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If you happen to be in Canberra on Thursday 16 May (I mean, who wouldn’t be) it’ll be terrific to see you at the launch of BODIES OF MEN: 6pm at the fabulous Street Theatre. There will be wise words from the amazing Robyn Cadwallader, author of THE ANCHORESS and BOOK OF COLOURS, and award-winning slam poet CJ Bowerbird. There will also be books. And booze!

The event is free. To RSVP, drop a line to publicity@hachette.com.au

In other news, due to generous and hard-working folk, there have been some lovely profiles, interviews and reviews – all appreciated:

Finally, thank you to all those who’ve sent me pictures of BODIES OF MEN (so to speak) in bookshops around Australia. I’m loving seeing the novel on shelves, and I’m also loving the tireless bookshops who are stocking it.

Gratitude to all.

Peace x

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

Many thanks everyone for all your support x

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.

There has been a bit going on this year in my neck of the woods: seeing The Weight of Light have its world premiere in Canberra and then performed in Goulburn and Sydney (plus two other music projects but more on these at a later date) and a final spit and polish of Bodies of Men before it heads into the world in April/May 2019. As always, reading has been the foundation. Stillness and immersion and revelation and depth: there will never be anything like it.

The following is not really a ‘best of’; it’s just a list of work that I have read that has got beneath my skin.

In Terra Nullius, Claire G. Coleman, a writer from Western Australia who identifies with the South Coast Noongar people, reveals the horrors and hypocrisies that underpin contemporary Australia. In a way, perhaps, the novel is speculative fiction, but the scenario is far too present to be ignored, as are the uncomfortable truths it reveals. This is one of the most unique novels I have read in years.

Speaking of unique, a work that I almost literally gobbled up is The Long Take by Robin Robertson. A verse novel, the narrative follows a D-Day veteran as he travels across the US so he can piece his life together. Rather surprisingly The Long Take is as much about urban planning and design as it is about war; there are also evocations of Hollywood. Disintegration appears to be the unifying theme, but this is not a grim read, nor is it inaccessible. Truly remarkable.

With her trademark lyricism, Robyn Cadwallader in Book of Colours brings to life the people and politics behind the making of a fourteenth-century prayer book; the novel is also about the making of art in general. It is fascinating – and highly moving – from first page to last. A beautiful novel in every way.

Also beautiful is Inga Simpson’s Understory, which is a chronicle of the author’s profound attachment to a small patch of Queensland forest. This is much more than a tree-change memoir: it is also about the desire to live a creative life and the need to find and survive love. Very moving.

Two poetry collections especially resonated: Melinda Smith’s Goodbye, Cruel and Kumukanda by Kayo Chingonyi. In the former, Smith once again displays her extraordinary range, moving seemingly effortlessly from the dramatic to the deep historic. In the latter, Chingonyi investigates music, masculinity and racism, in a tone that reads to me as muscular melancholia – it is wonderful. Both collections I have read more than once.

As others have said, Andrew Sean Greer’s Less is a surprisingly light read for a Pulitzer Prize-winner. It is a warm and accessible read, but it is ultimately a deeply yearning hymn to modern love in a global world. Although often hilarious, Less is also a broken-hearted novel and deserves to be read until the end for its full impact to be experienced.

A second heartbreaking novel from this year, though it is also brain- and soul-breaking, is Taboo by Kim Scott. Another writer of Noongar decent, Scott has created a deeply affecting story about race relations in Australia. In spare but lyrical – at times literally magical – prose, Scott writes about the layers of this country’s history that are far too often glossed over to tell a more appealing but largely false narrative. Taboo is powerful and very necessary.

I also thoroughly enjoyed The Life to Come by Michelle de Kretser and, though it took me a long time (years) to get to it, The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers, as well as On Patriotism by Paul Daley and No Country Woman: A memoir of not belonging by Zoya Patel.

Much of this year was dedicated to reading gay fiction, which I wrote about for Meanjin. I also loved All Being Equal from Griffith Review, because it includes a suite of novellas that explore the contemporary gay experience, and because the stories are deeply moving.

Finally, I was lucky enough to read advance copies of two wonderfully adventurous novels that will be released in 2019: The Artist’s Portrait by Julie Keys, which in a memorably unflinching voice reveals the complex and often fraught nature of creative identity; and Karen Viggers’ The Orchardist’s Daughter – told in the author’s typically unaffected prose, the novel explores the web of relationships and competing viewpoints that exist in and around a Tasmanian forest. Here’s hoping both novels will be much discussed and find a broad audience.


To be published by Hachette Australia on 23 April 2019; available for pre-order.

The day was off to a lovely start: I put on my trackydax, uggboots, and my favourite woolen jumper (the one with the holes in it), made a coffee, and then the doorbell rang. There was the postie…with a package that I would soon discover contained the typeset pages for Bodies of Men, courtesy of Hachette Australia.

Holy crap.

After a few days during which I did little more than stare at the pages, on Monday of this week I finally sat down at the desk, picked up a red pen, and got to work.

When I say ‘work’, it seems that I did as much housework as editing. And I’m lousy at housework. But not this week apparently.

The pattern seemed to be: edit paragraph, then dust the sitting room; edit paragraph, then put away the CDs that have been forming into piles; edit paragraph, then dust the stereo; edit paragraph, go buy some firewood and stack it very, very neatly in the shed; edit paragraph, consider vacuuming the rugs (with this chore, ‘consider’ was as far as I got, I’m afraid).

So, it’s been a slow process editing the typeset pages. One reason is the text looks so beautiful that I don’t want to spoil it with my scrawl; another reason is I’m finding it’s taking a lot of mental energy to dive deep into the story (again) and fix the annoying mistakes I’ve made or the sentences that really do need to be better.

Which gets me back to the pattern: fix sentence, then go and clean the fridge.

On Thursday evening I took a break and had dinner with a writer who’s currently working on a novel. One of the things we discussed over the meal was how much we should talk about our fiction before it’s published. I shared some advice I received a few years ago from an eminent Australian novelist who told me (with gusto, I should add), ‘Never talk about your fiction while you’re writing it. This has nothing to do with superstition. If you talk about it while you’re writing it, the energy will go from the telling because you will have already shared the story publicly.’ So my writer friend and I decided that it indeed it was wise not to talk too much about our projects before they were published. Instead we talked about our families.

This enforced creative reticence is at odds with social media: by their nature, digital platforms (a terrible term, methinks) encourage the sharing – and over-sharing – of everything. Of course, it’s rather pleasant, probably healthy, to tell the world a little about how things are going, especially when writing is primarily a solitary task; but, yes, there is wisdom in holding back, especially in terms of the content of this thing I’m writing – and living and breathing – since 2013, although I did give a couple of hints in an earlier post.

What am I trying to say?

That I’m still working on Bodies of Men but the end is in sight – I have to get the edits back to Hachette in a fortnight’s time, even though publication is not until April 2019. Until then, I hope you don’t mind if I remain a little shy (at first my fingers typed ‘shit’) about the actual story of the novel. Perhaps I’m just scared, or feeling vulnerable? That wouldn’t be a bad thing. Maybe.

As ever, thanks so very much for all your interest and support. Many of the readers of this blog/website thing-o have been incredibly encouraging over the years, offering warm thoughts and reflections, silent little whisperings saying, Just keep going.

So that’s what I’m doing: keeping going.

Best I get back to the edits, then I’ve got a bathroom to clean.

Composer James Humberstone (left), baritone Michael Lampard (right) and myself post-show. Image credit: Anne Casey

Oh, massive thanks to all those who came out to see THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT in Sydney last week – it’s hugely appreciated and I’m most grateful. Thanks also to those who have been saying nice things and sending me messages. It means the world to me.

Really.

As mentioned in previous Homesong diary entries, it’s a nerve-wracking experience writing for the stage, partly because it’s so exposing – for all concerned, no doubt – and partly because it’s hard to know how an audience will respond. Indeed, in the weeks before a show, there’s a lot of worrying about whether or not people will come along at all. So, another thank you: to those who helped spread the word through social media or email – every effort was valuable and valued.

In the lead up to the Sydney shows, James wrote a wonderfully illuminating piece for Limelight Magazine about how he approached composing the music.

In the end we had good audiences, in terms of numbers and responses. We had some terrifically lively foyer conversations afterwards, and longer chats over beer and wine!

Some kind and generous folk put notes up on social media. This, from award-winning Australian poet Anne Casey, was especially appreciated:

THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT is spellbinding, spine-tingling, heartbreaking and gloriously uplifting. Extraordinary performance by operatic baritone Michael Lampard and pianist Alan Hicks. This was a stunningly moving, beautiful, haunting and inventive production from the very first breath to the last.

What happens from here?

Another rest. There’s talk of the show heading into regional NSW, which, after all, was the original intention of the Goulburn Regional Conservatorium who commissioned the work; there’s also the possibility of a run in Melbourne, perhaps next year.

Personally, I’m looking forward to preparing for (i.e. worrying about) my novel BODIES OF MEN, which is forthcoming from Hachette Australia in 2019.

Thanks again for all the interest and support.

It’s gold. And it’s a balm.

Michael Lampard performing as The Soldier and accompanist Alan Hicks at the Canberra premiere in March 2018, The Street Theatre (Image credit: Shelly Higgs/The Street Theatre)

Book launches make me want to vomit.

My own book launches.

Of course, it is wonderful to have a crowd of people help celebrate your new book, but it’s also stressful. Will the speakers be entertaining? Will I make a fool of myself? Yes, launches make me feel sick; or, at the least, make me want to head for the hills.

Which is why, at the world premiere of The Weight of Light, a song cycle, in Canberra earlier this year, it was surprising to feel positively calm in the foyer before the performance: I drank mineral water, I chatted, I gave and received embraces, and all the while I was relaxed and happy. But then – but then! – the bells rang and the audience entered the theatre and as the lights went down I could feel my heart making bone-shaking explosions. How was the audience going to respond? Was the work inherently problematic? And why had I been so naïve to think I could produce a text to be sung?

Boom! went the thing in my chest…

*

Keep reading at ArtsHub, which published this piece on 23 July 2018. Thanks to Richard Watts.

A laneway in Alexandria, Egypt; photograph dated 1941. Source: Australian War Memorial.

I’m not sure why I haven’t mentioned it.

Of course, I have mentioned it, on social media and sometimes in person, and there is also a reference to it in my bio on the About page, but there’s no post. Which is why I’m writing these words now.

The point is, in the first half of 2019, my novel BODIES OF MEN will be published by Hachette Australia.

Which is really very thrilling.

What’s a little odd, though, is that I currently don’t want to talk much about it, except to say half a dozen quick things.

The first is that the novel began when, in 2013, I spent three months as a writer-in-residence at UNSW Canberra, which provides the campus for the Australian Defence Force Academy. During the residency I researched different expressions of masculinity under military pressure; I left the residency with the scratchy, sketchy handwritten first draft of a manuscript. (I recorded some thoughts on the residency experience in The ADFA Diary section of this blog).

The second thing is, yes, BODIES OF MEN is a war story, but my intention has been to shine a light on a previously hidden (or politically and/or historically unwanted) war experience, to tell a story that is as much about love and intimacy as it is about what happens when men have guns in their hands.

The third is that most of the story takes place in Alexandria, Egypt, in 1941.

The fourth is that I wrote 38 drafts of the manuscript.

The fifth is that towards the end of the drafting process I collapsed. But more about that at a later date.

The editing begins – for real.

And the sixth is that earlier this week, which was complete with high family dramas and financial pressures and crap weather (wind and freezing rain and snow in the countryside and on the mountains down south, so the opposite of Egypt), the astute, caring, and eagle-eyed editorial team at Hachette Australia sent me their edit of the manuscript – and a blue sky opened in my heart and everything feels better.

I have one month to review the editorial suggestions and get an updated version of the manuscript back to Hachette. If you see me looking frazzled again, please administer whiskey and chocolate.

Sincere apologies for not telling you more about the actual story in BODIES OF MEN, but I am so looking forward to sharing it with you.

For now, I’ll leave you with a quote from a diary of an Australian serviceman who served in the Middle East in 1941; the diary is in the Australian War Memorial:

Be yourself: simple, honest, unpretending.

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