Saturday, October 9, 2021

Cover for The Sorrow Stone

It's very exciting to be able to share the cover of my new book, The Sorrow Stone, which will be published on 1 March 2022.

The setting of much of the novel, in the fjord country of western Iceland, is central to the story, so it is wonderful to have such an evocative landscape image for the cover.

The title is drawn from a medieval Icelandic kenning for heart, “harmsfullum halli hugstrandar” — translated by The Skaldic Project as “a sorrowful stone of the shore of thought.”

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

The Sorrow Stone


I'm delighted to share the news that my fourth book, The Sorrow Stone, will be published by UQP in March 2022.

This book tells the story of Disa and her twelve-year old son Sindri, who are on the run after Disa has committed a revenge attack and is forced to flee her home. It draws on two of Iceland's family sagas, The Saga of Gisli and Eyrbyggja saga, to re-imagine events from the point of view of a character who is central to the intense action and drama of these works but whose perspective is largely missing.

During their escape, Disa and Sindri cross the valleys and fjords of western Iceland, which I also visited as part of my research for this novel.


Thursday, June 10, 2021

Clive James and the tensions of multimodal authorship

I recently published a scholarly article about Clive James that explores some of the tensions of multimodal authorship, and in particular the critical reception of a writer whose practice crossed many forms and genres.

I've long loved Clive James's essays and travel writing, and have analysed some of these in this blog; but he also wrote poetry, fiction, song lyrics and, towards the end of his life, translated Dante's Inferno. In my article, I wanted to show how a sympathetic critical response to this writer can celebrate his multimodality rather than, as has sometimes been the case, seek to identify his main strength and wish that he focus on that alone.

Many writers are experimenting across forms and genres, and so sometimes it's better to evaluate a writer's output by looking at the whole picture, and how individual pieces relate.

The article is available for free here.

Thursday, January 7, 2021

Two Icelandic Songs

I recently recorded two Icelandic songs. 

One is a psalm with text by the twelfth century politician Kolbeinn Tumason, the other a lullaby that comes from Jóhann Sigurjónsson's 1911 play about the outlaw Eyvindur Jónsson and his wife Halla Jónsdóttir.

Heyr, himna smiður

Sofðu, unga ástin mín

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Versatility and critical inquiry in creative writing: Benjamin Law

I recently interviewed author and scriptwriter Benjamin Law about his creative practice. 

Benjamin has been named the QUT Creative Industries Alumnus of the Year 2020, and so the conversation was partly about his studies as an undergraduate and postgraduate writing student (and the role of critical inquiry in creative practice), and partly about his versatile and very varied career as a writer. 

For the interview, I was joined by QUT Film postgraduate student Agapetos Fa'aleava. 

The full interview is available here:

Friday, October 16, 2020

Slow Travel: Noosa National Park

In an earlier post, I wrote about 'drawing to write', and how the close observation that comes with drawing can help focus the mind when writing.

In a sense, this is an exercise in narrowing the gaze.

At the other end, perhaps, is 'walking to write' - which allows the eyes to expand their line of vision and bring in ideas that don't come while we're observing too closely, or we're too inside the work rather than alongside it, as I find to be the case when I'm walking. The story comes along for the walk, but lets me wait for solutions to appear. A lack of focus creates answers, as well.

So, last week, I spent some time at Noosa, a holiday town north of Brisbane, to walk and write and lose focus and see what came in its place.

Friday, August 21, 2020

New Classes

My YouTube channel about Creative Writing is now up to 23 classes, with the two most recent classes looking at narrative structure and common plot types:

Ten Common Plot Types:
Plot (and Narrative):

You'll also find relatively new videos about publishing your work, giving and receiving feedback, the writing and reception of first novels, and starting longer works:

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Travels past: The Continental Hotel, Saigon

In Ho Chi Min City, there remain plenty of references to Saigon, which is the same place but also its other self - the city as it existed before the Vietnam War and the city as I first encountered it quite a while before I visited, in Graham Greene's novel The Quiet American.

I wasn't sure how The Continental Hotel, which figures strongly in the novel, would wear its presence in this past. But there are pictures of Greene hanging in the hallways and in a courtyard restaurant with cast iron tables where you have breakfast. Outside the hotel, it's busy and noisy with moped traffic; the heat is tropical and still and flavoured by petrol and smoke. But the courtyard is a quieter moment in the 1950s, when Greene was here and perhaps the hotel was at its peak.

A room at Hotel Continental
That's not to say it's bad now. Actually, it's a dream hotel, or a bit like a dream. The rooms are very large with large cupboards and arches of dark timber. There are sections to the rooms: not quite different rooms within a suite but doorways and turns nonetheless. The space gives the hotel a feeling that there is more time in the world, and that every activity deserves its own pocket and lining. On the other side of the arch pictured here, is a writing table and four seats around a low-set coffee table. I can't really say that I feel Greene's presence, even though he lived in Saigon for years and produced an extraordinary book about it. But I feel the presence of Greene's world, and I like the commemoration of its aesthetics. I hope they don't renovate.

Hotel Continental
The balconies have high window doors and look across to the side walls of the Opera House, not its opulent French colonial facade, while the shops in this part of Ho Chi Min are mainly high-end European chains that make it hard to imagine Greene's narrator Fowler watching his lover Phuong walking across to the lower floor bar area, which has been retained and which serves evening drinks.

Ho Chi Min Museum of Fine Arts
I find I like Ho Chi Min as much as I like the novel. It's the wrong way around, I know: a city isn't beholden to a book! But that's how it is for me: I arrive hoping that the city will be as rich and startling as it is in Greene's portrayal and imagining of it. The city is perhaps more than that, frantic and difficult to cross by foot, rather impossible to gather, a city of a river and of a night and of haze and brilliant density, and in the quietest streets and buildings also a city of the past.

In Zadie Smith's introduction to The Quiet American for the Vintage edition (available in The Guardian newspaper) she considers, almost as a final aside, the relationship between Greene and conceptions of literary writing. She writes: English writers these days work in spasms, both in quantity and quality, and so keen are they to separate "entertainments" from "literature" that they end up writing neither. That was not Greene. He wrote a lot and he wrote for his readers. He also produced different kinds of writing, and, in the case of this book, all at once. It is a book of many voices and many techniques - archways and separate areas and tightness, and also sudden openness and space.

Ho Chi Min

(Travels past are past travels that I didn't manage to write about then.)

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Slow Travels: Paddington

Paddington, just north of the city, is the first Brisbane suburb I really fell in love with.

It's very hilly, sitting across a ridge that is like a horse's back arching upwards to where Paddington and Bardon join. On either side of the ridge are fast-dipping roads scooped out of the hillside and criss-crossed with lines of uneven-heighted rooftops, made mostly of corrugated iron.

Actually, it feels like a place of rooftops: the houses are like jewellery, a surface of cut metal, but as you walk along the streets you're reminded, too, of the modest origins of the area, for the ornamental, decorative appearance of Paddington is really down to the old workers' cottages of its first development being so small and pressed tightly together.

(Slow travel is travel by foot or bike.)

Saturday, April 25, 2020

Slow Travels: Bardon

Bardon is a bosky suburb of dipping, shadow-tipped streets in Brisbane's inner-west.

The area lines Mt Coot-tha Forest. As you near the Forest, you join its bracelet of high-set wooden houses, parks and ovals, and old corner-shop fronts.

Then, at the end of Simpsons Road, you cross Sir Samuel Griffith Drive, which encircles the high point of the Forest. The two streets intersect at a point that's always busy with cyclists coming down the hill really fast. Still listening out for them, you join the path towards the Forest and the steep steps up to Simpsons Falls.

(Slow travels are travels by foot or bike.)

Monday, April 13, 2020

An unexpected gift

I was recently left a collection of books of Icelandic saga literature and writing about the sagas. The books had belonged to Alison, who lived with her husband Iain in the picturesque country town of Tambourine Mountain. Iain had written to me last year, when Alison was unwell, to tell me that they were reading Saga Land and enjoying the book, because she had always loved Iceland so much.

Last month, Iain wrote again to let me know that Alison had passed away not long after our last correspondence, and would I be interested in having her Icelandic books? I drove from Brisbane to Tambourine Mountain to collect them. Iain told me that Alison had lived in Iceland in the early 1970s - to study the sagas and learn the language. The books she bought are inscribed with her maiden name, Alison Brenan, and the years 1971 and 1972, the latter coincidentally also the year I was born.

But more so than dates, the cross-over lies in patterns of reading that I recognise as my own when I first began buying sagas and saga criticism. There are Íslenzk Fornrit editions; a handsome edition of Sturlunga saga; well-known studies by Theodore M. Andersson, Sigurður Nordal, Preben Meulengracht Sørensen, Jónas Kristjánsson, W. P. Ker, and others; novels by Halldór Laxness; Old English poems like The Seafarer and The Battle of Maldon; dictionaries of Old and modern Icelandic; the folder-bound proceedings of a Saga Conference in Oslo in 1976; a work on W. G. Collingwood's travels to the saga sites; and even a rather vivdly-covered edition of Bósa saga. I've included that cover in the last of the photographs below, which represent a part of this unexpected gift.

How wonderful that a collection of books is a kind of biography, and also a shared one.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

New Classes

I've recently posted three new creative writing classes.

Creative Writing Class 16 concludes a series of three videos about travel writing, Class 17 is on the topic of first novels and how they are often placed in the market as part of the biography of the author, and then there is a Case Study of Helen Garner's extraordinary work This House of Grief - a book that illustrates many of the points I've been making about creative nonfiction.

Creative Writing Class 16

Creative Writing Class 17

Case Study: This House of Grief

Monday, February 10, 2020

Creative Elements in Travel Journalism

Because travel journalism tends to be quite exposition-heavy and often adopts something of a review-like tone and structure, it can be more difficult to incorporate creative writing elements. But the possibility is still there, especially when point of view, narrative structure, and description are used to focus information and facts around a more personal style and approach.

I have a look at this topic in my latest creative writing class here:

For those interested in exploring this topic further, you may like to look at my studies of Clive James's travel journalism, beginning with this analysis of his Postcard from Rome.

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Of late

It's been a while since I've had the chance to post here. This year in my job at QUT, I've been filling in as Head of the School of Creative Practice. It's a busy role of meetings and reports and plans, and working closely with others. I'm drawn out of the relatively quiet, (and for me) individualist work of research and writing and thrown into days of collaborating in a way that demands being across everyone else's work - both the great joy of the job and an impossibility of sorts, too.

Now that this is ending, I find myself thinking about what I've put down in the meantime. I've managed one or two hours a day on a novel I'm hoping to finish soon; in July, I gave a performance version of that story at State Library of Queensland; I've reviewed a biography of Ibsen; I've begun a collaboration in the field of Narrative Medicine with the Queensland Children's Hospital; and, I've written a profile of conductor Simone Young for The Saturday Paper.

When I look at a list like that, I straight away see what's missing - all the projects that have been postponed.

I went looking for them this weekend, on an expedition that began by re-reading bits of writing I'd started at the beginning of the year. Soon enough, just like when you open an old box of keepsakes, I was venturing years back into old files and folders, notes with ideas or just titles and topics, odd things I'd seen or heard, pen sketches. Some are very much just fragments, others nearly finished works that I've suspended right on the eve of completing them. I do this a bit, not because I can't finish them; almost always, it's because the drafting has gone faster than the gestation of ideas and structures, faster than the thinking. The works need more time, they need a drawer to sit in for a while.

One such work is a collection I've been piecing together for about five years. Maybe even longer, for the first journey that I undertook for it was in 2001, when I visited Ndola in northern Zambia to see the site of the terrible plane crash that killed Dag Hammarskjöld (in September 1961). I think it was probably on that trip, one that nevertheless found its way into a travel piece and formed part of the broad philosophy of my novel The Ash Burner, that I began to see the outlines what remains a (so-far) unrealised series of essays.

Another part of this imaginary collection is a piece I wrote in 2015 for the Sydney Writers Festival, when I was invited to give one of the Curiosity Lectures that run across the program. My lecture was On Meeting Viking Ancestors, and a trip I'd made to Borg in western Iceland, once the home of the Viking warrior poet Egill Skallagrímsson. The question I asked was whether we could ever meet such intensely remote figures of history, and whether the old saga stories about them could bring them closer.

As I was going through my files and folders, I chanced upon a recording that was made of that lecture, and, as quickly as I'd put them down, I felt myself once again picking up the questions of that talk. They will have changed in the four years since I wrote the talk, but there's no time limit on questions. The steps towards them are still there, as the renewed hope of a final draft.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Characters real and imagined

One of the challenges of writing creative nonfiction is conceiving the people in your story as characters. These people exist and often you know them personally. How can they be a function of a story rather than their actual selves?

But, just as with fiction, a story won't work well unless the characters are conceived as part of its crafting. Even though they are real people, they also need to be imagined. Otherwise, the reader will find it hard to connect with them, no matter familiar they are to you.

Monday, March 4, 2019


In the last four of my creative writing classes, I've turned my attention to reviewing.

Reviewing allows us to engage critically with the art form that we practice. By extending to other art forms, we can also extend our writing into new areas, and develop writing techniques that best suit them.

That is -

Creative writing class 9: Review structures in book reviews

Creative writing class 10: Reviewing through context in food reviews

Creative writing class 11: Subjectivity and objectivity in music reviews

Creative writing class 12: Analytical summaries in film reviews

Sunday, March 3, 2019

NSW Premier's Literary Awards

I'm delighted to share the good news that Saga Land has been shortlisted for the Douglas Stewart Prize for Non-fiction, part of the 2019 New South Wales Premier's Literary Awards.

The other books shortlisted for this prize are:

Tracker by Alexis Wright

The Trauma Cleaner by Sarah Krasnostein

Axiomatic by Maria Tumarkin

Deep Time Dreaming: Uncovering Ancient Australia by Billy Griffiths

The Erratics by Vicki Laveau-Harvie.

The winning book will be announced at the Awards night on 29 April 2019.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Memoir 2: The Promise of Iceland

Over the past few creative writing classes, I've given some thought to common elements in creative nonfiction and memoir.

Creative Writing 8 takes my first book, The Promise of Iceland (2011), as a specific example. In particular, I aim to illustrate how that book establishes a question early on, and the way in which it functions as both a story of what happened and a representation of how I remember the events it describes.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019


The topic of my creative writing class 7 is the memoir form, and in particular how memoir is both a representation of the past and also of how we remember.

That is, in memoir we have the opportunity reflect our ways of remembering in the form of the work.

My next class will develop this topic further, when I'll look at the structure of my own first book, The Promise of Iceland.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Establishing questions in creative nonfiction

Works of creative nonfiction often begin with an author's explanation of how the work came into being, and with the development of an opening question that will frame the piece as a whole.

In Creative Writing Class 6, I ask why this is: what is the function of such questions? Certainly, they are one of the features of creative nonfiction that distinguish it from fiction writing, which tends to be much less direct in expressing its aims.

In the second part of the class, I turn to four techniques for introducing such opening question:

1) an explanation of the background to a project,
2) a short opening narrative,
3) the broader social context of the work,
4) an appeal to shared experience.

More here:

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Creative Nonfiction

In my fifth creative writing class, I propose a working definition of creative nonfiction that I'd like to take with me into the next few classes, when I'll look at different types of this form of writing and some of the techniques used in each.

Creative nonfiction involves the use of fictive or imaginative techniques to write about things that have happened, that is, with the truth claims of nonfiction.

It can sometimes feel as though there is a contradiction in this, especially when the creative elements of a work seem to bring it very close to fiction. But the contradiction - or perhaps complication is a better word - is also at the heart of how such writing affects us and brings its subject matter to life.

More here:

Monday, December 10, 2018


It's been lovely this week to see Saga Land reappearing in the History bestseller charts - a year on from the book's original publication date in October 2017.

Last September, the soft back edition of the book came out. It has the same sensational Oetomo New cover design as the hardback, but with a white background.

The soft back edition of Saga Land

This week's Top 10 History books (source: The Age)

Friday, December 7, 2018

Establishing Theme

In the creative writing classes I've been putting together on YouTube, I've earlier discussed story conception, opening paragraphs, and the story elements of first chapters.

In Creative Writing Class 4, I give some thought to how theme might be established in a story. My more specific question is how we might begin to develop the theme of a work fairly early on, without guiding the reader too heavily about how we conceive of the story.

The term theme refers to the central idea of a work. This sounds fairly straightforward, but of course there is nothing particularly straightforward about determining or communicating the intended central idea of a work. One of the joys of literature is that it often suggests many different ideas, and the meaning of works usually change or develop over time.

In fact, theme may be an aspect of a creative work that is best left in the hands of the reader: the literary and social context of a work, and the individual interpretations of readers, will often suggest theme without the writer having to do all that much.

More here:

Thursday, November 29, 2018

First Chapters

In my third creative writing class, part of a suite of short guides to writing techniques, I offer some thoughts on first chapters.

The first chapter of a work is usually the one that receives the most attention and editing. There's also a temptation to cram rather a lot inside it, for after all we want to establish the story and put everything in place.

In the clip below, I ask how we might use story elements in the first chapter to indicate the kind of work we're writing, and to give a sense of its initial narrative problems. And, I have a look at the first chapter of the book I'm reading at the moment - William Boyd's Love is Blind.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Opening paragraphs

In my second creative writing class, I look at the question of how to write opening paragraphs that reflect the goals of the creative work as a whole, in a way gives them an immediate purpose in the story.

I suggest six possible approaches.

Naturally, there are many more, but hopefully the examples I give from the work of others help to illustrate the potential use of:

1) context,
2) situation,
3) setting,
4) character,
5) voice and time, and
6) explanation: