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A laneway in Alexandria, Egypt; photograph dated 1941. Source: Australian War Memorial.

I’m not sure why I haven’t mentioned it.

Of course, I have mentioned it, on social media and sometimes in person, and there is also a reference to it in my bio on the About page, but there’s no post. Which is why I’m writing these words now.

The point is, in the first half of 2019, my novel BODIES OF MEN will be published by Hachette Australia.

Which is really very thrilling.

What’s a little odd, though, is that I currently don’t want to talk much about it, except to say half a dozen quick things.

The first is that the novel began when, in 2013, I spent three months as a writer-in-residence at UNSW Canberra, which provides the campus for the Australian Defence Force Academy. During the residency I researched different expressions of masculinity under military pressure; I left the residency with the scratchy, sketchy handwritten first draft of a manuscript. (I recorded some thoughts on the residency experience in The ADFA Diary section of this blog).

The second thing is, yes, BODIES OF MEN is a war story, but my intention has been to shine a light on a previously hidden (or politically and/or historically unwanted) war experience, to tell a story that is as much about love and intimacy as it is about what happens when men have guns in their hands.

The third is that most of the story takes place in Alexandria, Egypt, in 1941.

The fourth is that I wrote 38 drafts of the manuscript.

The fifth is that towards the end of the drafting process I collapsed. But more about that at a later date.

The editing begins – for real.

And the sixth is that earlier this week, which was complete with high family dramas and financial pressures and crap weather (wind and freezing rain and snow in the countryside and on the mountains down south, so the opposite of Egypt), the astute, caring, and eagle-eyed editorial team at Hachette Australia sent me their edit of the manuscript – and a blue sky opened in my heart and everything feels better.

I have one month to review the editorial suggestions and get an updated version of the manuscript back to Hachette. If you see me looking frazzled again, please administer whiskey and chocolate.

Sincere apologies for not telling you more about the actual story in BODIES OF MEN, but I am so looking forward to sharing it with you.

For now, I’ll leave you with a quote from a diary of an Australian serviceman who served in the Middle East in 1941; the diary is in the Australian War Memorial:

Be yourself: simple, honest, unpretending.

‘Self-Portrait’ by Myuran Sukumaran (2015, detail)

The closer it got, the more agitated I became.

Back in February this year the Tuggeranong Arts Centre in Canberra invited me to participate in The Final Hours, a day-long, vigil-like residency to be held in conjunction with Another Day in Paradise, the exhibition of paintings by Myuran Sukumaran, an Australian man convicted for drug-trafficking and sentenced by the Indonesian government to be killed by firing squad. (Another Day in Paradise was first presented, in 2017, at the Campbelltown Arts Centre.) I’ve been a long-time opponent of the death penalty and had followed the story of ‘The Bali Nine’, as did most Australians, so I said yes to the Tuggeranong Arts Centre’s invitation, but decided that I would collaborate with Pete Lyon, a singer-songwriter and good friend – no doubt I didn’t want to do this alone.

In the weeks before The Final Hours, Pete and I met twice. At our first meeting, we talked about our approach – we decided that it might be best to simply see what happened on the day and when surrounded by Myuran’s art work. At our second meeting, we sat down with Pete’s proposed equipment set-up to confirm what we’d take with us (it had to fit in the back of a small car); this discussion also included making notes on the preliminary themes or ideas we might explore, such as raw, authentic, reflective, compassionate, hope, and the possibility and redemption of change.

While our proposal was for Pete to write the music and I would write the lyrics, we had also indicated that I might try and write some of the music, which is a bit like asking a dog to be a cat. Not wanting to make a fool of myself – the gallery would be open to the public – I practiced a set of very basic guitar chords as well as some scales and notes on the piano in my house, the piano I used to play by ear as a teenager. While I adore music, my musicianship is extremely limited; Pete has spent the majority of his life writing, performing, and recording.

But when in doubt (which is almost always the case), just jump in, hey?

After all, that was my approach to THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT, a song cycle I wrote with composer James Humberstone, which has gone on to become something much bigger than either of us and is still being performed.

In the gallery and to work. Image courtesy of the Tuggeranong Arts Centre

The day came for The Final Hours to commence and by 8am Pete and I had set up the gear in the gallery. It was time to get down to work. We chose the nearest series of paintings, titled ‘Prison Life’, plucked out some notes on guitar and keyboard (one of which was another instrument from my childhood but ended up in Pete’s hands); meanwhile I banged together some lyrics – we practiced the song once, then pressed the record button on the laptop. We chose another painting, selected some more notes and lyrics, and pressed record again.

Until, rather miraculously, we had five demos, or sketches.

Done, for now

It was intense, of course, and gut-wrenching – Myuran’s work is powerful, unapologetic, intellectually and emotionally open, and confronting for those of us lucky enough to have to do nothing more than engage, reflect, and respond. However, the experience was also surprisingly uplifting, even joyful: the human spirit, even when extinguished, is a mighty beast. But also because Pete and I have known each other for thirty years; back in the late 1980s we used to live in a Canberra share-house together and mucked around with guitars in the living-room, eventually recording some songs together but never releasing or performing them. I threw myself headlong into literature, and Pete found collaborators who could actually play their instruments and sing a note. But there we were, on 29 April 2018, sitting in a corner of a gallery, passing guitars between us, pressing keys and buttons, creating music.

What happens now? Both of us are committed to developing the songs as much as we can, eventually making them available by the end of the year on a platform yet to be decided. Right now we are not sure how the development process will unfold, or what the final outcome will be, but we very much would love to share the experience given to us by Myuran Sukumaran and the Tuggeranong Arts Centre.

Orang ini tak akan terlupakan.

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