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Fall on Me: you be the judge

Giving away art for free - who benefits in the end?

Giving away art for free – who benefits in the end?  (Someone once said that I reminded them of a ‘better-looking Thom Yorke’.  I’ve never known if that was a compliment or not.)

No, regrettably this little novella isn’t going to be a contestant on The Voice, but there is a music connection.  In 2007 the British rock-band Radiohead famously released their seventh studio album, In Rainbows, on a pay-what-you-want-for-the-download basis.  Whilst definitive results of the experiment are hard to come by, indications are that about 60% chose to pay nothing, while the remainder paid on average a significantly discounted price.  Overall, however, once the album was released physically, In Rainbows was a financial and critical success, making more money than the band’s previous album across all platforms.  At the time, Radiohead’s approach was considered ground-breaking, but over the years there’s been debate about its impact on the music industry in general; even Thom Yorke, the band’s free-thinking frontman, said that the strategy may have been a mistake, as it played into the prevailing internet culture that everything should be free.

What’s this got to do with literature and Fall on Me?

For a limited time only, the e-book version of Fall on Me is available to download on a pay-what-you-want basis. Nice.

For a limited time only, the e-book version of Fall on Me is available to download on a pay-what-you-want basis. Nice.

As is increasingly obvious, the publishing world is currently in turmoil and in many ways is following on the digital coat-tails of the music industry, or at least trying to.  Publishers big and small are looking to try anything and everything to get their books in the hands of readers.  And my publisher, Blemish Books, is no different.  So, for a limited time only, Blemish have released Fall on Me as an e-book on a pay-what-you-want basis.  It’s a very interesting proposition, because it’s actually the mirror-reverse of the In Rainbows experiment: Fall on Me has already had a successful run as a physical book, in terms of both numbers sold and positive reviews achieved.  But will this new strategy generate downloads?  And how much will readers pay for it?  And what do I reckon about all this? I’m just glad that the life of Fall on Me is being extended, and if Blemish’s cheeky Radiohead-esque move means more readers can experience the novella then I’m all for it.  Plus I have a phone-bill to pay.

I’m Ready Now for Smith’s and the Southern Highlands

This little baby's gonna be out and about a bit more.

This little baby’s gonna be out and about a bit more over the coming months.  I’ll probably turn up as well.

Meanwhile, the most recent of the two novellas, I’m Ready Now, continues to make its way in the world as a hard-copy-only book.  A handful of reviews down, and some public-reading gigs in the bag, I’m Ready Now has a few more outings up its sleeve.  At 6pm on Thursday 20 June, I’ll be joining my Blemish stable-mates, including PS Cottier and JC Inman, at a special one-off event called A Very Blemished Evening, a title that suits me perfectly.  It’ll be held at the new Smith’s Alternative, which is a longstanding and iconic Canberra bookshop that’s recently had a major overhaul and is now as much a bar and performance space as it is a place of books and reading.  Do join us: there’ll be booze, which is the main thing, isn’t it.  Oh and I’ve heard gratuitous gossip that there’ll be music by Canberra’s favourite streetwise troubadours, The Cashews.  Now that’s something to get excited about.

Then, a few weeks later, at 4pm on Saturday 13 July, I’ll be taking part in the Southern Highlands Writers’ Festival.  Established only last year, this time around the Festival has on offer literary luminaries such as Anne Sommers, Mark Tredinnick, Ursula Dubasarsky, and Geordie Williamson, all in a charming venue with an intimate atmosphere.  Don’t like the massive crowds of the big-city festivals?  Me neither, so come to this one.  I’ll be sharing the stage with Christine Howe, which is a bit nice as we’re both alumni of the University of Wollongong’s creative writing program.  We’ll be talking ‘Fantastic Fiction’ – apparently this requires us to dress as superheroes.  Me in lycra?  It’ll never happen.  But I’m sure Christine and I will still be able to keep you entertained.  Especially if there’s booze at the end of it.

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As always, thanks for your support and interest.  Fingers crossed that I’ll see you at one – or maybe both? – of these events.  And if you’re in the market for the highest quality e-book known to mankind, I do hope you’ll be able to press the right buttons and make a very independent publisher and their very independent author just that little bit happier.  Plus there’s that phone-bill to pay.  Chink-chink.

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.

Fancy that: a wall of readiness

The build-up

You know, six months out from a book launch, you just can’t wait for the big day – it’s all just too exciting.  Then there’s the week of the launch and you start counting down the sleeps.  But then the morning comes and you think, why the hell do I do this?  It’s the nerves: will anyone turn up?  But there’s also the anxiety around a story, and the people of the story, who have been private for so long, years, all of it being made public: will the words and their intent come alive for readers?

In the end, people do attend book launches, and the book is officially sent out into the world, and you wake up the next morning and think, Wow, what a night; did that all really happen?  Thank you so much to all those who came long to the launch of I’m Ready Now at Electric Shadows Bookshop in Canberra on the Thursday just gone.  A packed-out independent bookshop is always a thing of beauty.

McEwan on the novella

Chris Wallace: no bullshit.  Which was appreciated.  By a lot of people.

I’m Ready Now is a novella, and some people have asked me what this strange beast is all about.  It’s the million-dollar question – if there can be million-dollar questions in the world of literary fiction – and many have tried to come to a definition.  Back in October of this year, Ian McEwan wrote the following in The New Yorker: ‘I believe the novella is the perfect form of prose fiction. It is the beautiful daughter of a rambling, bloated ill-shaven giant’.  It’s a great line.  But in a feature I wrote last year for The Canberra Times on the novella, John Clanchy dived deeper: ‘Whatever we call it, the novella isn’t a novel that’s run out of puff; it isn’t a short story that’s meandered beyond its natural length and lost its way.  I like working with the novella because it shares some of the most attractive features of the novel – its expansiveness, its multiple layers of theme and plot – at the same time constraining them with features normally associated with the short story: intensity of focus, singularity of narrative voice and architecture, discipline of length.  But all the while remaining a distinct species, not a hybrid.’

Two sibling novellas on a shelf – what is it that they’re saying to each other?

What some are thinking

As to the launch itself, a huge thanks to journalist and writer Chris Wallace for cutting the metaphorical ribbon.  What’s the best thing a launcher can offer a writer?  A close reading.  And no bullshit.  Chris, who is infamous for calling a spade a spade, offered both.  Amazingly, there’s already a review of I’m Ready Now: it’s over at the unstoppable literary blog Whispering Gums.  What I love about the review is that it begins with some reflections on the launch, and the independence of these reflections make them more valuable and interesting than anything I can do here.  But the writer of the review, Sue Terry, also gets the books, so much so that she concludes thatI’m Ready Now 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’.  Those last few words, about how the past can grind to a halt if we don’t frame it correctly, really do get to the heart of the book.

Heartfelt thanks

‘It was a dark and stormy night…’ Hang on, this novella’s already got words in it.  No need for any more.

Thanks again to everyone who came along to the launch or sent warm wishes.  Special thanks to Marion Halligan, Karmin Cooper, and editor Nicola O’Shea who really helped to bring I’m Ready Now to life through offering very astute suggestions.  And, of course, much gratitude to Greg Gould and Lesley Boland from Blemish Books for publishing I’m Ready Now (along with Fall on Me last year).  I can only write what I want to write, and what I’d like to read, which means that I may never have the biggest readership in the world (though one can dream), so it’s brilliant that Blemish has made such a commitment to me as a writer and to the novella as a form of story-telling.  What now?  I just hope that I’m Ready Now is read.  One final time: thank you.  Until we meet again.

Your copy is here

I’m Ready Now can be purchased through your local bookshop or you can order it directly from Blemish Books – that link will take you straight to Blemish’s online store.

Today, this morning, right now, it feels as if I live in a lighthouse.  The howling – almost screaming – of the wind hitting the corrugated iron of the roof and passing through, the clank-clank-clank of the neighbour’s back gate, windows rattling, the Old Lady of the House putting her paws over her ears (she’s not good when the weather’s like this). In the old parlour room that’s now my library there’s an airy rush coming down the chimney as though it’s a connection to a very wild other world.  The day’s overcast, but it’s not raining, though it might rain soon, when the wind has blown itself out.  I can admit to you that, in a perverse kind of way, I like the house on days like this – it’s as if the place is alive, it’s as though the paddocks that begin half a kilometre away have reached in to my back door.

Somehow it seems right for it to be like this, because today, so I’ve been told, Blemish Books sends my second novella, I’m Ready Now, to the printer.  I’m nervous, I’m nerve-wracked, I’m excited, I’m frightened.  What’s there to be frightened about?  Isn’t this a good thing?  Yes, it’s a good thing, a great thing – it is, in fact, quite miraculous.  They say that only 1% of writing in Australia gets published, and that without an agent only one in a thousand manuscripts is turned into a book.  These are horrible statistics, there’s no dancing around that.  So I’m lucky, very lucky.  But still this time I’m both excited and frightened.

There’s something about turning yourself inside out when writing words for others to read, any kind of writing really, even this blog post.  But with fiction it’s different.  All the questions and judgements: does this guy know what he’s doing?  Will readers engage with the work, will they be moved?  I operate within the context of small-press independent publishing, so being a ‘top-seller’ isn’t a consideration (or even a dream), nor is winning the big awards.  One small fish; an endless, endless ocean.  But still you want the words, the characters, the story – the predicament, the end result – to mean something to someone.  Eminent Australian novelist Roger McDonald said not long ago that he dreaded the silence; a novelist works on a story for years, maybe even decades, and then…the silence.  McDonald also said that he loved nothing more than a reader coming up to him and saying, I loved your novel, I immersed myself in the characters and what was happening to them, and I lost myself in that world, so thank you.  That’s what Roger McDonald writes for – that response.  After everything he’s achieved, all the accolades.

Obviously, I’m not in McDonald’s league, but my motivation to write is the same: to tell a story, to be heard, to get a response.  One reader of Fall On Me, the first of the Blemish novellas (2011; yes, two novellas in two years – I could never imagine that this is how it would turn out), said that she cried at the end, that she then visited her parents and found herself re-telling the story and her parents asking, ‘What happened next?’  So a story goes out into the universe and it does its thing, or it doesn’t, and sometimes you hear about it and sometimes you don’t.  In essence, it’s no different to when, over thirty years ago, in primary school in the posh northern suburbs of Sydney, a teacher scolded me for demanding – very loudly and persistently – that I be the one to read my story to class.  My hand’s still up, it appears.

Hobart’s Narryna House: it plays a central role – actually, two central roles – in a little book called ‘I’m Ready Now’

Let me tell you a little about I’m Ready Now.  The first draft of the story was written in the first half of 2010 during a mad month of writing while an artist-in-residence at Cataract Gorge, Launceston.  I found it difficult to engage with the gorge and the city – winter wasn’t far away and there was a palpable sense of darkness and doom.  So I retreated into a story about Lynne Gleeson, a mother who, after the sudden death of her wealthy husband, leaves her grand ancestral home in Hobart to spend a fortnight with her son Gordon who is reaching the peak of what he calls his Year of Living Ridiculously.  I’d had the idea for years: a mother who comes to stay but won’t stop cleaning and a son who is on the verge of losing control.  As had happened with Fall On Me, I thought that the idea was nothing more than a short story.  I was wrong.

Over the past two years I’ve edited and polished and edited some more; it’s been looked at by others – professional others and simply generous and honest others – and I’ve edited and polished some more.  Perhaps like any writer, I’ve gone through stages thinking ‘this is kind of okay’ but then ‘this is absolute rubbish – where’s the delete button?’ before ‘maybe, just maybe, it works, but what would I know’.  Have I put everything I’ve got into I’m Ready Now?  Yes, I have, and perhaps even the title alludes to that.  But I’m not Gordon Gleeson in the book, I know no one like Lynne Gleeson (maybe, at the most, she’s a composite of some people I know, but I’m related to none of them), and I’ve never been in the precarious situation they’re in.  What am I writing about?  The complexities of modern Australian families.  Why is this so fascinating?  Because we all have a family of some sort, and we all know – though not everyone can admit it – that they’re endlessly complex and intriguing and bewildering and destructive and hopeless, and in the end we’re nothing without them.

So, as the wind barges its way over and around and just a bit into my little old house, I think of an idea that became a hand-written first draft that became a manuscript – a series of manuscripts, too many to count – that today, perhaps right in this very minute, is in the process of being turned into a book.  The official launch is still two months away (here’s me claiming the date, as they say: Thursday evening, 22 November 2012 at Electric Shadows Bookshop in Canberra, the capital city of my increasingly infuriating nation), but in many ways I can’t wait to have this thing in my hands.  Is this how first-time parents feel when they hold a new-born baby in their arms: what is it that we’ve done?  The analogy has been done before, because it’s apt.

Maybe it’s fitting that I can report to you that it’s raining now, the sound of the pummelling on the corrugated iron, the thrumming on the window panes, all of it a great big roar as though there’s a wild ocean outside.

I’m finished.  At least I think I’m finished. Not finished as in I’m done with this whole writing thing, from now on I’m going to spend the rest of my days planting daffodils and drinking wine.  But finished as in the manuscript for my second novella is done and dusted.  Well, I think it’s done and dusted; Blemish Books might have different ideas.  And it has a title: I’m Ready Now, yes, it can be italicised, because it’s official.  And I certainly hope the manuscript – the story – is ready now, because by the end of the year it will be out in the world and out of my hands.

How do you know if a manuscript is finished?

I’m Ready Now was first written in a mad storm of writing down in Launceston, Tasmania, two years ago almost to the day.  It came together in a week, except it didn’t really come together in a week, did it, that was just the first draft.  And I loved it; parts of it moved me, which, quite frankly, is rare, because I’m the most self-critical of writers, the most self-critical of human beings.  But in the two years since that shot-blast of writing, I’ve been editing and rewriting and polishing and editing and rewriting and polishing some more.  A lot more.  And it’s been professionally edited, which has resulted in more editing and rewriting – cutting, adding, cutting, adding – until I’ve felt that it’s in a state fit for final submission to Blemish Books.

On the Wednesday of the week just gone, I bit the bullet at last and sent it away.  So it’s in my publisher’s hands now.

Kindly, generously, Blemish Books sent off a tweet into the universe.  Just got the latest draft of Nigel Featherstone’s upcoming novella I’m Ready Now.  Can’t wait to dive back in.  Love watching words evolve.  A few months ago they put out some advance publicity: The second of Featherstone’s ‘Launceston novellas’ is an insightful and daring examination of family, sexuality, loss and moving forward.  How would I describe the book?  Oh don’t ask me; I’m so terrible at this question.  But here’s a stab in the dark: if Fall On Me, the first of my ‘Launceston novellas’, was a father-and-son story, I’m Ready Now is a mother-and-son story, which is always tricky terrain, isn’t it, especially when I’m a son myself, and I have a mother.  But this novella has nothing to do with Launceston: it’s set in Sydney, although the family is from Battery Point, Hobart.  And Ireland.

Do I think the manuscript for I’m Ready Now is finished? Yes, I do.  If my story was a house construction, it’s reached lock-up stage.

What happens now?  Blemish Books will put the manuscript through their own internal editing process, and then they’ll start working on the cover and internal layout, and then a date will be set for the launch, which will most likely be in November this year.  Am I excited?  Yes, I’m excited.  But I’m also exhausted.  This hasn’t been the easiest birth, this book, and it has challenging themes, and a challenging structure, and it’s not something that I’ve tried before, so it’s all a big fat dirty risk.

But what’s writing without risk?

Postscript: it’s not every day that someone writes a poem about a book of mine, certainly not when the book’s still a few months away from being published, but Gabrielle Bryden’s done just that.  Amazing huh?

Cowan Creek, Kuringai Chase National Park, Sydney, 1986

‘Don’t do it,’ she said, ‘they’ll eat you alive, you’ll regret it, you might not write another word.’  We were in a cafe and I’d just told my friend that I’d been invited to attend a Canberra book-club to talk about Fall On Me.  ‘They forget that you’re the writer and it turns feral,’ she explained.  ‘I certainly won’t be attending one ever again.’  So I worried about it, whether I should go or not; I became more and more nervous as the evening drew closer.  I seriously considered cancelling my involvement, or perhaps I could come down with a very rare but completely depilating illness.  Which, thankfully, never had to happen.  Because my evening with a book-club turned out to be one of the best things I’ve done in 18 years of doing this; in fact, it’s in my Top Three Writerly Experiences of All Time.

For a start, the host was an old high-school friend, and we’d not seen each other for 25 years.  I knew this already, which is why I would never have cancelled, because Rosy was wonderful at school, so kind and generous and good natured, and I had no doubt that she wouldn’t have changed, and I was right.  Secondly, how often does a writer have an opportunity to discuss his/her book for three hours with people who’ve read it so closely?  Even to the point that they picked up a mistake: in the book, two characters – Lou Bard, a single father and cafe owner, and his enigmatic housemate Anna – are having a deep and meaningful discussion in the kitchen over a bottle of red: large wine glasses are used, and the wine is poured out three times, which the book-clubbers said was unlikely out of just one bottle.  (I really should know these things, shouldn’t I.)  But how lovingly – have I mentioned that the group comprised only women? – this observation was made.  In fact, it was a great laugh.

Thirdly – and here’s the truly amazing thing – what really clinched it for me was this: each book-club session someone volunteers to bring food inspired by the book.  One of the women made a pizza based on the favourite topping of Lou’s son Luke: potato, fetta and chilli.  With a huge smile on her face she said to me, ‘It must be very yummy for you to put it in the book!’  And I said, ‘I have no idea – I just made it up!’  That’s fiction for you.  Thankfully Luke has excellent taste, and we all woofed the pizza down, and I’m going to make it, too, life imitating art.  She also made caramel slice, because there’s mention in the book of Lou having caramel slice in his cake display at the cafe, but it must have been there for a while because it’s started to get that slightly unsavoury dew on top.  So she put her home-made slice in the fridge for an hour to replicate the effect.

How good is that.

It makes me want to do it all again, which is handy because, as reported earlier, it is all happening again: Blemish Books is publishing another novella from me later this year, another of the Launceston novellas, the stories I wrote while I spent a month in that town as an artist-in-residence at the Cataract Gorge Kings Bridge Gatekeeper’s Cottage courtesy of the City Council.

As a kid I loved writing, telling stories; the highlight of my week was the double creative-writing period.  I’d write and write and write, just made shit up really, but I loved how the pen seemed to get carried away on the page, except it was really me who was getting carried away, wasn’t it.  And I still get carried away, especially when writing by hand, as in handwriting, which is what I did in Launceston during those four weeks.  When school finished all that time ago, however, there was no thought – it simply never occurred to me – that I might go on to do something with this story-telling thing, so I enrolled in landscape architecture, because it seemed interesting enough, and it was.

But the boy in the photo above: though he’s hiding from you, though you can’t see his face, you know what he’s thinking: school is finished, I’m off to university, it’s all a great adventure, but what am I doing, what am I to do with this life?  It’s not until now that he knows.

Because the boy is me.

It was the light, such brightness.  We’d had heat for days, temperatures hitting forty degrees Celsius, the chooks barely coping, before a stretch of cool, overcast weather, a little mist.  But on Tuesday just gone, there it was, the light, such brightness, extraordinary clarity, as if we’d been living through a dust-storm that had suddenly cleared, or I’d finally cleaned the windows after twenty years of domestic laziness (which reminds me).  In reality, it was nothing more than a morning with a clear blue sky, no heat, just the clear blue sky, but how magical it felt.  I wanted to grab my coffee and sit outside and be out there, amongst the light on the blooming white roses, on the lavender that’s coming, and on the tomatoes that are fruiting up nicely; and the chooks, of course, those angels of the handkerchief-sized yard of mine.

But still I went down there, the opposite direction, to my writing room at the front of the house and opposite the library.  It’s quite a big room, my writing room – it could easily fit in a queen-sized bed (which would result in no writing, that’s for sure).  There’s a view out into the front veranda and the strip of yard out the front and the picture-postcard picket fence and the plane-tree avenue and the houses on the other side of the road and Rocky Hill on the other side of town.  But I’m getting carried away.  The point is I like my writing room: there’s no internet, no stereo, no bookshelves except a small white one that contains a collection of dictionaries.  One black Acer PC, which is holding up well considering how cheap it was; a Canon colour printer-scanner-copier, of which I’m just a little too fond.  The walls are painted a deep mud-red, which, in certain kinds of light, matches the turpentine floorboards.  A lot of things on the walls: a painting done by a friend, screen-prints, photos I’ve taken (some dating back to the early 1980s), story outlines.

So I enjoy it, being in this place, but on a day when the light outside is so extraordinary that you find that you’ve spent ten minutes staring at it, marvelling, there are thoughts that go through my head: why do I go down the hallway to the writing room?  What’s the true impulse?  Perhaps the most honest – and potentially most famous – essay on the subject is ‘Why I Write’ by George Orwell (1953).  Orwell talks about ego, and aesthetic enthusiasm, and political purpose, amongst others, with political purpose being his greatest motivator: ‘…looking back through my work, I see that it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally’.

I can’t find any reason to disagree with Orwell, but somehow there’s something missing.  Although it’s rather presumptuous – pompous even – to talk about my own motivations (Fall On Me might be pretty good, but it’s no Animal Farm), the topic is something I often think about, especially when I’ve just received bad news – the rejection of a story submitted, notice of a bad review, or my own conclusion that what I’m writing is stillborn.  Why exactly do I insist on spending the majority of my week sitting at my desk and making up stories?  In many ways, it’s an absurd practice: I did it as a kid, it was just playing back then, and I’m still doing it now, aged forty-three, except it remains playing.  Even though I write contemporary realist fiction, I’m doing nothing more than making up worlds and characters and predicaments.

Sure there are things I want to say, there are records that I want to leave behind, and, yes, I do love playing with words and sentences; getting life on the page is no easy task, in fact it’s more impossible than possible, so there’s an almighty challenge in all of this, and when it happens, that life, when you can feel pulse on the page, when the world is as real as any world can ever be, well, there’s no other feeling of accomplishment – it’s as though you’ve managed to go to the moon and back.  But I can’t escape thinking that the main reason why I turn away from spending a day outside in the most magical of light is that, on the whole, I find the fictional world more interesting than the world on the other side of the glass.

Here’s a huge, heartfelt thank you to everyone who’s emailed, in-boxed (what a dreadful term that is), rung (so old-fashioned), or even spoken with me face-to-face (yes, sometimes these things happen) about Fall On Me, a humble little novella that has now been out in the world for three and a half months.  By and large, the response to the story – I prefer to see it this way rather than as ‘a book’ – has been warm and positive.  A full list of review quotes can be found over at the Blemish Books website and also at Open To Public.  A refreshingly in-depth review can be found at Whispering Gums – a massive thanks to Sue Terry.

And now what?

Yes, there is something I want to tell you, but first things first: being January I’ve been thinking a lot about how I want 2012 to be in terms of writing.  It’s something I do every year: kind of prepare a map for the next twelve months.  Of course, a map can only ever be a guide, and it’s good to go off into the wilderness once in a while, even get lost, which is something I do a little too frequently to be healthy.  I just looked up lost in my trusty Roget’s Thesaurus – Everyman Edition (1976) to see five primary categories: invisible, non-existing, bewildered, inattentive, and demoralised.  I can certainly be all these things, and more.

But this isn’t a post about being lost; it’s more to do with maps and goals and hopes, yes, hopes, let’s not forget about them.  Almost two years ago I went off to spend a month in Tasmania.  I’ve written about that trip enough, but the plan back then – the goal, the hope, the bloody dream – was to write whatever the hell I wanted to write.  I wrote three novellas, which wasn’t the plan, but what can you do.  Fall On Me was the first to be published.  I don’t wish to suggest that Fall On Me just came out fully formed – the old ‘oh it just wrote itself’ thing.  Far from it.  Once back home there was a shitload of editing, rewriting, editing some more, more rewriting, polishing, feedback, taking the feedback seriously, and yet more editing and rewriting.  But – remarkably, thankfully – I never lost that attitude of ‘I don’t care about what anyone says; I will tell the story I want to tell, and I will write it the way I want to write it’.

Clearly I do care about what people think.  I’ve waited anxiously for reviews to appear.  When the reviews have come down on the side of the book, I’ve been one happy man; perhaps there’s been a bit of a dance in the loungeroom, air-guitar even.  When the reviews have done the opposite, I’ve been gutted, though perhaps filleted is a better word – my bones have been removed and I’m immobilised.  With Fall On Me, it’s been the readers who’ve responded openly, generously – many seemed actually moved by the characters and their predicament: single-dad Lou Bard coping with his provocative (but big-hearted) teenaged son Luke.  One comment in particular has especially resonated: a mother of two teenagers told me after reading the novella how amazing it is that children often teach their parents a thing or two.  I’m not a parent – in fact I’m the least paternal person in the history of the universe – but I’m glad to have Lou and Luke Bard in my life, because through knowing them I’ve learnt more about risk and bravery and love and intimacy and strength and survival.

But all that sounds just a little pious, doesn’t it, in a literary kind of way.

Gay zombies for novellas?

What I want to tell you is this: due to the warm reception to Fall On Me, and the quantum of sales, which in the larger scheme of commercial book publishing is small, but in the small-press context is more than healthy, and for an Australian novella is almost miraculous, Blemish Books has committed to doing a second of the Launceston novellas, which will be due for publication towards the end of this year.  I don’t want to talk about the story here, but I can say that it won’t be as PG as Fall On Me (even though if Fall On Me was ever made into a film it’d probably be R-rated – all that nudity would never wash with our supremely conservative times).  Will this new novella have sex?  Highly likely.  Murder?  Perhaps.  Death?  Oh yes, there’ll be death.  Gay zombies?  You’ll have to wait and see.

So the process starts again: editing and rewriting and polishing, feedback, taking the feedback seriously, and more editing and rewriting and polishing.  And then Blemish Books will work on cover options, and marketing collateral, and launch arrangements, and they’ll send out advance copies to reviewers…

Am I excited?  You better believe it!  Come with me, why don’t you, as another humble little novella comes into being.

Postscript: last year I wrote a feature article for The Canberra Times about the trickiness of novellas, particularly in terms of defining the little buggers and getting the damn things published.  Despite the fact that there have been some very famous and influential novellas down through the literary ages, publishers these days believe that they’re too expensive to produce and readers aren’t fond of them, so in the end they’re just not commercially viable.  But there’s some good news on the horizon: eminent Australian literary journal Griffith Review recently announced that it had established a national novella competition; in 2012 it will publish at least three novellas (it is defining ‘novella’ as a work between 10,000 and 40,000 words) with a total prize pool of $30,000.  The word WOOHOO comes to mind.  Details are here.  Sorry, the competition is for Australian and New Zealand writers only.

If you’re looking for something to do tomorrow – Sunday 30 October – why not come to South Hill Gallery (3 Garroorigang Road, Goulburn), where I’ll be reading from Fall On Me. Proceedings kick off at 2pm. There’ll be cake – probably.  The reading is in conjunction with an extraordinary exhibition by Sydney artist Jim Anderson. So you’ll get spoken words with pictures, too. And some of the pictures contain nudity.  What’s more, the whole shebang’s free!

So.  There’s yet another book in the world.  A month ago, more or less, my novella Fall On Me became a reality, as in it was all of a sudden made public, by the inimitable Robyn Archer, who said nice words about the book.  I remember few of Robyn’s nice words, because I was standing beside her looking like a stunned mullet, according to He Who Is Allowed To Make Such Observations.  However, I do remember Robyn describing Fall On Me as an emotional thriller, or perhaps it was psychological thriller, yes, let’s go with that, because that sounds better, better as in sexier, because being sexier is the name of the publishing game these days, isn’t it.  I guess the point is this: on September 15 2011 there was a launch where Robyn Archer and my publisher, Blemish Books, and various attendees who’d kindly crowded into Electric Shadows Bookshop said nice things; some people even queued to have my scrappy, scratchy signature on the main title page of their copy.

Once the launch was done there’s been the excruciating wait for reviews.  I’d like to say that I’m man enough to not worry about reviews, that I’m big enough (in every possible way) not to take any notice of what professional critics say about my work.  But I do worry, I do take notice.  Why?  Because through a review someone – usually an articulate, erudite, respected someone – tells a lot of potential readers what they think about my work, about all that effort and heartache.  Of course, we all know that the critic is critiquing the writing, not the writer, right?  Wrong.  Show me a writer – any type of creative person – who can separate their work from themselves and I’ll show you a dirty fraud.  Thankfully, on balance, the reviews have been generous to Fall On Me.  So far the novella has been described as ‘a well-crafted tale’ (Sydney Morning Herald), a book of ‘substance, seriousness and a fair dose of poignancy’ (The Canberra Times) and containing ‘easy characters to like and care about’ (Varuna News).

There’ll be more reviews, I think, if only because I believe there are one or two others in the pipeline, or the gun barrel.  And then what?  There is undoubtedly a ‘come down’ element to publication: after all the work and wait and hope, someone presses the magic button and a story is made public – it’s let loose on the world, and the world responds in countless ways, if it responds at all.  On top of the reviews, I’ve received some lovely, warm emails from readers, or people have told me directly what they think of the story.  One of the conversations I’ve liked the most was when a reader asked me what I reckon becomes of Luke Bard, the book’s provocative but lonely teenage protagonist.  I said, ‘I’m fairly sure he moves to Melbourne to study medicine.’  And the reader replied, ‘But does he make any friends?’  I like how ink and paper can make people care.

But that question.  Now what?  Well, the answer is this: just keep going.  Despite the absurdity of the fiction writer’s task – to lie, lie, and lie some more until people believe in it, and maybe some people are even moved by it – I do want to keep going, to see what happens next.  To see what sort of story and book – if any – emerges now.  In the meantime, Fall On Me is out there, on bookshop shelves, in libraries, on bedside tables in homes, perhaps even down the back of the couch.  And as ludicrous as it sounds, I like to think that it’s doing good things, quietly, if not meekly (how good would it be if novellas inherited the earth!) telling us to take risks, to be brave, to love, and the rest will look after itself.

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