MEN OF A TIME AND PLACE: an interview with Nigel Featherstone

Verity La Lighthouse Yarns, New

Nigel Featherstone is a well-known and well-loved writer in the Australian literary community. Author of critically-acclaimed novel, Remnants (Pandanus Books, 2005), three novellas — The Beach Volcano (2014), I’m Ready Now (2012) and Fall On Me (2011) published by Blemish Books — and over fifty short stories, he writes about family dynamics, masculinity, history and secrets. In his latest novel, Bodies of Men (Hachette, 2019), set between 1941 Egypt and Australia, he tells the story of two soldiers who ultimately find love and refuge in one another during dangerous, more conservative times. Nigel Featherstone talks here about war, peace, masculinity within the Australian context, relationships of longevity, and the writing life.

Interviewer: Tamara Lazaroff

INTERVIEWER

Firstly, thanks so much for agreeing to speak with me about Bodies of Men, which I thoroughly enjoyed. But before we get into the book, I’d like to ask you a slightly tangential question. I know that, alongside your writing life, you have or have had other roles where you are providing publication opportunities for other Australian writers. You were the editor and founder of Verity La (2010-2014) and, more currently, you are the Project Officer for the national HARDCOPY Writers’ Development Program. Basically, you’ve done a lot to help emerging writers on their own pathways to publication. I’d love to hear your thoughts on how these roles may have helped to shape your own writing life or your views about the writing life.

FEATHERSTONE

Thanks, Tamara, for your warm response to Bodies of Men. I appreciate it.

As to your question, Verity La taught me the importance of creating and maintaining spaces for a diverse range of work from a diverse range of writers, especially work that might not otherwise appear, and making it as accessible as possible, which the current team is doing so well (much better than I could manage).

HARDCOPY has reiterated — and this is something that’s often said but so easy, or tempting, to forget — the point about writing what is important to us as writers, what burns inside us, rather than trying to second-guess what publishers are looking for. The writing is what matters; how the words go down on the page is what matters; what those words do to a reader’s brain is what matters. It’s so easy to get caught up in the ‘industry’ — the machinery that puts books in the hands of readers — and it is good to know a little how it works (to save some heartbreak, if nothing else), but that’s not why writers are on the planet. Writers are on the planet to explore, record, dismantle, delight, communicate, and that’s just for starters. Writing is not a game that can be won. Writing, if anything, is a way of being in the world, as pretentious as that may sound. But I really don’t care. And perhaps that’s what else I’ve learned from Verity La and HARDCOPY — the more we care about how we as people may or may not be perceived, the less we care about our sentences.

INTERVIEWER

That doesn’t sound pretentious at all — your point about writing what is important, what burns inside — but realistic. And that brings us to Bodies of Men. It’s an incredibly evocative and apt title. It brings to mind a certain physicality, homoeroticism, and also the ways men’s bodies are used politically and viewed in Australian society — all of which are themes your novel touches on. Have questions about men’s bodies and masculinity, especially in relation to the military and nationalism, been with you for a while? Or was it another line of inquiry that propelled you through the years and, so I’ve heard you say, forty drafts?

FEATHERSTONE

In terms of the physicality of men’s bodies, for me it’s mostly been about sensuality, sexuality, beauty and eroticism, and that’s been the case for nearly four decades.

As to masculinity, I’ve been long interested in how it gets to be expressed, especially in the Australian context and then, more recently, in the military context. To my mind, Australian masculinity has always been allowed to be promoted as physical strength, power, domination — a man must always been in control, and if he is white, has a suit and tie, and drives a BMW, all the better. I should say that I grew up in a very wealthy and conservative part of Sydney, so that was my experience, and it was a formative experience. Australian masculinity is rarely about nuance, sharing, negotiation; it’s certainly wary of feelings. The sense of masculine domination sits at the front and centre of the Australian national psyche, and is evidenced by the nation’s treatment of First Peoples, women, the environment, those seeking refugee on these shores, and its obsession with contact sports.

See also: war. For a long time I’ve thought that Australia, especially the political class, is overly fond of amplifying a very simple version of the soldier: the ‘digger’, that lovable larrikin who, when push comes to shove, does courageous things for the country. With Bodies of Men I wanted to explore masculinities that are not usually expressed in the official history: that of desertion and sexual intimacy between soldiers. In that way, I hope the novel reveals that Australian men, even during wartime, are complex and contradictory creatures, that they can sometimes surprise us with their tenderness, compassion and warmth. Of course, there was always a danger with the novel that it could be seen to impose contemporary understandings of sexuality on the past, so it was important that I stick to the historical record as much as I could.

When in 2013 I was a writer-in-residence at UNSW Canberra, which provides the campus for the Australian Defence Force Academy, I undertook a lot of research into masculinity under military pressure. Diving into memoirs and diaries as well as first-hand stories published in official war journals, I read wonderful accounts of how the men were expressing themselves in ways that we might consider surprising. For example, I found an account of two AIF men in the Western Desert during the Second World War who used their bodies to mimic the lumbering gait of the ever-present scarab beetle; the eye-witness described it as ‘a ballet’ and I thought, how wonderful is that! A lot of little details like that have ended up being knitted throughout the narrative.

So yes, wanting to bring light to different expressions of Australian masculinity during military pressure is what kept me going, including through the writing of numerous drafts.

I should make clear, though, that Bodies of Men is a novel, it’s fiction; it’s a dream I worked on for many years, to the point that I’ve had the opportunity to share it with others, i.e. readers.

INTERVIEWER

Certainly, the emotional core of the Bodies of Men is the development of the romantic relationship between two Australian soldiers, James Kelly and William Marsh. And I don’t think I’ll be ruining it for anyone to say that the two do eventually consummate their love and desire, and that you don’t shy away from depicting their intimacy. I’m really curious about what you said about being concerned not to impose contemporary understandings of sexuality on the past, and sticking to the historical record as much as possible. What kinds of documents or records did you find describing sexual expression between same-sex soldiers during World War II (or any other war Australians have been involved in)? Were there any first-person accounts? It’s not something I imagine most people would have easy access to. Would love to hear more.

FEATHERSTONE

Before I answer your questions, one of the aspects of the narrative that was very important to me is that James and William would not be straight men who discover same-sex intimacy while serving overseas and then go back to living heterosexual lives as civilians. When adolescents, they had an intense friendship, one that slipped into romance, even though it was brought to an end by a force beyond their control. So, as adults, and now in the army and serving in Egypt, they have a second chance. Even though there are even greater forces working against them, this time they are able to pursue their relationship, despite the precarious circumstances — they are both driven by something that is at the core of their beings. All this shows that their love for each other is profound. I’ve always been interested in depicting same-sex relationships that have love and longing at their core, as well as physical intimacy; I’ve also been interested in longevity.

There are very few documented examples of same-sex relationships between Australian men in the Second World War. Of course, it was a very different era: homosexuality was illegal and considered a mental illness; so it would have been kept very private as much as possible. However, some scholars have investigated this area. Dr Yorick Smaal at Griffith University is one — his Sex, Soldiers and the South Pacific, 1939-45: Queer Identities in Australia in the Second World War (2015) is a terrific resource. And homosexuality gets a brief mention in Peter Stanley’s award-winning Bad characters: sex, crime, mutiny, murder and the Australian imperial force (2010), though this work focused on the First World War. Then there’s the fact that eminent Australian novelist Patrick White met his partner Manoly Lascaris in the Middle East while both men were serving in the Second World War. And then there are the numbers: nearly a million men and woman served their country during this conflict. Again taking into consideration that this was a very different era, and that effeminate men may have not been accepted into the armed forces (or used effeminate mannerisms to ensure they were not accepted), we can assume that many gay men served.

Despite the above, Bodies of Men is a novel. I’m not saying it happened as evoked on the pages; I’m only suggesting that it could have happened.

INTERVIEWER

Yes, that’s one of the things I particularly enjoyed — James’ and William’s shared childhood stories and your layering of the two time frames. And the fact that their love is one of longevity. I’m wondering, now, if and how Bodies of Men converged or intertwined at all with the trajectory of your own life as you were writing it? Or did the two narratives, if you will, simply travel along parallel lines?

FEATHERSTONE

A fascinating question.

In terms of longevity, so many gay stories end in tragedy, which, of course, is often consistent with the experiences of men — and women — who lived in different eras. However, we know many same-sex couples who, despite the era in which they were living, did have lifelong relationships; but those stories don’t tend to be told in literature, and I would have loved to have read them when younger. So, yes, with Bodies of Men I wanted to show that same-sex love can survive, no matter what’s thrown at it. Having said that, I know the ending of the novel has a range of interpretations!

As to any autobiographical elements: I wasn’t born in 1920, I have never served in the Australian Army or experienced war of any kind, and my family is very different to James’ and William’s families. However, there are some similarities: the boys both grew up in Sydney, and William and I are both from the affluent and highly conservative North Shore. William and I also have a connection in that we both spent much of our childhoods holidaying in the Blue Mountains — and during one of those holidays we both had an experience with a friend that made it clear what sort of sexuality ours was, although it was terribly frightening at the time.

But that’s about it in terms of autobiography (other than, perhaps, that I have been in a relationship with a man for almost half my life).

One of the things that’s interesting about autobiography in fiction is that it can be expressed in surprising ways. For example, Yetta Hillen, who along with her husband rescues James after he’s had a motorbike accident, is a Turkish-born Jewish woman who spent much of childhood in England before becoming an atheist and moving to Germany, where she met Ernst, who is an academic historian and has nationalistic tendencies. In one way, Yetta and I have little in common. But she arrived fully formed on the page. How does that happen? When the novel was published, I realised that she and I do have similarities: we have both gone from religion to atheism; we have both moved from place to place to find somewhere to belong; and we have both found peace in caring for a small garden. So perhaps there’s more of my autobiography in Yetta’s story than in James’ and William’s?

INTERVIEWER

Finally, it must be quite a thrill and maybe even, initially, a little nerve-wracking for Bodies of Men to be out in the world, making its way into the hands, hearts and minds of readers. It’s been a few months now, and I would love to hear about some of your favourite and/or the most memorable responses you’ve had from readers known or unknown, near or far.

FEATHERSTONE

 You’re right that publication is both thrilling and nerve-wracking. Thrilling because the work is finished and now it’s time for the public response (with a bit of luck); nerve-wracking because there’s no way to predict what that response will be. There’s also a sense of relief: what is done is done, and the novel has to now make its own way in the world.

It’s always wonderful to do interviews, especially when the interviewer has connected with the work. Then reviews start coming in (again with a bit of luck) and although I’d like to say that I don’t take any notice of them, I do find myself having a quick, one-eyed read to see if it has engaged with the novel in an open-minded way and if it’s been more or less supportive. Then there might be a few responses via social media, which are wonderful to receive. And then, perhaps, a few readers will send me an email; these are really terrific, especially when they seem to have fallen under the spell of the story and want to share their experience.

Although I appreciate all engagement in my work — even those who have been critical have, at the very least, spent time in the world I created — I did particularly enjoy receiving the following email from a high-school teacher in Canberra: ‘I loved Bodies of Men. Read it over the weekend. I’ve ordered 30 copies and it is now on our course reading list. I’m teaching it this semester’.

I should say that as much as the above can be highly energising, the real meaning for me comes from writing and reading. So, after the initial flurry of post-publication activity, it’s always nice to get back to the desk and start something new, even if it’s only a short story or a brief non-fiction piece — there really is nothing like getting a good sentence down on the page. And, of course, on a daily basis I love reading.

Extract from Bodies of Men

Every day that summer William thought about James from Browning’s in the city, and every time he did so he felt an unearthly mix of excitement and trepidation. He had no idea where the feeling might take him, but what he did know was that he had to find a way of seeing James Kelly again.

One morning in the middle of January he told his mother that he was going to spend the day playing tennis with his friends Sam and Barnaby from school. Instead he caught the train to Wynyard and then walked down to Windmill Street, Millers Point. The side-streets were narrow, the buildings packed in, warehouses and wharves and sheds by the water, so much corrugated iron, much of it rusted — it was not hard to see how the plague had once taken hold in this dilapidated part of the city. Was it rightly called a neighbourhood? To William it seemed to be only a place of trade and decay.

When he got to the shop there was no sign of James. Mrs Kelly was serving customers and didn’t notice him. He walked back into the city and sat in Hyde Park for an hour. He returned to Browning’s at noon, but again only Mrs Kelly was there. On the train back to Pymble, William felt awful for having lied to his mother. Still, the desire — the dull, warm ache — remained: he wanted to see his new friend again, and soon.

In Egypt, at Lawrencetown, after another day in the desert: under a calm night sky pinpricked with stars, William and the men walked over to the training field. He set them a challenge to find three objects: a Temple Bar Tobacco tin, a shard of pottery with a blue stripe, and a page ripped from the back of his diary on which he’d written the word SHENANIGANS. They were to find all these by 2300 hours and without being seen. He stationed himself in the sniper’s nest and put Callow on a hillock nearby — if the young private saw the men moving about he was to stand and call out, Shot!

William saw them only minutes later; he could even hear their laughter — it was as if they were heading off on a weekend fishing trip. He picked up a stone and pegged it in their direction.

The men looked around.

Mack Donovan shouted, ‘We know that was you, sir!’

After waiting for Callow to make an observation, William got up and went over to them. If they really were behind enemy lines, he told them, they would be on their way to heaven by now — ‘or wherever people like us might end up’.

They walked back to the hillock and found Archie Callow asleep, flies on his nose and lips, the zipper of his shorts undone, one hand slid into his underwear.

‘Oi, Mouse,’ said Finch, ‘stop dreaming of your sister!’

‘Don’t be so coarse,’ said William. He crouched down and tapped the boy on the shoulder.

Callow opened his eyes with a start, took in a fast breath as though he knew he was done for.

‘If I catch any of you sleeping at your post again, I’ll throw the book at you,’ said William. ‘Do yourself up, Private. Have some self-respect.’

Back in his tent and alone again, William reached beneath the bed for the note and reread the words on the back. Absent: Private J. H. Kelly, 7 Section. Good reason to think foul play. Shame. What had happened to James? What had he done?

William turned the note over to the message from Bradley-Allen: Don’t waste your time out there, Marsh. Training is to include . . . He had been pushing his men hard, though he did not have a choice — he’d been given an order. But he also knew that they would soon be called to action; that was why they were in the desert. The men had to be prepared, they had to be ready. Still, they deserved a break; they should be given a few hours on the coast or by the Nile to swim and eat fresh food and do a spot of drinking and buy cigarettes — anything to make life in the army more bearable. Back at Holsworthy, William had observed that the officers who treated their men like machines never got the best out of them. An hour of leave was an investment in a day’s service; an hour of leave was an investment in effectiveness and respect. In the Egyptian desert, at the stores depot, William saw no reason to abandon that line of thinking.

The next morning, he put in the leave request by handing a note to a lorry driver who had come out from the Cairo area headquarters with a delivery of rations as well as a supply of bread and fruit and cooking equipment, including a stove — all of which was appreciated, but it was now clear to William that Lawrencetown would be in operation for longer than ‘a couple of days’.

Twenty-four hours later the same lorry driver returned, this time with a supply of small-arms ammunition. Bradley-Allen, who had been moved to Cairo, had refused the leave request. All in good time, Lieutenant, read the note on the back of a white napkin.

Later that day a group of children — a dozen of them, all dressed in long red tunics, the boys and the girls, the tall and the small — appeared at the gate. They were clutching metal buckets filled with dates and eggs; they also had with them bottles of what turned out to be a type of tea. Three girls were offering watermelons, and one of the boys had a large glass jar of milky liquid called ‘arak’. Mack Donovan did the negotiating and purchases were made, the other lads chipping in.

That night, Eric Donovan knocked up omelettes for tea; they were peppered with sand but no one commented.

Afterwards, William and the men tried the arak, passing the jar around. It was a dreadful drink, strong and bitter, and William could not stomach more than a mouthful. ‘I’m calling it quits,’ he told the lads, ‘but don’t overdo it, do you hear me?’

While William was lying on his camp bed, another line came to him from his father: Discipline is a great desire for success. Despite being a backbencher, Roy Marsh was a prominent voice in the United Australia Party, so he was indeed a man of discipline; he had also been described in the newspaper as ambitious, with friends in the highest places. But was discipline really a great desire for success? Or was it nothing more than adherence to rules — of the land, of the church — and to tradition? Those were questions that William had pondered more than once, though he made sure to keep them to himself.

Bodies of Men is published by Hachette, RRP $32.99.
Available at all good book stores and online as an ebook and audio download.


Tamara LazaroffTamara Lazaroff is a Brisbane-based writer of fiction and creative non-fiction. Her work has been published widely in Australian, New Zealand and UK journals, including Meanjin, Southerly, The Big Issue, Headland and The Wrong Quarterly. She has a particular interest in hidden histories, the migrant experience, queer and feminist themes, oral storytelling traditions and celebratory stories of social connectedness.