an interview with Sara Dowse

Posted on November 21, 2017 by in Lighthouse Yarns

Sara Dowse is a prize-winning Australian novelist and reviewer. Born in Chicago, Dowse grew up in Hollywood, the daughter of an actor mother and celebrity lawyer father. After experiencing anti-Semitism, she left for Australia in 1958 at the age of nineteen. After studying arts at the University of Sydney, she arrived in Canberra in 1968 and worked as a journalist and also as a tutor and publishing assistant at the College of Advanced Education, now the University of Canberra. Dowse became the inaugural head of the Women’s Affairs Section of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet for the Whitlam government.

After resigning from the public service, Dowse worked as a teacher at the Australian National University, a reviewer for newspapers and journals, and became a writer of novels and short stories. She was forty-five when her first novel, West Block: The Hidden World of Canberra’s Mandarins, based on her experiences in the Prime Minister’s department, was published by Penguin in 1984.

Dowse has also been awarded many prizes, including the ACT Book of the Year (in 1997 with Marion Halligan), and was short-listed for the Steele Rudd Award (1995) and long-listed for the IMPAC Dublin Prize (1996). She has also been the recipient of an Australia Council fellowship and a Harold White fellowship (1991).

Dowse is known to be someone of considerable warmth and generosity, along with a great political drive. Interviewer Nigel Featherstone spoke with her in the context of the publication of her most recent novel, As The Lonely Fly, about three Jewish women and their worldwide quest to find answers to reconcile with their complicated past.

Interviewer: Nigel Featherstone


Congratulations on the publication of As the Lonely Fly – it’s a grand and multi-layered novel. Can you talk a little about the work’s gestation?


Well, for one thing, it was a long one – more on the order of an elephant’s, some might say. Yet the ‘25 years in research and writing’ on the flap of the cover conjures up a misleading picture of steadfast application. There were many stumbles, distractions, disruptions and obstacles along the way. That said, the mere fact of 21 years between my last novel and this one has begged an explanation.

In 1989, on a Harold White Fellowship, I started research on what evolved into As the Lonely Fly. It was meant to be a biography. Not of a famous person, but of a little-known woman whose existence I hadn’t the slightest notion of until 1974. That was when my mother told me that her father’s sister had been a Soviet apparatchik. I was still working in the prime minister’s department then so I put what my mother told me on the backburner and there it stayed, simmering along until I was ready to do something about it. At that point I had published four novels, but fiction being such hard work, as you know, I somehow got it in my head that nonfiction would be less demanding. (Can you hear the gods laughing here?)

My work on the fellowship gave me the background. I submerged myself in Jewish and Russian history. By then I had learned that much of what my mother had said about her aunt was wrong, but much else of what I heard was wrong as well. Finally, I was able to establish, through a complex network of kin in the US and Israel, that my great aunt Lisa, like my grandfather, came from Bessarabia, a province of tsarist Russia that is now Moldova. I learned that before she became a Soviet functionary she had been a Zionist in British Mandate Palestine, that she became disillusioned with the Zionist project and joined the local communist party owing to its concern for what was happening to Arab labour. After supporting the Arab riot of 1929, she and some of the other members were jailed and sent back to Russia. But these were just the bones of the story. To assemble them into a valid narrative I needed documentation, and for that I needed to travel.

I went to Israel to search for any mention of my great aunt in the Central Zionist Archives, but when I got there they were closed for renovations. In Moscow I was given a bum steer by a fixer so missed out connecting with Memorial, the organisation set up to search for relatives’ papers in the archives. I went to Moldova and found the village she and my grandfather came from. I expected to return to these places, but then my relationship of 19 years broke up. For the second time in my life I found myself a single parent, so travel of this magnitude was out of the question. I wrote Digging, a therapy novel you could say, about the breakup instead.

Two years later I left for Canada with my new partner, hoping to finish the manuscript. I still had the contract with Penguin but other developments put the kibosh on it. The widespread restructuring of publishing in the late 1990s created the landscape of multinational conglomerates we’re familiar with today. To put it bluntly, the bean counters prevailed. Books were now entertainment, to be marketed as such.  Having grown up in Hollywood, I knew the model well. You were only as good as your last book – the halcyon days when publishers backed writers they believed in through to maturity were over. Literary ‘stars’ were picked, literary fiction got a body blow, and readily identifiable and marketed genres were born.

The manuscript I presented was a hybrid of fiction and nonfiction, and was immediately rejected. Not only did it not meet the new requirements, the personnel at Penguin had changed. Gone were the publisher and editor who had worked on my previous books. While other publishers showed interest, the manuscript was too long and would need a good edit, and budgets for editing had been cut. Even established writers began to pay for editing before offering manuscripts to publishers. Yet paradoxically, agents and publishers alike were on the hunt for new talent. The day of the exciting ‘debut’ novel had arrived.

At some stage I decided that, without the documentation, I might as well turn the manuscript into a novel. But in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse, there was zilch interest in a communist central character. Nor was there much sympathy for any book that questioned the premise of Zionism or the wisdom of a Jewish-privileged state. For my sanity I took up painting, and more or less resigned myself to this novel never seeing the light of day unless I published it myself. So it would have stood had I not been led by the hand to Jen McDonald, who had just embarked on her own publishing venture. And times have changed.


How did you approach the task of developing a manuscript that was, as you say, a hybrid of fiction and non-fiction?


I had a model, a book that not only touched on a familiar subject but offered a way of dealing with it. This was Kim Chernin’s In My Mother’s House, first published in 1983, but I read the Virago edition that came out in 1994, just after I’d returned from Russia and was looking for a way to assemble all the material I’d gained from my travels and the interviews I’d had. (Virago has re-released it, I see, in a twentieth anniversary edition.) Anyway, this was Chernin’s story of her mother, Rose Chernin, a Russian-Jewish immigrant who was a Communist Party organiser in New York and later in Los Angeles. So there were a number of parallels between her mother’s story and the one I was trying to write, as well as the parallels with Chernin’s story and my own.  There’s the female communist relative, the sparseness of the written record, and the locale, Los Angeles, at a time when I was living there too. We are almost exact contemporaries: Chernin is two years younger than me. She had a solid reputation as a poet when the book was first published, but she’s written in a range of modes since and has branched out into psychotherapy, or what she calls ‘listening therapy’. But unlike my great aunt, whom I came to believe died the year I was born, Chernin’s mother was a powerful presence in her childhood, yet politics took her away from her daughter – so much so that Chernin’s aim in writing the book was to find what she could about the mother she really never knew. And because Rose Chernin had died and it was too late to discover everything, Chernin interspersed what she had with fictional accounts as well as autobiographical chapters, recounting what it was like to be a politico’s daughter.

Out of interest I’ve gone back to have a look at that early, mongrelised manuscript of mine, and here are a couple of excerpts that go some way towards illustrating the method, not to mention my preoccupations at the time:

My search began, of all places, in Paris, in the summer of 1989, in the middle of the bicentenary celebrations of the French Revolution. With hindsight, I see how significant this was, that time and that place. The French Revolution marks the birth of modernity and, for Jews, the first step towards citizenship in the modern world. At the time I thought my going to Paris resulted merely from a happy convergence of a number of factors in my personal life. My partner, a molecular biologist, had chosen the Pasteur Institute for his sabbatical. As a rule, I didn’t accompany him on his sabbaticals but this, after all, was Paris. I had never been to Paris, had never been to Europe in fact. My one great feat of travel had been to migrate to Australia in the 1950s, and I was limited thereafter to trips back to America. My mother, however, went to Paris often. It seemed an excellent opportunity to see more of the world and more of her too, and I wanted to question her further about my grandfather’s sister.

How much of the world that summer would that Soviet commissar have recognised? It was barely recognisable to me. I had grown up myself (if that is what you could call it) with two giant wars loping beside me. Born two nights after Kristallnacht, I had lived less than a year before World War Two was declared, and was only six when the Cold War overtook it, when ‘Communist’ became an ugly word again and my mother and stepfather were unable to get work because for a brief spell years before my mother had become one. Then, I was an adult, and the Left emerged as a credible force again, as it had been at the height of the Depression when my mother was a bristling young woman fired with a passion for justice, and in the forties when the United States and Russia were allies. The new credibility came with the swell of protest against the war in Vietnam and I let my hair frizz and marched in my bell-bottomed jeans and, overcoming my shyness, shouted myself hoarse with hundreds of thousands of others, and whole societies – American, Australian – had turned radical, as I had. But in the eighties all that had faded, a distant, melancholy, vaguely embarrassing tune. We were conservatives again, consuming with a vengeance and making new families, and the Right had risen as it had in the fifties. Right-wing governments ruled in almost all the Western democracies and even in countries like France or Australia, with socialist or labour governments, right-wing policies – smaller governments, freer markets – prevailed. Indeed it had become unfashionable even to call them such; in the changed political climate the terms ‘right-wing’ and ‘left-wing’ were said to have no meaning.

In Germany that summer, the eastern, Communist half was disintegrating. By the end of the year the wall that had separated it from the West for twenty-eight years had come down, and Germany was on its way towards reuniting. Indeed, Europe itself was uniting, though we could scarcely have believed it even then. All the countries of Eastern Europe were shedding their Communism; the puppet regimes were toppling because Moscow was bankrupt and was withdrawing its support. One by one they went, almost without resistance, not a thaw this time but an avalanche: Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Yugoslovia, Albania. Even Ceausescu’s Romania fell with only a hiccup of a struggle. In France, where it had all begun two hundred years before, where the streets were awash with signs and symbols of the Revolution – the mobcaps and toy guillotine – we were moving through a kind of docu-drama. ‘Robespierre: Est-il Coupable?’ shrieked the Express placards at the corner kiosks. Revolution was in the air, but it was another revolution. The Cold War, that chilling bipolar disorder that had dominated the globe and my own puny life for five decades, was ending.

Soon Francis Fukiyama would publish his End of History, contending that the world had rejected ideology. The West had won. Capitalism had won.  Consumptor victor, consumer triumphant. But though the signs were there that muggy July of 1989, this new revolution was not yet accomplished. The Warsaw Pact was crumbling, but few could have imagined that in two years’ time the Soviet Union itself would collapse, or that the socialist fervour that galvanised so many for so long would prove so totally moribund.

And then, a few chapters later, my great aunt’s response:

LISTEN to her, if you please. It has been my good fortune to witness these excursions of hers for more than a decade, if fortune is what you would call it. Well, perhaps it is. But why do I speak in years, when time, that sly trickster, no longer has meaning for me? As a matter of fact, not much that I once knew has any meaning for me. I suppose I should find this amusing. Not time, not work, not struggle, not pleasure, not pain. No pain as I once experienced it. No, I would sigh, if my sighing were to serve any purpose, no pain. Not even memory, because memory brings with it the notion of time, and there is no time where I’m speaking from. Time as a system, place as a map: these things exist, but in no material sense – at least for me. There is, as it happens, great freedom in this, a freedom, yes, that I longed for, yet a freedom for which I was wholly unprepared and was the last to have expected. But knowing this, this unshakeable, awe-inducing knowing, is fraught with consequence, and danger – a problem we’ll face again and again in the course of my story.  Or whatever story she makes of it. It is all in her hands. Don’t imagine that I don’t see the irony in this. But for now, assuming for the sake of our communication that there is a now, I am watching, watching, I’ll admit, from a vantage of unique perspective and privilege. I watch, bemused, amused, saddened, frustrated, delighted, chagrined. This woman who goes looking – what will she say when whatever it is that she is looking for she finds? Not that this frightens me – you will understand by now that it is part of this privilege I enjoy that I am no longer prey to fear. It is more a sensitivity to the inordinate complexity of the facts, the complications piled upon complications, an endlessly pebbly, jumbled moraine of gross confusion and disorder, all so unnecessary from where I stand, and all of it conspiring to obscure. I put my trust in simple things now, and if she were to stay still long enough to listen I would tell her, for these – for all time, that time that is no longer time – are the keys: a cool glass of cordial, ruby red; a piece of light cake, delicate and resilient as an angel’s wing; the warm aroma and sour-sweet taste of bread.

Perhaps it is only when one is lost in abstraction that the tangible becomes real. I see that she has an inkling of this but still she has a longing for broad themes. Perhaps it has something to do with the sky. To hear her tell it, she is a city person. It accords with her image of herself as a cosmopolitan, with no particular attachments to places, but rather to ideas and, more importantly, she would argue, to people. But I observe something different and the difference, I think, is significant. I watch, and I see that she deceives herself. Yes, it has to do with the sky. And let us make it a very particular sky, a broad sky, a low sky, a swirling, cloud-tilting sky, tipsy with latitude and depth and a blueness so pure you feel you could reach up and run your fingers through the clouds.

And so it went, as my great aunt launched into her story, with intermittent squeaks from me. I had a lot of fun with it, but it wasn’t acceptable in 2001 when I presented the manuscript, and was even less so three months later when the US was attacked on 9/11. Not only that, it was far too long. But for me it was an education, not the least for using what I could as scaffolding for the novel I came up with in the end. Most of all, I slimmed down the narrative, cutting out quite a few characters (including myself), episodes and scenes. Killing my darlings? More a massacre, you could say. Though bits of it I did use almost verbatim as I folded them into the novel.


At its core, As the Lonely Fly is about social justice, perhaps even more so than about finding home or a sense of belonging. Do you agree?


Absolutely. I was drawn to my great aunt’s story (once the many misconceptions about her had been scraped away) because of what it had to say about being a Jew. At some stage in the process of uncovering her story I was forced to ask myself what my experience of being Jewish had given me. And the answer came straightaway: a passion for justice. For most of my life I have not been an observant Jew, but I treasure to this day that central tenet of Judaism. The character of Clara/Chava embodies that.  Even her name – Tsedeska, Tsedek, is a play on the Hebrew word for justice – tsedaka. And there is absolutely no justice in what the Palestinians have suffered through the Zionism she once embraced and then came to reject. This, remember, was in the 1920s, when she and some of her comrades woke up to what the consequence of their arrival in Palestine actually was. There’s a passage in As the Lonely Fly where she articulates this to her employer – ‘Not the kind of place we dreamt of,’ she says, ‘where Jews do the excluding.’ Of course this passion of hers, based as it is on compassion, gets her in a whole lot of trouble. But at the same time, it’s what ennobles her. The other thing to note is that hers is a voice that was silenced. It has taken many decades for others to comprehend that the creation of a Jewish-privileged state has become a betrayal not only of the Palestinian people, but of Jewish tradition itself.

It’s of no small significance then that the novel begins and ends in 1967, three months after Israel became an occupying power. By this time Clara has been missing for a number of years, and this is when her American sister Marion visits their niece Zipporah in Israel. Though neither Marion nor Zipporah can be sure of what has become of Clara (other than she may or may not be alive somewhere in the Soviet Union), each finds it difficult to shake off Clara’s influence. The novel ends with Marion coming to understand what her older sister had taught her: ‘Because there was Clara, and this had been her tradition … If she could convince herself – and she couldn’t – that it was in their blood, their genes, this passion for justice, it would add nothing to the explanation. The history was enough – more than enough. Of persecution, of wandering, of false messiahs and uneasy bargains. But, more, a yearning for justice …’

Of course, not all Jews come away with that. Centuries of persecution ending in the Holocaust have made many put tribal loyalty above all other considerations, and I can understand that. But that doesn’t mean I can accept it. And there are many Jews both in Israel and in the Diaspora who feel as I do. As with my great aunt and the character Clara based on her, for decades their voices have been silenced, but that is changing, and changing very rapidly now. If only our politicians would keep up with this.


For you, is writing fiction always a political act?


Not consciously. There are some who argue that everything in life is political, so perhaps writing for me is too. What I can say is that I’ve often been drawn to political subjects in my reading and that’s why history interests me so. And politics have had an immediate impact on my life. But from childhood I’ve been intrigued by consciousness as well. As far as I can tell it remains a mystery. So that is why in some of my books, most of them actually, I find myself flirting with the mystical, the mythical or paranormal. It’s there in Sapphires and Schemetime and As the Lonely Fly, a little less so in Digging. But because I think I’m seen more as a political writer, this element in my books is usually overlooked. Don’t get me wrong, I like the fact that, if I’m noticed at all, it’s because I have written on political themes – there aren’t that many fiction writers who till that field and I think it’s important. Although nowadays, given what our world has become, it’s hard to imagine any writer not getting tangled up with politics, whether she wants to or not.

But I do get a kick out of knowing that if any of my readers do pick up that other, mystical strand in my writing, there’s always something extra in there for them.  Because even if social life is political (we humans are herd animals and there’s no getting away from that), for the individual human it’s ultimately something else, her consciousness or, if you will, her soul. And when I say consciousness I mean the unconscious too. I guess when it comes down to it, that’s the difference between novelists and historians, and it’s occurred to me while addressing your question, that that may be the real reason I’m a novelist and not an historian and why I never published that biography.

Take my novel Sapphires. This is saturated with Kabbalistic mysticism, particularly its numerological system gematria, in which every Hebrew letter has its numerical equivalent. It gave me a template for the narrative, along with another numerical phenomenon, the Fibonacci Sequence. I’m not saying you need to know these things in order to enjoy the stories, but it may enhance the reading experience while providing the glue for holding the disparate fragments together. It’s what writers do in layering. I adopted a similar approach with Schemetime, a novel about filmmaking and its magical elements. And the Kabbala makes its appearance in As the Lonely Fly in the person of the cobbler Yehudi Ha-Kohen, the man who makes Clara/Chava a pair of sandals ‘should you ever need to fly’. He’s there years later in the novel’s very first scene when Marion visits the cemetery. And Digging opens with the ghost of the narrator’s dog. The only books that don’t have this in them are Silver City, which was Penguin’s experiment with a film novelisation, and West Block, arguably the most political book of all. The inspiration for West Block’s structure, apart from the building itself, came from John Dos Passos’s USA and James Joyce’s Ulysses. As each of Ulysses’s chapters has an art as its theme, so does West Block. So it’s not that I ‘believe’ in mysticism in any straightforward way; it’s more that when I’m writing I’m drawn to the aesthetic possibilities, it’s a conduit, if you like, to my art, a way of expanding its symbolic import, the essence of art to me, even political fiction. All fiction, I think, is composed of ‘what-ifs’ and you need to maintain an open, inquisitive mind for that, and I do think fiction is an art.


Might fiction, especially the novel form, best have its impact on the reader at the unconscious level? Perhaps that is how a work like As the Lonely Fly can bring about change?


I hope this novel can contribute to change. But I can never be confident about that. Readers read different books. And by this I don’t mean physically different books, or even different genres. I mean that they read the same book differently. Sometimes radically so. As a writer I wish I had more control over this, but that isn’t the contract we metaphorically sign. For a long time a novel like As the Lonely Fly was difficult to publish, for reasons I mentioned earlier. But now as we approach the hundredth anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, in which the British foreign secretary promised the Jews ‘a national home’ in Palestine, the profound injustice to the Palestinian people resulting from this is far better recognised than it was when I embarked on the book. Now the imperial implications of Balfour are so patently evident that the novel’s critique may even be too mild for some. But it’s not enough to preach to the converted. The novel would never succeed as a novel if it didn’t transcend polemic.

If the aim is to illuminate the dilemma (the two ‘wrongs’ Amos Oz once wrote about) and through the ‘lived experience’ that fiction offers draw out the essential questions that need to be asked, then the novel is a marvellous form. Like all art it deploys the unconscious as well as the conscious. But that will always ask a lot of the reader, I think, for the novel, like opera or film, contains so many elements – its power and its weakness perhaps. There’s the story and the structure in which it unfolds; then the music, if you like, of the prose; and the symbolism of the leitmotifs; the visual effects, the imagery, of the setting; and last but certainly not least, the characters that people it and the emotions they arouse. And as readers read different books, so they pick up on different things. By that time, it’s out of your hands, though publicity and critical interpretation can help. If you’re really lucky you will have dipped into the well of the current zeitgeist, that collective unconscious of Jung’s, and everything will click.

Yet I’ve come to rely on the unconscious to do the initial work. It’s only after a draft or two that motifs and symbols begin to emerge. It’s then up to me to sculpt them, a bit like you would for high relief. That’s how I came to have the storks flying through As the Lonely Fly. The stork is a Bessarabian (now Moldovan) symbol. You see it everywhere there, on murals, as decorations. The birds nest there, then every year flocks of them fly over Israel-Palestine on their way to Africa, and take the same route back. You can draw this migration of theirs as a straight line on a map, from Moldova through to Africa. But like most symbols, storks are replete with more than one meaning. As they came to me, they represented all kinds of things: migration, of course, but a very particular one, because of that route; freedom, but freedom with its limits; birth, death, and release of the soul. There’s the theatre motif: history as theatre, as one Australian historian, Greg Dening, described it. There’s the ambiguity inherent in the concept of a Jewish nation, as evidenced in the illness of Talli, Zipporah’s stepdaughter. It may not matter if readers don’t consciously respond to all or any of these, yet I always hope that on some subliminal level they will.


Speaking of hope, As the Lonely Fly is your sixth novel over a 33-year period. Have your hopes for your work changed?


Hope. Interesting that you should ask that. I often think of myself as a pessimist, but when I examine that, as I’m wont to do at this stage in life, I think I may be wrong about that. When it boils right down to it, I’m an optimist. How else could one be a writer? I mean to closet yourself away for long periods of a time, searching for words and images to convey something you want to say, with no real idea what that something may be until you scratch that itch with a pen, and with no assurance of reward of any kind at the end? I think it was Simone de Beauvoir who said that she wrote because she wanted to be loved, but I’m not sure about that. Like anyone else I appreciate praise, and get mad when I think I’ve been criticised unfairly, or misunderstood, or overlooked. But mostly I’m incredibly grateful to be writing. I love language and words and stories. And I do believe that deep down inside I have something to say.

But fame. That’s another matter. When I cast my eye over the long chain of events behind me I realise that I’ve always been a little afraid of that. That’s the Hollywood influence. That may surprise some, especially here in Oz. Australians I think are especially susceptible to the blandishments of ‘success’ – the premium marker is to make a splash overseas. It used to be England, for the past thirty years or so it’s been America. But I saw Gatsby up close, so to speak. I saw the ugly side of fame, on both sides of my family. I saw that neither fame nor wealth brought happiness. I learned that early. I’ll do the publicity stuff because I owe it to my publisher and all the people who have supported me. And having had an actor for a mother I can perform when called on. But none of that can replace the sheer slog and satisfaction, indeed joy, of working creatively.

Yet for all that there’s a little tree of hope growing shoots inside me. I’ve written five books, all different, each succeeding I think on its own terms. And that bumptious little tree with its irrepressible shoots makes me hope, in spite of myself, that one day that will be recognised. (I don’t count Silver City because it was someone’s else’s story, although my contract gave me carte blanche to do what I thought it needed to make a novel.) In each of them I’ve taken on themes that were challenging for me and difficult perhaps for some to warm to. I mean, who would be mad enough to write a book about the public service, set in, of all places, Canberra? Or a book about an Australian filmmaker leaving for Hollywood that’s structured like a film and has all kinds of cinematic resonances? Or a book about Jews who eschewed the Jewish state? You have to have a crazy kind of quixotic hope for that.

After I’d finished the final draft of As the Lonely Fly I started work in earnest on a series of thrillers. I thought it would be fun, and it has been. Will I finish it before I go? I can’t guarantee that. But I do know that I’ve been extremely lucky, for all the chances I’ve taken. I have five kids I’m terribly proud of, nine super grandchildren, and I have known love. Love and creative work – who could want more than that?


Note: the introduction to this interview is based on information sourced from Trove.

As the Lonely Fly can be purchased from For Pity Sake Publishing.


Nigel Featherstone (by Jonny Lewis 2012)

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), I’m Ready Now (Blemish Books, 2012), and Fall on Me (Blemish Books, 2011). His novel Remnants (Pandanus Books, 2005) was published to acclaim, as was his story collection Joy (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 FictionMeanjinIsland, and Overland, as well as in the US. Between 2007 and 2014 he was a frequent contributor to Panorama, the weekend magazine of the Canberra Times, and the Fairfax Media network more broadly. Featherstone has also written for Australian Book ReviewBMA 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. Visit Nigel’s website here.




Posted on August 8, 2017 by in Lighthouse Yarns

Verity La is all about new and exciting voices in Australian literature, so allow us to introduce you to Mark Brandi. Mark has been published, broadcast and shortlisted in journals and competitions in Australia and internationally. He graduated from a criminal justice degree and his career includes roles as a policy advisor and project officer in the Victorian Government’s Department of Justice, before changing direction and deciding to write. Mark’s writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Age, the Big Issue, and is often broadcast on Radio National. He is the winner of the 2016 UK Crime Writers’ Association Debut Dagger for his first novel, Wimmera (Hachette, 2017), which he developed during two residential fellowships at Varuna, the writers’ house at Katoomba in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales. Growing up Italian in a rural Victorian town has influenced much of Mark’s work.

Interviewer: Nigel Featherstone


Congratulations for Wimmera. It is an enthralling, multi-layered, and intricate novel. What was your inspiration for writing it?


Thanks so much.

It grew quite organically (I’m not a planner, in writing or in life), so the precise inspiration is hard to nail down. When first drafting, I tried to let things flow – there was little self-censorship, and I was mostly guided by what felt right for each character. Still, looking back, I can see a few sparks which may have lead to Wimmera.

Growing up Italian in a country town definitely inspired the setting. I’ve spent almost all of my adult life in the city, but much of my writing is still drawn to those rural roots. There must be some unresolved concerns, some kind of truth I’m seeking – I don’t know what it is exactly, or if I’ll ever find it … more like an itch, I suppose. I keep scratching at it.

But my previous career also played a part. I studied criminal justice and worked pretty extensively in the system, including a stint as an adviser to the corrections minister. With three older brothers also working in policing, it was probably inevitable that a crime would feature in my writing (even if I never set out to write a literary crime novel). Although, thinking about it now, some of my favourite books also feature a crime at their centre, even if not identified within the genre.

Speaking of, Albert Camus’s The Outsider hit a particular nerve. I loved his restrained, pared-back style – he allows the reader to enter that sunstruck Algerian world, to walk those hot streets. But more than that, the subject intrigued me – a community judges a man not for his crime, but for his failure to take part in social norms. While I read it many years before I began writing Wimmera, I think it planted a seed.


There is a sense in the novel about the innocence of boyhood, which is contrasted with the messiness of male adulthood. Is that how you see the work at a thematic level?


I’m pleased you picked up on that.

When you’re a child (or a teenager) your world can seem very small, revolving in a tight orbit of family, friends, and school. When those structures inevitably shift and fragment, it can be difficult to know your place.

I think that’s true irrespective of gender, but perhaps more unspoken among young men. It’s definitely a factor for the boys in Wimmera, and compounds the impact of what transpires.

The innocence of their boyhood is also heightened by the period (1980s), as well as the rural location. It’s probably a terrible generalisation, but a different parental mindset seemed to prevail back then, with kids often let loose from the house with little monitoring (especially in rural areas). As long as you were home by dusk, all was okay.

That sense of freedom, a blissful naivety, is something I wanted to capture – the warmth of friendship and the seemingly endless summer holidays, alive with possibilities.

But there are also unspoken dangers, which are sensed by the boys, though not fully understood. Those darker elements are part of an inscrutable adult world, obscured from their view and understanding, but increasingly (and worryingly) apparent to the reader.


Let’s talk about those darker elements. There’s a darkness to masculinity, and there’s a darkness to the particular form of masculinity that emanates from rural Australia (no matter what the era). In writing Wimmera, what was your approach to exploring and rendering the darker side of the narrative?


I think that’s true (about the darker aspects of masculinity). And perhaps it can be especially stark in rural Australia, where physicality tends to dominate. Also, in small rural communities, men can often significantly outnumber the female population – this can become quite toxic, and dangerous.

But there’s no ducking it (when writing that darker side) – you have to go inside the heads and hearts of those characters. Whether it’s the schoolyard bully, the dickhead in the local pub, or the dangerous predator – as a writer, you try to understand what makes them tick. It’s only then you present a rounded view, some light and shade that shows the complexity of human nature. Very few people in this world are ‘all bad’ (or, ‘all good’, for that matter).

In the case of Ronnie, writing his scenes was always draining. Initially, my process was more academic, tapping into my experience in the justice system. But the story forced me deeper, made me delve into the motivations, urges, and careful manipulations of an extremely dangerous man – someone who picks his targets carefully.

I had to walk in his shoes and try to understand his proclivities (whether I liked it or not). It was gut wrenching, but completely necessary if I was to do the story justice.


For you, is writing fiction an act of compassion and/or empathy?


That’s a great way to think about it.

It’s sometimes said that compassion is empathy put into action – so perhaps the act of writing is compassion in itself.

Most of my writing is focused on character, so there has to be empathy (if I’m to do it well). That isn’t to say I need paint a sympathetic portrait – empathy and sympathy are too often confused.

That point is relevant also to your previous question, with respect to the darker aspects of the story. When exploring the more malevolent figures, I had to approach their world with a degree of care, being mindful of the sensitivity of the issues for some readers. That said, no one wants to read flat caricatures of villains – it never seems real.

It might be stating the obvious, but people are incredibly complex. In seeking to understand (and vividly depict) those who might do terrible things (or good things), we need a degree of empathy (even if we might not always admit to it). Characterising people as ‘evil’ only takes you so far – this isn’t to excuse or diminish their crimes, but to better understand them.

But, as writers, we need not lay this all out on the page – so much is often better left unsaid and for the reader to uncover. Cormac McCarthy is a master of this – there is so little interiority shown of his characters, but you still feel a deep understanding and respect shining through them.


You have mentioned Camus and McCarthy. Who are the other novelists that have inspired you?


I’m most attracted to writers whose characters dwell outside the mainstream.

As a kid, I enjoyed Stephen King – I’d often steal his books from my brother, and I loved scaring myself to death. I read Salem’s Lot far too many times (which probably explains my irrational childhood fear of vampires). King has a real knack for creating characters you care about.

As an adult, my preference is for lean, sparse prose – MJ Hyland’s This Is How is a standout of the last few years. More recently, I enjoyed Jesse Ball’s A Cure for Suicide and How to Set a Fire and Why, and Jenny Offill’s Department of Speculation. I suppose I admire novels (and novelists) that trust the reader, allowing space for us to invest ourselves, to add our own interpretation.

I also loved Favel Parrett’s Past the Shallows for its delicate depiction of young people grappling with troubled family life. Similarly, both Sofie Laguna (The Eye of the Sheep) and Sonya Hartnett (Golden Boys) show the lives of children with nuance and subtlety.

And while she’s known more for her non-fiction, I’ll cheat and include Helen Garner. I recently read This House of Grief and was struck by the writing – her dignified and respectful portrayal of tragedy is, at times, breathtaking.


What are your hopes for Wimmera?


Accolades are great, but what matters is the conversation with each reader.

One of the most gratifying things has been hearing from those who have read the book and felt a connection to the story and its characters. Reading is, after all, an intensely personal experience.

All the stories I’ve loved become part of who I am – they never quite leave me. So my greatest hope is that readers might engage deeply with Wimmera, and that Fab and Ben (and yes, even Ronnie) might linger long after they’ve read the final page.


Wimmera can be purchased from Hachette Australia


Nigel Featherstone (by Jonny Lewis 2012)

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), I’m Ready Now (Blemish Books, 2012), and Fall on Me (Blemish Books, 2011). His novel Remnants (Pandanus Books, 2005) was published to acclaim, as was his story collection Joy (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 the Canberra Times, and the Fairfax Media network more broadly. Featherstone has also written for Australian 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. Visit Nigel’s website for more.

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


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


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.


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?


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.


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?


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.


What do you enjoy most about the shorter form?


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.


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


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.


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

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


What made you want to write Watershed?


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.


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?


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.


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?


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.


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.


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.


What are your hopes for Watershed?


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.


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





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:


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.

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.


Paul McDermott
Finlay Lloyd, 2015
60pp; $10

Carmel Bird
Finlay Lloyd, 2015
60pp; $10

Phillip Stamatellis
Finlay Lloyd, 2015
60pp; $10 

Timothy Morrell
Finlay Lloyd, 2015
60pp; $10 

Cassandra Atherton
Finlay Lloyd, 2015
60pp; $10


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




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


What was your original motivation for embarking on this work?


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.


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?


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.


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?


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.


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?


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.


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’?


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.


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


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




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


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?


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.


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?


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.


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?


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.


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?


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.


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?


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.



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.


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.


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?


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.


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?


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.


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?


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.


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?


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.


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?


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?


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?


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