Bloody hell, I’m about to do something I’ve never done before.

Starting at 2pm tomorrow, I will be spending two weeks straight at The Street Theatre in Canberra undertaking a creative development of my new full-length play with songs, which has the working title THE STORY OF THE OARS.

What does this mean?

Professional actors reading the text as it currently stands. A director and dramaturge analysing every scene, sentence, and word. Body explorations. A music consultant investigating opportunities and challenges. Me passing out from the thrill – and glorious work – of it all.

Due to COVID-19, it will be happening online. Pictured is my set up at home. Complete with angel and (hint of) bull talisman.

Frighteningly, at 5pm (AEST) on Friday 15 May the ‘doors’ will open and you can experience a professional reading of the play. And get to give me and the creative team feedback.

Shit.

Tickets, which are free but limited, can be found here.

I have been through this process before. The song cycle for which I wrote the libretto, THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT, also went through a First Seen creative development. However, because that work was already at a fairly developed stage, it was a much shorter process – 2 days. Also, we already had a full score, by the wonderful James Humberstone. This time around, we’re developing the project in a much more incremental way, aiming to get the text as finished as it can be before we move into the music-collaboration stage. That’s not to say this will be a better process, just a different process for different projects.

So what is THE STORY OF THE OARS actually about?

Summer somewhere on the east coast of Australia, 1987: three teenage brothers drown on a large ephemeral lake. Thirty years later, with the lake now dry, four strangers unburden themselves of the truth. Their lives will never be the same. A play with songs, THE STORY OF THE OARS is about the repercussions of childhood, and how facts have their way of revealing themselves. It’s also an exploration of class, privilege, and the power of place to enchant, repel, and mend.

Of course, massive thanks to the unstoppable folk at The Street Theatre, and Create NSW for supporting an earlier development.

Now, where’s a crate-load of whiskey…

The world is sick. It is easy to think that when the COVID-19 death ‘tally’ increases every day and reports suggest that as much as a third of the global population is currently living in some form of lock-down.

Here in Australia we are experiencing unprecedented limitations on how we can move about and who we can see. Some of us are lucky to be in a long-term relationship and intimacy is only a look or a joke away. Others are having a much more challenging time: not being able to see who they want, when they want, how they want, and why they want. Has love become even harder?

This week, while eating a homemade omelette for lunch (packed with mushrooms and feta), I decided to take my mind off the current troubles by watching a short film in which French philosopher Alain Badiou spoke about love being ‘a risky adventure’. Towards the end of the film, Badiou said two things that resonated with me: ‘Love creates a perspective and an existence in the world from the point of view of two, not one’, which he described as a ‘revolutionary act’; and, evidently paraphrasing Spinoza, ‘All that is true and rare are difficult’, which is a statement that reached right into my belly.

All that is true and rare are difficult.

Yes, that is love: wonderful, beautiful, messy, contradictory, infuriating, exciting, banal; and, in this challenging and sometimes unbearably heavy year, necessary.

Love is the domain of philosophy; it is also the domain of novelists and poets. There was a time, during my childhood and adolescence, when instructions on love came from a man in a black frock who was armed with a bible and a hymn book. Thankfully, these days my shelves are packed (ever more chaotically) with much better books.

Although I do not seek it out with any kind of fervour, gay literature is well-represented on my shelves, particularly gay novels. These works have provided me with experience, understanding, solace, antagonism, confusion, and, in the end, profound contentment. I never found profound contentment in nightclubs or tennis clubs or dinner parties, darling. I found profound contentment in novels, where the gay experience could shift and buckle and expand and explode; where it could be both ordinary and wondrous, and spectacularly alive.

The following are some novels that have indeed felt spectacularly alive.

*

Keep reading over at The Canberra Times, which published this piece on 18 April 2020.

In a couple of weeks I’ll be LIVE ONLINE talking all things Writing War with the very wonderful Melanie Myers, Simon Cleary, and Cass Moriarty, who must be one of the hardest-working people in Australian letters.

The panel, which was organised last year by Avid Reader Bookshop in Brisbane, was originally scheduled to be held in person in the store. However, things have changed a lot since then, haven’t they. It’s been a tough year for so many, a heart-breaking year, a tragic year. The writing community has had to rethink how it does things, with events either cancelled or moved online. Thankfully the Writing War discussion will still be happening, thanks to the wonders of the internet and the tenacity of folk.

Who knows what we’ll end up talking about, but we’ve already decided that we won’t be shy about heading into the contentious (and increasingly frightening) world of Australian military history. Why is it so hard to talk about war history? Why are so many scared about having a point of view?

Have we really reached the point where it is impossible to have an alternative or creative view about Australia’s military past? Is it now impossible to critique it, even in a respectful and informed way? Why is it that people have lost their jobs – indeed some have even been kicked out of the country – if they have tweeted criticism about Anzac Day?

It will all be happening at 6.30pm on Monday 20 April. The tickets are just $5. It’ll be via Zoom so it’s open to folk anywhere in the world.

It’d be great to have your company.

Booking information here. Big thanks to to Krissy Kneen and the amazing team at Avid Reader Bookshop.

Despite the world having serious wobbles at the moment as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic (though thankfully, miraculously, Australia appears to be faring much better than many other countries), some good things continue to happen.

BODIES OF MEN is still doing its humble little thing: finding readers here and there; it’s such a joy to receive messages from folk saying that they have enjoyed the novel. In rather lovely news, for the month of April Amazon has the e-book version on special for $2.99. If you’re a Kindle user and would like an affordable way of reading the novel, now is your chance! Also please do help to spread the word – it’s autumn in Australia so the chooks have gone off the lay, which means more trips to Woolies, which means I need to have a few coins rattling around my pockets.

In related news, like many writers I have lost a number of gigs due to The Virus, but at least one is still going ahead, albeit online: a panel organised by the Avid Reader Bookshop in Brisbane, Writing War, which features Melanie Myers, Simon Cleary and your old Goulburn mate and facilitation by Cass Moriarty, will be held via Zoom at 6pm (Queensland time) on Monday 20 April. Tickets are just $5 and can be bought here. It would be terrific to see you.

Moving from the page to the stage: my new play – with songs – has been selected for a creative development through the First Seen program, which is an initiative of The Street Theatre in Canberra. Last month I had the opportunity to spend two days at The Street doing a preliminary creative development with dramaturge Anne-Louise Rentell, which was such a productive experience. First Seen will offer an even deeper experience and involve a range of creative voices exploring and challenging the work. While usually this would happen over an intense 7-day period in the theatre’s rehearsal space, due to COVID-19 the sessions will be over Zoom and spread across 2 weeks in May.

The text for the work is still very much a work-in-progress, but here is a sample from one of the songs:

Who is he,

the man who dares to himself himself

‘father’?

 

He is my

he is your

crumbling wall

What I find (sometimes almost overwhelmingly) fascinating about writing for the stage is being able to access input from so many creatives, all with their different perspectives and requirements. In a way, there’s no way of knowing what will emerge, but, to be frank, it’s exciting.

To end: during the week I posted on my socials a photograph of me from when I was about 5 years old; it’s at the top of this post. Although I said online that the photo was taken in my backyard, I was actually at a holiday house my family used to rent at Mount Wilson in the Blue Mountains, to the west of Sydney. Throughout my childhood we spent many holidays at Mount Wilson and I adored it; I still think about the place. And write about it. A lot. My first novel, REMNANTS (Pandanus Books, 2005, largely out of print but information is available here), was set at Mount Wilson, a significant chunk of BODIES OF MEN involves Mount Wilson, and a recent memoir essay I wrote for the special Australian Issue of the CHICAGO QUARTERLY REVIEW explored my ongoing association with the place, including an event that has continued to resonate. (You might be pleased to know that new projects have moved ‘off mountain’.)

The caption I used for the photo when posted online was ‘One minute you’re a happy little kid playing theatre in the backyard; the next you’re a gloomy bloody author. Either way, buy a copy of the BODIES OF MEN e-book and cheer this old bugger up?’

Perhaps I’ll end this post by simply saying: if you’ve ever bought a copy of one of my books, or you’ve come to one of my shows or events, if you’ve commented here or on the socials, thank you.

Very much.

Snowfalls. Orange skies. Face-masks. Raging flames. Ash on the letterbox. Hail the size of apples. Half a billion animals gone. Dead trees. Lives lost. Floods.

It was the Summer from Hell in Australia.

And now the daffodils are coming up. In March. As they say in polite society: what the fuck?

Still, writing manages to happen.

Firstly, I was chuffed to have been asked to write a piece for the special Australian Issue of the CHICAGO QUARTERLY REVIEW, which is now out. I wrote about my childhood in the Blue Mountains, Patrick White, and one of the worst mistakes I’ve ever made.

The opening paragraph:

I stood on the edge of the lane and stared at the black house, at the old concrete water tank, at the lawn stones that might have been foundations. Some minutes later, after deciding that as it was midweek and the house likely a weekender, I took a step, then another— until I was standing in the garden, in the very place where my bedroom had once been. I stretched out my arms as if to touch the missing walls and said, “This is where it happened.”

Such an honour to share the pages with writers such as Claire G Coleman, Michael Mohammed Ahmad, Krissy Kneen, Ali Cobby Eckermann, Behrouz Boochani, Van Badham, David Malouf, Kim Mahood, Simon Cleary, Quinn Eades, and Inga Simpson among many others.

While writing for the page continues to be my focus, writing for the stage is something I’m doing more and more, even though I never intended to go in this direction. Ah, the twists and turns in the writing life.

So, it was rather exciting to be informed recently that three of my songs from THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT will be performed in November this year at Carnegie Hall’s Recital Hall in New York by international baritone David Wakeham.

To be frank, this is rather special: the song cycle, the score for which was written by the amazing James Humberstone, is about a high-raking Australian soldier who returns from his latest tour of Afghanistan with a dark secret; all he wants to do is heal on his family’s grazing property on the Southern Tablelands – what he doesn’t know is that his family have a dark secret of their own.

To have elements of the work performed in the US? Mind-blowing.

Finally, earlier this month I spent two days at The Street Theatre in Canberra. Three songs from THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT may well be off to New York, but I have a new work for the stage in the very early phase of development i.e. crappy words on bits of paper.

Is it another song cycle? Perhaps it’s more of a play with songs?

Thanks to some lovely funding from Create NSW, I was able to spend two days with Wollongong-based dramaturge Anne-Louise Rentell. Together we talked about big ideas and then we tore the draft into small pieces and started putting it back together.

Not all the words are coming together yet, but here are a few:

A boat, I see

an empty boat blown by the wind

to the shore

 

of a lake filled to the brim

with life-giving water

that’s no more, like three boys

 

They drowned, they said,

and I believed them

Is the script in a better shape now? Yes. What’s the next step? Who knows. But I do love being in the creative space, both physically and mentally.

Thanks again to Create NSW for the opportunity, The Street Theatre for hosting these preliminary creative-development sessions, Anne-Louise Rentell for pushing me into some uncomfortable terrain (almost literally), David Sharpe for joining the dots, and Paul Scott-Williams from the Hume Conservatorium, who, by commissioning me all those years ago to write the libretto for what became THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT, sent me in this exciting direction.

Perhaps if humanity survives long enough there might be a new work on the stage before long?

Quite honestly, who knows.

Who knows.

 

This year, which was bonkers (and not in a good way), was one that was both softened and enlarged by reading. Every year there are truly spectacular books, those that genuinely get under your skin and you think about them for weeks, if not months or longer. What follows is not a list of books I consider ‘the best’ (as if I’d know) but ones that have resonated in a way that was surprising, or beautiful, or funny, or shocking, sometimes all at once – and more.

Although I don’t usually break my reading down into genre or geographic categories, I have this time, only because the list is long and some structure might be useful.

Australian novels I enjoyed this year include Melissa Lucashenko’s cheeky but powerful and very necessary TOO MUCH LIP, Charlotte Wood’s moving and piercingly astute THE WEEKEND, RWC McDonald’s wondrously joyful THE NANCYS, and Simon Cleary’s THE WAR ARTIST, which is a timely addition to Australian literature that dares to question our apparently unbounded love of military history. Other novels that packed a necessary punch are Andrew Goldsmith’s intricately drawn INVENTED LIVES, THE BREEDING SEASON by Amanda Niehaus (my review for the Canberra Times here), and THE ORCHARDIST’S DAUGHTER, Karen Viggers’ study of Tasmanian forest ecology and the human lives that depend on it. THE PILLARS by Peter Polites puts a dagger through Sydney’s obsession with real estate; the novel actually does so much more. INVISIBLE BOYS by Holden Sheppard is a no-bullshit exploration of growing up gay in regional Western Australia – the novel and its author are attracting a huge fanbase and it’s not hard to see why. Finally, three novels that deserve to be widely read are Julie Keys’ THE ARTIST’S PORTRAIT, which is such an ambitious and unique historical novel about art and memory, HITCH by Kathryn Hind (my review for the Canberra Times here), and IN WHOM WE TRUST by one of Australia’s greatest living prose writers, John Clanchy.

Novels from overseas that I adored include HAPPINESS by the always wise Aminatta Forna, THE FRIEND by Sigrid Nunez, and Max Porter’s utterly magical – and devastating – LANNY. I finally read works by Rachel Cusk – TRANSIT – and Elizabeth Strout – OLIVE, AGAIN – and, oh my goodness, both were extraordinary and I will be reading more of both. To my mind, the novel of the year, if not the decade, was Ocean Vuong’s ON EARTH WE’RE BRIEFLY GORGEOUS, which knocked my socks off, partly because it gently though forcefully reveals the inter-generational impact of war and partly because the language is so poetically exposed.

I read some very moving Australian non-fiction this year, including GROWING UP QUEER (edited by Benjamin Law), Laura Dawes’ FIGHTING FIT, which scientifically and entertainingly explores the many ways Britain kept its home population healthy during the Second World War, Chloe Higgins’ tragic and remarkably vulnerable THE GIRLS, James Halford’s wonderfully drawn essays about his love of Latin American literature as collected in REQUIEM WITH YELLOW BUTTERFLIES, and Patrick Mullins’ impeccably researched and thoughtfully written biography of the much-maligned Australian prime minister Billy McMahon – TIBERIUS WITH A TELEPHONE. I found THE SATURDAY PORTRAITS by Maxine Beneba Clarke incredibly moving and does a lot to reveal the challenges presented by contemporary Australia. I very much enjoyed Peter Papathanasiou’s LITTLE ONE, which is a joyful memoir about determination and crossing boundaries (in many ways). NO FRIEND BUT THE MOUNTAINS by Behrouz Boochani is an extraordinary – and deeply poetry – chronicle of ‘life’ in this country’s deplorable refugee prisons, and THE ERRATICS by Vicki Laveau-Harvie shows how powerful prose can be, especially when focused on a highly dysfunctional family.

I didn’t read as many poetry collections as I would have liked, though the form is a regular part of my reading. I loved ANOTHER LANGUAGE by Eileen Chong, and I had my own celebration of Mary Oliver, lapping up the Pulitzer Prize-winning AMERICAN PRIMATIVE and LONG LIFE, which is a collection of essays, many playful, interspersed with Oliver’s typically accessible though always moving poetry.

As this year, a publication year for your old Goulburn mate, comes to an end, I’d just like to say thanks so much to all the lovely folk who have been a part of the BODIES OF MEN adventure.

Thanks to those who attended the launch of the novel back in May at the wonderful Street Theatre in Canberra.

Thanks to those who attended my speaking gigs, in bookshops, libraries, and schools.

Thanks to those who have messaged me with photos of the book in various places around Australia and in New Zealand – it’s such a simple gesture but it means a lot.

Thanks to those who have emailed or messaged me or come up to me at events and shared their experience of the novel. So very much appreciated.

Thanks to those who interviewed me and helped find an audience for my funny little war novel.

Thanks to those who have written responses to the novel online and then shared them. Some members of the literary community are just amazing, like Sue Terry from Whispering Gums – check out Sue’s summary of authors who have blogs, which includes a little mention of this here place in the online world.

Special thanks to all the many bookshops who stock the novel – you are bona fide heroes.

Special thanks also to my magic-making agent, Gaby Naher of Left Bank Literary in Sydney, and my very smart and hardworking publisher, Robert Watkins at Hachette Australia.

What have I learned?

To be frank, I have no idea, but here are some thoughts, which may or may not end up being true:

  • confidence is a trickster
  • publication is the fullstop at the end of the sentence
  • for the stories that find a home, it was always impossible to predict where that home was going to be
  • accept invitations that make you feel as though you’re going to faint
  • it is better to make art that no one sees than to not have made art
  • success is 10% talent, 20% luck, 50% hard work; no one knows what makes up the remaining 20%
  • doubt is a loyal friend and is more helpful than you may realise.

What happens now?

After a bit of a summer break, my mind will turn to other projects, although I do have a BODIES OF MEN-related event in Queensland in April, just in time for Anzac Day 2020 – it will be at Avid Reader and with authors Melanie Meyers and Simon Cleary and moderated by the tireless Cass Moriarty. We’ll be talking all things writing war.

See you next year (if we in Australia survive the Bushfire Apocalypse).

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