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Two bits of news on The Beach Volcano.

Firstly, my alma mater, Verity La, has published a wonderfully thoughtful  and expansive review, one that manages to tease out some themes and interpretations that might have been buried even from me. It includes some generous conclusions: ‘The Beach Volcano rises and falls to a compelling beat. Not unlike John Cheever before him, Featherstone unpicks the threads of a successful family to reveal a hollow and corrupted core. With striking imagery, the twin themes of music and water are elegantly interwoven. Unforgettable.’

The full review can be found here.

A French man's reaction after hearing that there's new Burial music in the world.

A French man’s reaction after hearing that there’s new Burial music in the world.

Secondly, Blemish Books has now made The Beach Volcano, and its cousins Fall on Me and I’m Ready Now, available as e-books.

What’s more, for a very limited time Blemish is offering a massive 80% discount on the electronic versions. To purchase the e-books, and to claim the discount, head here and then put the relevant code into the coupon field. For The Beach Volcano use VARLUDO4S6, for I’m Ready Now DTS1RW4H2L, and for Fall on Me AEBE9D5AE6.

And finally, as you might know I’m obsessed with UK dub-step/electronica artist Burial. And he has new music: a single called ‘Temple Sleeper’. In a just world, there would be wild public celebrations, including dancing in the streets and drinking till dawn.

Onwards.

The Beach Volcano cover: stony, bony goodness.

The Beach Volcano cover: stony, bony goodness.

There’s something about visibility, coming out of the shadows, being seen. But the visibility I’m talking about is more than that – it’s about exposure, true exposure, so much so that it’s frightening. Of course, I am being just a little (or quite a lot) dramatic. Because all I really want to tell you is Blemish Books have released the cover for the third and very much final novella of mine, The Beach Volcano.

You can see it right there, accompanying this post, in all its moody, melancholic, mysterious…is ‘beauty’ too strong a word? Perhaps not. I love it, the cover (and wouldn’t it be terrible to say that it’s not really my cup of tea). The stones in their gun-sight pattern; they’re also reminiscent of dinosaur bones. It’s just so very apt.

Though what would I know. All I’ve done is spend the last four years trying to make the story sit up and sing (and ‘sing’ , let me tell you, is just as appropriate as those bone-like stones).

The Beach Volcano follows I’m Ready Now (2012), which took two and a half years from first draft to publication, and Fall on Me (2011), which shot out the gates at a mere 18 months. I should say, however, that all three of these novellas existed as ideas in my journal for some time before the first pen-stroke on the page. I wrote down the thought that would become I’m Ready Now in 2003, nine years before publication. Surprisingly (to me) the initial scratchy recording of The Beach Volcano is dated January 2010, a mere five months before the first draft, but that was four and a half years before publication. What’s happened since the first draft? Rewriting, editing, polishing, delete delete delete, rewriting, editing, polishing…until nervous exhaustion set in. Again I’m being ridiculously over-dramatic, though there is some truth to what I’m telling you.

But what’s the bloody thing about?

Well, here’s the blurb:

How should we deal with what’s lost? And how should we deal with what’s to become, something unknown but so very much desired?

After years of estrangement, Canning Albury, a revered and irreverent singer-songwriter, returns home to celebrate his father’s eightieth birthday. His welcome is mixed, at best. But Canning has made the trip for more than just a glass of Pol Roger and an eyeful of Sydney Harbour at sunset. He carries a secret about his family’s murky and uncharted past—a secret that could be explosive. The Beach Volcano is a fearless exploration of life’s many compromises, and the burdens we bear for those we love. 

Has anyone read it yet? If so, what do they think? Yes, it’s been read – by none other than Melbourne novelist Andrea Goldsmith. Who had this to say:

Nigel Featherstone’s new book plunges into the loves and loyalties, the secrets and outward appearances of the wealthy Albury family. This is an insightful and at times disturbing story. Assured and compelling, The Beach Volcano holds you to the last page and beyond.

How does that make me feel? Grateful. So very grateful.

So, that’s the latest. Blemish is gunning for a late August/September launch from Canberra. And then, from that point onwards, a little book called The Beach Volcano will be out of my control. Is this really the end of the line for my novellas? I’m pretty sure it is. I’ve loved dreaming them into existence; I’ve adored hearing of reactions from readers. I can’t deny that the reviews and awards and short-listings have, in fact, meant a great deal, if only because they might have resulted in the novellas finding more hands (and hearts?) in which to be held. When all is said and done, it’s all just a drop in the ocean, isn’t it: three more books in an endless sea of books. I’m just glad – say it again: grateful – that they’ve taken me on such a ride.

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.

A confession: I’ve got the hots for a chick, and have had so for quite time.  Of course, she doesn’t have flesh and bones, at least not to me; she’s a voice, a music, and what an extraordinary voice she has, and what extraordinary music she makes.  And her most recent album: well, it’s been a long time since I’ve adored an album as much as this, how I’ve learnt every song, as in I’ve become to understand it all, it’s seeped into me, getting beneath my skin.  You know when you’re young and you listen to an album so often that you start to become sick of it?  So you wisen up and get into the habit of drip-feeding albums that you’re loving.  Or you love an album immediately only to find that it doesn’t hold its own ground.  Or you don’t like an album immediately, but soon find yourself playing it over and over, loving it intensely, obsessively, until it’s all-consuming.

PJ Harvey’s most recent album Let England Shake is the sort of album that makes me remember the great records from my deep, dark past – Faith by The Cure, London Calling by The Clash, The Queen is Dead by The Smiths – and I do own this latest Harvey opus on record, as in on vinyl, because that’s how I like to listen to the best albums that come my way.

Despite being an age-old though not uncritical PJ Harvey fan, I’ve come a little late to Let England Shake.  It was recorded over a five-week period at a church in Dorset UK in April and May 2010 (when I was bunking down in Launceston Tasmania, I realise rather deliciously) and released later that year.  In 2011 Harvey won the coveted Mercury Prize for this record, making her the only musician to have bagged the honour twice; she’d previously won it for Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea back in 2001.

What makes Harvey such an exciting, beguiling, and sometimes, let’s face it, frustrating singer-songwriter is her dogged refusal to repeat herself (Tim Winton should take notice, in more ways than one).  Her albums have covered such various terrain as riot-grrl grunge, folk, pop, electronica, sparse piano ballads (check out 2007’s White Chalk), and now she adds a dozen war songs to her, er, canon.

Harvey wrote Let England Shake over a two-and-a-half-year period, producing the lyrics first – she claims to be inspired by Harold Pinter and TS Elliot – before sitting down to set the lyrics to music.  Her mission, it’s clear, was to explore what it means to live in a country that’s at war.  However, this isn’t some table-thumping polemic; it’s intimate, it’s beautiful, it’s harsh, it’s haunting.  Her voice is higher than on previous records, and it’s complemented – more than appropriately – by the deep timbre of her long-time collaborators, John Parish, who Harvey has described as her music soul-mate, and Mick Harvey (no relation), who for many years has worked with Nick Cave.

Using instruments as diverse as autoharp, zither, piano, trombone and saxophone, as well as some cheeky and downright hilarious samples, Harvey has crafted an album that is as engaging as it is adventurous.  And it’s packed with tunes; it would almost be thigh-slapping good fun if it the subject matter wasn’t so serious.  Check out ‘The Last Living Rose’, the gut-wrenching ‘On Battleship Hill’ and ‘Written on the Forehead’ to experience the musical and emotional range of the album.

It’s true that PJ Harvey can be awkward company: I imagine that you’d have a delightful cup of tea with her, she’d smile, she’d talk sweetly but with brutal honesty, before she’d stand up, excuse herself, and go and play with her chooks or pot up some salvia.  And I haven’t always been faithful to her; in fact years have gone by when I’ve not had much to do with her.  But, despite the latest fixation on how ugly human beings can be to each other, how supremely violent for no real logical reason, we’re back together now.  And I feel that this time she’s with me for quite some time.  Even if she does a runner on me again, or I do a runner on her, I have no doubt that in twenty years time I’ll still be playing Let England Shake, and on vinyl, and loud, very very loud.

I’m writing on a windy, drizzly, overcast Goulburn day.  I’ve had to triple-peg the washing on the clothesline otherwise it will end up down the street.  On the Tuesday just gone it was so windy – with gusts of 80km/hour we were the windiest place in the state – that one of my standard rose-bushes was decapitated; I’ve bandaged it up with masking tape and, miraculously, it seems to be recovering.  The chooks aren’t coping as well: Mrs Honky became poorly during the wind-storm and proceeded to go downhill until I woke up yesterday morning to find her still body on the floor of the run, the score marks of her legs in the dirt as if she thought she could outrun this.  But I noticed that she was making small, long, slow breaths, so I got down to a crouch.  She opened her eyes and looked at me, or at least in my general direction.  A few minutes later I returned to the run with gardening gloves and a large plastic bag.  She didn’t open her eyes, and her body was no longer breathing.

So here I am today, with the wind and the drizzle and the overcast sky.  And Inni by Sigur Ros playing on the television.  If there’s been one constant in my life since 2000 it has been Sigur Ros, the band that plays music which sounds like the earth is simultaneously falling apart and coming together, all because they’re from Iceland.  I’ve been with the band since their miraculous Ágætis byrjun album.  At first, I wasn’t taken by the enigmatically titled ( ) record, until I realised that I’d played it non-stop for eighteen months.  He Who Likes To Sing Along To Some Songs and I were lucky enough to see the band play at the Enmore Theatre in Sydney just before the Takk album was released in 2006, so that record will always remind me of how we downed a bucket-load of vodka and soda before the band took to the stage, and when they did how overwhelming it was – there were tears, that’s what I can tell you.

In 2007 Sigur Ros put out Hvarf/Heim, which is a cross between a b-side collection and live footage of the band playing intimate shows across their homeland.  And then came Med sud i eyrum vid endalaust (meaning ‘with a buzz in our ears we play endlessly’), the record with the young folk doing a nudie run across the road on the cover.  For the first time Sigur Ros worked with a producer (U2, Nine Inch Nails, Nick Cave, PJ Harvey et al), and the production is more three dimensional, the songs more varied, even if Med sud contains ‘Ara batur’, which is so widescreen Hollywood that you expect some trout-mouthed actress to leap out of the speakers and try to whisk you off to the altar.

And then the band went kaput, at least a temporary-hiatus kind of kaput.

But now we have Inni, which is the essentially the soundtrack to a film of the band playing live in London in 2008.  Where I’m from, for $39 you can get the DVD, two CDs, and the album across three vinyl records, which is quite a bargain.  In Inni, Sigur Ros sound more aggressively electric, which is no doubt because they aren’t playing with Amiina, their regular four-piece string section.  Lead singer Jonsi Birgisson is in extraordinary form, somehow sharing the secrets of his life even though we English-speaking types have no idea what he’s saying because he uses either Icelandic or his own made-up language, or an infuriatingly appealing combination of both.  As usual the band around him is both tight and expressive, although loose-limbed drummer Orri Pall Dyrason can sometimes sound as if he’s barely able to hold it all together.

Jonsi, who in the footage looks like a cross between Jimmy Hendrix and Adam Ant, and his almost pitch-perfect falsetto and his way of playing the guitar – with a violin bow – is undoubtedly the focus of Inni.  But just as important is the film-work by Vincent Morisset.  It is grainy, it is gritty, it is menacing.  Morisset takes us onto the stage, almost as though he wants to give us a first-person experience of the band.  He does not say, look how popular and talented Sigur Ros are; instead he takes us inside the band and beyond.  I mentioned the word menacing, and it’s an appropriate word for Inni.  Sure Sigur Ros can be pretty and beautiful, and yes sometimes they have their Enya moments, but there’s darkness at their core, a terrible darkness; anyone who’s noticed the David Lynch-esque motifs in Heim will know what I mean.  Morisset reveals the band’s gravitas by focussing on the musicians and their music; how revealing are these four men, how unafraid they are of being emotional.

There’s very little sweetness and light to Inni, which is a good thing.  Especially for days like this one, with the gale-force wind howling around the house, the grim sky, a dead bird in the garbage bin, and a rose-bush stuck together with masking tape.  Because if Sigur Ros says anything it’s this: work fucking hard to live the deepest life possible, because there’s nothing else.

In Adelaide recently for a variety of reasons including taking He Who Had A Birthday To Celebrate out for dinner (and what a dinner it ended up being) but also to experience the Fringe Festival, which we did with much unearthly delight, I found myself in North Adelaide one night in a room above a café watching a young man film himself.  No, I hadn’t strayed and ended up in a strip joint, though this was before He Who Had A Birthday To Celebrate flew over to join me.

You see, I’d run into a friend at an arts function – Malcolm, a performance artist, and I first met on a residency last year.  Anxiously, he invited me to attend his Fringe show.  I’d seen his work before, in fact I’d been quite moved by it: it was both shambolic and finely honed, which sounds oxymoronic, I know, but is accurate.

So I accepted the invitation and headed over the Torrens.  The café was posh: well-dressed patrons comfortably sipped expensive wine or imported beer and ate $30 pizzas.  But upstairs five other people and I watched the young man film himself; for an hour he did nothing else but dance, the footage projected on vertical blinds for our viewing pleasure, on an adjacent wall YouTube video clips of other people filming themselves dancing.  Apparently it was about how the internet has blurred the line between public and private, which is undoubtedly true.

After a ten-minute break during which I hurriedly drank a glass of Riesling, we returned upstairs and watched Malcolm, now alone, begin his piece (his opening-act colleague had inexplicably scuttled away in a taxi).  But Malcolm was so nervous he couldn’t get a glass of red wine to his lips.  Nevertheless, he repeatedly asked us to love him; he stripped down to his boxer shorts and conversed with an empty chair; he eventually managed to get some red wine into his mouth and then let it dribble down his neck and chest so it looked like he was bleeding from the inside; he smashed a red wine bottle and put the shards between his toes and paraded around the room; he tried to explain the show by drawing a graph on the wall; he sang a Nick Cave song; he finished by inviting us to get naked, which we declined.

In the taxi back to the relative safety of Hindley Street, I couldn’t help wondering what makes someone travel halfway across the country to perform in front of six people.  The thrill of the risk-taking?  The rush of communication?  The satisfaction of pursuing a career most would consider useless at best?

I bunkered down in my hotel room.  Needing company I clicked on the large flat-screen TV and watched beautiful young men and women go through their meretricious moves on So You Think You Can Dance.  And then some Peter Carey lines popped into my head, from his story The Death of a Famous Mime: ‘Asked to describe death he busied himself taking Polaroid photographs of his questioners.  Asked to describe marriage he handed out small cheap mirrors with MADE IN TUNISIA written on the back.  His popularity declined.’

My friend Malcolm may or may not end up being popular, but his bravery has been etched onto my mind.

(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, March 27 2010.)

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