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It has been a hectic though entirely joyful few weeks launching MY HEART IS A LITTLE WILD THING into the world: I’ve had events in Canberra, Sydney, and Brisbane (Queensland).

Such wonderful crowds, despite the ongoing threat of COVID-19. The Canberra launch, thanks to Harry Hartog ANU Bookshop, was an entirely masked affair, which helped to make people feel a little more comfortable. It is always terrific meeting readers, those who read BODIES OF MEN and are eager to read the new novel, or those who have already read MY HEART IS A LITTLE WILD THING, or those who are new to both novels. It doesn’t matter; a novel only comes alive when the words are making magic in the mind of someone else.

To all those who have sent me messages or emails saying how much they have been moved by the story: thank you.

It’s also been lovely chatting with various podcasters. Two recent ones include writer Samuel Elliott, for The Write Way Podcast, and writer Michelle Barraclough, for The Writer’s Book Club podcast. I thoroughly enjoyed both conversations – so spirited – and highly recommend both programs.

Another response to MY HEART IS A LITTLE WILD THING that has become very special to me is ‘Monaro’, which is the latest composition by UK-based artist and composer BPMoore.

Ben and I became friends over social media. As readers of this blog will know, I adore music and have done so from a young age; listening to music continues to be a daily habit. I immediately connected with Ben’s work: perhaps fitting into the ‘contemporary classical’ category, the songs – and they are indeed ‘songs’, as though written for those who are more used to pop music – are evocative, engaging, and deeply moving.

One evening last year, after having a couple of wines, I messaged Ben via Instagram to rather boldly suggest I send him an advance copy of MY HEART IS A LITTLE WILD THING and see if perhaps it might resonate enough to result in some kind of musical response.

To my surprise, and delight, Ben leapt at the offer.

And here we are: today Ben releases ‘Monaro’, a pair of songs that have been written to be listened to as a whole.

Some words from the composer:

Monaro I & II’ were written during the reading of ‘My Heart is a Little Wild Thing’, reading in the evening each day, and then working on music the next morning in response. There were pictures in my mind, colours, vibrations in my body – all from the words Nigel wrote. I have never visited the Monaro. I hope to one day.

What I find extraordinary about Ben’s music is how it captures the Monaro in all its beauty and strangeness. The rolling notes evoke the wide-screen bareness, and the soaring vocals suggest the height that comes from what locals call ‘big-sky country’.

Of course, the music also reflects a crucial aspect of the novel: the main character, Patrick, who is devoted to the care of his ailing mother, meets a man called Lewis, who will change his life – and Lewis is a composer of contemporary classical music. Early in the story, Lewis invites Patrick to listen to the sketch of a new composition on his phone; Patrick is suitably moved. This event becomes central to how these two men will continue to connect over time.

‘Monaro’ can be listened to on all streaming services; it can also be purchased via Bandcamp. I do hope you enjoy it as much as I do. I also hope you discover BPMoore’s two albums, Komorebi and If I Don’t See You Again.

Once again, to all those have read MY HEART IS A LITTLE WILD THING and have taken the time to share with me your thoughts: thank you – so very much. I’m absolutely thrilled that Patrick and Lewis’s story is resonating with people the way it is. Patrick and Lewis have become real to me – I feel sure they’d both be fascinated to hear BPMoore’s musical response to their story – and it is just so wonderful that they are becoming real to others.

Gratitude.

My new novel, MY HEART IS A LITTLE WILD THING, has now been out in the world for 10 days, which, of course, has gone by in a flash. Even though this is my third novel (and eighth title) I still find it hard to let go.

As soon as a book is published it is no longer the author’s; it is the reader’s. We can wish the book well. We can hope it finds people who will love it as much as we have loved making it, though it is a complicated love, isn’t it – it has not always been easy, which perhaps only serves to make the love deeper, more profound. We can want for the book to be treated with kindness, and with an open-mind. At the very least, we do not want the book to gather dust at the back of a bookshop.

But how the book is received is largely out of an author’s hands. We just have to trust the work we have put into it.

I have heard composer-comedian Tim Minchin say (and this quote is based on my memory of an interview with him on ABC TV a couple of years ago, but I think it is reasonably accurate), ‘A piece of art is simply the result of how much time the artist had and how much energy they put into it.’ Minchin went on to suggest that if an artist proceeds along those lines, how people respond to a work – negative, positive, or otherwise – is largely irrelevant. It is helpful advice. However, it does not stop some artists, including myself, worrying about how an object like a novel is received. There are those who say that an artist is not their art, but where does one begin and the other end?

Best I stop rambling.

All I really wanted to do with this post is give a brief summary of the public life so far of MY HEART IS A LITTLE WILD THING.

There has been a warm and engaged cover story in the Canberra Times; it is rare for a novelist to receive this kind of attention, so I am most grateful. And in all my years as a writer I have never imagined that I would appear on the cover of the newspaper’s weekend magazine with a water dragon on my head.

There has also been a review in the Newtown Review of Books, which concludes:

A rich story, elegantly written. I loved this delightful novel and the journey it took me on. Patrick’s character is finely observed, and his growth, sexual liberation and preparedness to come out as he hits 50 are beautifully scrutinised. A remarkable look at Australian masculinity and its meaning.

The New Daily listed MY HEART IS A LITTLE WILD THING as being one of ‘ten standout books to read in May.’

Booktopia did a Q&A with me, which was lovely. Such interesting and engaged questions, which I had to think about carefully before setting down my answers.

And I have also had the pleasure of being interviewed by a number of hard-working podcasters, two of which have already appeared online: a chat for the relaunched Queer Writes Sessions, which is an initiative of RWR McDonald, author of THE NANCYS and NANCY BUSINESS; and a wide-ranging conversation with Barbie Robinson for Living Arts Canberra, who concludes, ‘Here is a truly astute writer utterly in control of his art.’ Perhaps needless to say, I enjoyed both conversations very much.

Thank you to all those who have engaged with MY HEART IS A LITTLE WILD THING so far, whether it be by posting the book on social media or emailing me to share their experience of reading the story – I do appreciate it, no doubt more than this post suggests. I feel sure that Patrick would appreciate it too, though he might also be just a little overwhelmed. He might need to head back to Jimenbuen on the Monaro and bunker down in the steading, making meals, drinking wine, going for walks. Perhaps he might even go so far as to head up into the Cambalongs and spend a night or two in the hide.

Maybe I’ll see him there.

You too, even.

This week my new novel, MY HEART IS A LITTLE WILD THING, is published by Ultimo Press, an imprint of Hardie Grant. Perhaps it is the case with all novels, but this story has had quite a journey to the page.

As mentioned in a previous diary entry (no. 3), this novel has been with me since 2007 – at least, that is when I first had the idea of someone who is deeply troubled by something unexpressed in his life, so, after he momentarily loses control, he takes himself back to a place that was very important to him as a child. There he sees a strange animal, which leads him to meet someone who will change his life.

Over the subsequent years, I tried to ‘get in‘ to the story through different characters and scenarios and places, though it was not until I spent time down on Ngarigo Country, which is also called the Monaro, an expansive high plain between the Far South Coast of New south Wales and the Snowy Mountains, that the true story emerged.

The final version of the novel was written in a mad, almost delirious rush that lasted 14 days. Of course, there were then quite a few more drafts, before it went through Ultimo’s rigorous editing process.

And now here we are.

More about the novel can be found over at Ultimo. There is also a short video in which I talk about why I wrote it and what I hope readers will get out of it.

There were four things – moments, incidents, events? – that were critical in the development of MY HEART IS A LITTLE WILD THING.

The first: that week at Bobundara on Ngarigo Country. Down there, my very kind host, Trisha, put me up in her heritage-listed stone steading, which is a Scottish word for barn; although it remains much a working building, it contains a small apartment, in which farm workers used to reside. I had gone to Bobundara to work on the manuscript, but almost immediately I knew that I would not pursue that particular version of the story. In that moment of clarity and clear air, Patrick came into my mind almost full formed (as some novelists like to say).

So did his predicament and a rough idea of the journey of the story.

The second: over the last few years I have been writing for the theatre, and during one particularly memorable discussion my director, Caroline Stacey, said to me, ‘Remember what Chekhov liked to do. He didn’t start with the bad thing. He started after the bad thing happened.’

The third: the eminent Australian poet Melinda Smith introduced me to the concept of duende, which, as was described by the Spanish poet Lorca, is the devil mule, the goblin muse, the one that is all about mischief. Tracy K. Smith has written a terrifically illuminating essay about duende; it can be found here. Although writing abut poetry, what Smith says about duende I find fascinating:

‘…we write poems in order to engage in the perilous yet necessary struggle to inhabit ourselves—our real selves, the ones we barely recognize—more completely. It is then that the duende beckons, promising to impart “something newly created, like a miracle,” then it winks inscrutably and begins its game of feint and dodge, lunge and parry, goad and shirk; turning its back, nearly disappearing altogether, then materializing again with a bear-hug that drops you to the ground and knocks your wind out. You’ll get your miracle, but only if you can decipher the music of the battle, only if you’re willing to take risk after risk.’ 

The fourth: my mother died. Within days I found myself – or lost myself – thinking, Who was she? Who was the woman who brought me into the world? Although the family in MY HEART IS A LITTLE WILD THING is not my family, my writing of the novel, I think, was my attempt to explore what had just happened in my life, primarily through the character of Patrick. Soon, however, the novel became entirely Patrick’s, and that is the only way I think of it now.

To mark the publication of the novel, earlier this week I spent a day and a night at Bundanoon, which is a village half an hour’s drive north of Goulburn, where I live. Some of the novel is set there: Patrick lives in the same street as his ailing mother. Then I drove two and a half hours south, to Bobundara. It was fascinating to see the steading again; it felt as though Patrick would open the door and welcome me inside. Perhaps he would make me a cup of tea, or pour me a glass of wine, or just light the fire and say, ‘Thank you for visiting. What’s new in your world?’

It felt as though the place – the building, the paddocks, that wooded hills – were now his.

I hope they will soon be yours too.

If you’re within spitting distance of the ACT at the end of this month, the novel will be launched at Harry Hartog ANU at noon on Saturday 28 May. The event will be an in-conversation with Anna Vidot from ABC Radio Canberra. Booking essential.

Thank you to all those who have engaged with my work over the years. It is an obvious – and common – thing to say, but a novel only comes to life when it is in the hands of a reader, and when that reader is lost – and perhaps found – in the imagined world.

Much gratitude to you all.

I have just returned from a 5-day trip (working on a top-secret commission, which is not actually top-secret, just wonderful), beginning down on Yuin Country, which is what they call the Far South Coast of New South Wales. Starting at Merimbula, the trip took in Eden, Bega, Bemboka, Bibbenluke, Bombala, Nimmatabel, Braidwood (the scene of a certain 93rd birthday), Murrumbateman, Yass, and Gunning.

Ngarigo Country/the Monaro is a place that has really got beneath my skin.

The day after I got back, a box appeared on my verandah. But before we get to the box, here are some photos from the trip:

And some notes, which I wrote on the road:

From the sea to the high plains – day one: The day began beautifully with Tim and included a walk along the edge of Merimbula’s tidal lake and out to the nearby ocean beach, a coffee at a boathouse, before following a boardwalk through mangroves. Bellbirds on the coast? I did not know about that. After an afternoon of reading, a walk into Merimbula, cocktails at a tapas bar, a meal of Malaysian curries – we were warned the soy-chili side was hot and it was, deliciously so – before staggering back to our lodgings along the boardwalk, fish jumping left and right. Even though it’s not yet 8.30, my bed is calling me. 

From the sea to the high plains – day two: in which, exploring more Yuin Country, we headed to a town called Eden. The morning began with a view south over Twofold Bay, where whaling had once been common, before a visit to the Killer Whale Museum, which, as is often the way with colonial history museums, involved a lot of death and destruction. A reminder that not all sentient beings have been treated equally. Thankfully we discovered Aslings Beach, which includes one of my favourite things in the world: an ocean pool – spirit restored. Then a walk along the beach before, now, a café lunch in Pambula. The south-east coast: the sea makes it.

From the sea to the high plains – day three: now travelling solo, because there’s work to be done, I headed up into Ngarigo Country via what they rather unromantically call ‘Brown Mountain’. A coffee break in Bemboka, then south to Bombala, which is a town (population 1500) that feels as though it’s hanging on by the skin of its teeth. Just one car dealership in town and the only vehicles for sale are white utes. Every few minutes the grumble of a timber truck rumbling along the mainstreet. I stumbled on what remains of the Bombala Literary Institute, let myself in, heard the faint echoes of theatre on the stage and, perhaps, the yarn of the local temperance association. The only other audience: a dead sparrow. A sausage roll and pie for lunch. Then back up the road to Bibbenluke, which is at the ‘locality’ end of ‘village’, for an absolutely magical conversation with visual artist Lucy Culliton – a white barn of a studio surrounded by dogs, emus, chooks, geese, sheep, a goat called Harry, cockies, pigeons, horses over the way. I left with more than a spring in my step; I felt positively drunk on the conversation. I drove deep into the Monaro; amongst the almost frightening expanse of it all I was reminded why I became enraptured with the place. Have now arrived at the Federal Hotel in Nimmatabel, where I’ll spend the night. The barman insisted that I have a drink, so there’s a schooner of Old beside me on the table. Ah.

From the sea to the high plains – day four: after a meat-and-three-veg pub dinner, washed down with a few schooners of Old, an early start this morning. From Nimmitabel to Cooma, a foggy crossing of the Monaro, which was a contrast to the sheer blue distance recorded yesterday. If anyone is in need of a coffee, it’s me. Next stop: Braidwood 200kms to the north-east. Update: a wee secret reason for coming by the Braidwood neck of the woods was to drop in on my father, who just so happens to turn 93 today. He has a twin sister, Mary. She and her husband Ron drove 200kms from Bega down on the coast up to Braidwood so the siblings could share the occasion. While I took a photo, Mary turned to my father and, smiling but with more than a hint of sisterly concern, said, ‘Jack, do you think it’s time to get a new jumper?’ He replied, ‘There’s nothing wrong with this one – it’s the warmest I’ve got.’

From the sea to the high plains – day 4 (evening): after celebrating – with a green tea – the 93rd birthday of Jack and Mary, I checked in to the Royal Mail Hotel in Braidwood and tried to get some rest, but my mind was buzzing – this trip has been packed with highlights and magic, and the company and generosity of good folk, and I wanted to hold on to it all. In the surprising heat of the afternoon, I walked down to the southern end of town to meet with singer-songwriter and discussed how to stitch together a life as an artist in the thing called regional New South Wales. Turns out it’s all about trusting your gut and finding love and home. And making the work you want to make. Another theme of the trip: taking photos of artists with their dogs. We continued talking as we walked a way towards the mainstreet, Michael’s labrador, nose lost – or not lost at all – in the sodden grass, leading the charge. If the day started with the need for coffee, it’s finishing with the need for a vodka at the Royal.

From the sea to the high plains – day 5: after a much-needed sleep in the Royal Mail and a dawn-lit coffee in the mainstreet, I headed north-west to the granite and wine country of Murrumbateman. I had a wonderful conversation with the novelist Robyn Cadwallader about working as an artist in the thing called regional New South Wales. ‘It’s all about being able to breathe,’ Robyn told me. ‘And, while writing, there’s something about being able to watch a wren on the other side of the window.’ I then took a series of photos of her sitting in her garden. (Interesting to reflect on the fact that all three artists I chatted with during this trip wanted to be photographed with their canine companions.) I then drove on to the small town of Yass and had lunch at Thyme to Taste – it’s a gorgeous café owned and operated by a very friendly chap called Andrew; it just so happens that he and I went to high school together in Sydney. We did not talk about those days, preferring to yarn about the joys of living regionally. I also dropped in on the Yass Bookstore – owner Jo has set up her shelves in the foyer of the town’s now-disused cinema. It was terrific seeing so many familiar names represented, including BELIEVE IN ME by Lucy Neave – was it really only 5 days ago that we had a very engaging event at the Book Cow  in Canberra together with Irma Gold? Feeling a little delirious from the trip, on the way home I went by the tiny town of Gunning, where I treated myself to a caramel slice, which was washed down with a cappuccino. I then drove the final 50kms – across the 5 days I would do over 1000kms in total – through the boulder-strewn paddocks and wind farms stretching hopefully to the north and south, before finally pulling up at my house, feeling – deeply feeling – incredibly lucky that I get to live and write on what always was, and always will be, Gandangara Country.

As if there hadn’t already been enough excitement for one week, yes, a box appeared on my verandah. What was inside? Final, author copies of MY HEART IS A LITTLE WILD THING. Oh shit. I picked up the first book in the box, turned it this way and that, saw how the gloss lights up the clock, and the very generous comment from Delia Falconer, a novelist I admire very much so her thoughts about my novel are very humbling, the boldness of the back cover, including the first line of the story presented as though lit up in lights. Oh my. The novel is not out until 4 May, though is currently available for pre-order, but I already feel as though it’s no longer mine, that it belongs to readers, and there’s no harm in that – none at all.

 

An Australian snowfall. Not yesterday.

My name isn’t Miss Smilla but I do have a feeling for snow, well, a thing for snow at least.  Why a sixth-generation Australian (whatever that is) would have an obsession for the little crystals of ice that can fall on mountain tops is beyond me.  I was obsessed by it as a child, and again as a young man when a friend and I would go camping in the Snowies just so we could be surrounded by whiteness.  Now, in the potentially tricky ‘middle’ years, the obsession isn’t waning one bit, in fact it seems to be getting worse.  And let me say upfront that I’m definitely not a skier – on the slopes I’m only good at breaking stocks, over and over again.

Recently I was lucky enough to spend time in a place nearby where a snowfall was possible – a year ago to the week there had been an unexpected dumping.  As if trying to bring it on through fashion, I packed beanies, scarves, gloves, thermal underwear, and, most importantly, a pair of uggboots.  Day in, day out, I gazed south and watched as the telltale puffy white clouds formed on the ranges, but never did they make what I was looking for.  Then, however, on the very last day, the radio announced it: a major change was coming through and a snowfall might indeed happen.  So, armed with a plunger load of coffee, and a nana rug wrapped around my lap, I sat by the open fire and watched, and hoped, and almost prayed to the heavens.

Why exactly do I love snow so much?  It can’t be because of the Irishness in my blood, can it?  No, it’s not that (though surely the Eire DNA plays a part).  As high-falutin as it sounds, it’s because snow reminds me of art, all kinds of art, the best kind.  Snow is both beautiful and dangerous.  It absorbs light, but also emits light.  It is frustratingly unpredictable: it comes and goes as it pleases.  Most of all, however, it is the simplest of the simple, but also inherently – perhaps infinitely – complex.  It was the German-born US author and poet Charles Bukowski who wrote in his Notes of a Dirty Old Man, ‘An intellect is a man who says a simple thing in a difficult way; an artist is a man who says a difficult thing in a simple way.’  Do you see?  Snow, too, says a difficult thing in a simple way.

So did it snow that final day out in Woop Woop?  Well, yes it did actually.  In the evening, as I huddled by the fire and cooked myself a celebratory sausage, a sudden rush of wind bolted up the valley and dived down the chimney like a banshee.  Then, with a frightening VROOMP, it shot itself out of the hearth.  Stunned, I turned around and looked up.  Inside the living room it was snowing, actually snowing: little white flakes were falling slowly, silently, covering my laptop, my stereo, my CDs, my books, the rug; even the sausage I’d just burnt to perfection was covered in the stuff.

But, of course, it wasn’t snow.  It was three weeks’ worth of soft, fine ash.

All I could do was shake my head and laugh like a madman.

(First published in Panorama, Canberra Times, August 23 2008)

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