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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.

Despite having them in my life for 30 years, more or less, I don’t really know what they are. They flit about like a type of butterfly that may or may not exist.

I can remember being in the Fifth or Sixth Form of the rather well-healed Anglican school I attended on Sydney’s North Shore, my English teacher, Mr Cowdroy, leading us through the reading of a short story, the author of which I regrettably can’t recall. I loved the conciseness of the story – that life could be created and explored and examined in so few pages – and the sense of compression, the cleverness of the ending, which made me want to start reading the story all over again. It also made me want to keep writing, for by that time I had been writing for some years, albeit for school assessment.

One of the lingering collections.

One of the lingering collections.

Fast forward to my twenties, when I realised that doing little more than hanging out with mates at the pub was not good and deep living and would most likely lead to misery, I began writing stories again, but only because I wanted to. I also read stories, mainly in anthologies. Collections that resonated were Risks (Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1996; edited by Brenda Walker) and the Faber Book of Gay Short Fiction (Faber and Faber, 1991; edited by Edmund White). I also enjoyed Fishing in the Sloe-Black River by Colum McCann (Phoenix House, 1994) and that other Irish chap who did quite well in the form, James Joyce with his Dubliners. I’d go on to discover the short works of Tolstoy and Chekhov, and contemporary writers such as Peter Carey, Annie Proulx, David Malouf, Marion Halligan, John Clanchy, Tim Winton, Nam Le, and Alice Munro. I subscribed to and read Australian literary journals, including Meanjin, Overland, Island, Tirra Lirra, and Wet Ink.

Over the years that followed I began having my own stories published, at first in relatively minor journals now gathering dust in the National Library of Australia’s vast vaults, before some of my stories were ‘accepted’ (for that appeared to be the termed used) in the journals mentioned above. It was, of course, all very thrilling. To see my name in an edition of Meanjin (2: 2000) alongside writers such as Merlinda Bobis, Thomas Shapcott, Dorothy Hewett, Arnold Zable, and Dorothy Porter. Eventually my published stories were collected in two humble volumes, Homelife (1999) and Joy (2000). The Australia Book Review (no. 224 Sept 2000) described the latter as ‘beautifully poised, warm, lush, humane, with lots of surprises and shocks.’ Which made my heart sing, and still does. I say all this not to brag but to suggest that slowly but surely I have been taking steps; I have, I think, been making progress.

What makes a writer's heart sing.

What makes a writer’s heart sing.

Soon I gathered the confidence to write longer works, including three published novellas and a novel, but rarely does a year go by when I don’t write – and try to have published – short stories. Perhaps part of the attraction is being able to take a break from convoluted, complicated works and spend a week crafting a little tale. But I’m not sure if that’s true and/or wise. Short stories can be just as complex as longer works, if not more so, and they can be just as difficult to write, if not more so. It is common for fiction writers to say that short stories are closer to poetry than prose, in that they are suggestions more than full explorations. In the best fiction, regardless of length, words need to be deployed artfully so life can rise from the page. But perhaps in a short story, as in a poem, each word has to do some impressive – and exhaustive – heavy lifting, often (hopefully) with spectacular results.

Sometimes with spectacular results. My filing cabinet and PC hard-drive are littered with rubbish work.

Recently, to be frank, I’ve been doubting the worth of the short story as a viable form. Australian literary journals do continue to publish them, although, depending on the journal, it could be said that only writers are reading them. On the whole mainstream publishers turn up their noses at collections of stories, claiming readers want a more immersive experience; and some writers who have excelled at the form have simply given up, claiming there is no point when ‘it’s just too hard to find a readership’. So, if the readership is limited, why do it? Isn’t it like, say, insisting on painting miniature portraits, the sort that galleries won’t touch with a barge-pole? But, but, but: every so often single-author collections, such as Nam Le’s The Boat (Penguin, 2008) and Maxine Beneba Clarke’s Foreign Soil (Hachette, 2014), make a big public splash.

What am I trying to say? The short story is a surprising and tenacious beast.

A similarly surprising and tenacious beast is the Review of Australian Fiction, which publishes – electronically – two stories every two weeks and often takes the opportunity to publish works that print journals consider ‘too long’ (over 4,000 words); a worthy venture to say the least, considering also that individual issues cost only $2.99. It’s an honour to be published in the Review a second time, especially as I’ve been paired with Marion Halligan, whose collection Shooting the Fox (Allen & Unwin, 2011) was choc-full of literary magic. My story, ‘The Blue Bottle’, has been emerging for many years – decades you could say – because it uses an event from my twenties as a place for jumping off (no, it’s not set in a pub). On the page the story is nothing more or less than fiction, but there must have been something in the original event that had stayed with me and I’d wanted to turn it over with words and sentences and characters and plot. As is so common (predictable?) in my work, the narrative involves an old house and landscape and music and friendship and intimacy and longing and glimpses – glimpses – of love. But I won’t go on.

All I really wanted to tell you is this: ‘The Blue Bottle’ exists, it is here.

Miraculously.

John Clanchy: might he be a modern-day Checkhov? (Image source: Canberra Times/Fairfax Media)

John Clanchy: might he be a modern-day Checkhov? (Image source: Canberra Times/Fairfax Media)

Tall, grey-haired and eminently graceful, the first thing John Clanchy does is lead me through his 1960s-era inner Canberra home and out to the backyard, which offers a red-brick garage, a humble collection of small trees and shrubs, a patch of wintered grass, and plants clinging to pots here and there. But we’re not about to witness some kind of gardening act. ‘I’m just so lucky,’ says Clanchy in his soft and thoughtfully articulate voice. It’s as though we’re looking over an endless ocean, but really it’s just a humble rise of bushland. ‘Every day I spend an hour – often two – walking the mountain with the dogs. Where else can you live so close to the city and be able to do that?’

It sounds like he can’t believe his good fortune.

Back inside we sit in a small room adjacent a sunroom. There’s a gas fire, a pair of well-worn sandals on the hearth. On the low table between us is a collection of cheese and crackers and nuts. And a very good bottle of red. Behind us a full wall of books. This is, quite obviously, a writer’s house: it looks it, it feels it, it even smells it – all those pages in all those books packed into their floor-to-ceiling shelves. It’s easy to imagine Clanchy sitting in this space reading, reading deeply, every so often looking up and through the sunroom window into the front garden that is wild with native plants, gazing freely at a gala or rosella or cockatoo, his mind drifting off, dreaming up a new story to write and bring to the world.

And that’s exactly why I’m here: John Clanchy has a new collection of short stories, or ‘tales’ as they’re identified on the title page. The book is called Six (a reference to the number of pieces in the collection) and it’s been published by Finlay Lloyd, a small press operating out of Braidwood – that just so happens to get their publications in seventy bookshops around Australia. It’s a not-for-profit enterprise and the mission is to produce high-quality works of literature in hardcopy only. A fan of e-books and digital publishing? Not Finlay Lloyd.

But this story, the one you’re reading, isn’t about the small press – it’s about the author. And what an author John Clanchy is. His career spans decades: he is the author of five novels and four previous collections of short stories. His work has won major awards in Europe, the United States, New Zealand and Australia, including the Queensland Premier’s Award for short fiction and, on two occasions, the ACT Book of the Year. Clanchy is widely acknowledged as a master of the short literary form. And I’m in his house, armed with questions.

*

Keep reading over at the Canberra Times, which published this piece on Monday 19 July 2014. Doing this interview has certainly been one of the highlights of my writing life. Thanks to Sally Pryor.

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.

David Malouf's 'Collected Stories': grandly handsome book, in every possible way.

David Malouf’s ‘Complete Stories’: grandly handsome, in every possible way.

Empty days

There are times – like these last two days – when I feel as though I’m the luckiest man alive, because I’ve been starting the mornings reading on the couch in my library room.  For some, luck might be scoring that high-paid job, or travelling overseas, or being able to fill the house with the boundless rush of children, but for me it’s reading, it’s stillness, it’s silence, a book in my lap, a real book, one that needs to be held, one that has pages that have to be turned.

I’m in a writing lull, which sounds bad, as in I’ve lost some kind of fire.  But the fire is there; it’s still burning, raging even, it’s just that a manuscript has been completed and sent to my publisher and I’m not yet ready to start a new project.  So I’m filling these deliciously long, slow empty days with reading.

Where reading happens

Reading happens all over the house: there’s lap-top and iPad reading at the breakfast-/lunch-/dinner-table; there’s living-room couch reading; there’s writing-room reading, the conscientious, studious sort; and there’s bed-time reading.  But the reading I enjoy the most is the sort that happens in the library room, which I also sometimes call ‘the front room’ or ‘the fireplace room’.  When it’s really good, both the reading and the room, it’s cold and wet and windy outside, and I light the fire, pour myself a coffee, and cover my body with my grandmother’s black and red and yellow mohair blanket and get lost in the words.

David Malouf and the smell of smoke

Yesterday and this morning the words have been written by David Malouf: The Complete Stories (Knopf 2007).  It’s a grandly handsome book, in every possible way, and, at over 500 pages, it’s big, it has such weight – you need two hands to read these stories.  Sometimes, when the story is a long one, almost novella length, and I’m far too engrossed to rise for a break, I prop up the top of the book on the repositioned piano stool, which is the perfect height for the task.

Ah, the words on the page, Malouf’s words: searching, circling, yearning, but they’re always so warm; they take you in and have you.  Crafted but not overly crafted; satisfying, so very satisfying – days after living for such a brief period with these stories, the people of the stories stay with the reader, demanding just a little more time, a little more understanding, because they’re complex, and their predicaments are complex too – but they don’t wallop you; they’re intelligent, but never clever; they’re absolutely finished but not always perfect.  All the while there’s the fire crackling and hissing and popping and creaking away, the heat coming before waning, a thin fog in the room, sometimes even a sting in the eyes, but always the smell of smoke on my hands from getting the fire going in the first place.

When it’s as good as this

Perhaps it’s the stillness I love the most, and the silence, the sort of silence that seems to embrace that which is made by the fire, even enhanced by the fire.  And enhanced by the words, David Malouf’s words.  What does it mean to read like this?  Yes, it’s transportation, and communication, entertainment even.  It’s a good, worthy, even noble pursuit.  And, with the fire, there’s a kind of romance to the whole practice.  But there’s much more to it.  There’s depth, great depth, and illumination, everything stripped bare, everything and nothing is sacred, you can’t hide, the words will come for you – yes, you – in the end.  Exposed, that’s it; we’re all made raw.  Despite the fire and the blanket and the coffee and the couch, it’s uncomfortable to read.  When the reading is as good as this.

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