Monday, August 5, 2013

Nigel Featherstone offers us a writer's dozen

Novelist Nigel Featherstone has a writer's affection for books and here he talks about some of the books he most cherishes as well as where he first read them. (You can also read Walter Mason's review of Nigel's excellent recent novella, I'm Ready Now, here.) Let's hear about the books that have marked Nigel Featherstone's life's journey:
I’m surrounded by fire, year in and year out, day in and day out.  I’m not a smoker, nor am I some kind of professional fire-breather. I just live in an old house in an old country town. In summer, with bushland and paddocks just up the street, there’s the forever whiff of smoke. Some days when it’s bad, the sky is white with it, sirens rushing in this and that direction. In winter, to keep the house warm, there’s a fire in the living-room, another in the library, which really is a library, the shelves stacked and packed with books, novels mostly, though there are quite a few short story collections, and poetry collections too.

It’s the library I worry about most, because the fire, which is actually a Hordern & Sons coal-burner that I use for wood, is surrounded by the books – a stray spark and whoosh up it all goes.  So I’ve organised the books into categories: up high, as if I’m also worried about flood (in the past three years the river has flooded annually, though I’m alright in this regard – my house is high on a hill) are my favourite novels, the ones I’d risk life and limb to rescue.  There’s a full shelf of these favourites, so if I really was in the midst of an emergency and only had a few seconds to decide I’d have to make the choices of a lifetime.

As a trial run, as if this is a part of my Personal Emergency Evacuation Plan, I just ran from my writing room into the library and bundled up a baker’s – a writer’s – dozen.  Now, back in the writing room, piled on the desk, are thirteen books I’ve rescued in this mad drill.  Randolph Stowe’s The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea, first published in 1965; I read it in Middle School, so somewhere in the ’80s.  All that West Australian landscape, and war, and family, and history, the sensuality of place, of desires both obvious and concealed.

Evelyn Waugh

Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (1945).  First, also in the ’80s, I watched – with my mother – the BBC serialisation of this story on the ABC and would soon become obsessed with the soundtrack.  But then I read the novel, and England, a country that was meant to mean something to me, opened up and I understood many things.

Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day (1989), which is the perfect novel, because the voice is faultless.  And Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet (1991), which I read while sun-baking on Cottesloe Beach during a short period when living in Perth – I’ve since grown restless with Winton, but this novel did reveal for me the terrific, sometimes terrifying possibilities of fiction.  Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain, which was first published in The New Yorker on October 13, 1997, the very day I turned twenty-nine and at last – at long last – felt comfortable in my own skin.  This story: it’s a master-class in narrative technique, and in compassion.

Morris West’s Eminence (1998), which is the great what-if: what if the Pope-in-waiting was agnostic, perhaps even an atheist, and was also a very damaged man?  Despite these days not having a religious bone in my body, and listening to good music while walking the dog is as spiritual as I can get, Eminence is a novel that’s had an acute impact on me because of its boundless exploration and bravery.  The Blackwater Lightship by Colm Toibin (1999).  Toibin is a literary hero of mine, and this book, I think, is a master-work: simplicity, when done right, is genius.  Speaking of genius, in my frantically rescued pile, is JM Coetzee’s Disgrace (also 1999).  This is a novel that I’d most likely choose if there could be only one; it’s strangely readable and deeply profound and, regrettably, it says as much about modern-day Australia as it does about the South Africa of the recent past.

Truman Capote

Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (1965) and Holding the Man by Timothy Conigrave (1995), two books that have completely and utterly devastated me, because, in their own but very different ways, have revealed the powers of men, as in the male of the species, the power to love and destroy what’s loved.  Speaking of men who know about power and destruction, towards the top of my pile is Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea (1952).  For the past few years I’ve been dedicated to the writing of a series of novellas, and this, maybe, is the perfect novella – how on Earth to create a story like this?  The book’s miraculous.

Right there, at the top, however, is my pair of beloved Russians: Chekhov and Tolstoy; The Steppe and Other Stories, 1887-1891 (first published in 2001) and The Death of Ivan Ilyich (as translated by Rosemary Edmonds, first published in Penguin Classics in 1960).  If only I could write an opening sentence like this one, ‘It is dark now, and soon it will be night’ (from Chekhov’s ‘Gusev’), or a final sentence like this one, ‘He drew in a breath, stopped himself in the midst of a sigh, stretched out and died’ (from Tolstoy’s Ilyich).  I could retire from this whole writing palaver a very happy man indeed.

So this, then, is my life so far in reading. 

I’m a slow reader, and it both shocks and pains me when I realise that I know so little about literature.  How could any one brain know enough about this thing?  All that can be done is to keep reading, and keep writing, to stack and pack my library shelves with even more books, and keep an eye on the fire in my house so that the sparks are kept where they need to be: in the blackened belly of a Hordern & Sons coal-burner, and, in a literary kind of way, between the illuminating pages of novels.  One day, when I truly am done and dusted, and I have only one thought left amongst my blood and bones, I’ll think to myself: well, fancy that, all these lives I’ve known, and I couldn’t be luckier.
Nigel Featherstone’s most recent work is the novella I’m Ready Now, published by Blemish Books (2012). For more information, visit or
He lives in Goulburn, NSW. 
Nigel Featherstone
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