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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.

Is Autumn in Australia all sweetness and light? Unlikely.

Is Autumn in Australia all sweetness and light? Unlikely.

It’s better to burn out than to fade away. That’s what the torn-jeans-and-flannelette-shirt-loving North American rocker Neil Young famously reckoned in ‘Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)’. Regrettably, some of our number, including grunge god Kurt Cobain, have taken the wisdom to heart – it’s better to go out with an almighty bang than to age gracefully. Or disgracefully, as the Ulysses Motorcycle Club likes to have it.

As odd as it might sound, recently I’ve been thinking that Neil Young may actually have been referring to autumn, though being a Canadian he’d call it ‘fall’. Let me explain.

As everyone knows, autumn is officially the best season, especially if you’re lucky enough to live in or around the Australian Capital Territory. Have you seen a better sky than the one we get at this time of year? It’s almost always as blue as a Sunday afternoon. Plus there’s a hint – or promise – of frost.

We can pull the second doona down from the cupboard and feel its comforting weight on our lap and legs. The heaters are given a run: the smell of burning dust, which reminds us that those with the neatest, cleanest homes really do have the dullest lives. And for those who are fortunate to live in an older house there’s the pièce de résistance: an open fire at 6pm, the gorgeous dry heat, the soft crinkle of the last of the coals as we stagger to bed. I could go on, and give me half an opportunity I will.

Except there’s this: autumn isn’t all sweetness and light. The word ‘autumn’ may derive from the Latin ‘autumnus’, which may or may not mean – or refer to – ‘harvest’, but it’s also a time of darkness.

*

Keep reading at the Canberra Times, which published this piece on Monday 19 May 2014. For the first time in 20 years, something I wrote resulted in a letter of complaint to the editor. It’s a polite letter, mind.

No doubt it’s because of the season, but my backyard is a matter of life and death.  I have a rose out there, a standard rose in a pot, and a frightening wind came up last week and tried to decapitate the thing – the spindly crown hung upside down, held on by only a thin strip of what looked like skin.

I bandaged it back together with masking tape before realising that something stronger was required, so I’ve now wired it up, forming a splint.  Who knows if the rose will survive, and if it’ll be any better at withstanding the next frightening wind, which surely is just around the corner.

Then there’s a chook, Woo’s her name, and she’s unwell.  She’s jerking her neck as if she thinks she’s a break-dancer on the streets of New York.  She probably has a compacted crop, which means her food has lodged in a compartment in her throat that’s now fermenting.

Her days are numbered (a ridiculous phrase: all our days are numbered), and I’ve found myself waking in the night and wondering how I’ll go into the run in the morning and lift her up and say goodbye, thanks for all your eggs, but now, I’m afraid, I’m going to have to break your neck.  She’ll look at me, I know she will, so being the coward that I am I’ll put her back on the ground and wait another day.

And then there’s Cat the Ripper, who is – shhh don’t tell him – ageing.  He’s slowing down, sleeping more than ever, always in the sun.  So he has sun-blotches on his nose.  Cancer.  Last week the vet put him under and did an operation, burning off the blotches.  Hadn’t the poor bloody animal already been burnt enough?  Now and for another week I must inject antibiotics into his mouth and spread Ungvita ointment on his wounds.

Autumn: as always, it’s the poets who understand.  Verlaine, in ‘Autumn Song’ (‘Chanson d’automne’; 1866), incisively observed, ‘The long sobs/of the violins/of autumn’.  Keats, in ‘To Autumn’ (1819), described this time of the year that we’re in as ‘The season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’.  So I’m off to check on a rose, a chook, and a cat, and then, at the dark end of the day, I’ll light a fire, pour a glass of wine, and listen to violins – life and death be damned.

(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 5 May 2012.)

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