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 sketch 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); there might even be a special guest or two.

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.

Rare and illuminating

Rare and full of light

The day of Ian Thorpe’s ‘big reveal’ interview, in fact only a few hours beforehand, I went off to do what has become one of the highlights of my week. Sometimes I do it for hours, even whole days: in short, I take myself off on Sunday drives. Yes, I’ve reached that point in my life. Thankfully I don’t take with me ELO or Mariah Carey CDs, but albums by Sonic Youth or Red House Painters or Burial or Jon Hopkins. Last Sunday, however, I didn’t have time for a whole day’s adventure, just a quick drive to the edge of town. Because the drive is only partly the point, as is the listening of music; I actually go on the hunt for old shit. Not posh antiques so much, but bits and pieces that might look good in a crumbling 120-year-old house owned by a writer who too is falling apart.

Last Sunday’s trip could only be short because I’d spent much of the day preparing financial records for my accountant. Getting my tax together is officially the nadir of my year. It is a time of great, fathomless despair. So, after six hours of that, it was time to jump in the car and head out to my local purveyor of old stuff. The business is in what clearly used to be a corner-shop. It’s filled with good things from years forgotten (by most), but none of it is expensive, and very little of it is in perfect condition – excellent. The shop is neat, but it’s not the sort of place where you feel you should put on a pair of white gloves before checking the price-tag. It’s owned by a friendly middle-aged man called Mart. A Sunday not long ago he offered me one of the Tim Tams on his plate. During the week he drives a school bus to towns and villages further out; it’s an appropriate occupation because I can easily imagine him to have been the sort of cheerful, chatty kid that no one had a reason to dislike.

As always, as soon as I stepped inside the shop, Mart said g’day – literally – and commented on the weather. ‘A big frost this morning, eh mate, minus-seven, they reckoned, with a feels-like temp of minus-ten. Winter’s really hit, eh mate!’ I could only agree. Before my eye was immediately taken by a light-fitting from the very early 1900s. I’d been on the hunt for exactly it for years. I checked it over: not only was it appropriate, it was highly affordable. I asked him to get it down from its display. I checked it over one last time, before I said that I’d buy the thing.

At the counter, which is a low desk with an old brass sign cheekily declaring ‘OFFICE CLERK’, Mart began packing the fitting into a box and started writing out a receipt. Wanting to hold up my end of the conversational bargain, I told Mart that for at least a couple of years I’d been driving all over the district looking for a light-fitting like the one he was selling me. I told him about the shop I go to in a small town an hour’s drive way that specialises in antique lights and lamps. He said, ‘Oh yes, the joint owned by Andrew and…’ and immediately went back to finishing the wrapping of my purchase before getting to work on the EFTPOS machine.

But I got the drift.

The lights-and-lamps shop an hour’s drive away is owned and operated by a gay man. Mart obviously knows him and his partner; being the gregarious, welcoming, non-judgemental person that he’s always displayed himself to be, he’s probably on very good, friendly terms with his regional antique-trade colleagues.

Being fond of black jeans and hoodies and Blundstone boots that have seen much better days, and often having paint or chook-crap stuck on me somewhere, and a three-day growth, I may not present as the typical (whatever that is, Christ) same-sex-attracted bloke. But neither would I present as someone with limited views on these things. Still, for Mart, it was easier to not make it clear that the light-and-lamp specialists were gay men. It was easier just not to say. Who knows: to him I might have extreme views. So, yes, best not to say, best not to say. That’s not to charge my mate Mart with homophobia. It was just easier.

Until people like me and Mart can be open and honest about the relationships of the people around us, even Australian heroes will have to go through the painful, anxious, almost debilitating act of shedding one skin to reveal another. Which is why, despite all the media-people build-up, the strategic commerce, the close-to-scripted event of it all, what Ian Thorpe did last Sunday night was necessary, important, valuable, and gigantically illuminating.

Devastating

Devastating

A good thing about being down and out with a bad case of winter ’flu, apart from the distinct possibility of a deep, sexy (maybe) radio-esque voice, is being able to read uninterrupted.

This week I finished Richard Flanagan’s epic The Narrow Road to the Deep North (Vintage, 2013), which was the winner of the 2014 Independent Booksellers Award and has been shortlisted for other highly regarded literary gongs. I’m not going to review the novel – I wouldn’t know where to begin – but I do want to say that it’s extraordinary. Unflinching, devastating, multi-faceted, and ultimately very moving indeed. It focuses on an Australian doctor who was a POW on the Thai-Burma ‘death railway’ during the Second World War, but it also explores many other points of view, including the lovers of the men as well as those who found themselves guards and committed almost unspeakable atrocities. It’s sprawling, filmic, at times meandering, but it’s impossible not to be affected. Amazing that on the day I finished reading the work, Prime Minister Shinzo, Japan’s current head honcho, gave a presentation to a rare joint sitting of the Australian parliament; the associated speech by Tony Abbott, Australia’s prime minister, is a different story.

2014 Independant Booksellers Award
2014 Independant Booksellers Award

2014 Independant Booksellers Award
2014 Independant Booksellers
Chekhovian

Chekhovian

Another book that’s been a part of my sick-bed (sick-couch, really) reading is The Wild Goose, a novella by Mori Ogai and translated by Meredith McKinney, the daughter of revered Australian poet Judith Wright. Ogai is considered one of the most notable writers of the Meiji era (1868-1912), during which Japan experienced significant changes in social and economic structures and foreign relations. McKinney has translated a work written by a man who was born in 1862 ‘in a Japan that had been officially closed to the rest of the world for centuries,’ as stated in the introduction. But Ogai went on to spend time in Germany where he immersed himself in western literature and although he was always convinced that Japan had to embrace modernity he also came to understand how much would be lost in the process. The Wild Goose, which has been beautifully produced by Finlay Lloyd, it’s a truly gorgeous object, is a story of love, entrapment, and the power of commerce. It is remarkably unformulaic, and it’s intriguingly Chekhovian in both spirit and scope. I’ll review it for Verity La soon, but I can tell you that it’s a novella that has got beneath my skin.

In the meantime, I really should hack up my other lung.

Borders: lines on a map but not necessarily in hearts and minds.

Borders: lines on a map but not necessarily in hearts and minds.

Borders.

They’ll be the end of us.

I’m not talking about the ill-fated book shop but those lines and marks that scare the living shit out of you and me.

There are the geographic borders: a sandy beach, a cliff-face, a wall of impenetrable rainforest. There are the borders that are nothing more than a flashing light on a computer screen or an invisible line somewhere in the ocean.

People want to cross over; they would do anything to go from one side to the other; they might risk death to be ‘over there’, where it is better. There are ways of doing it ‘legally’ and there are ways of doing it ‘illegally’, depending on the circumstances, and the level of desperation. It seems borders and desperation can go hand in hand, especially in this world where the difference between hope and hopelessness can be so marked.

Each week I, too, cross borders; at least, I drive past a sign that indicates I’m going from one place to another. I cross borders because there are opportunities on the other side, in ‘the big city’ as I’ve come to call it. Because these days I live in a country down in regional NSW. Because where I live the only arts work involves packing shelves. So I come into the ACT to do paid gigs that I enjoy, that are meaningful, that help to keep the wolves at bay.

But I’m not suffering political persecution.

Or religious discrimination.

Or threat of incarceration because I’m spending my life with another man.

Or because I’m a woman.

I’m lucky, supremely so, and just like everyone else who is lucky there is an obligation to cross borders at every opportunity. In the way I think, in the way I act and react, in the way I create – especially in the way I create. If artists can’t (or won’t) cross borders, who will? We should be crossing between forms, between materials, between genres, between ideas, between audiences. Because we should always be wanting – needing – to be uncomfortable. Because, perhaps, when uncomfortable we’re more productive, we’re alive, we’re fighting.

Inspiration is everywhere. There’s Oscar Wilde and his ability to move between prose and poetry, between stage and page, between the ‘legal’ and ‘illegal’ and risk his freedom and, ultimately, his life in the process. Closer to home there was, up until 2008, the Melbourne-based poet Dorothy Porter, who blurred the lines between collection and novel and reached the point where one of her works, The Monkey’s Mask, made it onto the silver screen. Closer to home even further, we have artists like Andrew Galan, who cross between the written and the spoken and the complex and the simple. And we have Katy Mutton, who slips – almost effortlessly – between the painted, the drawn, the political, and the personal.

Yes, borders are the end of the line for some of our number. And that’s our eternal shame, our immeasurably heavy burden.

But for us lucky ones, borders should be our beginnings.

*

First published in BMA Magazine on 23 April 2014. Thanks to Sir Allan Sko.

Journalism is not a crime

Click on the image to sign the petition to free Australian journalist Peter Greste from unjustified imprisonment in Egypt.

'Chickens and Park Vase' by Albertus Verhoesen - may not be representative of my chook set-up. (Image source: Wikipedia Commons)

‘Chickens and Park Vase’ by Albertus Verhoesen – may not be representative of my backyard chook set-up. (Image source: Wikipedia Commons)

My heart sank, emptied. There were only two of them, not three.

But I had to keep moving.

I went into the shed and got the pellets and scratch-mix together, and then went back to the coop. Still just the two of them. I filled the feeder and then lifted the door to the coop proper. There she was, on her side. Dead. My heart sank – emptied – even further.

I poked my head in just to be sure. Amazingly her eyes opened. But how sick she was. She could barely move. She appeared paralysed, or half-paralysed. She looked as though she’d been run-over. She had been such a beautiful bird, so black, almost crow-like, but what a deeply glistening chest of red. And placid. And very friendly. Never any trouble. I knew what I had to do, but it was first thing in the morning and I wasn’t up for it. I needed a coffee first. Strong, black.

When the coffee was done I went back out to the run. I could hear her chirping (as though still a chick) to her sisters outside. Despite barely being able to move her body, she wanted to be feeding with them. I found an old stainless-steel cat’s bowl, filled it with pellets and scratch-mix, topped it with a dollop of natural yoghurt, and placed it beside her. She looked at the food but her body was too weak to eat. I went back into the house, made myself a second coffee. I googled ‘sudden partial paralysis in chickens’. Marek’s disease. That was the obvious answer. No cure.

There was only one way to solve this.

I went back outside. Somehow she’d made it down the ladder-ramp but was huddled in a dark corner. I checked the cat’s bowl of feed I’d got together for her – it hadn’t been touched. How on earth had she managed to get down to the ground? Desperate to be with her sisters, had she simply tumbled out? I had no way of knowing.

I went back inside, went down the hallway to the writing room, and got to work. Tried to get to work. I remembered how some months ago I’d suddenly lost a hen who’d come over half-paralysed and had died by day’s end in the dark corner of the coop. Her body looked contorted; it hadn’t been an easy death. I’d give today’s sick hen till lunchtime.

At noon I went outside. Now she was moving around in the sun, gingerly, but she was pecking at this and that, as if she was trying to find a kind of natural rhythm. At 3pm I checked again. Now she was giving herself a vigorous dust-bath. She looked as steady as ever. Three chooks again: all of them back to being as happy as I’d ever known them. What had happened during the night? How come she’d become so squashed and mangled and mostly motionless?

The only explanation I could think of was this: now that winter had come they’d huddled themselves right up, but she’d found herself beneath her sisters. They’d squashed her in their bid for communal warmth. Almost to the point of death. All it had taken was a handful of hours in the sun for her to unravel and feel herself again.

Just before going to bed last night, I went out with a torch to see how they were. All three of them were roosting in a row, staring at me as if to say, ‘What do you want?’

The Beach Volcano cover: stony, bony goodness.

The Beach Volcano cover: stony, bony goodness.

There’s something about visibility, coming out of the shadows, being seen. But the visibility I’m talking about is more than that – it’s about exposure, true exposure, so much so that it’s frightening. Of course, I am being just a little (or quite a lot) dramatic. Because all I really want to tell you is Blemish Books have released the cover for the third and very much final novella of mine, The Beach Volcano.

You can see it right there, accompanying this post, in all its moody, melancholic, mysterious…is ‘beauty’ too strong a word? Perhaps not. I love it, the cover (and wouldn’t it be terrible to say that it’s not really my cup of tea). The stones in their gun-sight pattern; they’re also reminiscent of dinosaur bones. It’s just so very apt.

Though what would I know. All I’ve done is spend the last four years trying to make the story sit up and sing (and ‘sing’ , let me tell you, is just as appropriate as those bone-like stones).

The Beach Volcano follows I’m Ready Now (2012), which took two and a half years from first draft to publication, and Fall on Me (2011), which shot out the gates at a mere 18 months. I should say, however, that all three of these novellas existed as ideas in my journal for some time before the first pen-stroke on the page. I wrote down the thought that would become I’m Ready Now in 2003, nine years before publication. Surprisingly (to me) the initial scratchy recording of The Beach Volcano is dated January 2010, a mere five months before the first draft, but that was four and a half years before publication. What’s happened since the first draft? Rewriting, editing, polishing, delete delete delete, rewriting, editing, polishing…until nervous exhaustion set in. Again I’m being ridiculously over-dramatic, though there is some truth to what I’m telling you.

But what’s the bloody thing about?

Well, here’s the blurb:

How should we deal with what’s lost? And how should we deal with what’s to become, something unknown but so very much desired?

After years of estrangement, Canning Albury, a revered and irreverent singer-songwriter, returns home to celebrate his father’s eightieth birthday. His welcome is mixed, at best. But Canning has made the trip for more than just a glass of Pol Roger and an eyeful of Sydney Harbour at sunset. He carries a secret about his family’s murky and uncharted past—a secret that could be explosive. The Beach Volcano is a fearless exploration of life’s many compromises, and the burdens we bear for those we love. 

Has anyone read it yet? If so, what do they think? Yes, it’s been read – by none other than Melbourne novelist Andrea Goldsmith. Who had this to say:

Nigel Featherstone’s new book plunges into the loves and loyalties, the secrets and outward appearances of the wealthy Albury family. This is an insightful and at times disturbing story. Assured and compelling, The Beach Volcano holds you to the last page and beyond.

How does that make me feel? Grateful. So very grateful.

So, that’s the latest. Blemish is gunning for a late August/September launch from Canberra. And then, from that point onwards, a little book called The Beach Volcano will be out of my control. Is this really the end of the line for my novellas? I’m pretty sure it is. I’ve loved dreaming them into existence; I’ve adored hearing of reactions from readers. I can’t deny that the reviews and awards and short-listings have, in fact, meant a great deal, if only because they might have resulted in the novellas finding more hands (and hearts?) in which to be held. When all is said and done, it’s all just a drop in the ocean, isn’t it: three more books in an endless sea of books. I’m just glad – say it again: grateful – that they’ve taken me on such a ride.

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