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THE WILD ONES - 6pm 3 Dec 2014 - updated

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I can remember the exact moment.

I can remember exactly where I was: in the car, on the Hume, just outside Marulan, heading south. And what I told myself: You have to get your act together, take this seriously, make every effort. Get. A. Damn. Website.

The kick up the pants? I was coming home from a month-long residency at Bundanon, Arthur and Yvonne Boyd’s gift to the Australian people – I’d worked my bum off, a productive time, but I’d also connected with a bunch of extremely committed artists, many of whom spoke about the need to have a digital platform. I didn’t even have the internet on at home. Within months I got connected to the internet, had a website built and got this blog going (which recently took over the role of being the actual website). Yes, my online adventures began on the Hume Highway that morning back in 2009. But the world has moved on, I’ve moved on, nothing’s the same.

Which means I can now make a declaration: this is my 300th post for UTCOAFITD (which clearly is the most ridiculous acronym in the history of humankind). And this will be my final weekly post.

AsleepI really have been doing this on a weekly basis from the beginning, because I read some advice somewhere or other that blog posts should be regular and frequent. On a handful of occasions I’ve done a cheeky mid-week post, but on the whole I’ve kept to my commitment. And there’s been something about that commitment: spending days thinking about what I’ll post, whether it be something that had been published elsewhere (Canberra Times, BMA Magazine) or something written for the purpose. There have been times – many times – when I haven’t known what I’d write until the pen was being put to pad, which sometimes resulted in no words at all, so I resorted to shonky visual…things.

I doubt that I’ve ever known what I’ve been doing, other than, perhaps, writing a journal that other people might read – here’s a depository of writing, one amongst a gazillion other depositories of writing. Of course, the most rewarding part has been connecting with other writers, bloggers and thinkers, some of whom I now consider friends, despite living hundreds if not thousands of kilometres away and never having met in person. This must be the best part of the digital era, surely.

What happens now?

I’m not going to call it quits, but from now on posts will be on an ad hoc basis only – perhaps on average they’ll be every month, but no longer will there be any hard and fast rules. Why? Because I’m exhausted, I’m over-committed; in the larger scheme of things, my brain is really quite small, it can only take on so much, which really isn’t that much at all. I need to prioritise. I want to spend as much time as possible reading fiction and writing fiction. I want to go on great, long, dreamy adventures; I want to be moved, confronted, changed. I’m forty-five – it’s time to start learning about how this planet works, and, I think, the best way to do that is through immersing myself in fiction.

So, fond blog, happy 300th post. Sincere thanks to everyone who’s read and commented – I’ve appreciated our conversations very much.

Here’s to new adventures.

I almost threw it across the room.

In fact, I almost threw a lot of things across the room. First it was the mobile: textie after textie after textie; coffee meetings, deadlines. And then the landline: family dramas. Before the laptop: Facebook updates and private messages, Twitter feeds (I’m responsible for three) and more private messages. I had images of me boiling the mobile in the saucepan and snapping the laptop in half on my thigh. I had a fantasy of giving up everything and raising chooks for a living – bliss.

No doubt I’m not a natural fit for social media. (The only machine in my house that I truly adore is my record player.) No doubt I’m not really a natural fit for communication of any kind. Which can’t be true: I’m a writer with two decades of experience and I’ve been paid for the majority of my output. If a day goes by when some kind of story isn’t on the make – a short story, a novella, a novel, a review, an artist profile, a column – it’s a very bad day indeed. I have things to say, or in my little brain I think I have things to say. I want to move people, I want to be memorable. With writing at least. In real life I’m more than happy to be the guy leaning against the brick wall listening to Burial EPs on a ten-year-old MP3 player while adjusting the leather-plat buttons on his faded green, knitted cardigan.

I want to notice more of this.

I want to notice more of this.

So, is all this reliance on technologically-assisted communication really that necessary? Is social media essential? It must be. Everyday we see someone crossing the road while glued to their phone, scrolling, hoping, as a gang of sulphur-crested cockatoos bang around above. We’ve looked in the rear-view mirror to see a driver checking Instagram. For normal people, all this might be okay. (Not so okay, obviously, if you’re responsible for keeping a vehicle on the road.) The thing is, if art is an act of communication – we have a point, we want that point to be heard, we want to rearrange things so better lives are possible – aren’t we diluting our powers by communicating twenty-four-seven?

What if we shove a lid on it? What if we post nothing for weeks even, months? What if we invest all our frustrations at the world – our anger, our disappointment, our deep sadness, despair perhaps – into our work? But you’re probably thinking, is it so bad that I want to share on Facebook my view that our little country is going down like the devil wearing velvet trousers? Do I really have to refrain from gushing at my best-friend’s pic of his bright red Stratocaster? Please, please, please can’t I just send a tweet to say that I’ve burnt the rice while listening to the latest Kylie album? Seriously, is any of this really so wrong?

Yes, communicating absolute bollocks all the time might be wrong.

If we want to make art.

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First published in BMA Magazine on 23 May 2014.

Borders: lines on a map but not necessarily in hearts and minds.

Borders: lines on a map but not necessarily in hearts and minds.

Borders.

They’ll be the end of us.

I’m not talking about the ill-fated book shop but those lines and marks that scare the living shit out of you and me.

There are the geographic borders: a sandy beach, a cliff-face, a wall of impenetrable rainforest. There are the borders that are nothing more than a flashing light on a computer screen or an invisible line somewhere in the ocean.

People want to cross over; they would do anything to go from one side to the other; they might risk death to be ‘over there’, where it is better. There are ways of doing it ‘legally’ and there are ways of doing it ‘illegally’, depending on the circumstances, and the level of desperation. It seems borders and desperation can go hand in hand, especially in this world where the difference between hope and hopelessness can be so marked.

Each week I, too, cross borders; at least, I drive past a sign that indicates I’m going from one place to another. I cross borders because there are opportunities on the other side, in ‘the big city’ as I’ve come to call it. Because these days I live in a country down in regional NSW. Because where I live the only arts work involves packing shelves. So I come into the ACT to do paid gigs that I enjoy, that are meaningful, that help to keep the wolves at bay.

But I’m not suffering political persecution.

Or religious discrimination.

Or threat of incarceration because I’m spending my life with another man.

Or because I’m a woman.

I’m lucky, supremely so, and just like everyone else who is lucky there is an obligation to cross borders at every opportunity. In the way I think, in the way I act and react, in the way I create – especially in the way I create. If artists can’t (or won’t) cross borders, who will? We should be crossing between forms, between materials, between genres, between ideas, between audiences. Because we should always be wanting – needing – to be uncomfortable. Because, perhaps, when uncomfortable we’re more productive, we’re alive, we’re fighting.

Inspiration is everywhere. There’s Oscar Wilde and his ability to move between prose and poetry, between stage and page, between the ‘legal’ and ‘illegal’ and risk his freedom and, ultimately, his life in the process. Closer to home there was, up until 2008, the Melbourne-based poet Dorothy Porter, who blurred the lines between collection and novel and reached the point where one of her works, The Monkey’s Mask, made it onto the silver screen. Closer to home even further, we have artists like Andrew Galan, who cross between the written and the spoken and the complex and the simple. And we have Katy Mutton, who slips – almost effortlessly – between the painted, the drawn, the political, and the personal.

Yes, borders are the end of the line for some of our number. And that’s our eternal shame, our immeasurably heavy burden.

But for us lucky ones, borders should be our beginnings.

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(First published in BMA Magazine on 23 April 2014. Thanks to Sir Allan Sko.)

PrintYou may have been in the presence of a writer – any kind of artist – during the moments after they’ve read a review of what they’ve created.  If it’s a good review, as in the reviewer has come down on the side of the work, the producer of that work will be happier than they’ve ever felt before in their life, or so it feels at the time.  If it’s a bad review, as in the reviewer has not come down on the side of the work, the producer of that work will be more miserable than they’ve ever felt before in their life, or so it feels at the time.  Either way, however, why does it matter so much?  Is it really that important?  Shouldn’t the artist have sufficient confidence in their practice and work to enable a mature and reasonable response to a review, no matter what judgements and conclusions might have been made?  And isn’t it true that the work is not the person behind it, that there’s a separation to be made?  Isn’t this the best kind of protective mechanism?

As someone who’s had their work reviewed – sometimes positively (every so often amazingly positively), sometimes nowhere near as positively as I’d dreamt – I do understand these things.  Even if I wish I didn’t, that I was strong and big enough not to care.

Perhaps all this matters because every artist simply wants a considered response, for it’s taken days and weeks and months and years, sometimes decades, to create something they consider worthwhile.  It is wonderful when family and friends and sympathetic others say they enjoyed the work, that they were moved, that it ended up meaning a lot to them.  But there’s that other kind of response, from someone whose job it is to consider context, goals and ambition, technique, and ultimately make some kind of evaluation of worth against the broader cultural register.  An authority, an expert has given the work a close reading, and a pronouncement has been made.  It would be difficult to find an artist who didn’t appreciate this kind of response to what they’ve created, even if they’d like to suggest otherwise.

All these questions and issues will be discussed on Friday 18 October 2013 at a forum organised by the Childers Group, an arts advocacy body for the ACT region (and beyond).  The forum, which is better described as a ‘Q and A-style’ panel discussion, will include participation from Centenary of Canberra Creative Director Robyn Archer, Chief Executive Officer of Ausdance National Roslyn Dundas, eminent author Marion Halligan, Artistic Director/CEO of the Street Theatre Caroline Stacey, longtime Canberra Times stalwart Jack Waterford, and Editor of BMA Magazine Ashley Thomson, amongst others.  If you’re in or near this neck of the woods, and you’re worried about what’s perceived to be fewer opportunities for truly independent and robust review (the sort that is beyond simply online opinion), then you may well want to drop in and get involved.  For more information, head on over to the Childers Group website.

Here endeth the community service announcement.

And if you hadn’t already gathered, I’m a member of the Childers Group.  A foundation member even.  Never imagined that I’d be a foundation member of anything.  Other than Melancholics Anonymous.

The Canberra Times reviews 'I'm Ready Now' - wine ensues, as does a hangover (and, despite the hangover, much thinking).

The Canberra Times reviews ‘I’m Ready Now’ – wine ensues, as does a hangover (and, despite the hangover, much thinking).

Beneath everything that’s been going on – finding a way of paying the bills, covering the cracks that have been appearing in the walls, the death of a divisive UK matriarch, the barrage of daily emails, dodging kangaroos – there’s been a simmering story: how is I’m Ready Now faring in the rapidly shrinking world of literary reviews?

For an excellent but sobering analysis of the current book-review situation in Australia have a read of ‘Parallel Fates’ by Sybil Nolan and Matthew Ricketson, which was recently published in the new and much-needed Sydney Review of Books.  I’m just eternally grateful that I’m Ready Now, a story about two difficult people making difficult decisions, a novella by a regional writer and published by an independent press, has managed to be reviewed at all, first in BMA Magazine, then Whispering Gums, and now The Canberra Times.

As ‘Parallel Fates’ makes clear, book reviews are extraordinarily important: they provide a thoughtful, dispassionate and contextual critique of a writer’s work; they offer advice and feedback to a publisher; and they help connect books with readers.  Without book reviews, especially the articulate, erudite and fearless kind, there can be no viable literary culture – writing is as much about response and contribution as it is about creation.  They can also help to toughen writers, who are, no doubt, innately sensitive souls, and they help to educate readers, encouraging the broadening of interests.  The book pages, however, particularly those in the mainstream press, appear to be dwindling.

But what of the review in The Canberra Times – is it any good?

Well, it does have this to say:

Writing novellas might seem a little anachronistic or studied, a bit like playing the harp, say, reading Henry James, or listening to LPs. In Featherstone’s hands, though, the novella form becomes an opportunity for concise, intense, concentrated emotion. For him, 156 pages are plenty to introduce plot twists, to give characters depth and feeling, to juxtapose emotions, and to colour his settings with textured, intriguing detail (Mark Thomas)

Which is very generous and resulted in the drinking of wine.  Lots of wine.  Far too much.  And a hangover the size of a bastard country.

In other I’m Ready Now news, Blemish Books has produced a podcast of me reading a short (3-minute) extract, there’s an interview I did with ArtSound FM, and if you’re in a book club you may be interested in the reading notes that have recently been made available and the associated discount offer.  So the good ship I’m Ready Now, skippered by the tireless Blemish folk, keeps sailing despite some challenging seas, and here’s hoping that the wind remains in the sails for a little while longer.

As always, thanks to everyone who’s said a kind and supportive word – I appreciate it very much.

Foreign Fields' 'Anywhere But Where I Am' - blink and you'll miss this, but you really really shouldn't

Foreign Fields’ ‘Anywhere But Where I Am’ – blink and you’ll miss this, but you really really shouldn’t

Oh it’s always the little gems, isn’t it, the things you stumble across that make everything worthwhile.

At the end of last year in my local street-press, the always reliable BMA Magazine, there was a series of lists of best albums of 2012; I love these lists, because usually I’ll find the next album I’ll buy.  In one list, amongst names of bands and singer-songwriters that I’d never heard of – that terrible but sure sign of middle-age – was a reference to an attractively reflective album by a band called Foreign Fields who’d recorded a collection of songs in an abandoned Wisconsin warehouse in the middle of winter, or something like that.  On my laptop I pressed a few buttons, found Foreign Fields’ Bandcamp site (it’s their only web presence), had a bit of a listen, and within minutes ordered the album and got the download onto my laptop.  So maybe the modern world isn’t so rubbish, though I’m still open to the distinct possibility.

The album, which is rather enticingly called Anywhere But Where I Am, is a suite of such intimacy, beauty, melancholy, all these words that I love.  The Nashville-based Eric Hillman and Brian Holl really do know how to craft a song out of the simplest ingredients: acoustic guitars, a piano maybe, perhaps a cello, all the while harmonised perfect-pitch voices drift and lilt over the top, a hint of percussion (sometimes it’s nothing more than a series of hand-claps), though if you listen closely you’ll also hear sweet sweet field recordings.  But there’s nothing ‘slacker’ about this; every second of sound is put together so lovingly.  There are distinct colours and shades of Nick Drake, and Bon Iver, and Sigur Ros, but this is also a sound like no other – somehow Foreign Fields manage to be both pastoral and domestic, so small and delicate in scale but also filmic in the moods and suggestions.  There’s no point singling out a song; everything is of the finest quality.  And there’s variety, and contrasts, and depths.  Brilliant.

Even though here in Australia we’re not yet done with summer, I know that when autumn comes around and then winter finally hits, I’ll light the fire, pour myself a glass of cheap plonk, and keep on listening to Anywhere But Where I Am.  Why this record isn’t on a major label I have no idea.  I’m just so glad that I found it.  Because Foreign Fields remind me of why I could never live without music when it’s as good as this.

Another year of writing comes to an end and it’s been a ripper, even if every second day I ask myself, why am I doing this?  It’s not that I don’t enjoy it – mostly I love the wrestle with words and their meaning, with characters (who more often than not want to do their own thing), and the evil beast that is plot and event – but it is a strange occupation when so much time is spent worrying about what’s not real.  Though we plough on, don’t we.  And I mean that ‘we’ – I’m just one of thousands who are embroiled in this whole writing caper, plus around every writer is a bank of people who are very generous with their interest, support, advice, and encouragement.

So, an update on a few things:

I’m Ready Now…for novella no. 2 to have its moment in the sun

Out now!

Out now and in the (hopefully) loving hands of readers and critics alike.  Fingers – and other things – crossed.

Two reviews for I’m Ready Now (Blemish Books, 2012) have come in to-date: the really very interesting and thoughtful literary blog Whispering Gums and the indispensable ACT-based street-press BMA Magazine.

Whispering Gums said of this novella, Nigel Featherstone builds tension and mystery around his characters’ behaviour without undermining their realness or humanity, and without alienating readers. We warm to them even while we wonder about the wisdom of their decisions and motivations. Besides the characterisation, I also like the novella’s voice and structure. It’s told first-person in the alternating voices of Lynne and Gordon, and is effectively paced, largely through varying the length of the chapters. And so for me, the book is about ‘living imaginatively’ and about liberation, but it is also about how the past can stall us if we don’t get it in the right perspective. Featherstone opens the book with two epigraphs, one being TS Eliot’s ‘Home is where one starts from’.  I think that, in a way, says it all.

BMA concluded, I’m Ready Now is masterful in its execution. This is not high impact, flashy narrative. It doesn’t need to be. So delicately does Featherstone introduce the nuances of his characters and the incidents in their lives that – despite their simplicity – you are drawn in, eager to learn how these flawed and real characters fare. It doesn’t end in a walloping climax or the decisive nature of a bullet but with a simple yet life-changing decision. This is a perfect companion to Featherstone’s previous novella, Fall on Me, and both prove the man has a commanding grip on the novella form.

You can read both reviews in full here and here respectively.

I’m Ready Now can be ordered in through your local bookshop, or purchased direct from Blemish Books.

Fall on Me…is rising

Winner of the ACT Writing and Publishing Award (fiction)

Winner of the ACT Writing and Publishing Award (fiction).  There’s been a fair bit of wine-drinking since the announcement.  From memory.

There was more than a spring in my step when I left the Mercure Hotel in Canberra on the evening of Thursday 13 December, because Fall on Me (Blemish Books, 2011) had just won the 2012 ACT Writing and Publishing Award (fiction).  The judges’ concluded: A clever, poignant and engaging plot, and the pace is quietly and consistently held. Interest grows as the story and the relationship between the father and son unfold, polished and compelling. Carefully drawn and cannily observed characters, who develop in a plausible and appealing way. Judicious use is made of back-stories to define the characters; the reader never loses curiosity. This work is carefully and beautifully crafted, no showiness, no gratuitous sentiment, an example of skill and talent being put to outstanding use.  I do hope the award, and the sticker that can now adorn the books, ensures that Fall on Me, a novella about a father who is surviving the senseless murder of his wife and the couple’s now teenaged son who insists on doing radically creative things with his body, continues to have a life out there amongst the big books.

Like I’m Ready Now, Fall on Me can be ordered in through your local bookshop, or purchased direct from Blemish Books, the best indy small press in the country, as voted by me.

A long-lost interview finally gets an airing

You know, there’s been a private saga that’s been simmering throughout much of this year.  Back in autumn, I received an invitation from eminent South Australian literary journal Wet Ink for an in-depth interview.  Of course, I jumped at the opportunity – these things come around once in a very blue moon.  Over a total of twenty-five questions, the interviewer, Susan Errington, asked me about a wide range of topics, including what makes a novella, why I write so much about men, and my favourite authors and their books.  For months and months I eagerly awaited this interview to appear but, sadly, Wet Ink went belly-up just before publication day.  Thankfully, Whispering Gums came to the rescue, and the interview, which is 4,500 words long, is being serialised every Friday for the next few weeks, with an extra section added to bring it all up-to-date.  Needless to say, I’m extremely grateful to Sue Terry for saving the day, but it’s also an example of how rapidly the world of literature is changing, particularly in terms of the ongoing tsunamic (is that a word?) shift from paper to the online environment.

The latest installment of the interview is here.

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A massive thanks to everyone who’s bought a copy of Fall on Me and/or I’m Ready Now; to all those who’ve shared with me their responses to the books, I appreciate it very much.  Yes, writing literary fiction is a bizarre pursuit, especially in an age where we’re all so pressed for time and are being bombarded with an avalanche of information (first a wall of water, now rushing slides of snow!), and the international economic climate is wobbly at best so people are understandably careful about what they do with their coins, but after the year that’s been I’m pretty damn keen for 2013 to start.

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To all those who subscribe to Under the counter or a flutter in the dovecot, who comment, or just drop in every so often, I hope you enjoy the festive season (if there is one where you live), and all the very, very best for the new year.

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