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Can good things happen in a pandemic? Apparently.

It’s lovely to be able to announce that, along with wonderful Australian novelists Robyn Cadwallader and Julie Keys, I’m heading to northern New South Wales as part of the inaugural Write North Writers’ Group Residency.

The residency, which is a special initiative of the Byron Writers Festival and Create NSW, will give us space and time to write under the direction of eminent novelist Charlotte Wood. I’ve long-admired Wood’s work and her internationally successful The Natural Way of Things quite literally changed the way I look at the world. Her latest novel, The Weekend, about ageing and friendship, also affected me greatly.

Charlotte Wood

I’ve been fortunate enough to have been selected for a handful of residencies over the years – Varuna, Bundanon, and the Australian Defence Force Academy at UNSW Canberra – and they tend to have a significant impact on how I work. Indeed, it’s usually the case that I don’t fully understand the impact until some years down the track.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about ‘going away’ to write is that what I expect is rarely what I get, but what I get is just as valuable, usually more so. Perhaps the greatest benefit is the way a different place enables me to see my work in a different way; perhaps the place can even have an impact on how – and perhaps even why – I’m writing.

You would think by now that I would know what I’m doing, but I really don’t. Perhaps I do have a couple of tools in my writing tool-box, but I could always do with more. A lot more. And then there’s the fact (and I really do think it may be exactly that: a fact) that the writing process is largely mysterious. What makes one piece of writing feel more alive than another? The author’s motive probably has something to do with it; the rest is more or less beyond me.

Of course, with this residency, it will be wonderful spending time with two friends – Julie and Robyn – who are also writers of novels, all three of which – The Artist’s Portrait, The Anchoress, and Book of Colours – I’ve adored. And then, there will be Charlotte Wood encouraging us to take risks, to write differently, to challenge ourselves, and, perhaps to challenge each other. She also sent us an email: Be prepared to work hard. Roger that.

If I’m allowed one expectation for this particular experience, what might it be?

To get just a little better.

It’s almost become part of an author’s job description, hasn’t it: finish the year writing about favourite books. To be sure, it’s an odd ritual – who cares what one author thinks of another author’s work? In a way, we don’t care, or at least shouldn’t. But there is one good thing that can come from a post like this: more books might be bought and read; lives might even be changed. So with that rather lofty (even outrageous) ambition down on the page, here’s my list of memorable reads from the last twelve months. Needless to say, this is not a definitive list, and if I wrote it tomorrow the books would probably be different.

solar-bonesOne of the novels I have been doing a lot of talking – and thinking – about this year is Solar Bones by Mike McCormack (Tramp Press). In a text that has very little punctuation (certainly no full stops) and frequently slips between prose and poetry, McCormack records a dead man’s reflections. Although not short on philosophical meanderings, Solar Bones is a deeply human novel, and often very funny. Unique and extraordinary.

Another utterly original novel is Locust Girl – A Lovesong by multi-lingual Australian novelist and poet Merlinda Bobis (Spinifex Press). Quoting from the blurb: ‘Most everything has dried up: water, the womb, even the love among lovers. Hunger is rife, except across the border. One night, a village is bombed after its men attempt to cross the border. Nine-year-old Amedea is buried underground and sleeps to survive. Ten years later, she wakes with a locust embedded in her brow.’ Exploring issues of climate change and migration (among others), Locust Girl is a most deserving winner of the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction in the 2016 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. Here’s hoping someone has popped this novel in Peter Dutton’s Christmas stocking.

Speaking of climate-change fiction, or ‘cli-fi’, I also enjoyed Jane Abbott’s Watershed (Vintage) though when I say ‘enjoy’ I should clarify. This is a harrowing novel about a hellish world: due to near-total climate collapse, society is in ruins; bad things happen to good people and despicable people get away with murder – literally. Watershed is not an easy read, but it is an important one; in a way it provides an interesting contrast to James Bradley’s Clade. There is no doubt that Abbott had a very clear vision for what she wanted to do with Watershed, and she achieved that vision artfully. Unforgettable. (My Verity La interview with Jane Abbott can be found here.)

glasshousesFour poetry collections impressed, including Michele Seminara’s Engraft (Island Press), Cassandra Atherton’s Trace (Finlay Lloyd; my review here), Andrew McMillian’s Physical (Cape Poetry), and Glasshouses by Stuart Barnes (UQP), which was the winner of the 2015 Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize. All four collections mix inventiveness with accessibility, the latter especially so.

the-hate-raceNon-fiction works that I found particularly memorable include Lasseter’s Gold by Warren Brown (Hachette), which tracks one of the most bizarre episodes in Australian history, Karen Middleton’s Albanese – Telling it Straight (Vintage), which is a surprisingly poignant documenting of one of Australia’s most prominent – and potentially most principled – politicians, and Maxine Benebe Clarke’s The Hate Race (Hachette), which I found both highly readable and distressing. Lucy Palmer’s grief memoir A Bird on my Shoulder (Allen & Unwin) was also terribly affecting. Read together, these works show that while Australia may well be the lucky country (whatever that is), we’re also a people who are capable of being so much better, especially in the way we treat those considered different or other.

the-writers-roomIn terms of writing practice, two books deserve a mention. The first is The Writer’s Room (Allen & Unwin), which is a collection of interviews with prominent Australian novelists by Charlotte Wood, a prominent novelist herself. Reminiscent of the long-form interviews published in The Paris Review, The Writer’s Room provides a fascinating insight into how novelists work. From a personal perspective, it’s always refreshing to hear that for most writers the making of fiction is an extraordinarily beautiful (though sometimes – often? – frustrating) mystery. I also thoroughly enjoyed Under Cover – Adventures in the Art of Editing by Craig Munro (Scribe). This is a colourful and entertaining memoir of Munro’s time as a publisher and editor at UQP, one of Australia’s most feisty presses.

Before I go, some other works of fiction I really liked this year are Inexperience and Other Stories by Anthony Macris (UWAP; my interview with Macris can be found here), Wolf Wolf by Eben Venter (Scribe), which is a disturbing but moving account of life (especially gay life) in contemporary South Africa. Stephanie Bishop’s The Other Side of the World (Hachette) and Lucy Treloar’s Salt Creek (Picador) also resonated, particularly in the way both novels deal with the migrant experience and the beauty and challenges of the Australian continent.


A suggestion: by all means order online, but – if you can – do support your local bookstore. We all know that physical books bought in a bricks-and-mortar store are more valuable.

The following feature article was first published in The Canberra Times on 10 April 2010.  Many, many thanks to the following Australian author-bloggers who generously participated in the story: James Bradley, Sophie Cunningham, Kerryn Goldsworthy, Alec Patric and Charlotte Wood.  Thanks also to Canberra Times Features Editor, Gillian Lord.

Apparently it happens to most of us at some stage.  You’re happily travelling through life, getting all the pragmatic stuff done while trying to hold on to one or two dreams, maybe even achieving a dream when the stars align, but then, to everyone’s surprise, including your own, you go to bed very late one night realising that you’ve become…a blogger. I didn’t mean this to happen; this wasn’t one of my dreams.  Like a sworn TV-naysayer suddenly drawn to the latest reality show, I – a humble writing hack and up until the middle of last year a complete on-line Neanderthal – am now the proud owner of my own sparkling ‘web log’.  It has the rather unwieldy title of Under the Counter or a Flutter in the Dovecot.  And I am not alone in my blogging activities.  According to sources, there are 112,000,000 blogs in the world.  If my maths is right, and it’s often not, every fiftieth person around the globe is blogging.

There are blogs about everything, from crochet to Christ.  If you care to go looking, you will find ‘J-blogs’ (blogs written by journalists or those with a Jewish focus), ‘mummy blogs’ (about home and family life) and ‘bloggernacles’ (blogs written by Mormons).  Some blogs are open diaries or scrapbooks, while others are thoughtfully written on-line magazines, enthusiastically – and often professionally – presented by one person or a group.  Some are interactive adjuncts to newspapers or barely concealed marketing tools for home-produced goods.  And it’s not just mums and dads or people with no social skills or insomniacs who have flocked to the medium.  A number of Australian writers loyally maintain blogs.  On these sites you won’t find a photograph of the writer’s dog sleeping dreamily amongst the petunias (well, not often), but good, solid literary stuff – in-depth analysis of writing trends, cultural comment, and artful polemic, and that’s just for starters.  Sometimes they write about food.

Being curious about why successful writers have dived into the murky e-waters of Blog Ocean, I plucked up the courage to email a handful of dedicated scribes – through their blogs, of course – to see what’s going on.  Why, when your works are published around the world and well-reviewed and read by hundreds of thousands of people, when your works win or get short-listed for prestigious literary prizes and the rights are sold to movie makers, do upper-echelon writers want to muck around in an environment where so much is rubbish?  Isn’t it like living on the right side of the tracks but wanting to play with the rough kids at the local garbage tip?

Sydney-based Charlotte Wood, author of The Submerged Cathedral, which was short-listed for the 2005 Miles Franklin Literary Award, and the widely-acclaimed The Children, began blogging in early 2009.  In March this year she decided to put her food-related blog How to Shuck an Oyster on ice (so to speak) to focus on the writing of her latest novel.  She says her original motivation was to talk to her friends about food and amuse herself while at it.  ‘I began the blog when our house was being renovated last year,’ says Wood.  ‘We were living out of suitcases for four months in other people’s houses and I found it difficult to settle firmly into writing my novel-in-progress.’

Alec Patric is a St. Kilda bookseller and, more importantly, a creative writer of poetry and novel-length works.  He admits to never having visited a blog until last year, when he was introduced to the concept by three women bloggers.  The immediate motivation for starting his own blog was to bring together under one umbrella his work published in literary journals.  These days A.S.Patric.Ink features his own creative writing, mostly experimental poetry, much of which is cleverly linked to graphics and quotes from literary luminaries.

Short-fiction writer, editor, reviewer and former academic Kerryn Goldsworthy, who lives in Adelaide, became involved for ‘pedagogical’ reasons.  In 2004 Goldsworthy was asked to assess a Masters thesis on blogging and its social implications, and she became so interested she started her own site.  ‘I figured if this kind of thing was what students were writing about then I needed to learn about it, and of course the best way to learn anything is to do it.’  She now maintains Still Life With Cat, an ‘all-purpose blog containing reflections on whatever is going on in the realms of literature, politics, media, music, dinner, gardening etc’.

Sophie Cunningham, author of the novels Geography and Bird, has been blogging since 2004 both at her own site as well as on Spike, the blog-shaped offshoot for the eminent Australian literary journal Meanjin, of which she is the current editor.  Cunningham began her blogging journey when traveling to Sri Lanka and she simply wanted to capture the experience for herself as well as friends and colleagues.  She has stayed with the practice because, by her own admission, she is a scattered thinker and writer and blogging has been a helpful way of catching some of those thoughts before they disappear.  ‘The minus side,’ she says, ‘is it takes me away from novel writing.’

Sydney-based James Bradley is the author of The Resurrectionist, which has sold over 200,000 copies worldwide.  His deliciously named City of Tongues blog features book and film analysis, articles about the creative process, and, quite regularly, pop-music videos.  Bradley says that he had three reasons for embarking on a blogging life.  ‘The first was my increasing frustration with the relatively narrow parameters of the newspapers and magazines I write for.  The second was about wanting to try something new, and to learn to write for the online environment.  And, finally, it was at least partly about an awareness that the most exciting writing is now happening online.’

Is there a difference between writing for a blog and writing ‘serious’ fiction?  As I’ve rather painfully discovered, it is all too easy for a blogger to just spray the words up on the screen and see what happens, a lot like swinging a fishing line into the ocean in the hope that something bites.  Kerryn Goldsworthy says it all depends.  ‘Even with the most casual or spontaneous blog posts, I try to make the writing something that people will enjoy reading, and I think about it at the level of things like sentence structure and word choice.’  Goldsworthy goes on: ‘The most exciting things about blogging are the opportunities afforded by hyperlinks and graphics.’

Charlotte Wood had a looser approach with How to Shuck an Oyster.  ‘When you write for a living, the quest for the perfection of a sentence or a paragraph can be quite exhausting.  So to write in a much less self-conscious way was a great deal of fun.  I focused on the subject at hand rather than the writing, and tried to keep it all loose.’

Sophie Cunningham agrees with the need for looseness.  ‘Because of my job as an editor,’ she says, ‘I got too much grief if I posted rushed and hastily thought-through pieces.  But I certainly want to keep that freshness and immediacy.  If it starts to feel like an exam it doesn’t work out.’

Alec Patric believes the only criterion for successful blog writing is readability.  ‘If the writing comes off half-cocked and unfocused then it’s not going to be read by anyone.  If it’s overly ‘literary’ or academic it won’t be readable.  It’s not that it can’t be sophisticated and polished, but blog writing thrives on momentum, passing from one day to the next.’

James Bradley is less concerned with rawness and roughness, but he does enjoy the sense that bloggers are free to explore ideas in a way they are often not in print.  ‘Partly that’s about the fact that the format is so open – I’m not expected to write something as constrained as a book review, so if I feel like wandering off and talking about Jack Kirby comics in the middle of something I can.  But it’s also about the fact that the form encourages conversation, so the best blogging is often about making connections rather than broadcasting to a passive audience as you do in print.’

One of the peculiarities of blogging is the fact that many are written by anonymous individuals and the majority of comments posted on blogs are written by similarly shady and mysterious people – regular visitors to my own blog (whom I appreciate very much, I should add) include ‘Screamish’, ‘It All Started’ and ‘A Free Man’.  Kerryn Goldsworthy says that using her real name means that people can find her, and that occasionally means vile personal abuse by email.  ‘I have less and less respect for anonymous bloggers and commenters who aren’t prepared to own their opinions.’

Sophie Cunningham reckons it is wise to remember that a blog is a public forum, no matter how private it might seem.  ‘Using your real name can help you remember that,’ she says.  ‘Which isn’t to say that I wouldn’t like the freedom to write ungrammatical, badly spelt posts without getting cracks on my editorial skills.  Or that I can’t understand why some people need to develop a more theatrical persona on-line.’

The often anonymous Internet environment and the unregulated nature of the conversation was one of the reasons why James Bradley originally avoided participating in blogs.  ‘Some people say appalling things online, and I wasn’t in a hurry to put myself in the way of that.  But as it turns out most of my experiences have been overwhelmingly positive, and I’ve made many new friends through my blog.’

Considering the incredibly fast technological change of late – witness the Australian publishing industry’s current scurrying to address changes brought on by the Kindle and i-Pad e-readers – as well as the emergence of less onerous platforms such as micro-blogging site Twitter and the ubiquitous Facebook, is there a future for blogging?  Barack Obama, who famously embraced on-line social media to fuel his successful presidential campaign, did a back-flip in 2009 and said that he could see a future where it’s ‘all shouting at each other across the void but not a lot of mutual understanding’.

‘Oh Lord, who knows?’ offers Charlotte Wood with refreshing frankness.  ‘To me, fundamentally, blogging is writing – there is good and bad and boring and engaging and superficial and deeply thoughtful writing in blogs, just as there is in books or magazine articles.  But I love the democracy of the medium.  The fact that anyone can create a blog is a wonderful thing, not something to be abhorred.’  I can’t help wondering if Wood will return to How to Shuck an Oyster.  ‘I feel quite strongly that I’ll go back to it,’ she says, ‘and that it will be a deeply pleasurable part of my life between novels, or drafts of novels.’

Kerryn Goldsworthy is positive that the blogosphere will continue to be a place worth exploring for some time yet.  ‘The continuance of blogging might be the thing that separates the actual writers from the people who just want to chat and maintain relationships and friendship groups via the web.’  Alec Patric believes the future of blogging will see it grow from ‘a curious organ on the literary body to a point at which it will replace the whole nervous system’.  He continues: ‘Most of the critical thinking and opinion-making has already shifted to literary blogs and related Internet sites.’  And Patric vehemently disagrees with Obama.  ‘The void has opened up within the established mediums as they all wonder what the advent of e-books will mean.’

Sophie Cunningham claims that blogs have become ‘old school’ compared to Twitter and Facebook.  ‘The more social aspects of the online environment are migrating to these forms and blogs are becoming more formal.  I don’t think this is a bad thing.  It’s just different.’  She too disagrees with Obama.  ‘I don’t know that he’s right in that you could argue that all human interaction is, to some extent, shouting across the void without a lot of mutual understanding.’

In a very general sense, believes James Bradley, the Internet is a force for liberty and freedom of speech.  ‘You only have to look at what happened in Iran last year to see the way it breaks down a lot of the old polarities and forces governments to confront individuals.  But there is undoubtedly an echo-chamber effect, in which people gravitate towards sites and forums where they will find people of similar views and opinions, all of which then reinforce – and often amplify – what they already think.  The only way to overcome that is going to be to foster a culture that values discussion over abuse, but we’re going to have to work at it.’  Whether it’s the real world or the blog world, let’s all say amen to that.

What we can be sure of is that how we participate in the production and distribution of stories continues to evolve at a furious rate.  Human beings have an insatiable appetite for story-telling and connection.  We’ll do it any way possible, on anything available to us; our commonality is the indisputable fact that we’re telling stories day in, day out.  Even our dreams are a way of exploring story and understanding our lives.  It might be impossible to confidently predict where blogging will take us – Kerryn Goldsworthy says she can see ‘a future in which we can all read each other’s thoughts via microchips, though I can also imagine that if that were the case, humanity would implode fairly quickly’ – but it seems the platform is here to stay.  And it’s not a singular progression, but a multi-dimensional expansion of possibility.

Perhaps you’re keen for this article to finish so you too can get blogging.  If that’s the case, maybe we’ll run into each other.

Don’t forget to say hello.

My on-line name is Nigel Featherstone.

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