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It is true that on a daily basis I find myself thinking of much better – that is, more productive and less harrowing – ways to spend my life.

For example, I could be a breeder of chickens: I could put this bird with that bird and then there would be eggs before chicks, which I could sell. Or I could make my own tomato sauce from home-grown tomatoes and sell it on a card-table at a town market. Sometimes I have dreamt of having a lavender farm and being in a shed with the radio on and packing dried leaves into little pillows. How good it would be to only worry about the growing of plants and the harvesting of leaves and the drying of leaves and having enough material to make the little pillows (I don’t excel at sewing but that is a minor point at this stage, isn’t it?) and packing it all into the boot of the car and setting up my little stall and selling my wares to passers-by, who would undoubtedly adore what I’d made. A writing colleague and I often talk about opening a café or, when we are feeling especially despondent and therefore less sociable, we consider running an online shop selling fancy scarves – wouldn’t we just wait for the orders to come in and then package up the goods and into the account the money would go?

RAF_VOL9_ISS_1But then I realise – yet again – that the constant in my utterly inconsequential existence has been reading and writing. I have moved between towns and cities, I have had a variety of jobs, I have fallen in love with rock bands and fallen out of love with rock bands, I have made friends and some friendships have dissolved. But all the while there has been reading and there has been writing.

In terms of reading, books – novels especially – have provided daily company. Books that I loved when I was younger include The Day of the Triffids by John Windham (my edition is dated 1981), One Day in the life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn (again my edition is 1981), The Dingo Summer by Ivy Baker (1980), The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett (I’ve owned a number of editions, but the one currently at hand is dated 2008), The Lotus Caves by John Christopher (1978), The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea by Randolph Stow (1968), and Lord of the Flies by William Golding (1972). Those novels have been plucked from my bookshelves more or less at random, and here’s hoping that I will have copies of them nearby in my final years, as portentous as that sounds. It would be good to return to the early stories.

And writing: it seems that I have been doing it from the very beginning.

RAF_VOL14_iss_2I distinctly remember being in Year Four – so we are talking 1978 – and having a double creative-writing period. I loved that time of the school day. It didn’t seem terribly difficult to fill a few pages of an exercise book with words written in my illegible hands – indeed, thinking back on it now makes my belly come alive with butterflies. No doubt they were terrible words, but that didn’t seem to be a major concern, for me at least. Towards the end of one particular class, the teacher asked for someone to read their work aloud. Up shot my hand, but the teacher chose someone else. After the boy read his story, the teacher again asked for a volunteer. Again my hand shot up. ‘Pick me! Pick me! Pick me!’ This time the teacher glared at me and said, ‘Nigel Featherstone, you’re being very rude. Put your hand down – I will not be choosing you.’ I was shattered. I had always been a well-behaved child who rarely got into trouble. All I had wanted to do was read my story aloud, and, obviously, dazzle them with my boundless literary skill.

Later, around Year Nine (or ‘Third Form’ as it was called where I went, an Anglican private school), my English teacher gave an assignment that was to be completed during the holidays: write a long short story on any theme. For days, if not weeks, I sat – and at times lay sprawled – on the couch and wrote my story. Over and over I did it, rewriting and rewriting. I know I have spoken about this detail before, but on repeat in the background would be the soundtrack to the BBC’s serialisation of Brideshead Revisited. Curiously, to this day I still sometimes write to that music.

In the early 1990s I took a job in Perth, the world’s most isolated city, and I began keeping a sketchbook-notebook-diary. It wasn’t long before my notes twisted into fiction. Perhaps it was because I didn’t know a soul in Western Australia, or I found reality rather limiting, or that it was easier to be an expert in a pack of lies. Or there was something I wanted to work out, and the best way to do that was through fiction.

RAF_VOL17_ISS_2aAnd now, in 2016, I am still doing it: I dream up stories of various lengths, I write them down (by hand), I rewrite and rewrite and then edit and polish. It is probably true to say that the writing of a story becomes a fixation – it occupies my thoughts. And then it is either published or it isn’t. No doubt it is all about the lure of the imagination. The lure, yes, but also the safety of the imagination. In my imagination I can control what happens. I can make a big drama out of a careless conversation. I can resolve a life-long hurt. I can bring someone to justice. I can experience something that I would not dare experience in ‘the real world’ (whatever that is). Through writing, life becomes an object for play, something to be pulled apart and opened out. Through reading, the world becomes more coherent.

My trusty Roget’s Thesaurus (1976) provides the following phrases for ‘imagination’: ‘fine frenzy’, which is lovely; ‘thick-coming fancy’, which is quite something, all things considered; and ‘coinage of the brain’, which I like very much.

So I am not a wannabe chook breeder or lavender farmer/craftsperson or co-managing director of poshscarves.com. I am a purveyor of brain coinage.

Good to know.

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A screen grab of what goes through my head when I'm interviewing an author.

A screen grab of what goes through my head when I’m interviewing an author.

An indisputable joy for me over the past five years has been interviewing Australian authors for literary journal Verity La.

The interviews are conducted by email: I start with a question, the author responds, I ask a follow-up question, the author responds to that, and we keep going like this until we’ve reached a conclusion. Although I’ll have one or two questions prepared in advance, never have the interviews ended where I’ve expected them to, and I’ve learnt to follow the energy in the conversation, and allow the process – which isn’t far from writing letters to each other – to go into personal or dangerous territory. This part of the process can take a week or two, a month or two; some interviews have taken the best part of a year.

Once an interview has reached its natural conclusion, I bring it all together (keeping the order of the questions and answers as they happened), do a light edit, mostly for the purposes of consistency and to meet the editorial guidelines of Verity La, before I send it back to the interviewee for edits and clearance. This final stage in the process is critical: it allows the author to see her or his responses as part of a whole and also take the opportunity to make changes – and they almost always do, due to a desire to improve clarity and/or flow, or because, perhaps, it might be better to be more diplomatic, especially as the National Library of Australia archives Verity La.

With the publication of the most recent interview, with Biff Ward, the author of the extraordinary memoir In My Mother’s Hands (Allen & Unwin, 2014), I thought it might be timely to prepare a bouquet of some of the most memorable observations, primarily about the writing process.

Enjoy.

*

‘Isn’t that what writing is about – wanting to know more, daring to find out, being brave enough to inhabit a place even when you know it might be uncomfortable, even though you might find out that you are the stranger?’ – Francesca Rendle-Short

‘When I first draft a story I never think about publication; in fact, it may even be dangerous to have thoughts of/desire for publication at the forefront of one’s mind. You may be tempted to tailor your story to notions of what is acceptable – to contemporary readers, to editors, to what is in fashion at the time – instead of attending to the organic demands of the narrative you’ve set in motion. Stories have their own inherent requirements – in length, in structure, in voice – and writing to external ‘public’ requirements can falsify the relation between a writer and their material’ – John Clanchy

‘I find plunging into my imagination and making up stories endlessly interesting. I am fascinated by character, bringing each one to life through narrative. And I delight in the fact I can give a character a personality change if s/he is not working within the emerging novel. And I love the English language, it’s gorgeous. Such pleasure to be had playing with metaphor and imagery’ – Andrea Goldsmith

‘I think that there are few, if any, endings in novels that are as satisfying as the journeys which arrive there. In the sense that journeys determine endings, I’d agree with Peter Carey that if the ending is troubled, the cause of the trouble is to be found elsewhere (and the problem perhaps bigger than a failed ending). I think all that should be asked of an ending is that it live up to the journey. My favourite endings, when I think about it, have more to do with poetry than story’ – Andrew Croome

‘Everything we know, see, think, do, down to the minutest un-thought action, is stored in the pressure-cooker of memory where it gets steamed and combined into Memory Soup. Then, when the writer needs something, the soup produces it, not in the form it was originally but as what is needed now’ – Glenda Guest

‘Reading and writing poetry represent the possibility of better things in a world that sorely needs this possibility’ – Paul Hetherington

‘I write stories because I feel compelled to do so. Because I love the writing process, everything about it. Well, maybe not those agonising moments where I know something is wrong but I can’t figure out what needs to happens next and begin to wonder if it’s possible I never will. But then something snaps and everything falls into place and that’s glorious’ – Irma Gold

‘One of my guiding principles in this old distinction between poetry and imaginative prose is Virginia Woolf’s observation that “…the poet gives us his essence, prose takes the mould of the body and mind entire”’ – Alan Gould

‘Material that comes out as part of a creative work needs time to mature like wine and [my novel] needed to work through from a conscious to a subconscious level’ – Denise Young

‘It’s important to me at this stage in my life that I don’t condemn, blame or hurt other people, and I do my best to make my writing and my public work reflect that. I am absolutely in love with all of the strangeness, diversity and surprises of this life, and I want to write about them’ – Walter Mason

‘The way in which I write my novels makes such surprises inevitable. It’s a very organic process for me. I write my way into the characters and I write many many drafts. What I begin with – whether ideas or characters – is rarely what I end up with’ – Andrea Goldsmith

‘My so called ‘achievements’ are not a big deal. I was programmed to have fun, travel and speak my mind. It was more by accident than design I played a small part in extending the boundaries of free speech. It’s an ongoing task, unfortunately, because the leaders of nations both rich and poor will lie, cheat and even kill, in order to protect their interests’ – Richard Neville

‘I see a big distinction between writing-as-therapy and the telling of a dark tale that has been personally experienced. Writing-as-therapy is a wonderful form of self-exploration and clarification – but it needs to be private! It is for the self, not for reading by others. It’s what you do if you need to journey through the glades of despair, to drag yourself through brambles and shudder through cobwebs’ – Biff Ward

Wilfred Edward Salter Owen MC (1893-1918) was an English poet and soldier, one of the leading poets of the First World War

Wilfred Edward Salter Owen MC (1893-1918) was an English soldier in the First World War who was also one of the leading poets of the conflict. He died a week before Germany’s surrender.

It was the email I was dreading: ‘We need a title for your presentation.’

There I was, halfway through my three-month residency at the Australian Defence Force Academy courtesy of UNSW Canberra, happily researching and discovering and discarding and scribbling, but then that emailed request.  Which, frankly, was perfectly reasonable, as I’d committed to doing a presentation at the conclusion of the residency.  But still the request put me in a spin.

All was not lost, however.  I’d been reading a lot of poetry by Wilfred Owen, an English soldier who fought and wrote and died during the First World War.  I’d been intrigued by his poem ‘Asleep’, which Owen had written/rewritten during 1917 and 1918, so I plucked for myself a line, ‘In the happy no-time of his sleeping’, and offered it up as my title.  I was spending the residency exploring the ways masculinity is expressed in times of military conflict and it seemed to be a good fit, at least hinted at truths, or the possibilities of truths.

A reply came almost immediately: ‘We like the title, but what is the presentation actually about? What will you actually be doing?’ Honestly, I had no idea.  My head was too lost in the research side of things to provide anything concrete.  Besides, what did I, a person who’s never even come close to throwing a punch, know about what it’d be like to be a man during extreme armed fighting?  So I wrote back: ‘I’ll be telling stories and asking questions.’

I already had the questions – What is a man?  Who is a good man?  Who is a good being? – but I didn’t have the stories, or anything remotely resembling stories.  Bearing in mind that my intention in doing the residency wasn’t to write about war as such; I’m disinterested in guns, and the infinitely complex political contexts require a much bigger brain than mine.  I was interested in the small moments, the hidden fears and thoughts and dreams.  Bearing in mind also that in 20 years of writing I’ve not once worked with historical fiction.  Whatever that is.

RAF_VOL9_ISS_1Clutching at straws, I decided I’d write one story about the First World War, one about the Second World War, and one about the Vietnam War or the ten-year period of military conflict in Afghanistan.  The First World War story, ‘Holding’, came together relatively painlessly, despite the topic: two men in unimaginable devastating circumstances share a moment of innocent intimacy, which may have profound consequences.  The Afghanistan story (the Middle Eastern conflict was more present to me than that Vietnam War) came together in a whoosh of words.  But the Second World War story, for whatever reason, just never got off the ground.  So, after a white-heat period of editing and polishing, it was ‘Holding’ and ‘The Call’ that I read during my final-week presentation, and it’s completely and utterly thrilling that, after more editing and polishing, they’ve been published in the first issue of this year’s Review of Australian Fiction.  With the added bonus of sharing the pages with the wonderful Andrew Croome, the author of the Vogel-winning Document Z and, more recently, the critically acclaimed Midnight Empire.

I hope you enjoy this issue of the Review of Australian Fiction.  It’s such an innovative enterprise.  Do subscribe, if you can, and help keep Australian literature alive – it’s very cheap (the subscription, not Australian literature).

Plus I need more chook food.

There’s been a bit of activity in the world of the Blemish novellas, and, as always, I want to share it with you.  First up, last weekend I read from I’m Ready Now (Blemish Books, 2012) at Bloom, an annual ‘open door’ festival held at the Gorman House and Ainslie arts centres in Canberra.  It was a packed day with a whole heap of people checking out the enourmous range of activity that happens in these places, much of it normally behind closed doors.  However, perhaps the most exciting part of the day for me was getting to share a literary bill with a bunch of writers who are extraordinary in their ability to perform their work, including Irma Gold, Sarah Rice, and slam poets Omar Musa and CJ Bowerbird.  I hadn’t seen slam poets so up close and personal, and I was blown away; in fact I really was overwhelmed. If you ever get to see these guys perform, steal your grandmother’s purse to make it happen – the way they deliver, with such connection and understanding of how words spread out and fill all corners and crevices of a room, is something very special.

Island: a place where some novellas happened; it's also a journal in which I have a yarn with Andrew Croome.

Island: a place where some novellas happened; it’s also a journal in which I have a yarn with Andrew Croome.

And then came this week, with the publication of the spring edition of Island, a longstanding literary journal out of Tasmania.  I always look forward to reading Island, but this one’s personally just a little more special as there’s an extensive interview with me, which was undertaken by Andrew Croome late 2012/early 2013.  Andrew is an award-winning Canberra-based novelist of espionage thrillers, including Document Z (Allen & Unwin, 2009), for which he won the 2008 The Australian/Vogel Literary Award, and the highly acclaimed Midnight Empire (Allen & Unwin, 2012).  In a nice case of turning the tables, I’d interviewed Andrew for the Canberra Times and Verity La.  For the Island interview, we covered a fair bit of terrain, including the writing of Fall On Me (Blemish Books, 2011) and I’m Ready Now, the trials and tribulations of shifting between fiction and creative journalism, and the slipperiness of truth.  I won’t spoil the interview – you can buy a hard-copy or e-version of the journal and gobble up all the goodness by clicking on the cover image glaring at you on your screen (!) – but Mr Croome’s first question, which, to be frank, almost stumped me straight up, was this: What compels you to write? Have your reasons been constant, or have they changed over time?   Much gratitude to Andrew for getting me to think about these things, and to Island for giving our interview a home.

UPDATE: Island has now made the interview available for free.  It may be only for a short-time so get in quick, if quick is your thing, and literature is your thing also.

Eminent Australia literary journal Meanjin does a job on Canberra - both come out winning.

Eminent Australia literary journal Meanjin does a job on Canberra – both come out winning.

One anthology (two anthologies)

It’s beautiful in design, it feels good, actually it feels perfect – how it all holds together in colour and shape and form and texture.  A glistening cover, inside the gorgeous black and white and sometimes sepia images, and thoughtfully composed essays and short stories and poems and memoir from some of Australia’s best writers – Geoff Page, Marion Halligan, Alan Gould, Susan Hampton et al.  It’s hard to imagine a more lovingly constructed object.  Which is utterly apt for an anthology with Canberra as the theme.  Meanjin should be congratulated for getting together this particular edition, and the context couldn’t be more fitting – Australia’s national capital turns 100 this year.  And for having the guts to do it: across this crusty, leathery old country of ours there isn’t much love for the little southern city, and, rather predictably, there’s a persuasive view that nothing much happens there beyond political and public-sector hot air, and, so the story goes, there’s nothing much of literary note either, which is, of course, complete bollocks.  There’s another anthology about Canberra out at the moment, The Invisible Thread: one hundred years of words (Halstead Press; editor Irma Gold), and that more than proves the point.

City living

I lived in the ACT for the best part of 25 years, from 1987 to 2010, and these days I’m only an hour away.  I moved to Canberra from Sydney by choice, to go to university and start my adult life.  However, university wasn’t the real reason: it was about escaping a city that had leached into my bloodlines (I have ancestral connections to that part of the world dating back to 1797) but had also overwhelmed me with its hedonism and dark heart; moreover, it was about putting myself in an environment which I believed would open me out so that, at last, I might be properly alive.  I knew little about Canberra beyond what I’d gleaned from a handful of trips to visit family friends, but I knew it was different in look and feel to anywhere else I’d been.  Even as a child I understood the territory to be fresh and forward-thinking, and this appealed to someone who was born and bred amongst the well-heeled conservatism of one of the wealthiest parts of Australia, and I had the sense that a new way of being in the world was required.

Much of this Canberra edition of Meanjin focuses on built form and town-planning, which is both unsurprising and perfectly reasonable for a city famous for being designed from the ground up.  And it was certainly a resonating experience to undertake my first degree, landscape architecture, in a place where landscape and architecture are so important.  However, these things are not what I enjoyed the most; these things are not what have ultimately made me remember my time in Canberra with great fondness, often love.  In Canberra I discovered who I was, I met people, I fell in love.  Critically, it seemed – and still seems – a place where pre-judgement isn’t the preferred modus operandi.  Is there really much difference between getting drunk or getting stoned?  Do we wish to demonise people who sell sex and people who pay for sex?  For some years now, Canberra – the society of 380,000 people, not the hollow, hill-top political machine – has been asking the question about whether or not marriage is about gender.  And isn’t it time that the nation stood on its own two feet and became a republic?

Town living

Two old mates, three big rocks, a mountain range off screen, as is a great modern city called Canberra.

Two old mates, three big rocks, a mountain range off screen, as is a great modern city called Canberra.

Almost three years I moved out of Canberra into neighbouring regional New South Wales.  Why?  Cheaper housing – most writers can’t afford big-city mortgages, even the rent.  And I appreciate small-town life.  And old stuff.  Canberra has a rich heritage – Aboriginal, natural, and built – but it’s not the crumbly, slightly depressing sort.  And I’m a big fan of the crumbly, slightly depressing sort.  So these days I live in my little old 1895-era cottage called Leitrim, and I spend my weekends patching up cracks that keep appearing in the walls and I collect firewood for a fire on these cold, damp nights, and I’m as happy as Julia Gillard on a Sunday arvo sitting on the couch in her jim-jams with a glass of red while watching Bruce Willis bash it up in Die Hard.  I love walking down to the mainstreet to visit the post office, which is a truly spectacular late nineteenth-century marvel, and doing a few transactions in a bank where the people know my name, before wandering home through  hidden laneways.  When Goulburn’s good, she’s heart-stopping spectacular.

The future

But still I visit Canberra regularly, weekly in fact, and a hump-day highlight is careering through the rolling back-road Southern Tableland landscape, listening to music (the latest Frightened Rabbit has been getting a good run, which make me laugh in this context – the road’s awash with roadkill) and when I cross the border into the ACT it’s always a joy, a hopeful joy.  Because to me that’s what Canberra is about: the future, and how we can craft it anyway we like, even as a society we can do this.  We can honour the past, live in the Brindabella-boundary present – if you’ve never been around to see snow on those ranges then you’re missing the quintessential south-east Australian experience – but keep eyes open to move forward.  It’s this youthfulness that I admire about Canberra – how my own youth once became a kind of ‘manhood’, whatever that is – and the unashamed optimism.  And the fact that many of my friends still live there.

And that perfection might not be so unattainable afterall.

In the past on Under the counter I’ve compiled a brief list of the best books of the year, according to no one but old muggins here.  In 2012, however, my reading has been much more scattered, partly by design and partly by circumstance, so that I’m less up-to-date than I’d like to be.  Thankfully that hasn’t meant that I’ve not been moved by books and the experience of reading.  What follows is a list of six books I’ve read this year that have ended up meaning a lot to me.  What’s a good reading experience?  One where I’ve been utterly convinced by the words on the page, so much so that I’ve believed that they are true, the people are real, and the predicaments they are in dangerous, that important information has been conveyed, that in the end it has all just meant so much.  In short, my life would be poorer if I’d not experienced these books.  So let’s get the party started.

The UnfortunatesThe Unfortunates by BS Johnson (Picador, 1999).  This was a gift from He Who Can Sniff Out A Good Present At A Thousand Paces, and it intrigued me from the moment I undid the wrapping.  First published in 1969, this is an unbound book where, apart from the first and last chapters, it is meant to be read in random order; Johnson believed that it provided the ‘solution to the problem of conveying the mind’s randomness’ better than ‘the imposed order of the book’.  The story itself is about a newspaper report who is sent to an unnamed UK city to cover a football game but is forced to remember a friend who died a rather horrible death from cancer.  Needless to say, this isn’t the cheeriest of reads, but despite the experimental format it packs an emotional wallop.  The book’s melancholy, if not tragedy, is underscored by the fact that Johnson, plagued by family trouble and a lack of critical success, killed himself in 1973 aged forty.  Thankfully The Unfortunates, which many consider one of the great examples of Sixties experimentalism, was republished in 1999.

Foal's BreadFoal’s Bread by Gillian Mears (Allen & Unwin, 2012).  I was hugely moved by this novel.  Even though I know next to nothing about its subject matter – the strange world of country horse-jumping championships – I found myself engrossed in the people of the book, their hardship and tenacity, the tragedies that strike (and strike they do, in more ways than one), but the great love-story that ties it all together.  To be sure, it’s a grim book.  However, the prose, which others have described as ‘knotty’, which is most apt, is so superbly composed that it’s hard not to be affected by this incredible work.  Foal’s Bread won the 2012 Prime Minister’s Prize for Fiction, and deservedly so.

Invisible ThreadThe Invisible Thread, edited by Irma Gold (Halstead Press, 2012).  It’s a little odd – and self-serving – to list a book that I am in, but it’s worthwhile rising above that, because this is one almighty collection (and in this company I’m a very minor player).  Amongst its pages, the book celebrates one hundred years of words from those who’ve had a connection with the Australian Capital Territory.  There are names such as CEW Bean, Judith Wright, Roger McDonald, Rosemary Dobson, Manning Clarke, Marion Halligan, John Clanchy, Miles Franklin, and Omar Musa.  Iceland has a population of about 300,000 people but has a reputation for producing some of the most influential contemporary musicians of recent times.  The ACT’s population is only marginally higher – might it be that with The Invisible Thread this region may soon be credited with having an impact Australia’s literary culture?

Jasper JonesJasper Jones by Craig Silvey (Allen & Unwin, 2009).  This novel is three years old now but I didn’t read it until very recently.  It’s scored an enormous range of accolades, including being short-listed for the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 2010.  The Monthly described it as being an ‘Australian To Kill A Mockingbird’, and, surprisingly enough, the hyperbole isn’t that far off the mark.  The narrative, which is essentially one of two boys growing up in small-town Western Australia, is simple, the prose engaging and accessible, and there’s humour and heart.  Jasper Jones may not be Australia’s very best novel from recent times, but it’s certainly one of the most readable and, dare I say it, enjoyable.

Spirit of ProgressSpirit of Progress by Steven Carroll (Fourth Estate, 2011).  Let me make it clear from the outset: I love this man’s writing.  Carroll puts word down on the page with such precision, so that even though little happens across the arc of the novel you’re swept away by the sheer artistry.  Amazingly, despite this lack of plot, I really couldn’t put this book down.  Carroll clearly knows his history – Spirit of Progress focuses on the years immediately after the end of World War Two – and he brings it so alive that the reading lingers for months after the turning of the final page.  I adored The Time We Have Taken, which won the Miles Franklin in 2008, and adored what is essentially that book’s prequel.

Midnight EmpireMidnight Empire by Andrew Croome (Allen & Unwin, 2012).  Generally speaking I’m not much of a reader of espionage thrillers, but Andrew Croome’s follow-up to his The Australian/Vogel’s Literary Award-winning Document Z is not only a page-turner but a finely crafted and thought-provoking warning-shot across the bow.  There’s no doubt that drone warfare is the military tool of the very near future, and Croome examines it with considerable insight and lucidity.  Much of the action in Midnight Empire happens on computer screens; that he is able to bring alive the drama and horror and tragedy is quite miraculous.  This is a book that should be placed under thousands and thousands of Australian Christmas trees, and widely read and discussed.

Seasons greetings.  Whatever that means.

‘The view is amazing,’ says Andrew Croome as he rearranges the furniture. We’re in the upstairs studio where he worked on his most recent novel, Midnight Empire. The view is indeed amazing: from the studio’s place at the base of Mount Majura there’s the stillness and quiet of Canberra’s well-heeled northern suburbs, the low-lying landscape border of O’Connor Ridge, and the Brindabella ranges beyond, which this afternoon are dusted in snow. Driving here to interview Croome I couldn’t help realising – yet again – how peaceful this part of the world actually is, and beautiful, despite the fact that it’s been raining and sleeting for much of the day. On this dear old Earth of ours could there be a more serene city? It’s hard to imagine.

Furniture now rearranged – Croome is adamant that I should have the comfortable bucket-style armchair – and voice-recorder set to play, we get to talking. In publicity photos, this young Australian novelist looks like a character from the nerdy TV show The Big Bang Theory, but in person he is handsome, albeit in a boyish way, and has a thick and expansive 5 o’clock shadow that looks as if it’s been transplanted from a much older man. And his clear and thoughtful way of speaking seems to come from a much older man too, as though he’s been around the world a few times, and by the sounds of it he has, in his fiction at least.

It is one of those extraordinary qualities of Canberra that we have in our midst a writer of Andrew Croome’s calibre. Described by publisher Allen & Unwin as a ‘Cold War historical novel’, Croome’s first book was Document Z which examined the Petrov affair, something else peculiar to the ACT. For Croome the book won the Australia/Vogel’s Literary Award in 2008 and the University of Technology Sydney Award for New Writing at the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, and was short-listed for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book and the Ned Kelly Award for Best First Fiction. In 2010 Andrew Croome was named a Sydney Morning Herald Young Novelist of the Year.  If all this isn’t enough, Croome has a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Melbourne, which examined the relationship between fiction and history (perhaps our federal politicians should have a read and learn a few things). Somewhat surprisingly, Croome’s way of speaking isn’t overly academic or highfalutin, just concise and logical and appealing, a lot like the way he writes.

The main character in Midnight Empire is Daniel Carter, an Australian computer programmer whose Canberra-based software company sends him to work at the drone program run out of the Creech Air Force Base near Las Vegas. There he spends his days observing pilots flying unmanned but very definitely armed airplanes over Pakistan and his nights playing poker in the casinos, all the while forming a relationship with a woman without a history. It is an elegantly structured and chiselled narrative that follows Carter as he makes a series of mistakes that will have dire consequences for more than himself.

How would Croome describe Midnight Empire? ‘It’s an espionage thriller,’ he says, ‘but it didn’t necessarily start out as one. It became one because of the subject material and the drones and the CIA involvement. The novel is about the nature of modern warfare and globalisation and technology and how that’s changing our experiences of geography, how it’s raising moral questions. It used to be that, unless you were conscripted, you made a conscious decision to go to war. My character just ends up at war through his job. His workplace becomes a theatre of war, and in a sense the whole of Las Vegas becomes a theatre of war. That’s what drones tend to do. It’s meant to be about remoteness but if anything it brings the war into the city and into the home territory and into the home society.’

Surely researching what is undoubtedly a strictly controlled operation must have posed challenges. ‘I tried to get onto the airbase,’ he tells me, ‘but they weren’t taking journalists or writers. It was around the time of the Afghan war-logs [a collection of internal US military logs of the war in Afghanistan, also called the Afghan War Diary] being released by Wikileaks, so that might have contributed to them not wanting to give me a tour. Or perhaps it was because I wasn’t a big enough name from The Guardian.’ Croome laughs, but it’s slightly pained. ‘I’ve noticed that they’re trying to do more and more positive stories about drone warfare, so they’re certainly not trying to hide it. You know, there are predictions that by 2040 the entire air force will be drones.’

What was the original inspiration? Croome says it was the remarkable fact that the United States military would choose to pilot their unmanned aerial drones from a city like Las Vegas, which is already unreal and in many ways simulated as well as geographically confused. ‘So it comes down to questions of morals,’ he says, ‘and questions of chance. I was considering a novel about poker at the same time and when the two connected I said to myself, this is the next book.’

From a writing technical point of view the main character is not physically in the thick of war, instead he watches it happen on computer screens. ‘That’s why I didn’t start with the idea of an espionage thriller,’ Croome explains. ‘I started with a question: what is the experience of drones? It’s almost an aesthetic question. They’re very interesting and evocative objects – they have a presence. So half the novel came out of Las Vegas and the other half in Pakistan, and some in Europe. But a lot of it is mediated through screens and geography. There’s this breakdown of the idea of geography and the question of how much does geography matter in a world of drones, and in a world of poker as well.’

In Midnight Empire poker forms a strong contrasting narrative thread.

Andrew Croome teases this out. ‘One of the things poker is about for the players who are very successful is a detachment from geography, because they’re very mobile in the world – they’re constantly on tour, they have cash, they can disappear off the grid. It was fertile ground for me to go in and put some concepts in play and see where it all ended up.’

Croome says that his task as a novelist is to mediate the arguments and to present them in different ways and to work through them. ‘In the writing about these questions you’re not only considering them but you follow them and you end up in places that you didn’t expect when you started. That’s always something that I’m trying to do with my writing: not consciously plan it too much. Mainstream spy thrillers are heavily planned, whereas my writing begins with a question and works through it and it doesn’t mind too much where it ends up.’

Wanting to know more about Andrew Croome the human being, I put forward something Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood once said: ‘Heartland is the part of the writer that the reader gets to know well.’ At first, Croome appears flummoxed. ‘What’s that mean?’ he says, before – thankfully – settling into a smile. I reword the question: What part of him should the reader connect with?

‘A fascination with that question: where is the world heading? What is technology doing to or for humanity? How is it impacting on what it means to be in the world? I don’t consider myself an autobiographical writer, so the concerns of this book are what I’m thinking about. I wouldn’t say that I have a burning political imperative. It’s about the question of being human, that question of being comfortable or uncomfortable. That question of bending to other people’s will all the time. Daniel in Midnight Empire is constantly following the path set to him by others. That’s a question I face continually, which is deciding for oneself and not just doing things because other people would like you to. That’s courage.’

Our interview finished, Andrew Croome leads me downstairs to the front door. He asks about my own writing – like many novelists it’s possible that he’s more comfortable asking the questions. We shake hands and he wishes me well. A minute later I’m driving out of Canberra’s Inner North suburbs. Even though it’s only 7pm, the streets are dark and largely deserted. I drive past the Australian War Memorial and the turnoff to the defence complex tucked behind the back of Campbell, and past the Royal Military College, Duntroon, and, a little later, past the turnoff to the Joint Operations Headquarters south of the pretty rural village of Bungendore.

Quite suddenly I’m struck by the thought that, as Midnight Empire points out so frighteningly, this neck of the woods in the future might not be as peaceful and tranquil and serene as it is now. It may well become a place where people get up in the morning and kiss their partners and children goodbye and spend the next twelve hours destroying targets and killing people on the other side of the globe via robots in the sky. As Andrew Croome says, we will cross paths with these people in our supermarket queues and in the neighbourhood pub. For parts of the United States of America, this is happening right now as you read these words. We should thank our lucky stars that a novelist like Croome is living amongst us and asking the hard questions. And entertaining thousands as he does so.

(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 1 September 2012.  Thanks to Gia Metherell and Alan and Unwin. Gratitude to Andrew Croome.)

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