MODERNITY & INEXPERIENCE: an interview with Anthony Macris

Posted on November 25, 2016 by in Lighthouse Yarns

am-author-photo-bw-copyThere are trends in publishing, that is undeniable, but some writers refuse to do anything other than go their own way. Enter Anthony Macris.

Macris is an Australian writer and Associate Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Technology, Sydney. His first novel in the Capital series, Capital, Volume One, won him a listing as Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Australian Novelist 1998, and was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize (Southeast Asian section) Best First Book 1998. His book reviews, articles and features have appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald, Griffith Review and The Bulletin for over a decade. He is also the author of When Horse Became Saw, his family’s inspirational story and a powerful evocation of the world of autism, which was shortlisted for the 2012 Prime Minister’s Literary Awards: Non-fiction  category.

Published in 2016, Inexperience and Other Stories (University of Western Australia Press) is his latest work. According to the Sydney Morning Herald, ‘Macris charts laconically the impersonality of modern urban life, loneliness in a crowded world, and the absence of ideals, beliefs, commitments’.

Interviewer: Nigel Featherstone

INTERVIEWER

Congratulations on the publication of Inexperience and Other Stories. What was the motivation for the collection?

MACRIS

Thanks for that. With Inexperience the novella I wanted to write about the couple and about love. It’s a theme that’s always fascinated me: what holds people together, two people who have at one point ‘chosen’ each other, and what can drive them apart. So that’s at the core of it. My couple in this instance are a standard boy/girl couple in their mid twenties, so you get that sense of youth, but youth that’s also embarking on major life decisions. I also wanted to write about this notion of going on a grand adventure that doesn’t quite live up to expectations: hence the title Inexperience. So, my young couple save and save for this long European trip that they think will be some kind of transcendent experience in itself, and it doesn’t quite turn out like that. I was originally going to call it Transcendence, but I thought that was a bit much.

That’s at the core of it: the way we strive to raise ourselves up, make ourselves more than who we are. It’s a wonderful, noble and fraught thing. We all do it one way or another, in small ways, in big ways. We raise ourselves up, we fall, we do it alone, we do it together, we have a stumble, we come crashing down from a very great height, we have the best of intentions, we do it out of vanity: the combinations are endless. But it’s all a learning process, one that never ends. I finally decided on Inexperience as the title because I thought that was more concrete: it’s more humble, more of this world. It’s the moment of stumbling, of not getting it quite right, of falling that little bit short because either the situation is bigger than you are, or you’re just not quite up to it at whichever stage of your life you’re in. So that’s the kind of thematic big picture.

I also wanted to write about what it means to be Australian. Our young heroes set off to Europe quite innocent and wide-eyed. They seem to think that everyone will see them as the fresh young cousins of the Anglo-sphere, first worlders like the American or Brits, but with none of the politically inconvenient baggage. They soon find that’s not really the case all the time, that not everyone sees Australians – at that general, national level – as the benevolent citizens of some far-flung Arcadia.

INTERVIEWER

Inexperience is a wonderful title, especially in terms of hinting at the idea of never knowing enough to get by. What attracts you to the novella form?

MACRIS

Thanks for those kinds words about the title. I wanted something pretty straightforward to sum up the theme, and that one came pretty easily, which was good: I usually struggle with titles. As for the novella form: well, different kinds of stories require different degrees of development. You have to gauge how big the story is and fit it to the appropriate length. This one had a limited cast, the two romantic leads, and a fairly simple story without a subplot, so I think you can only go so far with that. But I also wanted more than short story length so I could develop another level of complexity: how I told the story.

One of things I try to do in my work is tell interesting stories, but to try and tell them in fresh and interesting ways. Whether I succeed or not is for others to judge I suppose, but I’m always looking to do things at a bit of angle. I still want the story to be clear, to have central conflicts with forward movement, etc, but that doesn’t always come out in the standard way. I think this can lead to thinking my work is a bit disjointed or lacking in coherence, but I think it’s just because I’m doing something a little unexpected.

For example, the novella Inexperience is divided into two spheres: the heavenly sphere and the earthly sphere. This compositional element finds its core expression in the painting my couple sees in Toledo, ‘The Burial of the Count of Orgaz’, which is all angels and swirling clouds in the top half, all flesh-blood men below. So the story’s events and settings all reflect shuttling between these two spheres: the banalities of travel and the transcendence of art; the mundanity of the everyday that forms the life of any couple, and the sublime moments of love that make it all worthwhile. Throughout the novella these spheres intermingle in unexpected and sometimes ironic ways. The story’s design in this instance called for something shorter than a novel so all this could be controlled adequately: it was quite fiddly to do, or at least I found it so. But that’s one thing I’m always trying to do in my work. Find a form that embodies the theme. I think that’s one way you can get more innovative forms.

INTERVIEWER

Inexperience begins: ‘We were in Australia, in shabby modernity, and we were restless, unbearably restless. So we decided to go to Europe. Exhausted, decaying Europe’. What do you think drives your ongoing interest in the averageness of Western life?

MACRIS

I’ve always been interested in the way experience is shaped by pre-existing social forms that determine our lives, that become the templates for our experiences. So, in Inexperience, we get a classic rite of passage relevant to this particular group: in my couple’s case, the cultural pilgrimage that ‘new worlders’ like Australians make to mother Europe. It’s as if we plot our individuality on these pre-existing grids. So there’s this duality that fascinates me: experiences that are touted as unique, but are underwritten by a form that is just about guaranteed to make them banal: sometimes they’re ultimately commodities, even the most sublime experiences.

So when my couple finally front up to this beautiful ancient church in Toledo to see the astonishing painting that is the ‘Burial of the Count of Orgaz’, they have to get past a cash register first. I know this sounds all very disenchanting, that we’re stuck with a familiar position that says the act of commercializing everything degrades everything. Now, I’m always wary of any totalising argument. So let’s just say there are degrees (there’s some grudging optimism for you!). But I’d still argue that, for the most part, the process of commodification does create at the very least a kind of unease, a conflictedness that infects just about everything it touches.

inexp_revisedI might just say a few words about the opening line you’ve quoted: it’s been appearing a lot in the reviews, which I think I’m happy about. I wanted to have a grand, sweeping opening, something quite Olympian, but also tongue-in-cheek. I mean, Australia and Europe are disposed of in sentence. I must have re-written that line 50 times. I’ve always liked this idea of a first sentence that contains the whole narrative in moment of foreshadowing: it’s a formal nod – albeit a very oblique one – to Kafka’s Metamorphosis. But there’s a key phrase in the opening sentence that speaks to the notion you’ve raised of western averageness: ‘shabby modernity’. Inexperience the novella is set – as is the whole collection – in the 1980s. This is an interesting decade, and I think somewhat neglected. It’s not quite old enough to be historical yet. (I read a great line somewhere that said nothing is as dated as the recent past.) But I find it a very interesting decade, a real ugly duckling period. Australia hadn’t yet reinvented itself as the glittering postmodern entity it thinks of itself today. The tug of war had started, but in those pre-internet, pre-social media days, I’d say that it was still an entity of modernity, and one not quite sure of where it was going.

There’s one feature of the Australian suburbs that sums up this notion of shabby modernity for me. You know those small suburban shopping strips, very generic, just a small row of shops, a newsagent, a hairdresser, a fish and chip shop, a small bottle shop? Just one long building made of brick, lots of glass and aluminium, built in the 1950s, that always seemed to have looked downtrodden from the moment they went up? That’s exactly what I mean by shabby modernity. That’s where, as Australians, a lot of us come from, and if we didn’t directly, it still forms a substratum to our shared experience. And these places are still everywhere in the suburbs. They’ve got a kind of stark, sobering truth to them I like.

That’s why I featured that setting in one of the collection’s stories, ‘Triumph of the Will’. I wanted to get across this sense of Australia emerging out of some staid, tail-end modernity, and into the uncertainties of a globalised postmodernism. I see the social context of the stories as a whole straddling those two worlds. My characters Carol and her boyfriend are, at this stage of their lives, caught in between these worlds. That’s where their hopes and dreams and ambitions are being played out. And they don’t even know it. Later, in my novel Great Western Highway, I push a similar couple along the timeline a little more: into the 1990s, and into a postmodernity in full swing.

INTERVIEWER

What do you enjoy most about the shorter form?

MACRIS

Short stories are an incredible challenge and I’m in awe of those writers who can do them well again and again: Maupassant, Chekhov, and Flannery O’Connor, to name just a few. For me, at any rate, as soon as you start writing a short story, it’s as if a pistol has gone off and you’re already racing for the finish line. You’ve got to do so much at once for it to work: establish voice, the characters, some kind of situation or conflict, the style or diction you want, and so on. You don’t have the novelist’s luxury of seeing how it will all go, of writing into things for a while in the hope that things will reveal themselves.

To write an effective short story I think you need to be quite specific about what you want to achieve from the start. And that’s a great discipline in itself, formulating something concrete in your mind, then executing it. Of course it’s not always as simple as that: there can be this mass of crisscrossing paths between the thought and the execution. But as an exercise in task setting, there’s nothing quite like subjecting yourself to the rigour needed to pull off a decent short story.

In Inexperience, a big influence on my approach for a couple of the stories was Joyce’s Dubliners, which I think contains one of the greatest short stories ever written, ‘Eveline’. I love its blend of pathos, drama, and stillness. I also love its contrast of crystalline poetic diction and authenticity of voice, and the way Joyce brings those factors to bear on the quiet desperation of his characters. It’s just an astonishing piece and a real touchstone for me when I think about the short story form. This kind of influence – definitely only in the aspirational mode! – is at work on the two last stories, ‘Triumph of the Will’ and ‘The Quiet Achiever’. The influences on the longer story, ‘The Nest Egg’, are different, and somewhat more experimental, for want of a better term.

I see ‘The Nest Egg’ as a kind of cross between Samuel Beckett and Descartes. I remember being struck by reading Descartes’ ‘Meditations’ when I did philosophy as an undergraduate at Sydney University. I liked this idea of conducting a self-critique wherein you try to answer some fundamental question about existence. So instead of posing the question of how do I know I exist, which gives us the famous cogito ergo sum, I think therefore I am, I wanted to pose the foundational question: what do I need to do to exist in a material, economic sense? This was an early attempt to explore the theme of capital and market forces in my work. Now, I’m a fiction writer: I didn’t want to write a philosophical essay. So the kind of language I looked to was that of Samuel Beckett, a kind of interior monologue that glides between image and reflection without ever quite settling on either as a dominant mode.

capital_volume_one_cover_1024x1024Also, with ‘The Nest Egg’, I wanted to try to structure something that had forward movement, that would keep the reader wanting to turn the page, but that didn’t rely on the traditional machinery of plot or story. I’m always looking for ways to do this. I like the notion that the act of reading draws you on and on. A lot of experimental approaches dispense with this as nearly a badge of honour: we don’t need that stuff, language or thought or whatever, is enough in itself. So in some ways I’m rebelling against this standard type of experimentation by trying to find a way of maintaining compelling forward movement, though not necessarily with traditional story dynamics. I tried this again on a bigger scale in my first novel, Capital, Volume One.

That’s another great thing about short stories. You’re not making a huge time commitment on any individual piece (not years, at any rate, as you do for a novel), so you can treat them like mini-laboratories to try things out.

INTERVIEWER

You have been an active writer for a significant period of time now. Has your overall ambition – or writerly project – changed?

MACRIS

Ambition is an interesting word. I think a lot about it. In Inexperience and Other Stories, in some of the very early work it contains, I see a tremendous energy there, the energy of youthful ambition. I can feel an almost unbearable pressure behind those pages, as if all my hopes and desires as an artist are pressing from behind but can’t quite get through. But, then again, I suppose it always feels like that. I’ve always only ever wanted to make beautiful, inspiring, complex things. It’s a very curious drive. It’s central to who I am. In the periods of my life when I haven’t been able to do it – for example some long stretches when I’ve had to raise money for my son’s therapy – I’ve been so utterly miserable life hasn’t seemed worth living.

There have been certain moments in my life where this drive to make art was revealed to me. I remember walking home from school one day, I must have been 11 or 12. I was walking along, lost in my own thoughts and senses. And I had this sudden awareness of the combined power of the mind and of sensing to produce things, to make things. It was a very odd moment. I realised that you not only passively received the world, but that your mind and senses were active in constructing it. And that if this was the case, then you could make, do, or think anything. The vehicle for this kind of reverse projection was art. These were the blank screens you could project your version of the world on. These were the empty vessels you could fill with your thoughts, your perceptions, your senses. Now I know this sounds a bit much for a boy that age, and I’m of course articulating it in ways that a boy that age wouldn’t, couldn’t, but I’ve thought about that moment for decades, and this is the first time I’ve tried to articulate it. That moment was a turning point in my life. The whole prospect of it was thrilling, intoxicating, utterly empowering.

Now, what is that drive? That fundamental drive to make art? Where does it come from? I wouldn’t have a clue. So, to finally answer your question, it would appear that in one sense nothing for me has ever changed. There’s only been this desire to make these projections, to fashion these artefacts of words that somehow capture the particular world I’m trying to create.

It’s all very well to start out with such pureness of heart, but soon you find that your drives have to be channelled into a chosen art form and the cultural and market forces that shape it. You need to pick themes, forms, make decisions about your audience, and about the kind of writer you want to be. The stories in Inexperience and Other Stories are, for the most part, the first full attempt I made to turn myself into a real writer, someone who was trying to say something they thought was of importance to an audience who might want to listen. And it’s interesting how the themes I go on to develop later – on a much larger scale in the Capital novels and in When Horse Became Saw – are pretty much all there. I think they basically come down to two: love and market forces. It doesn’t seem a lot, does it? At least I’m not just a one-trick pony: I’ve got two!

But there is a flipside to this: I also think my work has changed a lot over the years. If you look at the trajectory that goes through from Inexperience to the Capital novels, in one way it’s a thinking through of finding new narrative forms that can capture larger developments in a world driven by market forces. And I use a range of tools derived from various literary movements to fashion something of my own that can grasp that: in that trajectory there’s the self-conscious, modernist commitment to making it new, to shaping a new novelistic language to capture new realities.

9780143566663When Horse Became Saw is somewhat different. It’s a melding of realist and essayistic forms: the best name for it is probably creative non-fiction, to use a term that’s currently being bandied about. When Horse Became Saw was born of a kind of parental rage at how badly we let down our children with disabilities: in my case severe autism. It’s a much more emotional book. I call it my Aristotelian book: driven by pity and fear. It was a book in which I wanted to communicate with a large audience, so I put aside my usual baroque narrative machinery. It was a liberating experience, and it’s a book I’m very proud of, but I still like to think it does something interesting with form: I can’t seem to stop myself trying to do something different. Nevertheless, it was still a step outside the trajectory of my main work. I’m back to that now.

I’ve been working on the third part of Capital for some years, but it’s slow going. The Capital novels just take forever. It’s a return to my early childhood, part of the great looking back that overcomes you with time, that rises behind you in a great cresting wave of the past. You shouldn’t live in its shadow, but it can be hard not to. It’s an odd thing to do, to create works that draw from different periods of your life. Recently there have been days I’ve spent writing when I’ve become seven years old, and I’m amazed when a man in his mid-50s stares back at me from the mirror.

 

You can purchase Anthony’s latest book, Inexperience and Other Stories from University of Western Australia Publishing.

 

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Nigel Featherstone (by Jonny Lewis, 2012)

Nigel Featherstone (by Jonny Lewis, 2012)

Nigel Featherstone is an Australian writer. His most recent work is the novella The Beach Volcano (Blemish Books, 2014), which has been described as ‘Elegant and original’ (Kerryn Goldsworthy, Sydney Morning Herald), ‘Accomplished – an intense fiction range’ (Peter Pierce, Canberra Times), and ‘Utterly enthralling’ (Walter Mason, Newtown Review of Books), and was recognised with a 2014 Canberra Critics Circle Award. His previous novella, I’m Ready Now (Blemish Books, 2012), was shortlisted for the 2013 ACT Book of the Year.

In 2015 Featherstone was commissioned by the Goulburn Regional Conservatorium to write the libretti for a new work that is being composed by James Humberstone from the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. Featherstone is also the author of 50 stories published in Australian literary journals including the Review of Australian Fiction, Meanjin, Island, and Overland, as well as in the US. Featherstone has been awarded residencies at Varuna (Blue Mountains) and Bundanon (Shoalhaven River); in 2013 he was a Creative Fellow at the Australian Defence Force Academy/UNSW Canberra. On a contract basis he currently facilitates the ACT Writers Centre’s HARDCOPY program, which is funded by the Australia Council for the Arts. Featherstone was the founding editor of Verity La. He lives on the Southern Tablelands of New South Wales. More information at www.opentopublic.com.au

LITTLE ROOM FOR SENTIMENT OR REMORSE: an interview with Jane Abbott

Posted on November 5, 2016 by in Lighthouse Yarns

janeabbot_head-shot-2-2Who are the exciting new voices of Australian literature? There’s no better place to start than Jane Abbott. A single mother of two sons, Abbott was born in the UK, raised in the leafy suburbs of Sydney’s North Shore, and now divides her time between Melbourne and central Victoria. Jillaroo, nurse, secretary, short-time teacher, office administrator (followed by a reluctant career in marketing), she has tried her hand at most things and lived in many places. Abbott’s second manuscript, Watershed, was written in 2013; it received a Commendation in the 2014 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript, and secured Jane a place in the ACT Writer Centre’s’ HARDCOPY professional development program for emerging Australian writers. The Australian called Watershed ‘an accomplished and highly readable debut’.

Interviewer: Nigel Featherstone

INTERVIEWER

What made you want to write Watershed?

ABBOTT

I never set out to write Watershed per se, at least not the way it turned out. I did want to write a book about climate change. I think it’s the single most important issue we face, and will become (indeed is already) a root cause of so many other problems, including food shortages, mass migration, and other humanitarian issues. It astounds me there is so little ‘cli-fi’ out there, although I do think it’s on the rise. And on a personal note, I hope the term ‘cli-fi’ sticks and becomes as well-known and as generic as ‘sci-fi’.

Originally I thought I might manage a short (more literary) novella about increased water shortages and a community in crisis, though I had no real plan – I’m not a plotter. When Jem, Garrick and Taggart appeared on the first pages I thought I’d see where they took me. As it turned out, Jem had quite a lot to say. The new world (the Citadel, the Tower and its Council, and the Watch) surfaced easily and I felt comfortable writing it. Any idea (even hope) that it might extend to a series didn’t arise until I realised the book was as much about the future we face as it is about Jem’s reluctant journey to redemption. In many ways, that became the core of the book, and he’s the perfect anti-hero, the character we hate to love, or at least sympathise with.

INTERVIEWER

The novel explores a dire though plausible scenario where climate and the societies it has supported for thousands of years are upended. Did it surprise you how rough it would be for your core suite of characters, especially Jem and those who raised him?

ABBOTT

Putting this into context, we know that the world, climatically and geologically, is in a constant state of flux. And whether or not one is a climate change believer or denier, we are currently observing too many extreme weather conditions to assume that our planet will remain the same beneficent ball that has ‘supported our societies for thousands of years’. These conditions are already affecting food production, they are threatening our coastlines and islands, rivers and reservoirs are shrinking to nothing, and over the last fifty years the world’s population has more than doubled. In another fifty, it will have tripled. Add to that the symbiotic relationship we enjoy with nature and I think it’s safe to say that our future is looking, if not completely dire, then somewhat bleak.

There’s a short scene in the book where Sarah wonders if other places might have survived better and remained intact, and Daniel replies that if there were they wouldn’t be the ones she imagines. This is an important distinction to make because I believe that if even some of the horrors of Watershed were to happen, our society wouldn’t cope very well at all. How could we, when most of us have known only privilege? So it made no sense for me to write the book while looking down from such a position; I had to let go of any shock and distaste, and wade into it. In the same way, it makes no sense to try to read it from that perspective either. Imagining the worst-case scenario meant everyone had to be tested and I wasn’t at all surprised that things got a little rough for the characters. Sarah and Daniel provide the transition from the old First World to the new Fourth, while Jem with all his pragmatism and his innate desire for survival, embodies that new world. In such a place there is little room for sentiment and even less for remorse.

INTERVIEWER

You say that the world of Watershed doesn’t allow sentiment or remorse. Perhaps it’s also the case that when societies collapse and people turn on each other there’s also a distinct lack of empathy – is that how you see the novel working?

ABBOTT

Not at all. Empathy is recognition. We empathise with an emotion, a deed, or a situation because it strikes a chord, reminding us of our own capabilities and our own weaknesses. And while the world of Watershed might not allow for sentiment or remorse, it’s not to say neither exists. Ballard’s call to overthrow the regime is driven by regret, Sarah and Daniel display sentiment, and both Jem and Alex show empathy (as well as sympathy): Jem for Connor, and Alex for the plight of women. But Ballard, Sarah and Daniel are undone because their longing for the past is stronger than their understanding of the present, while Jem and Alex find resolutions more suited to the world they know: Jem seeks retribution for Connor, and Alex offers herself as a sacrifice; both are extreme actions, both are violent, and both are entirely logical.

ws-coverWe know Jem isn’t immune to sentiment, guilt, regret, or love, but he’s had to bury any feelings in order to survive, mentally and emotionally, as well as physically. His initial callousness is a little shocking, and the revelation of his past deeds appalling, yet his treatment of Daniel displays an acute humanness, one that is almost admirable. We know why he does it – we empathise with his decision – but how many of us would show the same strength or conviction? The flip side is that very same humanness – this time far less admirable – also spurs his later actions with Sarah. Because none of us are completely heroic, or completely evil. Even Garrick has a past, and we know he wasn’t always the monster we meet in the first chapter. It’s this dichotomy, and the question of nature versus nurture, that most interests me: the varying degrees of good and bad within a character. Who is worse: Garrick, because his violence is abhorrently blatant, Taggart, because he’s a master puppeteer pulling all the strings, or Jem, because he submits despite knowing better? Which defines us: what we do, or the reasons we do it? Those were the questions I wanted to explore.

INTERVIEWER

Can you share a little about the process of writing Watershed, especially in terms of voice and prose. It must have been tempting to work with a very pared back, minimalist style, but the writing is beautifully constructed, indeed poetic in parts.

ABBOTT

The first couple of drafts concentrated very much on Jem’s narrative, which is plot driven, with only the letter excerpts from Sarah giving any kind of backstory. In later drafts, and at the urging of my agent, Sarah’s narrative grew and I think I struggled more with that, always aware of the need to distinguish it from the many male voices.

I think the question of voice and prose is a little like the conundrum of chicken and egg; does a character determine use of language and voice, or does their use subsequently define the character? Maybe it’s both. I do know that Jem’s voice was never a conscious process. I didn’t feel I had to keep reminding myself that I was writing from a male POV. His observances, his commentary about his world, his youthful cynicism and his humour all flowed easily. I never found myself struggling to put words in his mouth; if anything, I had to rein him in. As far as Jem’s and other male characters’ use of foul language is concerned, that also wasn’t a conscious effort. Boys swear. Men swear. (To be fair, so do many women.) I’ve sat at restaurants and cafes next to tables of young, as well as elderly, men and have been subjected again and again to loudly uttered swearing and cursing. If they communicate like that now, how much more so when any niceties of society have been washed away? It made complete sense that Jem and Garrick would talk the way they do. What is interesting is that listening to such words – either in real life, or on the screen – never seems quite as confronting as reading them.

Some people have questioned why an older female author would choose to write a young male protagonist. My reason is simple. Given the society Jem inhabits (to which he’s contributed unashamedly), where women are very much second – even third – class citizens, it made no sense to limit the story’s potential by using a female voice. Particularly given the transitional narrative is provided by a female. Perhaps it’s because I have two sons and am probably more accustomed to male patterns of behaviour, that I see so many complexities in young men. I wanted to explore those in Jem. Of course, for the sake of the story, things are taken to the extreme, but I think the comparisons are there. I’m not sure I was ever really tempted to pare back the prose and keep it spare, because this is Jem’s story and it’s always been my experience that given half a chance, men quite often have a lot to say. I let Jem speak for himself.

INTERVIEWER

What are your hopes for Watershed?

ABBOTT

My hopes for Watershed are simple: that the language and themes challenge readers, and that its audience continues to follow Jem and the rest of the characters into the next book. I’m fairly confident of the first; only time will tell if the second comes about.

Watershed by Jane Abbott is available from Vintage Books.

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Nigel Featherstone (by Jonny Lewis 2012)

Nigel Featherstone (by Jonny Lewis 2012)

Nigel Featherstone is an Australian writer. His most recent work is the novella The Beach Volcano (Blemish Books, 2014), which has been described as ‘Elegant and original’ (Kerryn Goldsworthy, Sydney Morning Herald), ‘Accomplished – an intense fiction range’ (Peter Pierce, Canberra Times), and ‘Utterly enthralling’ (Walter Mason, Newtown Review of Books), and was recognised with a 2014 Canberra Critics Circle Award. His previous novella, I’m Ready Now (Blemish Books, 2012), was shortlisted for the 2013 ACT Book of the Year.

In 2015 Featherstone was commissioned by the Goulburn Regional Conservatorium to write the libretti for a new work that is being composed by James Humberstone from the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. Featherstone is also the author of 50 stories published in Australian literary journals including the Review of Australian Fiction, Meanjin, Island, and Overland, as well as in the US. Featherstone has been awarded residencies at Varuna (Blue Mountains) and Bundanon (Shoalhaven River); in 2013 he was a Creative Fellow at the Australian Defence Force Academy/UNSW Canberra. On a contract basis he currently facilitates the ACT Writers Centre’s HARDCOPY program, which is funded by the Australia Council for the Arts. Featherstone was the founding editor of Verity La. He lives on the Southern Tablelands of New South Wales. More information at www.opentopublic.com.au

 

 

 

 

Parts of An Enticing, Profit-less Whole: Finlay Lloyd’s Smalls

Posted on May 13, 2016 by in Verity La Reviews

Review by Nigel Featherstone

It is a widely held view that the publishing industry is currently going through a rough patch. Or, to put it more dramatically, it is in the fight for its life. Amazon, the Global Financial Crisis, and e-books are considered the body-blows from which the industry might not recover. And then there is the matter of an apparently dwindling readership. Of course, publishers and ‘bricks and mortar’ bookshops continue to exist, and so do readers, but it is probably true that those responsible for putting written work into the world are more risk-averse than ever. For example, most Australian publishers believe that they need to sell 2500 copies of a novel to make their efforts economically worthwhile, i.e. turn a profit. Sound achievable? Some Australian publishers claim that they can sell only 500 copies, with another couple of hundred sold if the work wins a major prize. As to short-story collections and poetry? They are labours of love, in most cases produced and distributed by the writers themselves.

FullSizeRender1-1Despite the undoubted – and daunting – challenges, it could also be said that Australia continues to enjoy a healthy publishing ecology. Penguin Random House, Allen & Unwin, and HarperCollins are examples of the big end of town, publishing work by some of Australia’s most prominent writers. Text, Scribe, Black Inc. and Affirm are just some of the mid-sized publishers who not only produce work by current household names but by future household names. Then there are the small or ‘micro’ presses, which are essentially loungeroom operations (they haven’t yet become big enough for the garage) and exist because of their dedication to literature.

Based in the bush just outside the small country town of Braidwood, an hour’s drive east of Canberra, Finlay Lloyd is a resolutely ‘non profit’ and, dare it be said, eccentric press that is dedicated to the physical book; in their world, e-books are not an option. The content could be considered literary and/or experimental, whatever those terms mean, and production values are high. The first publication, When Books Die (2006), involved a series of essays that in a way outlined the manifesto of the press. In the introduction written by ‘Finlay Lloyd’, the fictitious publisher (the press is the brainchild of novelist Julian Davies and artist Phil Day), the question is asked, ‘What if no books existed?’ As part of its staunch commitment to the physical book as cultural artefacts, and a reaction against what it calls ‘celebrity-driven’ publishing, since 2013 Finlay Lloyd has been producing a series of ‘smalls’ in which a diverse range of Australian writers are given 60 pages to do as they wish; they are published in a set of five, with the most recent set published in 2015.

In Fragments of the Hole, prominent musician, comedian, and TV identity Paul McDermott provides a selection of poems that read as nursery rhymes. There is a girl made entirely of bread who longs to go outside but when she does so she is befriended by a conniving – and hungry – sparrow. There is a girl ‘who cried an ocean/but she could not cry a boat’ (‘The Girl Who Cried An Ocean’, p 43). There is a boy who watches himself sleep until he is spirited away against his will:

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I once was a child

Who dreamt I was sleep

And crept into my room,

On softly padded feet.

On the bed I saw myself,

And in my ear I spoke

Until the sleeper, who was me,

Rolled on his side and woke

(from ‘Asleep/Awake’, p 49)

With these poems, McDermott reveals a childlike fascination for how the world works, but also a horror at random injustices or straight-out cruelty. Typical of Finlay Lloyd books, this volume includes many hand-drawn illustrations, in this case by McDermott himself, giving the exercise an almost Spike Milligan aesthetic.

FullSizeRender3 (1)Novelist and short-story writer Carmel Bird provides a pleasantly rambling ‘Tasmanian memoir’. Bird finds focus on a group of English women who, in 1852, volunteer to board the Princess Royal and sail to Tasmania as part of a government-supported program to fix the gender balance of the colony, which at the time was dominated by male convicts. There is a novel’s worth of material here, but in Fair Game Bird offers enough to reveal yet another disturbing story about the dark island state. Despite the purposefully disjointed structure, the author’s highly crafted prose and empathy for the women’s experiences results in a moving work.

Emerging writer Phillip Stamatellis also dishes up a playful memoir-essay, documenting a range of remembrances about his childhood spent in his family’s café in a regional town on the NSW Southern Tablelands. Cleverly, Stamatellis balances historical anecdotes with contemporary observations, which not only give the work a multi-layered structure but also a meta-like quality.

We sit at a table right on the gutter; an Alfa Romeo is parked close enough that if I stretch a bit I can touch the hood. I marvel at Stu’s ability to roll a cigarette with one hand. The sun is shining and Belmore Park’s garden beds and trees are in full bloom.

‘How’s the book going?’

‘I’m struggling.’

‘What with?’

‘Memories…This place or what it used to be,’ I say waving my hand at the café. ‘Things are all jumbled up. I’m not sure what’s important, what’s worth remembering and how to make sense of it all.’ (p 27)FullSizeRender2

In parts Growing Up Cafe would have been improved with a closer line edit, but there is a frankness and bravery to Stamatellis’ writing that is very easy to enjoy.

In Don’t Leave Home, Timothy Morrell offers a selection of humorous micro-essays about his experiences travelling the world. There is the Pacific Island holiday, the trials and tribulations (for all concerned) of becoming lost in translation, and the ubiquitous notion of going nowhere further afield than an international airport. The writing is lively and often laugh-aloud funny, with Morrell coming across as a sarcastic David Sedaris. ‘Generally, the more you pay for the hotel room, the more difficult it is to operate the shower’ (from ‘Notes on Hygiene’, p 28).

In Trace, Cassandra Atherton delivers a suite of prose-poems about love, eroticism, obsession, and entrapment. Each piece reads as an artful slice of stream-of-consciousness; in Atherton’s hands, a word not only provides its own meaning and life but is used to spark a new series of thoughts and observations, often resulting in gut-wrenching conclusions. Helpfully, there is a terrific wit at play, and the author, a recent Harvard Visiting Scholar, is in full control of her work.
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Passion. As sticky as soft drink. Passiona. Pasita. I once
told my lover that I was glue. That I was stuck
on him. That we were bonded together like superglue. That there was no solvent that would separate us. But now I say that I am his ivy. I cling to him. Wrap myself around him. But he tells me that ivy slowly crushes
the life out of a tree. Until it falls. And I remember
that ivy can be dangerous

(from ‘Yellow’, p 30)

When I was at school I wanted to be a marine biologist.
I wanted to be called Marina. Or Shelly. Or Sandy. I wanted to study marine life. I wanted a collection of twisty shells. The ones with the stripes on them. In a sand-encrusted jar. I wanted all the smooth glass that the ocean could deliver onto the shore

(from ‘Marina’, p 37)

There is no doubt that these lovingly produced mini-books shine when approached as a set, so the similarities and contrasts become part of an enticing whole. Finlay Lloyd’s ‘smalls’ offer a unique experience that delights the adventurous reader and shows the endless possibilities of the written word. It also demonstrates what publishers – even those with scant resources and far from the metropolitan publishing hubs – can do when profit is taken out of the equation. Long may Australia have a diverse and vibrant publishing scene, and here’s hoping Finlay Lloyd continues to publish work that otherwise would not see the light of day.

 

FRAGMENTS OF THE HOLE
Paul McDermott
Finlay Lloyd, 2015
60pp; $10

FAIR GAME
Carmel Bird
Finlay Lloyd, 2015
60pp; $10

GROWING UP CAFÉ
Phillip Stamatellis
Finlay Lloyd, 2015
60pp; $10 

DON’T LEAVE HOME
Timothy Morrell
Finlay Lloyd, 2015
60pp; $10 

TRACE
Cassandra Atherton
Finlay Lloyd, 2015
60pp; $10

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Nigel Featherstone is an Australian writer of adult fiction and creative non-fiction. More at www.opentopublic.com.au

 

 

 

QUESTIONING MASCULINITY, VIOLENCE, AND ADVENTURE:
an interview with Adrian Caesar

Posted on April 8, 2016 by in Lighthouse Yarns

ADC Headshot - b and wAdrian Caesar is an Australian writer with a terrific literary capacity, an engaging warmth and wit, and a deep sense of humanity.

Born in the United Kingdom, Caesar emigrated to Australia in 1982. He studied at Reading University and has held appointments at various Australian universities, including the Australian National University and with the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at UNSW Canberra.

Caesar is the author of several books, including the prize-winning non-fiction novel The White, which is based on the Antarctic exploration of Robert F. Scott and Douglas Mawson from 1911 to 1913; this work won the Victorian Premier’s Award for Nonfiction and the ACT Book of the Year in 2000. He is also the author of several books of literary criticism including Taking it Like a Man: Suffering, Sexuality and the War Poets (Manchester University Press, 1993) and Dividing Lines: Poetry, Class and Ideology in the 1930s (Manchester University Press, 1991). His poems have been widely published and his 2005 poetry collection High Wire (Pandanus Books, 2005) was shortlisted for the 2007 Judith Wright Prize. Adrian Caesar’s latest work is The Blessing, a novel published by Arcadia in 2015. According to eminent Australian author Alex Miller, ‘The Blessing is the most satisfying and enthralling novel I’ve read in a long time.’

Interviewer: Nigel Featherstone

INTERVIEWER

What was your original motivation for embarking on this work?

CAESAR

I began with the idea of writing about my maternal grandfather. He was born in Donaghadee, Northern Ireland, and lived and worked in Belfast until he was in his mid-twenties, first in Mackie’s foundry and then as a tram driver. He was an Orangeman. In 1912, he signed the Solemn Oath and Covenant pledging to defend the North from Home Rule by any means necessary. (I have his signed copy of the Covenant). A year later, he left Belfast for Manchester for reasons that are not entirely clear. Family rumours suggest he was running away from a woman. He drove trams in Manchester until 1914, when he volunteered for the armed forces. He served in France and Flanders with the 21st Battalion, The Manchester Regiment. They were at the Somme, Arras and Passchendaele. Like many British soldiers of World War 1, his military records were destroyed in the Blitz. My knowledge of his service is incomplete. I know he served for at least two years overseas and that he was wounded, probably at Arras or Passchendaele. A shell splinter took away a slice of his shoulder and damaged a lung. Though he survived the war, he suffered from its effects for the rest of his life. He died before I was born.

Jack Young, of course, is not my grandfather. I suspect the gaps in my grandfather’s story allowed my imagination to flourish. There were also ‘gifts’ arising from my research. The discovery that arms were smuggled via Manchester to the Ulster Volunteers, was too good not to use.

Thematically, I was drawn to the Protestant/Catholic tension because I grew up with a knowledge of the bigotry of some Irish relatives and I felt in the 60s and 70s I was on the ‘wrong’ side, so to speak. I was interested in trying to understand the Protestant point of view in Northern Ireland as well as writing a story about the defeat of bigotry. As in much of my previous work, academic and otherwise, I was also interested in questions about masculinity, violence, and adventure.

INTERVIEWER

You mentioned the ‘gifts’ of research. How did you approach the research process for The Blessing? Was it an organic process, or more planned from the outset, especially as you already had what sounds like a significant amount of source material?

CAESAR

The research I did mostly arose as I was writing and in this sense was organic. Very early in the process I was browsing in the library of the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra and came across Arming the Ulster Volunteers. When I realised that the UVF were smuggling guns through Manchester, it was like a gift I couldn’t refuse. I subsequently read a history of the troubles in Belfast in the 1920s. It mentioned a pub and a spirit grocery being bombed in Cromac Street, which is situated at the top of the Ormeau Road, where I knew my grandfather’s family lived – it seemed like another nudge to my imagination. Similarly, when I was struggling with how to do Part II of the book, I suddenly thought about my several visits to the World War 1 graveyards and made this sudden connection to gardening. I then researched the development of the graveyards – another gift I couldn’t refuse.

Other research had already been done, i.e. well before embarking on the book, I’d researched the progress of the 21st Battalion, The Manchester Regiment, because I knew my grandfather served with them. Jack’s memories of his last action at Passchendaele are based on the Battalion War Diary and various historical accounts of the 21st Manchesters.

INTERVIEWER

In many ways, The Blessing is a romance. However, it is set during a tumultuous and fraught time in Irish history. How did you go about negotiating the complex politics?

CAESAR

I didn’t write with genre in mind. I had a story I wanted to tell about working-class characters living extraordinary lives in and through very troubled times. My approach to the politics was inspired by the characters. I’d grown up feeling I was on the ‘wrong-side’ of the problems in Northern Ireland and wanted to understand and come to terms with this. I have very distinct memories of my great-aunt Irene, who lived in Belfast all her life – she used to come and visit and her diatribes against the Catholics were appalling. In every other way she was a warm and generous human being. I wanted to explore this; I wanted to know more about both Protestant and Catholic positions before and after World War 1; so I researched. But I tried all the time to write from the characters and to give a number of points of view from both sides.

INTERVIEWER

Despite being set over 100 years ago, it could be said that The Blessing is relevant to day’s big issues such as faith, home territory, and violence. Is that how you see the novel?

CAESAR

Blessing CoverYes, very much so. It seems obvious to say there is an urgent need to understand bigotry and educate against it; I am also interested in the relationship between bigotry and religion. Although I’m not an orthodox believer, it seems to me important to try to make the point that bigotry in any form is a perversion of any true religion or spirituality. My deep suspicion of nationalism relates to this in some ways. Although I understand the impulse towards nationalism in places with a history of colonial oppression, the problem is that it can easily develop into nasty manifestations of self-righteous xenophobia or outright aggression. The attachment of ‘nation’ to a specific religious position seems to produce particularly potent forms of ideology, which can inspire appalling acts of violence.

I was interested in exploring these issues in The Blessing, not in any programmatic way but through the lives of individual characters. The issue of what or whom one should be loyal to is at the heart of the book. That Jack’s education entails moving between different countries is important, I think. Similarly, I wanted to suggest through Jack the difference between imagining violence and actually experiencing it – this is an issue that I’ve written about elsewhere in different contexts. I think it is horribly easy in our culture for young people (and maybe older people as well) to be attracted to and excited by the romance and glamour of military violence. Through Jack and Kevin and Cocky Shuttleworth, I was interested to explore various aspects of this.

INTERVIEWER

Let’s turn to your writing process. How much planning do you do, especially in terms of the writing of this novel? And, for you, is there an element of ‘writing into the story’?

CAESAR

In broad terms, with fiction I have learnt to plan less and less. It’s something I’ve found quite difficult. There is a big difference between writing an academic essay or book and writing a story. It’s possible to plan an argument paragraph by paragraph and a book-length argument chapter by chapter. I had to stop myself from trying to do this in fiction and let the narrative develop more organically. Of course, I have a sense of the general trajectory of the story I want to tell and I might work with a few chapter headings to give me a sense of direction but I try to let the characters and action lead me. It’s more exciting this way and gives the writing more life, I think.

The development of The Blessing was peculiar, to say the least. I wrote the first draft of Part I in about 2002 in a burst of energy and without a plan. I just had the shape of my grandfather’s life in my head. When I reached 1914, I stopped because I didn’t know how to handle the war. I put what I’d written in the drawer – I’d been awarded a literature grant from the Australia Council for a different project, so I embarked upon that. I took my draft out of the drawer in 2011. I then wrote several versions of Part II but they struggled to solve the problem of the war. It was only when I decided to deal with the war retrospectively that the whole thing came together.

Along the way, I had some very good editorial advice from Bryony Cosgrove whose comments made me think more deeply about Kathleen and led me to write chapters from her point of view. These were all written in 2012. Another wonderful moment of revelation came when I was thinking about Jack’s life after the war. Driving home from having a swim, I suddenly thought about my various trips to the World War I battlefields and cemeteries. I had already made Jack a gardener. I thought, who made those cemeteries? I immediately researched this and knew pretty quickly that Jack had to find his work in the War Graves Commission. That Gertrude Jeckyll was consulted about the plantings in the cemeteries seemed like an affirmation as I’d already made Jack read her books before the war.

To conclude, then: I think it’s possible to write formulaic fiction to a plan, but for me this doesn’t work. The downside with the organic method is, of course, that it’s easy to go wrong and it can take a long time to get it right.

INTERVIEWER

You have published fiction, non-fiction and poetry. What is that you enjoy the most about being able to move between the various forms?

CAESAR

I am always worried about being ‘Jack-of-all-trades and master of none’. However, the beauty of working in all three areas is that if something isn’t working, I can always shift forms and have something on the go. In recent times, I’ve put most energy into my fiction, unless I’ve had a specific commission for non-fiction, but I keep a few poems on the go as well. I like working with poems because they are smaller and usually don’t take three years to write. And you can work on several at the same time, so if one isn’t happening you can leave it with no worries until some solution evolves. The challenge with a novel is that it is so BIG. It’s nice to have some smaller projects simmering at the same time for the inevitable periods when the novel is proving resistant.

In the end, I think good writing is good writing whatever the form and trying to work in different ways keeps me from boredom and allows me to try and understand the way different kinds of writing work.

 

____________________________________________________________

You can purchase The Blessing from Australian Scholarly Publishing.

Nigel Featherstone is an Australian writer of adult fiction – his contemporary dramas plunge into family dynamics, new relationship types, masculinity, history, and the lure of secrets. He is the author of three novellas: The Beach Volcano (Blemish Books, 2014), which has been described as ‘Elegant and original’ (Kerryn Goldsworthy, Sydney Morning Herald), ‘Accomplished – an intense fiction range’ (Peter Pierce,Canberra Times), and ‘Utterly enthralling’ (Walter Mason, Newtown Review of Books), and was recognised with a 2014 Canberra Critics Circle Award; I’m Ready Now (Blemish Books, 2012), which was short-listed for both the 2013 ACT Book of the Year and the 2013 ACT Writing and Publishing Award for Fiction; and Fall on Me (Blemish Books, 2011), which won the 2012 ACT Writing and Publishing Award for Fiction. His novel Remnants (Pandanus Books, 2005) was published to acclaim, as was his story collectionJoy (2000). In 2015 Featherstone was commissioned by the Goulburn Regional Conservatorium to write the libretti for a new work that is being composed by James Humberstone from the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. Featherstone is also the author of 50 stories published in Australian literary journals including the Review of Australian Fiction, Meanjin, Island, and Overland, as well as in the US. Between 2007 and 2014 he was a frequent contributor to Panorama, the weekend magazine of theCanberra Times, and the Fairfax Media network more broadly. Featherstone has also written forAustralian Book Review, BMA Magazine, and Capital. He has been awarded residencies at Varuna (Blue Mountains), Bundanon (Shoalhaven River), and the Kingsbridge Gatekeeper’s Cottage, courtesy of the Launceston City Council, Tasmania; in 2013 he was a Creative Fellow at the Australian Defence Force Academy/UNSW Canberra. Featherstone was the founding editor of Verity La (2010-2014), for which he received a 2012 Canberra Critics Circle Award. He lives on the Southern Tablelands of New South Wales. More information at www.opentopublic.com.au

 

 

 

ACTS OF AFFIRMATION:
an interview with Biff Ward

Posted on October 23, 2015 by in Lighthouse Yarns

9781743319116Biff Ward is an Australian writer and political activist. Her most recent work is In My Mother’s Hands (Allen & Unwin, 2014), a memoir that was long-listed for the 2015 Stella Prize and shortlisted for the Douglas Stewart Prize for Non-fiction in the 2015 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. Ward is also the author of Father-Daughter Rape (The Women’s Press, 1984), one of the first books in the world on family-based child sexual abuse. In 1992, Ward’s poetry book threes’ company, a collection of her work with that of Donna McSkimming and Deborah McCulloch, won the Wakefield Press/Friendly St Publishing Award. As an activist, Ward has been involved in various issues: Ban the Bomb, Vietnam, Women’s Liberation, Close Pine Gap, Close Nurrungar and support for Indigenous causes. She has also worked as an educator: high-school teaching, the School Without Walls in Canberra, literacy teacher at the Institute for Aboriginal Development in Alice Springs, Equal Opportunity Officer at the University of South Australia and then director of SPECTRA Consultants, training in harassment prevention, marginalization awareness, and maximising human relations in all its forms. By any measure, an amazing life.

Interviewer: Nigel Featherstone

INTERVIEWER

Congratulations for In My Mother’s Hands and all it’s achieved. What was the original motivation for taking on what must have been a daunting task?

WARD

I can’t identify an ‘original’ moment. The story contained in the book was the core experience of my life and, in some sense, was so powerful that it had a life of its own.

Until my middle forties it was largely banished from my mind – not in a conscious way but in that unconscious way most of us have whereby our psyches work to protect us from serious painful memories. In my forties, two things happened: I finally found an effective therapeutic path which allowed me to voice what had happened and I started writing – just bits and pieces at first – of memories and even events that were happening at the time with my mother.

I knew that one day I would write something substantial but it had no shape or coherence for a long time. In the last few years of his life, my father (who died in 1995) used to ask me if I would write his biography and I always said, ‘Yes, I’ll write something, Dad’. All I knew was that it would be nothing like the biography he was expecting. Later, some historians asked me the same question – You’ll write your father’s biography, won’t you? – and I gave them the same slightly crooked reply.

So, rather than an ‘original motivation’, it was more like a wave, almost invisible at first, that gathered energy and power in its own good time, as I was ready and the past had congealed inside me in a form that I could handle. And when the wave swelled into its full form, it was like riding a tube on endless replay – I couldn’t not write. It poured out in the kind of ecstasy I imagine pro-surfers experience.

By the time I came to put it all together, to shape it into the book it became, the only ‘daunting’ aspect was the challenge of getting the voice and the writing ‘right’. I was determined to do it well enough to get published by the publisher of my choice and to do it tenderly enough that it really honoured my family and the demons that we wrestled with.

Long ago, I heard a Doris Lessing interview where she was asked something like, ‘How do you become a good writer?’ And she responded instantly, ‘You live. Live life to the full’. I was transfixed but the interviewer – a beginner, I dare say – just went on with the next pre-prepared question and left that delicious answer hanging out of the radio. The interviewer missed the fact that the fullness of life – the depths and the heights, the despair of the flying high – is what makes literature exciting, satisfying and fulfilling.

INTERVIEWER

It’s fascinating that parts of the ‘wave’ were suggestions you write your father’s biography. Both of your parents are compelling characters and have such interesting stories. How did you go about giving expression to both their lives? Was it about letting them live life to the full on the page?

WARD

It’s a good and interesting question.

My father was such a BIG character and his importance in my life so profound, that it seemed natural, when contemplating our family, to presume that I would write about him. But the way I always thought of it was that I wanted to write about what a great father he was – in other words, absolutely about the personal, not the public, man. I knew it would be some kind of memoir, a book of memories.

That intention always had a rider that went along the lines of ‘what a great father he was, particularly in the light of what he was dealing with’. And of course as soon as that angle was established, it actually put the light on my mother, the parent who had in many ways been invisible. It’s not her story, but it is my story about her.

The result is that my book encompasses a great deal more about my mother, in terms of the amount of her life that is touched on or revealed – whereas it deals with only a small amount of my father’s life, personality, actions and achievements. It deals with the parts that were relevant to talking about our family. I tried to give expression to both their lives in any ways that were relevant to my mother’s illness, to tell that story, that slice of the life we all lived.

My goal was to use the techniques of fiction to animate the scenes I was describing, to allow the reader to enter into them and have their own experience or draw their own conclusions. If in doing that they seem to ‘live in full’ on the page, then I am gratified.

As Ruth Ozeki writes in A Tale for the Time Being, ‘[Words] come from the dead. We inherit them. Borrow them. Use them for a time to bring the dead back to life’. While that wasn’t my plan, it’s what the process of the writing brought about. It seems that the writing of the book has brought my mother to life by explaining her experience and guessing at her experience; and it has certainly brought Alison, our dead baby, to life.

Biff Ward

Biff Ward

I have noticed and also heard from other people that the book often triggers memories for readers, that there has often been more talk (in book groups, for example) about their own lives, their own family secrets, than about In My Mother’s Hands per se. I can only assume from this that the book taps into a universal truth, that most families have hidden bits, and that there’s some energy to be gained in revealing these.

I recently heard about some raptors – the black-shouldered kite and one of the falcons – which manipulate fire. Where all raptors will hang about at the front of a fire to feast off the wildlife that rushes out, these birds will pick up a burning limb and fly to a dry area where they drop it and start another fire. It struck me that the journey to understand is like that: the fire that clears away the dangerous rubbish, flushes out juicy gobbets of revelation and comprehension and then leaves a landscape that is renewed, fertile, fecund. That’s where In My Mother’s Hands was written from – new shoots of green on black, a vivid canvas.

Perhaps the book itself will be the burning branch for someone else’s story.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve mentioned that bringing the dead back to life wasn’t your plan and you’re surprised to hear that the book appears to have tapped into a universal truth in terms of all families having ‘hidden bits’. What other elements of the writing of this book and/or its publication have surprised you?

WARD

What’s surprised me most is how much I enjoyed the writing – the first splurt onto the page, the editing and shaping (over and over again), the enormous amount of thinking that goes into writing and the playing with words, trying different combinations, rhythms, weightings, musicality.

I’ve also been delighted by the friendliness within the writing/book-selling/publishing community; talking about writing with other writers; meeting regularly with my writing group. I have found a widespread community of collegiality, respect and engagement.

Another surprise has been the people who have contacted me from the past. In other words, they’ve read the book and got in touch because they knew me, my family, or someone who did. There have been amazing stories of connection which would have been great to have inside the covers of the book! They include a woman who grew up on the street where I lived until I was three who told me, ‘Whenever we went for a walk, my mother would point at your house and say, That’s where the baby died’.

A complete surprise has been a couple of therapists and also a Jungian analyst who have told me that they are recommending the book to their clients. Two others have told me that they have clients who have come in, waving my book, saying, ‘You have to read this!’ So it seems that the healing journey that is implicit in the text – and, I think, not laboured – has connected with some people.

INTERVIEWER

If we could turn to the matter of the baby. The memoir begins with this sentence: There is in my family a grave that was never visited. Was this always the starting point for the narrative? Or was it a matter of finding your way to this point through the drafting and rewriting process?

WARD

It’s a good question – where and how the key focus was arrived at. Someone wrote to me about that first sentence when she’d read only a few pages: ‘It makes the absent present, so present,’ she said. I know I love that tension between absence and presence when I am the reader, so I was very gratified to get this email.

Alison and her death were emblematic of the story of the secrets in our family. The first version of the manuscript was entitled Alison and I also played around with The Grave – so the focus on Alison’s death was there from the beginning of the writing. The Prologue that begins the book with that sentence was a fixed entity for a long time. The honing down was mostly about removing stuff that was my story about my father, and also stuff about me, my ‘coming of age’ story. It was too cluttered, given that the stories that motivated me were the three strands about our dead baby Alison, my mother’s disturbed state and the business of living with silences.

Once I had the first draft, the writing process was concerned with pruning and streamlining and plaiting those three themes into one seamless narrative, one braid.

INTERVIEWER

Despite the familial darkness that is at the core of In My Mother’s Hands, the narrative does not come with an oppressive heaviness. Was this a conscious strategy in crafting the work?

WARD

No, it was not ‘conscious’ and I think that’s because I didn’t write until I was out beyond the ‘oppressive heaviness’ myself. 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. As well as writing, my journey included over twenty years of very effective therapy. Some people will still titter when I say that – which is an interesting response to a book about mental illness because it is an expression of the stigma that still surrounds any disclosure about seeking emotional help.

Literature is an act of affirmation. Love always trumps despair because we are creatures of hope; we look for the pathways that will take us on or through or around what the fates put in our way. Paul Harding called it ‘the deep and secret Yes’, which is a beautiful expression of resilience, of what it is that allows us to survive and flourish even through the hardest times.

 

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Find out more about Biff Ward at her website

Nigel Featherstone’s website can be found here

Nigel will be in conversation with Biff Ward and Robyn Cadwallader this Sunday 25 October at WINEPRESS

winepress photo

 

What Lies at the Core of a Successful Family: Nigel Featherstone’s The Beach Volcano

Posted on January 30, 2015 by in Verity La Reviews

Review by Amanda Hickey

The Beach Volcano_Nigel Featherstone_ Blemish Books_ 2014 (300dpi)The Albury family of Sydney’s Elizabeth Bay are about money and social standing, and although they appear prickly and self-absorbed, it is the father’s eightieth birthday celebration, so they are coming together in their grand harbourside house, determined to make it a good show.

The Beach Volcano by Goulburn author Nigel Featherstone is his third and final novella in a series that began three years ago. In this volume, the prodigal son, Canning, returns to the Albury fold after an absence of 25 years spent developing a  successful career as rock musician Mick Dark (think Nick Cave).

He is the type to upset any apple cart—in his dress, in his music and most definitely within his family dynamics. On returning to his childhood home he feels like ‘a tourist who had stumbled on a house-museum open twenty-four seven’.

Along with Vernon, the pompous father, there’s a brittle, decaying mother, two sisters bent on protecting the status quo, a true friend who loves chooks and a plain-speaking teenage boy who strikes at the heart of the matter.

Most of us have mixed feelings about our siblings or parents and it is this terrain that Featherstone first covers before teasing out, with rumours and poignant flash-backs, a thriller-like drama.

Mick / Canning lives in Tasmania and remembers what growing up in the family was really like: the disconnect between them was palpable, ‘as if the five of us just found ourselves occupying the place like squatters’. On arrival he is greeted with good-humoured barbs: ‘so they let you off the island’; or are they put-downs?

Featherstone skilfully weaves Australia’s class-driven colonial past into the strands of this modern family—these pillars of the establishment who now like to sit around discussing parochial NSW politics and, for Canning, ‘making accusations about people I didn’t know and didn’t care about’.

What Canning does care about is the truth. He’s lived long enough as an artist on his own terms to know that truth, even painful truth, is the core component of an authentic moral fibre. And he arrives carrying information that he knows will blow the family apart.

The underlying question of this unforgettable novella is, perhaps in biblical terms, that the sins of the father will be visited on the sons—and so this son is determined to put the record straight. However, even though Canning likes sitting in churches to ‘stare at the stained-glass windows and try to feel what faith might be like’, his quest is not driven by any religious conviction.

Sensing his simmering moral outrage, family members determinedly try to throw him off course. The mother confronts him, voicing her disgust at his work and throwing down her own gauntlet: ‘I will not be surrounded by fake people’.

The irony is not lost on us as we watch them eat food served from platters with ‘domed lids’. Not unlike John Cheever before him, through his likable protagonist, Featherstone unpicks the threads of a successful family to reveal a hollow and corrupted core.

The family acknowledges his success only because it has recently crept into films. ‘Does it pay well?’ he is asked. (A question, no doubt, the author has also heard many times.) Featherstone’s writing is etched with dry humour and there are double meanings everywhere: ‘Plus I never wanted his money, or to be frank, his interest’—so Canning sums up his failed relationship with his father. Yet nothing is static as they circle around each other exploring, little by little, the ties that bind them.

Nigel Featherstone (by Jonny Lewis 2012)

Nigel Featherstone (by Jonny Lewis 2012)

The characters are fully formed and big enough that they could have carried a longer work. The story line too has enough shifts for a full-length novel, but it is to the author’s credit that his prose, precise and deliberate, has enhanced the work by paring it back to a novella.

The centre-piece scene is the building of a beach volcano, which is, for Canning, a happy memory of his father: ‘I could see the boy he once had been’. It’s a sentimental recollection of Canning’s and he can’t resist showing his newly acquainted nephew how a beach volcano is made. But on this occasion the beachside ritual goes painfully awry, a striking metaphor for the oppressive secrets carried by his parents.

Like watching an Ingmar Bergman film, we find there are tensions within the relationships that are so taut, we become increasingly uneasy about what lies ahead as we wait for the next confrontation in the family drama.

The unsolved Sydney mystery of the missing boy that once inspired Canning to write a hit song titled ‘The Water Boy Never Dies’, pays homage to other Sydney tragedies in and around its harbours. Most of us would have forgotten the story of Graeme Thorne, a school boy who was kidnapped and murdered (his body left in a grotto near the Spit) after his parents won the first Opera House lottery. Yet social realist artists like Nigel Thomson explored the underbelly of Sydney’s genteel class in the same way Mick Dark / Canning Albury has done in his songs, or as Nigel Featherstone is doing in this novella.

With striking imagery, the twin themes of music and water are elegantly interwoven through The Beach Volcano. Canning fondly remembers swimming naked at night. ‘I’d look along my body. How pale it seemed in the harbour water, as white as a cuttlefish.’

Whatever misgivings he may have about Vernon, he also acknowledges it is he who gave him his love of both water and music. And music is more than just a job or even a passion: ‘these things are a part of the body, not abstract notions, not extensions, but the centre of self’. Echoing the hero’s thoughts, in its own narrative structure, The Beach Volcano too, rises and falls to a compelling beat.

Canning eventually wonders whether, in building a fan base of hundreds and thousands that adore him, perhaps all that matters is ‘that just one heart is enough’. Enduring literary fiction is driven by universal insights into the human condition and Featherstone beautifully reveals this one.

For Canning, the family’s truth, even if it’s ‘a disturbance’, must eventually come out. He’s confident that if he takes things apart, the truth will ‘put them back together in a different and better shape’. The reader is not so convinced. The Albury family is so misshapen we cannot help feeling that Canning is a little naïve and we wait with bated breath until the end.

THE BEACH VOLCANO
Nigel Featherstone
Blemish Books, 2014.
140 pp; $24.95.

For a very limited time Blemish is offering a massive 80% discount on the electronic versions of Featherstone’s novellas. 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.

LOVE, CHOOKS, AND SOLITUDE: an interview with Nigel Featherstone

Posted on December 12, 2014 by in Lighthouse Yarns

Nigel Featherstone (by Jonny Lewis 2012)

Nigel Featherstone (by Jonny Lewis 2012)

Nigel Featherstone has been our brave leader at Verity La for the past four and a half years, and in that time has published and promoted the work of numerous established, as well as emerging and marginalised, writers. Humble by nature, he has rarely drawn attention to his own achievements, and yet there have been many. A respected and awarded author, Featherstone has published numerous short stories and articles; a critically acclaimed novel, Remnants (Pandanus Press); and three hugely popular novellas, Fall On Me, I’m Ready Now, and the recently released The Beach Volcano (Blemish Books). Now, as he prepares to depart the journal in order to focus more exclusively on his own writing (and his chooks!) the time has come to discover more about the reclusive editor who’s been responsible for making the Verity La magic happen.

Interviewer: Michele Seminara.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve been editor of Verity La for quite some time—what will you take from the experience, and what’s prompted you to move on?

FEATHERSTONE

There are a couple of reasons. First is this: I’m exhausted. It’s been a brilliant experience getting Verity La up and running and keeping it going for the last four and a half years, but publishing every week, as has become the routine, does end up taking its toll. I’ve learnt so much, about writing, about reading, about editing, about the publishing process, about getting work into the hearts and minds of readers. I’m also just a little pleased with how the journal has developed—it’s become a more sophisticated entity than the one originally envisaged. However, I’d rather leave now, before I become bitter and twisted. More importantly, there are some challenges ahead for online literary journals—or any kind of journal. Creating a publishing model that might allow contributors to be paid (and perhaps, just perhaps, the editorial team as well) really does have to be a priority, as difficult—or near impossible without public funding—as it might be. And building the readership. We’re fortunate to have some rusted-on readers and some people who really champion what we do, but we could be connected with a greater range of folk. I have no doubt that the new editorial team will rise to the challenge…as I now spend the rest of my life feeding my chooks. Which brings me to the second reason: I just want to read and write; that’s all I want to do (not forgetting the chooks, obviously). I’ve been lucky enough to have spent much of my time over the last few years focussing on writing and reading, but the more I do it, the more I truly hunger for it. I do think it’s important to help grow the literary community, though for the next while I’d like to focus on my own work. But I also enjoy interviewing authors (and other artists) for newspapers as well as for Verity La, so I look forward to continuing to do that. If people will have me.

 INTERVIEWER 

This hunger to ‘just read and write,’ to retreat and live a quiet and creative life, is strongly expressed—through the character of Canning—in your most recent book, The Beach Volcano. How important do you think solitude is to creativity?

FEATHERSTONE

Intriguing question. I’m not sure I can answer for the link between solitude and creativity generally, but I certainly know solitude is important for me. Over the years I’ve been fortunate enough to spend time at some wonderful arts residency facilities, including Bundanon on the Shoalhaven River in NSW and Varuna up in the Blue Mountains, also in NSW; for three months last year I was a Creative Residency Fellow at the Australian Defence Force Academy courtesy of UNSW Canberra, which was a very different experience, though solitude was certainly in good supply (or perhaps I just made sure it was in good supply). I do enjoy having a very focussed time to write and read, and to forget some of the more banal things in life, like answering the phone and paying bills. Back in 2010 I spent a month as a writer-in-residence in the Kingsbridge Gatekeeper’s Cottage in Cataract Gorge, courtesy of the Launceston City Council (Tasmania), and that’s where the scratchy handwritten first draft of The Beach Volcano came into being. You’re right that the protagonist of the novella, Canning Albury/Mick Dark, likes his solitude too, including in Launceston—a nice connection there. But it’s interesting because I’ve never thought of the creative life as one of retreat and quiet, because in a way it’s actually about connecting with the world in a deeper, more profound way, and while I do like quiet and peace when I’m writing, it’s rarely peaceful in my head—there’s a lot of noise and activity going on. So perhaps that’s why I find solitude so important: I need as much help as possible to get the words down on the page in the order they’re meant to be in. These days I live in Goulburn, a regional town on the NSW Southern Tablelands. When I’m home I can spend good long stretches reading and writing and getting around the house in ugg-boots and tracksuit pants and woollen jumpers with holes in them; often the only conversations I have are with my characters and the chooks and the dog. I’m sure it’s a recipe for madness, but it’s an enjoyable madness. Mostly. For the time-being.

INTERVIEWER

The Beach Volcano is the third—and you’ve said the last—in a series of novellas which began with Fall On Me (2011) and I’m Ready Now (2012). What is it, besides their form, which makes these books a series? Were they all conceived in that Gatekeeper’s Cottage in Cataract Gorge? Are they triplets, perhaps?

FEATHERSTONE

The Beach Volcano_Nigel Featherstone_ Blemish Books_ 2014 (300dpi)Yes, all three novellas started their lives in the Kingsbridge Gatekeeper’s Cottage in Cataract Gorge, courtesy of the Launceston City Council back in 2010. I actually intended to write some short stories, but a month later I left with some scratchy notes, which would become these novellas. They’re not a formal trilogy, but they are thematically linked—all three try to go behind the curtains (and, perhaps, beneath the sheets) of modern Australian life. We seem to be living in an era—in Australia at least—where family is defined so awfully narrowly: mum, dad, two kids. Worse still, there’s this idea that to have a real life, a proper life, you should be part of that construct and do those things. To my mind, families are made up in many different ways. Aunts and uncles raise children. Friends raise children. Clearly two men or two women can raise children. Some couples make a deliberate decision NOT to have children. Some people never form relationships with anyone. I always love hearing about how some people have creatively redefined how they live: for example on the TV the other day was a couple that comprised a gay man and a lesbian who clearly were very committed to each other but went outside the relationship for sex. All this fascinates me. Not that the families in my ‘Launceston’ novellas are that radical, but they are trying to work themselves out. Families can be forces for good, but they can also tear each other apart from the inside. Family as the bedrock of society? What rubbish. Good relationships are the bedrocks of society. All this sounds like I have a moral or political axe to grind. Perhaps, in a very subtle way, I do, but I feel that my job as a fiction writer is to get as much life on the page as I possibly can and draw the reader through the story till the end (and beyond, if I’m lucky). That’s all I have to do. Which is one of the hardest things—near impossible, most days.

INTERVIEWER

You mentioned that for you the creative life is about connecting with the world in a more profound way, and that your job as a fiction writer is to get as much life on the page as you possibly can. Do you feel that writing is a sacred calling, and what level of responsibility do you think it entails?

FEATHERSTONE

I certainly don’t believe that writing is a sacred calling in the religious sense. I don’t believe stories come to me from some higher power—it’s just hard work, plain and simple. Sometimes they come together in a way that might mean something to a reader, sometimes they don’t. Then again, there is something miraculous about fiction. Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient is surely a miraculous book. I feel the same about Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx. I’m currently reading Quest for Corvo by AJA Symons and that has to be a miraculous piece of work. Do these writers see writing as a sacred calling? I don’t know. Perhaps what I do know is that I treat writing and reading with considerable reverence. I do believe that writing and reading—any kind of creativity—is an extraordinary human capacity; the other is love. These are the only things I care about. However, there is something especially important about fiction: the ability to think and dream and explore, to record and communicate, to broadcast. This is the lofty side of literature, then there’s the practice. I am very protective of my writing time—I’m fortunate to live in a regional town so I don’t have the big-city distractions and it’s possible to live relatively cheaply. On a good week I can spend the majority of my time writing fiction, and on these days I’ll try not to answer the phone or emails, I’ll try not to get stuck on Facebook or Twitter; I also love it when I don’t need to leave the house at all. I’m lost without writing and reading, perhaps in the same way that a religious person is lost without prayer. As to responsibility? The best way for me to answer that is to quote Ben Okri from A Way of Being Free. ‘Writers have one great responsibility: to write beautifully, which is to say write well. Within this responsibility is that of being truthful. To charm, to amuse, to enchant, to take us out of ourselves, these are all part of beauty. But there is a parallel responsibility: and that is to sing a little about the realities of the age, to leave some sort of magical record of what they saw and dreamt (because they can’t really do it the same way when dead) and to bear witness in their unique manner to the beauties, the ordinariness, and the horrors of their times.’ One day I’d like to get close to what Okri’s talking about.

INTERVIEWER

It seems that words are an absolutely essential part of your life, both as reader and writer. Has it always been this way for you? What were your experiences of reading as a child? And when did you know that you were a writer?

  FEATHERSTONE

I was certainly a regular reader as a child. I was lucky to attend a school with an excellent library, and it seemed as a family we were always going up to the local municipal library, which I remember very fondly—going there always seemed to be such an adventure. I do recall my mother reading to me; Afke’s Ten by Nynke van Hichtum, I especially remember. I’ve kept many of the books I read as a child. They include The Lotus Caves by John Christopher, My Side of the Mountain by Jean George, The Incredible Adventures of Professor Branestawm by Norman Hunter, and The Snow Goose by Paul Gallico. Later I read and loved Orwell’s Animal Farm, Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, and a short novel I remember that had a huge influence on me was The Dingo Summer by Ivy Baker. As an early adult I loved Joan Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and, of course, The Old Man and the Sea by Hemingway. Brokeback Mountain also had a big influence on me in my twenties. It’s just come to me that one summer when I was about ten I decided to read the dictionary, which my two older brothers thought was very odd, but I seemed to have a good time. I still love collecting dictionaries and thesaurus, especially very old ones that have words in them that aren’t used as much anymore.

As to when I knew that I was a writer, well, I’m not sure there has ever been a definitive moment. I certainly loved writing at school, and I remember one year, perhaps around Grade 5 or 6, my English teacher said that we all had to write a story during the holidays. Apparently most of my fellow students and their parents weren’t impressed, but I loved it—I can still remember what I wrote about (two boys during the Second World War who had to do the work of men). So I wrote all the way through school, and not always because we had to. I remember writing some poems and stories in an exercise book under a pseudonym—an early attempt at creating a literary journal? I didn’t write much during my first undergraduate degree, but I started again as soon as I got my first job, which was over in Western Australia. I had a journal and wrote sketches and poems and stories, which were terrible, of course, but in my mid-twenties I started sending the best of them to journals and over time I became published. As of now, I’ve had over 45 short stories published, including in journals such as MeanjinOverlandWet InkIsland and the Review of Australian Fiction. My novel Remnants was published in 2005 by Pandanus Books, and since 2010 I’ve been working on the series of three novellas including The Beach Volcano, all of which have now been published by Blemish Books. After years of supporting myself through having other jobs, these days I manage to scratch out a somewhat precarious living from writing and related activities (for example, tutoring in writing for the University of Canberra). So perhaps I’m a writer now?

INTERVIEWER

Indeed, you belong to an endangered breed of writer, one who actually makes a living out of his or her own creations! However, now that your time as editor of Verity La has drawn to a close and your series of novella’s is complete, the question arises—what will you write next?

FEATHERSTONE

I should make it clear that I don’t get much income from writing fiction, along with the vast majority of other fiction writers. Although I’m lucky enough to spend the majority of each week writing, the majority of my income comes from related work—freelance non-fiction, tutoring, and contract arts work. I’m also lucky enough to be able to live on the smell of an oily rag, which means I don’t currently have to take on work that strays too far from writing. I say all this because I don’t want to give the impression that I’m busy earning an average wage from being a writer—that would be a very false impression indeed. As to your actual question, I’m one of those—potentially irritating—writers who doesn’t like to talk about works in progress. It’s not a matter of superstition; I just want to put all the thinking and communicating into the work itself. What I CAN say is that I’m not working on any more novellas. I certainly feel that I’ve done all I can with that wonderful form…at least for the time-being. So there’s the option of starting work on a much broader canvas, or continuing with my love of the short story, or perhaps going in a different direction altogether. Because the publication of The Beach Volcano draws to a close the first 20 years of my writing life, I do feel that I’m entering a new phase. Exactly what this new phase is, I’m not entirely sure. Of course, there’s always the option of not writing at all—as much as I love writing, especially fiction, and it’s not overdramatic to say that I’m lost without it, I don’t have to do it. And, by Christ, the last thing the world needs is another novel—there’s a strong argument that suggests there are already too many. So maybe I’ll just read for the next 20 years. How good would that be.

You can buy a copy of The Beach Volcano from Blemish Books, or visit Nigel’s blog to read more from him.

New and Enticing Shapes:
Andrew Galan’s That Place of Infested Roads (life during wartime)

Posted on March 29, 2014 by in Verity La Reviews

That place of Infested RoadsReview by Nigel Featherstone

What is it that we are to make of poetry, especially in an era when even well-written and relevant fiction is being ignored for reality cooking shows on commercial television, YouTube videos of skateboarding mishaps, the endless electronic chatter of Twitter, and cats doing allegedly totally you know hilarious things on Facebook?  No doubt it is a question that Andrew Galan has asked himself.  Or maybe he hasn’t – he’s just got on with the heady business of being a poet.

The Canberra-based Galan is best known as a performance poet who has scored gigs in many Australian festivals as well as overseas.  He is also a literary mover and shaker, organising the regular and popular BAD! SLAM! NO! BISCUIT! performance-poetry nights in a pub, and is the founder of The Tragic Troubadours, who, amongst other things, wander the streets sharing poetry with unsuspecting – and probably very nervous – commuters.  Quite frankly, the world needs more people like Andrew Galan, so we can be reminded of the sort of magic that can happen when two words are put together with care and craft.

And there is a stack of care and craft in That Place of Infested Roads (life during wartime), Galan’s first physical collection.  His work has already been published in a number of literary journals and anthologies, including Best Australian Poetry and this-here steam-driven e-rag, so clearly he is interested in how poems can be formed on the page as well as performed in front of an audience.  But this is not easy poetry; it requires – deserves – multiple readings before meanings are revealed.  Take these few lines from ‘Real Gone Lee-on’:

I Real Gone into the bar – and stop
there he sits
Atlas slumped over a pint of cider
chickpea in the froth
of the drip tray
his arms end in taps

Or this from ‘Wrong side of the road (an autumn poem)’:

Silver escalator going up, red struck stick going down
seized ebon ink trip stair, stainless dimples on fire

 Galan’s interest in putting words together to create new and enticing shapes is obvious – and attractive – but for many accessibility will be an issue.  Exactly how much effort should be expended on unpacking a poem so its power and resonance is able to come to life?  For some, the sheer musicality of the words and lines will be more than enough.  ‘Bag Bog Cat, the Caterpillar an’ the Glue Man’, published in Verity La back on 14 December 2011, is a good example – it is deliriously and deliciously shanty-like.  But Galan can also do simple and unambiguous – this is a haiku called ‘Untitled’:

Blue Converse shuffle
amid zombie leaves, brand
new on undead feet

Overall, this collection explores issues of urban violence, ultra-masculinity (fights are almost always about to happen), and hyper-realism.  In parts characters and scenarios come across as entertainingly cartoonesque.  Here is the first stanza of ‘Plod’:

Bob, ya don’ want’a do this | ya know Rex | ‘e ‘as it made | eats where
‘e wants | drives what ‘e wants | strides these sidewalks | wit’ who ‘e
wants | she was nut’in’

By the end of That Place of Infested Roads (life during wartime), Galan’s poetry has hinted at the dark (over)dramatics of Nick Cave, the great play of ee cummings, and the grim humour of films by Tarrantino and the Coen brothers.  Perhaps the poet is still synthesising his influences – he has a tertiary education in the classics – and finding his way to put words down on the page so they truly sit up and sing in a solitary reader’s mind.  However, there is no doubt, none whatsoever, that Andrew Galan has a long future ahead of him in the poetry game, and that future should have every chance at becoming as real and as lively and as affecting as possible.

That Place of Infested Roads (life during wartime)
Andrew Galan
The Knives Forks And Spoons Press, 2013
57pp. cost variable

Vox: Nigel Featherstone

Posted on August 25, 2011 by in Verity La Forum

 

I need to be honest: I’m struggling. To be enthusiastic, that is. Enthusiastic with the Forum’s assumptions about the survivability of the novel, about the opportunities – or otherwise – presented by digital publishing. It just sounds tiresome, so it’s hard to care. I know, I know, I should care, because I write, I read, through Verity La I publish other people’s work, and I’m also a blogger, though saying it like that makes it sound just a little bit dirty. I should care because digital publishing is a cold, harsh reality, perhaps even the reality – to ignore the situation would be creative suicide. What’s also a cold, harsh reality is that we’re surrounded by so many entertainments – film, gaming, social networking, just to name a few – and reading is being pushed aside. But is this situation really new? Eminent Australian novelist Eleanor Dark (1901-1985) wrote early in her career that the average person was clearly more interested in going shopping for a new pair of stockings than sitting down with a good novel.

So perhaps things haven’t changed as much as we think.

Novels are still being written, they’re still being published, they’re still being reviewed, they’re still being read. Will an Australian novelist earn a fortune from their writing? No. Will they be able to support themselves from their writing? Highly unlikely, at least not in the financial sense. Will they need a job, one that may ultimately put pressure on their ability to create? You can bet your mortgage on it. But there isn’t anything new in this either. Down through the ages, writers – even those in the canon (a phrase that always makes me laugh) – have had day-jobs. Trollope infamously wrote between 5.30am and 8.30am before heading off to manage a post office. Larkin looked after a library during the day and worked on poems for two hours in the evening, before spending the rest of the night out on the town getting rat-arsed with his friends.

But I digress. Though perhaps I don’t digress at all.

What’s paramount to writers is the telling of stories, be they fiction, non-fiction, journalism, some crazy hybrid of all three. It doesn’t matter where these stories end up: in books, journals, newspapers; in e-books, blogs, or, dare I say it, on social media sites, the schoolyard of our modern lives. Perhaps there are more opportunities than ever for very good stories to find readers. Not long ago I read that a mega-star’s album, one by Madonna, say, can now be released on 120 different platforms. Perhaps good stories will have similar luck?

Recently, for the Canberra Times, I interviewed (via email) Mandy Brett from Text Publishing in Melbourne about the power and problems of writing and publishing novellas. Mandy, who agreed that novellas are inherently difficult, because the cost of creating them is the same as for novels but the demand is low, made an excellent point: ‘As the ebook starts to take over and book pricing comes adrift from the traditional restrictions imposed by print technology and the physical distribution of books, it will become much easier to play around with format and form. I expect to see more poetry, more novellas, more short stories, and more experimental literary forms accessible in mainstream outlets in the future.’

I agree with Mandy, especially in terms of poetry. I can imagine publishers of poetry distributing work through websites: for a small price, readers can subscribe to a ‘feed’ of poems, perhaps one or two poems each week; every Sunday they can participate in an on-line forum about the poems that they’ve read, potentially along with the poet; at the end of the month they have the option of buying the book in the traditional format or in the electronic format, or both, or not at all. This is exciting! (I have to say that this idea is inspired by comments I’ve received from Verity La readers, who love how poetry pops up on their computers or laptops or smart phones – the poetry is coming to them, they don’t have to seek it out.) This model may also work for short-story collections, although I’m not so sure it’s appropriate for novellas and novels, as they’re probably best suited to the physical book or e-reader.

None of this matters, however, if the actual work is, as we say in Goulburn, fucked. If a story is worth writing and, by extension, worth reading, and is relevant to our lives, because it’s thought-provoking or entertaining or, sheesh, both, we will go out of our way to find them and read them. Writers, in other words, need to put their energies – every fibre of their being – into the creation of stories that matter, that might even be dangerous. The rest will sort itself out, as it always has.

To finish where I started: being honest.

Today I woke at 6am and, after showering and getting into an old T-shirt, a jumper with holes in it, tracksuit pants, and ugg-boots that make me walk as if I’ve shat myself, I fed the Old Lady of The House and Cat the Ripper and three chooks. Over a bowl of cereal, muesli, yoghurt and milk, I powered up the laptop and skimmed the headlines of the Sydney Morning Herald, the Canberra Times, and the Goulburn Post (the lead article: INSIDE THE NEW TARGET STORE).

With the newspapers done, I checked Facebook, saw that someone had posted a lovely comment on my meretricious link to the novella article republished on my blog, and took the trouble to drop information about Pan Macmillan’s new e-publishing venture, Momentum, so I thanked her for that. I checked out Verity La to see the latest magic publishing trick from my co-conspirator Alec Patric. Via Amazon I ordered a box-set of The Paris Review Interviews and reminded myself to go into Landspeed Records when I’m in Canberra later in the week to buy Patrick Wolf’s new album on CD.

I shut-down the laptop, put it back where it belongs – in the hallway linen cupboard – and made myself a coffee. With caffeine in hand, I went down to the writing room where I’ll spend the rest of the day.

I’ve written this rant using a Bic four-way biro and a sketch pad. On a steam-driven PC I’ll type it up, edit it, polish it, then transfer it to the laptop, then email it off. When I’m done I’ll write a piece on artist-in-residency programs for the ACT Writers Centre newsletter. With the brain and body sufficiently worded up, I’ll edit a short story that I’ve had brewing and consider where to submit it – sandstone journal or literary website?

At the end of the day, I’ll power up the laptop again, check my emails, see if I’ve got any paying writing gigs coming up. With the laptop back in the linen cupboard, I’ll pour myself a glass of white wine, light the fire, and listen to a record, yes, one of them vinyl things. I’ll enjoy the pop and crackle in the room, the wine in my head, and, above all, the stillness.

When the record is finished, and I’ve eaten a can of soup, and I’m sober again, I’ll see the day out with a book, a physical book, Francesca Rendle-Short’s magnificently loving Bite Your Tongue (to be published next month by Spinifex Press) and I’ll think about my own parents and siblings.

When in bed and eyes finally shut, all will be right with the world.

Because good things won’t stop happening.