You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘Launceston’ tag.

Vincent van Gogh (as a yoof): a hero to many

Vincent van Gogh (as a yoof): a hero to many – imagine being able to meet him.

It is a big adventure, this writing life.  There’s the adventure in the stories: characters experiencing things, discovering things, learning things; overcoming and becoming.

Then there’s the adventure of conceiving stories, writing stories, redrafting stories (repeat ad infinitum if necessary), before sending them out until an editor takes a shine to a particular piece and puts it amongst his or her pages.  Then there’s the adventure of feedback.  Who will like what?  Or will no-one like any of it?  Or will there be no feedback at all?

But there’s more: the places writing has taken me, as in real places.  A homestead out of Braidwood.  A gatekeeper’s cottage in Launceston.  The writers’ house at Bundanon beside the Shoalhaven River.  The monastic Varuna in the Blue Mountains.  And, most recently, the Australian Defence Force Academy, courtesy of UNSW Canberra.

Then there are the people I’ve met, other writers, artists of all kinds.  The conversations over coffees, lunches, glasses of wine, dinners even!  It doesn’t take me long to be enthralled by those who are far ahead in this game; I become besotted.  It is, to tell you the truth, one of the most exciting things: to spend time with extraordinarily creative souls.

I have been so fortunate.  A highlight?

In January 2011, as part of a piece for the Canberra Times, I found myself in the Sydney home of eminent contemporary – or ‘pop’ – artist Martin Sharp.  All morning we talked about the things that mattered to him: his great love of Vincent van Gogh, Tiny Tim, and, a little surprisingly, UK talent-show contestant Susan Boyle; about how he thought the best art came from school children; about how his thinking has evolved, his relatively newfound religiosity.  ‘Sometimes,’ he said, ‘conservative thinking is radical.’  This from the man who was once involved with Oz Magazine, whose London editors would end up being jailed as part of the infamous ‘Obscenity Trials’.

At midday, after he farewelled me, as I walked up his driveway, I thought – and I distinctly remember it – that this would be go down as one of my favourite days.  Here was a great artist, but one without a skerrick of pretension.  It was as though I’d just spent the morning with a slightly kooky but utterly charming uncle (who chain-smoked).

So, dear writing, thank you for the adventures thus far.

And, dear Martin Sharp, thank you for everything you gave us.

(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 14 December 2013.)

Pittwater, just north of Sydney, September 1928

Pittwater, just north of Sydney, September 1928: this place might have something to do with a novella coming out in 2014.

Can you think of a stranger occupation than writing fiction?

Those of us who do it, ignoring all the mental-health warnings, spend hour after hour, day after day, week after week, year after year, holed up in a room staring at a pad or screen, dreaming characters and predicaments into existence, all the while hoping that one day the words might be read, and with more than a little luck mean something to someone else, that reader, who may even be moved.

That’s all a fiction writer wants: to be read well, deeply, intellectually, emotionally.  Which is asking the world of them.

And it all comes down to publication.

Drumroll please: the news

'Nuanced and thoroughly original’ - The Newtown Review of Books

‘Nuanced and thoroughly original’ – The Newtown Review of Books

So, it’s with pleasure I can say that, due to the success of Fall on Me and I’m Ready Now (good sales, some gongs – twice short-listed for the ACT Writers and Publishing Award with Fall on Me winning the thing – and, on balance, a warm and generous critical response), the third and final in this series of novellas will be published in mid-2014.  The title, contents, and cover are currently under wraps at the request of Blemish Books, but all will be revealed in the first few months of the new year.

But I can say that this novella will follow the general theme – preoccupation? – of the previous two: contemporary  Australian family life in all its mess and mayhem.  Part of this preoccupation comes from a desire to lift the lid on what’s supposedly a ‘bedrock’ institution, as former prime minister John Howard described it during his long, long, harrowing days in power.  Family may well be important to modern living, because, often, it brings life into being.  But it also hammers life, stretches life into new and sometimes dangerous shapes; it can – and often does – take life, snuff the daylights out of everyone who steps into its confines or whatever it is that defines this thing.

How to explore the murky depths and live to tell the tale

But family life is also the stuff of fiction – always has been and always will be.  Because families are inherently complex.  They’re shifty; more often than not they operate in the grey and dark and black.  And fiction is a good – the best possible? – means of exploring the murky depths, of finding out who and what ticks and when and how, and to record new findings for the benefits of others.

So, then, the final Blemish novella will be about family.

Surely, surely, I could give away some of the plot?

Well, it involves a beach, a boat, two boats, many boats, a piano, a house by the harbour with a significant view, a river, an ocean, and yellow buckets tied to ankles for safety.

There’s also this.

Until next year

Until next year, much gratitude to everyone who has read Fall on Me and/or I’m Ready Now, who’s offered a kind word, or an honest one, who’s suggested that it might be good to carry on with this literary madness – it’s all so very much appreciated.  And, of course, massive thanks to Blemish Books for keeping the faith.  It’s true: writing is a tough and sometimes (often?) ridiculous gig, and I’m glad it’s this press that’s by my side.

Onwards.

One of these jugglers might also be a writer. With any luck.

One of these jugglers might also be a writer. With any luck.

Exhausted already

Writers make good jugglers.  There’s the juggling of time to write and time to earn money and time for family and friends and time for your own mental health, which being a writer is more than likely quite precarious.  There’s the juggling of ideas: fine ones, not so fine ones, appalling ones.  There’s the juggling of character and plot and point.  There’s the juggling of words, getting them all exactly where they need to be so that magic is the result.  Oh my, I’m exhausted already.  But we’re not done yet.  There’s the juggling of writing fiction and non-fiction and poetry.  In terms of fiction alone, there’s the juggling of the writing of novels and novellas and short stories and micro-stories, and, those slipperiest of beasts, prose-poems.  It’s enough to make you want to chuck it all in and become something simple, like a duck-farmer, or a grower of daffodils.

Hooked

For some reason, after twenty years, I haven’t yet chucked it all in, although I do think about it every second day, every single day if things aren’t going well, which is usually the case, if I’m honest with myself, and honest with you.  I began my writing life, as in with seriousness and an almost religious sense of purpose, in my early twenties as – drumroll please – a poet.  I wrote a poem, miraculously it was published, so I wrote another, and miraculously that, too, was published.  Remembering that I loved reading short stories as a boy, I wrote a story, which was short-listed for publication; that it didn’t end up in print wasn’t the point – I was hooked again by words and their meaning, and by play, and by dream.

Wait, there’s more

Since 1994 I’ve had over 40 short stories published, including in literary journals such as Meanjin, Overland, and Island, and in the USA.  In 2003 my novel Remnants was published by Pandanus Books.  In 2011 and 2012 respectively, my novellas Fall on Me and I’m Ready Now were published by Blemish Books.  Okay, now I’m just boasting.  Wait, there’s more.  Wanting to expand my readership, and add another string to my bow, in 2007 I began doing freelance work for the Canberra Times, primarily for the paper’s weekend magazine Panorama and its First Words column (along with Marion Halligan), as well as feature articles.  Clearly not having enough to do, in 2009 I started this blog, ridiculously named Under the counter or a flutter in the dovecot, which was selected for archiving by the National Library of Australia.  I still write a post for the blog every Saturday morning.

More life

Despite now working across these different modes, my mission hasn’t changed: I’m still just playing with words and their meanings.  No matter what form there’s nothing like crafting and re-crafting until a piece hangs together, everything in its right place, it all makes sense; with any luck it might engage readers, perhaps – with an extra dose of luck – it might even move readers.

Ever since early 2010, when I spent a month in Launceston as a writer-in-residence courtesy of the City Council (as written about on this blog ad nauseam), I’ve written everything by hand.  My handwriting is truly appalling, which, oddly, helps – I’m forced to slow down, to think about every mark on the page, but I’m also forced to follow my head and heart and gut.  When writing like this is both mental and physical work, you want it to be worthwhile in the end – for yourself and the reader.  These days, everything, even blog-posts, even articles for the local writers centre magazine, is first written with pen and pad.  Because it’s better this way: there’s more life.

A decent dose of honesty

There are, however, subtle differences between the various forms of prose.  Short stories, of course, are a cousin of poetry, so every word has to do more than one job.  In the writing of a novel there’s greater opportunity for exploration and multi-layering and depth (and that awful flipside of getting tangled up and lost).  Novellas are an especially peculiar creature: neither a short story nor a novel, they have their own prospects and hurdles; but in some ways I feel that this in-between mode is my natural home, because I’m an in-between kind of guy in an in-between stage of my life.  Writing for newspapers requires turning down the literary fireworks and turning up general accessibility, although I still like strong characters, some kind of plot, a decent dose of honesty, and perhaps the odd writerly trick to create a spark – there’s nothing like an email from a reader saying that my work brings freshness to the newspaper.  And there’s the writing of blog-posts, which can be more a terrific whoosh of words, maybe even something experimental (why not?), but still I like to make sure it’s as fine as possible.

A writer must have wine

One side of all this that I’ve become better at over the years is choosing the best form for an idea.  Is there enough in it for a short story?  Or perhaps there’s a lot in it and could run the marathon length of a novel?  Or perhaps a novella might rein it in?  In terms of creative non-fiction (which is my euphemism for journalism, because I really have no idea what I’m doing), is it something for the First Words column or a feature or an opinion piece – where in the newspaper might it belong?  Blogging is interesting, too.  When I first started Under the counter or a flutter in the dovecot I committed to never self-publishing fiction on the thing, and I’ve held to that commitment, so it’s a place for everything but fiction.  Except there’s something else about blogging: every so often, if I try harder, I can get the piece up a notch or two so that it can first be published by a journal that pays.  Because, quite frankly, I need the money – a writer must have wine.

Writing is writing is writing

Despite all these years of juggling and practice and more juggling, writing is still about play – playing with words and their meanings – and dreams – dreaming up characters and predicaments, or imagining a non-fiction piece into existence and making a contribution to the broader cultural discussion.  Scottish comedian Billy Connelly once famously said that ‘funny is funny is funny’.  Perhaps I can echo Connelly by somewhat less famously saying that writing is writing is writing.

*

First published in ACTWrite, the monthly journal of the ACT Writers Centre (August 2013).

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.

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.

I admit it: I’m excited. About the fact that a novella called Fall On Me is getting closer to being in the world. Since I last wrote about this, a date for the launch has been set – Thursday 15 September – and a city chosen – Canberra ACT, which is an hour south from where I live. Plus there have been two other developments: we’re now down to just a couple of cover options, and my first preference for the launcher of the book has said yes.  When the yes came through it almost felt like a successful marriage proposal (except the law’s not on my side in that regard).

And then there’s been the completely and utterly nerve-wracking process of sourcing an endorsement quote.  I know someone, a writer at the very top of the literature game. I haven’t known this person for long; we’ve just been getting to know each other this year. It’s been such a joy. How enriching to receive thoughtful emails about many things: the writing life, family, health, landscape, the weather. How I’ve tried to be as thoughtful in my replies. But then I had the ridiculously audacious notion of asking this writer to read Fall On Me and prepare one of those sentences that will entice a reader to pick the thing up in a bookstore.

Being brave to the point of stupidity at times, I sent off an email, a very nervous email. Within twenty-fours I had a reply. Yes, the writer would read the novella, but on one condition: goodwill wouldn’t be enough, there had to be genuine enthusiasm for the work. The email made it clear that these things were ‘always a risky business’. What was the risk? That our friendship may not (yet) be sufficiently robust to withstand the honesty that maybe required. Feeling even more nervous than before, I accepted the terms.

Some weeks later, when Blemish Books sent me a proof of the text layout, I went down to the main-street and had the thing copied, then I went to the post office and sent the copy away. What on earth was I doing? More to the point, what on earth would the writer think about my work? And if it wasn’t good enough, would I cope with the rejection?

As I waited for the response, I thought about how Fall On Me has happened.

In April/May last year I went down to Launceston, Tasmania, with the goal of writing six short stories. I hadn’t written short stories for half a decade, because I’d been focussing on bigger things, and creative journalism (which is a euphemism for writing for newspapers but not having the faintest idea how to do it). I had another goal: to write by hand. My handwriting is so appalling that at times I can’t read it myself; every third word is an unintelligible scribble. But I wanted to see what impact this would have on my prose. Wiser people than me say that compared to using a computer you write more slowly by hand, it’s a considered act, an act of composing.

And I had a third goal: to write whatever the hell I wanted. If I wanted to write a grim tale where everyone dies, then I’d write that tale. If I wanted to fill my pages with hardcore gay sex (which is something I find difficult to do, because I’m more interested in warmth and connection and intimacy) then so be it. If I wanted 500-word paragraphs contained within brackets, then I’d do that too. I didn’t want to care about rules and conventions; I just wanted to write what would excite me as a reader.

Did I come away with six short stories? No, I came away with three novellas, one long short story, and one piece of experimental prose that most likely won’t see the light of day. I also came away with one very blurry right eye, because I found that as I wrote by hand my face became closer and closer to the table, which was glass-topped and reflected the bright globe of the lamp.

Now, over a year later, which is a frighteningly short period of time in the world of publishing, Fall On Me, the second novella I wrote in that month in Launceston, is forming itself into a book that others will read. One which a certain writer has now read in ‘two swift reading sessions’.  Does the writer like what I have written?  Well, what I can tell you is that we now have an endorsement quote for the cover. Which is a very big part of the reason why I’m starting to feel excited about a little book that might just be able to.  Stand up in the world, I mean to say.


I have monkeys on the brain.

It’s all because earlier this year I was lucky enough to spend a month in Launceston as an artist-in-residence at the Gatekeeper’s Cottage in Cataract Gorge, courtesy of the local city council.  As strange as it might seem in this age of animal liberation, Launceston has 26 Japanese Macaque monkeys living in an enclosure in the city park.  The Macaques are the sort you sometimes see in wildlife documentaries keeping warm in winter by sitting blissfully in hot springs with snow piling on top of them.  The Tasmanian colony was a gift from Ikeda in Japan, Launceston’s sister-city.

Every morning that month I walked across town to visit my monkey friends.  I’d find one to look at.  I’d stare as it combed its fingers through a mate’s hair, find a flea or a nit and then put it in its mouth and have a taste, and then keep combing.  I took photos, I watched some more, and then took more photos.  I learnt that the colony has herpes and they’ve become in-bred.  What did they think of their situation?  Did they want to shout out, Why can’t you leave us alone?  Can’t you see we’re trying to have some private time here?  But they just kept grooming each other.

Back in the Gatekeeper’s Cottage, I sat at the desk overlooking the deep, dirty water of the gorge and wrote and wrote until my eyes became bloodshot, but below me tourists crowded on the King’s Bridge.  They looked up and stared and pointed at me.  I didn’t have any mates to groom, and I don’t have herpes, nor am I inbred (though there are days when it feels like I might be), so it mustn’t have been terribly interesting.

But still they took photos of me, they watched me some more, and then took more photos.  At first I liked being on show – Here I am being creative! How clever I am! – but the novelty soon wore off.  Within days I wanted to scream out, Why can’t you leave me alone?  Can’t you see I’m trying to have some private time here?  But I didn’t scream out.

Because, it seems, a writer in a gatekeeper’s cottage is photo-worthy.

And so is a monkey in a cage.

(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, July 31 2010.)

In an earlier Under the Flutter post I spoke about a self-imposed rule that I have when on a residency – take one Polaroid photograph per day, no more, no less, and one must be taken, there’s no option of allowing a day to go by without a part of it turning into a piece of Polaroid magic.  It becomes a visual diary of the residency, but also allows me to focus on something external rather than the generally internal nature of writing.  And, quite frankly, it’s a great excuse to get out of the house and see more of whatever place I’m living in for that month.

But can I just say how god-damn hard it is to take a decent Polaroid snap.  All you’ve got is a lens and a shutter, that’s it.  There’s no little inbuilt computer to do all the work for you, no digital trickery to smooth over the edges.  Although that’s also the brilliant part of this technology – its sheer simplicity.

Anyway, the point is I promised I’d post some of the shots I took while on a residency in Launceston, Tasmania, in April/May this year, and so they’re below for your viewing pleasure.  You’ll probably read the (admittedly slightly blurry) caption that comes with each pic and think, Okay, that Nigel Featherstone bloke really has lost the plot this time.  And I may well have lost the plot.  Although the shots actually feature over at my other site, Open to Public, and each caption is taken from a line of a short story.

Yes, that’s a shameless plug for you to check out OTP and see if there’s anything there that takes your fancy.  If there’s nothing there of interest, please don’t let me know because you’ll crush me like a butterfly.  But if there’s a story you like, drop me an email, or send me flowers.  Either will do.

In the meantime, let the Polaroid love begin.

***

While we’re talking plugs, if you’re up for a bit of brain fodder, check out Verity La and a wonderfully succinct interview my VL co-editor Alec Patric has done with Australian writer Tiggy Johnson.

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 176 other followers