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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.

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The past