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It’s almost become part of an author’s job description, hasn’t it: finish the year writing about favourite books. To be sure, it’s an odd ritual – who cares what one author thinks of another author’s work? In a way, we don’t care, or at least shouldn’t. But there is one good thing that can come from a post like this: more books might be bought and read; lives might even be changed. So with that rather lofty (even outrageous) ambition down on the page, here’s my list of memorable reads from the last twelve months. Needless to say, this is not a definitive list, and if I wrote it tomorrow the books would probably be different.

solar-bonesOne of the novels I have been doing a lot of talking – and thinking – about this year is Solar Bones by Mike McCormack (Tramp Press). In a text that has very little punctuation (certainly no full stops) and frequently slips between prose and poetry, McCormack records a dead man’s reflections. Although not short on philosophical meanderings, Solar Bones is a deeply human novel, and often very funny. Unique and extraordinary.

Another utterly original novel is Locust Girl – A Lovesong by multi-lingual Australian novelist and poet Merlinda Bobis (Spinifex Press). Quoting from the blurb: ‘Most everything has dried up: water, the womb, even the love among lovers. Hunger is rife, except across the border. One night, a village is bombed after its men attempt to cross the border. Nine-year-old Amedea is buried underground and sleeps to survive. Ten years later, she wakes with a locust embedded in her brow.’ Exploring issues of climate change and migration (among others), Locust Girl is a most deserving winner of the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction in the 2016 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. Here’s hoping someone has popped this novel in Peter Dutton’s Christmas stocking.

Speaking of climate-change fiction, or ‘cli-fi’, I also enjoyed Jane Abbott’s Watershed (Vintage) though when I say ‘enjoy’ I should clarify. This is a harrowing novel about a hellish world: due to near-total climate collapse, society is in ruins; bad things happen to good people and despicable people get away with murder – literally. Watershed is not an easy read, but it is an important one; in a way it provides an interesting contrast to James Bradley’s Clade. There is no doubt that Abbott had a very clear vision for what she wanted to do with Watershed, and she achieved that vision artfully. Unforgettable. (My Verity La interview with Jane Abbott can be found here.)

glasshousesFour poetry collections impressed, including Michele Seminara’s Engraft (Island Press), Cassandra Atherton’s Trace (Finlay Lloyd; my review here), Andrew McMillian’s Physical (Cape Poetry), and Glasshouses by Stuart Barnes (UQP), which was the winner of the 2015 Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize. All four collections mix inventiveness with accessibility, the latter especially so.

the-hate-raceNon-fiction works that I found particularly memorable include Lasseter’s Gold by Warren Brown (Hachette), which tracks one of the most bizarre episodes in Australian history, Karen Middleton’s Albanese – Telling it Straight (Vintage), which is a surprisingly poignant documenting of one of Australia’s most prominent – and potentially most principled – politicians, and Maxine Benebe Clarke’s The Hate Race (Hachette), which I found both highly readable and distressing. Lucy Palmer’s grief memoir A Bird on my Shoulder (Allen & Unwin) was also terribly affecting. Read together, these works show that while Australia may well be the lucky country (whatever that is), we’re also a people who are capable of being so much better, especially in the way we treat those considered different or other.

the-writers-roomIn terms of writing practice, two books deserve a mention. The first is The Writer’s Room (Allen & Unwin), which is a collection of interviews with prominent Australian novelists by Charlotte Wood, a prominent novelist herself. Reminiscent of the long-form interviews published in The Paris Review, The Writer’s Room provides a fascinating insight into how novelists work. From a personal perspective, it’s always refreshing to hear that for most writers the making of fiction is an extraordinarily beautiful (though sometimes – often? – frustrating) mystery. I also thoroughly enjoyed Under Cover – Adventures in the Art of Editing by Craig Munro (Scribe). This is a colourful and entertaining memoir of Munro’s time as a publisher and editor at UQP, one of Australia’s most feisty presses.

Before I go, some other works of fiction I really liked this year are Inexperience and Other Stories by Anthony Macris (UWAP; my interview with Macris can be found here), Wolf Wolf by Eben Venter (Scribe), which is a disturbing but moving account of life (especially gay life) in contemporary South Africa. Stephanie Bishop’s The Other Side of the World (Hachette) and Lucy Treloar’s Salt Creek (Picador) also resonated, particularly in the way both novels deal with the migrant experience and the beauty and challenges of the Australian continent.

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A suggestion: by all means order online, but – if you can – do support your local bookstore. We all know that physical books bought in a bricks-and-mortar store are more valuable.

It is true that on a daily basis I find myself thinking of much better – that is, more productive and less harrowing – ways to spend my life.

For example, I could be a breeder of chickens: I could put this bird with that bird and then there would be eggs before chicks, which I could sell. Or I could make my own tomato sauce from home-grown tomatoes and sell it on a card-table at a town market. Sometimes I have dreamt of having a lavender farm and being in a shed with the radio on and packing dried leaves into little pillows. How good it would be to only worry about the growing of plants and the harvesting of leaves and the drying of leaves and having enough material to make the little pillows (I don’t excel at sewing but that is a minor point at this stage, isn’t it?) and packing it all into the boot of the car and setting up my little stall and selling my wares to passers-by, who would undoubtedly adore what I’d made. A writing colleague and I often talk about opening a café or, when we are feeling especially despondent and therefore less sociable, we consider running an online shop selling fancy scarves – wouldn’t we just wait for the orders to come in and then package up the goods and into the account the money would go?

RAF_VOL9_ISS_1But then I realise – yet again – that the constant in my utterly inconsequential existence has been reading and writing. I have moved between towns and cities, I have had a variety of jobs, I have fallen in love with rock bands and fallen out of love with rock bands, I have made friends and some friendships have dissolved. But all the while there has been reading and there has been writing.

In terms of reading, books – novels especially – have provided daily company. Books that I loved when I was younger include The Day of the Triffids by John Windham (my edition is dated 1981), One Day in the life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn (again my edition is 1981), The Dingo Summer by Ivy Baker (1980), The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett (I’ve owned a number of editions, but the one currently at hand is dated 2008), The Lotus Caves by John Christopher (1978), The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea by Randolph Stow (1968), and Lord of the Flies by William Golding (1972). Those novels have been plucked from my bookshelves more or less at random, and here’s hoping that I will have copies of them nearby in my final years, as portentous as that sounds. It would be good to return to the early stories.

And writing: it seems that I have been doing it from the very beginning.

RAF_VOL14_iss_2I distinctly remember being in Year Four – so we are talking 1978 – and having a double creative-writing period. I loved that time of the school day. It didn’t seem terribly difficult to fill a few pages of an exercise book with words written in my illegible hands – indeed, thinking back on it now makes my belly come alive with butterflies. No doubt they were terrible words, but that didn’t seem to be a major concern, for me at least. Towards the end of one particular class, the teacher asked for someone to read their work aloud. Up shot my hand, but the teacher chose someone else. After the boy read his story, the teacher again asked for a volunteer. Again my hand shot up. ‘Pick me! Pick me! Pick me!’ This time the teacher glared at me and said, ‘Nigel Featherstone, you’re being very rude. Put your hand down – I will not be choosing you.’ I was shattered. I had always been a well-behaved child who rarely got into trouble. All I had wanted to do was read my story aloud, and, obviously, dazzle them with my boundless literary skill.

Later, around Year Nine (or ‘Third Form’ as it was called where I went, an Anglican private school), my English teacher gave an assignment that was to be completed during the holidays: write a long short story on any theme. For days, if not weeks, I sat – and at times lay sprawled – on the couch and wrote my story. Over and over I did it, rewriting and rewriting. I know I have spoken about this detail before, but on repeat in the background would be the soundtrack to the BBC’s serialisation of Brideshead Revisited. Curiously, to this day I still sometimes write to that music.

In the early 1990s I took a job in Perth, the world’s most isolated city, and I began keeping a sketchbook-notebook-diary. It wasn’t long before my notes twisted into fiction. Perhaps it was because I didn’t know a soul in Western Australia, or I found reality rather limiting, or that it was easier to be an expert in a pack of lies. Or there was something I wanted to work out, and the best way to do that was through fiction.

RAF_VOL17_ISS_2aAnd now, in 2016, I am still doing it: I dream up stories of various lengths, I write them down (by hand), I rewrite and rewrite and then edit and polish. It is probably true to say that the writing of a story becomes a fixation – it occupies my thoughts. And then it is either published or it isn’t. No doubt it is all about the lure of the imagination. The lure, yes, but also the safety of the imagination. In my imagination I can control what happens. I can make a big drama out of a careless conversation. I can resolve a life-long hurt. I can bring someone to justice. I can experience something that I would not dare experience in ‘the real world’ (whatever that is). Through writing, life becomes an object for play, something to be pulled apart and opened out. Through reading, the world becomes more coherent.

My trusty Roget’s Thesaurus (1976) provides the following phrases for ‘imagination’: ‘fine frenzy’, which is lovely; ‘thick-coming fancy’, which is quite something, all things considered; and ‘coinage of the brain’, which I like very much.

So I am not a wannabe chook breeder or lavender farmer/craftsperson or co-managing director of poshscarves.com. I am a purveyor of brain coinage.

Good to know.

It has been a fantastic year of reading, to the point that the thought of compiling a list of the books I have enjoyed the most is almost too daunting. But I am up for the challenge. As has become tradition around these parts, not all the following books were published this year; some were published in 2014 or even 2013. However, all have had a big impact on me one way or another.

So let’s do this.

Life After LifeLife after Life by Kate Atkinson – what a cracking piece of work this is, and as a reading experience it is sublime. Primarily set in London during the Blitz, Atkinson has her main character Ursula die regularly, often at the end of each chapter. As others have noted, Atkinson’s great achievement with this novel (and at 632 pages it is a whopper) is that we keep caring even though we, as readers, know that we are being toyed with. The writing is just so full of, well, life: humour and wit and intelligence and love. I am very much looking forward to the sequel, A God in Ruins, which apparently is even more extraordinary. Atkinson is a marvel.

Another work that has been getting a lot of international attention is Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk. The author’s beloved father has died so she decides to work her way through her grief by training a goshawk. The prose blew me away: like Atkinson (though the tone is very different), each and every one of Macdonald’s sentences is superb. Just open a page and pluck a sentence at random: ‘Sodium lights, dusk, a wall tipped sideways from the vertical and running into the distance; a vanishing point of sallow, stormy sky.’ Yes, superb.

The Golden AgeThe Golden Age by Joan London has been getting recognised in many of Australia’s highly regarded literary awards, including most recently being shortlisted in the 2015 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards. And so it should. It is a post-World War Two story set in Perth’s Golden Age polio rehabilitation facility for children. With great gentleness, but also with precision, London explores the world of the disease mostly through the eyes of two children, but we are also given a portrait of a migrant family and an exploration of an Australia that is still trying to find itself. So much of this novel lingers after the last page is turned.

In Tom Houghton, Todd Alexander explores the life of a young boy growing up gay in Western Sydney, the bullying he experiences, and the impact this has on him as an older man. What makes this novel remarkable is the linking to Katharine Hepburn’s teenage brother, who died in tragic (and potentially mysterious) circumstances. The interplay between the young and older Tom is beautifully done, and there is an appealing openness and honesty in the prose. Highly recommended.

Sofie Laguna’s The Eye of the Sheep won the 2015 Miles Franklin Award and it is not hard to see why. On the surface, we have been here before: an overweight and long-suffering mother, an abusive father, and a child with special needs. But the story, which is told from the child’s perspective, is artfully done – in a way this novel is a masterclass in voice. It is heartbreaking (in so many ways), but Laguna shows such care for her characters and her words on the page. It bursts with life.

The Natural Way of ThingsThere has been a real buzz around Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things, and it is more than justified. A fable for our time, a group of young women wake from a drug stupor to find themselves entrapped in some kind of Australian desert prison; the commonality appears to be that they have all suffered some kind of sexual abuse, often in very public ways. This is a truly harrowing story, but it is also an important one: Wood unflinchingly reveals the misogyny that blackens the heart of contemporary Australian life. The Natural Way of Things is going to be all over the awards next year.

A similarly harrowing story is khulud khamis’ Haifa Fragments. Set in the Israeli city of Haifa, khamis refuses to allow her main character to be defined by boundaries. As it says on the cover, ‘Raised a Christian, in a relationship with a Muslim man and enamoured with a Palestinian woman from the Occupied Territories, Maisoon must determine her own path’. Haifa Fragments is a raw and vital piece of work published by Australia’s unstoppable Spinifex Press.

As I write this list I can see a theme emerging: harrowing books that have been artfully written. In My Mother’s Hands by Biff Ward is no different. It opens with ‘There is a grave in my family that was never visited’ and from that moment Ward takes us on a journey through her family, focusing on her mother’s mental illness and its long-term impact. It sounds disturbing, and it is, but Ward’s prose is thoughtfully turned. An important book.

The AnchoressThe same could be said for The Anchoress by Robyn Cadwallader. In the thirteenth century, Sarah is seventeen and a holy woman who chooses to be shut away in a small cell attached to a church – for life. In a way, Sarah is like a good-luck charm for the church and the broader society. Cadwallader’s challenge is to bring Sarah to life and have her go on some kind of journey despite being trapped (it is interesting to think of the thematic link between The Anchoress and The Natural Way of Things). Amazingly Cadwallader’s novel is a rich and sensual experience, and the prose is full of compassion – the author does not judge. An original and thought-provoking piece of work.

It has been fascinating to observe the emergence of climate fiction, or ‘cli-fi’, and perhaps the most prominent recent Australian novel in this genre (terrible word), is James Bradley’s Clade. Beginning in a year about now, Bradley takes us through various climate-change scenarios. If that sounds like polemic, it’s not: each interlinked story is very much character driven, and climate issues help to create the world rather than be an overbearing element. Reading Clade is a highly memorable and moving experience – the tone is hopeful and the prose luminescent.

I also enjoyed the wonderfully subtle The Life of Houses by Lisa Gorton, We Are Better Than This, an important and timely collection of essays on Australia’s deplorable asylum-seeker policy (edited by Robyn Cadwallader), Gerald Murnane’s hilarious A Lifetime on Clouds (first published in 1976 but republished in 2013 by Text as part of its Classics series), and the poised poetry of Sarah Holland-Batt in The Hazards.

A screen grab of what goes through my head when I'm interviewing an author.

A screen grab of what goes through my head when I’m interviewing an author.

An indisputable joy for me over the past five years has been interviewing Australian authors for literary journal Verity La.

The interviews are conducted by email: I start with a question, the author responds, I ask a follow-up question, the author responds to that, and we keep going like this until we’ve reached a conclusion. Although I’ll have one or two questions prepared in advance, never have the interviews ended where I’ve expected them to, and I’ve learnt to follow the energy in the conversation, and allow the process – which isn’t far from writing letters to each other – to go into personal or dangerous territory. This part of the process can take a week or two, a month or two; some interviews have taken the best part of a year.

Once an interview has reached its natural conclusion, I bring it all together (keeping the order of the questions and answers as they happened), do a light edit, mostly for the purposes of consistency and to meet the editorial guidelines of Verity La, before I send it back to the interviewee for edits and clearance. This final stage in the process is critical: it allows the author to see her or his responses as part of a whole and also take the opportunity to make changes – and they almost always do, due to a desire to improve clarity and/or flow, or because, perhaps, it might be better to be more diplomatic, especially as the National Library of Australia archives Verity La.

With the publication of the most recent interview, with Biff Ward, the author of the extraordinary memoir In My Mother’s Hands (Allen & Unwin, 2014), I thought it might be timely to prepare a bouquet of some of the most memorable observations, primarily about the writing process.

Enjoy.

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‘Isn’t that what writing is about – wanting to know more, daring to find out, being brave enough to inhabit a place even when you know it might be uncomfortable, even though you might find out that you are the stranger?’ – Francesca Rendle-Short

‘When I first draft a story I never think about publication; in fact, it may even be dangerous to have thoughts of/desire for publication at the forefront of one’s mind. You may be tempted to tailor your story to notions of what is acceptable – to contemporary readers, to editors, to what is in fashion at the time – instead of attending to the organic demands of the narrative you’ve set in motion. Stories have their own inherent requirements – in length, in structure, in voice – and writing to external ‘public’ requirements can falsify the relation between a writer and their material’ – John Clanchy

‘I find plunging into my imagination and making up stories endlessly interesting. I am fascinated by character, bringing each one to life through narrative. And I delight in the fact I can give a character a personality change if s/he is not working within the emerging novel. And I love the English language, it’s gorgeous. Such pleasure to be had playing with metaphor and imagery’ – Andrea Goldsmith

‘I think that there are few, if any, endings in novels that are as satisfying as the journeys which arrive there. In the sense that journeys determine endings, I’d agree with Peter Carey that if the ending is troubled, the cause of the trouble is to be found elsewhere (and the problem perhaps bigger than a failed ending). I think all that should be asked of an ending is that it live up to the journey. My favourite endings, when I think about it, have more to do with poetry than story’ – Andrew Croome

‘Everything we know, see, think, do, down to the minutest un-thought action, is stored in the pressure-cooker of memory where it gets steamed and combined into Memory Soup. Then, when the writer needs something, the soup produces it, not in the form it was originally but as what is needed now’ – Glenda Guest

‘Reading and writing poetry represent the possibility of better things in a world that sorely needs this possibility’ – Paul Hetherington

‘I write stories because I feel compelled to do so. Because I love the writing process, everything about it. Well, maybe not those agonising moments where I know something is wrong but I can’t figure out what needs to happens next and begin to wonder if it’s possible I never will. But then something snaps and everything falls into place and that’s glorious’ – Irma Gold

‘One of my guiding principles in this old distinction between poetry and imaginative prose is Virginia Woolf’s observation that “…the poet gives us his essence, prose takes the mould of the body and mind entire”’ – Alan Gould

‘Material that comes out as part of a creative work needs time to mature like wine and [my novel] needed to work through from a conscious to a subconscious level’ – Denise Young

‘It’s important to me at this stage in my life that I don’t condemn, blame or hurt other people, and I do my best to make my writing and my public work reflect that. I am absolutely in love with all of the strangeness, diversity and surprises of this life, and I want to write about them’ – Walter Mason

‘The way in which I write my novels makes such surprises inevitable. It’s a very organic process for me. I write my way into the characters and I write many many drafts. What I begin with – whether ideas or characters – is rarely what I end up with’ – Andrea Goldsmith

‘My so called ‘achievements’ are not a big deal. I was programmed to have fun, travel and speak my mind. It was more by accident than design I played a small part in extending the boundaries of free speech. It’s an ongoing task, unfortunately, because the leaders of nations both rich and poor will lie, cheat and even kill, in order to protect their interests’ – Richard Neville

‘I see a big distinction between writing-as-therapy and the telling of a dark tale that has been personally experienced. Writing-as-therapy is a wonderful form of self-exploration and clarification – but it needs to be private! It is for the self, not for reading by others. It’s what you do if you need to journey through the glades of despair, to drag yourself through brambles and shudder through cobwebs’ – Biff Ward

As has become a bit of a tradition around these UTC parts, the following is not a list of books that I consider ‘the best of the year’. Rather it’s a list of books I’ve read in the past twelve months that have had a personal impact in some way or another, either as a writer or reader, or just because they’re remarkable books no matter how you look at it. Also, not all were published in 2014, but in the world of literature that hardly matters, surely.

SixFirst up is Six by John Clanchy (Finlay Lloyd, 2014). As the title suggests, this is a collection of six short stories, although Clanchy specialises – indeed excels – at long stories, some of which are about 10,000 words in length. As is typical perhaps with Australian short fiction, family is the focus, but Clanchy always brings to his stories more than enough plot and action, albeit in the most under-stated way. The author is also committed to depth: of emotion, of relationship, and of meaning. Clanchy is equally adept at handling farce. It’s been a while since I read a short story that made me say to myself, That knocked me sideways – best take the dog for a walk now. That’s what happened when I read ‘The Day My Father Died’, the first story in the collection. (An interview I did with John Clanchy for the Canberra Times/Fairfax Media can be found here, and Peter Pierce’s review of Six is here.)

Drag down to unlockThey say short stories and poetry are close cousins, so let me now mention Drag down to unlock or place an emergency call by Melinda Smith (Pitt Street Poetry, 2013). For 20 years the Canberra-based Smith has been exploring her craft and being published in the smallest of presses. Then the highly regarded small press Pitt Street Poetry (talk about a micro publishing enterprise that’s punching well and truly above its weight) sent into the world Drag down to unlock or place an emergency call and Smith bags the 2014 Prime Minister’s Prize for Poetry. Divided into sections such as ‘Uploads’, ‘Downloads’, ‘News’, ‘Sport’, and ‘Weather’, what appeals the most is the combination of artfulness and accessibility. Some poems can be understood on first readings; others are more enigmatic. But all are magical and musical, and many are very affecting indeed. Drag down to unlock or place an emergency call should be in all Australians home. Maybe it should be handed out with tax returns.

The Childhood of JesusThe Childhood of Jesus by JM Coetzee (Text, 2013). As regular visitors to UTC will probably be aware, I’m a fan of JM Coetzee, the novelist from South Africa who has twice won the Man Booker Prize and now lives in South Australia. His Disgrace (1999), which scored the second of his Bookers, is a perfect though harrowing novel about a person, a people and a nation (or a range of nations) in absolute turmoil. I’ve also thoroughly enjoyed his fictionalised autobiographies, Boyhood (1997), Youth (2002), and the more playful Summertime (2009). Playful is a good word for Coetzee, who despite being a serious literary practitioner seemingly likes to do nothing more than toy with readers and their expectations; rarely does he appear intent on just telling a story. This marks Coetzee as difficult, but his prose is simple, at least on the surface, and, in most cases, the complexity is in the layers. Having said that, The Childhood of Jesus is an an odd and slightly underwhelming novel. In some ways it seems to be responding to Australia’s morally dubious approach to asylum seekers, and in other ways just meanders along not entirely sure where it needs to go. If it is indeed an allegory it’s a vague one. Still, it had an impact on this particular reader, if only because Coetzee seems to not give a damn about trends and markets; as an author, he is progressing his craft on his own terms.

The Snow KimonoThe Snow Kimono by Mark Henshaw (Text, 2014). Like Coetzee, Henshaw appears to enjoy the art of the novel as much as the art of the story. Like Coetzee, Henshaw’s work is about the layers. Unlike Coetzee, Henshaw is not prolific. His first novel, Out of the Line of Fire, was published in 1988 and since then he has co-written two commercial thrillers with John Clanchy (as JM Calder) but no literary works. An intriguing overview of Mark Henshaw’s career can be found at the Sydney Review of Books. The Snow Kimono is a duel narrative, though in reality it has more strands than that. In its review, the Guardian Australia does a fine job of distilling the plot: ‘One night in Paris, in 1989, retired inspector Auguste Jovert receives a letter from a woman in Algiers claiming to be his daughter. A chance encounter with a stranger – Tadashi Omura, former professor of law of the Imperial University of Japan – suddenly finds him entwined in the stories of Omura’s best friend, the arrogant and brilliant novelist Katsuo Ikeda, and the lives of three Japanese women, Fumiko, Mariko and Sachiko.’ The review goes on to define The Snow Kimono as a ‘philosophical puzzle’. It’s an apt description. I loved this novel.

The Pure Gold BabyThe Pure Gold Baby by Margaret Drabble (Text, 2013). I was provided this novel to review so I read it in that context. The review didn’t eventuate (the world had moved on), but I found myself engrossed in this novel, which, similar to Coetzee’s work perhaps, meanders through its various sections though never fails to keep the reader engaged. Set in England in the 1960s, the narrative follows a young anthropology student who becomes a single mother after an affair with a colleague. This was my first Drabble and what struck me is the sense of a novel being ‘a directed dream’ (as others have said): the pleasure is in the looseness, the sense of allusion, an appealing lack of interest in traditional plot, and sentences that pulse almost painfully with life.

ChallengeChallenge (MUP, 2014) by Paul Daley. Daley is a high profile, Walkey-winning Australian journalist who currently writes for the Guardian Australia. Challenge is his first novel. And a challenge it is. It’s a brutal, at times confronting exploration of the current state of Australia’s political system. It is a fiction, but it doesn’t take much for the reader to link characters and events to their antecedents. In essence the plot follows, Daniel Slattery, the leader of a slightly progressive party in opposition. Daley himself describes Slattery as a cross between Mark Latham and Holden Coalfield, which is quite something, all things considered. Slattery’s political capital is diminishing and his personal life is falling apart; meanwhile the prime minister is milking a potential terrorist threat. There is a thriller element to Challenge, but the joy (if that’s the best way to put is) is the way Daley makes his readers realise how toxic Australian politics has become. If only 5% of this novel is true, we’re fucked.

Crow MellowOne of the year’s most left-field but highly readable novels is Crow Mellow by Julian Davies (Finlay Lloyd, 2014). This is a rewriting of Aldous Huxley’s first novel, Chrome Yellow (1930), a work that Davies admits in his foreword had a significant impact on him when he was a teenager. In Crow Mellow, a group of artists and intellectuals gather for a weekend at Crow, a bush retreat. Interesting that Davies, who is the key publisher behind Finlay Lloyd, lives in a bush retreat where artists and intellectuals gather, so it’s easy to see why the Huxley original had an influence on the young Davies. Again, it’s the playfulness of the whole exercise that’s so appealing, made even more evident by the drawings by Phil Day that adorn every one of the 400 or so pages. An original, eccentric, and highly enjoyable piece of work.

The Narrow Road to the Deep NorthThe Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan (Random House, 2013). Enough has already been written about this novel that has won many of Australia’s and the world’s literary awards, including this year’s Man Booker. A Second World War novel, it focuses on the Australian servicemen pushed beyond themselves on Burma’s ‘death railway’. What works best in the novel is Flannagan’s lack of judgement and the commitment (to a certain extent at least) to showing both sides of the story – the Australians who were subjected to such harsh and degrading treatment but also glimpses into the lives of the Japanese guards. The novel also provides an exploration of how these men tried to get on with their lives once home. Readers will be aware that this novel isn’t universally loved, with some critics citing the overt jingoism as being a distracting element. Personally, there are many scenes in this novel that I continue to think about and no doubt I will revisit it years down the track. What I’ll think then is anyone’s guess.

Other works that have been a source of interest and/or inspiration this year include selected poem collections from Rosemary Dobson (1973) and David Campbell (1978), Beneath the Wheel by Hermann Hesse (1906), The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles by Giorgio Bassani (1958) (both the Hesse and the Bassani are excellent examples of short novels), The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje (1992; the perfect novel about war due to the poetry in the prose) and As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner (1930), which stumped me on first read a few years ago but for some reason made complete sense in 2014.

Rebecca James: grit and determination

Rebecca James: grit and determination

What if the Wall Street Journal suggested that you could be the next JK Rowling, one of the most commercially successful authors of all time? What if you signed a two-book publishing contract that would gross you a million dollars? What if you went on to sell your work in 52 countries?

This is just the stuff of dreams, you say, and you’d be right. But it does happen, albeit once in the bluest of blue moons, and it’s happened to a writer who calls Canberra home.

Her name is Rebecca James and she writes gritty, dark, urban dramas about teenagers finding their way in the world. Her work contains plenty of sex and drinking and drugs, and there’s much swearing as characters go about their heady business of trying to work out who they are and what they want.

No wizardry, no love-hungry vampires, no dresses catching fire.

Who is Rebecca James? And is everything they say about her true?

The author lives with her partner Hilary, a public servant, and their four children in a most unassuming red-brick house in Canberra’s inner northern suburbs. There’s a blue people-mover parked in the driveway (no garage). On the concrete porch some kids shoes and a free weekly newspaper still in its plastic wrapping. A small brown dog comes to the door. Rebecca James follows. She is small, petite. If she were a bird she’d be a wren or a robin: inquiring, mischievous.

Inside her neat home, which I am assured has been cleaned for my benefit, James turns her attention to the coffee machine. ‘Normally we just microwave the milk but I’ll have a go at frothing it for you.’ While she works out the buttons, I notice a large unframed painting on the kitchen wall. All reds and yellows and oranges, it is immensely vibrant – vital even – in an abstract way. A silhouette of a face; is that a hand emerging from the colours? ‘I painted it,’ says Rebecca James, now using an egg-slice to inexpertly lift two pastries out of their white cardboard box. ‘Nobody likes the picture, but I do.’ She laughs freely, wildly.

We take our places in a small sitting room, which contains two long blue couches and a large flat-screen television. The room has the most peculiar aesthetic: the walls are covered with small white tiles…

*

Keep reading over at the Sydney Morning Herald, which published this piece on Saturday 11 October 2014. Thanks to Sally Pryor.

John Clanchy: might he be a modern-day Checkhov? (Image source: Canberra Times/Fairfax Media)

John Clanchy: might he be a modern-day Checkhov? (Image source: Canberra Times/Fairfax Media)

Tall, grey-haired and eminently graceful, the first thing John Clanchy does is lead me through his 1960s-era inner Canberra home and out to the backyard, which offers a red-brick garage, a humble collection of small trees and shrubs, a patch of wintered grass, and plants clinging to pots here and there. But we’re not about to witness some kind of gardening act. ‘I’m just so lucky,’ says Clanchy in his soft and thoughtfully articulate voice. It’s as though we’re looking over an endless ocean, but really it’s just a humble rise of bushland. ‘Every day I spend an hour – often two – walking the mountain with the dogs. Where else can you live so close to the city and be able to do that?’

It sounds like he can’t believe his good fortune.

Back inside we sit in a small room adjacent a sunroom. There’s a gas fire, a pair of well-worn sandals on the hearth. On the low table between us is a collection of cheese and crackers and nuts. And a very good bottle of red. Behind us a full wall of books. This is, quite obviously, a writer’s house: it looks it, it feels it, it even smells it – all those pages in all those books packed into their floor-to-ceiling shelves. It’s easy to imagine Clanchy sitting in this space reading, reading deeply, every so often looking up and through the sunroom window into the front garden that is wild with native plants, gazing freely at a gala or rosella or cockatoo, his mind drifting off, dreaming up a new story to write and bring to the world.

And that’s exactly why I’m here: John Clanchy has a new collection of short stories, or ‘tales’ as they’re identified on the title page. The book is called Six (a reference to the number of pieces in the collection) and it’s been published by Finlay Lloyd, a small press operating out of Braidwood – that just so happens to get their publications in seventy bookshops around Australia. It’s a not-for-profit enterprise and the mission is to produce high-quality works of literature in hardcopy only. A fan of e-books and digital publishing? Not Finlay Lloyd.

But this story, the one you’re reading, isn’t about the small press – it’s about the author. And what an author John Clanchy is. His career spans decades: he is the author of five novels and four previous collections of short stories. His work has won major awards in Europe, the United States, New Zealand and Australia, including the Queensland Premier’s Award for short fiction and, on two occasions, the ACT Book of the Year. Clanchy is widely acknowledged as a master of the short literary form. And I’m in his house, armed with questions.

*

Keep reading over at the Canberra Times, which published this piece on Monday 19 July 2014. Doing this interview has certainly been one of the highlights of my writing life. Thanks to Sally Pryor.

1.

One of the most thrilling events that has ever happened in my literary life is this: an Australian poet has created a ‘found poem’ out of something I wrote a long time ago.

2.

The poet? Stuart Barnes. The poem? ‘Stern Man’. The written thing of mine? A novel called Remnants.  It really is magical, this poem, for many reasons. Reading it, working it out, returns me to 2001, when I was completing a Master of Creative Arts/Creative Writing at the University of Wollongong, which I’d thoroughly enjoyed. An early draft of what would become Remnants was produced during that deliciously immersive period of study.

3.

I never thought the manuscript would see the light of day. But buoyed by something that my external examiner, Ian Syson (the then editor of Overland), had written in his feedback, that the manuscript would ‘surely’ find a home somewhere, I shopped the thing around. With no luck. Eventually a colleague suggested I meet with Ian Templeman, who at the time was the publisher at Pandanus Books, the Australian National University’s press (which appears to no longer exist). Ian had read a short story of mine in Overland and enjoyed its ‘intimacy’, so agreed to read my manuscript; months later he made an offer to publish it, though I would have to wait ‘some time, years perhaps’ as he needed to create an imprint to do so.

4.

So, in 2005, out into the world came Remnants.

5.

It’s a quiet story, a humble production, but somehow it received a large number of reviews, including in the Sydney Morning Herald, the Canberra, Times, the Age, and Antipodes; all but one was more than positive.

What’s it about?

Following his wife’s death, Mitchell Granville, retired barrister and son of a celebration politician, spends his twilight years hidden in a village in the Blue Mountains. For company he has his books, his late father’s semi-wild peacocks, and a sculpture of a naked woman’s torso. Over time he succumbs to loneliness and realises that there is at least one person he needs to rediscover. When he finally makes contact, all does not go as planned. Soon he finds himself being coaxed into at trek that crosses the breadth of his country and the depths of his past.

At least that’s the story according to Pandanus.

6.

Remnants: humble, inexplicable.

Remnants: inexplicable.

I loved writing Remnants, and rewriting it, and editing it, and polishing it (though I admit to moments where I thumped the desk because the story and/or the prose just wasn’t up to scratch), and it was a thrill to see it make its way in the world. However, almost a decade later, I feel as though I’ve moved on. In 2010 there was the Launceston experience, those four weeks during which the way I wrote was turned on its head. Since then, I’ve been working on the Blemish novellas, which are much shorter works than Remnants. It’s almost as if that novel was a blip, an aberration, some kind of literary miracle, and perhaps it was. But now I’m thinking about that book again, because of Stuart Barnes’ ‘Stern Man’.

7.

Stuart’s lines are collected mostly from the short proem that opens the story: Mitchell Granville, a melancholic man at best, is taking a bath in what was once an apple-picker’s shed, though something more serious is going on. What I admire most about ‘Stern Man’ is that Stuart has lifted the chosen lines and created something entirely new, something – yes – magical. I do love the idea of a peacock collecting firewood.

8.

Magical, also, because I based Mitchell’s bath on the one I used to enjoy in the Blue Mountains holiday cottage that my family rented for many years every summer and some winters. You had to make a fire in a barrel and wait for it to puff like a steam-engine before turning on the tap so the water would warm and dribble through. When I was nothing more than boy, when I was soaking in that rust-brown water after yet another day of exploring wild bushland, did I used to imagine that my brain would spark a novel and that my novel would spark a poem written by someone else? I may have been a relentless dreamer, but I could never have dreamt that far.

9.

Enough from me.

10.

Here’s ‘Stern Man’ by Stuart Barnes, which was first published in Four W twenty-four (2013). Please note: what’s not included in the image, but is included as a footnote to the original poem as published, are the words ‘a found poem; source: Nigel Featherstone, Remnants, Pandanus Books, 2005′.  These things are important.

Three cheers for literary miracles.

11.

Stern Man by Stuart Barnes (2014)

 

 

Wilfred Edward Salter Owen MC (1893-1918) was an English poet and soldier, one of the leading poets of the First World War

Wilfred Edward Salter Owen MC (1893-1918) was an English soldier in the First World War who was also one of the leading poets of the conflict. He died a week before Germany’s surrender.

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.

RAF_VOL9_ISS_1Clutching 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.

‘The view is amazing,’ says Andrew Croome as he rearranges the furniture. We’re in the upstairs studio where he worked on his most recent novel, Midnight Empire. The view is indeed amazing: from the studio’s place at the base of Mount Majura there’s the stillness and quiet of Canberra’s well-heeled northern suburbs, the low-lying landscape border of O’Connor Ridge, and the Brindabella ranges beyond, which this afternoon are dusted in snow. Driving here to interview Croome I couldn’t help realising – yet again – how peaceful this part of the world actually is, and beautiful, despite the fact that it’s been raining and sleeting for much of the day. On this dear old Earth of ours could there be a more serene city? It’s hard to imagine.

Furniture now rearranged – Croome is adamant that I should have the comfortable bucket-style armchair – and voice-recorder set to play, we get to talking. In publicity photos, this young Australian novelist looks like a character from the nerdy TV show The Big Bang Theory, but in person he is handsome, albeit in a boyish way, and has a thick and expansive 5 o’clock shadow that looks as if it’s been transplanted from a much older man. And his clear and thoughtful way of speaking seems to come from a much older man too, as though he’s been around the world a few times, and by the sounds of it he has, in his fiction at least.

It is one of those extraordinary qualities of Canberra that we have in our midst a writer of Andrew Croome’s calibre. Described by publisher Allen & Unwin as a ‘Cold War historical novel’, Croome’s first book was Document Z which examined the Petrov affair, something else peculiar to the ACT. For Croome the book won the Australia/Vogel’s Literary Award in 2008 and the University of Technology Sydney Award for New Writing at the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, and was short-listed for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book and the Ned Kelly Award for Best First Fiction. In 2010 Andrew Croome was named a Sydney Morning Herald Young Novelist of the Year.  If all this isn’t enough, Croome has a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Melbourne, which examined the relationship between fiction and history (perhaps our federal politicians should have a read and learn a few things). Somewhat surprisingly, Croome’s way of speaking isn’t overly academic or highfalutin, just concise and logical and appealing, a lot like the way he writes.

The main character in Midnight Empire is Daniel Carter, an Australian computer programmer whose Canberra-based software company sends him to work at the drone program run out of the Creech Air Force Base near Las Vegas. There he spends his days observing pilots flying unmanned but very definitely armed airplanes over Pakistan and his nights playing poker in the casinos, all the while forming a relationship with a woman without a history. It is an elegantly structured and chiselled narrative that follows Carter as he makes a series of mistakes that will have dire consequences for more than himself.

How would Croome describe Midnight Empire? ‘It’s an espionage thriller,’ he says, ‘but it didn’t necessarily start out as one. It became one because of the subject material and the drones and the CIA involvement. The novel is about the nature of modern warfare and globalisation and technology and how that’s changing our experiences of geography, how it’s raising moral questions. It used to be that, unless you were conscripted, you made a conscious decision to go to war. My character just ends up at war through his job. His workplace becomes a theatre of war, and in a sense the whole of Las Vegas becomes a theatre of war. That’s what drones tend to do. It’s meant to be about remoteness but if anything it brings the war into the city and into the home territory and into the home society.’

Surely researching what is undoubtedly a strictly controlled operation must have posed challenges. ‘I tried to get onto the airbase,’ he tells me, ‘but they weren’t taking journalists or writers. It was around the time of the Afghan war-logs [a collection of internal US military logs of the war in Afghanistan, also called the Afghan War Diary] being released by Wikileaks, so that might have contributed to them not wanting to give me a tour. Or perhaps it was because I wasn’t a big enough name from The Guardian.’ Croome laughs, but it’s slightly pained. ‘I’ve noticed that they’re trying to do more and more positive stories about drone warfare, so they’re certainly not trying to hide it. You know, there are predictions that by 2040 the entire air force will be drones.’

What was the original inspiration? Croome says it was the remarkable fact that the United States military would choose to pilot their unmanned aerial drones from a city like Las Vegas, which is already unreal and in many ways simulated as well as geographically confused. ‘So it comes down to questions of morals,’ he says, ‘and questions of chance. I was considering a novel about poker at the same time and when the two connected I said to myself, this is the next book.’

From a writing technical point of view the main character is not physically in the thick of war, instead he watches it happen on computer screens. ‘That’s why I didn’t start with the idea of an espionage thriller,’ Croome explains. ‘I started with a question: what is the experience of drones? It’s almost an aesthetic question. They’re very interesting and evocative objects – they have a presence. So half the novel came out of Las Vegas and the other half in Pakistan, and some in Europe. But a lot of it is mediated through screens and geography. There’s this breakdown of the idea of geography and the question of how much does geography matter in a world of drones, and in a world of poker as well.’

In Midnight Empire poker forms a strong contrasting narrative thread.

Andrew Croome teases this out. ‘One of the things poker is about for the players who are very successful is a detachment from geography, because they’re very mobile in the world – they’re constantly on tour, they have cash, they can disappear off the grid. It was fertile ground for me to go in and put some concepts in play and see where it all ended up.’

Croome says that his task as a novelist is to mediate the arguments and to present them in different ways and to work through them. ‘In the writing about these questions you’re not only considering them but you follow them and you end up in places that you didn’t expect when you started. That’s always something that I’m trying to do with my writing: not consciously plan it too much. Mainstream spy thrillers are heavily planned, whereas my writing begins with a question and works through it and it doesn’t mind too much where it ends up.’

Wanting to know more about Andrew Croome the human being, I put forward something Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood once said: ‘Heartland is the part of the writer that the reader gets to know well.’ At first, Croome appears flummoxed. ‘What’s that mean?’ he says, before – thankfully – settling into a smile. I reword the question: What part of him should the reader connect with?

‘A fascination with that question: where is the world heading? What is technology doing to or for humanity? How is it impacting on what it means to be in the world? I don’t consider myself an autobiographical writer, so the concerns of this book are what I’m thinking about. I wouldn’t say that I have a burning political imperative. It’s about the question of being human, that question of being comfortable or uncomfortable. That question of bending to other people’s will all the time. Daniel in Midnight Empire is constantly following the path set to him by others. That’s a question I face continually, which is deciding for oneself and not just doing things because other people would like you to. That’s courage.’

Our interview finished, Andrew Croome leads me downstairs to the front door. He asks about my own writing – like many novelists it’s possible that he’s more comfortable asking the questions. We shake hands and he wishes me well. A minute later I’m driving out of Canberra’s Inner North suburbs. Even though it’s only 7pm, the streets are dark and largely deserted. I drive past the Australian War Memorial and the turnoff to the defence complex tucked behind the back of Campbell, and past the Royal Military College, Duntroon, and, a little later, past the turnoff to the Joint Operations Headquarters south of the pretty rural village of Bungendore.

Quite suddenly I’m struck by the thought that, as Midnight Empire points out so frighteningly, this neck of the woods in the future might not be as peaceful and tranquil and serene as it is now. It may well become a place where people get up in the morning and kiss their partners and children goodbye and spend the next twelve hours destroying targets and killing people on the other side of the globe via robots in the sky. As Andrew Croome says, we will cross paths with these people in our supermarket queues and in the neighbourhood pub. For parts of the United States of America, this is happening right now as you read these words. We should thank our lucky stars that a novelist like Croome is living amongst us and asking the hard questions. And entertaining thousands as he does so.

(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 1 September 2012.  Thanks to Gia Metherell and Alan and Unwin. Gratitude to Andrew Croome.)

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