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1.

One of the most thrilling events that has ever happened in my literary life is this: an Australian poet has created a ‘found poem’ out of something I wrote a long time ago.

2.

The poet? Stuart Barnes. The poem? ‘Stern Man’. The written thing of mine? A novel called Remnants.  It really is magical, this poem, for many reasons. Reading it, working it out, returns me to 2001, when I was completing a Master of Creative Arts/Creative Writing at the University of Wollongong, which I’d thoroughly enjoyed. An early draft of what would become Remnants was produced during that deliciously immersive period of study.

3.

I never thought the manuscript would see the light of day. But buoyed by something that my external examiner, Ian Syson (the then editor of Overland), had written in his feedback, that the manuscript would ‘surely’ find a home somewhere, I shopped the thing around. With no luck. Eventually a colleague suggested I meet with Ian Templeman, who at the time was the publisher at Pandanus Books, the Australian National University’s press (which appears to no longer exist). Ian had read a short story of mine in Overland and enjoyed its ‘intimacy’, so agreed to read my manuscript; months later he made an offer to publish it, though I would have to wait ‘some time, years perhaps’ as he needed to create an imprint to do so.

4.

So, in 2005, out into the world came Remnants.

5.

It’s a quiet story, a humble production, but somehow it received a large number of reviews, including in the Sydney Morning Herald, the Canberra, Times, the Age, and Antipodes; all but one was more than positive.

What’s it about?

Following his wife’s death, Mitchell Granville, retired barrister and son of a celebration politician, spends his twilight years hidden in a village in the Blue Mountains. For company he has his books, his late father’s semi-wild peacocks, and a sculpture of a naked woman’s torso. Over time he succumbs to loneliness and realises that there is at least one person he needs to rediscover. When he finally makes contact, all does not go as planned. Soon he finds himself being coaxed into at trek that crosses the breadth of his country and the depths of his past.

At least that’s the story according to Pandanus.

6.

Remnants: humble, inexplicable.

Remnants: inexplicable.

I loved writing Remnants, and rewriting it, and editing it, and polishing it (though I admit to moments where I thumped the desk because the story and/or the prose just wasn’t up to scratch), and it was a thrill to see it make its way in the world. However, almost a decade later, I feel as though I’ve moved on. In 2010 there was the Launceston experience, those four weeks during which the way I wrote was turned on its head. Since then, I’ve been working on the Blemish novellas, which are much shorter works than Remnants. It’s almost as if that novel was a blip, an aberration, some kind of literary miracle, and perhaps it was. But now I’m thinking about that book again, because of Stuart Barnes’ ‘Stern Man’.

7.

Stuart’s lines are collected mostly from the short proem that opens the story: Mitchell Granville, a melancholic man at best, is taking a bath in what was once an apple-picker’s shed, though something more serious is going on. What I admire most about ‘Stern Man’ is that Stuart has lifted the chosen lines and created something entirely new, something – yes – magical. I do love the idea of a peacock collecting firewood.

8.

Magical, also, because I based Mitchell’s bath on the one I used to enjoy in the Blue Mountains holiday cottage that my family rented for many years every summer and some winters. You had to make a fire in a barrel and wait for it to puff like a steam-engine before turning on the tap so the water would warm and dribble through. When I was nothing more than boy, when I was soaking in that rust-brown water after yet another day of exploring wild bushland, did I used to imagine that my brain would spark a novel and that my novel would spark a poem written by someone else? I may have been a relentless dreamer, but I could never have dreamt that far.

9.

Enough from me.

10.

Here’s ‘Stern Man’ by Stuart Barnes, which was first published in Four W twenty-four (2013). Please note: what’s not included in the image, but is included as a footnote to the original poem as published, are the words ‘a found poem; source: Nigel Featherstone, Remnants, Pandanus Books, 2005′.  These things are important.

Three cheers for literary miracles.

11.

Stern Man by Stuart Barnes (2014)

 

 

One of these jugglers might also be a writer. With any luck.

One of these jugglers might also be a writer. With any luck.

Exhausted already

Writers make good jugglers.  There’s the juggling of time to write and time to earn money and time for family and friends and time for your own mental health, which being a writer is more than likely quite precarious.  There’s the juggling of ideas: fine ones, not so fine ones, appalling ones.  There’s the juggling of character and plot and point.  There’s the juggling of words, getting them all exactly where they need to be so that magic is the result.  Oh my, I’m exhausted already.  But we’re not done yet.  There’s the juggling of writing fiction and non-fiction and poetry.  In terms of fiction alone, there’s the juggling of the writing of novels and novellas and short stories and micro-stories, and, those slipperiest of beasts, prose-poems.  It’s enough to make you want to chuck it all in and become something simple, like a duck-farmer, or a grower of daffodils.

Hooked

For some reason, after twenty years, I haven’t yet chucked it all in, although I do think about it every second day, every single day if things aren’t going well, which is usually the case, if I’m honest with myself, and honest with you.  I began my writing life, as in with seriousness and an almost religious sense of purpose, in my early twenties as – drumroll please – a poet.  I wrote a poem, miraculously it was published, so I wrote another, and miraculously that, too, was published.  Remembering that I loved reading short stories as a boy, I wrote a story, which was short-listed for publication; that it didn’t end up in print wasn’t the point – I was hooked again by words and their meaning, and by play, and by dream.

Wait, there’s more

Since 1994 I’ve had over 40 short stories published, including in literary journals such as Meanjin, Overland, and Island, and in the USA.  In 2003 my novel Remnants was published by Pandanus Books.  In 2011 and 2012 respectively, my novellas Fall on Me and I’m Ready Now were published by Blemish Books.  Okay, now I’m just boasting.  Wait, there’s more.  Wanting to expand my readership, and add another string to my bow, in 2007 I began doing freelance work for the Canberra Times, primarily for the paper’s weekend magazine Panorama and its First Words column (along with Marion Halligan), as well as feature articles.  Clearly not having enough to do, in 2009 I started this blog, ridiculously named Under the counter or a flutter in the dovecot, which was selected for archiving by the National Library of Australia.  I still write a post for the blog every Saturday morning.

More life

Despite now working across these different modes, my mission hasn’t changed: I’m still just playing with words and their meanings.  No matter what form there’s nothing like crafting and re-crafting until a piece hangs together, everything in its right place, it all makes sense; with any luck it might engage readers, perhaps – with an extra dose of luck – it might even move readers.

Ever since early 2010, when I spent a month in Launceston as a writer-in-residence courtesy of the City Council (as written about on this blog ad nauseam), I’ve written everything by hand.  My handwriting is truly appalling, which, oddly, helps – I’m forced to slow down, to think about every mark on the page, but I’m also forced to follow my head and heart and gut.  When writing like this is both mental and physical work, you want it to be worthwhile in the end – for yourself and the reader.  These days, everything, even blog-posts, even articles for the local writers centre magazine, is first written with pen and pad.  Because it’s better this way: there’s more life.

A decent dose of honesty

There are, however, subtle differences between the various forms of prose.  Short stories, of course, are a cousin of poetry, so every word has to do more than one job.  In the writing of a novel there’s greater opportunity for exploration and multi-layering and depth (and that awful flipside of getting tangled up and lost).  Novellas are an especially peculiar creature: neither a short story nor a novel, they have their own prospects and hurdles; but in some ways I feel that this in-between mode is my natural home, because I’m an in-between kind of guy in an in-between stage of my life.  Writing for newspapers requires turning down the literary fireworks and turning up general accessibility, although I still like strong characters, some kind of plot, a decent dose of honesty, and perhaps the odd writerly trick to create a spark – there’s nothing like an email from a reader saying that my work brings freshness to the newspaper.  And there’s the writing of blog-posts, which can be more a terrific whoosh of words, maybe even something experimental (why not?), but still I like to make sure it’s as fine as possible.

A writer must have wine

One side of all this that I’ve become better at over the years is choosing the best form for an idea.  Is there enough in it for a short story?  Or perhaps there’s a lot in it and could run the marathon length of a novel?  Or perhaps a novella might rein it in?  In terms of creative non-fiction (which is my euphemism for journalism, because I really have no idea what I’m doing), is it something for the First Words column or a feature or an opinion piece – where in the newspaper might it belong?  Blogging is interesting, too.  When I first started Under the counter or a flutter in the dovecot I committed to never self-publishing fiction on the thing, and I’ve held to that commitment, so it’s a place for everything but fiction.  Except there’s something else about blogging: every so often, if I try harder, I can get the piece up a notch or two so that it can first be published by a journal that pays.  Because, quite frankly, I need the money – a writer must have wine.

Writing is writing is writing

Despite all these years of juggling and practice and more juggling, writing is still about play – playing with words and their meanings – and dreams – dreaming up characters and predicaments, or imagining a non-fiction piece into existence and making a contribution to the broader cultural discussion.  Scottish comedian Billy Connelly once famously said that ‘funny is funny is funny’.  Perhaps I can echo Connelly by somewhat less famously saying that writing is writing is writing.

*

First published in ACTWrite, the monthly journal of the ACT Writers Centre (August 2013).

Everything about writing is luck.  Everything.

There’s the luck of the idea, that little ‘what if’ that pops into your brain, you write it down somewhere – a post-it note, the back of a napkin (how appalling it’s been that sometimes I’ve had the best ideas when a little too drunk, so the idea is gone by the morning, it’s never stuck) – and then at some point or other you see if you can turn that idea into something.  There’s the luck of having the time, or being in a position to make the time, to do the hard work of writing.  And there’s the luck of being in the right headspace to produce that particular story, because every story is different.  And then there’s the luck in having the right editor read the piece and there’s always a bit of luck in terms of whether or not the publisher has the physical – or digital – space to get it out into the world.

More specifically, I have looked back at the publication of my novel Remnants as a series of events and confluences that have had as their commonality good bloody luck.  In 1999/2000 I did a Masters in Creative Arts (Creative Writing) at the University of Wollongong.  It was a great experience, a highlight of my life.  First up, I had the good fortune to spend time with writers such as John Scott, Merlinda Bobbis and Tony Macris.  Most closely I worked with Tony, and he was sufficiently blunt to tell me that my major project was good enough to give me the qualification but wasn’t good enough to find a publisher.

That night I started on a new project.

By the end of the year I had the bones of a story that I knew I wanted to take further.  I spent three years editing and re-working and polishing and worrying and fretting.  After shopping the manuscript around, and being told that it was well-written but would never be a commercial proposition, Francesca Rendle-Short, now creative writing academic RMIT but at the time was at the University of Canberra, suggested that I might like to have a chat with Ian Templeman, who was the head-honcho of Pandanus Books, the academic publisher at the Australian National University.  Excitedly, impatiently, I arranged this meeting.  (I am the least patient person in the world, so perhaps I should be serving burgers rather than writing stories.)

Over lunch Ian told me how he’d read a story of mine, ‘Song of Excess’, in Overland and would love to read the manuscript for my first novel – what luck that he’d read that particular issue!

A month later, I received a letter saying that Ian enjoyed the work but as Pandanus was primarily an academic publisher of non-fiction they couldn’t accept it; I should, however, again make contact with Ian.  More than confused, I rang Ian.  He said that he would like to publish Remnants, but he would have to establish a special imprint to do so, and this would take ‘some time’.  Ian was true to his word, and in 2005 that little novel eventually saw the light of day through Pandanus Books’ Sullivan’s Creek series.  Which would fold within a year because the ANU was adamant about focussing on the academic, not the fictional.

Remnants went on to achieve ten reviews, in places like Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, Australian Book Review, Antipodes as well as literary journals.  Nine of the reviews were positive; eight of those nine were glowingly enthusiastic. There’s no doubt in my mind that I was a very lucky person indeed throughout the whole journey of Remnants, and if that book hadn’t appeared it’s highly likely that I wouldn’t have continued trying my hand with the longer narrative form.

It’s a humble book, and a flawed book, but the more distance I get from it the more I like it, the characters and their situations have resonated with me, and the story has found a small but appreciative audience.  However, it left me with two feelings: one, how lucky we need to be for our work to be published; two, that I want to go on, that I want to write more, that I might just be able to do better, but I’ll need a shit-load of luck to go that next step, along with drive and tenacity and sheer hard-work.  Plus a good idea every now and again – that wouldn’t go astray.

In terms of current work, my novella Fall On Me was published by Blemish Books last month, and I could tell you a story about that story, how my partner and I went on holiday in Tasmania in 2007, how we stayed a few nights in Launceston, how, one night, we walked up Cataract Gorge and went past the Kings Bridge Gatekeeper’s Cottage and I thought, Mmm, how good would it be to write in a place like that, how two years later, I discovered that the Launceston City Council ran a program where artists could indeed live and work in the Gatekeeper’s Cottage, so I applied, was accepted, and in April-May 2010 went down to Tasmania to live in that Cottage for a month, intending to write short stories, but instead I wrote three novellas, Fall On Me being one of those, how, a year later I saw that Blemish Books was looking for manuscripts around the 40,000-word mark, so I sent off a submission, and the good, generous folks at Blemish loved the thing, so here I am, talking to you about luck and publishing and I’m realising that good fortune plays such a big role, perhaps a bigger role than hard-work and any talent one might have (though talent is always debatable).

And I could tell you how lucky I am to have found someone like Alec Patric with whom I co-edit Verity La.

And how lucky I am to live in a country where I’ve been able to receive a good education, and there are opportunities to continue that education.

And how lucky I am to have had an English teacher in middle school who once handed back a story I’d written, an obviously average story by the look of the mark written on the top of the front page, but he said to me, ‘You can do so much better.’  So here I am, aged 42, trying to do so much better.

And I could tell you how lucky I am to make a real-estate decision eleven years ago which now allows me to write as fulltime as humanly and financially possible.

And how lucky I am to not be in the twenty per cent of the world’s population that can’t read.

And how lucky I am that you’re reading this post.

All this – every little bit of it – has lead to publication, and now I realise that I am a man of such good fortune.  And how grateful I am for every little cheeky drop of it.

Perhaps all writers feel this way, at times, to a certain extent.  I’m reminded of the greatly loved Dorothy Porter, whose final poem, ‘View from 417’, finishes with these delicious words: Something in me/despite everything/can’t believe my luck.

*

With thanks to Irma Gold, who asked a question that inspired this post.

There's about to be another...

Two weeks ago, on a Wednesday morning, I sent an email.  It wasn’t any old email; it was a very particular email, one I’d been thinking of sending for months.  The email was to three people: a well-known Australian writer, a life-long publisher, and the man behind a radical Melbourne-based press.  All three men, good men, wise men, in their own various ways have become a mentor to me, because I can’t do this alone.

Over the last two years the well-known Australian writer has been working with me on a manuscript for my second novel; how encouraging he has been, so generous with his advice and time.  The longstanding publisher put out my first novel, Remnants, distributing it nationally and internationally, garnering ten reviews, nine of which were more than positive; I have a contract out on the writer of the negative one.  The man behind the radical press read a manuscript I wrote when I did my masters in creative writing back at the University of Wollongong in 2000/2001 and loved it so much that he wanted to publish it; when it was eventually published – it would become the manuscript for my first novel – he offered me such praise that I was humbled to a pulp.

Yes, these men have become mentors, people I look up to, people I need.

Two weeks ago, I was in need of some mentorly love, because I’d hit a wall.  After seventeen years of writing, of hard work, the last five of which have been so incredibly intense, getting up at 5am even when I felt like I’d been hit by a train, being committed, tenacious, single-minded, I had nothing to show for it.  Well, that’s not entirely true.  To keep myself sane during the writing of what I’d hoped would be my second novel, I produced what I’ve been calling ‘creative journalism’, which is a euphemism for ‘stuff I send to the newspaper even though I have no idea what I’m doing’.  It’s true that I’ve loved writing these pieces – a monthly 500-word column (filed here on Under the Counter in the various First Word archives) and the odd feature – and I’ve taken their production seriously, as seriously as I take my fiction.  But it’s not fiction, it’s not as magical as that.

It’s true that in the last eighteen months I’ve established a website, and this blog-shaped spot in the world, and Verity La – the on-line creative arts journal that thinks it can, and actually does, and more recently, to my amazement and gross disappointment, a god-damn Facebook profile.  (Finding myself with the latter is like spending a lifetime hating commercial FM pop music only to discover myself enjoying a Phil Collins CD.  If this were to happen in real life, I’m off to Mars.)

The point of my email to my holy trinity of mentors?  That I’d had enough.

Of writing.  Of being a writer.

Yes, it sounds dramatic, even overdramatic.  But I couldn’t see the point of continuing.  Sure, I love the act of writing, the intolerable wrestle with words and ideas, and I love the act of reading – my bookshelves radiate such goodness into my little home that I could never imagine being without them.  However, sometimes it’s worth taking a step back and asking the hard questions.  Has this love of mine become a health-hazard?  (Perhaps heroin addicts ask the same question.)  Might it not be better to spend the next forty years pottering around in my garden, pruning this, potting that, planting something else?  Gardening is fulfilling, and life-saving, especially now that I have only a handkerchief-sized plot of dirt to play in.

The odds of getting published in Australia are extraordinarily long – one in a thousand is a figure I saw quoted in a reputable literary journal – and you have to write something extraordinary for it to have a life out of the bottom drawer.  It’s this that I shared with my mentor men.  Of course, I was fishing for words of wisdom, if not outright praise.  ‘Nigel, you are clearly the best developing writer in the country – it would be a crime against humanity to give up now.’  That kind of thing.

I sent my email, shut down my lap-top, and then thought to myself, what a whiny, ungrateful bastard that email will make me sound like.  But I didn’t care – I meant what I wrote, because I needed help.  It was the first time I’d done such a rash thing.

So, it was with more than a shock that I opened the laptop the next morning and found not a reply from one of my mentor men but an email from Blemish Books saying that they were interested in a pair of novellas that I’d sent them and would like to meet to discuss their publication.  We’ve since had our meeting and the first novella, Fall On Me, will be published in September/October this year; depending on the success of the first, the second, I’m Ready Now, will be published in 2012.

Am I excited?  You better fucking believe it.

In the past, the journey to publication has been a private matter, something that I’ve largely kept to myself, the choicest bits shared with He Who Has To Put Up With These Things, and a little bit dribbled here and there to family and friends.  This time, however, thanks to a website, this blog, and a god-damn Facebook profile, I’m going to do regular updates – reality TV, if you like, except without the TV.  We could call the series of posts Nigel’s Got Talent (no, that won’t do, obviously), or The Text-Factor (cute, but corny), or My Novella Rules (which is pretty hilarious).  Or perhaps we should simply call it The Blemish Novella Story.  Yes, we’ll call it that, because ‘blemish’ means ‘imperfection’ and ‘fault’ and ‘blotch’, and I am nothing if not these things.

Come with me as I tell all – the whole box and dice: the highs, the lows, the gossip, the last-minute dramas and hissy-fits – as a little novella that was born in a cliff-face gatekeeper’s cottage comes into the gaze of what I can only hope will be a completely and utterly adoring public.

Hoo-bloody-ray for the unpredictability of life.

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