Well, here it is: the fabulously gorgeous cover for my new and – gasp – deeply personal novel, MY HEART IS A LITTLE WILD THING.

For authors, it’s always an interesting stage when the publisher finalises the cover. For a long time – often years (this particular narrative has been with me, in various forms, since 2014) – the story has been something internal: words and sentences and characters and events in mind, and in body too, in a way.

But then it becomes an object that a reader might be able to hold in her or his hand.

Or it looks like it could be held.

The publisher’s summary:

Blood is thicker than water, but the heart is a little wild thing that can’t be tamed.

The day after I tried to kill my mother, I tossed some clothes, a pair of hiking boots, a baseball cap and a few toiletries into my backpack, and left at dawn.

Patrick has always considered himself a good son. Willing to live his life to please his parents, his sense of duty paramount to his own desires and dreams. But as his mother’s health continues to deteriorate and his siblings remain absent, he finds the ties that bind him to his mother begin to chafe.

After an argument leads to a violent act he travels to a familiar country retreat to reflect on what his life could be – and through a chance encounter with a rare animal and an intriguing stranger starts to wonder if perhaps it is not too late to let his heart run wild.

A story about family, love and the cost of freedom, MY HEART IS A LITTLE WILD THING serves as a reminder that we all deserve to pursue our dreams.

The novel is out on 4 May through the incredible Ultimo Press, the new and innovative imprint from Hardie Grant Publishing.

Pre-orders for MY HEART IS A LITTLE WILD THING are currently available.

Many thanks to all those who’ve been engaging with this novel – it means the world to me.

Until publication day, I’ll be wandering the streets of Goulburn aimlessly.

No, I really will.

Halfway between the Big Merino, which stands like a sentinel on the Hume highway, and a supermax prison is a place known only by a few. Here, less than a kilometre to the east of Goulburn’s main street, is the music of birds twittering in trees, the splash of ducks diving, the ponk-ponk-ponk of frogs in conversation, and the heady smell of eucalyptus.

If a healthy landscape is one where birdsong is often heard, then the Goulburn wetlands must be one healthy landscape indeed, which is remarkable considering it is only 10 years old – and not long ago this part of New South Wales was facing a water crisis. It was formed out of clay pits once used by brickworks that closed just after the second world war. For much of the most recent drought, the wetlands were just a hole in the ground. But heavy rain last year and again this spring and summer brought an abundance of water. The regeneration plantings are thriving to the point that banks of wattles and eucalyptus are up to eight metres high.

For local people in the know, this is the place to walk your dog in the evening, catch another glorious pink-and-orange sunset, and, of course, see birds paddling about in search of a meal. Friends and Residents of Goulburn Swamplands (Frogs) is a small, volunteer-run organisation that cares for and maintains the wetlands on a weekly basis. They have counted 130 different bird species.

Birdwatcher Frank Antram says the list of birds includes the blue-billed duck, which is noted as a vulnerable species, and the ruddy turnstone, which visits from the NSW south coast. It even includes the Latham’s snipe, which flies all the way from eastern Russia and the Japanese islands, and is protected by the Japan-Australia Migratory Bird Agreement. Human visitors can enjoy three timber-and-iron bird hides as kangaroos laze on the nearby grasslands and snakes lurk among the groundcover.

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Keep reading at The Guardian (Australia edition), which commissioned this story and published it on 30 December 2021.

Since 1995, when he published Loaded, a slim but incendiary novel about twenty-four hours in the life of a young, gay, Greek man living in Melbourne, Christos Tsiolkas has been a powerful literary force. He would go on to receive high praise and perhaps even riches for The Slap (2008), a kaleidoscopic novel which would be adapted for television in Australia and the US. There has been Damascus (2019), Tsiolkas’s award-winning re-imagining of the life of St Paul and the dark and violent early days of the Christian church, as well as other novels, a short story collection, and criticism.

His is a towering presence, one that would be intimidating if the man did not have a reputation for being warm and generous.

But this reviewer can now hear Tsiolkas spitting venom: ‘Do not bring my personality into this, you fool. Do not mix my life with my art.’

So then, this latest work.

7 ½ is subtitled ‘a novel’, but how much of that is true? It concerns a Melbourne-based novelist called Christos Tsiolkas. He lives with his long-term, same-sex partner. He is in his mid-fifties. The narrative involves Christos (sometimes ‘Christo’ and sometimes ‘Chris’) taking himself to a rented holiday house on the far south coast of New South Wales in the hope of retreating from the world with all its distractions to write a new book. We see Christos writing in the house – often on the deck overlooking a manicured garden – and swimming at the beach, making meals, watching films, smoking, reading, and dreaming, which is a close cousin of the imagination, as it is of writing fiction.

The Christos of the novel makes it clear that he is telling a number of stories simultaneously, one relating to his childhood and adolescence, another about a retired gay porn star who, despite now being married to a woman and has a son, is offered a large sum of money to return to the US, the country of his birth and former profession, to have sex with an elderly gentleman who never had the opportunity to properly explore his sexuality.

In typical Tsiolkas fashion, 7 ½ is also a polemic.

*

Keep reading this review at the Canberra Times, where it was published on 13 November 2021.

Thrilled – and just a little trembly – to be having a new novel out next year, through Ultimo Press, a new imprint of Hardie Grant, via the incredible Robert Watkins who brought BODIES OF MEN to the world.

A few words from the top folk at Ultimo: ‘We have been bewitched by Nigel Featherstone’s tender, insightful novel, MY HEART IS A LITTLE WILD THING.⁠⁠ A story about family, love and the cost of freedom, MY HEART IS A LITTLE WILD THING serves as a reminder that we all deserve to pursue our dreams. Deeply personal and lyrical, Nigel has woven a story exploring love – both familial and romantic – in all its complexity.’

Deeply personal? Indeed.

I first had the idea for this novel back in 2013 and a few drafts came and went, none of which felt as though they were sufficiently lively – filled to the brim with pulse is what’s needed.

Then a few things happened.

Thanks to the generosity of a wonderful person, I spent a week living in an old barn on a farm on the Monaro, a beautiful though remote district at the foothills of the Snowy Mountains, in New South Wales.

Then I realised that I had been enjoying writing nonfiction, including an essay about my mother’s final days, which was published in 3:AM Magazine, and another about my childhood holidaying in the Blue Mountains, which was published in the Australasian edition of the Chicago Quarterly Review. (During the writing of MY HEART IS A LITTLE WILD THING I would be commissioned to write an essay about my father.) What if I wrote this novel as though it were non-fiction, by which I mean as though the main character is writing a memoir?

And then Caroline Stacey, the artistic director of The Street Theatre in Canberra, who directed my song cycle THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT, said to me, ‘Remember that sometimes good stories don’t start with the bad thing; they start after the bad thing happened.’

Some weeks later, eminent Australian poet Melinda Smith introduced me to the notion of ‘duende’, which she defined as being what drives written work that says what we’re not meant to say, or not allowed to say.

It seemed some key pieces had fallen into place.

So, I had one last go at the manuscript.

And here we are.

A few more words from me: ‘What do I hope readers will take away from this novel? A renewed awareness of life always being⁠ complex and messy; that sometimes, if we want to find ourselves, we must go back to the beginning; that a human being is entirely dependent on the environment in which it is placed; and that love is a wild, wild thing.’ ⁠⁠

And some last words from Robert, who is Ultimo’s Publishing Director: ‘Nigel is such a considered, lyrical writer – and MY HEART IS A LITTLE WILD THING is a beautiful novel. Readers, I’m sure, will relate deeply to the conflict Patrick feels between his love for his family and his yearning to pursue his heart. I’m so delighted to be publishing Nigel again on our new list at Ultimo Press.’⁠⁠

MY HEART IS A LITTLE WILD THING will be published in May 2022.⁠

Rather unbelievably, it’s already available for pre-order.

Big thanks to Gaby Naher at Left Bank Literary, who keeps the show on the road. Author photo by David Lindesay, who somehow managed to get me to almost smile.

Now to have a nice quiet faint.

Once I’ve recovered, I so look forward to sharing this novel with you.

Do stay well.

I’m thrilled to be moderating this special initiative of ACT Writers. To be held on Saturday 28 August, F*CK COVID: an online literary affair will feature intimate panel discussions with four of Australia’s most exciting literary voices – please see below. Both sessions, which will be live (and not recorded), will include a generous allocation of time for audience interaction. Do join us!

PROGRAM:

1.30pm-3pm AEST – Hard truths; risky fiction with Irma Gold and Mark Brandi.

3.30pm-5pm AEST – Past-present: adventures in non-fiction with Shu-Ling Chua and Ruhi Lee.

F*CK COVID is a free event but bookings are essential – please click here to secure your place! Donations will be gratefully received and, in their entirety, will go towards writers’ fees.

Mark Brandi’s bestselling novel, WIMMERA, won the coveted British Crime Writers’ Association Debut Dagger, and was named Best Debut at the 2018 Australian Indie Book Awards. It was also shortlisted for the Australian Book Industry Awards Literary Fiction Book of the Year, and the Matt Richell Award for New Writer of the Year. His second novel, THE RIP, was published to critical acclaim by Hachette Australia in March 2019. Mark’s shorter work has appeared in The Guardian, The Age, the Big Issue, and in journals both here and overseas. His writing is also sometimes heard on ABC Radio National. Mark graduated with a criminal justice degree and worked extensively in the justice system, before changing direction and deciding to write. Originally from Italy, he grew up in rural Victoria. Mark now lives in Melbourne and his latest work of fiction is THE OTHERS, also published by Hachette Australia.

Shu-Ling Chua is a Melbourne-based (formerly Canberra-based) essayist, critic and poet, whose work has appeared in Peril Magazine, Lindsay, Meanjin, and Asian American Writers’ Workshop, among others. Her debut essay collection, ECHOES, was published by Somekind Press in 2020. Shu-Ling was shortlisted in the 2018 Woollahra Digital Literary Award, highly commended in the 2017 Feminartsy Memoir Prize and selected for the 2015 HARDCOPY manuscript development program. She has completed writing residencies at the Wheeler Centre and KSP Writers’ Centre.

Irma Gold is an award-winning author and editor. Her debut novel, THE BREAKING, was released in March and has been receiving critical acclaim. Her short fiction has been widely published in literary journals, including Meanjin, Island, Westerly, Review of Australian Fiction, Award Winning Australian Writing and Going Down Swinging, and her acclaimed collection of short fiction is Two Steps Forward. Irma is also the author of four children’s picture books, most recently Where the Heart Is, which was read by Fergie, Duchess of York, on her Storytime channel. Her fifth picture book, Seree’s Story, will be out with Walker Books in 2022. As editor Irma works for a range of publishers, big and small, and was Convener of Editing at the University of Canberra for a decade. Irma is Ambassador for the Save Elephant Foundation, Ambassador for the ACT Chief Minister’s Reading Challenge and co-host of the writing podcast, Secrets from the Green Room.

Sneha Lees writes on Boon Wurrung land. Her writing has been featured in The Guardian, ABC Everyday, SBS Voices, South Asian Today and The Big Issue among other publications. Her book GOOD INDIAN DAUGHTER was published by Affirm Press in May 2021 under the pseudonym Ruhi Lee. In 2019, she was a recipient of the Neilma Sidney Literary Travel Fund and her manuscript was shortlisted for the Penguin Random House Write it Fellowship. In 2020, she was commissioned to write for Multicultural Arts Victoria’s Shelter program. She holds a Bachelor of Arts (International Studies) and Bachelor of Commerce (Human Resource Management) from Monash University and is now studying Screen Production at The Compton School, University of Canberra. She is currently working on a screenplay. 

Well, this is rather lovely news: BODIES OF MEN has been shortlisted for the 2020 ACT Book of the Year.

For three decades now, the ACT and surrounding region have provided me with such a creatively sustaining environment. I left Sydney at the age of 18 and never really returned, preferring to call Canberra home, which I did for twenty years. Even though to most people it’s only ever seen as the centre of Australia’s federal politics (to the frustration of those who live there), and perhaps as a relatively well-known ‘designed’ city, to me Canberra has been the place where I began exploring so many things – all that made me feel truly alive.

Literature swiftly became the core of that.

Ten years ago, I moved 80 kilometres up the road and across the border and Goulburn, in New south Wales, is where I live now. However, it’s becoming my habit to say that Goulburn is my hometown, Canberra is my home city, and the ACT region is where my creative community lives. So, it feels…special to have BODIES OF MEN being endorsed by my peers in the ‘hood.

Nice also knowing my funny little war novel still has a bit of puff.

As ever, gratitude to Gaby Naher of Left Bank Literary, my publisher Robert Watkins, and Hachette Australia. Thanks also to artsACT, which administers the award – it mustn’t have been easy when the process got, well, plagued.

All the love in the world to everyone who has engaged with the novel.

That’s where it lives now: in the minds of readers.

Onwards.

Amazingly enough, two years ago to the day a wee novel called BODIES OF MEN came into the world. I started writing it in 2014, when I was a writer-in-residence at UNSW Canberra, and eventually – and rather miraculously, it must be said – it saw the light of day in May 2019.

What a marvellous ride it has been since then.

Thanks to all the kind folk who have engaged with the novel. Only this week, two wonderful people got in touch – one sending me the first picture, of the book at Berkelouw’s in Berrima, the other saying they had recently read the novel for the second time, because the first time they had rushed through to find out what happened to dear James and William.

Yes, it has been a ‘ride’, but in a way that is not the right word, because it is all about readers, and I have been so fortunate that so many have engaged with the story. The award listings have been lovely, but there is nothing like a reader saying how much the characters and their story resonated for them. Even just this morning, when I posted something similar to this piece on Facebook, a kind and generous reader wrote, ‘The ending is perfect, as it makes your mind explode with hope.’ That sort of response is almost literally gold. No, scratch that. It IS gold.

Big thanks to all the incredible booksellers. Imagine a world without them.

Of course, thanks to Hachette Australia, and all power to publisher Robert Watkins and Gaby Naher from Left Bank Literary for making everything happen.

Sorry about the photo in which I look like a cross between Oscar Wilde and that bloke from Spandau Ballet.

Finally, I have been fortunate to appear recently on two terrific podcasts: Words and Nerds with the incredible Dani V, and The Dead Prussian with Mick Cook, an Australian war veteran. Wonderful conversations both. A print interview can be found on Triclinium, the blog of Australian historical-fiction novelist Elisabeth Storrs. Having the opportunity to discuss BODIES OF MEN in such depth and detail is really very special.

Thanks again, everyone.

Love,

your old Goulburn mate x

There is a mystique to the writer, particularly the novelist, and most of it is a cliché. The commonly imagined (dreamed) scene is this: sitting at an oversized antique desk, an expensive, preferably French bottle of red wine or an exquisite whiskey to one side, a clunky old typewriter waiting for the next masterpiece to appear, one that will put the author on planes and flown around the world and plonked in front of adoring festival audiences, long lines of readers waiting for an autograph. Of course, the reality is much less glamorous: years spent trying to wrestle a manuscript to the ground, with only a flickering hope that the book will see the light of day and find a readership. Industry surveys suggest we are reading less, especially less literary fiction. So most writers will ask themselves: why am I doing this?

George Orwell wrote ‘Why I Write’ in 1946, as the world was beginning the slow process of rebuilding after the devastation of the Second World War. In it, he gave four reasons for why he wrote: ‘sheer egotism’ (a need to seem clever), ‘aesthetic enthusiasm’ (perceptions of beauty), ‘historical impulse’ (a desire to document facts), and ‘political purpose’. Of the latter, Orwell claims:

When I sit down to write a book, I don’t say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art.’ I write because there is some lie I want to expose, and my initial concern is to get a hearing.’

One of Australia’s most political writers of recent generations is Christos Tsiolkas. Born in Melbourne in 1965, Tsiolkas is the son of Greek migrants; he is also gay and identifies as a socialist as well as an atheist. Despite, or because of, the conservatism that has been a part of Australia’s political landscape since John Howard came to power in 1996, shaping the way the nation operates, particularly in terms of economic policy and international relations (that is, an appalling treatment of those seeking asylum), Tsiolkas has had one of the rarest experiences in Australian letters: a literary career that is commercially successful while – in the main – being critically lauded. He is the author of short stories, novels, plays, screenplays, and essays of criticism covering art forms such as film and music. Even though widely regarded to be fearless writer, Tsiolkas is well-known to be a warm and affectionate man who has supported generations of emerging writers.

Looking deeper, how might we describe Christos Tsiolkas as a writer?

Words such as audacious, dangerous and ambitious come to mind. From the evidence of his considerable output to date, it is likely that Tsiolkas would agree with Orwell’s political motivation, being to ‘expose lies’ and ‘get a hearing’.

Justifiably, and perhaps reassuringly, Tsiolkas has been getting a hearing since the publication of his first novel, a relatively slim novel called Loaded, which was first published by Vintage (Random House) in 1995. In Loaded – the novel was adapted for the silver screen and called Head On starring Alex Dimitriades and directed by Ana Kokkinos (1998) – Ari is a nineteen-year-old son of Greek migrants. He is actively gay though expresses considerable hatred, both of himself and the world around him. We see him as he works his way through a day and night in Melbourne, taking an almost death-defying amount of drugs, having sex, and interacting with family and friends with both animosity and affection.

What is most striking about Loaded is its audacity.

The opening paragraph:

The morning is ending and I’ve just opened my eyes. I stare across the cluttered room I’m in. I scratch at my groin. I yawn. I feel my cock and start a slow masturbation. When I’m finished, and it doesn’t take long, I get up with a leap, wrap a towel around my naked body and make a slow journey downstairs.

There is much to learn about the craft – or the ‘trade’, as Tsiolkas himself likes to say – of writing: the life in the language, the boldness of the prose, and the fact that the DNA of the entire novel appears to be contained in those few opening words. We immediately know the story will be told in an uncensored way, and we know there will be shocks; we also know, by the very fact that Ari makes a ‘slow journey downstairs’, the narrative will be one of descent, potentially into some kind of hell. It is the audacity that is the most striking feature here: this is writing that believes in its own worth, even though Ari himself openly believes in nothing but short bursts of sexual connection and chemical-induced pleasure.

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This is an extract from my commissioned essay, titled ‘Fearless’, which appears in READING LIKE AN AUSTRALIAN WRITER, edited by Belinda Castles and available now through New South Books.

It has been quite a while – a couple of decades, to be frank – since I have written poetry for the page, as opposed to libretti or simply lyrics, so it is rather lovely to have a poem published in RABBIT, a prominent Australian literary journal. This issue, number 32, focusses on ‘form’, which is something I love thinking about, and then tie myself in knots trying to make work. But not just work; I want the whole thing to be alive.

The poem is called ‘Astronomical’ and is about how, even (especially?) in the depths of the night, it is possible to be infinite.

Although I thoroughly enjoyed writing the libretto for THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT (commissioned by the Hume Conservatorium in New South Wales, with music by James Humberstone), and there are song lyrics in my new play-in-development, it has been good to worry about how a poem works on the page rather than about how the words might be sung and resonate with an audience hearing them in the context of a performed work.

A poem does not necessarily make a good song lyric, and vice versa.

So I am learning.

In any case, many thanks to guest editors Charmaine Papertalk Green and Stuart Barnes. Thanks also to Melinda Smith for introducing me to the concept of duende, which has changed my writing in so many ways. (If you would like to know more about duende, you may wish to check out this terrific essay by Tracy K Smith.)

If you would like to check out RABBIT 32, just drop a click here.

Over and out.

‘In preserving the story of what I experience, I live doubly; the past will return to me, the future is always there’– Eugène Delacroix, 1824

This summer I am looking for my father. Things have happened – things are always happening, but this is different – and I know time is running out. If I do not do this now, all that I will be able to say is I wish, I wish, I wish.

My father is not missing, and neither am I estranged from him. We have maintained a good relationship over the years: I do not remember any arguments. When I was a child, if my mother wanted my father to do something – put out the garbage bins, clean the pool, fix a leak in the roof – she would send me to tell him. More than once I asked why I had to do it; couldn’t she speak to him herself? ‘I’m asking you, Nigel, because you don’t annoy him.’ So, obediently, off I went to pass on the message. I have told friends that I know what sort of old man I will be because I have been following my father’s life. ‘In forty years, I’ll be him.’ With that they nod and smile, a little alarmed.

Yes, my father and I are similar people, so what exactly am I trying to find? Perhaps I am not trying to find anything; I want to interact with him in a deeper way, to better understand him, to experience the way he lives in the world, to know him – before it is too late.

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Keep reading here.

Thank you to the Tuggeranong Arts Centre, which commissioned this essay to accompany Jack, John and Kempsey, an exhibition of my father’s work, held from 6 February to 27 March 2021, ACT, Australia.

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