It was the email I was dreading: ‘We need a title for your presentation.’
There I was, halfway through my three-month residency at the Australian Defence Force Academy courtesy of UNSW Canberra, happily researching and discovering and discarding and scribbling, but then that emailed request. Which, frankly, was perfectly reasonable, as I’d committed to doing a presentation at the conclusion of the residency. But still the request put me in a spin.
All was not lost, however. I’d been reading a lot of poetry by Wilfred Owen, an English soldier who fought and wrote and died during the First World War. I’d been intrigued by his poem ‘Asleep’, which Owen had written/rewritten during 1917 and 1918, so I plucked for myself a line, ‘In the happy no-time of his sleeping’, and offered it up as my title. I was spending the residency exploring the ways masculinity is expressed in times of military conflict and it seemed to be a good fit, at least hinted at truths, or the possibilities of truths.
A reply came almost immediately: ‘We like the title, but what is the presentation actually about? What will you actually be doing?’ Honestly, I had no idea. My head was too lost in the research side of things to provide anything concrete. Besides, what did I, a person who’s never even come close to throwing a punch, know about what it’d be like to be a man during extreme armed fighting? So I wrote back: ‘I’ll be telling stories and asking questions.’
I already had the questions – What is a man? Who is a good man? Who is a good being? – but I didn’t have the stories, or anything remotely resembling stories. Bearing in mind that my intention in doing the residency wasn’t to write about war as such; I’m disinterested in guns, and the infinitely complex political contexts require a much bigger brain than mine. I was interested in the small moments, the hidden fears and thoughts and dreams. Bearing in mind also that in 20 years of writing I’ve not once worked with historical fiction. Whatever that is.
Clutching at straws, I decided I’d write one story about the First World War, one about the Second World War, and one about the Vietnam War or the ten-year period of military conflict in Afghanistan. The First World War story, ‘Holding’, came together relatively painlessly, despite the topic: two men in unimaginable devastating circumstances share a moment of innocent intimacy, which may have profound consequences. The Afghanistan story (the Middle Eastern conflict was more present to me than that Vietnam War) came together in a whoosh of words. But the Second World War story, for whatever reason, just never got off the ground. So, after a white-heat period of editing and polishing, it was ‘Holding’ and ‘The Call’ that I read during my final-week presentation, and it’s completely and utterly thrilling that, after more editing and polishing, they’ve been published in the first issue of this year’s Review of Australian Fiction. With the added bonus of sharing the pages with the wonderful Andrew Croome, the author of the Vogel-winning Document Z and, more recently, the critically acclaimed Midnight Empire.
I hope you enjoy this issue of the Review of Australian Fiction. It’s such an innovative enterprise. Do subscribe, if you can, and help keep Australian literature alive – it’s very cheap (the subscription, not Australian literature).
Plus I need more chook food.