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Wilfred Edward Salter Owen MC (1893-1918) was an English poet and soldier, one of the leading poets of the First World War

Wilfred Edward Salter Owen MC (1893-1918) was an English soldier in the First World War who was also one of the leading poets of the conflict. He died a week before Germany’s surrender.

It was the email I was dreading: ‘We need a title for your presentation.’

There I was, halfway through my three-month residency at the Australian Defence Force Academy courtesy of UNSW Canberra, happily researching and discovering and discarding and scribbling, but then that emailed request.  Which, frankly, was perfectly reasonable, as I’d committed to doing a presentation at the conclusion of the residency.  But still the request put me in a spin.

All was not lost, however.  I’d been reading a lot of poetry by Wilfred Owen, an English soldier who fought and wrote and died during the First World War.  I’d been intrigued by his poem ‘Asleep’, which Owen had written/rewritten during 1917 and 1918, so I plucked for myself a line, ‘In the happy no-time of his sleeping’, and offered it up as my title.  I was spending the residency exploring the ways masculinity is expressed in times of military conflict and it seemed to be a good fit, at least hinted at truths, or the possibilities of truths.

A reply came almost immediately: ‘We like the title, but what is the presentation actually about? What will you actually be doing?’ Honestly, I had no idea.  My head was too lost in the research side of things to provide anything concrete.  Besides, what did I, a person who’s never even come close to throwing a punch, know about what it’d be like to be a man during extreme armed fighting?  So I wrote back: ‘I’ll be telling stories and asking questions.’

I already had the questions – What is a man?  Who is a good man?  Who is a good being? – but I didn’t have the stories, or anything remotely resembling stories.  Bearing in mind that my intention in doing the residency wasn’t to write about war as such; I’m disinterested in guns, and the infinitely complex political contexts require a much bigger brain than mine.  I was interested in the small moments, the hidden fears and thoughts and dreams.  Bearing in mind also that in 20 years of writing I’ve not once worked with historical fiction.  Whatever that is.

RAF_VOL9_ISS_1Clutching at straws, I decided I’d write one story about the First World War, one about the Second World War, and one about the Vietnam War or the ten-year period of military conflict in Afghanistan.  The First World War story, ‘Holding’, came together relatively painlessly, despite the topic: two men in unimaginable devastating circumstances share a moment of innocent intimacy, which may have profound consequences.  The Afghanistan story (the Middle Eastern conflict was more present to me than that Vietnam War) came together in a whoosh of words.  But the Second World War story, for whatever reason, just never got off the ground.  So, after a white-heat period of editing and polishing, it was ‘Holding’ and ‘The Call’ that I read during my final-week presentation, and it’s completely and utterly thrilling that, after more editing and polishing, they’ve been published in the first issue of this year’s Review of Australian Fiction.  With the added bonus of sharing the pages with the wonderful Andrew Croome, the author of the Vogel-winning Document Z and, more recently, the critically acclaimed Midnight Empire.

I hope you enjoy this issue of the Review of Australian Fiction.  It’s such an innovative enterprise.  Do subscribe, if you can, and help keep Australian literature alive – it’s very cheap (the subscription, not Australian literature).

Plus I need more chook food.

There’s been a bit of activity in the world of the Blemish novellas, and, as always, I want to share it with you.  First up, last weekend I read from I’m Ready Now (Blemish Books, 2012) at Bloom, an annual ‘open door’ festival held at the Gorman House and Ainslie arts centres in Canberra.  It was a packed day with a whole heap of people checking out the enourmous range of activity that happens in these places, much of it normally behind closed doors.  However, perhaps the most exciting part of the day for me was getting to share a literary bill with a bunch of writers who are extraordinary in their ability to perform their work, including Irma Gold, Sarah Rice, and slam poets Omar Musa and CJ Bowerbird.  I hadn’t seen slam poets so up close and personal, and I was blown away; in fact I really was overwhelmed. If you ever get to see these guys perform, steal your grandmother’s purse to make it happen – the way they deliver, with such connection and understanding of how words spread out and fill all corners and crevices of a room, is something very special.

Island: a place where some novellas happened; it's also a journal in which I have a yarn with Andrew Croome.

Island: a place where some novellas happened; it’s also a journal in which I have a yarn with Andrew Croome.

And then came this week, with the publication of the spring edition of Island, a longstanding literary journal out of Tasmania.  I always look forward to reading Island, but this one’s personally just a little more special as there’s an extensive interview with me, which was undertaken by Andrew Croome late 2012/early 2013.  Andrew is an award-winning Canberra-based novelist of espionage thrillers, including Document Z (Allen & Unwin, 2009), for which he won the 2008 The Australian/Vogel Literary Award, and the highly acclaimed Midnight Empire (Allen & Unwin, 2012).  In a nice case of turning the tables, I’d interviewed Andrew for the Canberra Times and Verity La.  For the Island interview, we covered a fair bit of terrain, including the writing of Fall On Me (Blemish Books, 2011) and I’m Ready Now, the trials and tribulations of shifting between fiction and creative journalism, and the slipperiness of truth.  I won’t spoil the interview – you can buy a hard-copy or e-version of the journal and gobble up all the goodness by clicking on the cover image glaring at you on your screen (!) – but Mr Croome’s first question, which, to be frank, almost stumped me straight up, was this: What compels you to write? Have your reasons been constant, or have they changed over time?   Much gratitude to Andrew for getting me to think about these things, and to Island for giving our interview a home.

UPDATE: Island has now made the interview available for free.  It may be only for a short-time so get in quick, if quick is your thing, and literature is your thing also.

In the past on Under the counter I’ve compiled a brief list of the best books of the year, according to no one but old muggins here.  In 2012, however, my reading has been much more scattered, partly by design and partly by circumstance, so that I’m less up-to-date than I’d like to be.  Thankfully that hasn’t meant that I’ve not been moved by books and the experience of reading.  What follows is a list of six books I’ve read this year that have ended up meaning a lot to me.  What’s a good reading experience?  One where I’ve been utterly convinced by the words on the page, so much so that I’ve believed that they are true, the people are real, and the predicaments they are in dangerous, that important information has been conveyed, that in the end it has all just meant so much.  In short, my life would be poorer if I’d not experienced these books.  So let’s get the party started.

The UnfortunatesThe Unfortunates by BS Johnson (Picador, 1999).  This was a gift from He Who Can Sniff Out A Good Present At A Thousand Paces, and it intrigued me from the moment I undid the wrapping.  First published in 1969, this is an unbound book where, apart from the first and last chapters, it is meant to be read in random order; Johnson believed that it provided the ‘solution to the problem of conveying the mind’s randomness’ better than ‘the imposed order of the book’.  The story itself is about a newspaper report who is sent to an unnamed UK city to cover a football game but is forced to remember a friend who died a rather horrible death from cancer.  Needless to say, this isn’t the cheeriest of reads, but despite the experimental format it packs an emotional wallop.  The book’s melancholy, if not tragedy, is underscored by the fact that Johnson, plagued by family trouble and a lack of critical success, killed himself in 1973 aged forty.  Thankfully The Unfortunates, which many consider one of the great examples of Sixties experimentalism, was republished in 1999.

Foal's BreadFoal’s Bread by Gillian Mears (Allen & Unwin, 2012).  I was hugely moved by this novel.  Even though I know next to nothing about its subject matter – the strange world of country horse-jumping championships – I found myself engrossed in the people of the book, their hardship and tenacity, the tragedies that strike (and strike they do, in more ways than one), but the great love-story that ties it all together.  To be sure, it’s a grim book.  However, the prose, which others have described as ‘knotty’, which is most apt, is so superbly composed that it’s hard not to be affected by this incredible work.  Foal’s Bread won the 2012 Prime Minister’s Prize for Fiction, and deservedly so.

Invisible ThreadThe Invisible Thread, edited by Irma Gold (Halstead Press, 2012).  It’s a little odd – and self-serving – to list a book that I am in, but it’s worthwhile rising above that, because this is one almighty collection (and in this company I’m a very minor player).  Amongst its pages, the book celebrates one hundred years of words from those who’ve had a connection with the Australian Capital Territory.  There are names such as CEW Bean, Judith Wright, Roger McDonald, Rosemary Dobson, Manning Clarke, Marion Halligan, John Clanchy, Miles Franklin, and Omar Musa.  Iceland has a population of about 300,000 people but has a reputation for producing some of the most influential contemporary musicians of recent times.  The ACT’s population is only marginally higher – might it be that with The Invisible Thread this region may soon be credited with having an impact Australia’s literary culture?

Jasper JonesJasper Jones by Craig Silvey (Allen & Unwin, 2009).  This novel is three years old now but I didn’t read it until very recently.  It’s scored an enormous range of accolades, including being short-listed for the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 2010.  The Monthly described it as being an ‘Australian To Kill A Mockingbird’, and, surprisingly enough, the hyperbole isn’t that far off the mark.  The narrative, which is essentially one of two boys growing up in small-town Western Australia, is simple, the prose engaging and accessible, and there’s humour and heart.  Jasper Jones may not be Australia’s very best novel from recent times, but it’s certainly one of the most readable and, dare I say it, enjoyable.

Spirit of ProgressSpirit of Progress by Steven Carroll (Fourth Estate, 2011).  Let me make it clear from the outset: I love this man’s writing.  Carroll puts word down on the page with such precision, so that even though little happens across the arc of the novel you’re swept away by the sheer artistry.  Amazingly, despite this lack of plot, I really couldn’t put this book down.  Carroll clearly knows his history – Spirit of Progress focuses on the years immediately after the end of World War Two – and he brings it so alive that the reading lingers for months after the turning of the final page.  I adored The Time We Have Taken, which won the Miles Franklin in 2008, and adored what is essentially that book’s prequel.

Midnight EmpireMidnight Empire by Andrew Croome (Allen & Unwin, 2012).  Generally speaking I’m not much of a reader of espionage thrillers, but Andrew Croome’s follow-up to his The Australian/Vogel’s Literary Award-winning Document Z is not only a page-turner but a finely crafted and thought-provoking warning-shot across the bow.  There’s no doubt that drone warfare is the military tool of the very near future, and Croome examines it with considerable insight and lucidity.  Much of the action in Midnight Empire happens on computer screens; that he is able to bring alive the drama and horror and tragedy is quite miraculous.  This is a book that should be placed under thousands and thousands of Australian Christmas trees, and widely read and discussed.

Seasons greetings.  Whatever that means.

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