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It’s almost become part of an author’s job description, hasn’t it: finish the year writing about favourite books. To be sure, it’s an odd ritual – who cares what one author thinks of another author’s work? In a way, we don’t care, or at least shouldn’t. But there is one good thing that can come from a post like this: more books might be bought and read; lives might even be changed. So with that rather lofty (even outrageous) ambition down on the page, here’s my list of memorable reads from the last twelve months. Needless to say, this is not a definitive list, and if I wrote it tomorrow the books would probably be different.
One of the novels I have been doing a lot of talking – and thinking – about this year is Solar Bones by Mike McCormack (Tramp Press). In a text that has very little punctuation (certainly no full stops) and frequently slips between prose and poetry, McCormack records a dead man’s reflections. Although not short on philosophical meanderings, Solar Bones is a deeply human novel, and often very funny. Unique and extraordinary.
Another utterly original novel is Locust Girl – A Lovesong by multi-lingual Australian novelist and poet Merlinda Bobis (Spinifex Press). Quoting from the blurb: ‘Most everything has dried up: water, the womb, even the love among lovers. Hunger is rife, except across the border. One night, a village is bombed after its men attempt to cross the border. Nine-year-old Amedea is buried underground and sleeps to survive. Ten years later, she wakes with a locust embedded in her brow.’ Exploring issues of climate change and migration (among others), Locust Girl is a most deserving winner of the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction in the 2016 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. Here’s hoping someone has popped this novel in Peter Dutton’s Christmas stocking.
Speaking of climate-change fiction, or ‘cli-fi’, I also enjoyed Jane Abbott’s Watershed (Vintage) though when I say ‘enjoy’ I should clarify. This is a harrowing novel about a hellish world: due to near-total climate collapse, society is in ruins; bad things happen to good people and despicable people get away with murder – literally. Watershed is not an easy read, but it is an important one; in a way it provides an interesting contrast to James Bradley’s Clade. There is no doubt that Abbott had a very clear vision for what she wanted to do with Watershed, and she achieved that vision artfully. Unforgettable. (My Verity La interview with Jane Abbott can be found here.)
Four poetry collections impressed, including Michele Seminara’s Engraft (Island Press), Cassandra Atherton’s Trace (Finlay Lloyd; my review here), Andrew McMillian’s Physical (Cape Poetry), and Glasshouses by Stuart Barnes (UQP), which was the winner of the 2015 Thomas Shapcott Poetry Prize. All four collections mix inventiveness with accessibility, the latter especially so.
Non-fiction works that I found particularly memorable include Lasseter’s Gold by Warren Brown (Hachette), which tracks one of the most bizarre episodes in Australian history, Karen Middleton’s Albanese – Telling it Straight (Vintage), which is a surprisingly poignant documenting of one of Australia’s most prominent – and potentially most principled – politicians, and Maxine Benebe Clarke’s The Hate Race (Hachette), which I found both highly readable and distressing. Lucy Palmer’s grief memoir A Bird on my Shoulder (Allen & Unwin) was also terribly affecting. Read together, these works show that while Australia may well be the lucky country (whatever that is), we’re also a people who are capable of being so much better, especially in the way we treat those considered different or other.
In terms of writing practice, two books deserve a mention. The first is The Writer’s Room (Allen & Unwin), which is a collection of interviews with prominent Australian novelists by Charlotte Wood, a prominent novelist herself. Reminiscent of the long-form interviews published in The Paris Review, The Writer’s Room provides a fascinating insight into how novelists work. From a personal perspective, it’s always refreshing to hear that for most writers the making of fiction is an extraordinarily beautiful (though sometimes – often? – frustrating) mystery. I also thoroughly enjoyed Under Cover – Adventures in the Art of Editing by Craig Munro (Scribe). This is a colourful and entertaining memoir of Munro’s time as a publisher and editor at UQP, one of Australia’s most feisty presses.
Before I go, some other works of fiction I really liked this year are Inexperience and Other Stories by Anthony Macris (UWAP; my interview with Macris can be found here), Wolf Wolf by Eben Venter (Scribe), which is a disturbing but moving account of life (especially gay life) in contemporary South Africa. Stephanie Bishop’s The Other Side of the World (Hachette) and Lucy Treloar’s Salt Creek (Picador) also resonated, particularly in the way both novels deal with the migrant experience and the beauty and challenges of the Australian continent.
A suggestion: by all means order online, but – if you can – do support your local bookstore. We all know that physical books bought in a bricks-and-mortar store are more valuable.
An indisputable joy for me over the past five years has been interviewing Australian authors for literary journal Verity La.
The interviews are conducted by email: I start with a question, the author responds, I ask a follow-up question, the author responds to that, and we keep going like this until we’ve reached a conclusion. Although I’ll have one or two questions prepared in advance, never have the interviews ended where I’ve expected them to, and I’ve learnt to follow the energy in the conversation, and allow the process – which isn’t far from writing letters to each other – to go into personal or dangerous territory. This part of the process can take a week or two, a month or two; some interviews have taken the best part of a year.
Once an interview has reached its natural conclusion, I bring it all together (keeping the order of the questions and answers as they happened), do a light edit, mostly for the purposes of consistency and to meet the editorial guidelines of Verity La, before I send it back to the interviewee for edits and clearance. This final stage in the process is critical: it allows the author to see her or his responses as part of a whole and also take the opportunity to make changes – and they almost always do, due to a desire to improve clarity and/or flow, or because, perhaps, it might be better to be more diplomatic, especially as the National Library of Australia archives Verity La.
With the publication of the most recent interview, with Biff Ward, the author of the extraordinary memoir In My Mother’s Hands (Allen & Unwin, 2014), I thought it might be timely to prepare a bouquet of some of the most memorable observations, primarily about the writing process.
‘Isn’t that what writing is about – wanting to know more, daring to find out, being brave enough to inhabit a place even when you know it might be uncomfortable, even though you might find out that you are the stranger?’ – Francesca Rendle-Short
‘When I first draft a story I never think about publication; in fact, it may even be dangerous to have thoughts of/desire for publication at the forefront of one’s mind. You may be tempted to tailor your story to notions of what is acceptable – to contemporary readers, to editors, to what is in fashion at the time – instead of attending to the organic demands of the narrative you’ve set in motion. Stories have their own inherent requirements – in length, in structure, in voice – and writing to external ‘public’ requirements can falsify the relation between a writer and their material’ – John Clanchy
‘I find plunging into my imagination and making up stories endlessly interesting. I am fascinated by character, bringing each one to life through narrative. And I delight in the fact I can give a character a personality change if s/he is not working within the emerging novel. And I love the English language, it’s gorgeous. Such pleasure to be had playing with metaphor and imagery’ – Andrea Goldsmith
‘I think that there are few, if any, endings in novels that are as satisfying as the journeys which arrive there. In the sense that journeys determine endings, I’d agree with Peter Carey that if the ending is troubled, the cause of the trouble is to be found elsewhere (and the problem perhaps bigger than a failed ending). I think all that should be asked of an ending is that it live up to the journey. My favourite endings, when I think about it, have more to do with poetry than story’ – Andrew Croome
‘Everything we know, see, think, do, down to the minutest un-thought action, is stored in the pressure-cooker of memory where it gets steamed and combined into Memory Soup. Then, when the writer needs something, the soup produces it, not in the form it was originally but as what is needed now’ – Glenda Guest
‘Reading and writing poetry represent the possibility of better things in a world that sorely needs this possibility’ – Paul Hetherington
‘I write stories because I feel compelled to do so. Because I love the writing process, everything about it. Well, maybe not those agonising moments where I know something is wrong but I can’t figure out what needs to happens next and begin to wonder if it’s possible I never will. But then something snaps and everything falls into place and that’s glorious’ – Irma Gold
‘One of my guiding principles in this old distinction between poetry and imaginative prose is Virginia Woolf’s observation that “…the poet gives us his essence, prose takes the mould of the body and mind entire”’ – Alan Gould
‘Material that comes out as part of a creative work needs time to mature like wine and [my novel] needed to work through from a conscious to a subconscious level’ – Denise Young
‘It’s important to me at this stage in my life that I don’t condemn, blame or hurt other people, and I do my best to make my writing and my public work reflect that. I am absolutely in love with all of the strangeness, diversity and surprises of this life, and I want to write about them’ – Walter Mason
‘The way in which I write my novels makes such surprises inevitable. It’s a very organic process for me. I write my way into the characters and I write many many drafts. What I begin with – whether ideas or characters – is rarely what I end up with’ – Andrea Goldsmith
‘My so called ‘achievements’ are not a big deal. I was programmed to have fun, travel and speak my mind. It was more by accident than design I played a small part in extending the boundaries of free speech. It’s an ongoing task, unfortunately, because the leaders of nations both rich and poor will lie, cheat and even kill, in order to protect their interests’ – Richard Neville
‘I see a big distinction between writing-as-therapy and the telling of a dark tale that has been personally experienced. Writing-as-therapy is a wonderful form of self-exploration and clarification – but it needs to be private! It is for the self, not for reading by others. It’s what you do if you need to journey through the glades of despair, to drag yourself through brambles and shudder through cobwebs’ – Biff Ward
Two bits of news on The Beach Volcano.
Firstly, my alma mater, Verity La, has published a wonderfully thoughtful and expansive review, one that manages to tease out some themes and interpretations that might have been buried even from me. It includes some generous conclusions: ‘The Beach Volcano rises and falls to a compelling beat. Not unlike John Cheever before him, Featherstone unpicks the threads of a successful family to reveal a hollow and corrupted core. With striking imagery, the twin themes of music and water are elegantly interwoven. Unforgettable.’
The full review can be found here.
Secondly, Blemish Books has now made The Beach Volcano, and its cousins Fall on Me and I’m Ready Now, available as e-books.
What’s more, for a very limited time Blemish is offering a massive 80% discount on the electronic versions. To purchase the e-books, and to claim the discount, head here and then put the relevant code into the coupon field. For The Beach Volcano use VARLUDO4S6, for I’m Ready Now DTS1RW4H2L, and for Fall on Me AEBE9D5AE6.
And finally, as you might know I’m obsessed with UK dub-step/electronica artist Burial. And he has new music: a single called ‘Temple Sleeper’. In a just world, there would be wild public celebrations, including dancing in the streets and drinking till dawn.
A good thing about being down and out with a bad case of winter ’flu, apart from the distinct possibility of a deep, sexy (maybe) radio-esque voice, is being able to read uninterrupted.
This week I finished Richard Flanagan’s epic The Narrow Road to the Deep North (Vintage, 2013), which was the winner of the 2014 Independent Booksellers Award and has been shortlisted for other highly regarded literary gongs. I’m not going to review the novel – I wouldn’t know where to begin – but I do want to say that it’s extraordinary. Unflinching, devastating, multi-faceted, and ultimately very moving indeed. It focuses on an Australian doctor who was a POW on the Thai-Burma ‘death railway’ during the Second World War, but it also explores many other points of view, including the lovers of the men as well as those who found themselves guards and committed almost unspeakable atrocities. It’s sprawling, filmic, at times meandering, but it’s impossible not to be affected. Amazing that on the day I finished reading the work, Prime Minister Shinzo, Japan’s current head honcho, gave a presentation to a rare joint sitting of the Australian parliament; the associated speech by Tony Abbott, Australia’s prime minister, is a different story.
Another book that’s been a part of my sick-bed (sick-couch, really) reading is The Wild Goose, a novella by Mori Ogai and translated by Meredith McKinney, the daughter of revered Australian poet Judith Wright. Ogai is considered one of the most notable writers of the Meiji era (1868-1912), during which Japan experienced significant changes in social and economic structures and foreign relations. McKinney has translated a work written by a man who was born in 1862 ‘in a Japan that had been officially closed to the rest of the world for centuries,’ as stated in the introduction. But Ogai went on to spend time in Germany where he immersed himself in western literature and although he was always convinced that Japan had to embrace modernity he also came to understand how much would be lost in the process. The Wild Goose, which has been beautifully produced by Finlay Lloyd, it’s a truly gorgeous object, is a story of love, entrapment, and the power of commerce. It is remarkably unformulaic, and it’s intriguingly Chekhovian in both spirit and scope. I’ll review it for Verity La soon, but I can tell you that it’s a novella that has got beneath my skin.
In the meantime, I really should hack up my other lung.
This morning, after breakfast was done and the dog fed, and after sorting out the chooks for the day, I, feeling the need for just a few cheeky extra moments of procrastination, cleaned the loo and the sink and the mirror. When done, I went into the garden and cut a small clump of pink geranium flowers, popped them in a little clear-glass bottle, filled the bottle with water, and set them out. There: a sparkly, sparkling bathroom; and it always makes me feel brilliant. Until I walk down to the writing-room with a strong mug of coffee in hand, turn on my computer and think, Oh Christ, I can’t remember where I’m up to.
The point of all this? Manhood. Or, at least, gender. The thing is I’ve spent much of the last few weeks (on top of much of the last four and a half decades) thinking – worrying – about gender. Along with most of Australia, probably. Gender, sexism, equality: this is the stuff that’s currently flooding our radios and TVs and websites and newspapers. But I don’t understand what any of it really means. Last week over at Verity La I wrote an editorial about gender equality in terms of what the journal publishes, and I introduced the piece by saying that I simply don’t know what makes a man and what makes a woman. Of course, we can talk in general terms, we can make observations based on assumptions. Even though gender isn’t always black and white, it’s actually the notions of masculinity and femininity that are the hardest to define. Is fixing a car a masculine activity? Is cooking chicken soup a feminine activity? Is tinkering in the shed with hammers and nails a masculine activity? Is, oh I don’t know, blogging a feminine activity? In the end the only rational conclusion is that these are just activities. But if anyone knows of a logical definition of masculinity and femininity, do feel free to share it.
Yet one of the core precepts of human life is gender and what this enables and entitles us to do between being born and kicking the bucket. In Australian political life, men wear dark-coloured suits with blue ties; woman wear whatever they want, more or less, though a pearl necklace, it seems, should be seriously considered if you’re in a leadership position. Men can say whatever they want, even swear (hopefully off-camera), but it wouldn’t be right for women (even off-camera). Men can be ruthless, but when women do the same we’re advised to approach with caution – she may be dangerous or mad, or even a witch.
The welfare of a child
Closer to home, I’ve been thinking about the welfare of children raised by same-sex parents. I used to believe that as long as, say, the son of a lesbian couple had access to a good father-figure (an uncle or high-quality family friend), then all would be right with the world. But what exactly is that father-figure meant to do? Teach the son how to kick a footie and do air-guitar to AC/DC? It’s just rubbish. So my thinking evolved to this: as long as the son has access to masculine and feminine influences (both of which could be found in his two mothers) then all would be right with the world. But does that mean one of the mothers has to be good at climbing onto the roof to clean out the gutters (a supposedly masculine trait) while the other has to be good at getting down on her hands and knees to clean the kitchen floors (a supposedly feminine trait)? It’s totally absurd. So recently my thinking has evolved to this: as long as the son is loved and protected and encouraged and challenged all will be right with the world; one day he might even climb the food-chain to be deputy prime-minister.
Best-ever novels, Fred Nile and the Australian soccer team
But here’s a thing: even closer to home, when I think of my favourite novels, you know, the ones that I’d rescue if the house was burning down around my ears, all but one (Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx) are written by men, and all of them (except, ironically, The Blackwater Lightship by Colm Tobin) are about men finding their way in the world and, quite honestly, fucking it up as they go here, there, and everywhere. Further, as I pointed out over at Verity La, there is a distinct bias towards male writers in the work the journal publishes – and I’m the one who makes the decisions. Surely it goes beyond my personal sexuality (which, sorry Fred Nile, is genetic) to something sinister: in society, and in the way we move through and within society, men have an access-all-areas voice while women must know their place. Cue: the coach of the Australian soccer team and his completely and utterly ridiculous ‘private joke’.
Making crap up
It’s pretty handy that as Australians we live in an environment where these matters can be discussed so freely and openly (though I’d be brave to the point of stupidity to chew this stuff over with some mates down at my Goulburn local). It’s also interesting that these issues have been brought to front of stage by a female prime-minister who is, rightly or wrongly (perhaps both), and consciously or unconsciously (perhaps both), using her gender to bolster her government (which has, it should be said, achieved a lot despite almost crippling political and economic circumstances). But it would be good to reach the chapter – I thought we had already, but clearly I was wrong – where actions are just actions: they don’t have sex or genders. Like picking pink flowers for the bathroom. But it’s likely this is me just being a bit of a fairy. And, as always, making crap up.
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.