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There is nothing like it.

Waking up, turning on the laptop, and opening my emails – to find an engaged, open, generous response from a reader.

It doesn’t happen every day, of course, though I can’t say I wish it didn’t. But when it does, a certain spring in the step ensues – a book is only half itself without a reader, it can only come to life in a reader’s mind. And the author has no control over what happens in a reader’s mind; the author must let go. But letting go is difficult. Many weeks and months and years have gone into the creation of those characters, those places, the journey of the story. Which means that, yes, when someone engages with the work (and it is indeed work) it is as though it’s now complete.

Needless to say, an author also wants their work to be enjoyed, if not loved.

Perhaps appreciated is enough.

These connections can also happen at those miraculous events called writers festivals, which I’ve been lucky enough to attend recently as an invited author. Sometimes (often) an author will feel as if their latest work has been wrapped in silence – nothing is happening. Have I experienced that? Oh yes. Indeed, every time a novel of mine goes into the world it is met with silence; sometimes that silence is all encompassing, sometimes it’s simply a hint. But then someone will come up to me at a writers festival and, about MY HEART IS A LITTLE WILD THING, say, ‘I read your novel. I was so moved. Goodness me, I felt for Patrick. And the places in the book – they shimmered.’ All of a sudden, the silence is gone, at least momentarily. The novel has found a reader and all is well with the world.

Below are some images of this year’s Byron Writers Festival, which was spectacular, and also one image of the Canberra Writers Festivals. Other authors include Hannah Kent, Trent Dalton, Alan Close, Will Kostakis, Aaron Fa’Aoso, Mirandi Riwoe, Lee Koffman, Sulari Gentil, Karen Viggers, Huda the Goddess, Jane Caro and Suzanne Leal, as well as literary agent Alex Adsett.

Shortly I will be off to Tasmania to participate in this year’s Terror Australis Readers and Writers Festival, during which I’ll have the pleasure of leading a residency as well as giving a masterclass. Generously, the Festival has also organised a literary dinner for me and MY HEART IS A LITTLE WILD THING. If you happen to be in Tasmania, it would be wonderful seeing you – it’s happening on Thursday 13 October.

After that, I head to the coast of New South Wales to attend the Berry Writers Festival.

While you are here, some books that I’ve loved recently:

THE MOTHER by Jane Caro – what would you do if one of your children married a domestic abuser? What if your grandchildren were also suffering from that abuse? Would there be a point where you would give up trying to protect them? These are the questions Caro asks. It is a novel that races along while offering a lot of food for thought.

NIGHT by Elie Wiesel – first published in 1960, this short autobiography chronicles a 15-year-old boy’s experience of the Holocaust. Tought, profound, gut-wrenching.

THE COAST by Eleanor Limprecht – this is a truly heartbreaking and multi layered novel about the ‘leper colony’ that once existed in Sydney from about 1886 onwards. Not only was it fascinating to learn about leprosy, which is now known as Hansen’s disease – it’s actually very hard to catch and limbs don’t fall off – the characters are so richly drawn that, yes, my heart broke more than once. Incredibly moving. Unforgettable really.

THE BALLAD OF ABDUL WADE by Ryan Butta – a wide-ranging history of the Afghan cameleers who were crucial in the establishment of the colonies that would end up being called Australia (which is highly problematic on many levels, as we know). The cameleers were treated incredibly poorly – it doesn’t take much imagination to work out why – by many, including those fancy chaps who would go on to create the White Australia policy. If you’re looking for a different, and necessary, take on Australian history, do give this a go.

THE BURNISHED SUN by Mirandi Riwoe – one of the best short story collections I’ve read in years. It is bookended (literally) by two exquisite long short stories; essentially novellas, they’re powerful and utterly unforgettable. What’s also wonderful is the way the collection, despite some of the stories being historical and others contemporary, and are set in various parts of the world, feels so cohesive. Perhaps that’s because, with this book, Riwoe has a very specific concern, one she explores with great depth and humanity.

I hope you’re well and safe.

And if we do happen to cross paths, please say hello – most likely it will make my day.

The leaves on the trees are beginning to yellow, I’m sitting at my desk and wearing a dreadful pair of black tracksuit pants, a blue-striped hooded top, and a pair of red woolen socks – the mornings are cool but the days are still warm, if not very warm – and there is an ever-so-perplexing feeling in my chest and legs, as if tomorrow I will head overseas on an adventure. But I’m not heading overseas tomorrow. On 23 April – so, in six weeks’ time – my novel BODIES OF MEN will be officially published.

Bodies of Men: now with added endorsement from Karen Viggers

Yikes.

As mentioned elsewhere on this blog, I began writing the novel in 2013 when I was a writer-in-residence at UNSW Canberra, which provides the campus for the Australian Defence Force Academy. Since then I have had the great fortune to work on some other projects, including THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT, but progressing (reworking, re-imagining, refining) the story that would become BODIES OF MEN has been a mostly private obsession.

Put simply, I could not let the story go. Or perhaps the story would not let me go? Either way, here we are, with the novel soon be published by Hachette Australia.

How do I feel? Grateful.

A little about the story:

Egypt, 1941. Only hours after disembarking in Alexandria, William Marsh, an Australian corporal at twenty-one, is face down in the sand, caught in a stoush with the Italian enemy. He is saved by James Kelly, a childhood friend from Sydney and the last person he expected to see. But where William escapes unharmed, not all are so fortunate. William is sent to supervise an army depot in the Western Desert, with a private directive to find an AWOL soldier: James Kelly. When the two are reunited, James is recovering from an accident, hidden away in the home of an unusual family – a family with secrets. Together they will risk it all to find answers. Soon William and James are thrust headlong into territory more dangerous than either could have imagined.

Novelists chatting with booksellers in Sydney. Photo credit: Hachette Australia

Four reasons for that feeling of gratefulness:

  • as of yesterday, the final edits are done and next week Hachette sends the novel to the printer (to push the travel metaphor, it feels as though the boat’s being slid into the water and either it will take us to the other shore or we’ll sink somewhere along the way);
  • international best-selling author Karen Viggers has provided an endorsement: ‘A beautifully written, tender and sensitive love story told within the tense and uncertain context of war’ (how wonderful it was to receive Karen’s response and then see it placed on the top of the front cover);
  • in the past fortnight Hachette sent me and four other novelists to Melbourne to meet booksellers over lunch and dinner, and then we did it again in Sydney this week; it was so terrific to spend time with those who work tirelessly to get novels in the hands – and hearts – of readers; these sessions also provided me with the first experience of talking about my novel in public, which I was a bit rubbish at initially but soon managed to find a way of doing it succinctly (I hope); and
  • BODIES OF MEN will be launched in Canberra at 6pm on Thursday 16 May at The Street Theatre – the forever thoughtful novelist Robyn Cadwallader and engaging performance poet CJ Bowerbird will provide personal responses, and there will be book sales, and, of course, booze.

So, it’s autumn. Within weeks there will be the need to go looking for firewood, and the second doona will have to be put on the bed, for dinner there will be soups rather than salads and red wine instead of white, and, this year, there will be a novel called BODIES OF MEN in the world. Yes, I’m grateful, very grateful, and I’m also excited – I might just have to buy a new pair of tracksuit pants to mark the occasion.

There has been a bit going on this year in my neck of the woods: seeing The Weight of Light have its world premiere in Canberra and then performed in Goulburn and Sydney (plus two other music projects but more on these at a later date) and a final spit and polish of Bodies of Men before it heads into the world in April/May 2019. As always, reading has been the foundation. Stillness and immersion and revelation and depth: there will never be anything like it.

The following is not really a ‘best of’; it’s just a list of work that I have read that has got beneath my skin.

In Terra Nullius, Claire G. Coleman, a writer from Western Australia who identifies with the South Coast Noongar people, reveals the horrors and hypocrisies that underpin contemporary Australia. In a way, perhaps, the novel is speculative fiction, but the scenario is far too present to be ignored, as are the uncomfortable truths it reveals. This is one of the most unique novels I have read in years.

Speaking of unique, a work that I almost literally gobbled up is The Long Take by Robin Robertson. A verse novel, the narrative follows a D-Day veteran as he travels across the US so he can piece his life together. Rather surprisingly The Long Take is as much about urban planning and design as it is about war; there are also evocations of Hollywood. Disintegration appears to be the unifying theme, but this is not a grim read, nor is it inaccessible. Truly remarkable.

With her trademark lyricism, Robyn Cadwallader in Book of Colours brings to life the people and politics behind the making of a fourteenth-century prayer book; the novel is also about the making of art in general. It is fascinating – and highly moving – from first page to last. A beautiful novel in every way.

Also beautiful is Inga Simpson’s Understory, which is a chronicle of the author’s profound attachment to a small patch of Queensland forest. This is much more than a tree-change memoir: it is also about the desire to live a creative life and the need to find and survive love. Very moving.

Two poetry collections especially resonated: Melinda Smith’s Goodbye, Cruel and Kumukanda by Kayo Chingonyi. In the former, Smith once again displays her extraordinary range, moving seemingly effortlessly from the dramatic to the deep historic. In the latter, Chingonyi investigates music, masculinity and racism, in a tone that reads to me as muscular melancholia – it is wonderful. Both collections I have read more than once.

As others have said, Andrew Sean Greer’s Less is a surprisingly light read for a Pulitzer Prize-winner. It is a warm and accessible read, but it is ultimately a deeply yearning hymn to modern love in a global world. Although often hilarious, Less is also a broken-hearted novel and deserves to be read until the end for its full impact to be experienced.

A second heartbreaking novel from this year, though it is also brain- and soul-breaking, is Taboo by Kim Scott. Another writer of Noongar decent, Scott has created a deeply affecting story about race relations in Australia. In spare but lyrical – at times literally magical – prose, Scott writes about the layers of this country’s history that are far too often glossed over to tell a more appealing but largely false narrative. Taboo is powerful and very necessary.

I also thoroughly enjoyed The Life to Come by Michelle de Kretser and, though it took me a long time (years) to get to it, The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers, as well as On Patriotism by Paul Daley and No Country Woman: A memoir of not belonging by Zoya Patel.

Much of this year was dedicated to reading gay fiction, which I wrote about for Meanjin. I also loved All Being Equal from Griffith Review, because it includes a suite of novellas that explore the contemporary gay experience, and because the stories are deeply moving.

Finally, I was lucky enough to read advance copies of two wonderfully adventurous novels that will be released in 2019: The Artist’s Portrait by Julie Keys, which in a memorably unflinching voice reveals the complex and often fraught nature of creative identity; and Karen Viggers’ The Orchardist’s Daughter – told in the author’s typically unaffected prose, the novel explores the web of relationships and competing viewpoints that exist in and around a Tasmanian forest. Here’s hoping both novels will be much discussed and find a broad audience.

THE WILD ONES - 6pm 3 Dec 2014 - updated

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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