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Well, the writing life is full of surprises, isn’t it?

Today it was announced that BODIES OF MEN has been longlisted in the inaugural 2020 ARA Historical Novel Prize, which recognises the best historical long-form fiction in Australia and New Zealand.

Crikey, I did not expect that.

Indeed, expecting anything as an author is a recipe for a disaster. Mostly I just want to get better, and, perhaps, to connect with more and more folk who are interested in literature. So a nod like this is a shot in the arm (to mangle my body parts).

And what a list to be on. It’s all rather dazzling, which means I’ll head to the couch for the rest of the day. This afternoon the Southern Tablelands weather is miserable – cool and rainy – so perhaps I’ll light the fire.

It’s made me wonder what is it that any writer hopes to achieve when they sit down at the desk and start working on the first sentence, and then, hopefully, the last sentence. I’m not sure recognition is the answer; perhaps it’s just about wanting to create some kind of ripples in the literary pond, and, with a bit of luck, the bigger pool beyond.

In any case, there’ll be a few moments of reflection to mark the occasion, and then back to the desk in the morning.

Over and out.

*

UPDATE: a brief interview and reading for the longlisting can be found here.

Can good things happen in a pandemic? Apparently.

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

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

Charlotte Wood

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

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

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

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

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

To get just a little better.

In a couple of weeks I’ll be LIVE ONLINE talking all things Writing War with the very wonderful Melanie Myers, Simon Cleary, and Cass Moriarty, who must be one of the hardest-working people in Australian letters.

The panel, which was organised last year by Avid Reader Bookshop in Brisbane, was originally scheduled to be held in person in the store. However, things have changed a lot since then, haven’t they. It’s been a tough year for so many, a heart-breaking year, a tragic year. The writing community has had to rethink how it does things, with events either cancelled or moved online. Thankfully the Writing War discussion will still be happening, thanks to the wonders of the internet and the tenacity of folk.

Who knows what we’ll end up talking about, but we’ve already decided that we won’t be shy about heading into the contentious (and increasingly frightening) world of Australian military history. Why is it so hard to talk about war history? Why are so many scared about having a point of view?

Have we really reached the point where it is impossible to have an alternative or creative view about Australia’s military past? Is it now impossible to critique it, even in a respectful and informed way? Why is it that people have lost their jobs – indeed some have even been kicked out of the country – if they have tweeted criticism about Anzac Day?

It will all be happening at 6.30pm on Monday 20 April. The tickets are just $5. It’ll be via Zoom so it’s open to folk anywhere in the world.

It’d be great to have your company.

Booking information here. Big thanks to to Krissy Kneen and the amazing team at Avid Reader Bookshop.

Despite the world having serious wobbles at the moment as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic (though thankfully, miraculously, Australia appears to be faring much better than many other countries), some good things continue to happen.

BODIES OF MEN is still doing its humble little thing: finding readers here and there; it’s such a joy to receive messages from folk saying that they have enjoyed the novel. In rather lovely news, for the month of April Amazon has the e-book version on special for $2.99. If you’re a Kindle user and would like an affordable way of reading the novel, now is your chance! Also please do help to spread the word – it’s autumn in Australia so the chooks have gone off the lay, which means more trips to Woolies, which means I need to have a few coins rattling around my pockets.

In related news, like many writers I have lost a number of gigs due to The Virus, but at least one is still going ahead, albeit online: a panel organised by the Avid Reader Bookshop in Brisbane, Writing War, which features Melanie Myers, Simon Cleary and your old Goulburn mate and facilitation by Cass Moriarty, will be held via Zoom at 6pm (Queensland time) on Monday 20 April. Tickets are just $5 and can be bought here. It would be terrific to see you.

Moving from the page to the stage: my new play – with songs – has been selected for a creative development through the First Seen program, which is an initiative of The Street Theatre in Canberra. Last month I had the opportunity to spend two days at The Street doing a preliminary creative development with dramaturge Anne-Louise Rentell, which was such a productive experience. First Seen will offer an even deeper experience and involve a range of creative voices exploring and challenging the work. While usually this would happen over an intense 7-day period in the theatre’s rehearsal space, due to COVID-19 the sessions will be over Zoom and spread across 2 weeks in May.

The text for the work is still very much a work-in-progress, but here is a sample from one of the songs:

Who is he,

the man who dares to himself himself

‘father’?

 

He is my

he is your

crumbling wall

What I find (sometimes almost overwhelmingly) fascinating about writing for the stage is being able to access input from so many creatives, all with their different perspectives and requirements. In a way, there’s no way of knowing what will emerge, but, to be frank, it’s exciting.

To end: during the week I posted on my socials a photograph of me from when I was about 5 years old; it’s at the top of this post. Although I said online that the photo was taken in my backyard, I was actually at a holiday house my family used to rent at Mount Wilson in the Blue Mountains, to the west of Sydney. Throughout my childhood we spent many holidays at Mount Wilson and I adored it; I still think about the place. And write about it. A lot. My first novel, REMNANTS (Pandanus Books, 2005, largely out of print but information is available here), was set at Mount Wilson, a significant chunk of BODIES OF MEN involves Mount Wilson, and a recent memoir essay I wrote for the special Australian Issue of the CHICAGO QUARTERLY REVIEW explored my ongoing association with the place, including an event that has continued to resonate. (You might be pleased to know that new projects have moved ‘off mountain’.)

The caption I used for the photo when posted online was ‘One minute you’re a happy little kid playing theatre in the backyard; the next you’re a gloomy bloody author. Either way, buy a copy of the BODIES OF MEN e-book and cheer this old bugger up?’

Perhaps I’ll end this post by simply saying: if you’ve ever bought a copy of one of my books, or you’ve come to one of my shows or events, if you’ve commented here or on the socials, thank you.

Very much.

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).

As luck would have it, BODIES OF MEN continues to adventure itself into the world and, sometimes, I get to tag along. As many other authors have noted, there is an element of letting go when a novel is published: what happens is essentially out of the control of the person who dreamed it into being. Some of us worry – some of us worry a lot – but that’s largely unproductive. The novel has to have its own ride.

Here are two things that have happened lately, and one that’s about to happen.

Last month there was a review of BODIES OF MEN in the Australian Book Review. Although it’s rather unbecoming (and possibly dangerous) to focus too much on reviews, this one, by Patrick Allington, did offer a bit of a shot in the arm:

BODIES OF MEN offers a thoroughly humanising depiction of Australians during World War II. In telling the story of two soldiers, William and his childhood friend James, Featherstone reflects upon the brutality, drudgery, and absurdity of war but also on the two men’s love and regard for each other. He weaves a compassionate tale but one that contains multiple layers of tension. It is also persistently surprising, as if the author has found a way to keep the ground beneath the characters – and readers – constantly shifting. Although William and James dominate the story, Featherstone draws upon a range of intriguing, deftly drawn characters; his characterisations of women are particularly rich and complex.’

Speaking of Australian literary journals, one of the gutsiest and hardest-working, Verity La, published an interview with me this week. I thoroughly enjoyed the conversation with Tamara Lazaroff, who asked incitement questions. While we’re talking about gutsy, I understand that shortly Verity La will be running a crowdfunding campaign to keep the journal going. If you can, please swing them a few dollars.

 

 

Finally, next month I will be in Sydney doing a double-headline gig with the very fine  Holden Sheppard. Born and bred in regional Western Australia, Holden’s debut novel, INVISIBLE BOYS, won the 2018 City of Fremantle Hungerford Award, and will be published by Fremantle Press next month. Our joint gig, in which we’ll be chatting to each other about our books and related topics – sexuality, masculinity, intimacy, maybe even love – will be held at Better Read Than Dead Bookshop in Newtown: 6.30pm, Thursday 10 October. It’s free. More information here.

Thank you to all those who have sent me messages or emails saying they have read BODIES OF MEN and enjoyed it. The other day, at a writing event in Canberra, someone came up to me and said, ‘I read your novel, I was absorbed into the world of the novel, and I have kept thinking about James and William.’ That’s all a novelist really wants: to have someone engage with the work in an open way. I do appreciate it. Really.

As I write this it’s freezing and blustery, though, thankfully, there’s a deep blue sky – this neck of the woods really does know how to beguile and contrast. Perhaps we should just enjoy the feeling of winter, because it’s a feeling that will become increasingly rare as we cook our planet into smithereens?

In any case, enough of the grim stuff.

Over the coming weeks I have a handful of events in Canberra:

And before I head to the couch with a blanket and a book, I thoroughly enjoyed chatting about BODIES OF MEN with journalist Genevieve Jacobs for RIOTACT – our chat in the cafe of the Australian War Memorial resulted in a brief video interview as well as a terrifically engaged written piece.

Onwards.

Last Tuesday, late on a bleak winter’s morning, I headed down to my local, the Southern Railway Hotel, and spent a few hours being interviewed by arts journalist Steve Dow for the Guardian Australia.

Over a beer (for me) and a red wine (for him), our conversation touched on a range of issues relating to BODIES OF MEN: patriarchy, masculinity, nationalism, faux military history, the North Shore (the conservative region of Sydney where I spent my formative years), and religion. To discuss – and question – masculinity and war in a traditional Australian pub on a weekday lunchtime required some caution: I must admit to stopping the conversation every so often, looking around, checking the blokes at the bar to make sure they were ensconced in their beers and burgers, before, almost in a whisper, proceeding to answer the question truthfully and openly.

The resultant interview can be found here.

Luckily both Steve Dow and I survived.

Good celebration, and some very good luck. Photo credit: Andrew Sikorski

I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: book launches make me want to vomit.

My own, that is.

Will anyone turn up? Will the speakers remember the date and time? What if there’s a massive storm? A traffic jam? A terrorist incident? What if I become too nervous, drink too much too early, and then embarrass myself?

I’m a natural hermit. Even going out of the house to get groceries is a trial. And having to go into a bank? Forget it.

I’m happiest (if that’s the word) wearing terrible clothes and spending day after day writing and reading and making simple little meals. So the idea of being the centre of attention for an evening fills me with a heavy, almost dangerous dread – I can’t wait for it to be over. But I’d be lying if I said that I don’t also find the idea exciting – the celebration, especially after so much isolation, the community, the good cheer, the love. Yes, it’s exciting, and, now I think about it, healthy.

Which gets me to the launch of Bodies of Men. It happened on 16 May in Canberra at the fabulous Street Theatre. There were books and wine and olives. There were powerful personal responses to the novel from Robyn Cadwallader, who has published her notes on her blog, and CJ Bowerbird, who performed a spoken-word piece about his experiences serving in the Australian military. And there were people: family, friends, my agent and publisher, some folk I recognised but didn’t know by name, some strangers – all appreciated.

There were also more than a few embraces.

And a dinner afterwards. In the last hour of the evening my partner and my agent and I found ourselves walking through the campus of the Australian National University and having a lovely chat to a rabbit, which is clearly the sign of a good night.

Thank you: Robyn and Chris, The Street Theatre, Harry Hartog Booksellers, Gaby Naher, and Robert Watkins and the Hachette Australia team. And thank you to all those who came out to celebrate Bodies of Men.

I won’t forget it.

*

PS There was a rather lovely review in the Canberra Times, so there’s that too. A summary of critical responses can be found here. Bodies of Men can be purchased in your favourite bookshop and can also be bought directly from Hachette Australia – as well as the print version, there are e-book and audiobook versions. Over and out. For now.

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

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

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

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

Gratitude to all.

Peace x

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