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One minute, so it seems, I’m a spotty teenaged boy sitting on the living-room floor listening to records by Kate Bush and The Cure as well as, erm, the soundtrack to the BBC’s serialisation of Brideshead Revisited; the next I’m writing the libretto for an original song cycle initiated by the Goulburn Regional Conservatorium of Music in collaboration with the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. Of course, a fair bit has happened to that spotty teenaged boy: various jobs that sounded interesting but never set my soul on fire; dipping my toe (and fingers) into the world of short stories before, miraculously, the better ones began appearing in Australian literary journals; three published novellas; a published novel; further tertiary study in the creative arts; as well as much living, including relationships and all the lovely/heartbreaking messiness of that. But the fact remains I never thought I’d be commissioned to be the librettist on an original song cycle.

The beginning: on the living-room floor and listening to a record.

In December 2014 Paul Scott-Williams, the director of the Goulburn Regional Conservatorium, met with me in Canberra at an inner-city bar. In the garden courtyard, Paul said he had an idea to create an original song cycle. ‘Art song,’ he told me, ‘did not have much of an Australian tradition and I want to do something about that. And I want you to be the librettist.’ I thanked him for the offer but said that I wasn’t a poet, though I could put him in contact with some poets who’d be terrific for the project. But Paul would have none of my prevarication. He said that he’d recently read my third novella, The Beach Volcano, which concerns an Australian singer/song-writer trying to find himself in the world (and includes snippets of song lyrics). He also said that he knew I had a great love of music, which I do – music, as well as books, primarily novels, are what sustains me. ‘I really want you to be the librettist,’ said Paul, ‘and I want to engage James Humberstone from the Sydney Conservatorium as the composer.’ Paul went on to say that he would sing the work. ‘I think the three of us would make a very good team.’

As I walked to the car I thought that it was lovely to be asked but I was not the right person. Then again, what scares us – creatively at least – is what we need to do…possibly. Needing advice, I spoke to an eminent Australian author who’d had some experience of being a librettist.

‘Just give it a go,’ she told me, ‘but remember that it has to be a three-way dance, between the words, the music, and the audience. You must leave room for all three.’

In a way, I never really made a decision; I just let the project roll on. Although I was largely unfamiliar with art song, I knew enough to be attracted to the minimalism of a work that centred on voice and piano only, and that across the breadth of a song cycle a story could be told, and that perhaps – just perhaps – collectively we could bring an Australian perspective to the form.

After the contractual side of things was sorted, I got town to work in early 2015. Two years earlier, in 2013, I had completed a three-month residency at UNSW Canberra, the campus of the Australian Defence Force Academy, where I had undertaken creative explorations into masculinity under extreme pressure, and I was still thinking about what masculinity (and femininity) actually meant. The then Prime Minister of Australia, Tony Abbott, had recently said that he would like to ‘shirt-front’ Russian president Vladimir Putin, which seemed to me to be a good example of what modern masculinity should not be about. Paul agreed and said that he was keen for me to continue with this line of inquiry.

I prepared three concepts: a multiple drowning incident during a family picnic; a soldier returning from war; and a contemporary take on Frederick McCubbin’s iconic painting The Lost Child (1886). Paul asked me to further explore in more detail the drowning and soldier stories, and then together we agreed that the latter had the greatest dramatic scope.

For weeks I immersed myself in my favourite poets – ee cummings, Philip Larkin, Dorothy Porter – as well as the war poetry of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. I filled my head not so much with art-song but music by Nina Simone, Antony and the Johnsons, Ólafur Arnalds, Jóhann Jóhannsson, and Max Richter. And then I got down to work. Which was when the doubts came pounding on my temple. I read and enjoy poetry, and for a reason I’m yet to understand I am drawn to poets (perhaps it’s their fondness for giving the finger to conventional ways of living), but, no, I am not a poet. Some readers have said my fiction is quite poetic, one even going so far as to say that I am a poet who writes fiction, but that doesn’t make me a poet either. And in terms of music, I am more comfortable in my local independent music shop buying records by Four Tet and Kiasmos than in a concert hall.

Really, what could I bring to this project?

To convince myself that I should proceed, I wrote out a list of objectives:

  1. do this my fucking way
  2. find my own voice
  3. find my own form and structure
  4. ‘show us something new’
  5. be driven by the work

I now had an articulation of how I could keep going, but then I was struck by different concerns. How to create a story of truth and resonance about a modern-day soldier who was returning from a tour of duty? Was this my story to tell? I told myself that, mercifully, only a few Australians would know what it’s like to serve in a military capacity, but many people can empathise with coming home to find their dark secrets exposed. So now I had my themes: home and secrets and fear. I also decided that I would tell the story from three points of view: the soldier’s as well as his mother’s and father’s. Further, I would set the work on the Hume Highway, a stretch of road I’ve been getting to know for nearly five decades, as well as on the Southern Tablelands where I live. I would write from a position of love and interest. Ultimately, and reflecting what novelist/poet Merlinda Bobbis has said about these things, I could walk in the shoes of my main character and his parents, but I couldn’t own those shoes.

Scribbles: the start

At my desk in my little Goulburn house, I planned the work the way I plan a piece of fiction: I created characters and got into their history; I formed a story arc and then plotted where the key events would be – this process went back and forwards until I knew enough, but not too much. For each plot point I wrote additional notes and then – after some deep breathing and much staring out the window – I put pen to paper. Some of the songs came together relatively easily; others were like trying to unearth a granite boulder with my teeth. While the doubts remained, somewhat surprisingly I found myself having fun: this was exciting new territory, especially in terms of working with brevity and compression, and I enjoyed playing with the architecture of a piece of writing; I was keen to see where it all might go. As the initiator of the project Paul could end up hating what I had produced, and James might find it impossible to score, but all I could do was create a text that only I could create.

Once I had a complete though rough set of lyrics, I decided that I wanted feedback from a practicing poet. I approached Melinda Smith, who had won the 2014 Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Poetry for her magical collection Drag Down to Unlock or Place an Emergency Call (Pitt Street Poetry, 2013). In a noisy Canberra café Melinda went though which pieces of mine were working, which were wobbly (as evidenced by the amount of red ink she’d put on the page), and which ones could be jettisoned. While Melinda’s feedback was frank and constructive, she also said, ‘Nigel, you’re creating a work that’s going to have considerable emotional resonance with an audience. You’ve got this.’ Which was the best possible thing for someone to say at such an early stage of the work, especially from someone of Melinda’s stature.

After reworking every word of all thirteen songs, I gave the new draft to Paul.

And waited nervously for his response.

In a Goulburn pub, with some kind of sport being played on the television in the corner, Paul said, ‘I’ve got to tell you, I had a very strong emotional reaction when I first read your work.’ I could only hope that was a good thing.

The score in development by James Humberstone

James spent much of 2015 progressing the score, feeding through to us sketches as he developed them. He specialises in experimental new music and although my role isn’t so much to engage in the musical composition I  enjoyed what he was producing. James was investing in the work a high degree of artistic intelligence, and even at an early stage it was coming across to my ears as intricate and very moving.

Some tantalisingly brief extracts from James’s score are available here.

The three of us met a number of times during that year, at the Sydney Conservatorium and at the Goulburn Regional Conservatorium. At one stage James said to me, ‘How precious are you with the libretto?’ I said, ‘I see this as a collaboration so do whatever you need to do with it.’ He said, ‘That’s a relief. Some librettists won’t allow even a single comma to be changed.’ I was glad to have had the advice from the eminent author, that there needed to be a dance between the text and the music and the audience. How could that dance happen if there isn’t some kind of give and taken between the components of the work?

Creative development, December 2016, Paul Scott-Williams and Alan Hicks. (Photo courtesy of James Humberstone)

In 2016 Caroline Stacey, the Artistic Director of The Street Theatre in Canberra, took a keen interest in the project, and in December we had our first creative development – the work, at least as much of it as had been completed, was performed in a rehearsal space. I was eager for feedback, but I was also completely terrified. How would my words sound when sung? When there is nothing but piano and voice there isn’t much to hide behind. Would there be emotion and intimacy? Or would the whole thing come across as artifice? As each song was played it felt as if someone was projecting on the wall images of my naked body. Unsurprisingly, Paul sang the work beautifully and with considerable power (though he would soon decide that it would be best to engage another singer to take the work to public performance). By the end of the creative development, James and I knew what needed to be improved, and Caroline suggested that we undertake another creative development before the work was premiered.

Which is where we are at now.

On Thursday 1 June, again at The Street Theatre in Canberra, and through the First Seen program, we will do a second creative development; at 5pm there will be a public showing of the full work – the audience will be asked to provide feedback. If you live in the ACT region you are most welcome to come along. More information here. A Canberra Times article published on 12 May can be found here. You will find me in the corner, curled into a ball and wishing I was still that kid in the living-room and listening to Kate Bush’s ‘Running up that Hill’ on repeat.

I still have doubts about the work. Perhaps, back in December 2014, I should have done more to convince Paul to engage another librettist – an actual poet. While I have given the text my all, reworking, revising, polishing, over and over and over and over, I just don’t know how audiences will respond. Will there be an enticing, enthralling dance between the words and the music? Will the story be emotionally textured, or will it come across as a bald polemic? Have we made a contribution to art song in Australia? Was that ever possible?

I should say that doubting my ability is not new; after 20 years of practice, I doubt my ability no matter what the form. For example, despite having 50 short stories published in Australian literary journals, I seriously and genuinely feel as if I barely understand what makes a short story come to life.

Perhaps all this comes down to expectations. When I’m thinking pragmatically, I tell myself that I’ve had a certain amount of time to give to Homesong, and I’ve invested in it as much skill and heart and soul as I can. Soon it will be public and I will have to let go.

What is this work about? Home and secrets and fear.

It’s all that, and more. I hope.

*

I’ve decided that I will keep writing about Homesong as the project comes to fruition, so if you’re interested in knowing more, including opportunities to see and hear the work, do drop in again.

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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.

On 29 May 2015, the famous Electric Shadows Bookshop closed its doors after 27 years. There was a wake. There were tears. Photo credit: Andrew Sikorski

On 29 April 2015, the famous Electric Shadows Bookshop closed its doors after 27 years. There was a wake. There were tears. We don’t know what to do now. Photo credit: Andrew Sikorski

Of all the emails I’ve received this was the most difficult – by far.

In the past I’ve received emails announcing the death of a friend or colleague, and I’ve received emails containing heartbreaking literary rejection, but the one that lobbed into my laptop last week truly knocked me sideways. First there was shock, then disbelief, then emptiness, before anger set in; I guess that echoes the stages of grief, doesn’t it. What did the email say? It said that one of my favourite bookshops, one of my favourite shops of all time, was closing its doors after nearly 30 years of trading.

For many Canberrans, the Electric Shadows Bookshop, or ‘ESB’, or ‘Lecky Shads’, has been a bona fide institution. For a couple of decades in the city it co-existed with the infamous but now defunct Electric Shadows Cinema. If you enjoyed the film, you could go next door and buy the book or screenplay or soundtrack – even late into the evening you could do this.

ESB ran a highly regarded video rental library, and it was the only placed in town that stocked genuinely obscure (and sometimes risqué) titles. ESB was also well-known for supporting community events, such as SpringLit, a popular annual gay and lesbian afternoon that celebrated literary luminaries such as Dorothy Porter, Andy Quan, Judy Horacek, and Christos Tsiolkas. Speaking of Tsiolkas, astute readers will remember that in the late 1990s the future author of The Slap could be found behind the Electric Shadows Bookshop counter closing a sale with that warm and generous smile of his.

When the cinema closed in 2006, ESB moved to a new location in Mort Street, Braddon, which at the time was full of caryards, Summernat types, and people wobbling ecstatically out of Civic in the early hours of Sunday morning. The new version of ESB was smaller but funkier, and it hung out next to the Cornucopia Bakery, another Canberra institution that’s bitten the dust. Despite the somewhat cramped conditions, the bookshop continued to support the ACT region with all manner of literary events. The staff members were always knowledgeable and eager to please, with more than a dash of quirky humour.

In short, to me, Electric Shadows Bookshop has been a constant reminder that the world is more interesting than I sometimes think it is. It has given my little life depth and context and meaning. It has given me hope.

So what now?

*

Keep reading over at the Canberra Times, which published this piece on 20 March 2015. Visit Andrew Sikorski to see more of his series of images taken in the last days of the Electric Shadows Bookshop.

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.

*

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

Feist

Kim Gordon

Annie Proulx

Natalie Merchant

Dorothy Porter

Juliette Binoche

PJ Harvey 3

Laura Linney

Parker Posey

Catherine O’Hara

Sofia Coppola

Peaches

Aminatta Forna 2

AirshipA quick note by way of introduction: the following is not a list of what I think are the best books published this year; rather it is a list of work published at any time that I have read this year and have had an influence on me one way or another. Kicking off with poetry, I picked up Air Ship by Roger McDonald (UQP 1975) in a second-hand bookstore halfway through 2013 and I’m glad I did.  McDonald has spent much of his significant career writing novels that have had a deep impact on the Australian literary landscape and beyond.  His ability to create a sentence that offers so much life and bounce and possibility is, I think, unequalled amongst contemporary writers.  And that sense of life and bounce and possibility is present in McDonald’s poetry, even poetry written almost forty years ago.  This year I began a habit of spending the first moments of a writing session reading poetry, and it’s Air Ship that has been the book of choice.  It’ll probably stay on the desk into 2014.

Best 100 Poems of Dorothy PorterIf there’s an Australian writer who came to change the way the broader community related to poetry it was Dorothy Porter.  Best 100 Poems of Dorothy Porter (Black Inc. 2013), curated by partner Andrea Goldsmith, is a fine taster to Porter’s extraordinary intelligence, but also her playfulness, her cheek, and her great heart.  Here’s hoping many readers will be tempted to discover new Dorothy Porter territories, such as Crete from 1996 or even Little Hoodlum from 1975 (interesting: the same year McDonald’s Air Ship was published).

RoomRoom by Emma Donoghue (Picador 2010) had a physical impact on the way I live.  No doubt there are better novels around, better as in reaching for and finding greater and more profound highs and lows, but I enjoyed Room because of the challenge Donoghue set herself: write about entrapment from an innocent child’s perspective, a child who knows no other world than the cell that has been made for him.  It does lose some tension in the final stretch, but as soon as I finished the last page I went out and doubled the size of the chook run – I just couldn’t stand to see them cooped up for another minute.

BarracudaI’ve read and enjoyed all of Christos Tsiolkas’s fiction work and ploughed my way through Barracuda (Allen & Unwin 2013) in three sessions despite its hefty size.  It’s a tough book, as can be expected, but it’s also Tsiolkas at his most tender.  Australia is unreasonably obsessed with sport, and in Barracuda Tsiolkas goes straight to that particular jugular while also taking the hatchet to the privileged world of elite private schools; he reveals the violence that is so central to Australian mainstream culture and our many hypocrisies around class, race, gender, and sexuality.  Despite this, Dan (or Danny), his central character, an elite swimmer whose life doesn’t become what he and everyone else wanted for him, is beautifully brought to the page regardless of – or because of – his many flaws.  As others have noted, Barracada does lose some tension in the last third (like Donoghue’s Room), but the novel didn’t lose me.

DeserterStaying on the theme of violence, I’m not a fan of reading about war: I’m bored by the strategic machinations, and the human toll can never be anything other than devastating; there might be heroes on the front-line, but every heroic action is blackened by a thousand more tragic ones.  Enter Deserter: the last untold story of the second world war by the eminent US/UK journalist Charles Glass (Harper Press, 2013).  What this extraordinary and important non-fiction work does is examine the lives of three World War Two servicemen: two from the US, one from England; with a forensic eye and ear for detail he reveals the diverse and multi-layered experiences of these men, and in doing so goes beyond the hero-versus-coward binary.

The Hired ManJust going to put this out there: I adored The Hired Man by Aminatta Forna (Bloomsbury 2013).  Whilst Tsiolkas brings forth the barely hidden violence of ‘the lucky country’, Forna, who was born in Glasgow and raised in Sierra Leone and Britain as well as in Iran, Thailand and Zambia, expertly explores the forever lingering impact of the Croatian conflict.  In my review for the Canberra Times (republished in the Sydney Morning Herald and elsewhere), I wrote: ‘Forna flatly refuses to over-dramatise. This is a delicate and restrained work. Indeed at times the narrative comes across as a travelogue augmented with childhood reminiscences of hunting and swimming and fumbling first love, these meandering passages lulling the reader into a false sense of security. Forna’s considerable power comes from not overstating her case, and never taking sides. It’s this refusal to make judgements and draw any kind of conclusion that gives The Hired Man its significance… Through Duro Kolak, a complex, conflicted but ultimately likable character, and the many stories he shares with us, Aminatta Forna does what great writing should do: she illuminates the horrors of our times, those that will follow us to the grave, and she makes us feel as though we, too, have played a role, which is almost always the case.’

I still believe everything I wrote in the review, and I still believe everything Aminatta Forna wrote in The Hired Man.

Sydney Cove back when it all started: are they ominous storm-clouds or is it an approaching bushfire?

Sydney Cove back when it all started: are they ominous storm-clouds on the horizon or is it an approaching bushfire?

It’s January in Australia and I’m hot and bothered. Hot, because that’s exactly what it is: for weeks now it’s been thirty degrees Celsius in the shade, some days thirty-five. Last Friday went over forty; Sydney, just two hours drive north of me, had its hottest day ever – it breached the forty-five-degree mark. Here at home the chooks have their beaks open and their wings out and hanging low, so I’ve covered their run as much as I can with an old tent-fly – it seems to help, for now. But hot is hot is hot and there’s not much I can do about it. And I can’t do much about the alarming waft of smoke as it comes into town and gets us coughing. Last week there was an automated message left on the landline: ‘Tomorrow’s bushfire conditions are CATASTROPHIC. Activate your bushfire survival plan now.’ I put the sprinkler into the garden and, rather uselessly, turned it on.

All this is enough to make anyone hot and bothered, but it’s not all.

On 26 January there’s Australia Day; yes, it’s come around yet again. So the flags are out and about: they’re being stuck on cars and utes and trucks, they’re hung in shop windows, and they’re sent flapping in front gardens, stating the bleeding obvious, but also as though staking a claim all over again. We do it every year, our national day to commemorate the beginning of British settlement, when Governor Phillip landed at Sydney Cove in 1788. I was born and bred here, my forebears arriving by boat only a handful of years after that adventurous governor. Despite this ancestral longevity, however, and whatever blood I have in my veins, and all my thinking on the topic, I don’t really know this nation of mine; as I age I’m understanding it less and less. So, this summer, this dreadful, pressure-cooked summer, I’ve turned to our writers for assistance, for succour even, because their imagination, observation and skilful way with words are surely better than simply hanging out a flag.

Keep reading at Overland.  Thanks to Jeff Sparrow and Jacinda Woodhead.

Everything about writing is luck.  Everything.

There’s the luck of the idea, that little ‘what if’ that pops into your brain, you write it down somewhere – a post-it note, the back of a napkin (how appalling it’s been that sometimes I’ve had the best ideas when a little too drunk, so the idea is gone by the morning, it’s never stuck) – and then at some point or other you see if you can turn that idea into something.  There’s the luck of having the time, or being in a position to make the time, to do the hard work of writing.  And there’s the luck of being in the right headspace to produce that particular story, because every story is different.  And then there’s the luck in having the right editor read the piece and there’s always a bit of luck in terms of whether or not the publisher has the physical – or digital – space to get it out into the world.

More specifically, I have looked back at the publication of my novel Remnants as a series of events and confluences that have had as their commonality good bloody luck.  In 1999/2000 I did a Masters in Creative Arts (Creative Writing) at the University of Wollongong.  It was a great experience, a highlight of my life.  First up, I had the good fortune to spend time with writers such as John Scott, Merlinda Bobbis and Tony Macris.  Most closely I worked with Tony, and he was sufficiently blunt to tell me that my major project was good enough to give me the qualification but wasn’t good enough to find a publisher.

That night I started on a new project.

By the end of the year I had the bones of a story that I knew I wanted to take further.  I spent three years editing and re-working and polishing and worrying and fretting.  After shopping the manuscript around, and being told that it was well-written but would never be a commercial proposition, Francesca Rendle-Short, now creative writing academic RMIT but at the time was at the University of Canberra, suggested that I might like to have a chat with Ian Templeman, who was the head-honcho of Pandanus Books, the academic publisher at the Australian National University.  Excitedly, impatiently, I arranged this meeting.  (I am the least patient person in the world, so perhaps I should be serving burgers rather than writing stories.)

Over lunch Ian told me how he’d read a story of mine, ‘Song of Excess’, in Overland and would love to read the manuscript for my first novel – what luck that he’d read that particular issue!

A month later, I received a letter saying that Ian enjoyed the work but as Pandanus was primarily an academic publisher of non-fiction they couldn’t accept it; I should, however, again make contact with Ian.  More than confused, I rang Ian.  He said that he would like to publish Remnants, but he would have to establish a special imprint to do so, and this would take ‘some time’.  Ian was true to his word, and in 2005 that little novel eventually saw the light of day through Pandanus Books’ Sullivan’s Creek series.  Which would fold within a year because the ANU was adamant about focussing on the academic, not the fictional.

Remnants went on to achieve ten reviews, in places like Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, Australian Book Review, Antipodes as well as literary journals.  Nine of the reviews were positive; eight of those nine were glowingly enthusiastic. There’s no doubt in my mind that I was a very lucky person indeed throughout the whole journey of Remnants, and if that book hadn’t appeared it’s highly likely that I wouldn’t have continued trying my hand with the longer narrative form.

It’s a humble book, and a flawed book, but the more distance I get from it the more I like it, the characters and their situations have resonated with me, and the story has found a small but appreciative audience.  However, it left me with two feelings: one, how lucky we need to be for our work to be published; two, that I want to go on, that I want to write more, that I might just be able to do better, but I’ll need a shit-load of luck to go that next step, along with drive and tenacity and sheer hard-work.  Plus a good idea every now and again – that wouldn’t go astray.

In terms of current work, my novella Fall On Me was published by Blemish Books last month, and I could tell you a story about that story, how my partner and I went on holiday in Tasmania in 2007, how we stayed a few nights in Launceston, how, one night, we walked up Cataract Gorge and went past the Kings Bridge Gatekeeper’s Cottage and I thought, Mmm, how good would it be to write in a place like that, how two years later, I discovered that the Launceston City Council ran a program where artists could indeed live and work in the Gatekeeper’s Cottage, so I applied, was accepted, and in April-May 2010 went down to Tasmania to live in that Cottage for a month, intending to write short stories, but instead I wrote three novellas, Fall On Me being one of those, how, a year later I saw that Blemish Books was looking for manuscripts around the 40,000-word mark, so I sent off a submission, and the good, generous folks at Blemish loved the thing, so here I am, talking to you about luck and publishing and I’m realising that good fortune plays such a big role, perhaps a bigger role than hard-work and any talent one might have (though talent is always debatable).

And I could tell you how lucky I am to have found someone like Alec Patric with whom I co-edit Verity La.

And how lucky I am to live in a country where I’ve been able to receive a good education, and there are opportunities to continue that education.

And how lucky I am to have had an English teacher in middle school who once handed back a story I’d written, an obviously average story by the look of the mark written on the top of the front page, but he said to me, ‘You can do so much better.’  So here I am, aged 42, trying to do so much better.

And I could tell you how lucky I am to make a real-estate decision eleven years ago which now allows me to write as fulltime as humanly and financially possible.

And how lucky I am to not be in the twenty per cent of the world’s population that can’t read.

And how lucky I am that you’re reading this post.

All this – every little bit of it – has lead to publication, and now I realise that I am a man of such good fortune.  And how grateful I am for every little cheeky drop of it.

Perhaps all writers feel this way, at times, to a certain extent.  I’m reminded of the greatly loved Dorothy Porter, whose final poem, ‘View from 417’, finishes with these delicious words: Something in me/despite everything/can’t believe my luck.

*

With thanks to Irma Gold, who asked a question that inspired this post.

For the last few days – these slow, almost alcoholic summer days – I’ve had on my dining table a pile of books, the books I’ve read in the past year.  There are not many books in the pile, just fifteen in total, which isn’t much more than one book per month.  It’s a busy life and this pile, so it seems, is all that I can manage.  Of the fifteen books, twelve are fiction; there are three books of short stories; there is only one poetry collection, though in the pile is an essay by a poet, the same poet who wrote the collection.  Seven of the books were written by Australians; only three of the books were written by women – two of them by the same woman, actually, the poet.

How I’ve loved having this tower of books on view!  What worlds I’ve explored in the last twelve months!

Why, however, is the pile of books on my dining table in the first place?  Because it’s good, good as in telling, to review the year’s reading.  When I scan the covers, which make my heart skip a beat?

Sissinghurst: An Unfinished History by Adam Nicolson was a completely edifying non-fiction read about a man who inherits a castle but then takes on the National Trust as he tries to return the estate to how he remembers it being when he was a child.  No, it doesn’t sound much, does it, but ultimately it’s an exploration of place and belonging, and if there are two words I adore they are place and belonging.  Into the bargain is the fact that Nicolson writes beautifully, which is handy because his grandmother was Vita Sackville-West.

The late Dorothy Porter’s Love Poems is an exhilarating collection of poems about love, desire, passion and obsession, the bliss, the poison, the sheer dangerous drug of it all.  But this isn’t love poetry that could find its way into greeting cards, oh no, it’s not that.  Try this on for size: ‘There’s a white-blue nerve burning/across my night sky/I wish it hurt to watch/because then/I might stop’ (Comets 1).  Even if you’re not a fan of poetry, check out Love Poems. Please do.  You might find yourself in love, or lust.  If only with words.

Two other books that really did it for me are story collections from Tolstoy and Chekhov (which makes me sound dreadfully literary and stuffy and tweed, but I can only tell the truth): The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories and The Steppe and Other Stories, 1887-1891 respectively.  The sparse, intense and – yes – grim realism from these Russians can be breathtaking, and just a little humbling.  Chekhov’s ‘Gusev’ is a good example of how short stories can achieve so much; the ending in particular is extraordinary, and really it’s just ink on paper.

Speaking of short stories, I finally read Nam Le’s The Boat, and it lived up to the hype, which is always a relief.  ‘Love and Honour and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice’, which I’d already read in the Australian journal Overland, is one of the best contemporary short stories I’ve experienced in years.  Oh bugger it, it is the best.  And many of the others are very nearly as good, including the title story, which should be required reading for all Australians, especially at Christmas time.  In this collection, Nam Le displays such a wide range of themes and styles that it’s almost unbelievable that this is the work of one person.  Clearly a very good book by a writer a lot of people will be watching.  Australia’s Franzen perhaps?

However, the two books of 2010 that truly moved me were In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (yes, I’m a little late getting to this) and The Lakewoman by Alan Gould.

I read Capote’s monumental work on the way to spend a month in Tasmania, which is rather apt considering that island’s terrible penal history, and I was overwhelmed by the author’s control of his material, the depth to which he plummets the characters and their situations in order to unearth the core of the tale, and the startling qualities of the prose.  How’s this for a final sentence: ‘Then, starting home, he walked towards the trees, and under them, leaving behind the big sky, the whisper of wind voices in the wind-bent wheat’.  Ah the weight – and sheer life – of poetry.  A bold, important book that appears not to have aged one bit.

Speaking of poetry, Alan Gould is a wizard of the craft and he brings this wizardry to his ‘romance’ (his term, or at least his publisher’s) about an Australian soldier who parachutes into German-occupied France during World War Two only to be rescued by a mysterious woman who emerges from the flooded battle-fields.  Whilst magical, The Lake Woman is not magic realism, and I gobbled up the last third of the novel in one sitting.  A full box of tissues needed to have been on standby.  Not only was it the story that got me in the gut, it was the quality of the sentences, each and every one of them giving the reader something to savour.   If you’re looking for a love story with depth and intelligence and written by a master of the English language, do hunt down this book.  Stealing it from the grannie on the train-seat next to you would be justifiable.

So there it is: the best of my year of reading.  What the dining-table pile says to me is that, yes, what wonderful worlds I’ve experienced in the last twelve months, and without these worlds, and without the music I listen to (music which, in its own strange way, can augment these worlds), life would be bereft of much of its meaning, worthless even.

Bring on the new worlds!

‘One day I will die.  One day I will not wake up to the smell of my partner bringing my morning mug of strong coffee up the stairs.  One day I will be dust.  But I have learnt the truly hard way that the passion I must cling to and ardently believe in is plain gusto.  To respectfully paraphrase [Agatha] Christie – whose books were wonderful comfort and company when I was on chemo – how lovely to be fifty-four years old and greedy!’  From On Passion, by the much-loved poet Dorothy Porter (1954-2008).

I’m a fair way off 54, but I’m greedy too.  For great stories (like those contained in this book), for great music (Frightened Rabbit is doing it for me at the moment), for great food, for great places, for great company, which I’m lucky to have.

I’m greedy for as much life as my trusty little ticker can handle.

I’m greedy for fucking gusto.

But best to give the last word to the poetry wizard, another quote from the delicious read that is On Passion.  ‘One of the most beautiful things I have ever seen is an azure kingfisher fishing in a mangrove swamp near my family home in Pittwater, Sydney.  I was paddling a canoe down a creek in a rare meditative silence (one of the joys of canoeing), when there was a flash of orange/blue, like a jewelled dart suddenly spearing into the water.  And as Gerard Manley Hopkins so exquisitely says, I watched a kingfisher ‘catch fire’.  In the same sonnet, Hopkins proclaims the unique wonder of ‘each mortal thing’: ‘What I do is me: for that I came.’

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