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

Many thanks everyone for all your support x

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.

AirshipA quick note by way of introduction: the following is not a list of what I think are the best books published this year; rather it is a list of work published at any time that I have read this year and have had an influence on me one way or another. Kicking off with poetry, I picked up Air Ship by Roger McDonald (UQP 1975) in a second-hand bookstore halfway through 2013 and I’m glad I did.  McDonald has spent much of his significant career writing novels that have had a deep impact on the Australian literary landscape and beyond.  His ability to create a sentence that offers so much life and bounce and possibility is, I think, unequalled amongst contemporary writers.  And that sense of life and bounce and possibility is present in McDonald’s poetry, even poetry written almost forty years ago.  This year I began a habit of spending the first moments of a writing session reading poetry, and it’s Air Ship that has been the book of choice.  It’ll probably stay on the desk into 2014.

Best 100 Poems of Dorothy PorterIf there’s an Australian writer who came to change the way the broader community related to poetry it was Dorothy Porter.  Best 100 Poems of Dorothy Porter (Black Inc. 2013), curated by partner Andrea Goldsmith, is a fine taster to Porter’s extraordinary intelligence, but also her playfulness, her cheek, and her great heart.  Here’s hoping many readers will be tempted to discover new Dorothy Porter territories, such as Crete from 1996 or even Little Hoodlum from 1975 (interesting: the same year McDonald’s Air Ship was published).

RoomRoom by Emma Donoghue (Picador 2010) had a physical impact on the way I live.  No doubt there are better novels around, better as in reaching for and finding greater and more profound highs and lows, but I enjoyed Room because of the challenge Donoghue set herself: write about entrapment from an innocent child’s perspective, a child who knows no other world than the cell that has been made for him.  It does lose some tension in the final stretch, but as soon as I finished the last page I went out and doubled the size of the chook run – I just couldn’t stand to see them cooped up for another minute.

BarracudaI’ve read and enjoyed all of Christos Tsiolkas’s fiction work and ploughed my way through Barracuda (Allen & Unwin 2013) in three sessions despite its hefty size.  It’s a tough book, as can be expected, but it’s also Tsiolkas at his most tender.  Australia is unreasonably obsessed with sport, and in Barracuda Tsiolkas goes straight to that particular jugular while also taking the hatchet to the privileged world of elite private schools; he reveals the violence that is so central to Australian mainstream culture and our many hypocrisies around class, race, gender, and sexuality.  Despite this, Dan (or Danny), his central character, an elite swimmer whose life doesn’t become what he and everyone else wanted for him, is beautifully brought to the page regardless of – or because of – his many flaws.  As others have noted, Barracada does lose some tension in the last third (like Donoghue’s Room), but the novel didn’t lose me.

DeserterStaying on the theme of violence, I’m not a fan of reading about war: I’m bored by the strategic machinations, and the human toll can never be anything other than devastating; there might be heroes on the front-line, but every heroic action is blackened by a thousand more tragic ones.  Enter Deserter: the last untold story of the second world war by the eminent US/UK journalist Charles Glass (Harper Press, 2013).  What this extraordinary and important non-fiction work does is examine the lives of three World War Two servicemen: two from the US, one from England; with a forensic eye and ear for detail he reveals the diverse and multi-layered experiences of these men, and in doing so goes beyond the hero-versus-coward binary.

The Hired ManJust going to put this out there: I adored The Hired Man by Aminatta Forna (Bloomsbury 2013).  Whilst Tsiolkas brings forth the barely hidden violence of ‘the lucky country’, Forna, who was born in Glasgow and raised in Sierra Leone and Britain as well as in Iran, Thailand and Zambia, expertly explores the forever lingering impact of the Croatian conflict.  In my review for the Canberra Times (republished in the Sydney Morning Herald and elsewhere), I wrote: ‘Forna flatly refuses to over-dramatise. This is a delicate and restrained work. Indeed at times the narrative comes across as a travelogue augmented with childhood reminiscences of hunting and swimming and fumbling first love, these meandering passages lulling the reader into a false sense of security. Forna’s considerable power comes from not overstating her case, and never taking sides. It’s this refusal to make judgements and draw any kind of conclusion that gives The Hired Man its significance… Through Duro Kolak, a complex, conflicted but ultimately likable character, and the many stories he shares with us, Aminatta Forna does what great writing should do: she illuminates the horrors of our times, those that will follow us to the grave, and she makes us feel as though we, too, have played a role, which is almost always the case.’

I still believe everything I wrote in the review, and I still believe everything Aminatta Forna wrote in The Hired Man.

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.

Right now I feel alive to trees.  Yes, alive.  And, yes, to trees.  Because I’ve just finished reading The Tree in Changing Light (2001) by Australian novelist Roger McDonald.  The book, which was a gift from the writer (I interviewed him for the Canberra Times late last year), is a deeply thoughtful, poetic, even Biblical exploration of the tree.

We’re lucky in Australia to be surrounded by trees.  As I write this a countless number of eucalypts live on the other side of the river on the other side of the window.  Sometimes, like earlier this week when a cyclone called Yasi (named after a Fijian tree, apparently) smashed its way across tropical Queensland, we can be unlucky in the company of trees, too.

McDonald’s book has me thinking about some of the trees that I’ve known.

The gigantic old Smooth-barked Apple (botanical name Angophora costata, which sounds like something an orchestra might play) in the tiny front yard of my family’s Sydney home.  How my mother, wanting to rescue it from the reality of its old age, and needing to save my brothers and me from branches that would fall in summer, got in a tree surgeon, who lopped the dangerous limbs and, following the crown’s drop-line, injected the soil with Poplar Special, which I was told was like giving the tree a massive dose of vitamins.  I remember how, some years later, a sugar glider launched itself out of the tree only to land on the handle-bar of the lawnmower I was pushing – how indignant, how downright embarrassed I felt when I tried to pick up the delicate animal and it bit me violently on the end of one of my fingers.

The windbreak of radiata pines (Pinus radiata, which sounds exactly like what a forester would call them) that protected the little green weatherboard Blue Mountains cottage my family rented each year when I was a child and then a teenager.  Climbing as high as I could until it felt dangerous, perched up there for hours, looking out over the sparsely populated village, feeling the ocean-like sway as the tree shifted in the national-park wind, holding me up.  The smell – the stink? – of pine needles in my nose and mouth, watching as unsuspecting family members went out in the rambling, wild-in-parts garden to do something or other that was meant to be private and unseen.  Turning away from them down there, I got lost in the miniature canyons of the bark, hoping that I wouldn’t fall asleep and let go.  I seem to remember that once or twice I did fall asleep, but I didn’t let go, I mustn’t have.

The exotic trees in the front yard of the first house I bought, a 1960s ‘ex-government’ joint – they died suddenly one summer.  Two English oaks, two liquidambars, a cherry tree, a fig: together, in one week, they just extinguished themselves, the way dolphins can do on an isolated sandy beach.  How devastated I felt, and devastated is the word: shocked, distressed, distraught.  So I got in a tree surgeon, just like my mother got in the same to save her Smooth-barked Apple, and, not being someone who under-does things, I also got in a man who advised the local government about how to care for the city’s urban forest, and I got in the caretaker of the prime minister’s grounds, and tests were done, soil samples sent away to Sydney.  As advised, I had the ground injected, not with Poplar Special but chemicals, because the technology had moved on.

Still the trees died, although a beloved magnolia survived, despite having lost its sheltering over-storey.  I cared for this tree, kept the water up to it during the extended hot and dry periods, especially when the winds came from further inland, I pruned the greying branches, year after year amazed that it flowered for me, and flowered for the neighbours who praised me for the display as if I’d given birth to the tree myself.

How, only this morning, I’ve noticed that the dinosaur-esque fig tree tucked away in the corner of the back yard of the 1890s house in a country town I now call home has suddenly turned yellow.  It has dropped half its leaves, it’s unwell.  It won’t, it seems, survive the recent days of heat.

Trees may well be protection, or decoration, or entertainment.  Perhaps they can even be symbols of status.  But what are they really?  A sign of a slower life than our own, or a greater simplicity, or a greater serenity?  Or is it the stength?  Or the (mostly) silence?

McDonald has the answers, as most novelists do.

In the final chapter of his book, entitled ‘Into the Light’, he notes, in the Biblical – or apocalyptic – past tense:

We wrote philosophies, built faiths, and took every kind of comfort from trees.  They gave language to our existence as we put down roots, stretched our limbs, budded in infancy and were felled in old age.  They were mute companions to our lives and worshipped beyond ourselves as the better part of balance and aspiration.  They offered steadiness and long patience even as we failed in those.  They were meeting points and sites of rough justice.  They gave the idea and supplied the material for shelter.  They offered an image of completion, which was an illusion, but it was enough.  Theirs was a whisper in the wind to the human ear both tragic and hopeful.  Civilisation grew from exploiting, destroying, venerating and looking back on them.  Trees led us to ourselves and we stood against them trunk to trunk, arms upon branches, our thoughts tangled in the stars.

Mute companions.

Companions that I wouldn’t ever want to be without.

Without help it would be impossible to find Roger McDonald.  The set of directions to his property near Braidwood in south-east New South Wales contains references to ‘turn left at the end of the bitumen’ and ‘pass the shearing shed’ and ‘cross the paddock and through the gate with the white patch adjoining the chook-yard’.  Helpfully he also advises to follow rural tradition: ‘If gates are open, leave open, but close them again if shut’.

I diligently follow every direction – if a fog closed in and I lost my way I’d need the SES – and after a morning of travelling I eventually point the Barina up a winding steep incline, then hold my breath as a beautiful architecturally designed house of corrugated iron and stone reveals itself perched comfortably on a high saddle.  It’s a place that brings an instant electric buzz to the stomach.

McDonald used to set up camp on the property, and the house and its various outbuildings appear to have grown from the layout that tents once made here.  The view – the extraordinary view – is of rolling wooded hills and undulating Monaro paddocks which after the recent spring rains are almost as green as Ireland.  During the day there are no houses to see and at night, so I’m told, only the lights of two neighbouring properties can be spotted.  Idyllic is the word, particular for a writer who has spent much of his career exploring the hope and despair of the rural Australian experience, which is at the heart of McDonald’s new novel When Colts Ran.

However, before our interview can take place there’s been considerable email correspondence between us resulting in an agreement to have a preliminary chat over lunch in a Goulburn cafe.  I may have got this wrong, but it could be that I’m being checked out, which is fair enough because in this Internet age I might be anybody.  Or it’s because Roger McDonald is protective of his life and the place where he and his family live.  Perhaps for McDonald that rural tradition could be, Close all gates no matter whether they’re open or closed, and keep them bloody well closed.

So we have our preliminary café conversation; we circle around each other as we negotiate how the interview might occur.  Roger McDonald is unexpectedly slight, and at sixty-nine has a handsome, sculptured, yes, rural face – it’s not hard to believe that he has two brothers who’ve had careers as professional wool-classers.  Although he clearly longs for the endless hush that isolated rural living offers, he is engaging company and very generous with his time.

A week later we’re sitting in his surprisingly modern home office overlooking a thickly treed gully where apparently wombats and roos are often seen.  ‘When I think about where I’m most truly myself,’ McDonald says dreamily, ‘it’s stepping out under some gum trees with crackly bark and a few dry leaves.  When I was growing up there was so much talk, but when you’re in the bush you can retreat into a silence where there’s a mystery of the self, and the self is always a mystery – you can dabble in that.’

Born at Young in 1941, McDonald is the middle son of a Presbyterian minister, Hugh McDonald (‘a good servant of the church’), and the esteemed historian Dr Lorna McDonald, whom he speaks of with such love and affection it’s as though he’s only now realising how lucky it is to have her in his life.  He spent his childhood in the NSW country towns of Bribbaree, Temora and Bourke, but moved to Sydney to attend Scots College and the University of Sydney.  He’s been a school teacher, ABC producer, book editor, and commenced his writing career as a poet before shifting to writing novels because, he says, of the form’s more expansive possibilities.

McDonald’s novels include 1915, winner of The Age Book of the Year and turned into a highly successful ABC-TV mini-series.  His account of travelling the outback with a team of New Zealand shearers, Shearer’s Motel, won the National Book Council Banjo Award for non-fiction.  Mr Darwin’s Shooter was awarded the New South Wales, Victorian and South Australian Premiers’ Literary Awards, and the National Fiction Award at the 2000 Adelaide Writers Week.  His best-selling The Ballad of Desmond Kale won the 2006 Miles Franklin Award.

‘I’ve won a lot of prizes,’ he tells me, obviously wanting to make that point but also as if his achievements surprise even himself.

When Colts Ran is a complex, sprawling work that grew out of a set of long short stories, almost novellas, one of which was awarded the O. Henry Prize as one of the best twenty pieces of short fiction published in the USA in 2008.  On his publisher’s blog – he says the word ‘blog’ as if it’s from a world he doesn’t really want to know anything about – McDonald writes, ‘The main character of the novel is Kingsley Colts, whose ‘run’ starts at the age of sixteen and is still going when he’s well into his eighties.  Fleeing Sydney, Colts goes bush and ends up spending the rest of his life there.  Great expectations blighted him when he was young.  As an orphan and ‘ward of Legacy’ too much was asked of him.  In the rhetoric of two world wars he was the inheritor of national sacrifice.  Could anyone really be worthy of that?’

At home and in his office McDonald admits, ‘God only knows there might be something essentially me in Colts – the alcoholic I never became.’

Does he have a cultural vision for this latest novel?  ‘Yes,’ is his swift reply, ‘but what that is exactly, well, I paraphrase Bernard Shaw: If I could have put it in two words, I would have.  It’s just about using the material at hand, speaking out of the landscape, using people’s use of the place and their working lives, their accent, the dust in the throat kind of thing, hope and despair mixed up together.’

Speaking out of the landscape. How good is that!

What part of McDonald’s background has had the most impact on him?  ‘Connection to the Australia countryside and rural landscapes.  This has always been not so much an escape but a wonderland.  When we lived in country towns as kids all our connections were with sheep farmers.  My parents’ friends and parishners would always be inviting us out for afternoon teas and lunches.  My brothers would ride horses and I’d drive the sulky and we’d swim in the dam, and it was an ideal life removed from the way we lived.’  McDonald pauses briefly.  ‘What never appealed to me was the actual work of a farm.  After 1915 was published I was able to buy a place in the country.  That was a joyous moment – to be able to live in the country but not have the difficult business of gaining the main source of income from it.’

Roger McDonald has an enormous love of language.  ‘If I read a sentence in Shakespeare or Saul Bellow or whatever I feel like I’m almost chewing the words, and yet they have a delicious taste as well.  There’s a real pleasure in those words.  So the feel of language and the rhythm of sentences – this is what drives me.  I don’t have a moral axe to grind, though a novelist might need to grind that moral axe to get the words working right.  A book may have very strong and clear themes but from the writer’s point of view they’re patterns.  In When Colts Ran there’s the pattern of the way men might connect, there’s the pattern of what people derive from the pressure of the hard landscape through drought and flood and distance.’

What hopes does McDonald have for his latest work?

‘The only hope I ever have,’ he replies, ‘is to have someone come up to me and say, I read your book and I absolutely loved it, I got caught up in it, and I was in that whole world while I was reading it, and now I’m sorry that it’s finished.  My God, someone has really read what I have written!  And then you hope that that can be multiplied and you have lots of readers, because the most difficult thing for a writer is to labour hard over something and then get no response.

‘When I got my first advance copy of When Colts Ran I spent a week going through it and thinking, this has the feeling of it being beyond me.  Even though I made everything that’s in it, its elements combine in a way that I hadn’t quite predicted, and it’s possibly good in that way.  That doesn’t mean that everyone’s going to like it, or everyone’s going to think it’s good, but for me it has that quality of excelling what I originally put into it.’

Our conversation meanders on, traversing enjoyable terrain, such as influences (Patrick White, David Campbell), faith (McDonald doesn’t have one but is interested in the ‘spirituality of connection’), and Australia’s pioneering history and its impact on Indigenous culture, but all too soon we’re done.  I’m invited to stay for lunch with his wife Sue, a relationship mediator and ceramicist, and over a home-cooked frittata and salad we talk about dogs and foxes and chooks.

When sadly it’s time for me to go, I drive away in silence, which is odd for someone who enjoys nothing more than travelling in the country to music.  But drive away in silence I do.  I breathe deeply and slowly, my mouth closed, my heart making its beats.  The sky develops from cloudy to overcast, and then a light rain falls on the windscreen and the naturally harsh land and living outside.  In this silence, for every minute of the hour and half it takes to get home, I hear Roger McDonald speaking wisely and deliciously out of the landscape.

The following was first published as ‘Nature of his Tale’ in Panorama, Canberra Times, on Saturday 13 September 2010.  Many thanks to Roger McDonald.  Thanks also to Gia Metherell.

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