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It was the light, such brightness. We’d had heat for days, temperatures hitting forty degrees Celsius, the chooks barely coping, before a stretch of cool, overcast weather, a little mist. But on Tuesday just gone, there it was, the light, such brightness, extraordinary clarity, as if we’d been living through a dust-storm that had suddenly cleared, or I’d finally cleaned the windows after twenty years of domestic laziness (which reminds me). In reality, it was nothing more than a morning with a clear blue sky, no heat, just the clear blue sky, but how magical it felt. I wanted to grab my coffee and sit outside and be out there, amongst the light on the blooming white roses, on the lavender that’s coming, and on the tomatoes that are fruiting up nicely; and the chooks, of course, those angels of the handkerchief-sized yard of mine.
But still I went down there, the opposite direction, to my writing room at the front of the house and opposite the library. It’s quite a big room, my writing room – it could easily fit in a queen-sized bed (which would result in no writing, that’s for sure). There’s a view out into the front veranda and the strip of yard out the front and the picture-postcard picket fence and the plane-tree avenue and the houses on the other side of the road and Rocky Hill on the other side of town. But I’m getting carried away. The point is I like my writing room: there’s no internet, no stereo, no bookshelves except a small white one that contains a collection of dictionaries. One black Acer PC, which is holding up well considering how cheap it was; a Canon colour printer-scanner-copier, of which I’m just a little too fond. The walls are painted a deep mud-red, which, in certain kinds of light, matches the turpentine floorboards. A lot of things on the walls: a painting done by a friend, screen-prints, photos I’ve taken (some dating back to the early 1980s), story outlines.
So I enjoy it, being in this place, but on a day when the light outside is so extraordinary that you find that you’ve spent ten minutes staring at it, marvelling, there are thoughts that go through my head: why do I go down the hallway to the writing room? What’s the true impulse? Perhaps the most honest – and potentially most famous – essay on the subject is ‘Why I Write’ by George Orwell (1953). Orwell talks about ego, and aesthetic enthusiasm, and political purpose, amongst others, with political purpose being his greatest motivator: ‘…looking back through my work, I see that it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally’.
I can’t find any reason to disagree with Orwell, but somehow there’s something missing. Although it’s rather presumptuous – pompous even – to talk about my own motivations (Fall On Me might be pretty good, but it’s no Animal Farm), the topic is something I often think about, especially when I’ve just received bad news – the rejection of a story submitted, notice of a bad review, or my own conclusion that what I’m writing is stillborn. Why exactly do I insist on spending the majority of my week sitting at my desk and making up stories? In many ways, it’s an absurd practice: I did it as a kid, it was just playing back then, and I’m still doing it now, aged forty-three, except it remains playing. Even though I write contemporary realist fiction, I’m doing nothing more than making up worlds and characters and predicaments.
Sure there are things I want to say, there are records that I want to leave behind, and, yes, I do love playing with words and sentences; getting life on the page is no easy task, in fact it’s more impossible than possible, so there’s an almighty challenge in all of this, and when it happens, that life, when you can feel pulse on the page, when the world is as real as any world can ever be, well, there’s no other feeling of accomplishment – it’s as though you’ve managed to go to the moon and back. But I can’t escape thinking that the main reason why I turn away from spending a day outside in the most magical of light is that, on the whole, I find the fictional world more interesting than the world on the other side of the glass.
Here’s a huge, heartfelt thank you to everyone who’s emailed, in-boxed (what a dreadful term that is), rung (so old-fashioned), or even spoken with me face-to-face (yes, sometimes these things happen) about Fall On Me, a humble little novella that has now been out in the world for three and a half months. By and large, the response to the story – I prefer to see it this way rather than as ‘a book’ – has been warm and positive. A full list of review quotes can be found over at the Blemish Books website and also at Open To Public. A refreshingly in-depth review can be found at Whispering Gums – a massive thanks to Sue Terry.
And now what?
Yes, there is something I want to tell you, but first things first: being January I’ve been thinking a lot about how I want 2012 to be in terms of writing. It’s something I do every year: kind of prepare a map for the next twelve months. Of course, a map can only ever be a guide, and it’s good to go off into the wilderness once in a while, even get lost, which is something I do a little too frequently to be healthy. I just looked up lost in my trusty Roget’s Thesaurus – Everyman Edition (1976) to see five primary categories: invisible, non-existing, bewildered, inattentive, and demoralised. I can certainly be all these things, and more.
But this isn’t a post about being lost; it’s more to do with maps and goals and hopes, yes, hopes, let’s not forget about them. Almost two years ago I went off to spend a month in Tasmania. I’ve written about that trip enough, but the plan back then – the goal, the hope, the bloody dream – was to write whatever the hell I wanted to write. I wrote three novellas, which wasn’t the plan, but what can you do. Fall On Me was the first to be published. I don’t wish to suggest that Fall On Me just came out fully formed – the old ‘oh it just wrote itself’ thing. Far from it. Once back home there was a shitload of editing, rewriting, editing some more, more rewriting, polishing, feedback, taking the feedback seriously, and yet more editing and rewriting. But – remarkably, thankfully – I never lost that attitude of ‘I don’t care about what anyone says; I will tell the story I want to tell, and I will write it the way I want to write it’.
Clearly I do care about what people think. I’ve waited anxiously for reviews to appear. When the reviews have come down on the side of the book, I’ve been one happy man; perhaps there’s been a bit of a dance in the loungeroom, air-guitar even. When the reviews have done the opposite, I’ve been gutted, though perhaps filleted is a better word – my bones have been removed and I’m immobilised. With Fall On Me, it’s been the readers who’ve responded openly, generously – many seemed actually moved by the characters and their predicament: single-dad Lou Bard coping with his provocative (but big-hearted) teenaged son Luke. One comment in particular has especially resonated: a mother of two teenagers told me after reading the novella how amazing it is that children often teach their parents a thing or two. I’m not a parent – in fact I’m the least paternal person in the history of the universe – but I’m glad to have Lou and Luke Bard in my life, because through knowing them I’ve learnt more about risk and bravery and love and intimacy and strength and survival.
But all that sounds just a little pious, doesn’t it, in a literary kind of way.
What I want to tell you is this: due to the warm reception to Fall On Me, and the quantum of sales, which in the larger scheme of commercial book publishing is small, but in the small-press context is more than healthy, and for an Australian novella is almost miraculous, Blemish Books has committed to doing a second of the Launceston novellas, which will be due for publication towards the end of this year. I don’t want to talk about the story here, but I can say that it won’t be as PG as Fall On Me (even though if Fall On Me was ever made into a film it’d probably be R-rated – all that nudity would never wash with our supremely conservative times). Will this new novella have sex? Highly likely. Murder? Perhaps. Death? Oh yes, there’ll be death. Gay zombies? You’ll have to wait and see.
So the process starts again: editing and rewriting and polishing, feedback, taking the feedback seriously, and more editing and rewriting and polishing. And then Blemish Books will work on cover options, and marketing collateral, and launch arrangements, and they’ll send out advance copies to reviewers…
Am I excited? You better believe it! Come with me, why don’t you, as another humble little novella comes into being.
Postscript: last year I wrote a feature article for The Canberra Times about the trickiness of novellas, particularly in terms of defining the little buggers and getting the damn things published. Despite the fact that there have been some very famous and influential novellas down through the literary ages, publishers these days believe that they’re too expensive to produce and readers aren’t fond of them, so in the end they’re just not commercially viable. But there’s some good news on the horizon: eminent Australian literary journal Griffith Review recently announced that it had established a national novella competition; in 2012 it will publish at least three novellas (it is defining ‘novella’ as a work between 10,000 and 40,000 words) with a total prize pool of $30,000. The word WOOHOO comes to mind. Details are here. Sorry, the competition is for Australian and New Zealand writers only.