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The Canberra Times reviews 'I'm Ready Now' - wine ensues, as does a hangover (and, despite the hangover, much thinking).

The Canberra Times reviews ‘I’m Ready Now’ – wine ensues, as does a hangover (and, despite the hangover, much thinking).

Beneath everything that’s been going on – finding a way of paying the bills, covering the cracks that have been appearing in the walls, the death of a divisive UK matriarch, the barrage of daily emails, dodging kangaroos – there’s been a simmering story: how is I’m Ready Now faring in the rapidly shrinking world of literary reviews?

For an excellent but sobering analysis of the current book-review situation in Australia have a read of ‘Parallel Fates’ by Sybil Nolan and Matthew Ricketson, which was recently published in the new and much-needed Sydney Review of Books.  I’m just eternally grateful that I’m Ready Now, a story about two difficult people making difficult decisions, a novella by a regional writer and published by an independent press, has managed to be reviewed at all, first in BMA Magazine, then Whispering Gums, and now The Canberra Times.

As ‘Parallel Fates’ makes clear, book reviews are extraordinarily important: they provide a thoughtful, dispassionate and contextual critique of a writer’s work; they offer advice and feedback to a publisher; and they help connect books with readers.  Without book reviews, especially the articulate, erudite and fearless kind, there can be no viable literary culture – writing is as much about response and contribution as it is about creation.  They can also help to toughen writers, who are, no doubt, innately sensitive souls, and they help to educate readers, encouraging the broadening of interests.  The book pages, however, particularly those in the mainstream press, appear to be dwindling.

But what of the review in The Canberra Times – is it any good?

Well, it does have this to say:

Writing novellas might seem a little anachronistic or studied, a bit like playing the harp, say, reading Henry James, or listening to LPs. In Featherstone’s hands, though, the novella form becomes an opportunity for concise, intense, concentrated emotion. For him, 156 pages are plenty to introduce plot twists, to give characters depth and feeling, to juxtapose emotions, and to colour his settings with textured, intriguing detail (Mark Thomas)

Which is very generous and resulted in the drinking of wine.  Lots of wine.  Far too much.  And a hangover the size of a bastard country.

In other I’m Ready Now news, Blemish Books has produced a podcast of me reading a short (3-minute) extract, there’s an interview I did with ArtSound FM, and if you’re in a book club you may be interested in the reading notes that have recently been made available and the associated discount offer.  So the good ship I’m Ready Now, skippered by the tireless Blemish folk, keeps sailing despite some challenging seas, and here’s hoping that the wind remains in the sails for a little while longer.

As always, thanks to everyone who’s said a kind and supportive word – I appreciate it very much.

What does a reader's response mean to the writer, even if it's negative, or not uncritical?

What does a reader’s response mean to the writer, even if it’s negative, or not uncritical?

The email

On the Wednesday just gone, after hours of thought, I posted the following on Facebook: Today, one of my oldest friends, an avid reader and very careful in the books she selects, sent me an email.  She wrote, ‘I’ve read I’m Ready Now.  Really cared about the characters, thought the suspense and build excellent.  Enjoyed it the most of your books.’  And this short and sweet note made me the happiest I’ve been in weeks.

Part of the reason why I posted the above was because of that last line in my friend’s email.  I’m Ready Now is a book in which I’ve invested my heart and soul, so it’s an honour – and honour is the word – to know that a reader sees this novella as being a step forward.  However, I also posted it to show how even the briefest piece of feedback will lift the writer from the gutter, the metaphorical gutter if not the literal one.

And it’s not just about praise – even a piece of negative criticism, especially if it’s thoughtfully composed, is helpful in the long run.

It’s about response.  A writer writes to be read, and, so it’s dreamed, to know how people feel about the work.  Was the reader engaged?  Were they moved?  Did the characters and their predicament linger for days after the last page was turned?  Did the reader find themselves talking about the story with others as if they’d personally witnessed the events on the page?  And what of the prose – carefully crafted?

But it’s also about keeping the silence at bay.

The silence

For days, weeks, months, years, decades even, writers work at every single dot and squiggle on the page; if the writer’s extraordinarily lucky, the work will be published.  And then?  Well, more often than not, there’s silence.  It was an eminent Australian novelist who told me about this.  And I said, ‘But how is that possible?  You’re a multi-award-winning writer.’  And he said, ‘It happens after every book.’

Most writers, myself included, say that writing is the most rewarding activity they know but that it’s also the hardest – breathing life into a sentence takes  a whole lot of blood, sweat and tears.  More than likely, for every word that’s on the published page there’s a word the writer has discarded.  No one asks us to do this crazy of crazy pastimes, especially the fiction pastime, but there are rewards to be had.

The quotes

What follows, then, are the rewards – a selection of quotes from some of the feedback I’ve received so far from those who’ve taken in I’m Ready Now (listed anonymously to protect the correspondent):

Your writing is always filled with so much love.  The story was great, smooth and easy to read despite the dual voices – you made it work well.  The milestone thing is something that I can relate to, and I’ve been wondering if I should stop taking myself so fucking seriously.  I’m Ready Now will stay with me for some time.

Precise and elegant prose, the subtle interplay of character, and the ability to make the reader want to read on.  I really enjoyed the sense of place both in Sydney and Tasmania, one of your strengths, too. Congratulations.

I’m Ready Now is another step in the steady development of your work.  I especially admired the dialectic you maintained throughout between the familial/domestic on the one hand, and the momentous – death, sex, love, fracture, searching – on the other hand.  I think you’ll get some real attention with this one.

A gripping saga and very moving.  I found the characters believable and I hope things work out for them.

I have just read I’m Ready Now, and was totally hooked; which I find even more interesting as I didn’t particularly like Gordon, just for selfishness reasons. (His, not mine.) But he had slyly worked his way under my skin. Even into my pure little veins.

Do you know, I’ve been thinking a lot about your characters and their decision-making when it occurred to be that I haven’t told you that I loved it.  There were certain passages at which I almost gasped.  The passionate commitment to a child, the strange longing for the first mad love, the need, sometimes, to get to the new place – the untested territory – alone.  Oh how wonderful to have written this book.

The thanks

Thank you, thank you, thank you to everyone who’s email me, or posted something about the book on Facebook, or sent me a text-message, or just said a kind word face-to-face.  It does make it worthwhile, and it makes the story more alive.  Undoubtedly it’s a ridiculous thing to say, but I’m sure that the characters themselves feel more alive, too.

Another year of writing comes to an end and it’s been a ripper, even if every second day I ask myself, why am I doing this?  It’s not that I don’t enjoy it – mostly I love the wrestle with words and their meaning, with characters (who more often than not want to do their own thing), and the evil beast that is plot and event – but it is a strange occupation when so much time is spent worrying about what’s not real.  Though we plough on, don’t we.  And I mean that ‘we’ – I’m just one of thousands who are embroiled in this whole writing caper, plus around every writer is a bank of people who are very generous with their interest, support, advice, and encouragement.

So, an update on a few things:

I’m Ready Now…for novella no. 2 to have its moment in the sun

Out now!

Out now and in the (hopefully) loving hands of readers and critics alike.  Fingers – and other things – crossed.

Two reviews for I’m Ready Now (Blemish Books, 2012) have come in to-date: the really very interesting and thoughtful literary blog Whispering Gums and the indispensable ACT-based street-press BMA Magazine.

Whispering Gums said of this novella, Nigel Featherstone builds tension and mystery around his characters’ behaviour without undermining their realness or humanity, and without alienating readers. We warm to them even while we wonder about the wisdom of their decisions and motivations. Besides the characterisation, I also like the novella’s voice and structure. It’s told first-person in the alternating voices of Lynne and Gordon, and is effectively paced, largely through varying the length of the chapters. And so for me, the book is about ‘living imaginatively’ and about liberation, but it is also about how the past can stall us if we don’t get it in the right perspective. Featherstone opens the book with two epigraphs, one being TS Eliot’s ‘Home is where one starts from’.  I think that, in a way, says it all.

BMA concluded, I’m Ready Now is masterful in its execution. This is not high impact, flashy narrative. It doesn’t need to be. So delicately does Featherstone introduce the nuances of his characters and the incidents in their lives that – despite their simplicity – you are drawn in, eager to learn how these flawed and real characters fare. It doesn’t end in a walloping climax or the decisive nature of a bullet but with a simple yet life-changing decision. This is a perfect companion to Featherstone’s previous novella, Fall on Me, and both prove the man has a commanding grip on the novella form.

You can read both reviews in full here and here respectively.

I’m Ready Now can be ordered in through your local bookshop, or purchased direct from Blemish Books.

Fall on Me…is rising

Winner of the ACT Writing and Publishing Award (fiction)

Winner of the ACT Writing and Publishing Award (fiction).  There’s been a fair bit of wine-drinking since the announcement.  From memory.

There was more than a spring in my step when I left the Mercure Hotel in Canberra on the evening of Thursday 13 December, because Fall on Me (Blemish Books, 2011) had just won the 2012 ACT Writing and Publishing Award (fiction).  The judges’ concluded: A clever, poignant and engaging plot, and the pace is quietly and consistently held. Interest grows as the story and the relationship between the father and son unfold, polished and compelling. Carefully drawn and cannily observed characters, who develop in a plausible and appealing way. Judicious use is made of back-stories to define the characters; the reader never loses curiosity. This work is carefully and beautifully crafted, no showiness, no gratuitous sentiment, an example of skill and talent being put to outstanding use.  I do hope the award, and the sticker that can now adorn the books, ensures that Fall on Me, a novella about a father who is surviving the senseless murder of his wife and the couple’s now teenaged son who insists on doing radically creative things with his body, continues to have a life out there amongst the big books.

Like I’m Ready Now, Fall on Me can be ordered in through your local bookshop, or purchased direct from Blemish Books, the best indy small press in the country, as voted by me.

A long-lost interview finally gets an airing

You know, there’s been a private saga that’s been simmering throughout much of this year.  Back in autumn, I received an invitation from eminent South Australian literary journal Wet Ink for an in-depth interview.  Of course, I jumped at the opportunity – these things come around once in a very blue moon.  Over a total of twenty-five questions, the interviewer, Susan Errington, asked me about a wide range of topics, including what makes a novella, why I write so much about men, and my favourite authors and their books.  For months and months I eagerly awaited this interview to appear but, sadly, Wet Ink went belly-up just before publication day.  Thankfully, Whispering Gums came to the rescue, and the interview, which is 4,500 words long, is being serialised every Friday for the next few weeks, with an extra section added to bring it all up-to-date.  Needless to say, I’m extremely grateful to Sue Terry for saving the day, but it’s also an example of how rapidly the world of literature is changing, particularly in terms of the ongoing tsunamic (is that a word?) shift from paper to the online environment.

The latest installment of the interview is here.

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A massive thanks to everyone who’s bought a copy of Fall on Me and/or I’m Ready Now; to all those who’ve shared with me their responses to the books, I appreciate it very much.  Yes, writing literary fiction is a bizarre pursuit, especially in an age where we’re all so pressed for time and are being bombarded with an avalanche of information (first a wall of water, now rushing slides of snow!), and the international economic climate is wobbly at best so people are understandably careful about what they do with their coins, but after the year that’s been I’m pretty damn keen for 2013 to start.

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To all those who subscribe to Under the counter or a flutter in the dovecot, who comment, or just drop in every so often, I hope you enjoy the festive season (if there is one where you live), and all the very, very best for the new year.

Fancy that: a wall of readiness

The build-up

You know, six months out from a book launch, you just can’t wait for the big day – it’s all just too exciting.  Then there’s the week of the launch and you start counting down the sleeps.  But then the morning comes and you think, why the hell do I do this?  It’s the nerves: will anyone turn up?  But there’s also the anxiety around a story, and the people of the story, who have been private for so long, years, all of it being made public: will the words and their intent come alive for readers?

In the end, people do attend book launches, and the book is officially sent out into the world, and you wake up the next morning and think, Wow, what a night; did that all really happen?  Thank you so much to all those who came long to the launch of I’m Ready Now at Electric Shadows Bookshop in Canberra on the Thursday just gone.  A packed-out independent bookshop is always a thing of beauty.

McEwan on the novella

Chris Wallace: no bullshit.  Which was appreciated.  By a lot of people.

I’m Ready Now is a novella, and some people have asked me what this strange beast is all about.  It’s the million-dollar question – if there can be million-dollar questions in the world of literary fiction – and many have tried to come to a definition.  Back in October of this year, Ian McEwan wrote the following in The New Yorker: ‘I believe the novella is the perfect form of prose fiction. It is the beautiful daughter of a rambling, bloated ill-shaven giant’.  It’s a great line.  But in a feature I wrote last year for The Canberra Times on the novella, John Clanchy dived deeper: ‘Whatever we call it, the novella isn’t a novel that’s run out of puff; it isn’t a short story that’s meandered beyond its natural length and lost its way.  I like working with the novella because it shares some of the most attractive features of the novel – its expansiveness, its multiple layers of theme and plot – at the same time constraining them with features normally associated with the short story: intensity of focus, singularity of narrative voice and architecture, discipline of length.  But all the while remaining a distinct species, not a hybrid.’

Two sibling novellas on a shelf – what is it that they’re saying to each other?

What some are thinking

As to the launch itself, a huge thanks to journalist and writer Chris Wallace for cutting the metaphorical ribbon.  What’s the best thing a launcher can offer a writer?  A close reading.  And no bullshit.  Chris, who is infamous for calling a spade a spade, offered both.  Amazingly, there’s already a review of I’m Ready Now: it’s over at the unstoppable literary blog Whispering Gums.  What I love about the review is that it begins with some reflections on the launch, and the independence of these reflections make them more valuable and interesting than anything I can do here.  But the writer of the review, Sue Terry, also gets the books, so much so that she concludes thatI’m Ready Now is about living imaginatively and about liberation, but it is also about how the past can stall us if we don’t get it in the right perspective’.  Those last few words, about how the past can grind to a halt if we don’t frame it correctly, really do get to the heart of the book.

Heartfelt thanks

‘It was a dark and stormy night…’ Hang on, this novella’s already got words in it.  No need for any more.

Thanks again to everyone who came along to the launch or sent warm wishes.  Special thanks to Marion Halligan, Karmin Cooper, and editor Nicola O’Shea who really helped to bring I’m Ready Now to life through offering very astute suggestions.  And, of course, much gratitude to Greg Gould and Lesley Boland from Blemish Books for publishing I’m Ready Now (along with Fall on Me last year).  I can only write what I want to write, and what I’d like to read, which means that I may never have the biggest readership in the world (though one can dream), so it’s brilliant that Blemish has made such a commitment to me as a writer and to the novella as a form of story-telling.  What now?  I just hope that I’m Ready Now is read.  One final time: thank you.  Until we meet again.

Your copy is here

I’m Ready Now can be purchased through your local bookshop or you can order it directly from Blemish Books – that link will take you straight to Blemish’s online store.

Well, we’ve got a cover.  This time around, Blemish Books commissioned the completely and utterly talented – and damn fine – folk at New Best Friend.

Yes, it’s the baby to the left.

It’s always interesting to see what will be the public face of a story that’s been private for so long – it’s as if the idea materialises right in front of your eyes.  It’s true that there’s a kind of magic to all this.  And it’s all just so full of surprises.

I had no idea the doorknob that features in the story would become the dominant image.  But it’s fitting, very fitting: if you have the key you’re able to go inside.  But maybe the door’s unlocked already – just come on in and make yourself at home.  Perhaps the door’s unlocked but the door’s hinges are a bit rusty and you’ll need to give the whole thing a pull and a push to make it move so you can make your way in.

Whatever the case, there we have it: the cover of a novella called I’m Ready Now, to be published next month.

Also on the cover is a quote from Marion Halligan, one of the ACT region’s – and Australia’s – most esteemed writers.  I admire Marion very much, plus I’m fond of her as a person, so it’s always a nerve-wracking experience for someone like this to be approached to endorse your work.  And you do need endorsements: independent-press publishing is too difficult as it is to go in blind and naked, as it were.  (To be frank, commercial or mainstream publishing is probably no easier).  Needless to say, it was a relief to read Marion’s generous words, to know of her response.  ‘A powerful yet gentle narrative that grabs you and holds you till the end.’  Powerful.  And gentle.  I like that, especially for a dual point-of-view narrative.  Is it Lynne Gleeson, the mother in I’m Ready Now, who is powerful?  Or is she gentle?  Or is it her son Gordon, the naughty – and troubled – son who is those things?  Or is it the story itself, the book?  Or is it me (God forbid)?  Or is it all these things?  It’s all these things.

From here we’re on the slippery slope to the launch, which is at Electric Shadows Bookshop in Braddon, Canberra, on Thursday 22 November.  It’s quite an unreal experience to have two novellas out in two years, two book covers, two endorsements, two launches, all the gut-wrenching anxiety of going public with a personal imagination, a day-dream in a way, a very long day-dream.  If anything, I just want Lynne and Gordon Gleeson to have their time in the sun; it feels as though they’ve been kept cooped up for far too long (since 2003, really, when the idea of this story and the people in it first popped up).

They’re tough people, independent and determined, so they’ll make their own way without me now, I know they will, I know they will.

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.

A certain Ernest Hemingway

There’s this problem child I know.  We all have someone in our lives who could fit this definition – a rebel, a wild one, a lost soul, or all three at once, which would be quite something – but mine is less conventional, in every possible way.  The problem child I know isn’t made of flesh and blood and bone, it doesn’t have a heart (at least not in the usual sense), and for some – for many, it seems – it doesn’t actually exist, or they know it does but wish it wouldn’t.

What on earth am I talking about?  The novella, of course.  That little book of power and pummel, the miniature of in-between.

A quick survey of literary history reveals that the novella has well and truly punched above its weight.  Stories like Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich (1886), Thomas Mann’s Death In Venice (1912), George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945) and Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea (1952) have had an immeasurable impact on Western writing and reading – mini revolutionaries, the bunch of them – and each has firmly found its place in the canon.

But the crunch is this: what is their true identity and purpose?

Jonathan Cape’s hard-cover edition (1972) of The Old Man and the Sea describes it as “shorter than the conventional novel, longer than the longest short story, Hemingway’s new work of fiction eludes classification.”  My 1993 Arrow Classic edition of the same tale contains references to it being a short story, a long short story, and a novel.  In other words, we haven’t a clue what we’ve just published.

The fact is there is a great suspicion about the novella, because it’s next to impossible to categorise.  Down through the ages there have been times when no one wants to even talk about the thing, as if worried that it is going to lead to incarceration, or a long, slow death from The Plague.

But let’s be brave.

The word itself, novella, comes from the Latin, novus, which means new and was originally applied to plants and animals.  In the sixth century, novella meant a newly planted tree, which is rather delightful; I’ll be using it the next time I’m at the nursery.  Yet this doesn’t really get us anywhere.  And definitions that rely solely on word-count – somewhere between 10,000 and 40,000 words seems to be the rule of thumb – completely under-estimate the devious ways of the novella.

In his introduction to The Granta Book of the American Long Story (1998), Richard Ford tries to capture a definition of our little friend (or perhaps that should be foe) but even he can’t get one to stick, despite interviewing his comrades in academia, who appear knowledgeable about the subject but ultimately brush him off.  Interesting that for this story I approached two respected academics in the creative-writing field and neither returned my emails – as if I was enquiring about a missing person they might just know something about.

The history of the novella goes back further than the efforts of Tolstoy and co.  Five hundred years earlier one Giovanni Boccaccio authored (or may have simply collected) the first cycle of novellas that comprise The Decameron.  A hop and a skip from there, the Germans, who have never shied away from a bit of cheeky experimentation, took a particular shine to the form, primarily in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, to the point that the critic Theodore Mundt, in 1823, called the novella ‘the German house pet’.  (I shudder to think what Australia might nominate as a ‘house pet’.  Kylie Minogue?  Actually, could she be described as a pop-music novella?)

However, despite the novella having a long and illustrious history of contribution, it really does seem to be the literary problem child.  But why?  Why is it so hard for people to get their heads around what is essentially a short work of fiction?  Then again, a short story is also ‘a short work of fiction’.  And therein lies the apparently insurmountable difficulty: the novella is the slipperiest of beasts, refusing to fit neatly into boxes that appeal to writers, readers, and publishers.  And if history has shown us anything, we are sceptical about what doesn’t fit neatly into boxes.  Ask your nearest bisexual.

But still novellas are written, and sometimes they’re even published.

John Clanchy, the Canberra-based award-winning writer of short stories, novellas and novels, says that despite being a fan of the shorter story the novella really is cause for heart palpitations.  “The concept,” he says, “is suss for many in the Anglo word, which has tended to see the novella as just one more European conspiracy: first they foist the novella on us, and when that doesn’t work they go and invest post-modernism.”

How would Clanchy define the novella?

“Whatever we call it,” he says, “the novella isn’t a novel that’s run out of puff; it isn’t a short story that’s meandered beyond its natural length and lost its way.  I like working with the novella because it shares some of the most attractive features of the novel – its expansiveness, its multiple layers of theme and plot – at the same time constraining them with features normally associated with the short story: intensity of focus, singularity of narrative voice and architecture, discipline of length.  But all the while remaining a distinct species, not a hybrid.”

Despite his own success with shorter works – His Father’s Daughter (UQP, 2008) contains five stories ranging from 9,000 to 30,000 words – Clanchy agrees that one of the biggest challenges with novellas is getting the bloody things into print.  “Editors and publishers don’t seem to know what to do with this ‘intermediate’ form,” he says.  “Show a novella to an editor – the adventurous Madonna Duffy at UQP excepted – and she’s just as likely to pull a mouth and say, ‘A novella?  It’s kind of…um…long, isn’t it?’  To which the only sensible reply is, ‘Yes, but so is a goanna.’”

Mandy Brett, Senior Editor at one of Australia’s most respected mid-sized presses, Text Publishing in Melbourne, believes that it goes without saying that novellas are difficult to publish.  “There are a couple of reasons for this and the first is brutally economic.  On the bookshelf, a novella is just a very skinny book.  We can’t expect people to pay nearly as much for it as for a novel.  But in fact it doesn’t cost all that much less to produce.  This makes the small book a highly dodgy proposition in terms of turning a dollar.”

The second difficulty is cultural, says Brett, but ends up being economic.  “There is not a broad readership for the novella.  It is not widely appreciated as a form, being perceived as a stingy novel or a bloated short story.”

Brett certainly has a point.  Inspired by Richard Ford undertaking an ‘informal poll’ of his academic mates, I posted on my humble home in the blogosphere a request for thoughts on the novella.  Comments came back along the lines of “most writers like writing them and reading them, but readers don’t, because they generally want more of a meal when they sit down to eat” and “I prefer the traditional novel format – it’s not so much a more-bang-for-your-buck kinda thing (though I have found myself standing in a bookshop thinking, there’s no way I’m paying $32 for 120 pages) it’s that I find short stories just too damn short!”

However, according to Mandy Brett it’s not as grim as all this might suggest.

“There’s a small subset of literary readers who will buy an outstanding novella because they appreciate wonderful writing, or hear enough good things about it to give it a go.”  Brett cites A Love Letter from a Stray Moon by Jay Griffiths, which was published by Text earlier this year, as an example of a contemporary novella.  It is 20,000 words in length and she describes it as “exquisite”.

John Clanchy, too, is optimistic about the future of the novella.  “As a committed reader in the Age of Obesity,” he says, “I’ve cut the contemporary fat novel right out of my diet – too many carbs and too little nutrition at too large a price.”

What about this brave new world of digital publishing and e-readers?

Mandy Brett sees fertile ground.  “As the ebook starts to take over and book pricing comes adrift from the traditional restrictions imposed by print technology and the physical distribution of books, it will become much easier to play around with format and form.  I expect to see more poetry, more novellas, more short stories, and more experimental literary forms accessible in mainstream outlets in the future.”  And that’s a ray of sunshine for those writers who want to muck up and those readers who hunger for more than the bulging literary block-buster.

So, it seems, the novella, despite its inherently shifty business, is here to stay.  It may well be lurking behind that wall over there, ready to frighten the living daylights out of an unsuspecting public.  Perhaps the revolution will – again – come in the form of a little book, one that might pop up on a computer screen and say this: There’s something that you really should know about.

*

First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 20 August 2011.  With thanks to John Clanchy and Mandy Brett.  Thanks also to Alec and Agnes, who commented on an earlier Under the Counter post about the novella and are quoted above.

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