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AirshipA quick note by way of introduction: the following is not a list of what I think are the best books published this year; rather it is a list of work published at any time that I have read this year and have had an influence on me one way or another. Kicking off with poetry, I picked up Air Ship by Roger McDonald (UQP 1975) in a second-hand bookstore halfway through 2013 and I’m glad I did.  McDonald has spent much of his significant career writing novels that have had a deep impact on the Australian literary landscape and beyond.  His ability to create a sentence that offers so much life and bounce and possibility is, I think, unequalled amongst contemporary writers.  And that sense of life and bounce and possibility is present in McDonald’s poetry, even poetry written almost forty years ago.  This year I began a habit of spending the first moments of a writing session reading poetry, and it’s Air Ship that has been the book of choice.  It’ll probably stay on the desk into 2014.

Best 100 Poems of Dorothy PorterIf there’s an Australian writer who came to change the way the broader community related to poetry it was Dorothy Porter.  Best 100 Poems of Dorothy Porter (Black Inc. 2013), curated by partner Andrea Goldsmith, is a fine taster to Porter’s extraordinary intelligence, but also her playfulness, her cheek, and her great heart.  Here’s hoping many readers will be tempted to discover new Dorothy Porter territories, such as Crete from 1996 or even Little Hoodlum from 1975 (interesting: the same year McDonald’s Air Ship was published).

RoomRoom by Emma Donoghue (Picador 2010) had a physical impact on the way I live.  No doubt there are better novels around, better as in reaching for and finding greater and more profound highs and lows, but I enjoyed Room because of the challenge Donoghue set herself: write about entrapment from an innocent child’s perspective, a child who knows no other world than the cell that has been made for him.  It does lose some tension in the final stretch, but as soon as I finished the last page I went out and doubled the size of the chook run – I just couldn’t stand to see them cooped up for another minute.

BarracudaI’ve read and enjoyed all of Christos Tsiolkas’s fiction work and ploughed my way through Barracuda (Allen & Unwin 2013) in three sessions despite its hefty size.  It’s a tough book, as can be expected, but it’s also Tsiolkas at his most tender.  Australia is unreasonably obsessed with sport, and in Barracuda Tsiolkas goes straight to that particular jugular while also taking the hatchet to the privileged world of elite private schools; he reveals the violence that is so central to Australian mainstream culture and our many hypocrisies around class, race, gender, and sexuality.  Despite this, Dan (or Danny), his central character, an elite swimmer whose life doesn’t become what he and everyone else wanted for him, is beautifully brought to the page regardless of – or because of – his many flaws.  As others have noted, Barracada does lose some tension in the last third (like Donoghue’s Room), but the novel didn’t lose me.

DeserterStaying on the theme of violence, I’m not a fan of reading about war: I’m bored by the strategic machinations, and the human toll can never be anything other than devastating; there might be heroes on the front-line, but every heroic action is blackened by a thousand more tragic ones.  Enter Deserter: the last untold story of the second world war by the eminent US/UK journalist Charles Glass (Harper Press, 2013).  What this extraordinary and important non-fiction work does is examine the lives of three World War Two servicemen: two from the US, one from England; with a forensic eye and ear for detail he reveals the diverse and multi-layered experiences of these men, and in doing so goes beyond the hero-versus-coward binary.

The Hired ManJust going to put this out there: I adored The Hired Man by Aminatta Forna (Bloomsbury 2013).  Whilst Tsiolkas brings forth the barely hidden violence of ‘the lucky country’, Forna, who was born in Glasgow and raised in Sierra Leone and Britain as well as in Iran, Thailand and Zambia, expertly explores the forever lingering impact of the Croatian conflict.  In my review for the Canberra Times (republished in the Sydney Morning Herald and elsewhere), I wrote: ‘Forna flatly refuses to over-dramatise. This is a delicate and restrained work. Indeed at times the narrative comes across as a travelogue augmented with childhood reminiscences of hunting and swimming and fumbling first love, these meandering passages lulling the reader into a false sense of security. Forna’s considerable power comes from not overstating her case, and never taking sides. It’s this refusal to make judgements and draw any kind of conclusion that gives The Hired Man its significance… Through Duro Kolak, a complex, conflicted but ultimately likable character, and the many stories he shares with us, Aminatta Forna does what great writing should do: she illuminates the horrors of our times, those that will follow us to the grave, and she makes us feel as though we, too, have played a role, which is almost always the case.’

I still believe everything I wrote in the review, and I still believe everything Aminatta Forna wrote in The Hired Man.

Regional Threads - an afternoon of readings - 20 October 2013 at South Hill, Goulburn (jpeg)

What is it, amongst everything we do, the working, the sleeping, the loving, the eating, and all the other things that come in – barge in – to fill our lives, that you’d consider being ‘the main game’?  It’s not necessarily about priorities but how things are managed, sorted, contained, enlivened.  For me, the main game is writing, which must come as no real surprise.  But within writing, there’s a whole heap of activities: the forming of ideas, trying to tease out something that might be of value to someone else; and then there’s the editing, and editing, and editing, and the reading, and reading, and reading; and then, if a book is lucky enough to see the good light of day, there’s playing a role in the public process, the promotion, and whatever comes with that.

None of this is meant to be a complaint.  Rather, a lead-in to a rather special literary event that’s happening in Goulburn – yes, GOULBURN! – tomorrow, Sunday 20 October.  It’s the very last of the events that have been held this year to celebrate the launch of The Invisible Thread, an anthology published by Halstead Press and edited by the amazingly hard-working Irma Gold that collects work by writers who’ve had an association with the ACT region (you’re right: yours truly is in it).  Being someone who these days lives outside the city limits, I could see an opportunity to present the best of the writers from the anthology who now see ‘the country’ their home.  So it’s amazing to have in one room for one afternoon Roger McDonald, Kim Mahood, Russell Erwin, and John Stokes, as well as Marion Halligan to draw us back to the very modern little city where all this started.

So if you’re fond of words – and to me THAT’s the main game – join us for Regional Threads: an afternoon of readings.  It’s free, it’s in a terrific heritage-listed venue, and quite frankly it’s highly unlikely that we’ll ever again have such high-calibre writers like this together in one place in this neck of the woods.  Seriously.

Plus there’ll be cake.

Sydney Cove back when it all started: are they ominous storm-clouds or is it an approaching bushfire?

Sydney Cove back when it all started: are they ominous storm-clouds on the horizon or is it an approaching bushfire?

It’s January in Australia and I’m hot and bothered. Hot, because that’s exactly what it is: for weeks now it’s been thirty degrees Celsius in the shade, some days thirty-five. Last Friday went over forty; Sydney, just two hours drive north of me, had its hottest day ever – it breached the forty-five-degree mark. Here at home the chooks have their beaks open and their wings out and hanging low, so I’ve covered their run as much as I can with an old tent-fly – it seems to help, for now. But hot is hot is hot and there’s not much I can do about it. And I can’t do much about the alarming waft of smoke as it comes into town and gets us coughing. Last week there was an automated message left on the landline: ‘Tomorrow’s bushfire conditions are CATASTROPHIC. Activate your bushfire survival plan now.’ I put the sprinkler into the garden and, rather uselessly, turned it on.

All this is enough to make anyone hot and bothered, but it’s not all.

On 26 January there’s Australia Day; yes, it’s come around yet again. So the flags are out and about: they’re being stuck on cars and utes and trucks, they’re hung in shop windows, and they’re sent flapping in front gardens, stating the bleeding obvious, but also as though staking a claim all over again. We do it every year, our national day to commemorate the beginning of British settlement, when Governor Phillip landed at Sydney Cove in 1788. I was born and bred here, my forebears arriving by boat only a handful of years after that adventurous governor. Despite this ancestral longevity, however, and whatever blood I have in my veins, and all my thinking on the topic, I don’t really know this nation of mine; as I age I’m understanding it less and less. So, this summer, this dreadful, pressure-cooked summer, I’ve turned to our writers for assistance, for succour even, because their imagination, observation and skilful way with words are surely better than simply hanging out a flag.

Keep reading at Overland.  Thanks to Jeff Sparrow and Jacinda Woodhead.

About a launch

Somehow it’s all happening at once, so to keep track of everything that’s happening, and to share some of the goodies, here’s a very rare mid-week Under the counter post.  Firstly, just a reminder that my second novella with Blemish Books, I’m Ready Now, is being launched tomorrow (Thursday) night, at 5.30pm at Electric Shadows Bookshop, Mort Street, Braddon, ACT; it’s a thrill to have journalist and biographer Christine Wallace cutting the metaphorical ribbon.  Cue sleepless nights and trembling hands.

Story leaks

Over the last few weeks I’ve been leaking bits and pieces about I’m Ready Now, so to keep the tradition going for a little while longer, this novella manages to meander its way between Hobart, Melbourne and Sydney, and northern Vietnam and south-west Ireland also get a mention.  And ‘Sail On’ by The Commodores features, and this is a band that can apparently walk on clouds – make of that what you will.

Guesting, whispering

Relating to I’m Ready Now, the increasingly influential literary blog Whispering Gums recently asked me for a guest-post.  I wrote about novellas (no surprises there), raising children (yes, you read that right), and how family-life is the raison d’etre of the contemporary Australian novel (I really believe that).  Oh, I also mention zombies.  Massive thanks to Sue Terry for the opportunity.

An anthology of giants

More broadly, I’ve mentioned before that a story of mine, ‘Severance’, which was first published in the Canberra Times in 2003 and republished in Island in 2004, has been included in The Invisible Thread: one hundred years of words (Halstead Press), which celebrates the Centenary of Canberra in 2013.  Creative Director of the Centenary – and singer, writer, and arts-luminary-in-general – Robyn Archer says in her introduction: ‘The anthology includes names such as Roger McDonald, David Campbell, Blanche d’Alpuget, Barbara Blackman, Rhyll McMaster, Alan Gould and Jackie French; but there are also equally beautiful emerging voices such as those of Omar Musa, Nigel Featherstone, Sarah St Vincent Welch and Melinda Smith.  That so much good writing, past and present, should emerge from this region is a powerful challenge to the silly cliché of Canberra as a city without a soul.’  Needless to say, it’s a real treat to have work included in these pages.

Oh look, I’m now on YouTube

The tireless editor and project-manager of The Invisible Thread, Irma Gold, who is a very fine author in her own right, has video-interviewed seventeen of the writers involved, including yours truly.  You can watch the interview here.  Mostly I talk about how ‘Severance’ (which, perhaps, has turned out to be my biggest hit) was written, the benefits of living in Canberra and now Goulburn, and juggling everything that life throws at us.  The Invisible Thread is being launched in Canberra on Thursday 29 November.

I hope you enjoy the links, but it’d be great to cross paths with you in person at the I’m Ready Now launch tomorrow night, or The Invisible Thread launch next week.

Onwards.

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.

The city’s been good to me, one particular city, it’s called Canberra and it’s an hour down the road.  I lived in the place from 1987 to 2010, over half my life.  I moved there as an eighteen-year-old, escaping Sydney, that city of two million people at the time (it’s four million now), purposely leaving behind everything that it had been to me, for me, the rich district where I grew up, the private schools, the Mercedes and BMWs and Volvos and Porsches, the loveliness of all that, but also the dreadful emptiness – I’ve been disinterested in material wealth ever since.

In Canberra I enjoyed university life, group-house life, working my way into adulthood, finding myself (more or less), making friendships, many of who remain with me to this day, settling down, running amok, settling down again.  In Canberra I met my partner Tim.  In Canberra I rediscovered my love of reading and writing, committed myself to both, started writing poetry (the first thing I ever wrote and had published – under a pseudonym – is now embedded into the pavement in the heart of the city) but quickly moved onto short stories and then longer forms.  I began doing freelance work for The Canberra Times, interviewing writers and artists, which has been such a pleasure.  In Canberra I had a stroke of good real-estate luck, which now enables me to live in the country without debt.  Now when I look at my resume I realise how good Canberra has been for my creative life.

So, for almost two and a half decades, Canberra was home, that most modern of cities, imagined from the ground up by the American architect and landscape planner Walter Burley Griffin and his professional partner and wife Marion Mahoney.  The Griffins won the international design competition in 1912, and the first peg was hammered into the ground in 1913, so next year one of the world’s great designed cities turns 100, which is quite something, wouldn’t you say?  But not everyone will be celebrating.  To the majority of Australians, Canberra is just the place of Australia’s federal parliament and all the public-service departments that go along with that.  Only ever experiencing the city via compulsory school trips, they see the intricate order of every street and street corner unnatural, as if the city isn’t Australian at all.  Indeed, as a child and I’d visit Canberra with my family, I always thought that as we drove across the border we were stepping into another world, a bit like how it’d be travelling in Europe, so I day-dreamt.

It’s true that Canberra is quite odd; now that I don’t live there but remain close by I can see that now.  It is ordered, it is polite.  It is a city-state, which means to many it’s neither one thing nor the other.  It can be the most beautiful city in the world – 70% of the Australian Capital Territory, of which Canberra is the centre, is mountainous national park, much of it getting dustings of snow in winter.  Regrettably, to many it can also be the most boring city – it’s never developed the pub culture that makes a stack of other Australian places come alive.  It should be made clear, though,that  these days Canberra has many fine cafes, bars, clubs and restaurants, and the diversity and quality of cuisine matches or surpasses that available anywhere else in the country, even Melbourne and its ridiculous self-belief that it’s the centre of Antipodean culture.

In the end, however, Canberra is just a community of 350,000 people getting on with their lives – half of the residents don’t have a thing to do with the parliament or public service.  In general the population is well-educated, well-read, and politically leans to the left.  For a long time it has had progressive policies on recreational drug-use, prostitution and pornography, it was the only state or territory jurisdiction to vote YES in the 1999 referendum for Australia to become a republic, and on Tuesday 14 August 2012 the ACT Legislative Assembly will vote in favour of the most advanced same-sex relationship laws in the country.

Manning Clark: possibly cranky.

It’s not surprising, then, that Canberra is also a creative and cultural place.  Statistics regularly reveal that the city’s rate of participation in the arts is higher than anywhere else in Australia, and many high-profile artists working in all forms of creative practice call the ACT region home.  In particular, Canberra has for decades well and truly punched above its weight in terms of writing.  The list of eminent writers from this neck of woods is long: Miles Franklin, Judith Wright, Rosemary Dobson, Manning Clark, Roger McDonald, Marion Halligan, John Clanchy, Alan Gould, Geoff Page… In fact, the list is so long that as part of the centenary of Canberra celebrations a major anthology is being published – it’s called The Invisible Thread.  The book will be launched in November as part of the National Year of Reading, but will also have a long run through the centenary shenanigans.  This in itself is very exciting, but it’s also personally very exciting because my work has been selected for inclusion, which is an almost unbelievable honour.

But here’s the rub: despite the project attracting a publisher, Halstead Press, and support from the ACT Government as well as other literary and related organisations, including my own publisher, Blemish Books, The Invisible Thread does not yet have enough money to get over the line.  It says something about the status of writing – any kind of creative practice – in Australia when a book of this – dare I say it – importance has to put out its hand.  Because that’s exactly what the project team, led by the tireless Canberra writer and editor Irma Gold, has done: it’s started a Pozible campaign to help pay for the marketing side of the book, to make sure the work has the best life possible out in the community.  At the time of writing, 40 generous people have pledged $3,335 with the target being $5,000 .  If you have a few dollars to spare, why not throw them into the Invisible Thread bucket; if not, perhaps you might pass this post onto someone who might be interested.  There are 28 days to go to make this happen.

So, yes, Canberra has been very good to me.  It’s where I found myself, where I found family and friends and love.  How lucky I’ve been to have spent so long in a community where democracy is at the heart, where people like to think, where people have the long view and move forwards, where the diversity of its population is held up for all to see, where the reality of contemporary living informs policy and legislation, and where a book that celebrates 100 years of working words is about to spring to life.

Right now I feel alive to trees.  Yes, alive.  And, yes, to trees.  Because I’ve just finished reading The Tree in Changing Light (2001) by Australian novelist Roger McDonald.  The book, which was a gift from the writer (I interviewed him for the Canberra Times late last year), is a deeply thoughtful, poetic, even Biblical exploration of the tree.

We’re lucky in Australia to be surrounded by trees.  As I write this a countless number of eucalypts live on the other side of the river on the other side of the window.  Sometimes, like earlier this week when a cyclone called Yasi (named after a Fijian tree, apparently) smashed its way across tropical Queensland, we can be unlucky in the company of trees, too.

McDonald’s book has me thinking about some of the trees that I’ve known.

The gigantic old Smooth-barked Apple (botanical name Angophora costata, which sounds like something an orchestra might play) in the tiny front yard of my family’s Sydney home.  How my mother, wanting to rescue it from the reality of its old age, and needing to save my brothers and me from branches that would fall in summer, got in a tree surgeon, who lopped the dangerous limbs and, following the crown’s drop-line, injected the soil with Poplar Special, which I was told was like giving the tree a massive dose of vitamins.  I remember how, some years later, a sugar glider launched itself out of the tree only to land on the handle-bar of the lawnmower I was pushing – how indignant, how downright embarrassed I felt when I tried to pick up the delicate animal and it bit me violently on the end of one of my fingers.

The windbreak of radiata pines (Pinus radiata, which sounds exactly like what a forester would call them) that protected the little green weatherboard Blue Mountains cottage my family rented each year when I was a child and then a teenager.  Climbing as high as I could until it felt dangerous, perched up there for hours, looking out over the sparsely populated village, feeling the ocean-like sway as the tree shifted in the national-park wind, holding me up.  The smell – the stink? – of pine needles in my nose and mouth, watching as unsuspecting family members went out in the rambling, wild-in-parts garden to do something or other that was meant to be private and unseen.  Turning away from them down there, I got lost in the miniature canyons of the bark, hoping that I wouldn’t fall asleep and let go.  I seem to remember that once or twice I did fall asleep, but I didn’t let go, I mustn’t have.

The exotic trees in the front yard of the first house I bought, a 1960s ‘ex-government’ joint – they died suddenly one summer.  Two English oaks, two liquidambars, a cherry tree, a fig: together, in one week, they just extinguished themselves, the way dolphins can do on an isolated sandy beach.  How devastated I felt, and devastated is the word: shocked, distressed, distraught.  So I got in a tree surgeon, just like my mother got in the same to save her Smooth-barked Apple, and, not being someone who under-does things, I also got in a man who advised the local government about how to care for the city’s urban forest, and I got in the caretaker of the prime minister’s grounds, and tests were done, soil samples sent away to Sydney.  As advised, I had the ground injected, not with Poplar Special but chemicals, because the technology had moved on.

Still the trees died, although a beloved magnolia survived, despite having lost its sheltering over-storey.  I cared for this tree, kept the water up to it during the extended hot and dry periods, especially when the winds came from further inland, I pruned the greying branches, year after year amazed that it flowered for me, and flowered for the neighbours who praised me for the display as if I’d given birth to the tree myself.

How, only this morning, I’ve noticed that the dinosaur-esque fig tree tucked away in the corner of the back yard of the 1890s house in a country town I now call home has suddenly turned yellow.  It has dropped half its leaves, it’s unwell.  It won’t, it seems, survive the recent days of heat.

Trees may well be protection, or decoration, or entertainment.  Perhaps they can even be symbols of status.  But what are they really?  A sign of a slower life than our own, or a greater simplicity, or a greater serenity?  Or is it the stength?  Or the (mostly) silence?

McDonald has the answers, as most novelists do.

In the final chapter of his book, entitled ‘Into the Light’, he notes, in the Biblical – or apocalyptic – past tense:

We wrote philosophies, built faiths, and took every kind of comfort from trees.  They gave language to our existence as we put down roots, stretched our limbs, budded in infancy and were felled in old age.  They were mute companions to our lives and worshipped beyond ourselves as the better part of balance and aspiration.  They offered steadiness and long patience even as we failed in those.  They were meeting points and sites of rough justice.  They gave the idea and supplied the material for shelter.  They offered an image of completion, which was an illusion, but it was enough.  Theirs was a whisper in the wind to the human ear both tragic and hopeful.  Civilisation grew from exploiting, destroying, venerating and looking back on them.  Trees led us to ourselves and we stood against them trunk to trunk, arms upon branches, our thoughts tangled in the stars.

Mute companions.

Companions that I wouldn’t ever want to be without.

Without help it would be impossible to find Roger McDonald.  The set of directions to his property near Braidwood in south-east New South Wales contains references to ‘turn left at the end of the bitumen’ and ‘pass the shearing shed’ and ‘cross the paddock and through the gate with the white patch adjoining the chook-yard’.  Helpfully he also advises to follow rural tradition: ‘If gates are open, leave open, but close them again if shut’.

I diligently follow every direction – if a fog closed in and I lost my way I’d need the SES – and after a morning of travelling I eventually point the Barina up a winding steep incline, then hold my breath as a beautiful architecturally designed house of corrugated iron and stone reveals itself perched comfortably on a high saddle.  It’s a place that brings an instant electric buzz to the stomach.

McDonald used to set up camp on the property, and the house and its various outbuildings appear to have grown from the layout that tents once made here.  The view – the extraordinary view – is of rolling wooded hills and undulating Monaro paddocks which after the recent spring rains are almost as green as Ireland.  During the day there are no houses to see and at night, so I’m told, only the lights of two neighbouring properties can be spotted.  Idyllic is the word, particular for a writer who has spent much of his career exploring the hope and despair of the rural Australian experience, which is at the heart of McDonald’s new novel When Colts Ran.

However, before our interview can take place there’s been considerable email correspondence between us resulting in an agreement to have a preliminary chat over lunch in a Goulburn cafe.  I may have got this wrong, but it could be that I’m being checked out, which is fair enough because in this Internet age I might be anybody.  Or it’s because Roger McDonald is protective of his life and the place where he and his family live.  Perhaps for McDonald that rural tradition could be, Close all gates no matter whether they’re open or closed, and keep them bloody well closed.

So we have our preliminary café conversation; we circle around each other as we negotiate how the interview might occur.  Roger McDonald is unexpectedly slight, and at sixty-nine has a handsome, sculptured, yes, rural face – it’s not hard to believe that he has two brothers who’ve had careers as professional wool-classers.  Although he clearly longs for the endless hush that isolated rural living offers, he is engaging company and very generous with his time.

A week later we’re sitting in his surprisingly modern home office overlooking a thickly treed gully where apparently wombats and roos are often seen.  ‘When I think about where I’m most truly myself,’ McDonald says dreamily, ‘it’s stepping out under some gum trees with crackly bark and a few dry leaves.  When I was growing up there was so much talk, but when you’re in the bush you can retreat into a silence where there’s a mystery of the self, and the self is always a mystery – you can dabble in that.’

Born at Young in 1941, McDonald is the middle son of a Presbyterian minister, Hugh McDonald (‘a good servant of the church’), and the esteemed historian Dr Lorna McDonald, whom he speaks of with such love and affection it’s as though he’s only now realising how lucky it is to have her in his life.  He spent his childhood in the NSW country towns of Bribbaree, Temora and Bourke, but moved to Sydney to attend Scots College and the University of Sydney.  He’s been a school teacher, ABC producer, book editor, and commenced his writing career as a poet before shifting to writing novels because, he says, of the form’s more expansive possibilities.

McDonald’s novels include 1915, winner of The Age Book of the Year and turned into a highly successful ABC-TV mini-series.  His account of travelling the outback with a team of New Zealand shearers, Shearer’s Motel, won the National Book Council Banjo Award for non-fiction.  Mr Darwin’s Shooter was awarded the New South Wales, Victorian and South Australian Premiers’ Literary Awards, and the National Fiction Award at the 2000 Adelaide Writers Week.  His best-selling The Ballad of Desmond Kale won the 2006 Miles Franklin Award.

‘I’ve won a lot of prizes,’ he tells me, obviously wanting to make that point but also as if his achievements surprise even himself.

When Colts Ran is a complex, sprawling work that grew out of a set of long short stories, almost novellas, one of which was awarded the O. Henry Prize as one of the best twenty pieces of short fiction published in the USA in 2008.  On his publisher’s blog – he says the word ‘blog’ as if it’s from a world he doesn’t really want to know anything about – McDonald writes, ‘The main character of the novel is Kingsley Colts, whose ‘run’ starts at the age of sixteen and is still going when he’s well into his eighties.  Fleeing Sydney, Colts goes bush and ends up spending the rest of his life there.  Great expectations blighted him when he was young.  As an orphan and ‘ward of Legacy’ too much was asked of him.  In the rhetoric of two world wars he was the inheritor of national sacrifice.  Could anyone really be worthy of that?’

At home and in his office McDonald admits, ‘God only knows there might be something essentially me in Colts – the alcoholic I never became.’

Does he have a cultural vision for this latest novel?  ‘Yes,’ is his swift reply, ‘but what that is exactly, well, I paraphrase Bernard Shaw: If I could have put it in two words, I would have.  It’s just about using the material at hand, speaking out of the landscape, using people’s use of the place and their working lives, their accent, the dust in the throat kind of thing, hope and despair mixed up together.’

Speaking out of the landscape. How good is that!

What part of McDonald’s background has had the most impact on him?  ‘Connection to the Australia countryside and rural landscapes.  This has always been not so much an escape but a wonderland.  When we lived in country towns as kids all our connections were with sheep farmers.  My parents’ friends and parishners would always be inviting us out for afternoon teas and lunches.  My brothers would ride horses and I’d drive the sulky and we’d swim in the dam, and it was an ideal life removed from the way we lived.’  McDonald pauses briefly.  ‘What never appealed to me was the actual work of a farm.  After 1915 was published I was able to buy a place in the country.  That was a joyous moment – to be able to live in the country but not have the difficult business of gaining the main source of income from it.’

Roger McDonald has an enormous love of language.  ‘If I read a sentence in Shakespeare or Saul Bellow or whatever I feel like I’m almost chewing the words, and yet they have a delicious taste as well.  There’s a real pleasure in those words.  So the feel of language and the rhythm of sentences – this is what drives me.  I don’t have a moral axe to grind, though a novelist might need to grind that moral axe to get the words working right.  A book may have very strong and clear themes but from the writer’s point of view they’re patterns.  In When Colts Ran there’s the pattern of the way men might connect, there’s the pattern of what people derive from the pressure of the hard landscape through drought and flood and distance.’

What hopes does McDonald have for his latest work?

‘The only hope I ever have,’ he replies, ‘is to have someone come up to me and say, I read your book and I absolutely loved it, I got caught up in it, and I was in that whole world while I was reading it, and now I’m sorry that it’s finished.  My God, someone has really read what I have written!  And then you hope that that can be multiplied and you have lots of readers, because the most difficult thing for a writer is to labour hard over something and then get no response.

‘When I got my first advance copy of When Colts Ran I spent a week going through it and thinking, this has the feeling of it being beyond me.  Even though I made everything that’s in it, its elements combine in a way that I hadn’t quite predicted, and it’s possibly good in that way.  That doesn’t mean that everyone’s going to like it, or everyone’s going to think it’s good, but for me it has that quality of excelling what I originally put into it.’

Our conversation meanders on, traversing enjoyable terrain, such as influences (Patrick White, David Campbell), faith (McDonald doesn’t have one but is interested in the ‘spirituality of connection’), and Australia’s pioneering history and its impact on Indigenous culture, but all too soon we’re done.  I’m invited to stay for lunch with his wife Sue, a relationship mediator and ceramicist, and over a home-cooked frittata and salad we talk about dogs and foxes and chooks.

When sadly it’s time for me to go, I drive away in silence, which is odd for someone who enjoys nothing more than travelling in the country to music.  But drive away in silence I do.  I breathe deeply and slowly, my mouth closed, my heart making its beats.  The sky develops from cloudy to overcast, and then a light rain falls on the windscreen and the naturally harsh land and living outside.  In this silence, for every minute of the hour and half it takes to get home, I hear Roger McDonald speaking wisely and deliciously out of the landscape.

The following was first published as ‘Nature of his Tale’ in Panorama, Canberra Times, on Saturday 13 September 2010.  Many thanks to Roger McDonald.  Thanks also to Gia Metherell.

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