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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.

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.

A laneway in Alexandria, Egypt; photograph dated 1941. Source: Australian War Memorial.

I’m not sure why I haven’t mentioned it.

Of course, I have mentioned it, on social media and sometimes in person, and there is also a reference to it in my bio on the About page, but there’s no post. Which is why I’m writing these words now.

The point is, in the first half of 2019, my novel BODIES OF MEN will be published by Hachette Australia.

Which is really very thrilling.

What’s a little odd, though, is that I currently don’t want to talk much about it, except to say half a dozen quick things.

The first is that the novel began when, in 2013, I spent three months as a writer-in-residence at UNSW Canberra, which provides the campus for the Australian Defence Force Academy. During the residency I researched different expressions of masculinity under military pressure; I left the residency with the scratchy, sketchy handwritten first draft of a manuscript. (I recorded some thoughts on the residency experience in The ADFA Diary section of this blog).

The second thing is, yes, BODIES OF MEN is a war story, but my intention has been to shine a light on a previously hidden (or politically and/or historically unwanted) war experience, to tell a story that is as much about love and intimacy as it is about what happens when men have guns in their hands.

The third is that most of the story takes place in Alexandria, Egypt, in 1941.

The fourth is that I wrote 38 drafts of the manuscript.

The fifth is that towards the end of the drafting process I collapsed. But more about that at a later date.

The editing begins – for real.

And the sixth is that earlier this week, which was complete with high family dramas and financial pressures and crap weather (wind and freezing rain and snow in the countryside and on the mountains down south, so the opposite of Egypt), the astute, caring, and eagle-eyed editorial team at Hachette Australia sent me their edit of the manuscript – and a blue sky opened in my heart and everything feels better.

I have one month to review the editorial suggestions and get an updated version of the manuscript back to Hachette. If you see me looking frazzled again, please administer whiskey and chocolate.

Sincere apologies for not telling you more about the actual story in BODIES OF MEN, but I am so looking forward to sharing it with you.

For now, I’ll leave you with a quote from a diary of an Australian serviceman who served in the Middle East in 1941; the diary is in the Australian War Memorial:

Be yourself: simple, honest, unpretending.

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