Book Launch of My heart is a little wild thing by Nigel Featherstone

A respite this week from Monday Musings because I did want to bring you the Canberra launch of Nigel Featherstone’s My heart is a little wild thing, which happened on Saturday. Normally, I would have published the post on the weekend, but I was otherwise engaged, and so have decided to usurp Monday Musings to post it now. The launch, which took the form of an interview with Featherstone by Anna Vidot, was to take place at Harry Hartog Bookseller’s ANU campus location. However, interest was so high that it was moved to a small lecture theatre next door. Such is the support for local author and arts activist Nigel Featherstone.

The participants

Nigel Featherstone is no stranger to this blog, as checking out the link on his name will demonstrate. I have reviewed his 2019 novel (Bodies of men), the three novellas that preceded that, and a song-cycle. I have worked with him as litblogging mentor for the ACT Writers Centre’s New Territory program. And I have reported on myriad events that he has organised and/or been part of, most recently F*CK COVID: An Online Literary Affair organised during you know what.

Anna Vidot is a presenter on ABC Local radio – since 2019 – before which she had been ABC Rural’s national political reporter. I enjoyed her questioning. She had clearly engaged with the work.

The conversation

Anna commenced by saying that this was one of those books she clasped to her chest on finishing … and then launched into the discussion.

On where the book came from

Nigel said that after completing his manuscript, he came across his writer’s journal from July 2007 which had the words “two people, farm, quoll”. This core had been with him since then but it hadn’t come together until he spent a week on the Monaro after the 2019/2020 fires. He had tried various ideas and locations, but this is when the novel clicked. (M post on the Monaro, which includes a mention of Nigel.)

As for the quoll, the Tiger Quoll has been extinct in the region for some time but conservation efforts are bringing it back. It is a quoll which leads his lonely protagonist Patrick to a meaningful relationship.

On how the Monaro bled into him

Nigel had gone to a remote little heritage-listed barn in Bobundra, in the Monaro/Ngarigo Country. While there, he realised, when he was more interested in a Stephen Fry book than in writing his novel, that it wasn’t working. So he walked, and walked, until his character Patrick came to him. He then wrote the main draft by hand in 14 days. It took 12 drafts, way less than the 40+ for his last novel!

On how much of Patrick is in him

It is a work of the imagination, Featherstone reiterated. He described it as being a “ghost writer” writing Patrick’s memoir, the story of a dutiful son who has denied his own self.

On “what if” or “sliding door” elements, particularly when you borrow from yourself

While the book is not about Nigel, things in his life did inspire it. When his mother died a few years ago, he immediately thought, he said, “who was she?” He wanted to write about a mother-son relationship. What would his life have looked like if he had “obeyed his mother”, who didn’t want him to be a writer or to love men, and who never came to one of his events? Patrick, to some degree, is that person. (At the end of the interview, Nigel told us that when he and his brother were clearing out their mother’s house, they found a scrapbook in which she’d kept all the articles he’d written, and all the articles/reviews/advertisements about him. It told him, “If you think I wasn’t paying attention, I was.” What a gift, he said!

On his understanding of being a good child

Nigel quoted novelist George Saunders who said that “our characters are better versions of ourselves”. Patrick was loyal and faithful to his mother. This is a three-way love story: man and his mother; a man with another man; and a man with a place. Nigel said that he also wanted the novel to be a loving portrait of a mother.

Continuing the discussion on family, Nigel noted that Patrick also watches his siblings’ relationships with their parents, which in turn affects his relationship with his siblings.

On how he found Lewis, the love interest

Nigel responded by mentioning an essay, “The opposite of glamour“, by  Delia Falconer, which discusses climate change, the extinction crisis and the loss of nature – and the deep impact this is having on our beings. He came up with the idea of Patrick seeing a man, Lewis, planting trees. But, he said, you can’t write, “Oh you’re planting trees, let’s shag”, though a poet could! He talked about the Tiger Quoll, again, encouragement from novelist John Clanchy, and finding the link with his character Patrick. He talked about the “revegetation” motif, with its layer reflectin the revegetation in Patrick’s heart.

He also laughed about The Saturday Paper review which described some of sex scenes as “a bit smutty”, but the reviewer had gone on to say that they were “perfectly appropriate for a man finding his sexuality”.

On finding Patrick’s voice

Voice, said Nigel, is a mystery. In fact, everything about writing is a mystery. He wanted the voice to be concise, simple, and had tried third person but it wasn’t working. He talked of being inspired by Tsiolkas’ fearlessness (and mentioned his essay in Reading like an Australian writer, on which I posted recently.) He also quoted Irvine Welsh’s advice that “it’s your page you can do whatever the f*** you want to”. And, he mentioned a residency he, Robyn Cadwallader and Julie Keys had had with Charlotte Wood. Discussing his opening sentence –

The day after I tried to kill my mother, I tossed some clothes, a pair of hiking boots, a baseball cap and a few toiletries into my backpack, and left at dawn.

– with Wood, she asked him, “has it got heat in it?” because “heat” should be an indicator.

On tackling being fearless

He said there was an element of being “shit-scared”, and that there was a balance between “caring and letting go”. He quoted Tim Minchin’s statement that any piece of art is about “How much time you had” combined with “how much energy you gave to it”.

He shared here that he’d given an early version to his agent, who called it “rubbish”. “Her business model,” he said, “is to follow people around with an axe.” Clearly though, she knows what she’s doing – and, she knows what Nigel can take!

On the role of music in the work (and Nigel’s life)

Music is one of the three loves of his life he said – which, anyone who knows Nigel’s work or reads his blog, would know. So, he realised Lewis would be a composer, and that it would create opportunities for him. Then he told us that he had just heard from London-based composer, Ben P Moore, who had written a suite of music inspired by the novel. Nigel was chuffed. Moore, he said, had never been to the Monaro, but had captured it beautifully.

On the book’s exploration of happiness

Anna suggested that the book grapples with “what do we decide is enough in our lives” and/or “what is enough for happiness”. Nigel agreed that his novel was partly driven by considering “happiness”. He had once heard Patrick White say that “happiness is a red herring. It’s not the point”, but Nigel disagreed. He said he’s always been interested in happiness, though it’s a fleeting thing.

This led to a little more on Lewis’ role. Nigel described Lewis as part-animal and the tiger quoll as part-human. Lewis gives Patrick permission to be himself.

Q & A

There was an engaged Q&A. Here are some highlights:

Do you find the words or do the words find you?: Both, said Nigel. He does love a dictionary, and a thesaurus. Writers are not just vessels, but do a lot of work to produce what they do.

It is the the absence or presence of joy/contentment that stimulates good writing?: (I might have lost the connecting thread here!) Nigel feels that readers are satisfied when characters get what they need more than what they want, but what do they yearn for? Nigel shared that he yearns to be an artist. A someone in the audience called out, he is. Patrick needs to get a life, said Nigel, he needs to live deeply, wildly (which reminded me a little of Nigel’s novella, The beach volcano.)

Did the two violent events in the book happen as a surprise or were they planned?: Nigel answered that the writing was very much a stream of consciousness process. He mentioned poet Melinda Smith’s idea of duende, of having two muses, an angel and a devil/goblin one. The “goblin muse” encourages you to say things people say you shouldn’t say, of going to “the dangerous place”. So, with his opening line, he realised the response was to “let’s follow that”. I saw a theme here – Smith’s dangerous place, Tsiolkas’ fearlessness, and Wood’s heat.

Do you depend on honest criticism to produce a work like this?: Nigel had already shared his agent’s response to an earlier draft, but he shared here David Malouf’s advice that there are no wrong steps, that if you go down one path, you needed to go there, and then it’s “now we are going here”. Tim Minchin, he said, talks of “spine tingles” (for Nigel it’s the “tummy buzz”) that tell you you are on to something.

How do outside stresses affect the ability to create art?: Paul Verlaine spoke about love, said Nigel, but for him it’s also about the hope to live in an environment that isn’t dying. The novel is about people, the environment and animals wanting to live again.

It was an intense and fully engaged launch – and I hope I got the gist. I can’t wait to read the novel now.

Book Launch of My heart is a little wild thing by Nigel Featherstone
Cultural Centre Kambri (organised by Harry Hartog Bookseller ANU)
Saturday 28 May 2022, 12noon-1pm

Nigel Featherstone on Christos Tsiolkas’ fearlessness

This week, Nigel Featherstone’s latest novel, My heart is a little wild thing, was published, and I plan to attend the launch later this month. In the meantime, it seemed apposite to discuss his essay on Christos Tsiolkas in Reading like an Australian writer. Those of you who have read Nigel’s blog will know that he’s a Tsiolkas fan, so it’s not surprising that he was commissioned to write on him for this anthology. As it happens, I’m a Tsiolkas fan too, so this was one of the essays I was keen to read.

Fearlessness

This essay, though, is a little different to the previous essays I’ve discussed from this anthology, because it’s more about Tsiolkas’ oeuvre than one work.

Early on, Featherstone references Orwell’s essay, “Why I write”, noting that “political purpose” is one of those reasons. Tsiolkas is “one of Australia’s most politically attuned writers of his generation”. It’s relevant to explain here, as Featherstone does, that Tsiolkas is the son of Greek migrants, is gay, and identifies as a socialist and atheist. Given this (and, I would add, given the grittiness of many of his novels), it is “truly remarkable”, says Featherstone, that in our contemporary conservative Australia, Tsiolkas has had significant critical and commercial success.

Featherstone starts at the beginning – with Tsiolkas’ first novel, Loaded (adapted to film as Head on), which was published in 1995. Now, Featherstone is a writer too, of course, so he is particularly interested in exploring Tsiolkas’ craft. To do this, he shares specific excerpts/quotes* which reveal, among other things, why he titled his essay “Fearless”. Tsiolkas is audacious, from the opening paragraph of his first novel.

I mentioned above that Tsiolkas is “gritty”, which is my description of in-your-face writing like Tsiolkas’. Featherstone doesn’t use that word, but it’s what he means when he says that the writing “could come across as crass”. It doesn’t, though, he says, because it feels confident, which is why readers stay with it.

How he makes it feel confident is the thing, isn’t it? It may partly be in the way, as Featherstone puts it, Tsiolkas “pushes his prose towards poetry”, by which he means “the language is doing more than one thing at once. Featherstone also refers to the epigraph for Loaded. I love that, because I do think the epigraph can contain serious clues to a work. Epigraphs are not there for fun (or, if they are, the fun is also part of the meaning!)

Featherstone looks at what emerging writers can learn about writing with audacity (or fearlessness): it requires, he says, writing not just from the brain, but the body (chest, gut and crotch) and it requires caring deeply about the characters (no matter how flawed).

Featherstone also identifies Tsiolkas’ main concerns – “class in Australia, and the power and privilege of whiteness” – and he describes one of Tsiolkas’ “many strengths” as “his ability to explore political concerns through the depiction of the everyday”. This is certainly how I think of The slap and Barracuda . I wrote in my Barracuda post:

“This dissection of worlds, of  “class”, and of anglo-Australia versus immigrant Australia, is an ongoing concern for Tsiolkas. We came across it in his previous novel, The slap (my review), and we see it again here. Tsiolkas is not the only writer exploring this territory, but he’s one of the gutsiest because he’s not afraid to present the ugliness nor does he ignore the greys, the murky areas where “truth” is sometimes hard to find (though he doesn’t use the word “truth”).”

So, I liked that when talking about the short story “Tourists” from Merciless Gods, Featherstone says:

In this relatively simple tale the author reveals the racism that exists at the core of Australia’s masculinity and the violence that courses through the nation’s vernacular.

In fact, I don’t just like this, I love it, because, for me, “the violence that courses through the nation’s vernacular” is the main idea behind The slap. As Featherstone writes, “Tsiolkas is a social critic as much as he is a writer of literary fiction”. True, and it’s not particularly surprising. Some of my favourite literary fiction also encompasses social criticism. (Think Charlotte Wood’s The natural way of things or Melissa Lucashenko’s Too much lip.)

The last work Featherstone looks at is Damascus (my review) and again he starts with the first paragraph, and teases out its power – the precision which which Tsiolkas can convey multiple layers of fear. He see fear as being one of the novel’s themes. The opening of this novel is truly terrifying, but another point Featherstone makes is Tsiolkas’ ability to “contrast the heavy with the light”. (Some readers, I know, struggle to find the light in Tsiolkas’ work, but I’m with Featherstone. It is there.)

Nigel Featherstone perfectly meets the brief of this anthology, which was to share how a writer reads. His essay contains very specific lessons that can be taken from Tsiolkas’ writing. However, in doing this, he also conveys the two prongs that make writing sing for me – fearlessness in style, structure and/or content, and generosity in attitude to tough characters and/or ideas. Tsiolkas epitomises both, and so, I think, does Featherstone.

* Do read the essay to see all the great excerpts.

Nigel Featherstone
“Fearless: On Christos Tsiolkas”
in Belinda Castles (ed), Reading like an Australian writer
Sydney: NewSouth, 2021
pp. 125-136
ISBN: 9781742236704

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)