A screen grab of what goes through my head when I'm interviewing an author.

A screen grab of what goes through my head when I’m interviewing an author.

An indisputable joy for me over the past five years has been interviewing Australian authors for literary journal Verity La.

The interviews are conducted by email: I start with a question, the author responds, I ask a follow-up question, the author responds to that, and we keep going like this until we’ve reached a conclusion. Although I’ll have one or two questions prepared in advance, never have the interviews ended where I’ve expected them to, and I’ve learnt to follow the energy in the conversation, and allow the process – which isn’t far from writing letters to each other – to go into personal or dangerous territory. This part of the process can take a week or two, a month or two; some interviews have taken the best part of a year.

Once an interview has reached its natural conclusion, I bring it all together (keeping the order of the questions and answers as they happened), do a light edit, mostly for the purposes of consistency and to meet the editorial guidelines of Verity La, before I send it back to the interviewee for edits and clearance. This final stage in the process is critical: it allows the author to see her or his responses as part of a whole and also take the opportunity to make changes – and they almost always do, due to a desire to improve clarity and/or flow, or because, perhaps, it might be better to be more diplomatic, especially as the National Library of Australia archives Verity La.

With the publication of the most recent interview, with Biff Ward, the author of the extraordinary memoir In My Mother’s Hands (Allen & Unwin, 2014), I thought it might be timely to prepare a bouquet of some of the most memorable observations, primarily about the writing process.



‘Isn’t that what writing is about – wanting to know more, daring to find out, being brave enough to inhabit a place even when you know it might be uncomfortable, even though you might find out that you are the stranger?’ – Francesca Rendle-Short

‘When I first draft a story I never think about publication; in fact, it may even be dangerous to have thoughts of/desire for publication at the forefront of one’s mind. You may be tempted to tailor your story to notions of what is acceptable – to contemporary readers, to editors, to what is in fashion at the time – instead of attending to the organic demands of the narrative you’ve set in motion. Stories have their own inherent requirements – in length, in structure, in voice – and writing to external ‘public’ requirements can falsify the relation between a writer and their material’ – John Clanchy

‘I find plunging into my imagination and making up stories endlessly interesting. I am fascinated by character, bringing each one to life through narrative. And I delight in the fact I can give a character a personality change if s/he is not working within the emerging novel. And I love the English language, it’s gorgeous. Such pleasure to be had playing with metaphor and imagery’ – Andrea Goldsmith

‘I think that there are few, if any, endings in novels that are as satisfying as the journeys which arrive there. In the sense that journeys determine endings, I’d agree with Peter Carey that if the ending is troubled, the cause of the trouble is to be found elsewhere (and the problem perhaps bigger than a failed ending). I think all that should be asked of an ending is that it live up to the journey. My favourite endings, when I think about it, have more to do with poetry than story’ – Andrew Croome

‘Everything we know, see, think, do, down to the minutest un-thought action, is stored in the pressure-cooker of memory where it gets steamed and combined into Memory Soup. Then, when the writer needs something, the soup produces it, not in the form it was originally but as what is needed now’ – Glenda Guest

‘Reading and writing poetry represent the possibility of better things in a world that sorely needs this possibility’ – Paul Hetherington

‘I write stories because I feel compelled to do so. Because I love the writing process, everything about it. Well, maybe not those agonising moments where I know something is wrong but I can’t figure out what needs to happens next and begin to wonder if it’s possible I never will. But then something snaps and everything falls into place and that’s glorious’ – Irma Gold

‘One of my guiding principles in this old distinction between poetry and imaginative prose is Virginia Woolf’s observation that “…the poet gives us his essence, prose takes the mould of the body and mind entire”’ – Alan Gould

‘Material that comes out as part of a creative work needs time to mature like wine and [my novel] needed to work through from a conscious to a subconscious level’ – Denise Young

‘It’s important to me at this stage in my life that I don’t condemn, blame or hurt other people, and I do my best to make my writing and my public work reflect that. I am absolutely in love with all of the strangeness, diversity and surprises of this life, and I want to write about them’ – Walter Mason

‘The way in which I write my novels makes such surprises inevitable. It’s a very organic process for me. I write my way into the characters and I write many many drafts. What I begin with – whether ideas or characters – is rarely what I end up with’ – Andrea Goldsmith

‘My so called ‘achievements’ are not a big deal. I was programmed to have fun, travel and speak my mind. It was more by accident than design I played a small part in extending the boundaries of free speech. It’s an ongoing task, unfortunately, because the leaders of nations both rich and poor will lie, cheat and even kill, in order to protect their interests’ – Richard Neville

‘I see a big distinction between writing-as-therapy and the telling of a dark tale that has been personally experienced. Writing-as-therapy is a wonderful form of self-exploration and clarification – but it needs to be private! It is for the self, not for reading by others. It’s what you do if you need to journey through the glades of despair, to drag yourself through brambles and shudder through cobwebs’ – Biff Ward

Despite having them in my life for 30 years, more or less, I don’t really know what they are. They flit about like a type of butterfly that may or may not exist.

I can remember being in the Fifth or Sixth Form of the rather well-healed Anglican school I attended on Sydney’s North Shore, my English teacher, Mr Cowdroy, leading us through the reading of a short story, the author of which I regrettably can’t recall. I loved the conciseness of the story – that life could be created and explored and examined in so few pages – and the sense of compression, the cleverness of the ending, which made me want to start reading the story all over again. It also made me want to keep writing, for by that time I had been writing for some years, albeit for school assessment.

One of the lingering collections.

One of the lingering collections.

Fast forward to my twenties, when I realised that doing little more than hanging out with mates at the pub was not good and deep living and would most likely lead to misery, I began writing stories again, but only because I wanted to. I also read stories, mainly in anthologies. Collections that resonated were Risks (Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1996; edited by Brenda Walker) and the Faber Book of Gay Short Fiction (Faber and Faber, 1991; edited by Edmund White). I also enjoyed Fishing in the Sloe-Black River by Colum McCann (Phoenix House, 1994) and that other Irish chap who did quite well in the form, James Joyce with his Dubliners. I’d go on to discover the short works of Tolstoy and Chekhov, and contemporary writers such as Peter Carey, Annie Proulx, David Malouf, Marion Halligan, John Clanchy, Tim Winton, Nam Le, and Alice Munro. I subscribed to and read Australian literary journals, including Meanjin, Overland, Island, Tirra Lirra, and Wet Ink.

Over the years that followed I began having my own stories published, at first in relatively minor journals now gathering dust in the National Library of Australia’s vast vaults, before some of my stories were ‘accepted’ (for that appeared to be the termed used) in the journals mentioned above. It was, of course, all very thrilling. To see my name in an edition of Meanjin (2: 2000) alongside writers such as Merlinda Bobis, Thomas Shapcott, Dorothy Hewett, Arnold Zable, and Dorothy Porter. Eventually my published stories were collected in two humble volumes, Homelife (1999) and Joy (2000). The Australia Book Review (no. 224 Sept 2000) described the latter as ‘beautifully poised, warm, lush, humane, with lots of surprises and shocks.’ Which made my heart sing, and still does. I say all this not to brag but to suggest that slowly but surely I have been taking steps; I have, I think, been making progress.

What makes a writer's heart sing.

What makes a writer’s heart sing.

Soon I gathered the confidence to write longer works, including three published novellas and a novel, but rarely does a year go by when I don’t write – and try to have published – short stories. Perhaps part of the attraction is being able to take a break from convoluted, complicated works and spend a week crafting a little tale. But I’m not sure if that’s true and/or wise. Short stories can be just as complex as longer works, if not more so, and they can be just as difficult to write, if not more so. It is common for fiction writers to say that short stories are closer to poetry than prose, in that they are suggestions more than full explorations. In the best fiction, regardless of length, words need to be deployed artfully so life can rise from the page. But perhaps in a short story, as in a poem, each word has to do some impressive – and exhaustive – heavy lifting, often (hopefully) with spectacular results.

Sometimes with spectacular results. My filing cabinet and PC hard-drive are littered with rubbish work.

Recently, to be frank, I’ve been doubting the worth of the short story as a viable form. Australian literary journals do continue to publish them, although, depending on the journal, it could be said that only writers are reading them. On the whole mainstream publishers turn up their noses at collections of stories, claiming readers want a more immersive experience; and some writers who have excelled at the form have simply given up, claiming there is no point when ‘it’s just too hard to find a readership’. So, if the readership is limited, why do it? Isn’t it like, say, insisting on painting miniature portraits, the sort that galleries won’t touch with a barge-pole? But, but, but: every so often single-author collections, such as Nam Le’s The Boat (Penguin, 2008) and Maxine Beneba Clarke’s Foreign Soil (Hachette, 2014), make a big public splash.

What am I trying to say? The short story is a surprising and tenacious beast.

A similarly surprising and tenacious beast is the Review of Australian Fiction, which publishes – electronically – two stories every two weeks and often takes the opportunity to publish works that print journals consider ‘too long’ (over 4,000 words); a worthy venture to say the least, considering also that individual issues cost only $2.99. It’s an honour to be published in the Review a second time, especially as I’ve been paired with Marion Halligan, whose collection Shooting the Fox (Allen & Unwin, 2011) was choc-full of literary magic. My story, ‘The Blue Bottle’, has been emerging for many years – decades you could say – because it uses an event from my twenties as a place for jumping off (no, it’s not set in a pub). On the page the story is nothing more or less than fiction, but there must have been something in the original event that had stayed with me and I’d wanted to turn it over with words and sentences and characters and plot. As is so common (predictable?) in my work, the narrative involves an old house and landscape and music and friendship and intimacy and longing and glimpses – glimpses – of love. But I won’t go on.

All I really wanted to tell you is this: ‘The Blue Bottle’ exists, it is here.


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They are beside me, in the bottom drawer of the filing cabinet, though I never look at them. Except, for the first time in fifteen years, that’s exactly what I’ve just done: got them out and spread them across the floorboards. Canberra Times headlines; front pages, to be precise.

The first is dated September 11, 2001. TERRORISTS STRIKE U.S.’ in the biggest, blackest letters I’ve ever seen in a newspaper. And that photo of a World Trade Centre tower collapsing in white smoke. And that other photo, of ash-covered New Yorkers scrambling for their lives.

What we keep: a reminder of the darkest days?

What we keep: a reminder of the darkest days?

The next front page, dated October 15, 2002, says ‘Terror Blast’. A photo of stretcher bearers carrying bodies out of a twisted Kuta Beach nightclub. The next is dated January 20, 2003: ‘Our worst day’. More twisted metal, but in a bushfire-blackened landscape. Then, at last, there is change.

November 25, 2007: ‘Rudd buries Howard era’. A fresh-faced new prime minister holds up his hands, ten fingers spread as if he’s giving himself ten out of ten. Only three months later, February 13 2008: ‘Sorry’ says the headline in big white letters, the faces of four elderly Indigenous men, three with grey beards, two wearing beanies, one with glisteningly red eyes. November 6, 2008: ‘American revolution: first black president; a David Pope cartoon of a beaming (and only slightly grey-haired) Barack Obama, a patched-up Uncle Sam slung over his shoulder. Before disaster strikes again. February 10 2009: ‘Dreams in ashes’, which wasn’t a reference to the United States but Victoria: more twisted metal, another bushfire-blackened landscape.

Yet all is not lost. June 25, 2010: ‘History in her hands. Look at Julia Gillard’s face looming large on the page, her eyes full of hope, and perhaps there’s a dash of relief too. December 7, 2013 and there’s a different face: ‘Nelson Mandela 1918-2013: ‘Our nation has lost its great son’’.

The most recent front page in this collection of headlines? March 21, 2015: ‘Malcolm Fraser, 1930-2015’. The former prime minister’s quoting of George Bernard Shaw: ‘Life’s not meant to be easy, my child; but take courage: it can be delightful.’ What exactly are we to make of this private archive of tragedy and triumph? Maybe, just maybe, these headlines are reminders that we live in a world that’s infinitely bigger – and much, much more fascinating – than our tiny little daily worries. And yes, every so often it can even be delightful.


(This was to be my 81st piece for the First Word column in the Canberra Times. Regrettably the column came to an end before it could be published, so here it is. Thanks to Gillian Lord, Natasha Rudra and Sally Pryor for allowing me to have such a long run with the paper.)

On 29 May 2015, the famous Electric Shadows Bookshop closed its doors after 27 years. There was a wake. There were tears. Photo credit: Andrew Sikorski

On 29 April 2015, the famous Electric Shadows Bookshop closed its doors after 27 years. There was a wake. There were tears. We don’t know what to do now. Photo credit: Andrew Sikorski

Of all the emails I’ve received this was the most difficult – by far.

In the past I’ve received emails announcing the death of a friend or colleague, and I’ve received emails containing heartbreaking literary rejection, but the one that lobbed into my laptop last week truly knocked me sideways. First there was shock, then disbelief, then emptiness, before anger set in; I guess that echoes the stages of grief, doesn’t it. What did the email say? It said that one of my favourite bookshops, one of my favourite shops of all time, was closing its doors after nearly 30 years of trading.

For many Canberrans, the Electric Shadows Bookshop, or ‘ESB’, or ‘Lecky Shads’, has been a bona fide institution. For a couple of decades in the city it co-existed with the infamous but now defunct Electric Shadows Cinema. If you enjoyed the film, you could go next door and buy the book or screenplay or soundtrack – even late into the evening you could do this.

ESB ran a highly regarded video rental library, and it was the only placed in town that stocked genuinely obscure (and sometimes risqué) titles. ESB was also well-known for supporting community events, such as SpringLit, a popular annual gay and lesbian afternoon that celebrated literary luminaries such as Dorothy Porter, Andy Quan, Judy Horacek, and Christos Tsiolkas. Speaking of Tsiolkas, astute readers will remember that in the late 1990s the future author of The Slap could be found behind the Electric Shadows Bookshop counter closing a sale with that warm and generous smile of his.

When the cinema closed in 2006, ESB moved to a new location in Mort Street, Braddon, which at the time was full of caryards, Summernat types, and people wobbling ecstatically out of Civic in the early hours of Sunday morning. The new version of ESB was smaller but funkier, and it hung out next to the Cornucopia Bakery, another Canberra institution that’s bitten the dust. Despite the somewhat cramped conditions, the bookshop continued to support the ACT region with all manner of literary events. The staff members were always knowledgeable and eager to please, with more than a dash of quirky humour.

In short, to me, Electric Shadows Bookshop has been a constant reminder that the world is more interesting than I sometimes think it is. It has given my little life depth and context and meaning. It has given me hope.

So what now?


Keep reading over at the Canberra Times, which published this piece on 20 March 2015. Visit Andrew Sikorski to see more of his series of images taken in the last days of the Electric Shadows Bookshop.

If there is one thing we can be sure of it is impermanence. The years make this clear, the ending of one and the beginning of another. And the seasons makes this clear too, the delicious slip from summer to autumn, which will be here before we know it, the discolouring of leaves, the fall, the shorter days, the darkness. Days always end in darkness; life doesn’t know anything else. The same way there’s always light at dawn, once night has had its run.

Sylvie Stern: the matron of the undergound. (Image courtesy of Canberra Contemporary Art Space)

Sylvie Stern: the matron of the undergound. (Image courtesy of Canberra Contemporary Art Space)

Lately I’ve been remembering a very specific piece of impermanence from my past, a relatively short period when the working week would end in a blast of unadulterated adventure. Friday evening: some beers here, some cocktails there, and then at midnight – whoosh – into Civic I went on a rickety old pushbike. Up the stairs I climbed and into the club I disappeared.

Heaven: for those of a certain age it was an institution.

In one sense it was just another nightclub, a gay and lesbian nightclub sure, but really it was nothing more than a big black box with a DJ booth and mirror-ball. Every so often effort would be put into the decorations: some sort of material – white or red – draped from the ceiling as if a wedding might take place. But nightclubs aren’t about decoration. They’re about the music, and the dancing, and the people, and the promise that this look might result in that look, which might end up somewhere hoped for but never expected.

This nightclub, however, our nightclub, Heaven, was about more than any of this. It was about a woman with the wildest black hair, a deep, husky voice, and thongs on her feet. At around 1am she’d stop the music to say happy birthday to a regular, hand out some CDs, and introduce the show (we never knew what we’d get). We loved her. For the way she was always there, as though we were partying in her house. For the way she kept the place running without a heavy hand. For the way she’d see us during the week and smile, despite this being a completely different universe. And when Heaven closed once and for all, we kept on loving her. Because she never forgot us. Because she still wanted the best for us.

So, while there’s no escaping impermanence, there’s also no escaping the wonderful, generous, loving life of the matron of the underground: Sylvie Stern.

(First published in Panorama, the Canberra Times, 7 February 2015.)

The holy grail. Potentially.

The holy grail. Potentially.

It could be a peculiarly Australian obsession, though I doubt that’s the case. Still I made sure to remember to do it the next time I was in the car and on the road.

By ‘do it’ I mean nothing more than watch it happen, that’s all it was: make an observation. Miraculously I did remember. ‘Miraculously’ because these days I’m forgetting the most commonplace things, like the order in which the laundry gets done (the detergent goes in before the machine is turned on) and where tins of unopened canned soup are stored (in the pantry, not in the freezer), and the other day it took me hours to summon the word ‘poplar’.

Like many other people, I did a lot of driving over the Christmas/New Year break, so perhaps it wasn’t so miraculous at all that I got to experience this supposedly special event. It happened just south of Lake Bathurst, which is more or less halfway between Queanbeyan and Goulburn, a stretch of road I know well. I watched as the odometer counted up, thinking that there’d be a clicking sound but there was nothing of the sort.

And then, and then, the holy grail: 100,000 kilometres.

For a long, slow, few seconds there they were, all those kilometres notched up; somehow it made me feel as though I was seeing a long-lost friend.

These milestones are everywhere, aren’t they. A cricketer scores a century and a crowd rises to stand. An acclaimed author’s tenth novel is published. A twenty-first birthday. A fiftieth wedding anniversary. A nation’s bicentenary.

It’s all arbitrary, of course, quite meaningless.

Why is one number better than another? Is it about goals achieved? Or is it about survival? Or luck? As I stared at that big, dumb number on the dash, I wondered if it was actually just about aesthetics: the simplicity of those zeros. But then it became 100,001 and suddenly it seemed to be about symmetry.

Whatever these things are about, whatever their meaning, as the numbers kept adding up silently, I looked out the car’s side window into a paddock the colour of an old lemon. The paddock was punctuated with a single little lamb. Why was it on its own? Was it lost? Had it been left behind?

I looked into the sky; it was empty and endlessly blue, the sort of blue that only happens around here. Up there was a single wedge-tailed eagle, gliding, circling.

(First published in Panorama, the Canberra Times, 17 January 2015.)

'Very few historians become novelists. It's a risk. You risk reputation and ego' - Peter Stanley (Image source: Fairfax Media)

‘Very few historians become novelists. You risk reputation and ego’ – Peter Stanley (Image source: Fairfax Media)

Think outside the square. Push the envelope. Go beyond your comfort zone. These are the clichés that are trotted out with monotonous regularity, as though every single one of us isn’t brave enough, we’re all just lazy sods. Then again, we’re also told to be cautious of those who dare to be outspoken, don’t get too close to the people who rock the boat; at all costs we should avoid those who are courageous enough to try turning truth on its head.

Then there’s historian Peter Stanley. Who seems to not care about any of this – he just wants to get on with the job of illuminating history.

Surely if there’s anyone who is qualified to illuminate history it’s Professor Peter Stanley. For twenty-seven years he was a historian with the Australian War Memorial, and after a brief stint at the National Museum of Australia he now works out of the University of New South Wales’ Australian Defence Force Academy campus. Stanley is the author of over twenty-five non-fiction works (he admits to having lost track), including the potentially blasphemous Bad Characters: Sex, Crime, Mutiny, Murder, and the Australian Imperial Force, which was jointly awarded the Prime Minister’s Prize for history in 2011. As if he doesn’t have enough to do, he is also the president of Honest History, a relatively new ACT-based organisation that aims to debunk the mythmaking that often occurs in Australian military history, particularly when it’s in the hands of politicians.

If anyone deserves the title of being one of the nation’s most prominent military historians it is Peter Stanley. But is he a towering, intimidating force?

Not in the slightest.

We meet in his north Canberra house, which doesn’t seem to have had much done to it since it was built in the 1960s. Two small fluffy dogs appear behind the flyscreen door, before Stanley appears as well – he looks like he’s no more significant than a suburban tax accountant. (If you’ve seen him during one of his many television appearances, he can be fiery almost to the point of discomfort.) After asking the dogs to behave – they do – the historian leads me through to the kitchen, where he gets together tea and biscuits. We take our places in a small, unassuming loungeroom. There’s a view into a semi-neglected, semi-loved backyard that’s so peaceful it’s hard to imagine that there are any problems in the world.

We’re here to discuss the recent publication of The Cunning Man, which is Peter Stanley’s first novel for adults. (He is the author of a novella for young adults, Simpson’s Donkey, which tells the famous ANZAC story from the animal’s perspective – it’s a memorable yarn.) This latest work is set in 1845 and explores the world of the European soldiers who created Britain’s Indian Empire. Sergeant Major Nelson Mansergh, Bengal Horse Artillery, is given the job of searching the Punjaub for a conspiracy among the company’s European soldiers. There’s a sub-plot of love and, needless to say, the story culminates in battle.

Why the move to long-form fiction?


Keep reading over at the Canberra Times, which published this piece on 28 November 2014. Thanks to Sally Pryor.

Two bits of news on The Beach Volcano.

Firstly, my alma mater, Verity La, has published a wonderfully thoughtful  and expansive review, one that manages to tease out some themes and interpretations that might have been buried even from me. It includes some generous conclusions: ‘The Beach Volcano rises and falls to a compelling beat. Not unlike John Cheever before him, Featherstone unpicks the threads of a successful family to reveal a hollow and corrupted core. With striking imagery, the twin themes of music and water are elegantly interwoven. Unforgettable.’

The full review can be found here.

A French man's reaction after hearing that there's new Burial music in the world.

A French man’s reaction after hearing that there’s new Burial music in the world.

Secondly, Blemish Books has now made The Beach Volcano, and its cousins Fall on Me and I’m Ready Now, available as e-books.

What’s more, for a very limited time Blemish is offering a massive 80% discount on the electronic versions. To purchase the e-books, and to claim the discount, head here and then put the relevant code into the coupon field. For The Beach Volcano use VARLUDO4S6, for I’m Ready Now DTS1RW4H2L, and for Fall on Me AEBE9D5AE6.

And finally, as you might know I’m obsessed with UK dub-step/electronica artist Burial. And he has new music: a single called ‘Temple Sleeper’. In a just world, there would be wild public celebrations, including dancing in the streets and drinking till dawn.


As has become a bit of a tradition around these UTC parts, the following is not a list of books that I consider ‘the best of the year’. Rather it’s a list of books I’ve read in the past twelve months that have had a personal impact in some way or another, either as a writer or reader, or just because they’re remarkable books no matter how you look at it. Also, not all were published in 2014, but in the world of literature that hardly matters, surely.

SixFirst up is Six by John Clanchy (Finlay Lloyd, 2014). As the title suggests, this is a collection of six short stories, although Clanchy specialises – indeed excels – at long stories, some of which are about 10,000 words in length. As is typical perhaps with Australian short fiction, family is the focus, but Clanchy always brings to his stories more than enough plot and action, albeit in the most under-stated way. The author is also committed to depth: of emotion, of relationship, and of meaning. Clanchy is equally adept at handling farce. It’s been a while since I read a short story that made me say to myself, That knocked me sideways – best take the dog for a walk now. That’s what happened when I read ‘The Day My Father Died’, the first story in the collection. (An interview I did with John Clanchy for the Canberra Times/Fairfax Media can be found here, and Peter Pierce’s review of Six is here.)

Drag down to unlockThey say short stories and poetry are close cousins, so let me now mention Drag down to unlock or place an emergency call by Melinda Smith (Pitt Street Poetry, 2013). For 20 years the Canberra-based Smith has been exploring her craft and being published in the smallest of presses. Then the highly regarded small press Pitt Street Poetry (talk about a micro publishing enterprise that’s punching well and truly above its weight) sent into the world Drag down to unlock or place an emergency call and Smith bags the 2014 Prime Minister’s Prize for Poetry. Divided into sections such as ‘Uploads’, ‘Downloads’, ‘News’, ‘Sport’, and ‘Weather’, what appeals the most is the combination of artfulness and accessibility. Some poems can be understood on first readings; others are more enigmatic. But all are magical and musical, and many are very affecting indeed. Drag down to unlock or place an emergency call should be in all Australians home. Maybe it should be handed out with tax returns.

The Childhood of JesusThe Childhood of Jesus by JM Coetzee (Text, 2013). As regular visitors to UTC will probably be aware, I’m a fan of JM Coetzee, the novelist from South Africa who has twice won the Man Booker Prize and now lives in South Australia. His Disgrace (1999), which scored the second of his Bookers, is a perfect though harrowing novel about a person, a people and a nation (or a range of nations) in absolute turmoil. I’ve also thoroughly enjoyed his fictionalised autobiographies, Boyhood (1997), Youth (2002), and the more playful Summertime (2009). Playful is a good word for Coetzee, who despite being a serious literary practitioner seemingly likes to do nothing more than toy with readers and their expectations; rarely does he appear intent on just telling a story. This marks Coetzee as difficult, but his prose is simple, at least on the surface, and, in most cases, the complexity is in the layers. Having said that, The Childhood of Jesus is an an odd and slightly underwhelming novel. In some ways it seems to be responding to Australia’s morally dubious approach to asylum seekers, and in other ways just meanders along not entirely sure where it needs to go. If it is indeed an allegory it’s a vague one. Still, it had an impact on this particular reader, if only because Coetzee seems to not give a damn about trends and markets; as an author, he is progressing his craft on his own terms.

The Snow KimonoThe Snow Kimono by Mark Henshaw (Text, 2014). Like Coetzee, Henshaw appears to enjoy the art of the novel as much as the art of the story. Like Coetzee, Henshaw’s work is about the layers. Unlike Coetzee, Henshaw is not prolific. His first novel, Out of the Line of Fire, was published in 1988 and since then he has co-written two commercial thrillers with John Clanchy (as JM Calder) but no literary works. An intriguing overview of Mark Henshaw’s career can be found at the Sydney Review of Books. The Snow Kimono is a duel narrative, though in reality it has more strands than that. In its review, the Guardian Australia does a fine job of distilling the plot: ‘One night in Paris, in 1989, retired inspector Auguste Jovert receives a letter from a woman in Algiers claiming to be his daughter. A chance encounter with a stranger – Tadashi Omura, former professor of law of the Imperial University of Japan – suddenly finds him entwined in the stories of Omura’s best friend, the arrogant and brilliant novelist Katsuo Ikeda, and the lives of three Japanese women, Fumiko, Mariko and Sachiko.’ The review goes on to define The Snow Kimono as a ‘philosophical puzzle’. It’s an apt description. I loved this novel.

The Pure Gold BabyThe Pure Gold Baby by Margaret Drabble (Text, 2013). I was provided this novel to review so I read it in that context. The review didn’t eventuate (the world had moved on), but I found myself engrossed in this novel, which, similar to Coetzee’s work perhaps, meanders through its various sections though never fails to keep the reader engaged. Set in England in the 1960s, the narrative follows a young anthropology student who becomes a single mother after an affair with a colleague. This was my first Drabble and what struck me is the sense of a novel being ‘a directed dream’ (as others have said): the pleasure is in the looseness, the sense of allusion, an appealing lack of interest in traditional plot, and sentences that pulse almost painfully with life.

ChallengeChallenge (MUP, 2014) by Paul Daley. Daley is a high profile, Walkey-winning Australian journalist who currently writes for the Guardian Australia. Challenge is his first novel. And a challenge it is. It’s a brutal, at times confronting exploration of the current state of Australia’s political system. It is a fiction, but it doesn’t take much for the reader to link characters and events to their antecedents. In essence the plot follows, Daniel Slattery, the leader of a slightly progressive party in opposition. Daley himself describes Slattery as a cross between Mark Latham and Holden Coalfield, which is quite something, all things considered. Slattery’s political capital is diminishing and his personal life is falling apart; meanwhile the prime minister is milking a potential terrorist threat. There is a thriller element to Challenge, but the joy (if that’s the best way to put is) is the way Daley makes his readers realise how toxic Australian politics has become. If only 5% of this novel is true, we’re fucked.

Crow MellowOne of the year’s most left-field but highly readable novels is Crow Mellow by Julian Davies (Finlay Lloyd, 2014). This is a rewriting of Aldous Huxley’s first novel, Chrome Yellow (1930), a work that Davies admits in his foreword had a significant impact on him when he was a teenager. In Crow Mellow, a group of artists and intellectuals gather for a weekend at Crow, a bush retreat. Interesting that Davies, who is the key publisher behind Finlay Lloyd, lives in a bush retreat where artists and intellectuals gather, so it’s easy to see why the Huxley original had an influence on the young Davies. Again, it’s the playfulness of the whole exercise that’s so appealing, made even more evident by the drawings by Phil Day that adorn every one of the 400 or so pages. An original, eccentric, and highly enjoyable piece of work.

The Narrow Road to the Deep NorthThe Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan (Random House, 2013). Enough has already been written about this novel that has won many of Australia’s and the world’s literary awards, including this year’s Man Booker. A Second World War novel, it focuses on the Australian servicemen pushed beyond themselves on Burma’s ‘death railway’. What works best in the novel is Flannagan’s lack of judgement and the commitment (to a certain extent at least) to showing both sides of the story – the Australians who were subjected to such harsh and degrading treatment but also glimpses into the lives of the Japanese guards. The novel also provides an exploration of how these men tried to get on with their lives once home. Readers will be aware that this novel isn’t universally loved, with some critics citing the overt jingoism as being a distracting element. Personally, there are many scenes in this novel that I continue to think about and no doubt I will revisit it years down the track. What I’ll think then is anyone’s guess.

Other works that have been a source of interest and/or inspiration this year include selected poem collections from Rosemary Dobson (1973) and David Campbell (1978), Beneath the Wheel by Hermann Hesse (1906), The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles by Giorgio Bassani (1958) (both the Hesse and the Bassani are excellent examples of short novels), The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje (1992; the perfect novel about war due to the poetry in the prose) and As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner (1930), which stumped me on first read a few years ago but for some reason made complete sense in 2014.

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