Sunday, April 26, 2020


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.

Saturday, April 25, 2020


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.

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:

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Writing Classes

I've begun posting a series of short creative writing classes on YouTube.

The first of these is on the topic of story ideas, in which I offer five possible ways of generating new stories.

Sometimes, story ideas come to us without us having to work very hard. Robert Louis Stevenson, for example, famously claimed that Jekyll and Hyde first appeared to him in a dream. Maybe that was better than admitting to having consciously dreamt up its events.

In any case, on occasion we might need to produce story ideas, which in the video I suggest we might do by:

1) asking a question,
2) expanding on earlier work,
3) using place as a start,
4) trying a new form or genre, and
5) finding objects and events that contain stories.

The first video:

Friday, September 28, 2018


I've spent the last few days at the farm of Helgafell, which is on Thorsnes peninsula in mid-west Iceland.

The farm has lots of sheep and produces excellent lamb, and there are two huts by the pond (or, small lake) that you can rent. The view from them is over the water and, to the right, towards Helgafell mountain (or, hill), which was first described in the medieval Icelandic Eyrbyggja saga as an entrance to Valhalla. The area was dedicated to Thor.

Later, the hill and the property around it acquired a Christian significance. Guðrún Ósvífursdóttir, whose life story is given in Laxdæla saga, ended her days here as Iceland's first nun. At the very beginning of the Christian period, the local chieftain Snorri goði built one of Iceland's first churches on the land once dedicated to Thor.

I've loved being here, and walking around the property and the extraordinary countryside around it. The farm is surrounded by lava fields and fissures, and volcanic stubs that seem to climb up from the bays nearby. Today, as I write, it's blowing a gale and hardly weather to go looking around. But on other days I've had wonderfully still conditions, and a good chance to watch the changing colours of the farm without having to rush back inside to get warm.

My map of the Helgafell farm

The nearby Berserk's Path
Some more thoughts here:

Sunday, September 23, 2018


I've spent the last couple of weeks travelling in Iceland on the trail of two medieval sagas - The Saga of Gisli and Eyrbyggja Saga. The two works are closely connected by geography, as well as by a couple of the characters who exit the terrible events of one saga only to be cited in the occurrences of the next.

My journey's taken me first to Haukadalur, a valley in Dyrafjördur in the Westfjords which I've visited a few times before but never stayed at for more than a few hours. This time, I rented a cottage in the valley that used to serve as the local pre-school, now converted into a holiday home.

I spent some days walking: up into the valley itself, but also around other farms and places mentioned in The Saga of Gisli, such as: the site where the local assembly used to be held; Undir Hesti, where Vésteinn (Gísli's best friend) lived; and, Gemmlufallsheidi, where Vésteinn famously decided to ride on to the autumn feast being held by his friend despite a warning to stay away.

The streams running to Dyrafjodur in Gemmlufallsheidi
When I left Haukadalur, I drove on a slippery mountain road south to Tálknafjördur, where one of the saga characters came from: Asgerd. The fact that she's from this particular fjord isn't a big deal in the saga, but the more I read this work the more concerned I've become with its precise geography. So, I went and found rather lovely beaches braced by great blocks of mountain cliffs. Asgerd's farm was, as in many parts of the Westfjords, wedged along the rather thin strip of usable land.

Throughout the trip so far, I've been struck by the interchange of inhospitable country - heaths, volcanic mountains, and cliffs close to the sea - and suddenly-appearing pastures.

Hvammur on the northern shore of Breidafjördur (not far from where the Brjánslækur ferry comes in) is one such place, a fertile part of the coastline in-between the rock mountains of the Westfjords and the pink, sandy volcanic dunes further along the fjord. It's where Gisli's brother Thorkel lived after Gisli was outlawed, and where Gisli came to ask him for help while he was living on the nearby Hergilsey Island.

The present-day farm at Hvammur


Some more observations here:

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Two songs

I've uploaded to YouTube two songs I wrote in the months before I made a return journey to Iceland in 1999, a big moment in my life that formed the highpoint of my first book, The Promise of Iceland (2011). The journey back came after a long period of thinking about how to best approach the complexities of my family life. There were secrets in Iceland that needed to be broken, and I knew doing so would affect how my family understood their lives, the past. It would change my life, too.

In the years before, music became an important part of how I settled things in my mind, how I thought it through. I played regularly in bars and cafes around Brisbane. Gigging, I found, was a bit like exercise - demanding, forcing you to look outside yourself, to be physical and part of the world. Music also helped me to express more solitary and private matters: what I wanted to do next, and in what spirit. My songs seemed to me to always contain elements of two worlds: what I had in Australia and what I thought I might find in Iceland.


Driving home that night the moon was bright
just about as bright as I can recall
Wouldn't take a poet to realise the meaning
the meaning of it all

Holding the light

My mind is flying
I can breath, I can breathe, I breathe
The sun opens her eyes onto my back
I can fly

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Setting, Added

Earlier this year, I was interviewed at the Sydney Writer's Festival alongside my co-author Richard Fidler about our book, Saga Land. Our interviewer was Tony Birch, a leading Indigenous writer based in Melbourne - Tony's works include Ghost River, an evocation of the multiple and layered lives of Melbourne's Yarra River.

And, more recently, I took part in a panel on travel writing at the Byron Writer's Festival, there interviewed by Michael Williams, who is the Director of Melbourne's Wheeler Centre for Books, Writing and Ideas.

Both interviewers were interested in the ways an author becomes a participant in the culture and landscape they write about. Tony asked us about how Saga Land seeks out the settings of the saga stories. This is a central aspect of the book, but also one that I find difficult to explain very precisely. Why it matters to visit the places where stories are set. If and how it changes the telling.

I can say that we use location of saga stories to structure the book, by narrating stories and parts of stories when we arrive at certain settings. For example, when we are at Thingvellir - the site of the first Icelandic parliament - we tell the story of how Hallgerd and Gunnar (from Njál's Saga) met. Gunnar was walking through the grounds of the parliament when he saw Hallgerd, and asked if they could sit down together to talk.

But in fact the saga itself is fairly bare in its description of the setting, or that of other major events in the book. As is common in these works, the focus is on people and action. Farm names are always given, travel routes sometimes, and the origin of names is often included. But the saga authors spend very little time on landscape, atmosphere, or the physical aspects of the scenes that are being described.

A podcast of our session at the Sydney Writer's Festival 2018

In fact, one of the things we do in Saga Land, and that many travel writers to Iceland have done before us, is add setting, or explicitly pair saga narratives and modern forms of setting that owe more to travel writing and the novel than to the sagas themselves.

In the case of the chapter on Gunnar and Hallgerd, we frame the saga story with quite descriptive sections about arriving at Thingvellir and, after the saga story ends at Gunnar's farm of Hlidarendi, about the south of the country nearby. We tend not to add these extra elements of setting to the story parts themselves, but rather as brackets around them.

In this way, I suppose setting becomes as much about something that's shared between the original stories and the modern journey, as it is about the effect of the topography of the sagas. The result acknowledges that your visit to saga settings creates new impressions that are joined to the original impact of the story.


The Byron Writer's Festival session is available on Soundcloud.

With Brigid Delaney and Eddie Ayers at a session on travel writing at the 2018 Byron Writer's Festival
(Photo: Natalie Foord)

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.