim was to “dish the dirt on what happens just before, during and after your book is released”. In these posts, Annabel and Jane give their opinion – on, say, prizes or book launches – and then, mostly, also invite another author or two to contribute.

Annabel is a member of the Writers Ask Writers series of posts that Amanda also posts. She also has an Author Q&A series in which she asks writers “to answer some questions about writing and publication” and a series on How Writers Earn Money.

Book coverMichelle Scott Tucker

Michelle, like Nigel, has maintained a general litblog for many years. However, also like Nigel, she has a specific series of posts focused on her biography, Elizabeth Macarthur: A life at the edge of the world (my review). In this series, she shares both her writing and publishing journey and her post-publication experiences and events, including being shortlisted for awards.

How generous and open-hearted are these writers to share their knowledge, and to go to so much trouble to do so. I dips me lid to them. But, they are just a start. Many other authors have blogs too, offering us all sorts of delights. I plan to share more of them during 2020.

Have you read any of the blogs, or blogs like them? If so, do you enjoy them and why?

Canberra Writers Festival 2019, Day 2, Session 3: In our backyard

Suddenly it was my last session! How quickly the two days went. The reason I chose In Our Backyard is obvious. It was described as “Get up close and personal with four of Canberra’s literary gems”, and was moderated by ABC journalist, Emma Alberici.

It was a warm-hearted session, characterised by a sense of respect between the writers made most evident in their friendly banter and genuine interest in each other.

Alberici introduced the four writers:

  • Nigel Featherstone, novelist, Bodies of men (my review)
  • Karen Viggers, novelist, The orchardist’s daughter (my review)
  • Kathryn Hind, novelist, Hitch
  • Patrick Mullins, political biographer, Tiberius with a telephone: The life and stories of William McMahon.

Four very different books, said Alberici, so she suggested they start with their book’s genesis.

Genesis

Karen Viggers, The orchardist's daughterKaren Viggers: Is passionate about Tasmania, wilderness, freedom, empowerment, forests, and friendship. Her novel is about three outsiders in a small timber town, and explores how people create bonds and belonging in such places.

Patrick Mullins: Did his PhD in political biography at the University of Canberra in 2014, but hadn’t written one. He looked around and Billy McMahon was there for the taking (with “good reason” he added!) Researching McMahon, he became intrigued by the disconnect between the reputation (the derision) and the reality (twenty plus years covering all major portfolios as well as prime minister.) Further, his unpublished autobiography indicated he had a divorced-from-reality view of himself, which suggested themes about the myths we can create about the past.

Kathryn Hind: Enrolled in a creative writing masters in the UK. She had to write something. She looked to her  experience of travelling around the world alone for a year, during which she found that she needed, as a young woman, to be hypervigilant, always. Suddenly, Amelia and her dog by the side of the road appeared to her. Neither she, Amelia, nor she, the author, knew what would happen to her!

Nigel Featherstone, Bodies of menNigel Featherstone: Wanted “to piss off Tony Abbott”. Seriously though (or, also seriously), the book resulted from a “strange decision” to apply for an ADFA (Australian Defence Force Academy) residency in 2013, despite having no interest in war. Of course, the residency did come with $10K! Featherstone’s overriding interest was to explore different expressions of masculinity under military pressure. Eventually, he found two books in the ADFA Library: Deserter, by American Charles Glass, which explored desertion as an act of courage, and Bad characters, by Australian Peter Stanley, which included the story of a soldier who, during World War 1, had been caught in a homosexual act, been found guilty, and never turned up to board the ship to take him home to prison! There’s my novel, he decided. Had he had any reaction from ADFA to the book, Alberici asked. No.

Place

Given the narrow “backyard” framing of the panel, Alberici took it upon herself to broaden the theme to “place” in general. Suited me. I love hearing authors discuss place.

Karen Viggers: All her stories come from a spiritual connection to place. (I follow Karen on Instagram and can attest her love of place!) She gives her place a fictional name, because she, like Tara June Winch said in the morning, didn’t want to impose her views on real towns (but it is set in the Geeveston/Huonville/Hartz Mountain region of southern Tasmania). She wanted to focus on different types of violence, besides physical, including psychological and economic control. In small towns people know this is going on and can’t pretend they didn’t know. She also wanted to bring back park ranger Leon from a previous book. And, most of all, she wants people to visit, love, and support Australia’s places.

Book coverKathryn Hind: Believes her senses were heightened because she started writing in England, when she was missing Australia. She couldn’t do physical research so would “drop a pin on map”. She named real places. She didn’t feel she had to capture exact their reality, but the timings of Amelia’s journey had to be right. I love that she used online traveller reviews to inform herself. For example, a review of a hotel in a little town mentioned being kept awake by trains shaking the walls at night. She used that! She wanted to truly test Amelia to bring out her strength.

Nigel Featherstone: Hadn’t been to Egypt, so had some initial creative concerns. Then he realised that 1940s Alexandria no longer exists, which that freed him to rely on research. He knows very well the other main place in the book, Mt Wilson. He also talked about writing by hand (which astonished journalist Emma Alberici!) He has gradually learnt that writing is a whole of body activity.

Book coverThen it was Patrick Mullins. He was tricky in terms of “place”, so Alberici asked him about the title. Mullins admitted that his publisher chose it – using Gough Whitlam’s description of McMahon’s scheming by telephone. Mullins’ own title is the subtitle. Alberici asked if he had any cooperation from the family. None, said Mullins, though he sent messages and did have coffee with one member. So, he couldn’t access the 70 boxes of McMahon’s papers at the Archives. He understood, he said. Children of politicians have crappy lives, and, anyhow, it freed him from feeling beholden to the family. Silly family, eh? Fortunately, he had access to one of McMahon’s autobiography ghostwriters who had seen the papers. The most startling revelation, he said, responding to another question from Alberici, was that McMahon was “more admirable than we would have thought”. He racked up several significant achievements, including taking us to the OECD, and showed impressive persistence/resilience.

Q&A

It was a quality Q&A. The first questioner asked the writers to share the best part for them about writing:

  • Viggers loves the first draft, the joy of going on the ride, and taking the tangents. She also loves those rare moments when the words start to sing!
  • Featherstone found it a hard question, but said one part is when you feel you have written a good sentence, one that feels alive. (One that sings, perhaps?) This happens about once a month, he said. He quoted novelist Roger McDonald, who says that writing is putting sentence after sentence after sentence.
  • Hind’s favourite moments were making discoveries in her own work, the moments when you forget to eat and drink, the moments when you feel “this is what I’ve done”, and when you know your novel so well you can defend it against an editor (albeit her editor was great, she hastened to say.)
  • Mullins gave a non-fiction writer’s answer: It’s when you get access to material, when you find that special piece of information, the little details.

Another question concerned characters “taking over”. Does this happen, and how did they feel about it? Viggers said that for her it’s less that the characters dictate and more that the publishers want her to go deeper, while Hind said that there were times when she wished Amelia would tell her more! Amelia divulging much, even to her author! Featherstone gave the answer of the session. He said that around draft 20 (of the 40 he wrote), he pretended he was a journalist and interviewed his main characters. He asked them to give him an object that represented them, and to tell him a secret about themselves, which he promised not to put in the book. They did, and he didn’t!

Another asked for the best piece of advice they’ve received. Featherstone said it was “to write about what makes you blush”, while Viggers said it was “to get it down, then get it right.” Her husband also says that writing is not about inspiration but getting “bum on seat” and doing it. Hind said her tutor told her that she writes very plainly, which upset her – until he added, “a bit like Tim Winton”! That’s ok then! Mullins said he’d been told that a book about McMahon would be short. It’s not, it’s nearly 800 pages. So, his response was, don’t follow advice!

A good place to end my report of my Canberra Writers Festival. Phew. To those still with me, thanks for following along!

Nigel Featherstone, Bodies of men (#BookReview)

Nigel Featherstone, Bodies of menNigel Featherstone’s latest novel, Bodies of men, is a brave book – and not because it’s a World War 2 story about love between two soldiers at at time when such relationships were taboo, though there is that. No, I mean, because it’s a World War 2 story that was inspired by Featherstone’s three-month writer-in-residence stint at the Australian Defence Force Academy, in 2013. That’s not particularly brave, you are probably thinking, but wait, there’s more. What’s brave is that this novel, this story inspired by that residency, is about some darker sides of war – it’s about deserters, and violence from your own side, for a start … It’s certainly not about heroics, or, to be accurate, not the sort of heroics you’d expect. Courage, it shows, comes in many forms.

Here is what self-described pacifist Featherstone wrote in his blog two months into his residency:

I came here with the idea of exploring ‘masculinity in times of conflict’ …  Perhaps, like always, I’m being driven by that central question: what does it mean to be a good man, which, of course, is almost exactly the same as asking, what does it mean to be a good person?  But the military, especially the Australian kind of military, is all about men, isn’t it, the warrior, that iconic ‘digger’, that myth of our country, that brave saviour of everything we’re meant to stand for (whatever that is).

Those men who could do no wrong.  Except I don’t believe that for a second.

So, what did Featherstone actually write? It’s the story of two Australian soldiers from Sydney. William is from a conservative, well-to-do North Shore Sydney family, with a Member of Parliament father, while James comes from a poorer working class family, with a widowed mother who runs a shop but who’s also a socialist, a pacifist, and committed to helping homeless people. The boys had met and spent a few times together in their youth, but had lost touch for some years – until they find themselves in Egypt in 1941.

The novel opens with a reconnaissance that turns into an ambush. At an important moment, William, just off the boat, prevaricates, but James, there with a different military section, takes the initiative, and saves the day. The men vaguely recognise each other – “The officer”, thinks James, “does look familiar … but no it can’t be” – but have no opportunity to follow up, each returning immediately to their sections. From here the narrative, told third person from the alternating perspectives of William and James, follows the two men on their different paths. William, soon to be a lieutenant, is sent to manage a training camp in the desert. Believing he needs to redeem himself from that first experience of action, he sees this as an opportunity. He excels as a leader of men, finding the right balance between toughness and friendliness, but is dogged by his cold father’s voice, and worries about his ability to be the man his father expects. However, his mind is on that young man he glimpsed. Meanwhile, James goes AWOL on a military motorbike, which he crashes. Luckily, a family takes him in, a family which has its own tricky background and secrets, but James is just the right person to not rock their boat, so a warm relationship develops.

It’s not long before William works out a way of tracking James down. The story is told chronologically, but with frequent flashbacks which fill in that boyhood friendship. It was short, but intense. Both felt it, but William, in particular, struggled to understand it. It is therefore James, who, upon their renewed acquaintance, takes the lead – and the novel becomes, in part, a love story. Featherstone finds the right balance, here, conveying their tenderness and warmth, without sentimentality. We are never allowed to forget that this is war-time, and that both William and James are taking serious risks in their desire to be together.

However, this is not simply a boy-meets-boy, boy-loses-boy, boy-finds-boy again story. As mentioned above, Featherstone’s goal was to explore what it means to be a good man, against the backdrop of war. We do see some action, besides that opening scene, and there is an over-riding sense that something sinister could happen at any moment, but the main theme concerns men and their reactions to their circumstances – soldiers, men in hiding, men displaced, men in resistance. Each of these men provides the reader with a perspective on how men might choose to be. Courage and risk-taking, passion for a cause, recklessness, fear, commitment to helping others, tenderness and kindness – all of these come into play as the story progresses. And, as in all good novels, there are no simple answers. A love story this might be, but a genre romance or war-story it’s not.

How does Featherstone achieve this? Well, sometimes it’s hard to pinpoint these things, isn’t it? In a later post on his blog, Featherstone says that he wrote 38 drafts. You can tell this, and yet you can’t tell. You can tell, because you can feel the craft in the book. You can’t tell, because it also feels organic, not overworked. There’s skill in that. This skill includes the characterisation. William and James are sensitively fleshed out, well individuated, and grow through their experiences. But there are other characters too, including two strong women characters. James’ grounded, supportive mother is one, and open-minded Yetta, the woman who cares for James after his accident is another. It is she who articulates some of the novel’s main messages, including:

‘People must care for people. It’s not more complicated than that.’

There’s skill also in the narrative structure. The novel has a lightly episodic touch, with little breaks marked on the paper between “scenes”, but the story nonetheless flows. These breaks simply provide a way for the narrative to be progressed without unnecessary explication.

And, of course, there’s the writing. It’s spare, and yet perfectly evocative – of life at William’s desert camp, of the nervous busy-ness of war-time Alexandria where wells of quietness can also be found, and of William and James’ love. Here’s an example showing the edgy sort of tone Featherstone creates:

But now, something new: he was – he and James both were – sliding into the back seat of a car. They were being driven along one of Alexandria’s palm-lined boulevards; before long they were surrounded by blackness. William wound down his window and was about to yell, BUGGER THE WAR! – the night was getting away from him – but he managed to drag the words back down to where they belonged, in the pit of his gut.

Bodies of men, then, is a war novel that questions war. But, it is told with a generous touch that doesn’t undermine or betray those who choose to go. It’s a page-turner, underpinned by a fundamental understanding of humanity. It’s a very good read.

Nigel Featherstone
Bodies of men
Sydney: Hachette Australia, 2019
324pp.
ISBN: 9780733640704

 

A lovely night out … at the theatre

You know the year has really started when the concerts and shows start up again – and for us they’ve started with a bang. We had three events in four days: A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer (Playhouse) on Saturday night, The Weight of Light (Street Theatre) late Sunday afternoon, and the first Musica Viva concert (Llewellyn Hall) on Tuesday night. This post, though, will just discuss the middle one, because it’s Australian, having been written by local author Nigel Featherstone who has featured on this blog several times. I’m not, however, an experienced theatre reviewer. I don’t have the language, and as a reader, I find it challenging seeing something only once, and not being able to go back to check something out, as you can with a book!

The Weight of Light

I’ve been surprised in recent years to discover how many Australian novelists are also librettists. David Malouf, Peter Goldsworthy, Dorothy Porter (ok a poet but also a verse novelist), and Louis Nowra immediately spring to mind – and now, local novelist and short story writer Nigel Featherstone can also claim this title. Described as a song cycle, The Weight of Light had its origins in a residency the very peaceful, non-warlike Featherstone had at the Australian Defence Force Academy in late 2013. I remember it well because he wrote about it on his blog. It all came to a head in 2014, when time came for him to do a presentation on his three months. He wrote:

I already had the questions – What is a man?  Who is a good man?  Who is a good being? – but I didn’t have the stories, or anything remotely resembling stories.  Bearing in mind that my intention in doing the residency wasn’t to write about war as such; I’m disinterested in guns, and the infinitely complex political contexts require a much bigger brain than mine.  I was interested in the small moments, the hidden fears and thoughts and dreams.

So there, in 2014, he had an idea in mind about soldiers. Then, later that year, as Featherstone tells it, Paul Scott-Williams from the Goulburn Regional Conservatorium met Nigel and told him that he wanted to create “an original song cycle”. He felt that “art song did not have much of an Australian tradition”, and wanted to do something about it, starting with Nigel as librettist. From there, the project slowly grew. Nigel has documented the process on his blog. The end result was the highly moving performance we saw on Sunday afternoon.

How to describe it? We entered the lovely Street Theatre to be faced with a minimally lit stage, comprising a minimal set. There were two large crisscrossed beams, a wire wending across the stage like a fence, brown fabric on the floor emulating a river, and, to the right, a grand piano. The show started with Alan Hicks on piano, with singing starting up soon after from somewhere backstage. The voice, coming from baritone Michael Lampard, turned out to be a mother calling her soldier-son home to the farm.

From here Lampard, with Hicks at the piano, took us on a journey, through fourteen songs, in which the soldier faces a tragedy at home which recalls to his mind a secret tragedy that had occurred during his tour (that’s a weird word really, isn’t it, for a military posting) of Afghanistan. It’s a dark story, a grim one at times, as the soldier confronts a number of challenges in his life. But, it’s also a beautiful show. If that makes sense.

This was the whole package – words, music, performance, set and lighting. Lampard’s vocal range was impressive, enabling him to differentiate characters (his mother, father, girlfriend) as they interacted with him. The lighting remained dark throughout, in keeping with the theme, though placement and levels did vary with the mood. The set was in that modern minimalist style in which a few objects are used to convey different ideas or places at different times – in this case, both the field of war and the fields of a farm. The two large semi-reclined crossed beams also, I thought, conveyed an idea of the cross, which, at one of the darker points in the performance, our soldier seemed to shoulder, recalling Christ’s journey to Calvary.

And then there was James Humberstone’s music. It included elements, we felt, of art-song, opera and church music, and was completely involving – both the sound of it and the performance of it, which included both Lampard and Hicks bowing the piano strings to create a mournful atmosphere. Other effects included paper being laid across the strings creating a fluttery, buzzing effect, and Hicks hitting the strings with small mallets. None of these were tricks for tricks’ sake, but enhanced the meaning or mood of the story.

I found these demos below on SoundCloud. They’re from earlier in the development when the program was still called Homesong, but they give an idea of the range we heard, from the sweetly lyrical to the more sombre, minimalist pieces.

I would love to be able to share some of the words with you, but not having the libretto and having only seen the performance once, that’s not possible. I did find it hard to hear them all with so much going on, but I loved the poetry of them, the use of repetition, and the imagery – of birds in particular. In the second last song, I think it was, our soldier needs to make a decision. Can he be strong, or will he give up? “Be brave enough to stay” is the call to him. The program ends, happily, on a note of hope.

Mr Gums, two acquaintances and I enjoyed, at the end, sharing notes on the performance, combining our various impressions. We all felt we’d experienced something special. I’d say Paul Scott-Williams has got what he wanted – a quality contribution to Australia’s art-song repertoire, with a story that’s right up to the moment in its concerns. I hope it gets more outings.

The Weight of Light
Words by Nigel Featherstone
Music by James Humberstone
The Street Theatre, 4 March 2018, 4pm

Nigel Featherstone, The beach volcano (Review)

Courtesy: Blemish Books

Courtesy: Blemish Books

Back in 2010, Featherstone spent a month, on a writer’s retreat, at Kingsbridge Gatekeeper’s in Cataract Gorge, Launceston. He writes on his blog that he left Launceston with sketches for three novellas. The beach volcano is the last of these, the other two being Fall on me (my review) and I’m ready now (my review). Before I talk about the novella, though, I must compliment Blemish Books on the production of these three books. They are gorgeous – they have appealing, stylish cover designs; they are a perfect size, fall open easily and have lovely, clear print; and together they look like a set. Well done Blemish, I say.

Now, to the book itself. Featherstone has appeared a few times on this blog, via my reviews of the first two novellas, a guest post in 2012, and a five-part interview that I ran over the summer of 2012-2013 when the magazine it was destined for, Wet Ink, folded. Through all of these, one particular idea or theme has been consistent – and it is, as he formally stated in his guest post, that “family is the guts of the contemporary Australian story”. He mentioned several writers, such as Kate Grenville, Craig Silvey and Gillian Mears, for whom this is clearly true, and then turned to his own work:

My main characters are usually men and women (always a good start!) who have children, who want to be parents, who struggle to cope, who feel the pressure of internal and external expectation, who fail and fall into a heap but pat themselves down and have another crack at it.

And so, Fall on me centres on father and teenage son, Lou and Luke, while I’m ready now is about a fifty-something mother and thirty-year old son. In The beach volcano, we’ve moved on again in age. The father here is 80 years old, and the son 44. I’m not sure whether this age progression drove the order in which the books have been published, but it does have a certain neatness. Luke, the teenager in the first book, is pretty wise for his age but he is still a young man sorting out his identity and his separation from his father. Thirty-year-old Gordon, on the other hand, is confronting turning 30 and, not comfortable with what this implies, embarks on a risky “Year of living ridiculously”. This brings us to 44-year-old Canning (aka successful rock musician Mick Dark) who has returned home for the first time since he was 17 to celebrate his father’s 80th birthday. He has come primarily because he wants to discover the “full” truth about a story told to him by his aunt, the estranged sister of his father. I should add here, in case I’ve given the wrong impression, that the first two books don’t focus solely on the son, whereas The beach volcano is very definitely Canning’s story.

The thing about Featherstone’s books – at least these three – is that there’s potential in each for high drama, or, to put it more crudely, for violence and/or death. But, Featherstone is not a writer of crime or thrillers. He’s interested in family and human relationships, and so, while dramatic things happen, the drama never takes over the story. In The beach volcano, terrible things involving abuse of boys by men have happened before the novel starts. They resulted in family secrets to do with a false alibi – and who knows what else, we wonder as we read. This is what Canning has come home to discover.

The story is told, first person, through a traditional linear narrative, with flashbacks to fill us in on relevant background. It starts with Canning’s arrival on Friday, late, for the pre-birthday dinner for the immediate family, and continues to the end of the weekend when all has been revealed, to Canning at least, and he is able to make some decisions about where to from here. Throughout the weekend, Canning has one-on-one conversations with different members of his family, his parents, his two older sisters, a brother-in-law, and a nephew. We to-and-fro between love and hate, welcome and aggression, as this family tries to keep conflict at bay, while threatened by a secret that they refuse to openly confront. Family secrets, gotta love them! But, Canning wants truthful relationships with his family now:

I’d come to Sydney to tell the truth, but it was important to be selective about the truth, and to have good timing in the telling, to be cautious. Because the truth, I thought, was a disturbance. The truth took things apart and put them back together in a different but better shape. But what exactly was a better shape?

This is the question Canning needs to answer, and is why he bides his time. He needs (and wants) the truth to be a positive force, not a destructive or simply life-sustaining one.

Featherstone’s language is clear and evocative, with lovely descriptions of coastal Sydney and realistic dialogue. Canning’s voice feels genuine, if a little inclined at times to over-explain. The “beach volcano” of the title works on both the literal level as an activity that Canning and his father share, and that he then wants to pass onto to his newly-met nephew, and as a metaphor for simmering tensions that threaten to erupt. You’ll have to read the book though if you want to know what erupts and how. It is, in its measured way, quite the page-turner.

In a sense, this is a reworking of the prodigal son story, except that in this version the son returns as a success and is, perhaps, the one who extends the greatest generosity. Like the original, it is about love and acceptance, but has the added theme – one that Featherstone explores in the three novellas – of the need to face the past before you can truly progress into your future.

The beach volcano makes a fitting conclusion to Featherstone’s novella set. I have enjoyed the time I’ve spent with his unique but real families and look forward to seeing what he comes up with next.

Nigel Featherstone
The beach volcano
Canberra: Blemish Books, 2014
140pp
ISBN: 9780980755695

(Review copy courtesy Blemish Books)

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?

FEATHERSTONE

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?

INTERVIEWER

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

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.

INTERVIEWER

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?

FEATHERSTONE

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.

INTERVIEWER

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.

FEATHERSTONE

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.

INTERVIEWER

Can you let us in on your next writing project?

FEATHERSTONE

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.

INTERVIEWER

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

FEATHERSTONE

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.

INTERVIEWER

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

FEATHERSTONE

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.

INTERVIEWER

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?

FEATHERSTONE

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.

INTERVIEWER

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

FEATHERSTONE

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.

INTERVIEWER

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 …

INTERVIEWER

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?

FEATHERSTONE 

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.

INTERVIEWER

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?

FEATHERSTONE

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.

INTERVIEWER

Who are the important novelists for you?

FEATHERSTONE

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.

INTERVIEWER

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

FEATHERSTONE 

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.

INTERVIEWER

What are you working on at present?

FEATHERSTONE

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…