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It is, in a way, an act of withdrawal, and I worry about it sometimes.

I am spending more and more time reading and alone. How healthy can that be? But let’s be honest: for a natural hermit, it is very healthy, especially when I am fortunate to have a room dedicated to books—a private library.

Eight years ago, partly due to good luck and partly due to a desire to put literature at the centre of my being, I left Canberra for a town an hour away, in regional New South Wales. Although I would need to continue earning an income, I could, if luck kept smiling on me, live on the smell of an oily rag. My plan was to spend the majority of each week writing, but I have found, thankfully, that I am spending as much time reading—day after day of it, all in the smallest room in my crumbling old cottage.

In the library is a pair of floor-to-ceiling bookshelves that were there when I moved in, as well as an old green Hordern & Sons wood-heater (it is rarely used, because it tends to smoke out the house) and a tartan couch that I bought for $30 from the local Vinnies but is a bit too short for my body. In winter, when the mornings sometimes start with a horrifying minus 10 degrees, I read under two blankets: one, a mix of oranges and reds, was my grandmother’s; the other, which is as green as the wood-heater and the couch, was my mother’s and given to her by a school friend—my mother is now in a nursing home and battling dementia, so the gift came to me earlier this year.

In summer I am sprawled only in black T-shirt and grey shorts, the soles of my feet gritty with dirt because I like to get up every hour or so and hand-water the garden…

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Keep reading over at Meanjin, which commissioned this piece and first published it on 26 September 2018.

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

The closer it got, the more agitated I became.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Done, for now

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

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

Orang ini tak akan terlupakan.

This year has been a wild ride in so many ways (more about that at a later date) and, as usual, reading has provided solace, sustenance, challenge, and adventure. I’ve reached the point where I’d like to be given home-detention so all I can do is read; being given home-library detention would be even better. For what it’s worth – very little, most likely – the following are the books that got beneath my skin this year. Needless to say, if I made the list tomorrow, it would probably be different. In any case, here goes.

Position Doubtful: mapping landscape and memory by Kim Mahood (Scribe) is a fearlessly articulate – and appropriately dry-eyed – love-letter to the Australian desert, in particular the Tanimi. So very skillfully Mahood takes us through her decades-long experience of that part of the world, slowly revealing what to many (most?) will always be a place of both mystery and spirit. Threaded throughout are observations about friendship and the search for home. Sublime.

Despite, or because of, my advancing years, I very much enjoyed No Way! Okay Fine by Brodie Lancaster (Hachette). Sub-titled ‘a memoir of pop culture, feminism and feelings’, Lancaster adroitly explores a range of challenging issues, such as body image, love in all its often messy and confusing guises, and the pleasures and power of pop music. Even though at heart I remain a skinny-black-jeans-wearing indy-music kid, I was genuinely moved by Lancaster’s adoration of pop-music stars such as One Direction, Kanye West, and Taylor Swift. Thoughtful and entertaining.

Josephine Wilson’s Extinctions (UWAP) won this year’s Miles Franklin Literary Award and deservedly so. The story focuses on a man, a retired structural engineer, who has recently moved to a retirement village. It takes an enormous amount of skill to build narrative momentum out of such a constrained scenario, but gradually Wilson goes deeper and deeper into the man’s history and his family environment. What especially appeals is the humour, the knife-sharp prose, and the sheer ambition. A unique reading experience.

Speaking of unique reading experiences, in The Museum of Modern Love (Allen & Unwin) Heather Rose takes a similarly constrained premise – a group of people watching performance artist Marina Abramović sitting at a table and staring at the ‘sitter’ opposite – and crafting a story that does exactly what it says on the tin: explores many facets of what it’s like to love in this day and age. Ticking two other boxes for me, Rose’s 2017  Stella Prize-winning novel also delves into music and architecture. Very memorable. Side note: it’s been reported that it took Heather Rose seventy drafts to get the novel right. How’s that for tenacity.

Pushing uniqueness to the limit, George Saunders’ Man Booker-winning Lincoln in the Bardo (Bloomsbury) is all it’s cracked up to be. Like many readers, the first 30 pages almost had me tossing the novel into the nearest bin, but then something clicked and I was able to enjoy this fresh and eminently playful reading experience. What especially appealed to me was how the work busts out of all the known forms: in a way it’s a play, but it could also be a film-script, even a verse novel. It’s really quite extraordinary.

Staying with the playful, I’ve written previously about my admiration for Cassandra Atherton’s work. Exhumed (Grand Parade Poets) is another collection of prose poems that is such a delight it really is quite magical. Atherton’s work bounces from one word and phrase to another, without ever losing sight of the core idea in each piece. Do search it out and be delighted.

Back to more conventional storytelling, in To Become a Whale (Allen & Unwin), Ben Hobson tells a tale about a thirteen-year-old boy dealing with the loss of this mother and a father who is in all kinds of trouble. Setting much of the novel in the world of whale hunting (which, thankfully, in Australia is a thing of the past), Hobson explores masculinity in all its contradictions and strangeness. The prose is crystal-clear, and enveloping this rather sad story is a loving swell of emotion and humanity.

Being a resident of the Southern Tablelands of New South Wales, I’m fortunate to live in one of the most peaceful parts of the world. Edited by Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldma, in Kingdom of Olives and Ash: writers confront the occupation (HarperCollins), a diverse range of authors, from Geraldine Brooks to Colm Tóibín, experience what it’s like to live in Palestine under the occupation of Israel. Despite the variety of voices and the different writing forms, the conclusion is always the same: when one nation has a stranglehold on another, human beings are diminished. No doubt it is naïve, but one can only hope that this dire situation is resolved sooner rather than later – it certainly can’t be left to go on for another 50 years.

This year I also thoroughly enjoyed Mullumbimby by Melissa Lucashenko (UQP), Wimmera by Mark Brandi (Hachette), and As the Lonely Fly by Sarah Dowse (For Pity Sake).

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Toni Morrison‘Recently I was talking to a writer who described something she did whenever she moved to her writing table. I don’t remember exactly what the gesture was – there is something on her desk that she touches before she hits the computer keyboard – but we began to talk about little rituals that one goes through before beginning to write. I, at first, thought I didn’t have a ritual, but then I remembered that I always get up and make a cup of coffee while it is still dark – it must be dark – and then I drink the coffee and watch the light come. And she said, Well, that’s a ritual. And I realised that for me this ritual comprises my preparation to enter a space that I can only call nonsecular…Writers all devise ways to approach that place where they expect to make contact, where they become the conduit, or where they engage with this mysterious process. For me, light is the signal in the transition. It’s not being in the light, it’s being there before it arrives. It enables me.’ – Toni Morrison, The Paris Review Interviews Vol. II, 2007

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.

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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.

Elena Ferrante's 'My Brilliant Friend' - elusive, yes, but also blindingly extraordinary

Elena Ferrante’s ‘My Brilliant Friend’ – elusive, yes, but also blindingly extraordinary

If the past is, as they say, a foreign country, then childhood, for many of us, if not most, is a completely different universe.

We all have them in our lives, childhoods, and perhaps not a day goes by when we don’t look back over our shoulders to how we started for the sake of a clue about who we are now and what we might become. What happened in the beginning? What did people do to us? What did we do to others? What are the big events that still drive and shape us? And what are the small events that have an even more profound impact, somehow existing in every breath we take, even when we’re sleeping?

It is fiction that’s best at helping to answer these questions.

The novelist Elena Ferrante, who was born in Naples in 1943, is the author of three previous works: The Days of Abandonment (2005), Troubling Love (2006), and The Lost Daughter (2008). There is, however, significant mystery around her, as she has chosen to operate under a pseudonym and interviews are conducted via email with her publisher facilitating. There is even speculation that she is more than one person, except there is a distinct sense that this, too, is part of Ferrante’s plot to put a nail in the coffin of celebrity authorship, for she is adamant that the contemporary tendency to value the author over the work is wrong. This deliberate obfuscation, of course, threatens to do the opposite and eclipse the writing. Thankfully, Ferrante is a novelist of immense substance, authority, and insight and it is easy – and prudent – to ignore the gossip.

As suggested by the title, My Brilliant Friend is a novel about love and admiration between two friends. There’s Elena Greco, whose father is a porter at the city hall, and there’s Raffaella Cerullo, who Elena calls Lila – Lila’s father is a shoemaker. Elena and Lila become friends when they are very young, but the novel begins when the two are middle aged and Lila has disappeared, though not necessarily in the usual sense.

‘It’s been at least three decades since [Lila] told me that she wanted to disappear without leaving a trace and I’m the only one who knows what she means. She never had in mind any sort of flight, a change of identity, the dream of making a new life somewhere else. And she never thought of suicide…She meant something different: she wanted to vanish; she wanted every one of her cells to disappear; nothing of her ever to be found. And since I know here well, or at least I think I know her, I take it for granted that she had found a way to disappear, to leave not so much as a hair anywhere in the world.’

You’d think that what follows would be a rudimentary ‘Whodunnit?’, but instead…

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Keep reading over at the Canberra Times, which commissioned this review and published it on 3 May 2014.

Ramones by Ian Dickson, 1977.  (Image source: Wikipedia Commons)

Ramones by Ian Dickson, 1977. (Image source: Wikipedia Commons)

‘Punk to me was a form of free speech. It was a movement when suddenly all kinds of strange voices that no reasonable person could ever have expected to hear in public were being heard all over the place’

Greil Marcus, author, rock critic, journalist

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)

 

 

The Wyoming mountains bring men together, in more ways than one.

The Wyoming mountains: bringing together words and broken men.

I’ve written about it here before, Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx, strongly hinted at it at the very least, because it’s a book that’s had a profound impact on me. And, yes, it was once a book, a stand-alone publication, a long short story or a short novella, no one can ever say – definitions, in the end, don’t mean much. First published by Fourth Estate in 1997, on my birthday (a good gift from the literary gods), Proulx’s story of two Wyoming cowboys who find love and intimacy where they least expect it was an immediate hit. The book took a whip to American masculinity: the Marlboro man: resilient, laconic, adamantly heterosexual – the apparent real deal. In Brokeback Mountain, Proulx unearthed a different and potentially perplexing reality. Ang Le had a crack at turning it into a movie (2005), but it’s an average movie at best. Proulx’s work is brilliance on the page.

At first it was the story that got me: love, landscape, isolation, melancholia, tragedy, loss – all the things that turn my crank. These days, however, I return for the prose. Try this on for size:

The first snow came early, on August 13th, piling up a foot, but was followed by a quick melt. The next week Joe Aguirre sent word to bring them down, another, bigger storm was moving in from the Pacific, and they packed in the game and moved off the mountain with the sheep, stones rolling at their heels, purple cloud crowding in from the west and the metal smell of coming snow pressing on. The mountain boiled with demonic energy, glazed with flickering broken-cloud light; the wind combed the grass and drew from the damaged krummholz and slit rock a bestial drone. As they descended the slope Ennis felt he was in a slow-motion, but headlong, irreversible fall.

The cover of the original story; mine's still in perfect condition, despite being read many times.

Mine’s still in perfect condition, despite being read many times.

That ‘purple cloud crowding in from the west and the metal smell of coming snow pressing on’. That ‘metal smell’. That ‘demonic energy, glazed with flickering broken-cloud light’. That ‘broken-cloud’, broken up just like that. And that ‘bestial drone’. That ‘damaged krummholz’, which to me is both foreign and strangely known. Ennis’s ‘headlong, irreversible fall’, exactly like one of those ‘stones rolling at their heels’. Proulx’s mountains are alive: they’re breathing, humming, rumbling, threatening; we’re there but oh how small we feel – we could be swallowed up at any moment. Despite the rugged beauty, despite the fact that we’re only on page 16 of a 56-page story, we know that the peace is uneasy at best. There’s threat in those clouds; that storm will bring us more than snow, much more. We might not survive. But we do survive, and our lives have changed.

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