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I think of her every time I open the book, which isn’t so much a book but a white plastic ring-binder. It’s where I keep recipes; I’m a messy cook so all that plastic makes it easy to clean. At the front, tucked into the clear-plastic sleeve, is the recipe I use the most, one for cooking rice.
For years I’d used the absorption method. I had a clay pot that I’d bought from an Asian grocery in Dickson. I’d soak the rice in the pot for an hour, drain the cloudy water, add more water so the rice was covered, bring to the boil, turn off the heat, and let the clay do the rest. It never failed to make good rice.
But then I went to a Greek restaurant with my Greek friend, Helen.
I said, ‘Greek rice is so tasty – how do you make it?’
She said, ‘It’s not really “Greek rice”. It’s just rice.’
‘But how do you make it?’
‘I’ll send you my recipe.’
And so she did. She emailed it to me.
Just before she died in a motorbike accident.
For some months I couldn’t open the email. But one day, after two decades of service, the clay pot gave up the ghost and Helen came to the rescue. I opened the email, printed her recipe. I went through the steps to make what I’d insisted was ‘Greek rice. Heat olive oil, coat rice until transparent, add chicken stock powder, stir, add water, boil, turn heat to low. It’s a more complicated procedure than the one I was used to but it leads to perfect rice.
However, it’s not just perfect rice that the recipe makes.
It could be that I’m always cooking after having a glass or two of wine, but I don’t think so. When I’m cooking rice, Helen joins me at the stove-top. She’s small, black-haired, good fun but relentlessly honest. Now she’s saying, ‘Let me do it, Nigel, you’re stuffing it up.’ So I stand aside, have another sip of wine, and watch as Helen takes over. And then, as is usual these days, I tell her what I think of her. ‘You’re an excellent friend.’ She turns to look at me, then looks at the bottle, shakes her head, then smiles, laughs gently.
This is how it is now. Every time.
And, no doubt, it’s how it’ll be for as long as I’m alive.
(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 22 November 2014.)
It’s the silence. It’s terrible.
Regrettably, I didn’t make this claim but an eminent novelist I know.
He was referring to the work of the writer: you sit alone in your room for years on end, then, with more than a little luck, the book is published, before…silence. Perhaps there will be a review, or a festival invitation, or someone might share some generous thoughts, but mostly there’s silence. This could just be the reality. Thankfully, there hasn’t been too much silence lately in the world of The Beach Volcano.
First up, there’s now a trailer. Created by exciting young Australian filmmaker James Hunter, it’s a sixty-second series of suggestions that might just help to illuminate the novella in the miasma that is YouTube. It was great working with James, who approached the project with such enthusiasm, thoughtfulness, and skill. It’s certainly fascinating to see what’s brought to light by an artist working in a different field.
I have also been fortunate enough to be interviewed by Sally Pryor at the Canberra Times, with the resultant article being syndicated nationally throughout the Fairfax Media network. Sally picked up on the resurgence of the novella. Clearly publishing is currently in a state of heightened evolution, but the upside could be the diversification of story forms that are finding readers. Here’s hoping the interest in novellas is sustained – there’s nothing like starting the reading of a book just after lunch and being able to devour the conclusion by dinner time.
Finally, The Beach Volcano scored a Canberra Critics Circle Award gong in the 24th Annual ACT Arts Awards. There’s some debate about the worth of literary awards. Do they have meaning? Do readers take any notice? Isn’t it just one panel’s opinion? Isn’t it all a lottery? Everyone has different answers to these questions. As to most things (I hope), I’m open-minded. What I found instructive is that at the well-attended ACT Arts Award function the artists who received recognition – there were quite a few – appeared so very happy, regardless of whether they were ‘emerging’, ‘developing’, or ‘established’. Perhaps all we want/need every so often is someone to say, ‘Congratulations, you’re doing good things, keep going.’
Because, if only for a few minutes, we’ve beaten the silence.
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?’