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My new novel, MY HEART IS A LITTLE WILD THING, has now been out in the world for 10 days, which, of course, has gone by in a flash. Even though this is my third novel (and eighth title) I still find it hard to let go.

As soon as a book is published it is no longer the author’s; it is the reader’s. We can wish the book well. We can hope it finds people who will love it as much as we have loved making it, though it is a complicated love, isn’t it – it has not always been easy, which perhaps only serves to make the love deeper, more profound. We can want for the book to be treated with kindness, and with an open-mind. At the very least, we do not want the book to gather dust at the back of a bookshop.

But how the book is received is largely out of an author’s hands. We just have to trust the work we have put into it.

I have heard composer-comedian Tim Minchin say (and this quote is based on my memory of an interview with him on ABC TV a couple of years ago, but I think it is reasonably accurate), ‘A piece of art is simply the result of how much time the artist had and how much energy they put into it.’ Minchin went on to suggest that if an artist proceeds along those lines, how people respond to a work – negative, positive, or otherwise – is largely irrelevant. It is helpful advice. However, it does not stop some artists, including myself, worrying about how an object like a novel is received. There are those who say that an artist is not their art, but where does one begin and the other end?

Best I stop rambling.

All I really wanted to do with this post is give a brief summary of the public life so far of MY HEART IS A LITTLE WILD THING.

There has been a warm and engaged cover story in the Canberra Times; it is rare for a novelist to receive this kind of attention, so I am most grateful. And in all my years as a writer I have never imagined that I would appear on the cover of the newspaper’s weekend magazine with a water dragon on my head.

There has also been a review in the Newtown Review of Books, which concludes:

A rich story, elegantly written. I loved this delightful novel and the journey it took me on. Patrick’s character is finely observed, and his growth, sexual liberation and preparedness to come out as he hits 50 are beautifully scrutinised. A remarkable look at Australian masculinity and its meaning.

The New Daily listed MY HEART IS A LITTLE WILD THING as being one of ‘ten standout books to read in May.’

Booktopia did a Q&A with me, which was lovely. Such interesting and engaged questions, which I had to think about carefully before setting down my answers.

And I have also had the pleasure of being interviewed by a number of hard-working podcasters, two of which have already appeared online: a chat for the relaunched Queer Writes Sessions, which is an initiative of RWR McDonald, author of THE NANCYS and NANCY BUSINESS; and a wide-ranging conversation with Barbie Robinson for Living Arts Canberra, who concludes, ‘Here is a truly astute writer utterly in control of his art.’ Perhaps needless to say, I enjoyed both conversations very much.

Thank you to all those who have engaged with MY HEART IS A LITTLE WILD THING so far, whether it be by posting the book on social media or emailing me to share their experience of reading the story – I do appreciate it, no doubt more than this post suggests. I feel sure that Patrick would appreciate it too, though he might also be just a little overwhelmed. He might need to head back to Jimenbuen on the Monaro and bunker down in the steading, making meals, drinking wine, going for walks. Perhaps he might even go so far as to head up into the Cambalongs and spend a night or two in the hide.

Maybe I’ll see him there.

You too, even.

This week my new novel, MY HEART IS A LITTLE WILD THING, is published by Ultimo Press, an imprint of Hardie Grant. Perhaps it is the case with all novels, but this story has had quite a journey to the page.

As mentioned in a previous diary entry (no. 3), this novel has been with me since 2007 – at least, that is when I first had the idea of someone who is deeply troubled by something unexpressed in his life, so, after he momentarily loses control, he takes himself back to a place that was very important to him as a child. There he sees a strange animal, which leads him to meet someone who will change his life.

Over the subsequent years, I tried to ‘get in‘ to the story through different characters and scenarios and places, though it was not until I spent time down on Ngarigo Country, which is also called the Monaro, an expansive high plain between the Far South Coast of New south Wales and the Snowy Mountains, that the true story emerged.

The final version of the novel was written in a mad, almost delirious rush that lasted 14 days. Of course, there were then quite a few more drafts, before it went through Ultimo’s rigorous editing process.

And now here we are.

More about the novel can be found over at Ultimo. There is also a short video in which I talk about why I wrote it and what I hope readers will get out of it.

There were four things – moments, incidents, events? – that were critical in the development of MY HEART IS A LITTLE WILD THING.

The first: that week at Bobundara on Ngarigo Country. Down there, my very kind host, Trisha, put me up in her heritage-listed stone steading, which is a Scottish word for barn; although it remains much a working building, it contains a small apartment, in which farm workers used to reside. I had gone to Bobundara to work on the manuscript, but almost immediately I knew that I would not pursue that particular version of the story. In that moment of clarity and clear air, Patrick came into my mind almost full formed (as some novelists like to say).

So did his predicament and a rough idea of the journey of the story.

The second: over the last few years I have been writing for the theatre, and during one particularly memorable discussion my director, Caroline Stacey, said to me, ‘Remember what Chekhov liked to do. He didn’t start with the bad thing. He started after the bad thing happened.’

The third: the eminent Australian poet Melinda Smith introduced me to the concept of duende, which, as was described by the Spanish poet Lorca, is the devil mule, the goblin muse, the one that is all about mischief. Tracy K. Smith has written a terrifically illuminating essay about duende; it can be found here. Although writing abut poetry, what Smith says about duende I find fascinating:

‘…we write poems in order to engage in the perilous yet necessary struggle to inhabit ourselves—our real selves, the ones we barely recognize—more completely. It is then that the duende beckons, promising to impart “something newly created, like a miracle,” then it winks inscrutably and begins its game of feint and dodge, lunge and parry, goad and shirk; turning its back, nearly disappearing altogether, then materializing again with a bear-hug that drops you to the ground and knocks your wind out. You’ll get your miracle, but only if you can decipher the music of the battle, only if you’re willing to take risk after risk.’ 

The fourth: my mother died. Within days I found myself – or lost myself – thinking, Who was she? Who was the woman who brought me into the world? Although the family in MY HEART IS A LITTLE WILD THING is not my family, my writing of the novel, I think, was my attempt to explore what had just happened in my life, primarily through the character of Patrick. Soon, however, the novel became entirely Patrick’s, and that is the only way I think of it now.

To mark the publication of the novel, earlier this week I spent a day and a night at Bundanoon, which is a village half an hour’s drive north of Goulburn, where I live. Some of the novel is set there: Patrick lives in the same street as his ailing mother. Then I drove two and a half hours south, to Bobundara. It was fascinating to see the steading again; it felt as though Patrick would open the door and welcome me inside. Perhaps he would make me a cup of tea, or pour me a glass of wine, or just light the fire and say, ‘Thank you for visiting. What’s new in your world?’

It felt as though the place – the building, the paddocks, that wooded hills – were now his.

I hope they will soon be yours too.

If you’re within spitting distance of the ACT at the end of this month, the novel will be launched at Harry Hartog ANU at noon on Saturday 28 May. The event will be an in-conversation with Anna Vidot from ABC Radio Canberra. Booking essential.

Thank you to all those who have engaged with my work over the years. It is an obvious – and common – thing to say, but a novel only comes to life when it is in the hands of a reader, and when that reader is lost – and perhaps found – in the imagined world.

Much gratitude to you all.

I have just returned from a 5-day trip (working on a top-secret commission, which is not actually top-secret, just wonderful), beginning down on Yuin Country, which is what they call the Far South Coast of New South Wales. Starting at Merimbula, the trip took in Eden, Bega, Bemboka, Bibbenluke, Bombala, Nimmatabel, Braidwood (the scene of a certain 93rd birthday), Murrumbateman, Yass, and Gunning.

Ngarigo Country/the Monaro is a place that has really got beneath my skin.

The day after I got back, a box appeared on my verandah. But before we get to the box, here are some photos from the trip:

And some notes, which I wrote on the road:

From the sea to the high plains – day one: The day began beautifully with Tim and included a walk along the edge of Merimbula’s tidal lake and out to the nearby ocean beach, a coffee at a boathouse, before following a boardwalk through mangroves. Bellbirds on the coast? I did not know about that. After an afternoon of reading, a walk into Merimbula, cocktails at a tapas bar, a meal of Malaysian curries – we were warned the soy-chili side was hot and it was, deliciously so – before staggering back to our lodgings along the boardwalk, fish jumping left and right. Even though it’s not yet 8.30, my bed is calling me. 

From the sea to the high plains – day two: in which, exploring more Yuin Country, we headed to a town called Eden. The morning began with a view south over Twofold Bay, where whaling had once been common, before a visit to the Killer Whale Museum, which, as is often the way with colonial history museums, involved a lot of death and destruction. A reminder that not all sentient beings have been treated equally. Thankfully we discovered Aslings Beach, which includes one of my favourite things in the world: an ocean pool – spirit restored. Then a walk along the beach before, now, a café lunch in Pambula. The south-east coast: the sea makes it.

From the sea to the high plains – day three: now travelling solo, because there’s work to be done, I headed up into Ngarigo Country via what they rather unromantically call ‘Brown Mountain’. A coffee break in Bemboka, then south to Bombala, which is a town (population 1500) that feels as though it’s hanging on by the skin of its teeth. Just one car dealership in town and the only vehicles for sale are white utes. Every few minutes the grumble of a timber truck rumbling along the mainstreet. I stumbled on what remains of the Bombala Literary Institute, let myself in, heard the faint echoes of theatre on the stage and, perhaps, the yarn of the local temperance association. The only other audience: a dead sparrow. A sausage roll and pie for lunch. Then back up the road to Bibbenluke, which is at the ‘locality’ end of ‘village’, for an absolutely magical conversation with visual artist Lucy Culliton – a white barn of a studio surrounded by dogs, emus, chooks, geese, sheep, a goat called Harry, cockies, pigeons, horses over the way. I left with more than a spring in my step; I felt positively drunk on the conversation. I drove deep into the Monaro; amongst the almost frightening expanse of it all I was reminded why I became enraptured with the place. Have now arrived at the Federal Hotel in Nimmatabel, where I’ll spend the night. The barman insisted that I have a drink, so there’s a schooner of Old beside me on the table. Ah.

From the sea to the high plains – day four: after a meat-and-three-veg pub dinner, washed down with a few schooners of Old, an early start this morning. From Nimmitabel to Cooma, a foggy crossing of the Monaro, which was a contrast to the sheer blue distance recorded yesterday. If anyone is in need of a coffee, it’s me. Next stop: Braidwood 200kms to the north-east. Update: a wee secret reason for coming by the Braidwood neck of the woods was to drop in on my father, who just so happens to turn 93 today. He has a twin sister, Mary. She and her husband Ron drove 200kms from Bega down on the coast up to Braidwood so the siblings could share the occasion. While I took a photo, Mary turned to my father and, smiling but with more than a hint of sisterly concern, said, ‘Jack, do you think it’s time to get a new jumper?’ He replied, ‘There’s nothing wrong with this one – it’s the warmest I’ve got.’

From the sea to the high plains – day 4 (evening): after celebrating – with a green tea – the 93rd birthday of Jack and Mary, I checked in to the Royal Mail Hotel in Braidwood and tried to get some rest, but my mind was buzzing – this trip has been packed with highlights and magic, and the company and generosity of good folk, and I wanted to hold on to it all. In the surprising heat of the afternoon, I walked down to the southern end of town to meet with singer-songwriter and discussed how to stitch together a life as an artist in the thing called regional New South Wales. Turns out it’s all about trusting your gut and finding love and home. And making the work you want to make. Another theme of the trip: taking photos of artists with their dogs. We continued talking as we walked a way towards the mainstreet, Michael’s labrador, nose lost – or not lost at all – in the sodden grass, leading the charge. If the day started with the need for coffee, it’s finishing with the need for a vodka at the Royal.

From the sea to the high plains – day 5: after a much-needed sleep in the Royal Mail and a dawn-lit coffee in the mainstreet, I headed north-west to the granite and wine country of Murrumbateman. I had a wonderful conversation with the novelist Robyn Cadwallader about working as an artist in the thing called regional New South Wales. ‘It’s all about being able to breathe,’ Robyn told me. ‘And, while writing, there’s something about being able to watch a wren on the other side of the window.’ I then took a series of photos of her sitting in her garden. (Interesting to reflect on the fact that all three artists I chatted with during this trip wanted to be photographed with their canine companions.) I then drove on to the small town of Yass and had lunch at Thyme to Taste – it’s a gorgeous café owned and operated by a very friendly chap called Andrew; it just so happens that he and I went to high school together in Sydney. We did not talk about those days, preferring to yarn about the joys of living regionally. I also dropped in on the Yass Bookstore – owner Jo has set up her shelves in the foyer of the town’s now-disused cinema. It was terrific seeing so many familiar names represented, including BELIEVE IN ME by Lucy Neave – was it really only 5 days ago that we had a very engaging event at the Book Cow  in Canberra together with Irma Gold? Feeling a little delirious from the trip, on the way home I went by the tiny town of Gunning, where I treated myself to a caramel slice, which was washed down with a cappuccino. I then drove the final 50kms – across the 5 days I would do over 1000kms in total – through the boulder-strewn paddocks and wind farms stretching hopefully to the north and south, before finally pulling up at my house, feeling – deeply feeling – incredibly lucky that I get to live and write on what always was, and always will be, Gandangara Country.

As if there hadn’t already been enough excitement for one week, yes, a box appeared on my verandah. What was inside? Final, author copies of MY HEART IS A LITTLE WILD THING. Oh shit. I picked up the first book in the box, turned it this way and that, saw how the gloss lights up the clock, and the very generous comment from Delia Falconer, a novelist I admire very much so her thoughts about my novel are very humbling, the boldness of the back cover, including the first line of the story presented as though lit up in lights. Oh my. The novel is not out until 4 May, though is currently available for pre-order, but I already feel as though it’s no longer mine, that it belongs to readers, and there’s no harm in that – none at all.

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.

Well, here it is: the fabulously gorgeous cover for my new and – gasp – deeply personal novel, MY HEART IS A LITTLE WILD THING.

For authors, it’s always an interesting stage when the publisher finalises the cover. For a long time – often years (this particular narrative has been with me, in various forms, since 2014) – the story has been something internal: words and sentences and characters and events in mind, and in body too, in a way.

But then it becomes an object that a reader might be able to hold in her or his hand.

Or it looks like it could be held.

The publisher’s summary:

Blood is thicker than water, but the heart is a little wild thing that can’t be tamed.

The day after I tried to kill my mother, I tossed some clothes, a pair of hiking boots, a baseball cap and a few toiletries into my backpack, and left at dawn.

Patrick has always considered himself a good son. Willing to live his life to please his parents, his sense of duty paramount to his own desires and dreams. But as his mother’s health continues to deteriorate and his siblings remain absent, he finds the ties that bind him to his mother begin to chafe.

After an argument leads to a violent act he travels to a familiar country retreat to reflect on what his life could be – and through a chance encounter with a rare animal and an intriguing stranger starts to wonder if perhaps it is not too late to let his heart run wild.

A story about family, love and the cost of freedom, MY HEART IS A LITTLE WILD THING serves as a reminder that we all deserve to pursue our dreams.

The novel is out on 4 May through the incredible Ultimo Press, the new and innovative imprint from Hardie Grant Publishing.

Pre-orders for MY HEART IS A LITTLE WILD THING are currently available.

Many thanks to all those who’ve been engaging with this novel – it means the world to me.

Until publication day, I’ll be wandering the streets of Goulburn aimlessly.

No, I really will.

Thrilled – and just a little trembly – to be having a new novel out next year, through Ultimo Press, a new imprint of Hardie Grant, via the incredible Robert Watkins who brought BODIES OF MEN to the world.

A few words from the top folk at Ultimo: ‘We have been bewitched by Nigel Featherstone’s tender, insightful novel, MY HEART IS A LITTLE WILD THING.⁠⁠ A story about family, love and the cost of freedom, MY HEART IS A LITTLE WILD THING serves as a reminder that we all deserve to pursue our dreams. Deeply personal and lyrical, Nigel has woven a story exploring love – both familial and romantic – in all its complexity.’

Deeply personal? Indeed.

I first had the idea for this novel back in 2013 and a few drafts came and went, none of which felt as though they were sufficiently lively – filled to the brim with pulse is what’s needed.

Then a few things happened.

Thanks to the generosity of a wonderful person, I spent a week living in an old barn on a farm on the Monaro, a beautiful though remote district at the foothills of the Snowy Mountains, in New South Wales.

Then I realised that I had been enjoying writing nonfiction, including an essay about my mother’s final days, which was published in 3:AM Magazine, and another about my childhood holidaying in the Blue Mountains, which was published in the Australasian edition of the Chicago Quarterly Review. (During the writing of MY HEART IS A LITTLE WILD THING I would be commissioned to write an essay about my father.) What if I wrote this novel as though it were non-fiction, by which I mean as though the main character is writing a memoir?

And then Caroline Stacey, the artistic director of The Street Theatre in Canberra, who directed my song cycle THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT, said to me, ‘Remember that sometimes good stories don’t start with the bad thing; they start after the bad thing happened.’

Some weeks later, eminent Australian poet Melinda Smith introduced me to the notion of ‘duende’, which she defined as being what drives written work that says what we’re not meant to say, or not allowed to say.

It seemed some key pieces had fallen into place.

So, I had one last go at the manuscript.

And here we are.

A few more words from me: ‘What do I hope readers will take away from this novel? A renewed awareness of life always being⁠ complex and messy; that sometimes, if we want to find ourselves, we must go back to the beginning; that a human being is entirely dependent on the environment in which it is placed; and that love is a wild, wild thing.’ ⁠⁠

And some last words from Robert, who is Ultimo’s Publishing Director: ‘Nigel is such a considered, lyrical writer – and MY HEART IS A LITTLE WILD THING is a beautiful novel. Readers, I’m sure, will relate deeply to the conflict Patrick feels between his love for his family and his yearning to pursue his heart. I’m so delighted to be publishing Nigel again on our new list at Ultimo Press.’⁠⁠

MY HEART IS A LITTLE WILD THING will be published in May 2022.⁠

Rather unbelievably, it’s already available for pre-order.

Big thanks to Gaby Naher at Left Bank Literary, who keeps the show on the road. Author photo by David Lindesay, who somehow managed to get me to almost smile.

Now to have a nice quiet faint.

Once I’ve recovered, I so look forward to sharing this novel with you.

Do stay well.

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