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Last week my little humble home stepped into a new era – I had a fire installed, a slow-combustion wood heater, I should say.  Technically I don’t need it.  There’s an old coal burner in the front room that’s now a library; I can use the coal burner to burn wood should I want a fire.  Plus I’m lucky to have ducted gas heating and a wall-mounted gas heater the size of a very large travelling suit-case.  And electric bar heaters.  And an electric blanket on the bed.  In this Southern Tablelands neck of New South Wales, winters do have a bite – heavy frosts are common, we regularly have minus-six mornings (which, according to the Bureau of Meteorology actually feel like minus-ten), even the odd snow flurry.  But I have my range of heaters, and, when I’m here alone, I wear thermal undies, because they make things just that little more bearable, and I really can’t afford to run the gas heating for long stretches.

Still I had a slow-combustion wood heater installed last week.  A man came by and did it for me, because I wouldn’t have had the first clue where to start.

Despite being a winter person, I’m finding more and more that I need heat, good, dry, radiant heat.  So there it is, the fire, sitting in the lounge-room where the piano used to be (the piano that’s now in the front room, glancing back at the coal burner).  My new slow-combustion wood heater is a big black cast-iron box of a thing, a massive black flue that gives the room an industrial aesthetic.  I can’t wait to get to 6pm tonight and light the fire, because I’ll want that good, dry, radiant heat, the flames, the glowing, dancing yellow-orange light, the smell of hardwood burning, the pop and crackle of it all, which scares the living daylights out of The Old Lady of the House.  I’ll pour myself a glass of white wine, or Cointreau, or American Honey whiskey, and sit in front of the heat.

Because I’m a melancholic – that’s the real reason why I love my new fire so much.  Melancholia is my natural habitat, it always has been.

I love melancholic books: The Remains of the Day, The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea, Holding the Man, Brideshead Revisited, Brokeback Mountain, Disgrace.  I love melancholic music: Godspeed You! Black Emperor, The Red House Painters, The Smiths, Bon Iver, Sigur Ros, M83, Arvo Part, Johan Johannson.  I’m not depressed, although there have been times when that’s exactly what I have been.  I’m just a miserable old melancholic – I have, as my Oxford Australian Reference Dictionary makes clear, ‘a habitual or constitutional tendency to pensive sadness’.  Pensive: deep in thought.  Don’t you love how words can take us on journeys, take us from one place to another!

I think my new fire takes me from one place to another, from the surface-tension of the present to deep within myself, to that core of melancholia that’s there, that which I was born with, that which I will die with.  Because, as strange as it may sound, I’m happiest in that place.  No doubt the fire is more friend than foe, taking me down there but, most importantly, bringing me back, warming me up, sending me to bed, reminding me that, more or less, everything will be alright in the morning.

I’ve been going on about it, telling anyone who’ll listen, I’m even telling you now, sharing my story about the little black hole that appeared on my verge.  Last Tuesday at 6.30 a.m. there was knocking on my door.  My neighbour was standing there.  He asked me if I owned a collection of plastic toy motorbikes; I said no.  He asked me if I owned a pot plant filled with old coins; I said no, I didn’t – what was he talking about?  He told me to go out to the lane.  He’s a good man, but a very quiet man, and I recalled how when I’d moved in he’d said that if I ever needed help he had a gun.  I thought it best to follow his instructions.

In the lane was a scattering of toy motorbikes, all different colours, looking like an accident had happened, though it would have been a strange accident to say the least.  Nearby was the pot plant, upturned, the old coins spilled.  “You really don’t know anything about this stuff?”  No, I didn’t.  I remembered how my neighbour on the other side owned motorbikes, and that his garage door was broken so he’d tried to secure the gap with chicken wire.  We went to investigate.  The wire had been lifted into a miniature archway.  Kids had got in and stolen what they thought would be valuable or fun but almost immediately decided the loot was neither.

My neighbour and I put the motorbikes in a bag and returned the coins to the pot.  We’d hand it all back to our other neighbour when we saw him at a less ungodly hour.  Case solved.

Except I saw a little black hole on my verge.  As they’d left the scene the thieves had pulled a much-loved sapling from the ground, a dogwood from a previous house, a piece of the old home for a new home, what beautiful white flowers the tree had given, always in the first week in December.  How brave the sapling had been, surviving incessant winds, hail storms, frost.  Leading away from the hole were drops of dirt, like blood, black blood, until there were no signs of the sapling at all.

As I’ve told this story to anyone who’ll listen, I’ve said, “I understand burglary, I even understand graffiti, but where is the pleasure in wrenching a sapling from the earth?”

(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 23 July 2011.)

Yes, I need you, well, I need your help.

I’m currently writing a feature article for The Canberra Times on the problem child of literature – the novella.  It seems to me that down the ages the novella has had a tendency to well and truly punch above its weight.  Stories like Thomas Mann’s Death In Venice (1912), George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945) and Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea (1952) have had a massive impact on Western literature and each has very firmly found its place in the literary canon.  But are they long short stories or short novels?  For example, my 1993 Arrow Classic edition of The Old Man and the Sea contains references to this amazing gem being a short story, a long short story, and a novel.  It’s a bit like a motor-bike manufacturer describing its latest model as a mono-cycle, a very fast mono-cycle, and an open-air rocket on wheels.

I’m intrigued about all this because by some extraordinary miracle I’ve written one, a novella, that is.  I had no idea what I was doing when I wrote the thing other than I just sat down to tell a story and by the time I’d finished it I had 40,000-word manuscript on my desk, a manuscript, I was convinced, would have a life in the bottom drawer.  To me, Fall On Me feels like a novella because it has a focused scope, which is common to the short form of the story, but it also has narrative depth (at least I bloody well hope so), which is common to the longer form.  Further, it might have a moral purpose, but who I am to judge.

I’m also intrigued with the novella because it is such a misunderstood little beast, and I completely love misunderstood…anything really.

But enough about me.

What are your thoughts on the novella?  How would you define the thing?  When you choose fiction to read, do you prefer the expansiveness and long journey of the novel?  If you’re a fan of the novella, do you have a favourite?

Do you not care about definitions?

Do you not care at all – would you rather just go fishing?

1. Minister of religion

2. Politician

3. Radio DJ

4. Night-club DJ

5.  Rhythm guitarist in an alternative-rock band

6. Librarian

7. Public-sector auditor

8. Corner-shop keeper

9. Head gardener at a country estate

10. Farmer

11. Archaeologist

12. Helicopter pilot

13. Wedge-tailed eagle

I admit it: I’m excited. About the fact that a novella called Fall On Me is getting closer to being in the world. Since I last wrote about this, a date for the launch has been set – Thursday 15 September – and a city chosen – Canberra ACT, which is an hour south from where I live. Plus there have been two other developments: we’re now down to just a couple of cover options, and my first preference for the launcher of the book has said yes.  When the yes came through it almost felt like a successful marriage proposal (except the law’s not on my side in that regard).

And then there’s been the completely and utterly nerve-wracking process of sourcing an endorsement quote.  I know someone, a writer at the very top of the literature game. I haven’t known this person for long; we’ve just been getting to know each other this year. It’s been such a joy. How enriching to receive thoughtful emails about many things: the writing life, family, health, landscape, the weather. How I’ve tried to be as thoughtful in my replies. But then I had the ridiculously audacious notion of asking this writer to read Fall On Me and prepare one of those sentences that will entice a reader to pick the thing up in a bookstore.

Being brave to the point of stupidity at times, I sent off an email, a very nervous email. Within twenty-fours I had a reply. Yes, the writer would read the novella, but on one condition: goodwill wouldn’t be enough, there had to be genuine enthusiasm for the work. The email made it clear that these things were ‘always a risky business’. What was the risk? That our friendship may not (yet) be sufficiently robust to withstand the honesty that maybe required. Feeling even more nervous than before, I accepted the terms.

Some weeks later, when Blemish Books sent me a proof of the text layout, I went down to the main-street and had the thing copied, then I went to the post office and sent the copy away. What on earth was I doing? More to the point, what on earth would the writer think about my work? And if it wasn’t good enough, would I cope with the rejection?

As I waited for the response, I thought about how Fall On Me has happened.

In April/May last year I went down to Launceston, Tasmania, with the goal of writing six short stories. I hadn’t written short stories for half a decade, because I’d been focussing on bigger things, and creative journalism (which is a euphemism for writing for newspapers but not having the faintest idea how to do it). I had another goal: to write by hand. My handwriting is so appalling that at times I can’t read it myself; every third word is an unintelligible scribble. But I wanted to see what impact this would have on my prose. Wiser people than me say that compared to using a computer you write more slowly by hand, it’s a considered act, an act of composing.

And I had a third goal: to write whatever the hell I wanted. If I wanted to write a grim tale where everyone dies, then I’d write that tale. If I wanted to fill my pages with hardcore gay sex (which is something I find difficult to do, because I’m more interested in warmth and connection and intimacy) then so be it. If I wanted 500-word paragraphs contained within brackets, then I’d do that too. I didn’t want to care about rules and conventions; I just wanted to write what would excite me as a reader.

Did I come away with six short stories? No, I came away with three novellas, one long short story, and one piece of experimental prose that most likely won’t see the light of day. I also came away with one very blurry right eye, because I found that as I wrote by hand my face became closer and closer to the table, which was glass-topped and reflected the bright globe of the lamp.

Now, over a year later, which is a frighteningly short period of time in the world of publishing, Fall On Me, the second novella I wrote in that month in Launceston, is forming itself into a book that others will read. One which a certain writer has now read in ‘two swift reading sessions’.  Does the writer like what I have written?  Well, what I can tell you is that we now have an endorsement quote for the cover. Which is a very big part of the reason why I’m starting to feel excited about a little book that might just be able to.  Stand up in the world, I mean to say.

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