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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?
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’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.
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.)
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.)
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.
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.
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?’
One of the most thrilling events that has ever happened in my literary life is this: an Australian poet has created a ‘found poem’ out of something I wrote a long time ago.
The poet? Stuart Barnes. The poem? ‘Stern Man’. The written thing of mine? A novel called Remnants. It really is magical, this poem, for many reasons. Reading it, working it out, returns me to 2001, when I was completing a Master of Creative Arts/Creative Writing at the University of Wollongong, which I’d thoroughly enjoyed. An early draft of what would become Remnants was produced during that deliciously immersive period of study.
I never thought the manuscript would see the light of day. But buoyed by something that my external examiner, Ian Syson (the then editor of Overland), had written in his feedback, that the manuscript would ‘surely’ find a home somewhere, I shopped the thing around. With no luck. Eventually a colleague suggested I meet with Ian Templeman, who at the time was the publisher at Pandanus Books, the Australian National University’s press (which appears to no longer exist). Ian had read a short story of mine in Overland and enjoyed its ‘intimacy’, so agreed to read my manuscript; months later he made an offer to publish it, though I would have to wait ‘some time, years perhaps’ as he needed to create an imprint to do so.
So, in 2005, out into the world came Remnants.
It’s a quiet story, a humble production, but somehow it received a large number of reviews, including in the Sydney Morning Herald, the Canberra, Times, the Age, and Antipodes; all but one was more than positive.
What’s it about?
Following his wife’s death, Mitchell Granville, retired barrister and son of a celebration politician, spends his twilight years hidden in a village in the Blue Mountains. For company he has his books, his late father’s semi-wild peacocks, and a sculpture of a naked woman’s torso. Over time he succumbs to loneliness and realises that there is at least one person he needs to rediscover. When he finally makes contact, all does not go as planned. Soon he finds himself being coaxed into at trek that crosses the breadth of his country and the depths of his past.
At least that’s the story according to Pandanus.
I loved writing Remnants, and rewriting it, and editing it, and polishing it (though I admit to moments where I thumped the desk because the story and/or the prose just wasn’t up to scratch), and it was a thrill to see it make its way in the world. However, almost a decade later, I feel as though I’ve moved on. In 2010 there was the Launceston experience, those four weeks during which the way I wrote was turned on its head. Since then, I’ve been working on the Blemish novellas, which are much shorter works than Remnants. It’s almost as if that novel was a blip, an aberration, some kind of literary miracle, and perhaps it was. But now I’m thinking about that book again, because of Stuart Barnes’ ‘Stern Man’.
Stuart’s lines are collected mostly from the short proem that opens the story: Mitchell Granville, a melancholic man at best, is taking a bath in what was once an apple-picker’s shed, though something more serious is going on. What I admire most about ‘Stern Man’ is that Stuart has lifted the chosen lines and created something entirely new, something – yes – magical. I do love the idea of a peacock collecting firewood.
Magical, also, because I based Mitchell’s bath on the one I used to enjoy in the Blue Mountains holiday cottage that my family rented for many years every summer and some winters. You had to make a fire in a barrel and wait for it to puff like a steam-engine before turning on the tap so the water would warm and dribble through. When I was nothing more than boy, when I was soaking in that rust-brown water after yet another day of exploring wild bushland, did I used to imagine that my brain would spark a novel and that my novel would spark a poem written by someone else? I may have been a relentless dreamer, but I could never have dreamt that far.
Enough from me.
Here’s ‘Stern Man’ by Stuart Barnes, which was first published in Four W twenty-four (2013). Please note: what’s not included in the image, but is included as a footnote to the original poem as published, are the words ‘a found poem; source: Nigel Featherstone, Remnants, Pandanus Books, 2005′. These things are important.
Three cheers for literary miracles.
The audience gasped and it was because of something I said, or, at least, had written in a humble novella called I’m Ready Now. I didn’t think much of it, because I had to keep reading, engaging the crowd as much as humanly possible (especially when your hands are shaking and your legs feel as though stuffed with porridge). It wasn’t until I finished and stepped off the stage that Greg Gould from Blemish Books said to me with a cheeky glint in the eye, ‘Some may have found the reference to X a shock to the system.’ Of course, Greg didn’t say ‘X’; he told me exactly what some may have found a shock to the system. But I didn’t mind, not at all, because it’s better for an audience to have a strong reaction than to have no reaction.
Now it’s time to focus on the next public-speaking gig: the 2013 Southern Highland Writers’ Festival, which runs from Friday 12 July to Sunday 14 July in Bowral, New South Wales. Shit – next weekend! Check out the festival’s website for the program. As mentioned before around these parts, my session, which is with Wollongong-based novelist Christine Howe, is at 4pm on Saturday. Not only am I looking forward to participating in this amazing festival and gratuitously rubbing shoulders with eminent writers like Anne Summers, Mark Tredinnick, and Ursula Dubosarsky, I have a few familial connections to the region.
My father worked in the local hospital, my parents lived on neighbouring Mt Gibraltar, my maternal grandparents lived opposite the town oval (now named Bradman Oval, which is apparently a reference to some cricketer or other), and family lore has it that in the late 1700s, after immigrating in a boat – yes, Australian politicians, IN A BOAT – my forebears, convicts the lot of them, were granted land just south of Bowral. These days, my kin are all over the joint, but I’m just an hour down the road, in bloody-boiling-one-day-and-fucking-freezing-the-next Goulburn, which is, quite frankly, where I’m happiest.
But I’m getting carried away.
If you’re not doing anything next weekend, why not head for the Highlands? It’ll be great to see you. I might even tell you about X.
About a launch
Somehow it’s all happening at once, so to keep track of everything that’s happening, and to share some of the goodies, here’s a very rare mid-week Under the counter post. Firstly, just a reminder that my second novella with Blemish Books, I’m Ready Now, is being launched tomorrow (Thursday) night, at 5.30pm at Electric Shadows Bookshop, Mort Street, Braddon, ACT; it’s a thrill to have journalist and biographer Christine Wallace cutting the metaphorical ribbon. Cue sleepless nights and trembling hands.
Over the last few weeks I’ve been leaking bits and pieces about I’m Ready Now, so to keep the tradition going for a little while longer, this novella manages to meander its way between Hobart, Melbourne and Sydney, and northern Vietnam and south-west Ireland also get a mention. And ‘Sail On’ by The Commodores features, and this is a band that can apparently walk on clouds – make of that what you will.
Relating to I’m Ready Now, the increasingly influential literary blog Whispering Gums recently asked me for a guest-post. I wrote about novellas (no surprises there), raising children (yes, you read that right), and how family-life is the raison d’etre of the contemporary Australian novel (I really believe that). Oh, I also mention zombies. Massive thanks to Sue Terry for the opportunity.
An anthology of giants
More broadly, I’ve mentioned before that a story of mine, ‘Severance’, which was first published in the Canberra Times in 2003 and republished in Island in 2004, has been included in The Invisible Thread: one hundred years of words (Halstead Press), which celebrates the Centenary of Canberra in 2013. Creative Director of the Centenary – and singer, writer, and arts-luminary-in-general – Robyn Archer says in her introduction: ‘The anthology includes names such as Roger McDonald, David Campbell, Blanche d’Alpuget, Barbara Blackman, Rhyll McMaster, Alan Gould and Jackie French; but there are also equally beautiful emerging voices such as those of Omar Musa, Nigel Featherstone, Sarah St Vincent Welch and Melinda Smith. That so much good writing, past and present, should emerge from this region is a powerful challenge to the silly cliché of Canberra as a city without a soul.’ Needless to say, it’s a real treat to have work included in these pages.
Oh look, I’m now on YouTube
The tireless editor and project-manager of The Invisible Thread, Irma Gold, who is a very fine author in her own right, has video-interviewed seventeen of the writers involved, including yours truly. You can watch the interview here. Mostly I talk about how ‘Severance’ (which, perhaps, has turned out to be my biggest hit) was written, the benefits of living in Canberra and now Goulburn, and juggling everything that life throws at us. The Invisible Thread is being launched in Canberra on Thursday 29 November.
I hope you enjoy the links, but it’d be great to cross paths with you in person at the I’m Ready Now launch tomorrow night, or The Invisible Thread launch next week.