The Beach Volcano: ready to sell itself for the world.

The Beach Volcano: ready to sell itself for the world.

You know when you start referencing Mariah Carey in conversation that things aren’t quite right. And when you begin yarns with ‘I’m reading a lot about war in Afghanistan at the moment and I can really understand how those men feel’ you know it’s time to take a deep breath. Regrettably, this week I’ve done both those things. Because (a) The Beach Volcano is now officially out in the world and (b) I’m so exhausted that my skill hurts – seriously. Have I told you how Mariah Carey is fighting war in Afghanistan?

I guess the first thing I want to say is THANK YOU to all those who attended the launch at the mighty Electric Shadows Bookshop on 18 September. There was a terrific buzz in the room and I managed to get through my speech without swearing and/or dribbling. Maybe. Better still, Distinguished Professor Jen Webb said great things, as in astute. Also, thanks to everyone who sent through congratulatory messages, vis textie, the Facebook, the Twitter, or via carrier pigeon. Thanks also, of course, to Blemish Books for putting up with me for the past four and a half years – it’s been a fantastically productive relationship, especially considering that literary novellas aren’t exactly an easy proposition these days.

Finally, it’s pleasing to report that there have been some warm critical responses to The Beach Volcano. A few highlights:

‘In this tight, spare novella, Nigel Featherstone takes a well-tried narrative formula, the family union for a big occasion, and gives it a treatment both elegant and original. The wonderful symbol of the beach volcano – a banked fire under a mound of sand that will ‘erupt’ if you pour saltwater into its mouth – gathers import and power as the story progresses’ Sydney Morning Herald

‘Nigel Featherstone’s accomplished third novella, The Beach Volcano, takes as its point of departure Tasmania, as had its predecessors, I’m Ready Now and Fall on Me. There is a good deal to admire in The Beach Volcano, whose title metaphor points to a key element in the plot of the novel, as well as to a lost childhood time that, it seems, can only be destructively revived in the present. Mick Dark’s musical career is imagined in economical and vivid detail, Featherstone even managing the very difficult task of giving us a sense of how key songs were born, and might sound. The family dynamic – of pride, concealment, ambition – is persuasively presented, not least in the unconscionable burdens that each of the Alburys feels obliged to accept. Featherstone has once more exploited to advantage the taut, intense fictional range in which he works best’ Canberra Times

‘The great contradictions and betrayals of family life are the central concerns of Nigel Featherstone’s new novel, The Beach Volcano, and reading it we share some of the rawest emotions that surface in the swings between guilt and sanctimony that characterise relationships between parents, children and siblings. The Beach Volcano is as much a crime thriller as a domestic drama, and Featherstone’s third and final book in a series of what he calls novellas (but which seem so much more substantial and complete than that) stands alone as something quite original. There is a real sense of excitement as the story proceeds, a heightened suspense that is surprising in literary fiction. Featherstone’s skill as a writer seems to increase book by book, and this novel stands out as the absolute crowning achievement. Utterly enthralling’ Newtown Review of Books

‘The thing about Featherstone’s books is that there’s potential 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. 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. Featherstone’s language is clear and evocative. The ‘beach volcano’ of the title works on both the literal level and as a metaphor for simmering tensions that threaten to erupt. In a way, 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. It is about love and acceptance, but has the added theme of the need to face the past before you can truly progress into your future. In its measured way, quite the page-turner. A fitting conclusion to Featherstone’s novella set’ Whispering Gums

So. The Beach Volcano is out of my hands and off on its own adventures, doing whatever it is that it wants/needs. And this brings to an end the Launceston novellas. It’s been a fantastic ride. I honestly never expected – or even intended – for the entire series to be made public. I wrote these books initially for myself, for my own challenge and entertainment. Then the editing started, and the rewriting, and the polishing, and more of those skull pains. Of course, it’s been wonderful to see the books go on to do good things (and I do feel as though Fall on Me and I’m Ready Now are no longer mine, though I’m still far too close to The Beach Volcano to think about it in any rational way). After a bit of a lie-down – okay, it might end up a very lengthy lie-down, as in I might not surface for years – it’ll be time to turn my attention to new things. Like caring for my chooks for weeks on end. Or walking the Old Lady of the House. Or just sitting on my back step talking to the sparrows.

They’re a lot of fun, sparrows, don’t you reckon?

Apparently it's all about the beginning. Who knew?

Apparently it’s all about the beginning. Who knew?

There are plenty of satisfying things to do. Walking the dog is one. Reading is another. Working in the vegetable garden. Helping a friend move house. Baking a cake. Listening to music. Finding your way through an unfamiliar city without a map. But there’s something I know that’s even more satisfying. It’s something that happens so rarely, at least in my humble abode, but I always look forward to it. When it’s done my body feels lighter, better, and my mind is settled and free. Come on, Featherstone, spit it out. What on earth are you talking about now?

I’m a jar cleaner, as in I like – love – cleaning a jar, getting it ready for re-use.

Perhaps the jar used to contain pasta sauce, or some kind of pesto. Maybe it had contained herbs or ginger or garlic. But once it’s been emptied the real fun begins. The scrubbing and cleaning so the glass is crystal clear and the lid as perfect as can be. Then the label must be removed. Usually the label itself comes off easily enough. How good it is to tear it away with a finger – it’s like removing old skin. But that sticky, stubborn glue residue: isn’t it awful, it barely budges. So, in the jar goes for a soak in warm soapy water, for an hour, for hours, for an entire day if necessary. Slowly but surely, perhaps with the aid of a knife, the glue residue is removed. And there it is: a new jar.

It’s an empty vessel, that’s what it is. How can it be used now? What will it hold? Perhaps that’s what all this is about: the future, hope, wishes and dreams. Might it also be about renewal? That we all believe so passionately in recycling, in minimising waste? The thing is, in my place, the jars are almost never refilled. They just sit on their shelf, a dozen in a row, waiting there like birds on a fence. To my mind, it’s actually about emptiness, about emptying out, about not holding on, or not filling up. When we’re empty – of expectation, of busyness, of desire – we are open to everything that might come our way. When we’re empty we can feel that lightness of being that novelist Milan Kundera called ‘unbearable’.

When we’re empty we’re no one. We’re back at the beginning.

And there’s no better place than the beginning.

(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 13 September 2014.)

I almost threw it across the room.

In fact, I almost threw a lot of things across the room. First it was the mobile: textie after textie after textie; coffee meetings, deadlines. And then the landline: family dramas. Before the laptop: Facebook updates and private messages, Twitter feeds (I’m responsible for three) and more private messages. I had images of me boiling the mobile in the saucepan and snapping the laptop in half on my thigh. I had a fantasy of giving up everything and raising chooks for a living – bliss.

No doubt I’m not a natural fit for social media. (The only machine in my house that I truly adore is my record player.) No doubt I’m not really a natural fit for communication of any kind. Which can’t be true: I’m a writer with two decades of experience and I’ve been paid for the majority of my output. If a day goes by when some kind of story isn’t on the make – a short story, a novella, a novel, a review, an artist profile, a column – it’s a very bad day indeed. I have things to say, or in my little brain I think I have things to say. I want to move people, I want to be memorable. With writing at least. In real life I’m more than happy to be the guy leaning against the brick wall listening to Burial EPs on a ten-year-old MP3 player while adjusting the leather-plat buttons on his faded green, knitted cardigan.

I want to notice more of this.

I want to notice more of this.

So, is all this reliance on technologically-assisted communication really that necessary? Is social media essential? It must be. Everyday we see someone crossing the road while glued to their phone, scrolling, hoping, as a gang of sulphur-crested cockatoos bang around above. We’ve looked in the rear-view mirror to see a driver checking Instagram. For normal people, all this might be okay. (Not so okay, obviously, if you’re responsible for keeping a vehicle on the road.) The thing is, if art is an act of communication – we have a point, we want that point to be heard, we want to rearrange things so better lives are possible – aren’t we diluting our powers by communicating twenty-four-seven?

What if we shove a lid on it? What if we post nothing for weeks even, months? What if we invest all our frustrations at the world – our anger, our disappointment, our deep sadness, despair perhaps – into our work? But you’re probably thinking, is it so bad that I want to share on Facebook my view that our little country is going down like the devil wearing velvet trousers? Do I really have to refrain from gushing at my best-friend’s pic of his bright red Stratocaster? Please, please, please can’t I just send a tweet to say that I’ve burnt the rice while listening to the latest Kylie album? Seriously, is any of this really so wrong?

Yes, communicating absolute bollocks all the time might be wrong.

If we want to make art.

*

First published in BMA Magazine on 23 May 2014.

The Beach Volcano - launch invitation - 18 September 2014It’s strange what bubbles to the surface while walking the dog, or perhaps it’s not that strange at all. Regardless, what bubbled to the surface this week while walking the Old Lady of the House (who, like her walker, is aging at a rate of knots) is that this is my 20th year as a committed, daily writer. Thank you, thank you, thank you – your applause is very kind. So there’s a nice symmetry, if that’s the right word, to The Beach Volcano being published this year. What will happen now? How will the next 20 years be? Will there indeed be another 20 years of writing? Sometimes – often – I simply can’t imagine that being the case. What I know for certain is that it’s very, very unlikely that I’ll write another series of three novellas. I adore the novella form, as is probably obvious, but it’s time to work in a new way. On a personal level, it seems like one chapter is closing and another one is opening – maybe. So, if you’re so inclined, it’d be great to have you at the launch of The Beach Volcano and help celebrate not only this third and final novella, but also that…I’m getting incredibly old. Plus you’d get to hear from Distinguished Professor Jen Webb, Director of the Centre for Creative and Cultural Practice at the University of Canberra (amongst many other things). I mentioned all this to Millie during our walk earlier this week. Being a very loving and patient dog, she wagged her tail, but I could that she wasn’t terribly interested. I think she just knows – really knows – that her greatest contribution to my life is taking me for a walk. Which is more than enough, surely.

The latest issue of Capital magazine - contains traces of fiction

The latest issue of Capital magazine – contains traces of fiction

For two days I visited newsagents but came away empty-handed every time. On the third day, however, there they were, a whole bunch of them stacked up high on the shelves. I grabbed one, grabbed another. Paid my money, got on my way. But only a dozen or so steps outside the shop I stopped. Flicked through the pages in my hands. A story on a musical response to a selection of Arthur Boyd paintings. A story on comedian Bill Bailey finding happiness. Gorgeous photographs of a gorgeous house, and fine text about the house’s design and construction. A boutique, biodynamic winery.

And then, there it was, my story, a piece of fiction – amongst all this.

There are three things that I love about ‘Come with me (to another world)’ being published in issue 66 of Capital Magazine. First, it’s a story that was in response to ‘Paths through the Forest’, an exhibition at M16 Art Space in Canberra in 2013 curated by Julie Bradley and Ann McMahon. I was asked to prepare a piece that responded to the art work in whatever way I felt was appropriate and ‘Come with me’…well…came into the world. Second, I adore the idea of fiction finding a way to readers through different means – quite frankly, as many means as possible. I love the thought that someone may pick up a copy of Capital to be inspired by beautiful architecture but come away being inspired by beautiful prose too (hopefully).

Perhaps, however, the main reason I love this whole thing so much is the accompanying illustration. It’s by Matt Adams, an award-wining artist and illustrator who’s worked for Fairfax Media and Mad Australia, and in 2006 won a Bald Archy for his portrait of John Olsen. It’s extraordinary to have your work interpreted by a visual artist (especially considering the story was originally inspired by a carefully curated selection of visual art). What elements will the artist explore? How will the themes be interpreted and communicated? What new layers will be revealed?

In short, it’s a visually literate way of seeing inside a reader’s mind.

Matt Adams' illustration for 'Come with me (to another world)'. Reproduced here with permission from the artist. Yes, this what goes on in my mind.

Matt Adams’ illustration for ‘Come with me (to another world)’. Reproduced here with permission from the artist. Yes, this is what goes on in my mind.

Matt’s illustration for ‘Come with me (to another world)’ blows my brain. Almost literally: it’s almost too much too bear. A young man in T-shirt and pyjama bottoms. An axe. A chook coop. A chook on its side – it’s fallen, hasn’t it. A gate. A fence. A lemon tree. The corner of a Hill’s Hoist, a white handkerchief flapping freely in the breeze. But let’s go back to that young man: he’s not fully present, he’s faded – is he coming or going? It’s all so domestic, backyard, but oh so very dark. One day I’d love to see this art work on a wall in a gallery. Because, I think, it’s that good. But also to see what life it takes on. It’s as if the whole project has been about passing a kind of baton: from visual artist to me to visual artist to readers to…?

Huge thanks to Capital editor Gillian Lord for taking a risk on ‘Come with me’.

And huge thanks to Matt Adams for taking the story into another world.

*

To purchase this issue of Capital head into your favourite newsagent, or check out the magazine’s website.

Gossling's Harvest of Gold is also a harvest of goodness - but do we value that goes into the making of these things?

Gossling’s ‘Harvest of Gold’ is also a harvest of goodness – but do we really value the effort that goes into the making of these things?

So, it had happened again. I’d been blissfully scouring the shelves of a second-hand bookshop when the shop-keeper, a wren-like woman in her sixties with wild blonde hair and wearing black leather pants, did it, she asked her question. ‘What do you do for a living?’

It wasn’t as if she’d said, ‘Do you mind if I get nude?’ or ‘Why is it you have a face like a burns victim?’ She simply wanted to know how I earned a crust.

I moved in closer against the shelves in an effort to show that I was terribly busy trying to decide how to spend my money in her shop. But I had to be polite. I said, ‘I’m a…the best way to…journalist… fiction… stuff.’

My response was pathetic, awful, almost downright disrespectful. Why was it so hard to tell this gregarious woman what I do?

There’s no doubt that most people with a creative practice have been in a similar situation. And, I think, it all comes down to two key things: understanding and value. It’s true that the only person who understands what it’s like to try to write a decent story or column (let’s not even go near novellas or novels) is the person who’s trying to chose the right words and put them in the right order. Do I know what it’s like to be in a band, to write a song, to get it to sit up and swagger, to play the thing in front of a hundred drunken patrons? Nope, no idea. The visual arts? I love them, especially photomedia and assemblage, but do I understand what it takes to create a drawing or painting or a piece of public art? Nuh. And the performers – the dancers and choreographers. I admire them, I’m inspired by them, but I could never truly understand the work they do. Let’s face it, artists are the freaks of the Australian workforce.

That second key to all this: value.

How do we value what we do when we barely understand it ourselves? Recently I’ve been listening to Gossling’s Harvest of Gold. Because it’s an absolute cracker. How much work has gone into every chorus and verse and bridge, every sound, every layer – it’s meticulously crafted. How much blood, sweat and tears have been invested in something that many – thousands with any luck, hundreds of thousands – are enjoying. And maybe some are even being moved by it. Is this album really worth just $20, the cost of a laksa and a flat white? No. It’s worth more, so much more.

All creative practice, every single artistic endeavour, be it big or small, successful or unsuccessful, public or private, is worth an infinitesimal amount. How do we communicate that? How do we make politicians take notice and take action, particularly in these increasingly threadbare times?

Perhaps it all comes down to confidence.

Perhaps I should have said to that shop-keeper, ‘I’m a writer. Some of it is fact, some of it is fiction, and, Christ, I’d be dead without it.’

*

(First published in BMA Magazine on 30 July 2014.)

Toni Morrison‘Recently I was talking to a writer who described something she did whenever she moved to her writing table. I don’t remember exactly what the gesture was – there is something on her desk that she touches before she hits the computer keyboard – but we began to talk about little rituals that one goes through before beginning to write. I, at first, thought I didn’t have a ritual, but then I remembered that I always get up and make a cup of coffee while it is still dark – it must be dark – and then I drink the coffee and watch the light come. And she said, Well, that’s a ritual. And I realised that for me this ritual comprises my preparation to enter a space that I can only call nonsecular…Writers all devise ways to approach that place where they expect to make contact, where they become the conduit, or where they engage with this mysterious process. For me, light is the signal in the transition. It’s not being in the light, it’s being there before it arrives. It enables me.’ – Toni Morrison, The Paris Review Interviews Vol. II, 2007

The Goulburn Post Office, where stories are sent away. (Don't worry: we have cars now.)

The Goulburn Post Office, where stories are sent away. (Don’t worry: we have cars now.)

It’s there beside me on the desk, adjacent my elbow, and it feels like the most valuable thing, but also the most useless.

It’s orange, A4-sized, and inside are twenty pages – a short story and a covering letter. On the front of the envelope, written in my dreadful scrawl, is the name of a literary journal and its overseas address. On the back is my own address, in the hope that good news – the best – will be sent in reply. This is what I do: I write short stories and send them away, even though the odds are firmly stacked against me, against this thing that occupies so much of my time, the vast majority of the last twenty years.

For weeks, months, longer, so much longer, there has been in the guts of my computer that strangest of beasts: a story, something conjured, concocted. Part dream, part idea(l), part concept, part theme, part wish, part ambition. Imagined characters discovering, solving, unravelling, opening out. Blue pen ink on pad page, before becoming black lines and angles on a flickering screen, before becoming – always becoming – black ink on crisp white print-out paper. All those words, words formed up to make sense, to be read.

What is the purpose of this? To entertain? To move? To anger? To be admired?

It’s all this and more. A great deal more.

I have tried to stop; like a smoker or an alcoholic I have tried to give up. But can I give up? No. Because I wouldn’t know what to do with myself. Couldn’t I have been good at something much more useful, like fixing electrical wiring, or building decks, or progressing propositions of law? I could garden: rip out weeds for a living. Or walk dogs for cash. Or breed chickens and sell their eggs and their precious manure.

But it wouldn’t be the same. There’d be no wrestling with words and their meanings. Oh what words can do: they can illuminate. There’d be no heartache when the story comes back with a slip paper-clipped to the top: Sorry, but this isn’t what we’re looking for. But even that doesn’t bring me to a halt. Because stories are beneath my skin, and, so I’ve heard, they are beneath yours, too. Because that’s all we are in the end – stories.

Bye for now; I’m off to the post-box.

To send away my valuable, useless, infinitely beautiful purpose.

(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 2 August 2014.)

Directly behind me was a 100,000-person city.  Really.

What was I doing in this place? I had no clue.

Back in April 2010, after I’d landed in Launceston, I walked to the front door of the Kingsbridge Gatekeeper’s in Cataract Gorge Cottage (courtesy of the city council) and thought, ‘I have no friggin’ clue what I am doing.’

The cottage was perched on the edge of a cliff; there were metal bars on the windows to prevent break-ins. The gorge was both beautiful and disturbingly dark, to the point that when the sun wasn’t shining it was grim, if not straight-out depressing. With the small rooms, and being up high with 180-degree views of a surprisingly wild urban-edge environment, it wasn’t hard to imagine that I was about to spend time in a lighthouse.

All I could do was get to work.*

Four weeks later I left Tasmania with the very sketchy drafts of three…what the hell were they? Novellas? Yes, they were novellas. Mainstream publishers will tell you that this ‘in between’ literary form is almost impossible to produce commercially: they cost the same as a novel to edit and print and distribute and market but readers are wary of paying good money for a ‘small’ book; no one knows what novellas really are (meaning, are they inherently ‘difficult’?); and perhaps they’re too long for a single-sitting reading but not long enough for complete immersion.

Which is where Blemish Books came in. Thank Christ.

The mighty ACT-based independent press published Fall on Me in 2011 and I’m Ready Now in 2012 – these books bagged some enthusiastic reviews, a few gongs, and, perhaps most importantly, found their way into the loving arms of readers, a handful of whom have gone on to be very vocal champions of these funny little books. Although ‘funny’ is the wrong word. I don’t consider either Fall on Me or I’m Ready Now to be ‘difficult’, but they do have dark themes: the former is about a father and teenaged son and the long-term ramifications of a cold-blooded murder; the latter concerns a stoic though grieving mother and an almost unreasonably adventurous adult son, both of whom need to make life-changing decisions.

And then there were three.

And then there were three.

The Beach Volcano is a different beast altogether. It focuses on middle-aged man called Canning Albury, although most would know him under another name – because he has been a much-revered Australian rock musician. He is long-estranged from his family, having left home at the age of seventeen under a heavy cloud. Now armed with what he thinks is the secret to his family’s questionable past, Canning travels from his secluded though tantalisingly unfulfilled life in Launceston back to Sydney so he can help celebrate his father’s 80th birthday, which is to be a grand event at the ancestral mansion on the edge of the harbour. Needless to say, things go arse-up pretty quickly.

Perhaps, like the two preceding novellas, The Beach Volcano is about confronting the past in order to have a good, open and honest future, but it’s also, I think, about the power of families to both destroy and heal, and how we must navigate our own way. If there’s anything that binds these three stories, it’s the notion of family being infinitely complex.

But that’s enough from me.

Here’s what I really want to do – give you a heads-up about the launch:

The Beach Volcano will be launched at 6pm on Thursday 18 September at Electric Shadows Bookshop, Mort Street, Braddon, ACT.

Importantly, there will be wine, and a very wonderful launcher (already sorted but not yet made public).

And there will be a ridiculously nervous writer.

It would be brilliant to have your company.

____

* I can now see that the month I spent in Cataract Gorge was one of the most productive times of my life.

John Clanchy: might he be a modern-day Checkhov? (Image source: Canberra Times/Fairfax Media)

John Clanchy: might he be a modern-day Checkhov? (Image source: Canberra Times/Fairfax Media)

Tall, grey-haired and eminently graceful, the first thing John Clanchy does is lead me through his 1960s-era inner Canberra home and out to the backyard, which offers a red-brick garage, a humble collection of small trees and shrubs, a patch of wintered grass, and plants clinging to pots here and there. But we’re not about to witness some kind of gardening act. ‘I’m just so lucky,’ says Clanchy in his soft and thoughtfully articulate voice. It’s as though we’re looking over an endless ocean, but really it’s just a humble rise of bushland. ‘Every day I spend an hour – often two – walking the mountain with the dogs. Where else can you live so close to the city and be able to do that?’

It sounds like he can’t believe his good fortune.

Back inside we sit in a small room adjacent a sunroom. There’s a gas fire, a pair of well-worn sandals on the hearth. On the low table between us is a collection of cheese and crackers and nuts. And a very good bottle of red. Behind us a full wall of books. This is, quite obviously, a writer’s house: it looks it, it feels it, it even smells it – all those pages in all those books packed into their floor-to-ceiling shelves. It’s easy to imagine Clanchy sitting in this space reading, reading deeply, every so often looking up and through the sunroom window into the front garden that is wild with native plants, gazing freely at a gala or rosella or cockatoo, his mind drifting off, dreaming up a new story to write and bring to the world.

And that’s exactly why I’m here: John Clanchy has a new collection of short stories, or ‘tales’ as they’re identified on the title page. The book is called Six (a reference to the number of pieces in the collection) and it’s been published by Finlay Lloyd, a small press operating out of Braidwood – that just so happens to get their publications in seventy bookshops around Australia. It’s a not-for-profit enterprise and the mission is to produce high-quality works of literature in hardcopy only. A fan of e-books and digital publishing? Not Finlay Lloyd.

But this story, the one you’re reading, isn’t about the small press – it’s about the author. And what an author John Clanchy is. His career spans decades: he is the author of five novels and four previous collections of short stories. His work has won major awards in Europe, the United States, New Zealand and Australia, including the Queensland Premier’s Award for short fiction and, on two occasions, the ACT Book of the Year. Clanchy is widely acknowledged as a master of the short literary form. And I’m in his house, armed with questions.

*

Keep reading over at the Canberra Times, which published this piece on Monday 19 July 2014. Doing this interview has certainly been one of the highlights of my writing life. Thanks to Sally Pryor.

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