The sweet early notice, which made my heart do a little skip.

Many thanks everyone for all your support x

The leaves on the trees are beginning to yellow, I’m sitting at my desk and wearing a dreadful pair of black tracksuit pants, a blue-striped hooded top, and a pair of red woolen socks – the mornings are cool but the days are still warm, if not very warm – and there is an ever-so-perplexing feeling in my chest and legs, as if tomorrow I will head overseas on an adventure. But I’m not heading overseas tomorrow. On 23 April – so, in six weeks’ time – my novel BODIES OF MEN will be officially published.

Bodies of Men: now with added endorsement from Karen Viggers

Yikes.

As mentioned elsewhere on this blog, I began writing the novel in 2013 when I was a writer-in-residence at UNSW Canberra, which provides the campus for the Australian Defence Force Academy. Since then I have had the great fortune to work on some other projects, including THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT, but progressing (reworking, re-imagining, refining) the story that would become BODIES OF MEN has been a mostly private obsession.

Put simply, I could not let the story go. Or perhaps the story would not let me go? Either way, here we are, with the novel soon be published by Hachette Australia.

How do I feel? Grateful.

A little about the story:

Egypt, 1941. Only hours after disembarking in Alexandria, William Marsh, an Australian corporal at twenty-one, is face down in the sand, caught in a stoush with the Italian enemy. He is saved by James Kelly, a childhood friend from Sydney and the last person he expected to see. But where William escapes unharmed, not all are so fortunate. William is sent to supervise an army depot in the Western Desert, with a private directive to find an AWOL soldier: James Kelly. When the two are reunited, James is recovering from an accident, hidden away in the home of an unusual family – a family with secrets. Together they will risk it all to find answers. Soon William and James are thrust headlong into territory more dangerous than either could have imagined.

Novelists chatting with booksellers in Sydney. Photo credit: Hachette Australia

Four reasons for that feeling of gratefulness:

  • as of yesterday, the final edits are done and next week Hachette sends the novel to the printer (to push the travel metaphor, it feels as though the boat’s being slid into the water and either it will take us to the other shore or we’ll sink somewhere along the way);
  • international best-selling author Karen Viggers has provided an endorsement: ‘A beautifully written, tender and sensitive love story told within the tense and uncertain context of war’ (how wonderful it was to receive Karen’s response and then see it placed on the top of the front cover);
  • in the past fortnight Hachette sent me and four other novelists to Melbourne to meet booksellers over lunch and dinner, and then we did it again in Sydney this week; it was so terrific to spend time with those who work tirelessly to get novels in the hands – and hearts – of readers; these sessions also provided me with the first experience of talking about my novel in public, which I was a bit rubbish at initially but soon managed to find a way of doing it succinctly (I hope); and
  • BODIES OF MEN will be launched in Canberra at 6pm on Thursday 16 May at The Street Theatre – the forever thoughtful novelist Robyn Cadwallader and engaging performance poet CJ Bowerbird will provide personal responses, and there will be book sales, and, of course, booze.

So, it’s autumn. Within weeks there will be the need to go looking for firewood, and the second doona will have to be put on the bed, for dinner there will be soups rather than salads and red wine instead of white, and, this year, there will be a novel called BODIES OF MEN in the world. Yes, I’m grateful, very grateful, and I’m also excited – I might just have to buy a new pair of tracksuit pants to mark the occasion.

[click on the image to buy a copy for just 99c]

 

In my house,

tonight, you are welcome

 

In my house,

tonight, let me make you something wild

 

In my house,

we’ll tell each other how we really feel

 

Let’s loosen and lift

and rise up

 

In my house,

we cram in and huddle

 

In my house,

we lean into each other like the lovers we are

 

In my house,

when pressing against me, you are intoxicating

 

Let’s loosen and lift

and rise up

 

In my house,

in my house, we remove the rules

 

In my house,

at midnight, we are beats and bass and melody

 

In my house,

the windows rattle and the floorboards barely hold

 

Let’s loosen and lift

and rise up

 

In my house,

while the neighbours try to sleep, we fly into outer space

 

we’re stratospheric

we’re stars, we’re Venus and Mars

 

we’re expanding, we’re exploding –

our love is alight!

 

In my house,

right now, kiss me

Reading is the foundation – all the stillness and immersion and depth and revelation – but music is the other constant: without it I would not be able to respond to the world in a meaningful way. For what it’s worth, the following are the albums that I enjoyed the most this year.

I have loved everything The Go! Team has ever done, so I hardly have a balanced view, but Semi-Circle is a delightful albeit subtle progression on what they do best, which is alternative pop (if that’s the right term). As always, every song is impeccably crafted, despite the lo-fi aesthetic. Head towards ‘Semi-circle song’ for a fun entry point.

Depth of Field by Sarah Blasko is a wonderful companion to the stunning Eternal Return from 2015. This is sexy, soulful electronica with some heart-breaking ballads. Beautifully produced too. ‘A Shot’ is one of the many highlights from a very special album.

Another Australian who is doing amazing things is Luke Howard. Open Heart Story fits into the category of beautiful, simple, new-classical music made popular by Ólafur Arnalds and Max Richter. There is a lot of cinematic melancholia on this record – try ‘Bear Story II‘ – which means I’m all over it and it’s all over me.

Borrowed Verse is a fascinating project initiated and curated by Brisbane-based songwriter Simon Munro – it pairs Australian songwriters with prominent Australian poets, including Judith Wright, Dorothy Porter, and Michael Dransfield. Ben Salter’s ‘Tracks’, based on a poem by Herb Wharton is, for me, song of the year. Also brilliant is Angie Hart’s ‘Not The Same’, based on a poem by Dorothy Porter.

To my mind, in 2018 there were two albums that verged on being truly great.

The first is All Melody by Nils Frahm. Although I have been listening to experimental new classical music for years (starting with Glass and Nyman decades ago), Frahm is new to me. All Melody is everything I want a record to be: fresh, adventurous, intricate, all the while being highly listenable. There is such a range here: from simple piano pieces to electronic epics that could almost be played in nightclubs (if they dared). Sublime is the world. Try this video of Frahm performing ‘All Melody’ and ‘#2’.

The other truly great album from this year, and one that I have been playing on repeat for months, is Singularity by Jon Hopkins. Immunity from 2013 was a superb work, but it is possible that with Singularity he has made his masterpiece – from the first note till the last it is stunning: there are dancefloor bangers and gentle ambient pieces, some of which are soft echoes of the more intense songs. Yes, a masterpiece. I could listen to ‘Luminous Beings‘ till the end of days.

 

There has been a bit going on this year in my neck of the woods: seeing The Weight of Light have its world premiere in Canberra and then performed in Goulburn and Sydney (plus two other music projects but more on these at a later date) and a final spit and polish of Bodies of Men before it heads into the world in April/May 2019. As always, reading has been the foundation. Stillness and immersion and revelation and depth: there will never be anything like it.

The following is not really a ‘best of’; it’s just a list of work that I have read that has got beneath my skin.

In Terra Nullius, Claire G. Coleman, a writer from Western Australia who identifies with the South Coast Noongar people, reveals the horrors and hypocrisies that underpin contemporary Australia. In a way, perhaps, the novel is speculative fiction, but the scenario is far too present to be ignored, as are the uncomfortable truths it reveals. This is one of the most unique novels I have read in years.

Speaking of unique, a work that I almost literally gobbled up is The Long Take by Robin Robertson. A verse novel, the narrative follows a D-Day veteran as he travels across the US so he can piece his life together. Rather surprisingly The Long Take is as much about urban planning and design as it is about war; there are also evocations of Hollywood. Disintegration appears to be the unifying theme, but this is not a grim read, nor is it inaccessible. Truly remarkable.

With her trademark lyricism, Robyn Cadwallader in Book of Colours brings to life the people and politics behind the making of a fourteenth-century prayer book; the novel is also about the making of art in general. It is fascinating – and highly moving – from first page to last. A beautiful novel in every way.

Also beautiful is Inga Simpson’s Understory, which is a chronicle of the author’s profound attachment to a small patch of Queensland forest. This is much more than a tree-change memoir: it is also about the desire to live a creative life and the need to find and survive love. Very moving.

Two poetry collections especially resonated: Melinda Smith’s Goodbye, Cruel and Kumukanda by Kayo Chingonyi. In the former, Smith once again displays her extraordinary range, moving seemingly effortlessly from the dramatic to the deep historic. In the latter, Chingonyi investigates music, masculinity and racism, in a tone that reads to me as muscular melancholia – it is wonderful. Both collections I have read more than once.

As others have said, Andrew Sean Greer’s Less is a surprisingly light read for a Pulitzer Prize-winner. It is a warm and accessible read, but it is ultimately a deeply yearning hymn to modern love in a global world. Although often hilarious, Less is also a broken-hearted novel and deserves to be read until the end for its full impact to be experienced.

A second heartbreaking novel from this year, though it is also brain- and soul-breaking, is Taboo by Kim Scott. Another writer of Noongar decent, Scott has created a deeply affecting story about race relations in Australia. In spare but lyrical – at times literally magical – prose, Scott writes about the layers of this country’s history that are far too often glossed over to tell a more appealing but largely false narrative. Taboo is powerful and very necessary.

I also thoroughly enjoyed The Life to Come by Michelle de Kretser and, though it took me a long time (years) to get to it, The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers, as well as On Patriotism by Paul Daley and No Country Woman: A memoir of not belonging by Zoya Patel.

Much of this year was dedicated to reading gay fiction, which I wrote about for Meanjin. I also loved All Being Equal from Griffith Review, because it includes a suite of novellas that explore the contemporary gay experience, and because the stories are deeply moving.

Finally, I was lucky enough to read advance copies of two wonderfully adventurous novels that will be released in 2019: The Artist’s Portrait by Julie Keys, which in a memorably unflinching voice reveals the complex and often fraught nature of creative identity; and Karen Viggers’ The Orchardist’s Daughter – told in the author’s typically unaffected prose, the novel explores the web of relationships and competing viewpoints that exist in and around a Tasmanian forest. Here’s hoping both novels will be much discussed and find a broad audience.

Paul Scott-Williams (Goulburn Regional Conservatorium), Caroline Stacey (The Street Theatre, Canberra), and your old mate – 13 November 2018

It was wonderful to zip down the Hume Highway earlier this week to see THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT pick up a 2018 Canberra Critics Circle Award.

Congratulations to all involved in our song cycle: Paul Scott-Williams at the Goulburn Regional Conservatorium, which commissioned the work; Caroline Stacey at The Street Theatre for the powerful direction and so much more; James Humberstone for the extraordinary score; and exemplary performers Michael Lampard and Alan Hicks.

Big thanks to Katy Mutton for the exquisitely evocative art work (as commissioned by The Street Theatre) that was used to market the work.

Last but by no means least, thank you to everyone who came to one of the shows – there is nothing like an audience, and an audience’s response.

Might this be the official end of this project? Hard to tell. But perhaps it might be nice to leave with the words to the last song in the cycle:

 

FROM HERE

 

From here

I mend

 

From here

there is a bend

in the river

 

From here

there will be

 

the sea-hawk and the shore

and the red-belly black snake

in the rocks

 

so stand with me

stand with me now

 

From here

we mend

 

From here

we mend

 

From here

we mend

together

 

The start of my school journey; tea-pot stance not yet perfected.

Dearest Headmaster Heath,

It was with disappointment – and a little reignited heartache – that I read in the media last week that Barker College had co-signed a letter to the Australian Government stating ‘there is no effective protection under Australian law that guarantees religious freedom for both faith and action’.  The letter was interpreted, justifiably, to mean that Anglican schools wish to retain the right to discriminate against LGBTIQ+ teachers and students.

I know that you have since issued a Mea Culpa, with a very recent follow-up, both of which read as heart-felt and are appreciated, therefore I have wondered about the wisdom in adding to the public debate. However, silence, especially when it relates to formative experiences with long-term – if not life-long – implications, is not always healthy.

So, in the spirit of truth to power:

I attended Barker College from 1978 to 1986, when I completed my secondary education. My brothers, both older, also attended Barker. I have my parents to thank for choosing the school – it was a privilege, though I would come to understand that privilege comes with responsibility and a need for self-reflection.

Looking back, the school offered a reasonable, balanced education. There was a mix of the core subjects and the humanities, arts, languages, and sport. We were encouraged to be inquisitive and well-rounded young people.

In my experience, Barker highlighted three key principles: respect for knowledge (clear thinking and facts); find your own path for living well, which, by extension, meant letting others find their own path; and speak up for what you believe.

Despite being a resolutely average student, my school years were productive and happy.

Except in one respect: a well-hidden turmoil as I began to navigate a sexuality that, I soon realised, was neither common nor generally acceptable, that was, I would soon discover, aggressively – even violently – hated by some.

Regardless, and in a beautiful, innocent way, as I went from class to class, as my friends fell voluminously in love with girls, I allowed myself to fall in love with a boy. What bliss! Indeed, to all intents and purposes, throughout Third Form he and I were in a relationship, as much as it was possible at that age. Of course, we could not publically express our feelings for each other, and we were somewhat confused. I remember him saying, ‘This is not what God wants. We should like girls.’ Oh, would love always be difficult? In Senior School, I did try to like girls; thankfully – for all concerned – there was not much success.

When my time at Barker came to an end, I left the North Shore and moved to Canberra, where I was freer to live a more genuine life, including having the opportunity to explore the wonders of my sexuality.

Still, it was not until 1997 that I was able to do that harrowing (and, thank goodness, increasingly old-fashioned) thing: ‘come out’.

Why did the process take so long?

Fear.

With my maternal grandmother, who I adored.

Of being rejected. Of being considered a freak, a deviant.

That my sexuality might prevent me from achieving my goals; that I might be bashed for simply being myself (a good-natured introvert, you could say). Having been a teenager through the AIDS crisis, there was also fear that my life would be cut short.

Not wanting to bring too much emotion to this correspondence, there were dark times: loneliness, despondency – and worse, but let’s not dwell.

Recently I turned 50, so it seems my life has not been cut short. I have been with my partner Tim for 21 years, and have experienced love, intimacy, and companionship.

Perhaps that is something else I got from Barker: tenacity.

Speaking of tenacity, you might be interested to know that I have what some consider an unusual job. I am a writer – 50 short stories published in Australian literary journals, two story collections, a debut novel titled Remnants, a series of interlinked novellas with the latest being The Beach Volcano, and my war novel, Bodies of Men, will be published by Hachette Australia in 2019. I was commissioned to write the libretto for a contemporary song cycle called The Weight of Light (score by James Humberstone) that had its world premiere in Canberra earlier this year before being performed at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. I have held residencies at Varuna and Bundanon, and in 2013 I was a Creative Fellow at UNSW Canberra. Being an author has resulted in some surprising invitations: in 2010 I was asked by the University of Canberra to give the valedictory speech at a graduation ceremony, which was held in the Great Hall at Parliament House – yes, I took the opportunity to tell a version of the story that I am telling you.

Most writers, it seems, have one or two thematic preoccupations. Mine? The need to live our own lives; and there is nothing more important than love and refuge.

Of course, I have also written about what happens when we are unable to live our own lives, when we are unable to find love and refuge. My lived experience shows – proves – that when someone, especially a young person, is not allowed to be who they are, when someone is told their healthy yearnings for human connection are wrong (or that all gay people belong to an evil organisation as I was informed during last year’s marriage equality debate), living can be hard work.

Does Barker really want to make life hard work for its LGBTIQ+ teachers and students?

Currently on the Barker website, under the title ‘From the Head’, there is a quote from the Bible, Jeremiah, 29.11: ‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you, and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’ Although not a person of faith, I can appreciate the sentiment: allow life to unfold as it must, do not let existence be harmful, approach the future with open arms.

‘All good things must come to an end’, claimed my end-of-school top; but even better things were around the corner.

What if last week Barker had put out a clear and unambiguous statement saying that it encouraged all its teachers and – particularly – its students to live good, true lives, to be the best people they can be: brave, generous, curious, authentic, and loving?

What if last week, and reinforcing what I hope is a deeply held conviction, Barker had publically declared that it did not, and would never, discriminate against LGBTIQ+ teachers and students? What if that had been the school’s default position? What a powerful, positive message that would have sent, especially to those students who, for whatever reason, and so sadly – and perhaps, still, with tragic consequences – are experiencing their own well-hidden turmoil because of something as innocuous as their sexuality.

My wish is that from here Barker becomes an active and public voice in ensuring there is no legislative room for Australian schools, public or private, to dismiss LGBTIQ+ teachers and students.

What the marriage equality vote proved is that love – in all its wondrous diversity – does win in the end, that love is inherently resilient, and that resilience will see LGBTIQ+ people continue to live good, healthy, and productive lives.

So then, it is with love that I have shared these words with you.

Sincerely,

Nigel


UPDATE: on 23 November 2018 I received an open-hearted – emotionally raw even – letter from Phillip Heath, the current headmaster of Barker College, in which he said, ‘I apologise for the hurt and embarrassment that these matters have caused’ and that he ‘deeply regrets’ being involved in original letter; he also wrote, ‘Please be assured that I will continue to demonstrate my rejection of the [legal] exemptions in word and deed’. Mr Heath’s words and actions are appreciated and welcomed.

For those interested, there was considerable media on the issue: one of the headmasters who signed The Letter described the response as ‘the most humiliating moment of my career‘ (that piece, by David Marr, is interesting in other ways too, especially in terms of what ‘ethos’ means in practical terms), the Anglican Archbishop apologised, and school students held a street protest, which is brilliant.

While not directly related, it was interesting to see this recent story about a student at one of Sydney’s most elite private schools come out in front of the assembly just weeks after the above hullabaloo.

Onwards.


To be published by Hachette Australia on 23 April 2019; available for pre-order.

The day was off to a lovely start: I put on my trackydax, uggboots, and my favourite woolen jumper (the one with the holes in it), made a coffee, and then the doorbell rang. There was the postie…with a package that I would soon discover contained the typeset pages for Bodies of Men, courtesy of Hachette Australia.

Holy crap.

After a few days during which I did little more than stare at the pages, on Monday of this week I finally sat down at the desk, picked up a red pen, and got to work.

When I say ‘work’, it seems that I did as much housework as editing. And I’m lousy at housework. But not this week apparently.

The pattern seemed to be: edit paragraph, then dust the sitting room; edit paragraph, then put away the CDs that have been forming into piles; edit paragraph, then dust the stereo; edit paragraph, go buy some firewood and stack it very, very neatly in the shed; edit paragraph, consider vacuuming the rugs (with this chore, ‘consider’ was as far as I got, I’m afraid).

So, it’s been a slow process editing the typeset pages. One reason is the text looks so beautiful that I don’t want to spoil it with my scrawl; another reason is I’m finding it’s taking a lot of mental energy to dive deep into the story (again) and fix the annoying mistakes I’ve made or the sentences that really do need to be better.

Which gets me back to the pattern: fix sentence, then go and clean the fridge.

On Thursday evening I took a break and had dinner with a writer who’s currently working on a novel. One of the things we discussed over the meal was how much we should talk about our fiction before it’s published. I shared some advice I received a few years ago from an eminent Australian novelist who told me (with gusto, I should add), ‘Never talk about your fiction while you’re writing it. This has nothing to do with superstition. If you talk about it while you’re writing it, the energy will go from the telling because you will have already shared the story publicly.’ So my writer friend and I decided that it indeed it was wise not to talk too much about our projects before they were published. Instead we talked about our families.

This enforced creative reticence is at odds with social media: by their nature, digital platforms (a terrible term, methinks) encourage the sharing – and over-sharing – of everything. Of course, it’s rather pleasant, probably healthy, to tell the world a little about how things are going, especially when writing is primarily a solitary task; but, yes, there is wisdom in holding back, especially in terms of the content of this thing I’m writing – and living and breathing – since 2013, although I did give a couple of hints in an earlier post.

What am I trying to say?

That I’m still working on Bodies of Men but the end is in sight – I have to get the edits back to Hachette in a fortnight’s time, even though publication is not until April 2019. Until then, I hope you don’t mind if I remain a little shy (at first my fingers typed ‘shit’) about the actual story of the novel. Perhaps I’m just scared, or feeling vulnerable? That wouldn’t be a bad thing. Maybe.

As ever, thanks so very much for all your interest and support. Many of the readers of this blog/website thing-o have been incredibly encouraging over the years, offering warm thoughts and reflections, silent little whisperings saying, Just keep going.

So that’s what I’m doing: keeping going.

Best I get back to the edits, then I’ve got a bathroom to clean.

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…

*

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

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