Friday, August 17, 2018

Teaching as learning

I've long found teaching to be one of the best ways of learning. I've taught creative writing and literature at QUT in Brisbane since 2008, and before then I held teaching positions at other universities and schools.

Teaching doesn't require you to be unequivocal or to have perfectly formed ideas. The reality is that sometimes you're only just ahead of the students in your preparations. But it does prompt you to articulate questions clearly, and to express your thoughts in ways that are approachable to others. I use the term approachable because your thoughts are really the beginning of a dialogue, not the conclusion of a point that you're trying to make.

Students should feel that they can come towards your ideas with their own. For me, that approach has allowed me to better understand what I want to achieve as a writer, but as importantly what some of my weaknesses as a writer have been. Being able to identify common issues in the work of others becomes a powerful way of identifying them in your own.


Not too long ago, I was asked to sketch out some of the key ideas and terms that we use to teach creative writing at QUT. It really is only that - an opening sketch - but one that offers a sense of how a dialogue about writing techniques might begin.

Film by Nicholas Martin and Tom Francis, November 2017
Produced by Courtney Pedersen/QUT Creative Industries

Friday, August 3, 2018

The memoir spectrum

Over the past few years, I've had the opportunity to review and teach a number of works of memoir and autobiographical fiction, and in some cases interview the authors. Some of this work has come about because of teaching: I have a unit called The Artful Life: From Memoir to Fiction. In other cases, encounters with these books and their authors have come as part of festival panels I've moderated and reviews I've written, mostly for Australian Book Review.

I've noticed that many of the questions people have about memoir are tied to authors' fidelity to lived experience. Has the author presented a very subjective account of events? Perhaps, even invented material? Is the the story a faithful one?

One response to these questions is to say that all narratives are inventions of a kind. As soon as a story is shaped into artistic experience, it becomes a textual representation rather than reality. But that doesn't quite do justice to the question, which is really about the nature of that representation rather a naive wish for absolute accuracy.


In the subject that I teach, I approach the topic from the point of view of the creative techniques that are being used, and discuss these questions in terms of a spectrum of literary devices rather than a division of absolutes, one that would have fictive work on one side, truthful writing on the other. I have to admit that, in my own nonfiction, I do aim for a high level of factual accuracy, as high as I can manage. But I find that this spectrum-based approach to creative techniques in nonfiction allows for a less black-and-white analysis of memoir and it impact, and one that ties creative techniques to the narrative personality of the writer.


Books I've taught in The Artful Life include Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking, David Sedaris's When You Are Engulfed In Flames, Helen Garner's This House of Grief, Dave Eggers's A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Katherine Boo's Behind the Beautiful Forevers, and Jeanette Winterson's Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit.

Only one of these books (Winterson's) is presented as a novel, but they share a very noticeable use of literary devices that work to create richness, and to support theme and impact.

Didion's book performs, at a formal level, the very content that she's describing: the work circles and sometimes avoids a central death scene in something like the way Didion both faces and avoids the reality of her husband's death. Garner's book, which is a true crime novel, adopts a number of features of fictional crime writing, especially in her use of characterisation and what's sometimes referred to as "police procedural". Boo's work, also about a criminal case (although very much in terms of the setting and lead-up to it) features the novelistic use of point of view and internal, highly subjective characterisation. Eggers's study of his relationship with his brother after the death of their parents mixes many literary forms, I think partly as a way of resisting sentimentality and some of the other conventions of the genre known as bildungsroman, or, in this case, künstlerroman (a novel of the early life of an artist)Winterson, meanwhile, has spoken about the non-linear nature of her novel, one that adopts both a very realistic tone and also moments that might be better described as mythical and fantastic.


In interviews that I've conducted with authors of memoir, I've noticed that they, too, imprint their life stories with their personalities as writers - the books express their way of representation, as much as what they want to say. Lloyd Jones's A History of Silence is an intricately-structured account of secrets in his family: the structure is his way of representing (in the book's form) the intricacy of family history.

Jessie Cole's Staying is notable for its use of a lyrical voice that we might associate with fiction. Meanwhile, when I spoke to Annie Proulx about her memoir Bird Cloud, I was struck by the way in which she constructed the narrative as a series of stories that surround the property at the centre of the book. And, quite recently, I interviewed debut novelist Trent Dalton about his fictional but heavily autobiographical work Boys Swallows Universe. It mines his childhood experiences of growing up in suburban Brisbane while using an intensely subjective voice of fictional first person narration, which tends to be more immediate and open than first person as it's used in nonfiction.

What each of these books suggests to me is that, in the case of memoir and autobiographical fiction, we can read both the content and the form as different aspects of autobiography. Each expresses the author's personality: how they tell a story as well as the story they have to tell.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Swimming Lessons

I recently published an essay about the relationship between swimming, writing and migration. Although I'm always writing about Iceland from here in Australia, and writing about my birthplace as a presence in my life, I sometimes manage to forget that I'm a migrant.

The essay, written for an anthology celebrating the 70th anniversary of the University of Queensland Press, is an attempt to remind myself of that - how I moved here as a teenager, and what it meant to live in a very different place.

And of an odd but, for me, very real connection between the countries that exists in the water. Shared rhythms of swimming and writing.

The anthology is available here and from other bookshops. A full list of my publications here.

Friday, July 6, 2018


The months since the publication of Saga Land last October have been intensely busy. My co-author Richard and I travelled widely in Australia to talk about the book - at festivals, industry nights, on TV and radio, and at local workshop and bookshop events.

At the same time, I've taught three subjects at my university, and, with a colleague, started a new seminar series called On the Terrace. It's about contemporary issues in creative writing. For the first seminars, our guest speakers have been authors Anita Heiss, Nick Earls, and Rohan Wilson; poet Sarah Holland-Batt, arts producer Jane O'Hara; and broadcaster Sarah Kanowski.

But despite all this busyness, the past months have also felt like months in-between; that is, between finishing one big thing and properly starting another. This is when writing, to me, feels like sketching, and almost like watching one's thoughts rather than following them.

And then, quite suddenly, it changes. The writing is real and takes you with it. To Iceland, in fact. In September, I travel back to the mid- and north-west of the country, as in Saga Land in pursuit of people who lived there a thousand years ago, but now with rather different writing goals: to produce a novel.

The book takes place at two farms. I hope to spend most of my time walking around them, and the countryside nearby. Following this book begins by following in the footsteps of those who lived here a long time ago, and getting around as they might have.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Wildlife of Berlin

On Thursday 22 March, I had the pleasure of launching Philip Neilsen's new book of poetry, Wildlife of Berlin at Avid Reader Bookshop in Brisbane's suburb of West End.

Here's an edited version of my introduction to the book.


I have a few things I’d like to say, a short speech. But I’m not sure about its structure. Or, rather, I feel there may be some steps backwards and forwards. But perhaps that suits this book, and the ways in which it steps backwards and forwards across times, places, and images. And, in more careful ways than I’ve managed here, brings them together.

I think Philip and I first met when I was a PhD student, around fifteen years ago. I had long hair and wore check pants. I knew Philip’s name the way, as a student, you know the names of established writers: as a voice, really – a poet. Even though I was a literature student, that still seemed a distant thing, an idea as much as a person.

But the person I met was also a teacher, and I was becoming one of those. Teaching was something I understood as being more than an idea. It was about people, and the pulse of a room, pacing your thoughts, perhaps even the metre, rhythm, and the music of the spoken word. Teaching was about taking note, observing, and speaking really only if you had to. It was also about paradox and incongruence, for I saw that a good class often brought together ideas that were usually kept apart. In that way, a classroom could be a hospitable place, like a poem.

Philip’s poems, I thought, had those qualities, as well. Or so it seemed to me when I first began to read them. My early sense of Philip was shaped by having met him in his role as a teacher. An early sense, as I say, but it’s hard to shake first impressions of this kind, and over time they’ve grounded my reading of him as a person, but more especially tonight, my understanding of his poetry. Over the years, I’ve come to know Philip through a sense of how teaching connects curiosity about life to our conversations with other people, and especially our students.

That’s something of our shared past, mine and Philip's, although I’m very sorry to say that these important exchanges haven’t appeared anywhere in this collection. It’s just as well that I’m here to tell you about them. It’s not as though Philip doesn’t know the hazards of leaving people out. Towards the close of this book, we read about a review, written twenty-four years ago, a “black catty” review that hacks at another of Philip’s books. Why? The reviewer was, no doubt justifiably, upset that he had not been included in the book in question.

That person, we read, now wants to be friends with Philip on Facebook. Twenty-four years have passed, after all. If he can’t be in a book of written lines, cannot he not, now, at least be in Philip’ Facebook timeline.

For a moment, the poet allows us to feel the pressure of the many years that have passed. The enduring pressure of harsh words exchanged long ago. And the pressure of the things the poet has said and regretted. That we may have said in our lives, as well. But then, happily, we also hear the tap on the keyboard that confirms the friend request.

It’s a satirical moment in an often wry and witty book, although in this collection it’s rare in its subject matter of writers’ rivalries. Many of the poems share this Facebook-moment’s insistence on the everyday, the now, and how the now seems always to be in the business of expanding the past.

But this book places itself very happily within poetic traditions and the work of others. The first long conversations I had with Philip were about poetry, especially about W H Auden, a poet we both love, and I think Auden’s extraordinary line, “the crack in the tea-cup”, which appears in this book.

I remember we talked about other poets, too, who also show up in the collection as an ancestry shared by all readers and students but also, I think, as a hoped-for audience for the book. Whatever years have passed, twenty-four or one hundred; however mortal poets may be in reality, Elizabeth Bishop, Philip Larkin, and Judith Wright, Auden, are here and being asked to listen, if they can, because many of the poems seek out their ways of remembering and seeing.

Like those writers, Philip has produced a work that demonstrates how observation becomes part of a quiet form of instruction: sometimes directed outwards, as in a classroom, but very often internally towards the poet.

In Wildlife of Berlin, this is expressed in contradictions, in wit, self-effacement, but above all in searching and allowing it to be the goal rather than a road to a final answer. There isn’t merely an acceptance of doubt and paradox. These things are insisted upon, and chiefly by way of incongruity, the strange confluence of ideas that marks conversation.

This verse, about a failing love affair, is from “Red-capped Robin – Long Pocket, Indooroopilly”: 

          The last time you were an hour late.
          I sat with the bird and the flotsam,
          living in the moment, which smelled
          of vinyl seats and soap.

In “Marienplatz – Munich”, the poet is told that “possessions, like regrets, are ridiculous”. And he sees them: “swarm like starlings, / exclamation marks without a sentence”. In another poem, we meet Lady Chatterley. Once, after she has made love to Mellors, she hears “the cold stone of blood / tut tutting at the top of the hill.”

Such observations have the effect of slowing time, what in one poem Philip also calls “time slips”; and, in another, the “urge to collect and catalogue / this pageant, to slow it down.” The poems meet this urge, and the past is given a seat and, in a sense, is confirmed as part of the class, the everyday, the present. It nestles into the everyday: the vinyl seats and soap.

Poems become like rooms; and, as Philip writes:

          Rooms still imagine themselves as thinking spaces,
          classes still have epiphanies which come
          and pass, well-lit, like a night train.
          A tutorial becomes a bird of paradise.

A couple of days ago, I took Wildlife of Berlin to a class, and read out this verse from it.

          To start this tutorial I have a question:
          how many of you have had a broken heart:
          the shy ventricle and pink aorta parted
          and pulped like a smashed melon?

I have to say my class looked quite confused and perhaps even a little frightened. Did I really expect them to reveal their broken hearts? No, I didn’t. They laughed, relieved. And, then, that became our discussion: what we are expected to reveal, and how that becomes part of the stories we create.

Even though we no longer work together very often as teachers, this week Philip's poetry began a discussion in one of my classes. It was about observation, acuity, and, for me, it was about the way your poetry is a companion of curiosity, just as teaching can be.

Earlier, I mentioned a line by Auden, part of a verse which Philip quotes. The verse is from the poem “As I Walked Out One Evening”:

          The glacier knocks in the cupboard,
          The desert sighs in the bed,
          And the crack in the tea-cup opens
          A lane to the land of the dead.

In Philip's book, the quote is given at the beginning of a poem called “Polar Bear Noir”, which also features this line about the aurora borealis: “a lime green wave of northern lights / hugs me like a heartbeat monitor.”

These lines stay with me because their strangeness, how they are at the once reaching for the sky and for hospital equipment. And for their memory of Auden, who also walked through streets looking for the past, and distant places, in the everyday present.

But somehow these are also lines that I detect from the kinds of conversations we’ve had over the years, and that I expect Philip has had with many of the people here tonight, and of course with many of his students. Like me, I’m sure they wish the very best for this book. It is a remarkable collection: pleasurable, intelligent, and generous. 

A book of poetry that welcomes the reader and converses with them.

Friday, March 9, 2018


Over the last few weeks, it's been lovely to see Saga Land nominated for a couple of national book awards.

The book is currently on the shortlist of the Australian Indie Book Awards, and just now has been longlisted in the Australian Book Industry Awards.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Cairns in summer

I'm about to make my first mid-summer trip to Cairns, a place I've loved visiting in the past, although admittedly those trips were in winter and early spring. And yet I'm excited by the prospect of heat and humidity that apparently makes even Brisbane seem mild by comparison.

On Friday 16 February, I'll be speaking about the sagas, Iceland, and Saga Land at a lunch held at the Shangri-La Hotel. And then over the weekend I'll be heading up to Atherton to run a series of workshops on the theme of writing fiction that is drawn from lived experiences and the people we know. 

The workshop series is called The Artful Life: From Memoir to Fiction, a title I've borrowed from a university course that I lecture.

Here's a short description of the kinds of things we'll be covering:

It's often said that you should 'write what you know.' But what does this really mean? How do you turn lived experience into a basis for fiction and nonfiction works? This series of workshops will instruct you in elements of creative writing practice that relate to both forms, while helping you think about the often very productive relationship between your experiences and your creative outputs. How, for instance, might you base a character in a novel on a real person in your life? What are the limits on the writer of nonfiction in telling what they feel is their story? Are writing techniques (like plot, dialogue, character) the same in fiction and nonfiction? And how do you know whether your experiences are actually interesting to others, and worth sharing with a wider audience?


Interviewed by Fiona Sewell, ABC Cairns

Kuranda Train Station, 2004
Kuranda Canoe Hire, 2004

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Drawing to write: Haukadalur, Westfjords

Remembering the Westfjords in winter.

How on some days the darkness isn't so much in the sky but in the blue earth of the mountains, standing above what seems a second shoreline of late autumn green. The fjord frozen at its beach sides, and black along the shallows. The grass blown flat into thick mating that folds across the first ledges in the blue rocks.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Festival season

Over the next few weeks, I'll be taking part in writers' festival sessions being held around the country. Many of the events will be about Saga Land, but I'm sure conversations will widen out from there.

Friday 16 February: Cairns Tropical Writers Festival lunch

Saturday 17 - Sunday 18 February: Atherton writers' retreat

Saturday 24 February: Saga Land at Perth Writers' Festival

Sunday 25 February: Storytelling event at Perth Writers' Festival

Saturday 3 March: Saga Land at Adealaide Writers' Week

Sunday 4 March: Mud Club lunch, Penny's Hill Winery, McLaren Vale

Thursday 16 - Friday 17 March: Somerset Celebration of Literature workshops

Friday 16 March: Somerset Celebration of Literature dinner


Hope to see you there!

East Stage, Adelaide Writers' Week

Thursday, November 16, 2017

First Days Saga Land

Saga Land, a book I've co-authored with Richard Fidler, has been out for around three weeks now, and over that time Richard and I have been travelling the country for interviews, talks, and performances of the saga stories that we feature in the book.

About a year ago, we were in Iceland writing the winter parts of the book. Since then, Saga Land has moved rather quickly through the various tasks of writing to editing, and now to publishing and promoting a book beautifully produced by HarperCollins/ABC Books.

Our first trip to Iceland was in summer, when there isn't really any night to speak of. Then, the darkness of an Icelandic December, and now it's out in the blue light of Australian spring. On our book tour, much of the time that we've spent talking about the book has been inside radio studios or quiet, darkened performance spaces. It's as though Saga Land always steps between shadows and light, winter and summer.


Church of All Nations, Carlton
We began in Melbourne, on ABC breakfast TV, in an interview with Jon Faine on his Conversations radio program, and then a book talk at the Church of All Nations in Carlton. Then to Adelaide for shows at Elder Hall and Burnside Library, and to Sydney for a series of bookshop events. Rather as in the book, during our talks Richard and I take turns in narrating parts of our Iceland travels, while in Queensland we gave return performances of the Icelandic Sagas show that we performed last year -- again at The Powerhouse Theatre, and also this time at the Empire in Toowoomba.

Saga Land set (pic Matt Howard)
Rehearsals at the Empire Theatre, Toowoomba (pic Richard Fidler)

From behind the projection screen, Powerhouse Theatre (pic Jane O'Hara)

Sofdu unga astin min
Elder Hall, Adelaide

With Richard and Hannah Kent, Adelaide (pic Matt Howard)
I adored this book. Kári Gíslason and Richard Fidler have gathered together a wondrous compendium of Iceland's best sagas, both old and recent, and woven these together with their own experiences of that storytelling nation. Each folktale, each account of warring 12th century families, is presented as part of a wider tapestry of story, including those of the authors' lives. Saga Land is testament to the power of all sagas, as a means of connection and self-realisation. A tremendous achievement.

- Hannah Kent

Dymocks Tuggeranong, ACT

Fuller's Bookshop, Mornington Peninsula
Best new nonfiction, November, Indie bookshops

Top 10 Australian independent bookshops
During our book tour, we've given quite a few interviews, links to which I've started to gather here. They include Richard Glover's interview on his Sydney Drive program, and Rebecca Levingston's touching response to the book when we spoke to her for Weekends Brisbane. I like talking to people about the books I've written, although I admit it also has the uncanny feeling of flying out of a quiet winter and then landing thousands of miles away in another season altogether.

At the same time, the first reviews and reader responses have begun to appear, opening the pages and letting in their own light on what we've described in Saga Land.


Fidler and Gíslason embarked on a journey to Iceland with two purposes: to make a radio documentary retelling some of the sagas from the places where they happened, and to discover whether Gíslason really is descended from Sturluson. Saga Land records their two trips to Iceland, one in summer, and one in winter. The radio program went to air in 2016 and is now a podcast.

The book is divided into four parts, with Fidler and Gíslason taking turns to tell the story. Both have a gift for bringing the country to life on the page, with the vivid descriptions of the extraordinary landscape, from glaciers to fiords, setting the scene. The sagas themselves – graphic descriptions of fierce blood feuds – are told in crisp, unemotive prose, giving them a powerful sense of immediacy. They are woven skilfully into the narrative of the road trip, as are references to historic events that have taken place in Iceland, including the famous meeting between US President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1986.

A fascinating insight into Iceland's little-known history and literature, and a compelling story of one man's quest to reclaim his identity.

- Nicole Abadee, "Three Best Books of the Month," Australian Financial Review

Saga Land Christmas tree, Dymocks Sydney

Burnside Library, South Australia

Route 372, Brisbane

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Saga Land Tour

Saga Land, a book about Iceland, its sagas and mysteries that I've co-written with my friend Richard Fidler will be published on 23 October.

Richard and I will be giving talks and performances to celebrate the book's launch:

23 October, 6:30pm: Church of All Nations, Carlton

25 October, 6:30pm: Elder Hall, University of Adelaide

26 October, 10am: Burnside Library, South Australia

30 October, 6pm: Avid Reader, Brisbane

31 October, 7pm: Greengate Hotel, Killara

1 November: Kirribilli Club, Sydney

2 November, 6pm: Glebe Books, Sydney

3 November, 1pm: Stanton Library, North Sydney

4 November, 12pm: Dymocks Sydney

8 November: Powerhouse Theatre, Brisbane

9 November: Empire Theatre, Toowoomba

24 November, 6pm: Brisbane Square Library

30 November: Grand View Hotel, Cleveland

7 December, 6:30pm: Riverbend Books, Brisbane


Hope to see you there!

(Pic by Luke Henery)

Monday, July 17, 2017

Hinterlands and Understories

I've recently had the pleasure of launching two books, Hinterland by Steven Lang (UQP, 2017) and Understory by Inga Simpson (Hachette, 2017). They are rather different works, the first a novel of manners, the other a nonfiction work of nature writing. But they're connected by their setting in the hills and valleys inland of Queensland's Sunshine Coast, and a desire to figure place as a key element in storytelling.

I gave speeches at both of these launches, edited versions of which are given below.



This book is, in many respects, one about place – or, places, and the way in which different places can influence one another; how they come to develop a kind of conversation about influence and exchange: about whether to accept changes that come from outside our immediate surroundings, changes that are sometimes forced onto us; and about how we communicate our own, local points of view, character, desires to the wider world. How we might come to influence them with our stories and points of view.

I’d to talk a bit more about place now. It’s a touching point between my own work and this book, and certainly it’s one way of reading Hinterland.

I arrived in Australia as a teenager, and I’ve been driving up the scenic hill road to Maleny pretty regularly ever since. It was one of the first places that I was taken to visit when my mother and I migrated from Europe in the 1980s. I recall that we climbed up the road quite slowly in a long, white Ford Falcon 500 with its windows down. I sat in the back seat; the engine noise got louder as the car strained a little, but the air outside cooled as well, freshened, and then at last we reached the crest of the wave, and a winding road that we followed until we arrived at a damp, wooded car park which was at the entrance to a rain forest walk. We were going to do the track, and in a moment I’d have my first ever encounter with leaches.

It looked like the entrance to another world, one hidden by a high canopy and revealed only in the shots of light that made it through. But there was also something quite familiar to me here. I’d spent my early childhood in Iceland and England. To me, the Glasshouse Mountains seemed connected by their shape to the volcanic island of my birth. And, nearer to us on the other side of the road, I saw pastures where dairy cows were grazing, very much as in the rolling farmlands of Cheshire, from where I’d just arrived.

And yet no doubt the reason I’d been brought to Maleny, was actually so that I might experience the distinctiveness of this place: how this hinterland environment was different from the landscapes that I’d come from, different from those of the coast, too –that is, the Australia I’d been expecting.

But through it all I recognised something deeply familiar, more so than the surface terrain. I saw that this was a kind of island. Before we walked into the forest, I sensed that I’d arrived at a place apart, away from the greater wonder of Australia: rather like Iceland and Britain are islands apart from the Continent.

I’ve been talking about Maleny. That’s because I think that’s very probably the place we’re reading about in this book, a small town in the Sunshine Coast hinterland; although, Steven has given it the name Winderran.

But as crucially we’re reading about a town that has this powerful sense of its apartness about it. The hinterland is home to a community that either all know each other, or grew up together, or are at least spatially aware of each other – and perhaps more acutely aware of change as a result being such a constant in each other’s lives. There are well-established families with long reputations to protect. And new arrivals, who are needed, but who may disrupt the patterns of life, customs. However well-meaning these new people are, they sometimes seem more like pirates, for they take away the certainties of the old ties and family connections.

Ideas can be pirates, too. Or, more to the point, government proposals can be. Much of the tension in this book comes because of a proposed damn that threatens to engulf farms and forests, and at the same to time sweep away much of the community’s sense of self-determination. The town doesn’t need the damn; the demand comes from the outside, and really the need of the coast. Suddenly, the village of Winderran is being told to change in order to meet the demands of the world beyond it. It’s being made to look different.

The literary result of this threat, of course a real one, is here a rich type of work that’s called a novel of manners, or novel of manners and morality – some way into the book, Steven does hint to us that this is the kind of story he’s telling, with a reference to the genre. This, then, is in a way a nineteenth century novel – not old-fashioned, but very definitely a study of how a particular community deals with key ethical issues of its age, here water, and how that community reveals itself through its reactions to that issue.

The hinterland is separate, but if it does form a micro-climate, it’s also one where the elements are familiar to us all: entrepreneurs running a little wild without much clear sense of purpose; muscular Christianity with perhaps too much sense of purpose; counter-culture and protest; illness – time and again, characters are understood by the way they cope with physical decline. There’s even a writer in this book, although it has to be said he’s not the most likable of the cast: he’s more or less thrown in his writing in order to pursue a career in politics. How could he?

And the cast is large one. It’s there to give us a full portrait of the town, and the range of manners to which it bears witnesses. But ultimately it is two people, a nurse called Eugenie and a newcomer, Nick, who form the most important setting of the book, its ultimate island, if you like – the one that two people manage to make when they look for each other, and look out for each other, and find a space together, even among a crowd or in a busy village life. This is a book filled with many places in that village: the hall, meetings, creeks, dinner parties, empty roads at night, a surgery, and then also the private world where people at least try to keep the rest of the village out.

In this, I was reminded of a poem by John Donne. In his work, ‘The Sun Rising’, the poet makes fun of the sun for thinking that it illuminates the world. Doesn’t it realise that the world has been contracted to a single room, the one he shares with his life, a location of its own, governing all. This is a kind of fantasy, of course: there is no perfect isolation, no one place where the sun has done its work if it but rests there. I learnt this from going back to my birthplace of Iceland, a country that stood apart from the rest of the world for a long time, and more or less fell in love with its separateness. Being separate can create a feeling specialness, and over the years Icelanders have learnt to make fun of their exceptionalism, even if they still believe that the sun need only shine there in order for it to shine everywhere.

But these days, when I visit Maleny, it’s with the warm memory of the first time I went up, and recognised and really enjoyed the separateness of the town and its environment. As in Reykjavik and I’m sure in many other places like it, the slight air of isolation has created intensity and energy, and Steven’s book responds to that energy, and very faithfully I think, reproduces it as a portrait, an island study revealing many colours, weathers, and tracks.

The last couple of times I’ve visited I’ve also had the pleasure of meeting with Steven at literary events. He’s an important part of the cultural life of the town. Sometimes, as I read the book, I found myself looking for him in the characters, and wondering which aspects of his life have found their way into their depiction. When we write about other people, especially fictional people, we have to give a lot of ourselves.

What’s most important now, of course, is that this book is now leaving its inland island home and voyaging outwards, towards readers curious about how this remarkable region thrives, and fights, and loves. In this book we are very much invited into the town of Winderran, and we’re asked to meet the people there as we would, I think, meet them in life: each made up of good and bad qualities, complex people, neighbours who are sometimes good to have around, but not always good to have around.



This is a captivating work, and also a book about quiet moments, about place, about stillness: we’re in a cottage, we’re hearing about years spent living among trees that surround it, and Inga’s desire to understand and protect these trees, the habitat they form, and to honour the country that she lives in, including the many stories that the country holds: Indigenous stories, stories of European colonization, the stories the plant life, and of course her own.

The chapters of Understory form a kind of woodland – a very varied one. Each chapter is named after a variety of tree found on her property. These chapter titles turn out to be thematic as well as botanical: we learn about each particular species, but alongside that we also learn about how trees can, in a sense, speak or help us to speak – and so how in this way join the story of those who live with them. Inga’s curious about the natural world that surrounds her, and observant, too: she reads voraciously, but she also watches life as it develops its own patterns around her, its own chronology and tempo. She is drawn to that, and wants to include something of this new chronology in how she lives.

As Inga writes about her experiences, she becomes a more astute observer, too. In this way, the book celebrates a symbiosis between reading, writing, and living: breathing it in so that we can express ourselves. We get to walk through the forest with Inga, with her as a kind of fellow student, but we also learn about the difficulties of the choice the she and her partner make when they leave the city. This book doesn't complain, but nor does it shy away from the realities of building a kind of retreat.

I expect we all have our own ways of retreating from… what, the world, the routines we’ve gradually accepted as normal and sane, enough. Or, we all have our own ways of finding retreat. Maybe that’s better than the verb. Retreating sounds a little too much like leaving, or running away in the middle of a battle. This is book isn’t about that kind of retreating, it’s not escapist; it's about moving towards the world, not away.

As a beginning, this means moving to the ten-acre property that Inga and her partner buy. It’s their family’s own retreat. She and N, the name that Inga gives to her partner and the other major person in this book, are looking for change: from jobs that don’t quite fit them, from crowded city housing, traffic noise, concrete. But more so than leaving these things, they’re on the move towards a fuller writing life.

To start with, Inga seems a little concerned about what she’s leaving behind. The cottage has some problems, and she’s going to be a long way from her gym. But she soon realises that the work of maintaining a property of this size will make up for missed workouts. Setting up in a new place is demanding in many ways: it puts a strain on those jobs in the city now a long commute away; living in the country makes it hard to even keep a job. It creates a new family dynamic. But, still: who wouldn’t swap crowded urban living for trees, wonderful bird and animal life, and a little bit of distance from all this rushing we do?

Well, to be honest, probably I wouldn’t. Or, better said: I wouldn’t manage it very well.

I love cities and all the noise. I’m not very handy, and, I have to admit, a bit afraid of chainsaws and power tools. But of course I get it, and in this case I get it because Inga allows us into her life, her desires and hopes, her story. This is a generous book, because it’s looking at the world generously. Her cottage is just a cottage in the forest, but, as Inga puts it, “it isn’t what is there, but what we see. It’s what we bring to a place, and what it gives us.”

Clearly, for Inga this is where she should be living. As much as escaping the city, she’s moving towards a world that is right for her. She begins to read nature writers, and realizes that in her writing she is joining a community of writers who have sought out something similar. Other forms of retreat develop. Some of these are less than straightforward. When the property next door comes up for sale, Inga and N are desperate to buy it. They’ll have to borrow a lot more money, but doing so will allow them to begin a writer’s retreat, where they might create a place for people, like them, who wants to write more.

At this point, the year is 2008, the banks are enormously confident and very willing to lend money – what could possibly go wrong?

I think this must be around the time I first met Inga. I’d just come back from a few years living in Iceland, and I’d begun a lecturing job at QUT. Inga was finishing her PhD in creative writing, and I was part of a final panel that read her thesis just before it was submitted. What came through then, as now, was Inga’s ability to pair creative writing techniques with different, searching kinds of inquiry.
Inga manages this movement between styles and modes of address very fluently. The book is an interplay of past and present, intimate perspectives and expansive ones. But the techniques she uses are not there for their own sake; the writing is never showy: they serve the work, one that subtly combines reflection about the writing life with botanical observation, family, philosophy, and a story of the ten years that follow the purchase of the cottage, and the writer’s retreat next door.

Across the years, it becomes apparent that what we’re really reading about is the strange and often strained, but magical, task of trying to create what you want, what you protect and nurture: literature, the natural environment, relationships – and memory, too.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Words & Music

I've started a YouTube channel featuring songs that I've written and recorded over the years. I've always written music, and during my twenties I worked as a musician, paying for my postgraduate studies in saga literature with gigs around Brisbane. 

When last living in Iceland, some ten years ago, I became good friends with musician Halldór Gunnar Pálsson, and his brother Önundur, a sound engineer. Together we recorded songs in a little summerhouse in Tungudalur in the Westfjords, including the song, "Rain on the Sea".

Other songs were recorded and mixed in Flateyri, a tiny village in the Westfjords where Halldór Gunnar and Önundur grew up. Önundur had converted an old fish-oil storage tank into a studio. Other times we used the local community hall, and its slightly out-of-tune piano, as for "Into Cold Water", which features the piano at the very end.

"Rain on the Sea" and "Into Cold Water" are the first two songs that I've posted on the channel. I wrote the words to both, and did the singing, too. Halldór Gunnar co-wrote the music.

There'll be more of our songs, and others, to follow.

Önundur and Halldór Gunnar, 2007

With Önundur, 2007

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Shepherding in the Westfjords

(An old poem just found.)

I came to the Westfjords to work harder, get in shape, save money;
just the usual things – except, perhaps, to visit Gísli Súrsson’s murder site –
but I didn’t think I’d be shepherding
with men in ski pants and fishermen’s jumpers.
One of them is five hundred metres up the side of Arnardalur, Eagle Dale,
with three white dots who remember summer’s freedom
but still run themselves into the farmer’s yard,
where we, the chasers, meet later for legs of lamb with rhubarb jam.
“Hold the line,” yells a man, “and keep close to the river,
while I take the small rise on the other side”;
the river is the only clarity in a valley of bog, fog, and blueberries,
the company of sheep still two hundred metres away.
But one old dear, apart from the others on a spit of stones,
looking like a torn pillow on cheap barbecue legs,
stamps me to be gone, to leave the winter to herself alone,
spare her my good will.
I huff, yelp, and whoosh in reply, step closer, jump, walk around,
I look friendly and jolly and hold my ground,
I tell her that the others have gone ahead; she kicks,
no, yes, no, come on!