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You know when you start referencing Mariah Carey in conversation that things aren’t quite right. And when you begin yarns with ‘I’m reading a lot about war in Afghanistan at the moment and I can really understand how those men feel’ you know it’s time to take a deep breath. Regrettably, this week I’ve done both those things. Because (a) The Beach Volcano is now officially out in the world and (b) I’m so exhausted that my skill hurts – seriously. Have I told you how Mariah Carey is fighting war in Afghanistan?
I guess the first thing I want to say is THANK YOU to all those who attended the launch at the mighty Electric Shadows Bookshop on 18 September. There was a terrific buzz in the room and I managed to get through my speech without swearing and/or dribbling. Maybe. Better still, Distinguished Professor Jen Webb said great things, as in astute. Also, thanks to everyone who sent through congratulatory messages, vis textie, the Facebook, the Twitter, or via carrier pigeon. Thanks also, of course, to Blemish Books for putting up with me for the past four and a half years – it’s been a fantastically productive relationship, especially considering that literary novellas aren’t exactly an easy proposition these days.
Finally, it’s pleasing to report that there have been some warm critical responses to The Beach Volcano. A few highlights:
‘In this tight, spare novella, Nigel Featherstone takes a well-tried narrative formula, the family union for a big occasion, and gives it a treatment both elegant and original. The wonderful symbol of the beach volcano – a banked fire under a mound of sand that will ‘erupt’ if you pour saltwater into its mouth – gathers import and power as the story progresses’ Sydney Morning Herald
‘Nigel Featherstone’s accomplished third novella, The Beach Volcano, takes as its point of departure Tasmania, as had its predecessors, I’m Ready Now and Fall on Me. There is a good deal to admire in The Beach Volcano, whose title metaphor points to a key element in the plot of the novel, as well as to a lost childhood time that, it seems, can only be destructively revived in the present. Mick Dark’s musical career is imagined in economical and vivid detail, Featherstone even managing the very difficult task of giving us a sense of how key songs were born, and might sound. The family dynamic – of pride, concealment, ambition – is persuasively presented, not least in the unconscionable burdens that each of the Alburys feels obliged to accept. Featherstone has once more exploited to advantage the taut, intense fictional range in which he works best’ Canberra Times
‘The great contradictions and betrayals of family life are the central concerns of Nigel Featherstone’s new novel, The Beach Volcano, and reading it we share some of the rawest emotions that surface in the swings between guilt and sanctimony that characterise relationships between parents, children and siblings. The Beach Volcano is as much a crime thriller as a domestic drama, and Featherstone’s third and final book in a series of what he calls novellas (but which seem so much more substantial and complete than that) stands alone as something quite original. There is a real sense of excitement as the story proceeds, a heightened suspense that is surprising in literary fiction. Featherstone’s skill as a writer seems to increase book by book, and this novel stands out as the absolute crowning achievement. Utterly enthralling’ Newtown Review of Books
‘The thing about Featherstone’s books is that there’s potential for high drama, or, to put it more crudely, for violence and/or death. But Featherstone is not a writer of crime or thrillers. He’s interested in family and human relationships, and so, while dramatic things happen, the drama never takes over the story. We to-and-fro between love and hate, welcome and aggression, as this family tries to keep conflict at bay, while threatened by a secret that they refuse to openly confront. Family secrets, gotta love them. Featherstone’s language is clear and evocative. The ‘beach volcano’ of the title works on both the literal level and as a metaphor for simmering tensions that threaten to erupt. In a way, this is a reworking of the prodigal son story, except that in this version the son returns as a success and is, perhaps, the one who extends the greatest generosity. It is about love and acceptance, but has the added theme of the need to face the past before you can truly progress into your future. In its measured way, quite the page-turner. A fitting conclusion to Featherstone’s novella set’ Whispering Gums
So. The Beach Volcano is out of my hands and off on its own adventures, doing whatever it is that it wants/needs. And this brings to an end the Launceston novellas. It’s been a fantastic ride. I honestly never expected – or even intended – for the entire series to be made public. I wrote these books initially for myself, for my own challenge and entertainment. Then the editing started, and the rewriting, and the polishing, and more of those skull pains. Of course, it’s been wonderful to see the books go on to do good things (and I do feel as though Fall on Me and I’m Ready Now are no longer mine, though I’m still far too close to The Beach Volcano to think about it in any rational way). After a bit of a lie-down – okay, it might end up a very lengthy lie-down, as in I might not surface for years – it’ll be time to turn my attention to new things. Like caring for my chooks for weeks on end. Or walking the Old Lady of the House. Or just sitting on my back step talking to the sparrows.
They’re a lot of fun, sparrows, don’t you reckon?
There are plenty of satisfying things to do. Walking the dog is one. Reading is another. Working in the vegetable garden. Helping a friend move house. Baking a cake. Listening to music. Finding your way through an unfamiliar city without a map. But there’s something I know that’s even more satisfying. It’s something that happens so rarely, at least in my humble abode, but I always look forward to it. When it’s done my body feels lighter, better, and my mind is settled and free. Come on, Featherstone, spit it out. What on earth are you talking about now?
I’m a jar cleaner, as in I like – love – cleaning a jar, getting it ready for re-use.
Perhaps the jar used to contain pasta sauce, or some kind of pesto. Maybe it had contained herbs or ginger or garlic. But once it’s been emptied the real fun begins. The scrubbing and cleaning so the glass is crystal clear and the lid as perfect as can be. Then the label must be removed. Usually the label itself comes off easily enough. How good it is to tear it away with a finger – it’s like removing old skin. But that sticky, stubborn glue residue: isn’t it awful, it barely budges. So, in the jar goes for a soak in warm soapy water, for an hour, for hours, for an entire day if necessary. Slowly but surely, perhaps with the aid of a knife, the glue residue is removed. And there it is: a new jar.
It’s an empty vessel, that’s what it is. How can it be used now? What will it hold? Perhaps that’s what all this is about: the future, hope, wishes and dreams. Might it also be about renewal? That we all believe so passionately in recycling, in minimising waste? The thing is, in my place, the jars are almost never refilled. They just sit on their shelf, a dozen in a row, waiting there like birds on a fence. To my mind, it’s actually about emptiness, about emptying out, about not holding on, or not filling up. When we’re empty – of expectation, of busyness, of desire – we are open to everything that might come our way. When we’re empty we can feel that lightness of being that novelist Milan Kundera called ‘unbearable’.
When we’re empty we’re no one. We’re back at the beginning.
And there’s no better place than the beginning.
(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 13 September 2014.)
It’s strange what bubbles to the surface while walking the dog, or perhaps it’s not that strange at all. Regardless, what bubbled to the surface this week while walking the Old Lady of the House (who, like her walker, is aging at a rate of knots) is that this is my 20th year as a committed, daily writer. Thank you, thank you, thank you – your applause is very kind. So there’s a nice symmetry, if that’s the right word, to The Beach Volcano being published this year. What will happen now? How will the next 20 years be? Will there indeed be another 20 years of writing? Sometimes – often – I simply can’t imagine that being the case. What I know for certain is that it’s very, very unlikely that I’ll write another series of three novellas. I adore the novella form, as is probably obvious, but it’s time to work in a new way. On a personal level, it seems like one chapter is closing and another one is opening – maybe. So, if you’re so inclined, it’d be great to have you at the launch of The Beach Volcano and help celebrate not only this third and final novella, but also that…I’m getting incredibly old. Plus you’d get to hear from Distinguished Professor Jen Webb, Director of the Centre for Creative and Cultural Practice at the University of Canberra (amongst many other things). I mentioned all this to Millie during our walk earlier this week. Being a very loving and patient dog, she wagged her tail, but I could that she wasn’t terribly interested. I think she just knows – really knows – that her greatest contribution to my life is taking me for a walk. Which is more than enough, surely.