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Halfway between the Big Merino, which stands like a sentinel on the Hume highway, and a supermax prison is a place known only by a few. Here, less than a kilometre to the east of Goulburn’s main street, is the music of birds twittering in trees, the splash of ducks diving, the ponk-ponk-ponk of frogs in conversation, and the heady smell of eucalyptus.

If a healthy landscape is one where birdsong is often heard, then the Goulburn wetlands must be one healthy landscape indeed, which is remarkable considering it is only 10 years old – and not long ago this part of New South Wales was facing a water crisis. It was formed out of clay pits once used by brickworks that closed just after the second world war. For much of the most recent drought, the wetlands were just a hole in the ground. But heavy rain last year and again this spring and summer brought an abundance of water. The regeneration plantings are thriving to the point that banks of wattles and eucalyptus are up to eight metres high.

For local people in the know, this is the place to walk your dog in the evening, catch another glorious pink-and-orange sunset, and, of course, see birds paddling about in search of a meal. Friends and Residents of Goulburn Swamplands (Frogs) is a small, volunteer-run organisation that cares for and maintains the wetlands on a weekly basis. They have counted 130 different bird species.

Birdwatcher Frank Antram says the list of birds includes the blue-billed duck, which is noted as a vulnerable species, and the ruddy turnstone, which visits from the NSW south coast. It even includes the Latham’s snipe, which flies all the way from eastern Russia and the Japanese islands, and is protected by the Japan-Australia Migratory Bird Agreement. Human visitors can enjoy three timber-and-iron bird hides as kangaroos laze on the nearby grasslands and snakes lurk among the groundcover.

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Keep reading at The Guardian (Australia edition), which commissioned this story and published it on 30 December 2021.

Since 1995, when he published Loaded, a slim but incendiary novel about twenty-four hours in the life of a young, gay, Greek man living in Melbourne, Christos Tsiolkas has been a powerful literary force. He would go on to receive high praise and perhaps even riches for The Slap (2008), a kaleidoscopic novel which would be adapted for television in Australia and the US. There has been Damascus (2019), Tsiolkas’s award-winning re-imagining of the life of St Paul and the dark and violent early days of the Christian church, as well as other novels, a short story collection, and criticism.

His is a towering presence, one that would be intimidating if the man did not have a reputation for being warm and generous.

But this reviewer can now hear Tsiolkas spitting venom: ‘Do not bring my personality into this, you fool. Do not mix my life with my art.’

So then, this latest work.

7 ½ is subtitled ‘a novel’, but how much of that is true? It concerns a Melbourne-based novelist called Christos Tsiolkas. He lives with his long-term, same-sex partner. He is in his mid-fifties. The narrative involves Christos (sometimes ‘Christo’ and sometimes ‘Chris’) taking himself to a rented holiday house on the far south coast of New South Wales in the hope of retreating from the world with all its distractions to write a new book. We see Christos writing in the house – often on the deck overlooking a manicured garden – and swimming at the beach, making meals, watching films, smoking, reading, and dreaming, which is a close cousin of the imagination, as it is of writing fiction.

The Christos of the novel makes it clear that he is telling a number of stories simultaneously, one relating to his childhood and adolescence, another about a retired gay porn star who, despite now being married to a woman and has a son, is offered a large sum of money to return to the US, the country of his birth and former profession, to have sex with an elderly gentleman who never had the opportunity to properly explore his sexuality.

In typical Tsiolkas fashion, 7 ½ is also a polemic.

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Keep reading this review at the Canberra Times, where it was published on 13 November 2021.

I’m thrilled to be moderating this special initiative of ACT Writers. To be held on Saturday 28 August, F*CK COVID: an online literary affair will feature intimate panel discussions with four of Australia’s most exciting literary voices – please see below. Both sessions, which will be live (and not recorded), will include a generous allocation of time for audience interaction. Do join us!

PROGRAM:

1.30pm-3pm AEST – Hard truths; risky fiction with Irma Gold and Mark Brandi.

3.30pm-5pm AEST – Past-present: adventures in non-fiction with Shu-Ling Chua and Ruhi Lee.

F*CK COVID is a free event but bookings are essential – please click here to secure your place! Donations will be gratefully received and, in their entirety, will go towards writers’ fees.

Mark Brandi’s bestselling novel, WIMMERA, won the coveted British Crime Writers’ Association Debut Dagger, and was named Best Debut at the 2018 Australian Indie Book Awards. It was also shortlisted for the Australian Book Industry Awards Literary Fiction Book of the Year, and the Matt Richell Award for New Writer of the Year. His second novel, THE RIP, was published to critical acclaim by Hachette Australia in March 2019. Mark’s shorter work has appeared in The Guardian, The Age, the Big Issue, and in journals both here and overseas. His writing is also sometimes heard on ABC Radio National. Mark graduated with a criminal justice degree and worked extensively in the justice system, before changing direction and deciding to write. Originally from Italy, he grew up in rural Victoria. Mark now lives in Melbourne and his latest work of fiction is THE OTHERS, also published by Hachette Australia.

Shu-Ling Chua is a Melbourne-based (formerly Canberra-based) essayist, critic and poet, whose work has appeared in Peril Magazine, Lindsay, Meanjin, and Asian American Writers’ Workshop, among others. Her debut essay collection, ECHOES, was published by Somekind Press in 2020. Shu-Ling was shortlisted in the 2018 Woollahra Digital Literary Award, highly commended in the 2017 Feminartsy Memoir Prize and selected for the 2015 HARDCOPY manuscript development program. She has completed writing residencies at the Wheeler Centre and KSP Writers’ Centre.

Irma Gold is an award-winning author and editor. Her debut novel, THE BREAKING, was released in March and has been receiving critical acclaim. Her short fiction has been widely published in literary journals, including Meanjin, Island, Westerly, Review of Australian Fiction, Award Winning Australian Writing and Going Down Swinging, and her acclaimed collection of short fiction is Two Steps Forward. Irma is also the author of four children’s picture books, most recently Where the Heart Is, which was read by Fergie, Duchess of York, on her Storytime channel. Her fifth picture book, Seree’s Story, will be out with Walker Books in 2022. As editor Irma works for a range of publishers, big and small, and was Convener of Editing at the University of Canberra for a decade. Irma is Ambassador for the Save Elephant Foundation, Ambassador for the ACT Chief Minister’s Reading Challenge and co-host of the writing podcast, Secrets from the Green Room.

Sneha Lees writes on Boon Wurrung land. Her writing has been featured in The Guardian, ABC Everyday, SBS Voices, South Asian Today and The Big Issue among other publications. Her book GOOD INDIAN DAUGHTER was published by Affirm Press in May 2021 under the pseudonym Ruhi Lee. In 2019, she was a recipient of the Neilma Sidney Literary Travel Fund and her manuscript was shortlisted for the Penguin Random House Write it Fellowship. In 2020, she was commissioned to write for Multicultural Arts Victoria’s Shelter program. She holds a Bachelor of Arts (International Studies) and Bachelor of Commerce (Human Resource Management) from Monash University and is now studying Screen Production at The Compton School, University of Canberra. She is currently working on a screenplay. 

It has been quite a while – a couple of decades, to be frank – since I have written poetry for the page, as opposed to libretti or simply lyrics, so it is rather lovely to have a poem published in RABBIT, a prominent Australian literary journal. This issue, number 32, focusses on ‘form’, which is something I love thinking about, and then tie myself in knots trying to make work. But not just work; I want the whole thing to be alive.

The poem is called ‘Astronomical’ and is about how, even (especially?) in the depths of the night, it is possible to be infinite.

Although I thoroughly enjoyed writing the libretto for THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT (commissioned by the Hume Conservatorium in New South Wales, with music by James Humberstone), and there are song lyrics in my new play-in-development, it has been good to worry about how a poem works on the page rather than about how the words might be sung and resonate with an audience hearing them in the context of a performed work.

A poem does not necessarily make a good song lyric, and vice versa.

So I am learning.

In any case, many thanks to guest editors Charmaine Papertalk Green and Stuart Barnes. Thanks also to Melinda Smith for introducing me to the concept of duende, which has changed my writing in so many ways. (If you would like to know more about duende, you may wish to check out this terrific essay by Tracy K Smith.)

If you would like to check out RABBIT 32, just drop a click here.

Over and out.

‘In preserving the story of what I experience, I live doubly; the past will return to me, the future is always there’– Eugène Delacroix, 1824

This summer I am looking for my father. Things have happened – things are always happening, but this is different – and I know time is running out. If I do not do this now, all that I will be able to say is I wish, I wish, I wish.

My father is not missing, and neither am I estranged from him. We have maintained a good relationship over the years: I do not remember any arguments. When I was a child, if my mother wanted my father to do something – put out the garbage bins, clean the pool, fix a leak in the roof – she would send me to tell him. More than once I asked why I had to do it; couldn’t she speak to him herself? ‘I’m asking you, Nigel, because you don’t annoy him.’ So, obediently, off I went to pass on the message. I have told friends that I know what sort of old man I will be because I have been following my father’s life. ‘In forty years, I’ll be him.’ With that they nod and smile, a little alarmed.

Yes, my father and I are similar people, so what exactly am I trying to find? Perhaps I am not trying to find anything; I want to interact with him in a deeper way, to better understand him, to experience the way he lives in the world, to know him – before it is too late.

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Keep reading here.

Thank you to the Tuggeranong Arts Centre, which commissioned this essay to accompany Jack, John and Kempsey, an exhibition of my father’s work, held from 6 February to 27 March 2021, ACT, Australia.

As a schoolboy I lied to my friends.

Not about what I had done on the weekend but about the ‘fact’ that I did not watch war movies, because I did not like war. To be accurate, I clearly remember saying, ‘I object to war.’ I grew up with parents who were constantly fighting – they hated each other with an unfathonable intensity – so it made sense that I did not seek out high-conflict stories in which violence was at the core.

But I did engage with war stories.

Very much.

I used to be glued to the television while watching The Dam Busters, which was made in 1955 but repeated regularly, and The Great Escape (1963). Along with most other children my age, I laughed along with Hogan’s Heroes (1965-1971 with endless reruns). I was obsessed with Jeff Wayne’s musical version of The War of the Worlds (1978) based on the novel by HG Wells (1898) – as the disco rhythms got my heart beating fast I would sit on the floor and be transfixed by the cover illustrations that depicted a war between humanity and alien invaders.

I allowed myself to be captivated by the serialisation of Roger McDonald’s classic war novel 1915; it was aired in 1982, when I was 14 years old. At the end of the final episode, when the main character, a soldier, comes home a physically and psychologically damaged young man, I turned to my mother and said, ‘What will happen to him?’ She said, ‘We don’t know, do we?’

I said, ‘But I need to know.’

Four decades later, that need has not gone away: I have not stopped trying to work out how we let things get so out of hand that the only ‘solution’ is to pick up weapons and try blasting the enemy to smithereens.

Just before I sat down to begin writing this piece it took less than ten minutes to retrieve 50 war books from my shelves. There is the Great War poetry of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. There are the Great War novels: All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque (1928), Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves (1929), and Regeneration (1991), Pat Barker’s fictional account of the close friendship between Owen and Sassoon as they recovered from what we would now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. There is Stephen Crane’s American Civil War story The Red Badge of Courage (1952), which I first read as a boy – perhaps that was the book that had sparked my bold schoolyard claim

I own the classic Australian war novels, including The Middle Parts of Fortune by Frederic Manning (1929), the previously mentioned 1915 by Roger McDonald (1979), and Richard Flanagan’s Man Booker Prize-winning The Narrow Road to the Deep North (2013). There are the glittering international successes: Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life (2013), All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (2014), and Robin Robertson’s astonishing verse novel about post-war life, The Long Take, which was shortlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize.

The Sorrow of War by Bao Ninh (1991) and Aminatta Forna’s The Hired Man (2013) have both had a significant impact on me.

There is nonfiction too. Peter Stanley’s gutsy Bad Characters: sex, crime, mutiny, murder and the Australian Imperial Force (2010), which was the co-winner of the 2011 Prime Minister’s Prize for history, and Charles Glass’s very moving Deserter: a hidden history of the Second World War (2013).

I could go on.

What if I applied that old trick: my house is on fire – or there is an approaching army at the end of my street – and I only have time to rescue three war books?

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Keep reading over at the Canberra Times, which published this piece on 7 November 2020.

Can good things happen in a pandemic? Apparently.

It’s lovely to be able to announce that, along with wonderful Australian novelists Robyn Cadwallader and Julie Keys, I’m heading to northern New South Wales as part of the inaugural Write North Writers’ Group Residency.

The residency, which is a special initiative of the Byron Writers Festival and Create NSW, will give us space and time to write under the direction of eminent novelist Charlotte Wood. I’ve long-admired Wood’s work and her internationally successful The Natural Way of Things quite literally changed the way I look at the world. Her latest novel, The Weekend, about ageing and friendship, also affected me greatly.

Charlotte Wood

I’ve been fortunate enough to have been selected for a handful of residencies over the years – Varuna, Bundanon, and the Australian Defence Force Academy at UNSW Canberra – and they tend to have a significant impact on how I work. Indeed, it’s usually the case that I don’t fully understand the impact until some years down the track.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about ‘going away’ to write is that what I expect is rarely what I get, but what I get is just as valuable, usually more so. Perhaps the greatest benefit is the way a different place enables me to see my work in a different way; perhaps the place can even have an impact on how – and perhaps even why – I’m writing.

You would think by now that I would know what I’m doing, but I really don’t. Perhaps I do have a couple of tools in my writing tool-box, but I could always do with more. A lot more. And then there’s the fact (and I really do think it may be exactly that: a fact) that the writing process is largely mysterious. What makes one piece of writing feel more alive than another? The author’s motive probably has something to do with it; the rest is more or less beyond me.

Of course, with this residency, it will be wonderful spending time with two friends – Julie and Robyn – who are also writers of novels, all three of which – The Artist’s Portrait, The Anchoress, and Book of Colours – I’ve adored. And then, there will be Charlotte Wood encouraging us to take risks, to write differently, to challenge ourselves, and, perhaps to challenge each other. She also sent us an email: Be prepared to work hard. Roger that.

If I’m allowed one expectation for this particular experience, what might it be?

To get just a little better.

after Mary Oliver

 

The only way to write a story is to put a word down on a page, then another word, then another, until a sentence appears.

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A good sentence is clear and precise; it can also have hidden depths.

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It takes time and effort, and perhaps a little heartbreak, to make a sentence sit up and sing, or put a hand on your shoulder, or stare at you in the face.

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There is a difference between wanting to write a book and needing to tell a story: one is a product; the other is a great desire to explore, record, and communicate.

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The first draft can be like an archaeological dig: clear away the dirt until you find the evidence of story. If you find nothing that makes your blood pump faster, try digging somewhere else.

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Compare yourself to no one.

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Today there are 7.7 billion stories and 7.7 billion ways of telling them.

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As well as being an act of the mind, writing is an act of the body. Take note of your chest and heart, your gut, your arms and fingers, your legs, your crotch. When all of you is at work, your sentences will have more energy.

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If your writing is giving you a physical reaction – goosebumps say – it is possible that your readers will have the same or a similar response.

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When you put fingers to a keyboard, you type; when you write with a pen on a piece of paper, you compose.

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Prose is not poetry, though both are cousins of music.

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Allow life to rise from the page.

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Read more than you write.

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Put a moat around your writing time, pull up the drawbridge, and guard it with the biggest sling-shot you can find. That also goes for your reading time.

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Average writing can become good writing after it has been put aside to ferment.

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Sometimes the best writing happens when your conscious brain is switched off, for example when you’re walking your dog, or when dreaming.

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When something good happens with your writing practice, you have 24 hours to celebrate: drink champagne, eat French Camembert, dance naked to terrible pop music in the lounge-room – but then you have to keep going. When something bad happens with your writing practice, you have 24 hours to commiserate: drink whiskey, kick furniture, cry – but then you have to keep going.

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The writer at a dinner party who tells you all about his novel-in-progress will never write a novel.

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Confidence is a trickster.

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Doubt is a loyal friend and is more helpful than you may realise.

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There are no wrong steps. What feels like a wrong step now will reveal itself to be the right step further down the track.

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Listen to feedback but make your own decisions.

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Moving forward can come down to a brave choice and a safe choice. It is likely that the brave choice will be right.

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Whenever you don’t know how to proceed, play.

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A child telling a story is always a master of narrative technique.

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To edit a story, take it to an unfamiliar place – literally. It could be a library you don’t normally use, or a pub, or the coldest room you can find. Wherever you go, it should irritate you; watch as you slash your work with a red pen.

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Read your work aloud. If you find yourself wondering whether or not you should have a coffee or a green tea, you may have detected a weakness.

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It you are worried that a potential reader will think you are mad, you’re probably heading in an interesting direction.

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Give all yourself to the telling of your story: think about it day and night, week after week, month after month, year after year – care about the details.

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The story you are telling now may be your last.

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Finish all stories.

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Publication is the fullstop at the end of the sentence.

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For the stories that find a home, it was always impossible to predict where that home was going to be.

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Accept invitations that make you feel as though you’re going to faint.

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It is better to make art that no one sees than to not have made the art.

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Success is 10% talent, 20% luck, 50% hard work. No one knows what makes up the remaining 20%.

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Financial reward for your writing should be non-negotiable.

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Help the writing community grow and it will grow around you: attend a book launch, send a congratulatory tweet – whatever is your way.

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If you love another writer’s story, share your thoughts.

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Be easy on yourself. Rest.

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First published in BITE 2019, as commissioned by ACT Writers.

The world is sick. It is easy to think that when the COVID-19 death ‘tally’ increases every day and reports suggest that as much as a third of the global population is currently living in some form of lock-down.

Here in Australia we are experiencing unprecedented limitations on how we can move about and who we can see. Some of us are lucky to be in a long-term relationship and intimacy is only a look or a joke away. Others are having a much more challenging time: not being able to see who they want, when they want, how they want, and why they want. Has love become even harder?

This week, while eating a homemade omelette for lunch (packed with mushrooms and feta), I decided to take my mind off the current troubles by watching a short film in which French philosopher Alain Badiou spoke about love being ‘a risky adventure’. Towards the end of the film, Badiou said two things that resonated with me: ‘Love creates a perspective and an existence in the world from the point of view of two, not one’, which he described as a ‘revolutionary act’; and, evidently paraphrasing Spinoza, ‘All that is true and rare are difficult’, which is a statement that reached right into my belly.

All that is true and rare are difficult.

Yes, that is love: wonderful, beautiful, messy, contradictory, infuriating, exciting, banal; and, in this challenging and sometimes unbearably heavy year, necessary.

Love is the domain of philosophy; it is also the domain of novelists and poets. There was a time, during my childhood and adolescence, when instructions on love came from a man in a black frock who was armed with a bible and a hymn book. Thankfully, these days my shelves are packed (ever more chaotically) with much better books.

Although I do not seek it out with any kind of fervour, gay literature is well-represented on my shelves, particularly gay novels. These works have provided me with experience, understanding, solace, antagonism, confusion, and, in the end, profound contentment. I never found profound contentment in nightclubs or tennis clubs or dinner parties, darling. I found profound contentment in novels, where the gay experience could shift and buckle and expand and explode; where it could be both ordinary and wondrous, and spectacularly alive.

The following are some novels that have indeed felt spectacularly alive.

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Keep reading over at The Canberra Times, which published this piece on 18 April 2020.

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