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A month ago I heard the squeal and clunk and whoosh of the postie: in my letterbox were two proof copies of MY HEART IS A LITTLE WILD THING. Which meant I had reached a particular stage in the journey of writing this novel. Here was my last opportunity to make changes; and at that time there were only three months before the baby would be out in the world.

Yikes.

So, for the past few weeks, in my crumbly old house in regional New South Wales, I have been hunched over the pages, tightening here and there and everywhere, making sure every word is right and resonant. Well, that’s the dream, isn’t it. In a way it is an exciting time, because it means the novel will soon be no longer be mine – I will have given it to others, the book will be the reader’s. But it is also a challenging time, because I really do want every word and sentence and paragraph to be perfect. Which, of course, is an unattainable goal.

I shared my battle (if that is the right word) with perfection with two other novelists, both of whom are multi-award-winning. One said, ‘Perfection is something I’ve neither aimed for nor achieved.’ The other shared with me a story:

Some years ago, when we lived in a different city, we had a dog, Meg, who was a Shetland collie-kelpie cross. She was one of those gorgeous dogs you mourn for ages after their death. She was so full of life, and when she was young we wondered if she would ever settle down. But our friend, John, talking about the biblical line, ‘Be perfect even as God is perfect’ or something similar, said that Meg was perfect not because she was good or obedient, but because she was perfectly dog and perfectly herself. That she was thoroughly herself and that’s all she needed to be. I don’t quite know how that transfers to novels and writing, but I always think of that story as taking away the need to get things right. I suppose for my writing I hope that I can let it be itself, and breathe; I don’t need to get it ‘right’. It also reminds me that I don’t need to compare with other work because only mine can be its perfect self.

Which was very helpful.

Perhaps, in the end, we can only hope that our work, in its own wonderful way, is perfectly imperfect.

Another anecdote, another that is entirely true:

Towards the end of last year, the day after I sent to my wonderful publisher at Ultimo what at the time was the latest draft of the novel, I was tidying my writing room when one of my journals threw itself from a shelf to the floor. My journals contain ideas for stories, most of which are destined to remain just that: ideas in a journal. Now sprawled on the floor, the journal had opened randomly to a page, in which was a note (written in my dreadful hand): ‘The Tiger Quoll: both Alison and Shaw are obsessed with the story of the tiger quoll’. The note is dated June 2007. I’ve long forgotten who Alison and Shaw were meant to be, but I have never forgotten about the tiger quoll. Perhaps it was me who became obsessed with that beguiling little creature – because it is a key motif in MY HEART IS A LITTLE WILD THING.

The very final edits of which I finished on Wednesday this week. Fifteen years, it seems, after I wrote that scrappy note. The occasion called for a G&T. More than one.

Next stop: publication on 4 May.

If you would like to be first in line to get your hands on a copy, the novel is currently available for pre-order. Should you head over that way, thank you.

Before you go, here are my recent adventures in reading:

THE RIPPING TREE by Nikki Gemmell – a powerful and, at times, harrowing novel about the lies non-Indigenous folk tell about the forming of this thing called Australia. It shook my bones.

WHEN THINGS ARE ALIVE THEY HUM by Hannah Brent – the commitment of sisters, the shenanigans of families, the lure of Hong Kong. A poignant and thought-provoking delight.

NEW ANIMAL by Ella Baxter – I tore through this novel and it tore through me. Really. Truly. My god.

QUESTIONS RAISED BY QUOLLS by Harry Saddler – nature, fatherhood…and how are we meant to live when everything seems to be going to hell in a handbasket? A book about worry, but not without hope.

FOUND, WANTING by Natasha Sholl – the grief memoir everyone is talking about, and rightly so. How is someone meant to respond when their partner dies unexpectedly in their sleep? Despite the subject matter, it’s beautifully observed, and lightened with wit and humour.

COLD ENOUGH FOR SNOW by Jessica Au – one of the most remarkable pieces of prose fiction I’ve read in a long time. A mother and daughter holiday in Japan: that’s it, that’s the plot. And it’s extraordinary.

THE SWALLOWS OF KABUL by Yasmina Khadra (actually a former male officer in the Afghanistan army) – an incredible, and gut-wrenching, tale about life under the Taliban. Written, of course, before recent events. Heart-breaking.

AMONGST WOMEN by John McGahern – a profound study of the lifelong impacts of war (it’s set in Ireland in the 1980s) on a man and a family. McGahern is no longer with is, but what a gift is this novel. Colm Tóibín is a fan; now I am too.

WHAT ARE YOU GOING THROUGH by Sigrid Nunez – I love Nunez, and I loved THE FRIEND, and I loved this. Brief, but so wise. If only I had a tenth of her ability.

As ever, much gratitude, and love to all. Especially during these turbulent times.

Since 1995, when he published Loaded, a slim but incendiary novel about twenty-four hours in the life of a young, gay, Greek man living in Melbourne, Christos Tsiolkas has been a powerful literary force. He would go on to receive high praise and perhaps even riches for The Slap (2008), a kaleidoscopic novel which would be adapted for television in Australia and the US. There has been Damascus (2019), Tsiolkas’s award-winning re-imagining of the life of St Paul and the dark and violent early days of the Christian church, as well as other novels, a short story collection, and criticism.

His is a towering presence, one that would be intimidating if the man did not have a reputation for being warm and generous.

But this reviewer can now hear Tsiolkas spitting venom: ‘Do not bring my personality into this, you fool. Do not mix my life with my art.’

So then, this latest work.

7 ½ is subtitled ‘a novel’, but how much of that is true? It concerns a Melbourne-based novelist called Christos Tsiolkas. He lives with his long-term, same-sex partner. He is in his mid-fifties. The narrative involves Christos (sometimes ‘Christo’ and sometimes ‘Chris’) taking himself to a rented holiday house on the far south coast of New South Wales in the hope of retreating from the world with all its distractions to write a new book. We see Christos writing in the house – often on the deck overlooking a manicured garden – and swimming at the beach, making meals, watching films, smoking, reading, and dreaming, which is a close cousin of the imagination, as it is of writing fiction.

The Christos of the novel makes it clear that he is telling a number of stories simultaneously, one relating to his childhood and adolescence, another about a retired gay porn star who, despite now being married to a woman and has a son, is offered a large sum of money to return to the US, the country of his birth and former profession, to have sex with an elderly gentleman who never had the opportunity to properly explore his sexuality.

In typical Tsiolkas fashion, 7 ½ is also a polemic.

*

Keep reading this review at the Canberra Times, where it was published on 13 November 2021.

As this year, a publication year for your old Goulburn mate, comes to an end, I’d just like to say thanks so much to all the lovely folk who have been a part of the BODIES OF MEN adventure.

Thanks to those who attended the launch of the novel back in May at the wonderful Street Theatre in Canberra.

Thanks to those who attended my speaking gigs, in bookshops, libraries, and schools.

Thanks to those who have messaged me with photos of the book in various places around Australia and in New Zealand – it’s such a simple gesture but it means a lot.

Thanks to those who have emailed or messaged me or come up to me at events and shared their experience of the novel. So very much appreciated.

Thanks to those who interviewed me and helped find an audience for my funny little war novel.

Thanks to those who have written responses to the novel online and then shared them. Some members of the literary community are just amazing, like Sue Terry from Whispering Gums – check out Sue’s summary of authors who have blogs, which includes a little mention of this here place in the online world.

Special thanks to all the many bookshops who stock the novel – you are bona fide heroes.

Special thanks also to my magic-making agent, Gaby Naher of Left Bank Literary in Sydney, and my very smart and hardworking publisher, Robert Watkins at Hachette Australia.

What have I learned?

To be frank, I have no idea, but here are some thoughts, which may or may not end up being true:

  • confidence is a trickster
  • publication is the fullstop at the end of the sentence
  • for the stories that find a home, it was always impossible to predict where that home was going to be
  • accept invitations that make you feel as though you’re going to faint
  • it is better to make art that no one sees than to not have made art
  • success is 10% talent, 20% luck, 50% hard work; no one knows what makes up the remaining 20%
  • doubt is a loyal friend and is more helpful than you may realise.

What happens now?

After a bit of a summer break, my mind will turn to other projects, although I do have a BODIES OF MEN-related event in Queensland in April, just in time for Anzac Day 2020 – it will be at Avid Reader and with authors Melanie Meyers and Simon Cleary and moderated by the tireless Cass Moriarty. We’ll be talking all things writing war.

See you next year (if we in Australia survive the Bushfire Apocalypse).

It has been a fantastic year of reading, to the point that the thought of compiling a list of the books I have enjoyed the most is almost too daunting. But I am up for the challenge. As has become tradition around these parts, not all the following books were published this year; some were published in 2014 or even 2013. However, all have had a big impact on me one way or another.

So let’s do this.

Life After LifeLife after Life by Kate Atkinson – what a cracking piece of work this is, and as a reading experience it is sublime. Primarily set in London during the Blitz, Atkinson has her main character Ursula die regularly, often at the end of each chapter. As others have noted, Atkinson’s great achievement with this novel (and at 632 pages it is a whopper) is that we keep caring even though we, as readers, know that we are being toyed with. The writing is just so full of, well, life: humour and wit and intelligence and love. I am very much looking forward to the sequel, A God in Ruins, which apparently is even more extraordinary. Atkinson is a marvel.

Another work that has been getting a lot of international attention is Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk. The author’s beloved father has died so she decides to work her way through her grief by training a goshawk. The prose blew me away: like Atkinson (though the tone is very different), each and every one of Macdonald’s sentences is superb. Just open a page and pluck a sentence at random: ‘Sodium lights, dusk, a wall tipped sideways from the vertical and running into the distance; a vanishing point of sallow, stormy sky.’ Yes, superb.

The Golden AgeThe Golden Age by Joan London has been getting recognised in many of Australia’s highly regarded literary awards, including most recently being shortlisted in the 2015 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards. And so it should. It is a post-World War Two story set in Perth’s Golden Age polio rehabilitation facility for children. With great gentleness, but also with precision, London explores the world of the disease mostly through the eyes of two children, but we are also given a portrait of a migrant family and an exploration of an Australia that is still trying to find itself. So much of this novel lingers after the last page is turned.

In Tom Houghton, Todd Alexander explores the life of a young boy growing up gay in Western Sydney, the bullying he experiences, and the impact this has on him as an older man. What makes this novel remarkable is the linking to Katharine Hepburn’s teenage brother, who died in tragic (and potentially mysterious) circumstances. The interplay between the young and older Tom is beautifully done, and there is an appealing openness and honesty in the prose. Highly recommended.

Sofie Laguna’s The Eye of the Sheep won the 2015 Miles Franklin Award and it is not hard to see why. On the surface, we have been here before: an overweight and long-suffering mother, an abusive father, and a child with special needs. But the story, which is told from the child’s perspective, is artfully done – in a way this novel is a masterclass in voice. It is heartbreaking (in so many ways), but Laguna shows such care for her characters and her words on the page. It bursts with life.

The Natural Way of ThingsThere has been a real buzz around Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things, and it is more than justified. A fable for our time, a group of young women wake from a drug stupor to find themselves entrapped in some kind of Australian desert prison; the commonality appears to be that they have all suffered some kind of sexual abuse, often in very public ways. This is a truly harrowing story, but it is also an important one: Wood unflinchingly reveals the misogyny that blackens the heart of contemporary Australian life. The Natural Way of Things is going to be all over the awards next year.

A similarly harrowing story is khulud khamis’ Haifa Fragments. Set in the Israeli city of Haifa, khamis refuses to allow her main character to be defined by boundaries. As it says on the cover, ‘Raised a Christian, in a relationship with a Muslim man and enamoured with a Palestinian woman from the Occupied Territories, Maisoon must determine her own path’. Haifa Fragments is a raw and vital piece of work published by Australia’s unstoppable Spinifex Press.

As I write this list I can see a theme emerging: harrowing books that have been artfully written. In My Mother’s Hands by Biff Ward is no different. It opens with ‘There is a grave in my family that was never visited’ and from that moment Ward takes us on a journey through her family, focusing on her mother’s mental illness and its long-term impact. It sounds disturbing, and it is, but Ward’s prose is thoughtfully turned. An important book.

The AnchoressThe same could be said for The Anchoress by Robyn Cadwallader. In the thirteenth century, Sarah is seventeen and a holy woman who chooses to be shut away in a small cell attached to a church – for life. In a way, Sarah is like a good-luck charm for the church and the broader society. Cadwallader’s challenge is to bring Sarah to life and have her go on some kind of journey despite being trapped (it is interesting to think of the thematic link between The Anchoress and The Natural Way of Things). Amazingly Cadwallader’s novel is a rich and sensual experience, and the prose is full of compassion – the author does not judge. An original and thought-provoking piece of work.

It has been fascinating to observe the emergence of climate fiction, or ‘cli-fi’, and perhaps the most prominent recent Australian novel in this genre (terrible word), is James Bradley’s Clade. Beginning in a year about now, Bradley takes us through various climate-change scenarios. If that sounds like polemic, it’s not: each interlinked story is very much character driven, and climate issues help to create the world rather than be an overbearing element. Reading Clade is a highly memorable and moving experience – the tone is hopeful and the prose luminescent.

I also enjoyed the wonderfully subtle The Life of Houses by Lisa Gorton, We Are Better Than This, an important and timely collection of essays on Australia’s deplorable asylum-seeker policy (edited by Robyn Cadwallader), Gerald Murnane’s hilarious A Lifetime on Clouds (first published in 1976 but republished in 2013 by Text as part of its Classics series), and the poised poetry of Sarah Holland-Batt in The Hazards.

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