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I’ve got a bad case of sparrows. No matter where I am in the house a sparrow isn’t far away. Even now, in my writing room, I can hear the chirpy little birds in the front garden, plus they’re scurrying in the guttering above, and they’re also in the climbing rose around the side. There’s always a squadron of the bloody things in the backyard wattles; from there they can do raids on the chook-house.
I grew up being told that sparrows are awful birds because, like rats, they carry disease. Indeed some people call sparrows ‘rats of the air’, but that’s not an image worth exploring right now.
Because sparrows are clearly a permanent fixture of my house I’ve been reading up on them. I’ve learnt that the common ‘House Sparrow’, Passer domesticus, originated in the Middle East and has been taking the world by storm ever since, apparently by natural migration or ‘seaborne travel’ (don’t tell our politicians). In the 1860s, sparrows were purposely introduced to Australia in an attempt to make the place more European – our forebears really were a bit odd, weren’t they. I’ve learnt that because of their ability to adapt the sparrow was considered The World’s Most Successful Bird, as if it was an electronics company or a type of religion.
However, there’s trouble in paradise: sparrow populations are dwindling. They’ve completely disappeared from central London, though they remain in Paris, which probably just suggests that our little feathered friends have excellent taste in bread and cheese. Populations in Australia are also shrinking, because there are fewer insects to eat due to increased pesticide use and decreased flora diversity. Or because the Indian Mynar is having a good crack at that World’s Most Successful Bird title.
So I’m starting to feel sorry for my own little sparrow population, perhaps even grateful. Old Mr Shakespeare would have agreed: in Hamlet he wrote, ‘There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow’. Further back, the Bible’s Old Testament said, ‘I watch and am like a sparrow alone on the house top’ (Psalm 102:7), which no doubt is the motto of the International Stalkers Fellowship. Jokes aside, I am rather taken with the lyrics of the 1905 Gospel hymn ‘His Eye on the Sparrow’: ‘His eye is on the sparrow/and I know He watches me’. I better go see what the chooks make of that.
(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 29 October 2011.)
If you’re looking for something to do tomorrow – Sunday 30 October – why not come to South Hill Gallery (3 Garroorigang Road, Goulburn), where I’ll be reading from Fall On Me. Proceedings kick off at 2pm. There’ll be cake – probably. The reading is in conjunction with an extraordinary exhibition by Sydney artist Jim Anderson. So you’ll get spoken words with pictures, too. And some of the pictures contain nudity. What’s more, the whole shebang’s free!
So. There’s yet another book in the world. A month ago, more or less, my novella Fall On Me became a reality, as in it was all of a sudden made public, by the inimitable Robyn Archer, who said nice words about the book. I remember few of Robyn’s nice words, because I was standing beside her looking like a stunned mullet, according to He Who Is Allowed To Make Such Observations. However, I do remember Robyn describing Fall On Me as an emotional thriller, or perhaps it was psychological thriller, yes, let’s go with that, because that sounds better, better as in sexier, because being sexier is the name of the publishing game these days, isn’t it. I guess the point is this: on September 15 2011 there was a launch where Robyn Archer and my publisher, Blemish Books, and various attendees who’d kindly crowded into Electric Shadows Bookshop said nice things; some people even queued to have my scrappy, scratchy signature on the main title page of their copy.
Once the launch was done there’s been the excruciating wait for reviews. I’d like to say that I’m man enough to not worry about reviews, that I’m big enough (in every possible way) not to take any notice of what professional critics say about my work. But I do worry, I do take notice. Why? Because through a review someone – usually an articulate, erudite, respected someone – tells a lot of potential readers what they think about my work, about all that effort and heartache. Of course, we all know that the critic is critiquing the writing, not the writer, right? Wrong. Show me a writer – any type of creative person – who can separate their work from themselves and I’ll show you a dirty fraud. Thankfully, on balance, the reviews have been generous to Fall On Me. So far the novella has been described as ‘a well-crafted tale’ (Sydney Morning Herald), a book of ‘substance, seriousness and a fair dose of poignancy’ (The Canberra Times) and containing ‘easy characters to like and care about’ (Varuna News).
There’ll be more reviews, I think, if only because I believe there are one or two others in the pipeline, or the gun barrel. And then what? There is undoubtedly a ‘come down’ element to publication: after all the work and wait and hope, someone presses the magic button and a story is made public – it’s let loose on the world, and the world responds in countless ways, if it responds at all. On top of the reviews, I’ve received some lovely, warm emails from readers, or people have told me directly what they think of the story. One of the conversations I’ve liked the most was when a reader asked me what I reckon becomes of Luke Bard, the book’s provocative but lonely teenage protagonist. I said, ‘I’m fairly sure he moves to Melbourne to study medicine.’ And the reader replied, ‘But does he make any friends?’ I like how ink and paper can make people care.
But that question. Now what? Well, the answer is this: just keep going. Despite the absurdity of the fiction writer’s task – to lie, lie, and lie some more until people believe in it, and maybe some people are even moved by it – I do want to keep going, to see what happens next. To see what sort of story and book – if any – emerges now. In the meantime, Fall On Me is out there, on bookshop shelves, in libraries, on bedside tables in homes, perhaps even down the back of the couch. And as ludicrous as it sounds, I like to think that it’s doing good things, quietly, if not meekly (how good would it be if novellas inherited the earth!) telling us to take risks, to be brave, to love, and the rest will look after itself.
After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music. Sadly I’m not the first to say this; it was Aldous Huxley, who was the first to say a stack of really interesting things. Trying to put my jealousy aside, Huxley is right – music does express the inexpressible, which is handy because otherwise we’d be even bigger basket-cases than we are already. Thankfully, the last couple of months have been awash with great music, and awash is an apt word, because one album I’m enjoying very much at the moment is Within and Without by Washed Out. Frankly, that’s a crap name for a musical project, but it’s highly appropriate – twenty-eight-year-old former librarian Ernest Green (with a name like that of course he was a librarian) makes what the kids are calling ‘chillwave’ music, which, is also a crap name, but again it’s accurate. This record reminds me of early 90s English shoegazers Slowdive (these names were never any good, were they), except Washed Out backs it all with shuffling dance beats. Apart from ‘Amor Fati’, which is just a little too vacuously buoyant for my liking, this is finely crafted music. It may have nothing to say, but it does say it pretty damn well.
I approached Patrick Wolf’s latest album Lupercalia with caution. Early reports suggested that it was the poppiest Wolf record to date; someone even went so far as to say that Patrick is today’s version of Rick Astley, which is grossly unfair – and just a little hilarious. I’ve been following Mr Wolf for some years now: he’s talented, hugely creative, takes risks, and he has the widest of emotional ranges (that’s not a euphemism, by the way). Lupercalia is certainly the most straight forward set of songs that he’s ever done, but there’s still enough twists and turns to make it sound like nothing else on earth. And Patrick is apparently getting married shortly, so we can allow him to be just a little chipper, can’t we? Especially when he’s lucky enough to live in a country that allows more than one type of sexual orientiation to get married. So I’ve found myself turning this record up loud and singing along and annoying the neighbours, who are probably sharpening their abattoir knives, or – perhaps, just perhaps – singing along as well.
Another artist I’ve been following for a long time is Zac Condon, otherwise known as Beirut. Originally a solo project, Beirut is a band these days, though it’s an odd band to say the least, comprising brass and mandolins and accordions more than anything else (with the odd drum machine thrown in, just to keep us on our toes), the whole strummy-crash-bang of it all overlaid by Condon’s deep baritone that suggests an eighty-year-old drunk rather than the young and handsome chap he is. Influenced by Baltic folk music, Beirut precariously straddles celebration and melancholia, more often than not ending up sounding like a bunch of homeless men having a Saturday-night jam down on the street corner. The Riptide is certainly Condon looking for a poppier, snappier sound (perhaps he should do something with Patrick Wolf, which is a sentence I should have thought more about before I wrote it down; what would Mr Wolf’s fiancé say about that?), but it’s still utterly beguiling stuff. Pour yourself a glass or seven, light the fire, and sing along to Condon and co as if there’s no tomorrow, which, you know, may well be true.
There’s the luck of the idea, that little ‘what if’ that pops into your brain, you write it down somewhere – a post-it note, the back of a napkin (how appalling it’s been that sometimes I’ve had the best ideas when a little too drunk, so the idea is gone by the morning, it’s never stuck) – and then at some point or other you see if you can turn that idea into something. There’s the luck of having the time, or being in a position to make the time, to do the hard work of writing. And there’s the luck of being in the right headspace to produce that particular story, because every story is different. And then there’s the luck in having the right editor read the piece and there’s always a bit of luck in terms of whether or not the publisher has the physical – or digital – space to get it out into the world.
More specifically, I have looked back at the publication of my novel Remnants as a series of events and confluences that have had as their commonality good bloody luck. In 1999/2000 I did a Masters in Creative Arts (Creative Writing) at the University of Wollongong. It was a great experience, a highlight of my life. First up, I had the good fortune to spend time with writers such as John Scott, Merlinda Bobbis and Tony Macris. Most closely I worked with Tony, and he was sufficiently blunt to tell me that my major project was good enough to give me the qualification but wasn’t good enough to find a publisher.
That night I started on a new project.
By the end of the year I had the bones of a story that I knew I wanted to take further. I spent three years editing and re-working and polishing and worrying and fretting. After shopping the manuscript around, and being told that it was well-written but would never be a commercial proposition, Francesca Rendle-Short, now creative writing academic RMIT but at the time was at the University of Canberra, suggested that I might like to have a chat with Ian Templeman, who was the head-honcho of Pandanus Books, the academic publisher at the Australian National University. Excitedly, impatiently, I arranged this meeting. (I am the least patient person in the world, so perhaps I should be serving burgers rather than writing stories.)
Over lunch Ian told me how he’d read a story of mine, ‘Song of Excess’, in Overland and would love to read the manuscript for my first novel – what luck that he’d read that particular issue!
A month later, I received a letter saying that Ian enjoyed the work but as Pandanus was primarily an academic publisher of non-fiction they couldn’t accept it; I should, however, again make contact with Ian. More than confused, I rang Ian. He said that he would like to publish Remnants, but he would have to establish a special imprint to do so, and this would take ‘some time’. Ian was true to his word, and in 2005 that little novel eventually saw the light of day through Pandanus Books’ Sullivan’s Creek series. Which would fold within a year because the ANU was adamant about focussing on the academic, not the fictional.
Remnants went on to achieve ten reviews, in places like Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, Australian Book Review, Antipodes as well as literary journals. Nine of the reviews were positive; eight of those nine were glowingly enthusiastic. There’s no doubt in my mind that I was a very lucky person indeed throughout the whole journey of Remnants, and if that book hadn’t appeared it’s highly likely that I wouldn’t have continued trying my hand with the longer narrative form.
It’s a humble book, and a flawed book, but the more distance I get from it the more I like it, the characters and their situations have resonated with me, and the story has found a small but appreciative audience. However, it left me with two feelings: one, how lucky we need to be for our work to be published; two, that I want to go on, that I want to write more, that I might just be able to do better, but I’ll need a shit-load of luck to go that next step, along with drive and tenacity and sheer hard-work. Plus a good idea every now and again – that wouldn’t go astray.
In terms of current work, my novella Fall On Me was published by Blemish Books last month, and I could tell you a story about that story, how my partner and I went on holiday in Tasmania in 2007, how we stayed a few nights in Launceston, how, one night, we walked up Cataract Gorge and went past the Kings Bridge Gatekeeper’s Cottage and I thought, Mmm, how good would it be to write in a place like that, how two years later, I discovered that the Launceston City Council ran a program where artists could indeed live and work in the Gatekeeper’s Cottage, so I applied, was accepted, and in April-May 2010 went down to Tasmania to live in that Cottage for a month, intending to write short stories, but instead I wrote three novellas, Fall On Me being one of those, how, a year later I saw that Blemish Books was looking for manuscripts around the 40,000-word mark, so I sent off a submission, and the good, generous folks at Blemish loved the thing, so here I am, talking to you about luck and publishing and I’m realising that good fortune plays such a big role, perhaps a bigger role than hard-work and any talent one might have (though talent is always debatable).
And how lucky I am to live in a country where I’ve been able to receive a good education, and there are opportunities to continue that education.
And how lucky I am to have had an English teacher in middle school who once handed back a story I’d written, an obviously average story by the look of the mark written on the top of the front page, but he said to me, ‘You can do so much better.’ So here I am, aged 42, trying to do so much better.
And I could tell you how lucky I am to make a real-estate decision eleven years ago which now allows me to write as fulltime as humanly and financially possible.
And how lucky I am to not be in the twenty per cent of the world’s population that can’t read.
And how lucky I am that you’re reading this post.
All this – every little bit of it – has lead to publication, and now I realise that I am a man of such good fortune. And how grateful I am for every little cheeky drop of it.
Perhaps all writers feel this way, at times, to a certain extent. I’m reminded of the greatly loved Dorothy Porter, whose final poem, ‘View from 417’, finishes with these delicious words: Something in me/despite everything/can’t believe my luck.
With thanks to Irma Gold, who asked a question that inspired this post.