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Two bits of news on The Beach Volcano.
Firstly, my alma mater, Verity La, has published a wonderfully thoughtful and expansive review, one that manages to tease out some themes and interpretations that might have been buried even from me. It includes some generous conclusions: ‘The Beach Volcano rises and falls to a compelling beat. Not unlike John Cheever before him, Featherstone unpicks the threads of a successful family to reveal a hollow and corrupted core. With striking imagery, the twin themes of music and water are elegantly interwoven. Unforgettable.’
The full review can be found here.
Secondly, Blemish Books has now made The Beach Volcano, and its cousins Fall on Me and I’m Ready Now, available as e-books.
What’s more, for a very limited time Blemish is offering a massive 80% discount on the electronic versions. To purchase the e-books, and to claim the discount, head here and then put the relevant code into the coupon field. For The Beach Volcano use VARLUDO4S6, for I’m Ready Now DTS1RW4H2L, and for Fall on Me AEBE9D5AE6.
And finally, as you might know I’m obsessed with UK dub-step/electronica artist Burial. And he has new music: a single called ‘Temple Sleeper’. In a just world, there would be wild public celebrations, including dancing in the streets and drinking till dawn.
It’s the silence. It’s terrible.
Regrettably, I didn’t make this claim but an eminent novelist I know.
He was referring to the work of the writer: you sit alone in your room for years on end, then, with more than a little luck, the book is published, before…silence. Perhaps there will be a review, or a festival invitation, or someone might share some generous thoughts, but mostly there’s silence. This could just be the reality. Thankfully, there hasn’t been too much silence lately in the world of The Beach Volcano.
First up, there’s now a trailer. Created by exciting young Australian filmmaker James Hunter, it’s a sixty-second series of suggestions that might just help to illuminate the novella in the miasma that is YouTube. It was great working with James, who approached the project with such enthusiasm, thoughtfulness, and skill. It’s certainly fascinating to see what’s brought to light by an artist working in a different field.
I have also been fortunate enough to be interviewed by Sally Pryor at the Canberra Times, with the resultant article being syndicated nationally throughout the Fairfax Media network. Sally picked up on the resurgence of the novella. Clearly publishing is currently in a state of heightened evolution, but the upside could be the diversification of story forms that are finding readers. Here’s hoping the interest in novellas is sustained – there’s nothing like starting the reading of a book just after lunch and being able to devour the conclusion by dinner time.
Finally, The Beach Volcano scored a Canberra Critics Circle Award gong in the 24th Annual ACT Arts Awards. There’s some debate about the worth of literary awards. Do they have meaning? Do readers take any notice? Isn’t it just one panel’s opinion? Isn’t it all a lottery? Everyone has different answers to these questions. As to most things (I hope), I’m open-minded. What I found instructive is that at the well-attended ACT Arts Award function the artists who received recognition – there were quite a few – appeared so very happy, regardless of whether they were ‘emerging’, ‘developing’, or ‘established’. Perhaps all we want/need every so often is someone to say, ‘Congratulations, you’re doing good things, keep going.’
Because, if only for a few minutes, we’ve beaten the silence.
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?
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.
Back in April 2010, after I’d landed in Launceston, I walked to the front door of the Kingsbridge Gatekeeper’s in Cataract Gorge Cottage (courtesy of the city council) and thought, ‘I have no friggin’ clue what I am doing.’
The cottage was perched on the edge of a cliff; there were metal bars on the windows to prevent break-ins. The gorge was both beautiful and disturbingly dark, to the point that when the sun wasn’t shining it was grim, if not straight-out depressing. With the small rooms, and being up high with 180-degree views of a surprisingly wild urban-edge environment, it wasn’t hard to imagine that I was about to spend time in a lighthouse.
All I could do was get to work.*
Four weeks later I left Tasmania with the very sketchy drafts of three…what the hell were they? Novellas? Yes, they were novellas. Mainstream publishers will tell you that this ‘in between’ literary form is almost impossible to produce commercially: they cost the same as a novel to edit and print and distribute and market but readers are wary of paying good money for a ‘small’ book; no one knows what novellas really are (meaning, are they inherently ‘difficult’?); and perhaps they’re too long for a single-sitting reading but not long enough for complete immersion.
Which is where Blemish Books came in. Thank Christ.
The mighty ACT-based independent press published Fall on Me in 2011 and I’m Ready Now in 2012 – these books bagged some enthusiastic reviews, a few gongs, and, perhaps most importantly, found their way into the loving arms of readers, a handful of whom have gone on to be very vocal champions of these funny little books. Although ‘funny’ is the wrong word. I don’t consider either Fall on Me or I’m Ready Now to be ‘difficult’, but they do have dark themes: the former is about a father and teenaged son and the long-term ramifications of a cold-blooded murder; the latter concerns a stoic though grieving mother and an almost unreasonably adventurous adult son, both of whom need to make life-changing decisions.
The Beach Volcano is a different beast altogether. It focuses on middle-aged man called Canning Albury, although most would know him under another name – because he has been a much-revered Australian rock musician. He is long-estranged from his family, having left home at the age of seventeen under a heavy cloud. Now armed with what he thinks is the secret to his family’s questionable past, Canning travels from his secluded though tantalisingly unfulfilled life in Launceston back to Sydney so he can help celebrate his father’s 80th birthday, which is to be a grand event at the ancestral mansion on the edge of the harbour. Needless to say, things go arse-up pretty quickly.
Perhaps, like the two preceding novellas, The Beach Volcano is about confronting the past in order to have a good, open and honest future, but it’s also, I think, about the power of families to both destroy and heal, and how we must navigate our own way. If there’s anything that binds these three stories, it’s the notion of family being infinitely complex.
But that’s enough from me.
Here’s what I really want to do – give you a heads-up about the launch:
The Beach Volcano will be launched at 6pm on Thursday 18 September at Electric Shadows Bookshop, Mort Street, Braddon, ACT.
Importantly, there will be wine, and a very wonderful launcher (already sorted but not yet made public).
And there will be a ridiculously nervous writer.
It would be brilliant to have your company.
* I can now see that the month I spent in Cataract Gorge was one of the most productive times of my life.
There’s something about visibility, coming out of the shadows, being seen. But the visibility I’m talking about is more than that – it’s about exposure, true exposure, so much so that it’s frightening. Of course, I am being just a little (or quite a lot) dramatic. Because all I really want to tell you is Blemish Books have released the cover for the third and very much final novella of mine, The Beach Volcano.
You can see it right there, accompanying this post, in all its moody, melancholic, mysterious…is ‘beauty’ too strong a word? Perhaps not. I love it, the cover (and wouldn’t it be terrible to say that it’s not really my cup of tea). The stones in their gun-sight pattern; they’re also reminiscent of dinosaur bones. It’s just so very apt.
Though what would I know. All I’ve done is spend the last four years trying to make the story sit up and sing (and ‘sing’ , let me tell you, is just as appropriate as those bone-like stones).
The Beach Volcano follows I’m Ready Now (2012), which took two and a half years from first draft to publication, and Fall on Me (2011), which shot out the gates at a mere 18 months. I should say, however, that all three of these novellas existed as ideas in my journal for some time before the first pen-stroke on the page. I wrote down the thought that would become I’m Ready Now in 2003, nine years before publication. Surprisingly (to me) the initial scratchy recording of The Beach Volcano is dated January 2010, a mere five months before the first draft, but that was four and a half years before publication. What’s happened since the first draft? Rewriting, editing, polishing, delete delete delete, rewriting, editing, polishing…until nervous exhaustion set in. Again I’m being ridiculously over-dramatic, though there is some truth to what I’m telling you.
But what’s the bloody thing about?
Well, here’s the blurb:
How should we deal with what’s lost? And how should we deal with what’s to become, something unknown but so very much desired?
After years of estrangement, Canning Albury, a revered and irreverent singer-songwriter, returns home to celebrate his father’s eightieth birthday. His welcome is mixed, at best. But Canning has made the trip for more than just a glass of Pol Roger and an eyeful of Sydney Harbour at sunset. He carries a secret about his family’s murky and uncharted past—a secret that could be explosive. The Beach Volcano is a fearless exploration of life’s many compromises, and the burdens we bear for those we love.
Has anyone read it yet? If so, what do they think? Yes, it’s been read – by none other than Melbourne novelist Andrea Goldsmith. Who had this to say:
Nigel Featherstone’s new book plunges into the loves and loyalties, the secrets and outward appearances of the wealthy Albury family. This is an insightful and at times disturbing story. Assured and compelling, The Beach Volcano holds you to the last page and beyond.
How does that make me feel? Grateful. So very grateful.
So, that’s the latest. Blemish is gunning for a late August/September launch from Canberra. And then, from that point onwards, a little book called The Beach Volcano will be out of my control. Is this really the end of the line for my novellas? I’m pretty sure it is. I’ve loved dreaming them into existence; I’ve adored hearing of reactions from readers. I can’t deny that the reviews and awards and short-listings have, in fact, meant a great deal, if only because they might have resulted in the novellas finding more hands (and hearts?) in which to be held. When all is said and done, it’s all just a drop in the ocean, isn’t it: three more books in an endless sea of books. I’m just glad – say it again: grateful – that they’ve taken me on such a ride.
The past and the present
There are good people in the world. It might be hard to believe, especially in Australia as the conservatives rip the heart and soul out of the nation. But it is true – good people do exist. An example? The very fine folk at Scissors Paper Pen, the ACT-based writing collective that makes things happen. The group’s latest adventure is The Same Page, a bi-monthly (that always sounds a touch rude, doesn’t it, or extra interesting) book club in a pub. Back in April they asked me to be on the panel and we had a robust discussion about Lucy Neave’s quietly affecting novel The Way We Were.
The tables have been turned for next month. Shit. The panel will be discussing dear old Fall on Me and I’m Ready Now, two novellas I know a bit about. I won’t be attending, because if I’m not loved I’m in tears. But also because I don’t have to attend: I’ve secretly set up hidden web-cams in the venue so I’ll be able to watch proceedings from the comfort of my own couch. So, if you live in or around the ACT, if you like a good read, if you like a good yarn, if getting into fisticuffs about literature is your thing, head along to Scissors Paper Pen’s The Same Page night at Smith’s Alternative, 6,30pm, Thursday 19 June. Just remember that earlier point: if I’m not loved, I’m in tears.
The near future
While I’ve got you, the third and final of the Blemish novellas is getting close to having its moment in the sun. A couple of things to share. Firstly, we have a title: The Beach Volcano. Secondly, I’ve seen a draft of the cover. It has a picture of me at the beach as a three-year-old with a little red plastic spade in hand and a very fat belly hanging over my little red Speedos. That’s not at all true (like some other elements of this post, as already identified). But the cover is wonderful; it’ll match Fall on Me and I’m Ready Now very nicely. Is there a launch date and venue? No, not yet. Blemish is waiting to see if there’ll still be a fair and decent Australia from which to launch the book. Or whether it might be better to do it in Sweden. Sweden sounds good, don’t you think?
 Might not be true
 This might not be true either; I’m really quite tough, you know – I shave my head and own a Clash record on LP
Some years ago a friend told me she had a rule for how she lived her writing life: if something good happened, she gave herself 24 hours to celebrate; if something bad happened, she gave herself 24 hours to commiserate – either way she just had to move on. It’s a brilliant rule. It’s all about tenacity and persistence.
Thankfully, I’ve had a reason to invoke the rule’s Option A: I’m Ready Now has been shortlisted for the $10,000 ACT Book of the Year award (on top of the previous short-listing for the 2013 ACT Publishing and Writing Award for fiction). Thank you, ACT Government. All the details, including the other three titles on the short-list, can be found at the Canberra Times.
Privately – quite clearly not so privately at all – I’m just a little bit thrilled, especially as I’m Ready Now is the only work of fiction on the list. However, I’m also shocked. I enjoyed writing the very first draft of this novella back in Tasmania in 2010, but there was significantly less enjoyment to be had once the redrafting process got into full swing and a great wave of doubt came crashing.
Still, here we are.
Speaking of awards, thanks to the glories of social media I recently stumbled on this honest and illuminating article by UK novelist Jane Rogers published in The Guardian. At core, I think, it’s about the wise imperative of writing what you want to write, what you’re passionate about, what moves you. However, it also points to the importance of small presses, which are able to take risks and, against sometimes – often – crushing odds, get recalcitrant books out to the world. Rogers also talks about what literary awards can do for books/writers on the margins, even if the books are only short-listed, or even just long-listed. It’s a terrific and timely read.
In other news, the good folk at The Writers Bloc, an emerging collective spread between Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne, and, it seems, is spreading even further afield, recently interviewed me for a pod-cast on the places where writing happens. (The pod-cast can also be found here.) For some reason I took the opportunity to talk about military deserters, isolation, and – um – maps. Nope, I can’t explain it either.
PS The third and final in this series of novellas is completely finished from my perspective (which, it should be admitted, is almost always the wrong perspective in the context of these things) and is now firmly in the hands of the mighty Blemish Books. I’m looking forward to sharing this story with you. It’s different from Fall on Me and I’m Ready Now, and has had a four-year gestation – as they say in Hollywood, it’s had a lot of work done. Not that I’m expecting to end up in Hollywood on the back of this one. Though wouldn’t that be nice? Okay, I’ve gotten carried away. See what a short-listing can do? It can send a writer into la-la-land. Quite happily.
Can you think of a stranger occupation than writing fiction?
Those of us who do it, ignoring all the mental-health warnings, spend hour after hour, day after day, week after week, year after year, holed up in a room staring at a pad or screen, dreaming characters and predicaments into existence, all the while hoping that one day the words might be read, and with more than a little luck mean something to someone else, that reader, who may even be moved.
That’s all a fiction writer wants: to be read well, deeply, intellectually, emotionally. Which is asking the world of them.
And it all comes down to publication.
Drumroll please: the news
So, it’s with pleasure I can say that, due to the success of Fall on Me and I’m Ready Now (good sales, some gongs – twice short-listed for the ACT Writers and Publishing Award with Fall on Me winning the thing – and, on balance, a warm and generous critical response), the third and final in this series of novellas will be published in mid-2014. The title, contents, and cover are currently under wraps at the request of Blemish Books, but all will be revealed in the first few months of the new year.
But I can say that this novella will follow the general theme – preoccupation? – of the previous two: contemporary Australian family life in all its mess and mayhem. Part of this preoccupation comes from a desire to lift the lid on what’s supposedly a ‘bedrock’ institution, as former prime minister John Howard described it during his long, long, harrowing days in power. Family may well be important to modern living, because, often, it brings life into being. But it also hammers life, stretches life into new and sometimes dangerous shapes; it can – and often does – take life, snuff the daylights out of everyone who steps into its confines or whatever it is that defines this thing.
How to explore the murky depths and live to tell the tale
But family life is also the stuff of fiction – always has been and always will be. Because families are inherently complex. They’re shifty; more often than not they operate in the grey and dark and black. And fiction is a good – the best possible? – means of exploring the murky depths, of finding out who and what ticks and when and how, and to record new findings for the benefits of others.
So, then, the final Blemish novella will be about family.
Surely, surely, I could give away some of the plot?
Well, it involves a beach, a boat, two boats, many boats, a piano, a house by the harbour with a significant view, a river, an ocean, and yellow buckets tied to ankles for safety.
There’s also this.
Until next year
Until next year, much gratitude to everyone who has read Fall on Me and/or I’m Ready Now, who’s offered a kind word, or an honest one, who’s suggested that it might be good to carry on with this literary madness – it’s all so very much appreciated. And, of course, massive thanks to Blemish Books for keeping the faith. It’s true: writing is a tough and sometimes (often?) ridiculous gig, and I’m glad it’s this press that’s by my side.