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?
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 Meanjin, Overland, Wet Ink, Island 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.