Your penitentiary life bunks in a dormitory suburb,
hopes mortgaged and remortgaged,
until you owe yourself too much.
When volcanoes are dormant they say they’re only sleeping.
Couldn’t erupt if you tried: your molten rage all cooled to stone
retaining walls that hold three-by-twos together;
hold you in like a final breath.
The cottage blocks get smaller each year, each subdivision
Contracting in a gasp
Like shrink-wrap over your open mouth.
Until you’re suffocating behind perspex vistas of tumbleweed streets
Dream homes rising like tombstones on traffic-calmed asphalt.
Don’t you ever want to throw the door open?
Race! / Run! / Thrash!
Wake the dead with a fire alarm guitar
Tear your wound open in the local park
Make lights blink on, silhouettes illuminate thresholds, heads tilt
As their neighbour bleeds on astroturf
Dying, but relieved
Finally: skin in this bloodless game.
– Holden Sheppard
Well, I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to check in with my blog! To paraphrase one of the finest philosophers of the 1990s – one Miss Fiona Apple – I’ve been a bad, bad boy.
And also a bad, bad blogger.
I probably should have posted here a month ago to give you all the heads up about my brief absence: for those who don’t follow me on my social media, I have spent almost the entire last month abroad on my honeymoon.
In fact, I’m still swanning around Europe in a cologne-scented cloud of post-wedding bliss. I am currently in my hotel room in Rome, very close to the main bustle of the central Termini station. So close, in fact, that pretty much all we can hear from the hotel room window is:
cars beeping their horns (every fucking three seconds)
vendors shouting at people to buy their cheap-arse shit (yesterday it was raining and they were selling ponchos and umbrellas; today it’s sunny and they’re flogging hats and sunglasses – so adaptable!)
people at bars and cafes shouting for no apparent reason
people at bars and cafes laughing from being drunk
trucks revving their engines
police sirens blaring
trains pulling into the station
church bells chiming into oblivion
And, often times, all of these noises are happening simultaneously, which is kind of like living among havoc – especially since we’re up on the fourth floor of the hotel (shouldn’t it be vaguely quieter up here?). And having grown up in a country town and now living in the outer suburbs of Perth, all of this noise and chaos is foreign to me so it’s practically an adventure in itself.
By the way, I am absolutely loving being on honeymoon. So far my husband and I have visited Lyon, Nice, Antibes, Monaco, Cannes, Sanremo, Paris, Rouen and now Rome. It’s been awesome to see new parts of France and Italy, which are countries we both love. I really love the culture, language and food of both countries, and I’ve been digging having so much time to practice my French (which is decent) and my Italian (which is rusty, but given that I’m half Sicilian and spent 5 weeks in Italy when I was 18, it’s slowly coming back to me).
For those who have asked, *yes*, my husband is actually here with me on the honeymoon but no, we don’t like to post a lot of couples photos online, at least not to our public social media. We both put a lot of ourselves out there in the world – not just in our writing, but on social media and by going to events – so it actually feels really nice to keep our relationship as private as we can. So, that’s why you’re seeing a lot of pics of me on my socials but very few of us together. But rest assured, we’re both spending every day together and we’re having a blast. 🙂
The only downside is that I am defo eating way too much: pizza and pasta of course, but also overloading on crepes with cream, gelato with cream, hot chocolate with cream, cream with cream. We return to Paris this Sunday for our last week of honeymoon, so after that, I’ll be tightening the diet back up again, especially since I have some author appearances to do in about two weeks so I don’t wanna rock up on stage like the big fatty I’m feeling like currently. But the pizza in Rome is just so bloody good – how could I resist? And more to the point – why should I? It’s half of why we chose to come here anyway!
I’ve been exercising a lot while here. Most days I’ve racked up anywhere between 15,000 and 25,000 steps which is probably the only thing offsetting all the food I’ve imbibed. I’ve been doing some bodyweight exercises in my hotel room and some basic stuff with a tiny 5kg dumbbell I smuggled in my case, but it doesn’t do much. In Rouen I found some free open-air gym equipment beside the Seine river which was awesome, so I’d do a few sets of chest and back exercises in amongst my morning jogs. And here in Rome, I found myself going stir-crazy not having been to an actual gym for so long, so I trekked into the San Lorenzo district (which is ghettoville.com) and found a grungy gym and got a day pass for 10 euros. I was the only tourist in the gym I think – everyone else was a local and most of them seemed to know each other. I smashed out some chest and biceps exercises and a bit of abs, plus cardio, and I felt a load better for it.
Anyway … I am 100% sure not a single one of you follows this blog to hear about the banal minutiae of my diet and exercise regime – apologies!
I’m really posting here just to explain why things have been a little bit quiet here lately. In fact, this whole year I’ve only managed one post per month compared to like one post per week or fortnight last year. I’ve had a lot on my plate. From Jan – March I was working on the copy edits for Invisible Boys while simultaneously planning my wedding. In April I was occupied with planning my honeymoon and also finishing the first draft of my next novel. And I have spent basically all of May away from home: first at the Margaret River Readers & Writers Festival, then in Europe on honeymoon. Once we return to Perth, I’ll have a precious few hours at home before zooming up to my hometown of Geraldton, Western Australia for a week for the writers’ festival there.
Truth be told, I’m loving the magical air of suspension and lack of responsibility that comes with a long holiday – but in some weird way, it will be good to get back to normal life again once I’m back home in Perth in mid-June.
As for my writing (which, I remind myself, is what people *actually* follow this blog for), it’s been going really well. Some bullet point updates:
The cover for my debut novel Invisible Boys has been revealed – see the bottom of this blog post – it’s amazing and I love it!
Last week, I was announced as the winner of the 2019 Kathleen Mitchell Award from the Australia Council for the Arts. I am still pinching myself. Its a $15,000 prize, so it’s going to make a huge difference on how much time I can dedicate to writing over the next year. Plus it’s a huge vote of confidence in my book, which has now won three awards before even being published. I’m wildly grateful, still in mild disbelief that such good things could ever happen to me, and I’m desperately hopeful that people will actually like this novel once they finally get to read it in October.
My agent is now reading the manuscript of my second novel. I am freaking the fuck out on the inside while pretending to be a cool, jaded professional on the outside.
I promised myself I wouldn’t write while on honeymoon, as writing constitutes working. Instead, I allowed myself to read a lot, and think a lot. Not having regular access to Wi-Fi has made me pull my head out of my phone and has given my brain so much space to unwind and reflect and imagine, the way I used to years ago. Consequently, I now have a million and one ideas clamouring for my attention!
Among these ideas are:
my third novel, which I’ll say nothing about, other than I pitched the concept to my husband and his eyebrows leapt off his face and he said “whoa, you have to write that!”, which is saying something because he is usually more measured and critical in his feedback;
my fourth novel, which I’ll also say nothing about, but it’s incredibly important to me and I so want this book out in the world, like, yesterday;
a novella, which in some form has been floating around in the ether of my creativity since 2011-12 when I did my Honours thesis, and the other day I was on a train in France reading Bret Easton Ellis’ new book White and suddenly the novella idea just fell into place in a way it hasn’t for the past eight years. I can’t wait to write this one, too … and I can imagine it perhaps anchoring a collection of my short fiction in the future, maybe;
two other, entirely separate series (plural) of novels; and
a TV mini-series, which has been kicking around in my head for a few years now.
So, as you can see, I have enough to keep myself busy for the next few years at least!
In terms of what’s next, after life returns to normal-ish in late June, I’ll probably spend my writing time working on the edits for book 2, and getting back into the groove of a regular blogging practice.
Holden’s Heroes will also return in June with a new interview – I had hoped to do one in May, but it was impossible to fit in before I left overseas, and frankly, I need to learn to give myself a fucken break sometimes!
Thanks to all of you for being awesome, and I can’t wait to get back into the swing of regular blogging again in the month to come. 🙂
PS. Here’s the cover of Invisible Boys as promised – what do you reckon? I can’t get enough of it!
Sooo, this is kind of awkward. I didn’t mean for it to be this long, and I didn’t mean to just walk out on you like that, but everything went a bit nutso since we last spoke, and I sort of lost track of you.
And today, I felt bad, because it suddenly occurred to me that I never actually told you I wasn’t coming back.
I know that makes me sound like a dick. In my defence, you are a manuscript and not a sentient being, so I’m probably not really a dick.
But I’ll cop to being a tad abandon-y on your arse. I did the metaphorical version of pulling out, yanking my pants up and bolting from the room just as you were in a post-coital afterglow, when I probably should have stuck around and spooned you. I mean, for a minute or two. I haven’t got all day.
To be honest, I’m a bit surprised at my own treatment of you, because for a very long time, I thought you were My One True Book. When I had my epic meltdown at the start of 2014 and decided I was going to force myself to finally write my first novel that year come hell or high water, you were the idea that shone most brilliantly and the story I decided to write into a full-length book.
And everything seemed so exciting at the beginning. I thought your main characters were pretty cool; I liked your setting; I thought your plot was solid. I mean, of course I did, I was your author and I made all that shit up.
I also thought your action scenes and battle scenes were absolutely awesome, and I still stand by that. As objective as I can be about these scenes, I think they stack up pretty well against most published fantasy and adventure books.
I think this is what drew me to you in the first place, because you were exciting, and fun, and I was in a place in my life where I was working a very boring full-time job, and I felt unfulfilled, and I was treated poorly, and you were such a total escape from the banal 9-5 office life I was living.
But I’m afraid for all your fun moments and all the high-octane thrills you gave me, there was something missing in our relationship.
When we worked together with my mentor during 2016, I felt something between us wasn’t quite right. During a Skype call with my mentor – an incredibly esteemed editor from over east – I confessed, “This manuscript isn’t quite working … I want it to sing, and it’s not singing.”
And it’s not like I didn’t work on our relationship. After seven drafts, I thought things were looking pretty good, and my mentor seemed to think we’d taken things as far as we could. It was time to pitch.
I’m so sorry, but this is where the wheels fell off.
Because none of the agents I pitched to thought there was anything special about you.
Our relationship survived the total lack of response from one agent, and the form rejection from another, though I did curl up on the couch and sob uncontrollably that you hadn’t been good enough for someone to pick up.
But I’m afraid we couldn’t survive the third response. The agent who emailed me saying he was into your first three chapters and that he wanted to read more of you. That happened the day after the form rejection, and I was so convinced this was the universe opening a window after having slammed a door in my face the day before.
One day I came home from a walk around the block and got a phone call from the agent. I was so happy to hear from him, but he said my happiness was premature. He spoke to me on the phone for a whole 30 minutes, telling me not just that my writing was “competent” (a word that still pierces my ego, and perhaps always will) but that there were many, many problems with you.
Now, I could have worked on almost any of our problems, I swear I could have. The problems with the characters, the problems with the setting, the problems with the plot seemingly unsuccessfully straddling the two very different worlds of Young Adult and Fantasy.
And I would have worked on it because I thought you were the story I was *meant* to tell. I didn’t care how much money you made; I just wanted you to exist, and get out into the world and sing your lungs out. I would have been so proud of you just for doing that.
But this is the point at which I abandoned you.
The last thing I said to you, in this blog post I wrote in early 2017, was that I was going to come back to you. We were going to work on our problems together, we were going to do an eighth draft, and then a ninth, and however many drafts it took, because goddamn it all I wanted was to have a fucking novel published and why couldn’t I ever get anything right in my life. </writerfeels>
But I lied. I told you I was going to the servo for durries and I never came back.
I know it’s probably too late, and that you’ve probably moved on, but I wanted to let you know that I’m sorry I left the way I did.
And this is the hardest part to say: I didn’t bail on you because the agent didn’t like you, or that you weren’t good enough to get published.
I bailed on you because I didn’t love you.
This is why I spent a month feeling sad and fetal position-y in early 2017. This is why I cried. We’d gone through everything we went through only for me to realise that, when an agent criticised you, I didn’t have a comeback.
I could have fixed all the things he told me were wrong with you. I could have made your characters and plot and setting all breathe and operate just fine. But even if I did ten drafts, or a hundred, or a thousand, and even if, in that thousandth draft, all of those elements or plot and setting and character worked the way they were supposed to, it wouldn’t have been enough.
Because you didn’t have a heart.
And that’s why you couldn’t sing. There was nothing wrong with your lungs – you could produce the notes just fine – but no music can ever be made unless there is a heart involved.
So that is why I left you. I realised I didn’t love you, because you didn’t have a heart, and I didn’t say goodbye because you don’t need to say goodbye to things that don’t have a heart. Plus there’s the whole matter of you not being a sentient being.
I suppose I am writing this mostly to assuage my own guilt, because I think it seems like I dropped you like a hot coal the moment I realised you couldn’t make me rich and famous. But that isn’t true. If I loved you, I would have pitched you to every agent and publisher on the planet and, if that failed, I would have self-published you like I self-published my short story, “The Scroll of Isidor”. I had no qualms doing that.
So, for the record, I am afraid it is over between us. I believe you, in your current form, will remain in the drawer. There are parts of you I really like, and perhaps one day, if things go a certain way, I will be able to revisit you and maybe we can do something radical, like give you a heart transplant. Maybe then you will be able to sing. I really like this idea. Or perhaps I will revisit you and borrow some parts of you for another attempt at this story one day, if and when the time is right.
In the meantime, I have several other novels clamouring for my attention. These novels have been successfully pitched to my agent and are waiting to be written. But know that while I’m saying goodbye now, I am leaving the door open on our relationship, at best for the heart transplant, and at worst, for me to one day open the drawer and leaf through your pages and get lost in you again, just for old times’ sake.
As for me, I’m much happier now than when we were together. I wrote a new novel called INVISIBLE BOYS that I love very much. It has a heart that pumps real blood, and it won an award and it’s getting published, which is super exciting (sorry to rub it in).
There is one more thing, and I’m afraid it is the proverbial vinegar-soaked sponge to the spear wound.
I am so sorry to do this to you, but I am afraid I can no longer call you “my first novel”.
I mean, you will always, always be the first novel I wrote and nothing can change that immutable fact.
But now that I have my debut novel soon due for publication – which I have spent a couple of years calling “my second novel” – I’m afraid the nomenclature is due for an overhaul, lest I will have readers hunting for a “first novel” that, to the world of publishing, does not exist.
So my novel, INVISIBLE BOYS, will now be referred to as my first novel, and the book I am currently drafting (and have nearly finished) will be my second.
But I won’t ignore your existence completely, because that feels wrong. So, I am going to call you Novel Zero, instead, because you and I had some good times, you know. You were the first attempt; the training ground. Sometimes your exciting twists and turns captured my imagination and made me dream; other times, you made me want to beat my head against a brick wall.
I wrote you under the influence of caffeine, when I still drank real coffee; so many cups of cheap black instant Nescafe were spent on you. And I wrote you under the influence of nicotine, back when I would break every hour and take my pack of Benson & Hedges out onto the patio for a dart or two. I remember the incredible NaNoWriMo marathons and the all-nighter I pulled to finish you, when I emerged from that electrified room and onto the patio and smoked a celebratory cigarette while watching the sun rise and listening to “Desperado” by The Eagles.
In fact, that was one of the most special moments of my entire life, so thank you, profoundly and sincerely, for being the first novel I ever finished. You showed me that my dreams could come true if I worked hard at them, a lesson I have taken on as a life mantra.
For that, I will be grateful for the rest of my days.
So stoked to share the second interview in my new blog interview series, Holden’s Heroes. During these interviews, I’ll welcome writers to my “home” (virtually) and have some fun asking them all my burning questions. For 2019, I’m focusing on interviewing the fellow members of my #5amwritersclub.
This month’s victimhostage guest is my friend Raihanaty A. Jalil, who has been known as a teacher, trader, hoon, poet, rapper and more. Let’s jump in and see what she has to say for herself!
Holden’s Heroes ~ March 2019
RAIHANATY A. JALIL
Holden: Raihanaty A. Jalil, welcome to my house! As you can see, I haven’t really tidied up since Michael Trant came to visit … our empty bushchook stubbies are still all over the patio, my bad.
Raihanaty: Haha, thanks Holden. I’m actually used to mess and noise – I’m the oldest of five siblings, all living under the same roof with my parents, so it makes me feel more at home!
H: And don’t mind that noise, it’s just the fridge emanating its hourly caterwauling. We suspect it’s haunted by a poltergeist. No biggie. Maybe just sit over here near Raphael’s bookshelf. Much cosier.
R: Actually, the poltergeists were keeping me company during the (un)expected wait …
H: Ahem! I was in the bathroom – this Mohawk doesn’t hairspray itself, you know. Okay, let’s dive into what’s been happening lately for you. You recently won a place on the Indian Ocean Mentoring Project, facilitated by the Centre for Stories. Congratulations! What story did you work on, and how did that piece change during the mentorship?
R: Thanks! Would you believe it’s been half a year since I started the mentorship? Crazy how time flies … It’s quite “magical”, actually, how my final piece came about. I originally submitted a creative non-fiction piece called “Skin in the Game” about my first experience attending a WAFL game. I wrote it about six years ago, so I figured, I might as well do something with it.
During the process of working with Elizabeth Tan, the writing mentor I was partnered with, we both agreed that the piece lacked something- depth, meaning – so Liz gave me these exercises around breaking down the title through word association/manipulation, that kind of thing. That’s how I came up with the phrase “Gaming the Skin”. Also, truthfully, I was a bit sick of the “Skin in the Game” piece—I had literally already spent over six hours editing it before submitting it for the Indian Ocean project. So I decided to write a completely new piece drawn from the phrase/title “Gaming the Skin”.
H: It’s a clever play on words – sounds like you had a really talented mentor. And with that mentorship now finished, what did you get out of the experience of having a mentor, beyond simply reworking your story, and how do you hope it will help your career moving forward?
R: The mentorship was so so invaluable and Liz couldn’t have been a more perfect match, especially because I’ve never formally studied writing while Liz teaches it. I learnt a lot about my own writing – that I’m very verbose (I’m still working on this, as you will see!). I’m sometimes too descriptive when I don’t need to be yet vague when the details matter. There were misconceptions I had about what I should and shouldn’t do—like when to use commas!
On top of that, the more Liz and I worked together, the more I learnt to trust my own instincts because I started to notice that she would bring up something I had already felt may be a problem. That felt really good. Overall, Liz helped me a lot in the “craft” of writing and my self-confidence, which will definitely benefit my career going forward.
H: On that note, would you recommend mentorships to other emerging authors?
Yes, I think my experience answers that question! I should acknowledge, though, that having the “right match” matters. It can make or break a mentorship – however (I know clichés are a cardinal writing sin but …) nothing ventured, nothing gained.
H: I will forgive you your cliché indiscretion this one time, Rai. In my experience, when it comes down to it at the end of the day, clichés should be avoided like the plague. Don’t touch them with a ten foot pole, okay?
R: Please stop.
H: Okay, next question! So, I saw you a couple of weeks ago at Perth Festival Writers’ Week, where you appeared as a guest author on a panel called Home Currents. Tell me, what was it like being a part of that panel?
R: I enjoyed it so much! Priya, Rushil and I actually caught up a few days before over lunch and we just clicked, so I already knew that it would be a relaxed, comfortable experience sharing the stage with them. But it was also the warm atmosphere around the room, I think, that made the whole experience so memorable and being myself easy. Don’t get me wrong; I still felt nervous inside, but I’ve been “forced” into public speaking from school assemblies in my primary school years, so it is something I’ve grown to really enjoy.
H: I totally get that. I practically crap my dacks before every speaking gig, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t also enjoy the thrill. The thrill of speaking publicly, that is, not the thrill of soiling myself.
R: Truthfully, I’m also a bit of an adrenaline-junkie, so maybe that’s another reason why I get a kick out of public speaking?
H: We may be cut from the same cloth! Was this your first time appearing on a panel at a writers festival?
R: Yes, it was my first time appearing at a writers’ festival. When Caroline [Wood, Director, Centre for Stories] emailed me asking if I was interested, I was like, “Hell yes! There’s no parallel universe where I’d refuse such a humbling opportunity!” Okay, that wasn’t my literal reply, but it was the reply in my head.
H: It was really cool to see you up there on the panel. We first met on Twitter about a year ago, and I think the first time we chatted extensively was when you took part in Camp NaNoWriMo last July and we were in the same (online) cabin. How did you find the NaNoWriMo experience?
R: NaNoWriMo is the reason I finished writing my first ever novel! That was the November 2017 NaNo, though, my first time participating. Oh, I should add, I only finished the first “vomit draft”—you know, that draft no one will ever see, not even if a gun was put to my head. It still needs a lot of work. So that’s what I’ve been doing in the Camp NaNoWriMos, setting a time-based goal to work on polishing my WIP(s).
I think what I like about the NaNo concept is that blocking out of a finite time period, only one month, to focus on a writing goal. I just work better with deadlines, although they do often stress me out. It’s a catch 22 (whoops, another cliché …). But in all seriousness, I actually had a lot of self-doubt about if I even had the ability to write a novel. The longest story I’d ever written was about 15,000 words – a cringe-worthy love story I wrote in high school. So to me, overcoming that hurdle, learning that I did have the ability to write longer-form-fiction was the most invaluable part of “winning” NaNo.
H: Winning NaNo is extremely satisfying in and of itself, I agree. What manuscript were you working on for NaNo and is that still your current WIP?
R: My NaNo novel is a cross between the Women’s Fiction and Self-Help genres. It’s based on two themes: communication in a relationship and personal finances – two things that fascinate me. So, it’s ultimately about a couple who are struggling with the two and their personal development along the way. I’m still working on it – along with a few other things. (I suffer from “Shiny Object Syndrome”…)
H: Oh yeah, I totally understand that. It’s so hard to stay focused on one idea when you wake up some mornings with a wave of inspiration for a new idea altogether. So what are you going to be working on next?
R: I’m actually exploring writing a collection of flash fiction around the theme of personal finances. It’s a bit of a business decision, to be honest. It’ll be a way for people to experience my writing style in a smaller bite, which could lead to interest in the novel. But I still have a long way to go with all my WIPs.
H: I think that sounds like an honest creative decision, too, though – you are passionate about personal finance stuff. Another topic I’ve seen in your writing is racism, for instance the everyday manifestations of racism that you explored in ‘Gaming the Skin’. Is this a common theme you tackle in your other writing?
R: In short, no. That was probably my shortest sentence so far this whole interview!
H: Well, I guess that wraps it up. No more questions for you.
R: No, wait – I was going to add … for me, reading is a form of escape, so I gravitate towards light-hearted stories that don’t remind me of real life. Even my NaNo novel, I actually found it a bit of a struggle because of the serious tone it needed to have. In shorter pieces like “Gaming the Skin”, I don’t mind experimenting with themes and genres I wouldn’t normally write in. But sustaining heavier themes for a whole novel – that would kill me!
H: This actually segues perfectly into my next question. There is a movement within the literary scene at the moment known as #ownvoices, and this was raised during your panel at Perth Fest. I thought your answer to this was really interesting – would you mind sharing your thoughts again for my blog readers?
R: Absolutely, I don’t mind at all. When it comes to this idea of diverse characters being written by authors from the same diverse groups, I personally feel a resistance to write what is expected of me.
Just because I happen to be a “Muslim Hijabi Aussie Chick”, it doesn’t mean that I want to write stories about a Muslim girl living in a Western Society and how she manages her multiple identities, etc etc. Not to say I’ll never write this story, but rather, when people tell me, “You should write this story,” if my heart’s not in it, I feel it’s almost tokenistic.
I personally love surprises and twists and the unexpected. I thrive on a challenge while I get bored quickly with the ordinary and mundane. At the same time, I want to make a lasting impact but in a creative way. These are some things people could expect from my stories.
H: I think your response to this is so important and I wanted to amplify it here. I know a lot of #ownvoices authors who want to be able to tell their stories in their own voices, and this is so needed. Hell, this is what I’m doing with Invisible Boys. But a lot of diverse authors also want the publishing world to take them seriously as writers in their own right, regardless of the ‘diversity’ angle; that is, they want to be seen as capable of writing stories beyond solely their own unique experience. We should be liberating these voices, not confining them, in my view.
Anyway, thank you for coming to my unexpected sermon. Back to the interview: I love your bio because it mentioned you have previously been a rapper and a hoon. Please tell me more about both of these! Am I likely to find you blasting 50 Cent from a car and doing doughies in Armadale one day?
R: You know what’s funny? I love Hip Hop as a form of artistic expression, but I actually don’t like a lot, no, most rappers. I’ve always written poetry, since primary school. To me, Hip Hop is a form of poetry that you simply “spit” in time to a rhythm or beat. The first piece of Hip Hop I heard that made me fall in love with this art-form was actually, would you believe, on Microsoft Encarta! If you’re too young to know what I’m talking about, it’s a digital encyclopaedia where I discovered one of the “fathers of Hip Hop”, Grandmaster Flash.
H: Okay, I’m not *that* embryonic haha – we had Microsoft Encarta too when I was a kid in the mid-90s. I didn’t use it much, though, because I preferred poring over our World Book Encyclopedia set. I was a seven-year-old Neo Luddite, I think. So, this Encarta discovery led you to hip hop?
R: Yes. I mostly write “normal poetry” but I have written and “spat” some verses on the odd occasion, in particular when I was a youth worker. Actually, funny story, one afternoon, I was walking through the city with a friend. There was a teenager who had a mic and speaker setup and some beats playing while he freestyled. We were about to pass but I caught him mentioning us “girls” and a stupid comment rappers always make about women that isn’t worth mentioning. I just couldn’t let it go. So I spun around, walked up to him and gestured for him to give me the microphone. He was so shocked he nearly dropped the mic as he handed it to me. Then I gave him a schooling on how to “spit”. When he took the mic back, he nodded at me – this is a rapper gesture meaning “respect”.
H: That is brilliant! Remind me not to mess with you. Does this explain your ‘hoon’ status?
R: Haha, no – actually, I’m into sporty cars and V8 racing on a proper racetrack, which I did at Barbagallo Raceway for the first time in 2018 for my birthday. Best experience ever! I’d go every week if it wasn’t so pricey. But I’ve also bought a “drifting” experience that I’m rewarding myself with when I achieve one of my writing milestones.
H: Man, that’s an awesome writing reward, and it has no calories, too! I might need to look into this. Now, we’re both part of the same #5amwritersclub. What made you join the club, and what made you stay?
R: I love my sleep, so the thought of waking up at 5am to write wasn’t at all appealing. As you have seen, I write for, maybe, a token 5-15 minutes to be able to still say, “Yes, I’m totally a 5am writer!” It was more the opportunity to connect with writers like you, Jess [Gately], Louise [Allan], Michael [Trant], to name just a few of you. You all inspire me and I have learnt so much from your experiences. So really, you guys are the reason I’ve stayed and, sort of, write at 5ish.
H: Aw shucks, that’s nice to hear. Likewise, I love connecting with other writers because you discover new methods and new ways of writing. Something I’ve noticed about your writing is how you can write in really short, sharp blocks of time – like you just mentioned above. Can you talk about this? I find it fascinating and I am always a bit envious of your ability to do this!
R: Sure! During my entrepreneurial days, I had a business coach, Mahindra Raj, who taught me this time management strategy called “The Pomodoro Technique”. You use a timer to break down your work into intervals, traditionally 25 minutes, separated by short breaks, because our brain can only hold attention for so long.
The way I apply it for my writing is, I set a 5-15 minute timer (depending on my mood, energy etc.) and attempt to write. I emphasise attempt because, my aim is to just stay seated with the intention to write. Sometimes I’m in the zone and when my timer goes off, I actually hit the repeat button and remain seated and work for longer. But sometimes, I’m just dog-tired and after 5 minutes, I’m done. Other times, at a 15 minute interval, I can feel my brain waning, so I’ll get up, stretch, grab a drink of water before sitting back down for my next 15 minute block.
I’ve been able to write like this, literally, for over four hours and not feel tired at all because I’m doing it in these short blocks of time. But also, I use this strategy to overcome my lack of motivation some days by telling myself, “I’ll just write for 5 minutes”, but once my head is in my writing world, I often feel like working for longer!
H: It sounds fascinating. Tell me, Raihanaty, what advice would you give to aspiring authors who are just starting out – or, rather, what do you know now that you wish you’d known at the beginning?
R: Be kind to yourself. More often than not, we are our worst critic. We set such high expectations on ourselves then beat ourselves up when we fail to meet those expectations that were unrealistic to begin with. We verbally abuse ourselves in ways we would never others, then we wonder why we lack motivation the next time, why we may even be depressed.
I remember hitting a mental block in my writing at the beginning of 2018 because of the stress of unachievable deadlines I had burdened myself with. It was when I decided to become kinder to myself, patting myself on the back for the 5 minutes of writing I achieved (instead of reprimanding myself that it should’ve been 1 hour), that I started enjoying writing and life again. So, be kind to yourself from today!
H: That’s a warm fuzzy note to finish on – almost. I’m a huge believer in setting goals, and with your own interests in personal finance I get the feeling you might share my focus on goal-setting. For our last question, tell me, without this being too job-interviewy, where would Raihanaty like to be as an author, five years from now?
R: Five years from now, my aspiration is to have released at least one self-published novel and one traditionally published book and – well, I’ll just say it – I hope to have been on the New York Times Best Seller List for at least five minutes – long enough for me to capture a screenshot! I just hope I’m awake if it happens!
H: That’s an awesome goal, and I can’t wait to see you achieve it. Raihanaty A. Jalil, it has been such a pleasure to have you over for a good yarn. Thanks for sharing such insightful responses.
R: All good, Holden. It’s been a lot of fun! I really appreciate the opportunity and the thought you put into non-generic questions. I was actually pleasantly surprised when you sent me the brief.
H: Aw cheers cob, I aim to please. Hey, do you want to stay on for a drink or two? What’s your poison?
R: Sure, do you have peppermint tea?
H: Does the Pope shit in the woods? Wait, I think I’ve got my metaphors mixed up. Yep, let’s hit the hard stuff and crack open a couple of peppermint teas!
~ Social Media Links ~
I hope you enjoyed this interview with the fascinating Raihanaty A. Jalil. She’s a good egg and even more fun to interact with on the socials, so here’s where you can give her a like and a follow:
Well, this is exciting! One of the new things I wanted to launch in 2019 was an interview series with other authors, so I’m delighted to announce the start of a series I’m calling Holden’s Heroes.
This will be a regular series of interviews with fellow writers: I’ll welcome them to my “home” (virtually only, but let’s use our imaginations) and have some fun asking them all my burning questions. My favourite thing about interviews is when there’s some deeper or more personal insight than would usually be revealed, so coaxing out some of these insights is going to be my aim when interviewing my victimssubjects friends.
The aim will be for interviews to be published on a monthly basis, and I thought for 2019 I would begin by focusing on the fellow members of my #5amwritersclub. I’m calling this the “January” interview even though we’re in early Feb, so just go along with it, okay? Great.
I’m starting things off with my buddy Michael Trant – he has the fine honour of becoming the first ever featured author for Holden’s Heroes and chatting to him was as fun and fascinating as I expected. Let’s dive in and see what he has to say for himself!
Holden’s Heroes ~ January 2019
Holden: Michael Trant, welcome to my house and sorry the place is such a bloody mess. Please, don’t mind the piles of clothes and rubbish everywhere. I swear I’ll pick them up one day.
Michael: What mess? You’re talking to a guy who’ll buy more coffee cups just to avoid washing the pile on his desk.
H: Now, this explains why we’re mates. Okay, let’s dive in: your debut novel Ridgeview Station was published by Allen & Unwin in 2017, and it’s a cracking rural fiction read about life on an outback station in the Midwest. In your acknowledgements, you mention this is inspired by your time on Gabyon Station near Yalgoo. I am fascinated – what was it like living on, and running, a station?
M: To be honest most of the running was, and still is, done by my former wife Gemma. Having a station was always her goal, so that’s what we aimed for. And in 2009 we achieved that, though I spent most my time looking after our Geraldton farms so she could go up and help her parents who moved there. It is a great life, but it is very hard, and that’s something I wanted to put across in the book. Simple things like getting hot water, keeping the power running, even before you get to the actual working side of it. And just the sheer scale of those places. That’s why I rib you about your ‘huge’ drive down to Fremantle.
H: I maintain Butler to Fremantle is like The Shire to Mordor, but you’re a guest here, so go on.
M: Later on, after we had to sell the farms, I ended up working four and one FIFO to pay some bills. So really I only spent about a year fulltime on the actual station, but travelled up and back quite regularly. I do miss the place though. One thing I’ll always remember is the stars and the stillness. They run a station stay up there and I highly recommend it. It’s only *coughs* five hours from Perth. Not far at all.
H: Still closer than Butler to Freo, ha! I wanted to ask as well, since the novel is so heavily autobiographical – can you actually fly a plane? And also, did you actually fight off a bushfire?
M: I never did get my pilot ticket, but I was generally the one who went up with my father-in-law Mike as a spotter for the ground crews on motorbikes. Mike is getting on a bit, so I made sure to ask what everything did, you know, just in case we were 500 feet up and he blacked out or something. I figured I could land it if I had to, even if the plane may not fly again afterwards, but any landing you can walk away from is a good one. Thankfully I never had to test it, but not long after I left he was very lucky. Just after take-off a cable snapped and ploughed him sideways into the dirt, just missing a shed and the house. He was okay, but normally I’d have been with him, so who knows what might have happened?
The fire scenes are pretty much as it happened to us, with the exception of Ash’s near miss. I made that up for a bit more excitement. But we’d had record rain the year before, just as the book starts, and then it all lit up in the summer from lightening. We lost 80 000 hectares, about a third of the place. Unfortunately most of the scenes with the fire control officers I didn’t have to change too much. Murder was nearly done that week, I can assure you.
H: I was about ready to strangle those guys when I read the novel, so I would hardly blame you for a murder there. On a serious note with the autobiographical stuff, after you wrote this novel, you separated from your wife and left Gabyon Station. Is it difficult to look back on the novel and revisit these experiences from a distance?
M: It was extremely hard and I struggled. The publishing contract came through about five months after we split, which was fine, but the first round of edits hit six months later, just when the reasons for the split start to fade a little and you begin to look back with rose tinted glasses. I am very grateful our split has been mostly amicable, but at the same time when you’re not clawing each other’s eyes out there are times when it’s not easy either.
Coupled to that I attended a family funeral around the same time and it was like I’d never left. No animosity at all, just open arms from everyone. Plus I was working on a farm just down the road from where it all started which brought back more memories, so yeah, I wasn’t good there for a while and did some stupid stuff that hurt both Gemma and my current partner Kylie, but we got through it and I’m very grateful to get that sorted. And for Kylie’s understanding. Every event we go to she sits there and listens to me tell the same story about how Ridgeview came about. I don’t know how many other partners would accept that, but she does and I’m very appreciative of it.
H: I think we can all agree Kylie is a good egg! Speaking of good eggs, I really love a lot of the characters in this novel – especially Pete and Alexi, who are both foregrounded – but I seriously think Bull is the coolest character of all and I want to be him when I grow up. What inspired Bull and why do you think you’ve had such a response to him?
M: Bull’s just one of those real old school ocker kind of guys. I love him. Swears like a trooper, but immediately apologises for it if he’s in front of an older lady. Jovial and jolly, but not afraid to front up to someone if needed. He’s a combination of a few people, but mostly an owner-operator stock carter called Steve. He had this massive red beard and these two beautiful big Huntaway truck dogs.
The scene with Mork and Mindy towards the end came from his two dogs, and I’ll never forget his face when he told me that. I’ll also never forget when he shaved off his beard. I thought he’d put a new driver on until this pasty face man spoke.
H: There is a genuine, down-to-earth, masculine quality to your writing that I really enjoy reading – there’s swearing and humour and it’s the kind of humour I grew up with, being a Midwest boy myself. Is this something you consciously craft for your writing, or is it just something that seeps into your work?
M: Not intentionally, but because most of those characters were drawn from real people, or a combination of, I already knew how they spoke. I’m lucky in the fact that I’m very musical. I play, and I listen. John Harman, a Perth based writer who assessed Ridgeview early on and who runs very good writing courses, says ‘good writers do not have a tin ear,’ and he’s right. I can hear accents, how people phrase words when they talk, where they pause or run on, just as I can hear riffs and base lines under a melody. Alexi is a good example. She’s based off many backpackers we had through. People who come to English as a second or third language phrase things very differently to native speakers. ‘We go now then?’ as opposed to ‘So we going now or what?’ or ‘So we be going soon then, lad?’ if they’re Irish. But you have to be careful not to overdo it or its hard work for the reader. I toned Alexi’s dialogue back a bit in the final version after advice from the editors. I did refuse to change the phrasing of one of Kev’s lines though. I forget what it was, but is was worded extremely strangely and I said no, that’s how this guy speaks.
H: Speaking of editors, many readers of this blog will wonder what it’s like to be published by one of the bigger publishing houses in the country. What was it like to have your precious book edited, altered, packaged up, branded and sold?
M: I loved it. To finally have some guidance was so good. During the negotiations before a contract came through, my publisher Louise wanted to make sure I was happy to change a few things. Her opening email line was along the lines of ‘It’s really good, but needs a lot of work.’ My response was ‘You say jump, I’ll ask how high. You’re the experts.’ I had no idea what I was doing when I wrote the manuscript. I had multiple points of view in the same scenes, I took far too long to get the story moving and had pages of beautiful prose describing a stone tank. I think we ended up cutting about 15 000 words from the original submission, but replaced them with another 10 000. Less describing stuff, and more ‘stuff actually happening.’ Looking back, I think the start is still a bit of a slow burn, but once it ramps up it seems to hook people in.
Having the support of those who know what they are doing was invaluable. The cover design is amazing. I was always going to self-publish, and had a lovely photo of an old windmill that was going to be the cover, but when the email with the pdf came through I was stunned. And then to see it in a bookshop for the first time, I’ll never forget that. The first reader-submitted photo of it out in the wild came from Wagga-Wagga. Couldn’t think of a better place for it.
H: It would be surreal to reach that point. I’m in the editing stage for my novel at the moment, and part of me is like “there is no end to this”. Once your novel was published, did you look at it and think “it’s perfect”, or do you look at it now and still want to change stuff?
M: Haha, first page of my copy I opened had a bloody typo. No, I don’t think anyone is ever one hundred percent happy with their work, but I think it’s as good as I could do knowing what I did back then. I feel for those writers who launch their book while working on the next one. By the time launch comes, that book is way out of your mind, you’re already in another world working on the next.
H: Well, I am now dreading opening my book once it’s printed. The typos will scream at me, I’m sure of it. Okay, so I wanted to ask about your beginnings as a writer. You initially made the leap from farmer to writer when you started a successful blog a few years back. How did that happen and do you think blogging is important for authors?
M: I’ve always been able to pen something half decent, but mostly they were strongly worded letters to people who owed us money, or politicians. I think I get that from Mum. But when the whole live export thing blew up there were no farmers on social media, and as part of a push by industry to change that I started a blog, mainly just to give an insight into how things worked on a farm. It was mostly humorous anecdotes about what we were doing and why, but every now and then I’d pen something really serious. It kind of blew up, and through it we organised the biggest rally of farmers in Perth since the early 80s, and met the then Federal Agricultural Minister for a one on one discussion.
I think blogging is important, but only if you really want to do it. My original blog is mothballed now. I wasn’t going to post on it after I left the station, and the new one I created is sorely lacking in content, so I would suggest only do one if you’re prepared to put the effort in.
H [*looks wistfully at irregular blog post history*]: So, since Ridgeview was published eighteen months ago, you’ve been writing a lot. What new projects have you completed and what are you working on now?
M: Yeah, I actually listed them all the other day for this upcoming writer’s retreat and went, oh wow. I have actually been busy. So far I’ve finished (I use that term loosely) two novels; Ned, the life of a sheepdog from his point of view, and Fly-out Day, which follows a farmer struggling to balance work/life after taking on a FIFO job (sound familiar?). I’ve just finished the first draft on a third novel I’ve tentatively called Where Wild Dogs Roam, where an outback dogger stumbles across a people smuggling operation and is paired with an Afghani refugee as they try to find his family. This one took me ages to write. I kept getting stuck so in between I penned a novella called The Last Waltz, which I’ve set in a fantasy world based on Australian folklore. I’m really excited about this one, and am halfway through a second novella set in the same world. And this year I plan to do a narrative non-fiction piece on the rescue of a two year old boy who fell down a borehole in 1952. It’s an amazing story and I know some of those involved in the rescue. Finally I’ll keep pumping out short stories based around my Australian folklore/fantasy idea until I work out what to do with them.
H: Your pitch for a speculative fiction novella has just been shortlisted for the Drowned Earth novella competition – congrats mate! How does it feel, and what’s this one all about?
M: Stunned would be the word I’d use. When the email came it had the usual opening line. ‘Thank you for your submission etc etc we were inundated etc etc.’ Here we go again, I thought. ‘We are pleased to inform you…’ Wait what? So yeah, quite surprised. It’s an interesting concept. 9-12 writers are going to pen individual novellas about The Rise. The ice caps have melted much quicker than expected, so what happens next? Coastlines have flooded, hundreds of thousands of people displaced. I’ve always thought outback stations are the perfect setting for dystopian survival. They’re already pretty much self-sufficient so that’s what I pitched, a family living relatively unaffected until refugees turn up on their door step. Do they accept them or tell them to go back where they came from. I’ve got until March 3rd to pen a 1000 word sample, and we’ll see what happens, but it’s a great boost to my confidence, regardless of the outcome.
H: It’s a great boost, and you have other cool stuff ahead. My amazing literary agent Haylee Nash is running a writer’s retreat and I believe you’re flying over east to take part in it. What’s it going to be like, and what are you hoping to get out of it?
M: I’m really looking forward to this, particularly the sessions on pitching and the current publishing industry status. Unfortunately for me, my publisher resigned just as Ridgeview was released (completely unrelated, for sure) and I’ve kind of fallen through the cracks a little, so this seem a good way to get feedback and advice on some work from someone in the know. Rachael Johns and Josephine Moon are also presenting, and those two are great fun. I’m actually doing a talk with Rachael at Centre for Stories in early April, and really excited for that too. She’s been a huge help in the last year.
H: I’m going to that – should be a fantastic event. Tickets are available here.
M: Ideally what I get out of the retreat would be for Haylee to read my samples, go absolutely nuts over them and sign me up there and then. But I’ll settle for solid advice and some direction for the coming year. I’ll be dropping your name so hard your ears will hurt, by the way.
H: Hey, I have no problem with that – namedrop away. Although I’m way behind on my deadline for the next novel, so mentioning my name *may* make my agent snarl something like “that bastard owes me a manuscript”. So, namedrop at your own risk.
Something I just thought of … we’re both Midwest boys – should I dig up my old Akubra some day and we can take our books for a tour in the bush?
M: Absolutely. We’ll load up the ute and hit the dust. They won’t know what hit them. Are you sure you’re up for the road trip though? I mean, you consider Fremantle practically in another state, and that sort of trip length would get us to Bindoon, which I still consider suburbia.
H: Don’t forget I’m a Midwest boy myself – I hate long city drives, but I’ve done more road trips between Geraldton and Perth than I could ever count! Hmm, I suspect we may start quibbling on the road trip. Let’s move on. What made you join the #5amwritersclub, and what made you stay?
M: Peer pressure. I am a procrastinator, so posting a pic of me writing then having fellow writers saying ’See you tomorrow!’ makes me get out of bed and sit bum on seat. I haven’t been doing much of it lately because I’m fortunate to work flexibly, so I’m writing during the day at the moment. But when I head up to Three Springs I’ll start getting back into it. Urgh. I hate mornings. What makes me stay is the awesome people I met through it, such as yourself, and just having that support group around really helps. Published, unpublished, all writers go through the same problems, and sharing them really helps. And while I think of it a huge thank you to fellow member Bec for putting me onto the Drowned Earth competition.
H: Bec is a legend, and she has agreed to be interviewed on Holden’s Heroes in a few months’ time, so stay tuned.
Meantime, Mike, we’re nearly done with our chat. I want to ask you what advice would you give to aspiring and emerging authors who are just starting out – or, rather, what do you know now that you wish you’d known right at the beginning?
M: Be patient. Don’t send of unfinished work in a rush because you’re afraid you might miss out. Finish the manuscript and stick it in a draw for a month or more. More is better. Read it with fresh eyes and tighten it up again. Because it will need tightening. Then get other writers or avid readers to read it, and listen to their advice. You don’t have to accept it but if three out of four say it’s a little slow, they are probably right. And if you find a reader who is not afraid to be blunt, hang on to them.
Read. You have to read. You can’t improve your craft if you don’t observe how the pros do it. Last year I burned through 600 hours of audio books at work and learned so much. I can see it in what I’m writing now, it’s much tighter the first time around.
Find your writing tribe. Pretty much what I said about the #5amwriterclub. You’ll be surprised how common your problems or concerns are, and when something goes really well for you they’ll understand just how big a deal it is.
H: So agree, especially the last one – sometimes I’d tell non-writer friends my good news about a mentorship or residency and they’d be like, “okay … is that a big deal?” But writer mates totally get it, and get almost as excited as you do.
Okay, final question: I’m a big believer in goal setting and dreaming. Tell me, what would you love to have accomplished five years from now?
M: Firstly, getting something else published, or at least contracted to publish. That’s this year’s goal. But in five years I’d like to be able to repay Kylie’s faith in me. I quit a six figure FIFO job, not just to write, but partly because of it. It’d be nice if one day she had the option to do the same on the back of that faith.
H: What a poignant note to finish on. Michael Trant, it’s been awesome having you over for a chat and thanks for being so generous in your responses. Care to hang around for a drink? What’s your poison?
M: Been a pleasure. I’ll have whatever is cold, wet and free. I post a lot of Emu Export pics, but just quietly those are usually provided by work. I don’t normally drink the stuff, but when in Rome, as they say …
H: Bushchooks it is! 😉
~ Social Media Links ~
I hope you enjoyed this interview with the wonderfully talented Michael Trant. He’s a top bloke and even more fun to interact with on the socials, so here’s where you can give him a like and a follow:
Lately, I feel like driving past my current work in progress, winding the window down and mooning it with my hairy wog arse while simultaneously flipping the bird.
(This is assuming someone else is driving the car, of course, or maybe that I’m an octopus.)
Seriously, writing can be a bitch sometimes. There are times when you’re on a luxury river cruise of creativity, soaking up the sunshine, knocking back a refreshing beer and chortling at how fucking amazing you are.
Other times you’re standing on the river bank, watching all the writer-boats sail past while you get sunburnt, spill your beer and step in day-old duck shit.
And for the last few months, I’ve been stepping in duck shit the way a kid jumps into a puddle of mud.
I’m working on the first draft of my next contemporary YA novel, but my progress has been staccato from the start. I know it’s not unusual for writers to have issues with producing their second novel, but since Invisible Boys was my second novel written and this current one is my third, I figured I’d already managed to break the curse of the second novel.
With my first two novels, the first drafts were written very quickly. My YA fantasy novel was written in three months; Invisible Boys was even faster, barely a two-month timeframe.
But the wheels kind of fell off with this third novel, and as I sit here today reflecting on why, it’s pretty clear what’s going on.
Both my first two novels were written in total obscurity, and that is what gave me the license to write in an unfettered way, without considering the audience or market. All I had to consider was what I wanted to say, and then I gave myself total permission to say it.
With Invisible Boys in particular, I gave myself more freedom than I would give myself on this blog, or on social media, or in conversation. I told myself firmly, “there are no sacred cows: write whatever you feel like writing, what hurts, what burns at you, what you desperately wanted to say fifteen years ago but the words died on your tongue, and to hell with anyone having a problem with it”.
The freedom I granted myself writing Invisible Boys was spectacular. It sounds geeky to admit, but writing like this is one of the best feelings ever. The sensation of total liberty infused me with a general enthusiasm for living more boldly. I woke up each morning feeling like I had power; like I was able to say more than usual, because I was giving myself permission to not give a fuck about the consequences.
But a lot changed last summer. Invisible Boys won the Ray Koppe Award; I signed with an agent; and I undertook my residency at Varuna. Suddenly, I felt like other people were watching me, and this loaded a barbell of expectations onto my shoulders: a wordless and ineffable process, but nonetheless real.
My prevailing thought was:
If I’m an agented, award-winning author and also a friggin Varuna alumnus, I’d better be writing amazing works of staggering literary genius and if the next thing I produce isn’t amazing, people will realise I am an untalented turd and Invisible Boys was just a fluke.
As we know, first drafts are unequivocally duck shit. So, applying this kind of thinking when you’re drafting is capital-N Not Helpful.
And as it so happens, I started drafting this version of my third novel while I was at Varuna last January, so the soil this story springs from is kind of neurotic and self-doubty, reflecting the pressure I was putting myself under at the time. I only produced one chapter at Varuna, which I was disappointed with, and the quality wasn’t fantastic.
I returned to the manuscript between July and October, but my progress was staccato again. The last time I worked on it was late November. Life got in the way: I had edits and promo for Poster Boy, Hungerford promo, other writing events, day job, Christmas, and finally the structural edits for Invisible Boys (which are now finished, yay).
But this week, I am not excessively busy: I have time to dedicate to writing for the first time in two months and so I am forced to face my manuscript again. I don’t have the get-out-of-jail-free card of being ‘busy’. It’s just me and the novel.
And I realise those expectations I felt last summer at Varuna are still weighing on me now, perhaps more than ever, post-Hungerford.
And those expectations, really, are born from fears.
I am scared of this novel not being powerful.
I am scared it won’t impact upon people as much as Invisible Boys.
I am scared of being a one-trick pony.
I am scared people will be disappointed in me.
I am scared people will roll their eyes and say, ‘Really, he won awards for writing, and that’s the best he can do?’
I am scared readers will give up on me.
I am scared of losing everything.
I’m experiencing classic Second Novel Syndrome, only for me it’s Third Novel Syndrome. The number doesn’t really matter. If someone wrote six unpublished novels and their seventh got published, they’d go through Eighth Novel Syndrome.
The truth is, it’s not the second novel per se that gives writers more grief than any other; it’s whatever novel we write after experiencing some kind of success for a previous novel; the first novel we write when we are no longer working in total obscurity.
The fears I listed above are mostly centred on what other people think about my writing, which isn’t something I used to worry about. Prior to 2017, I felt no external pressure, only an internal desire to express myself.
I can’t go back to that state of obscurity – and nor would I want to. I worked hard to get to where I am, and things like the Hungerford Award are incredible gifts that I am deeply grateful for.
However, my response to this recognition has been one of fear, which is now holding me back. I know the only way I can complete my third novel is by setting fire to my fears, giving them a good roasting and then plating them up and swallowing them.
So, here I go.
Firstly, I have to accept that my fears are beyond my control. Even if I write an amazing novel, people might still not like it. Ultimately, I have no power over how other people receive and interpret my work, and I never will.
Secondly, I have to remember how I began this journey: with nothing. I started out as a seven-year-old boy from Geraldton with an exercise book and a pen. I didn’t need anyone’s approval or support to write. I did it on my own because what I wanted more than anything was to express myself. It’s easier to risk losing what you have if you remind yourself that you coped just fine without any of it.
Ultimately, the only thing within my control is the writing itself. All I can do is get my arse in the chair, open my laptop and express myself one word, sentence, page, chapter at a time, until I’m done. Writing unabashedly has always brought me incredible joy and fulfilment. I can’t recreate the obscurity I used to experience, but there’s no reason I can’t write just as honestly and freely as I used to: it’s within my control, and so I will choose to do it.
And hell, maybe I’ll fail. Maybe all my fears will come true and everything will go tits up, but I can’t control that.
I only own my process, and my words, and that starts with my attitude.
Novel number three, prepare to be finished. No sacred cows. Duck shit ahoy.
When I created my author Facebook page in September 2016, I wrote something vaguely aspirational in the “bio” section:
2017 and 2018 promise to be big years for my writing career, and I can’t wait to share this journey with you all.
I actually had nothing to back that up apart from hope and determination. I wrote those words because I desperately wanted 2017 and 2018 to be big years. I’d lost my job and I’d decided to really give my writing a go, so I thought “I am going to make them big years”.
But what I envisaged wasn’t what happened. I thought 2017 would be the year I signed my YA Fantasy novel to an agent and publisher and it would be published in 2018. Then I’d keep writing that series and be known as a fantasy author. Things took a different path, which I’ve spoken about before: that fantasy novel went in the drawer, I wrote Invisible Boys instead, and the rest is history – although I guess that history is still very much in the making.
My point is, my 2017 and 2018 weren’t what I had planned. Most of what’s happened in my life hasn’t actually gone to plan. My career and writing plans only seem to come through about 50% of the time, and all the other times, they go off the rails spectacularly.
And yet, every year at this time, I find myself in the same reflective, pensive, generally optimistic mood: ready to survey the trophies and carnage of the previous 365 days, and ready to foolishly make plans for the following calendar year. This year, I go in with eyes open to the fallibility of my plans, but who gives a damn – I have fun doing this, and it helps motivate me. Maybe the only reason I achieve those 50% of my goals is because I commit to them each New Year’s Eve? Who knows?
So, this is my reflection on 2018 and my look ahead to 2019.
And holy crap, what a year 2018 was.
This time last year I posted about how I was just proud to still be breathing after having exhumed past trauma to write Invisible Boys. The title of that post was drawn from Green Day’s 2016 song “Still Breathing”, which is about sobriety and recovery and staying alive, and I love it.
This year’s post title is also drawn from a song, because music is my go-to for processing how I think and feel, much more so than reading. The past few days, I’ve been humming (and occasionally singing, despite the pain inflicted on my boyfriend’s ears) a rare song known as “After A Year Like This One” from my favourite musical artist, Alanis Morissette. She wrote the song in late 1996 at the end of a phenomenally hectic two years touring for Jagged Little Pill, performed it live once and then to my knowledge never played it again, but the lyrics have been swimming to the forefront of my mind for days now:
After a year like this one I’m surprised I do not hate your guts
And, after a year like this one I’m surprised I still love music just as much
After a year like this one I’m surprised I did not eat my arm
And, after a year like this one I’m sorry if I’m not cordial to everyone
I think the reason these lyrics keep resonating with me is because I’ve never had a year like 2018 before, and at this point, I’m basically just permanently surprised about the whole thing.
In my experience, we usually don’t get a proper perspective on what’s happened to us until years down the track; when the storm is still raging, or the confetti still falling, it’s harder to make sense of anything. I expect in 2028 I’ll have a slightly clearer view of what this year really represented – but of course in 2028 I’ll be 40 (insert screaming face emoji) so let’s all do our best to not think about that, please.
What I do know, here in the present moment, is that 2018 feels like a breakout year for my writing career, and I think that will still be a true observation ten years from now. It was the year I forced myself to push against social anxiety and go to events, to meet people online and in person, to be a part of projects, to promote myself and my work more than I’ve ever had the confidence to. It was a year of holding my breath from March to November, while I waited to see if submitting my novel to the Hungerford Award would pay off or not. It was an incredibly lucky and elated moment when it actually won.
So, first, here’s the good shit that happened in 2018 – the highlights:
Varuna: I undertook a writing residency at Varuna, the National Writers’ House, in the Blue Mountains in NSW – which, as I wrote at the time, I will never forget.
Sydney: Bf and I went there for the 1st time & celebrated our 10 year anniversary.
Alanis Morissette: Saw her live for the first time; fanboyish blog post here.
Acting: I acted in a play called “The Second Woman” as part of Perth International Arts Festival – an awesome experience that reminded me how much I love acting.
Wedding Plans: We set a date for our wedding in 2019 and starting planning.
Griffith Review: My novella POSTER BOY was announced as one of five winners of the 2018 Novella Project, was published in Griffith Review and launched in Perth
Festival: I attended my first writers festival – the ASSF 2018 – as a guest author.
Hungerford Award: My novel INVISIBLE BOYS was shortlisted for, and then won, the 2018 City of Fremantle T.A.G. Hungerford Award.
It’s a bit staggering to see the weight of all these things lined up in a row, especially since there’s loads of things I missed off this list. No wonder 2018 felt so hectic all the time!
And there was stuff beyond the highlights that kept me busy. I don’t like to dwell too long on the bad shit – but at the same time, I want to acknowledge it. Reeling off a year’s worth of achievements is misleading and incomplete if I don’t also put in the context. It paints a picture that everything in 2018 was sunshine and blowjobs and the truth is there were big downs that came with the ups.
Despite being an amazing breakout year, 2018 was also really tough. I struggled to make ends meet and worked too many jobs, most of them casual or contract-based, so there was no job security or certainty and I was constantly stressed about money. I struggled to fit everything in. I felt burnt out a lot of the time and rarely made any time for myself. I got lots of rejections for my writing. I didn’t finish my next novel, which I had aimed to do by September. I had interpersonal ups and downs, plus some family relationships fell to pieces, which hurt a lot. My mental health had its usual ups and downs – I had anxiety and panic attacks, plus the bog-standard self-loathing that seems to accompany me everywhere, plus a couple of drinking relapses, and of course the constant self-doubt that every writer has (and I am learning that publication and awards do little to tune these doubts out!).
But I never get to the end of a year feeling defeated. Exhausted, yes, but defeated, never. 2019 represents a chance for lots more good shit to happen. Bad shit will happen, too, but I’ll roll with what comes. The good shit will make it worthwhile.
And it’s hard to feel defeated when a lifelong dream is coming true. After years of hard work, my first novel is about to be published in October 2019. The year ahead is going to be incredibly exciting, and probably more hectic than 2018 was. But it’s the kind of busy that will be fulfilling and thrilling all the way through, so I’m pumped to get stuck into the year ahead.
My goals and major things to look forward to in 2019 are:
Finish the edits on Invisible Boys.
Finish my next novel.
Go on honeymoon.
Launch and promote Invisible Boys.
That isn’t a very long list, but each of those items is enormous and will take a huge chunk of time – so that’s enough for now.
I’d also really love to push beyond my own comfort zone and try some new things in 2019 – what those will be, I don’t yet know, but I think it would be great for my confidence to do stuff that I am not good at, and just do it for fun. I’ll see how this shapes up as the year begins.
The final lines of Alanis Morissette’s song “After A Year Like This One” are:
After a year like this one I’ll need a good whole sixteen months alone
And, after a year like this one I think I’ll make the west coast beaches my new home
I seriously relate to this. After a year like 2018 – with both the ups and downs – part of me wants to find a quaint log cabin in an alpine forest somewhere and curl up in a ball beside a fireplace. Or maybe escape for a year to a little town on the coast of Mexico or Hawaii and just wake up on the beach each morning. A random fantasy, but enticing when I’ve spent so much time driving myself hard.
Alanis did end up taking sixteen months off, or thereabouts. She fled to India, cocooned herself in anonymity and later wrote a hit song about it. But of course, this was after she had done the album release and world tour.
I haven’t released my book yet.
I haven’t done the tour.
The hard work has to come before the rest. And this year, though it was hard work, wasn’t actually the job I set out to do. This year, and everything leading up to it, was really me putting together my CV, pounding the pavement, going to metaphorical job interviews. I’ve now landed my dream job, and the hard work begins on Monday at 9am.
So, despite my longing for a break, 2019 won’t be the time to slow down. It will be a year on turbo mode; feet on accelerators and sometimes arms out the window. I have a huge amount of work spread out ahead of me: a long, glittering, potholey road to run down that will be exhilarating and will keep me busy for 2019 and probably a big chunk of 2020, too.
So that’s my focus for now. In my wannabe rockstar terms, it’s now time to drop my album and do the tour. And once that’s done, some time in 2020, I’ll give myself a holiday.
But first, hard yakka. I think I’m in for another year like this one.
Here goes everything.
PS. Thanks to each of you for being a part of my journey this year. It’s been probably the most unexpected joy of 2018 to have connected with so many like-minded readers and writers and supporters. I’d love to hear what your goals and dreams and resolutions for 2019 are, too – let me know in the comments below or on social media! Wishing you all an awesome 2019 – full of ups and downs and everything in between. 🙂
I can barely remember how to write a blog post. How did I used to start off? I’m sure I used to be witty. Or maybe that was just in my head; maybe I was laughing at my own jokes, like J.D. from Scrubs.
In any case, the only suitable opening I can find today is “holy fuck”. Frankly, nothing else has the brevity or blunt power to encapsulate how I feel, and what’s happened, since I last blogged.
So, back in September, I was announced as one of the shortlisted authors for the 2018 City of Fremantle T.A.G. Hungerford Award, alongside some amazing authors such as Alan Fyfe, Yuot Alaak, Zoe Deleuil, Julie Sprigg and Trish Versteegen. I was pretty damn excited about just being shortlisted.
And then on the 15th November, at a big ceremony at the Fremantle Arts Centre, I was announced as the WINNER of the 2018 Hungerford Award. I won $12,000 and a publishing contract: my debut YA novel, Invisible Boys, will be published by Fremantle Press in October 2019.
I am absolutely stoked and my full emotional response to this still hasn’t hit me, I don’t think. It is incredibly exciting and a dream come true, and the fact that I can’t come up with anything beyond cliches tells me I still haven’t really processed it.
But as a result of all this enormous news, the last three months – from the initial shortlisting until now – has been one of the most exciting, hectic, surreal, chaotic and overwhelming times of my entire life.
And because of that, I haven’t written a blog post since the shortlisting was announced. This is not for lack of wanting to, but time was at a premium. About five minutes after I won the Hungerford, I had a media itinerary pressed into my hand by the marketing manager at Fremantle Press, and suddenly it was all go – press and radio interviews, contracts, event bookings, existing events to attend. Thing is, I never really factored in what would happen if I *actually* won the award, and it so happens that November/December are the busiest times of the whole year in my current day job.
So for about three weeks, my routine was:
Wake up at 5:30am feeling rat shit
Try to tackle incoming emails/social media notifications/tasks
Go to work for the day
Come home, open laptop, continue tackling inbound emails/notifications
Fall asleep with laptop open on my lap
Wake up and repeat the whole thing
I don’t think I had an iota of downtime for at least two weeks. I won’t pretend this wasn’t a really exhilarating time, though. The thrill of winning an award as prestigious as the Hungerford – and the realisation that my novel is finally going to be published – buoyed me through the hectic pace of post-award life.
(Suggestion for any future Hungerford shortlisted authors in 2020 or beyond who might stumble across this post: I recommend clearing your schedule for the whole week after the award announcement, just in case. If you win, you’ll have some breathing space around your crazy schedule. If you don’t win, you’ll have some downtime to curl up in the fetal position and take care of yourself.)
But it’s been almost an entire month now since the award announcement, and the noise and rush and overwhelm has finally settled. And better, I’m now on my third day of holidays: I have an entire glorious month off work over the summer. Right now I am sitting at an alfresco cafe in Fremantle. I’m drinking an apple juice with ice blocks in it. The sun is beaming down from a cloudless sky and a warm breeze tells me it’s going to be a nice hot day. I’m listening to a man across the street busking, playing blues guitar, and I feel more relaxed in this moment than I have for a very long time.
So it’s time to sit down and write how I’m feeling. Since I was a kid, writing stuff down has always been my way of processing how I think and feel; my tool for making sense of what’s happened. (I am very mature because I am totally resisting the urge to make a very crude tool joke right now.) My happiest times as a kid were sitting down on a weekend with my notebook and just being creative – drawing pictures, maps, or writing down thoughts, feelings, story ideas, or actual stories. This is one of my favourite ways of getting in touch with myself; of knowing who I am.
And I’ve commented to my boyfriend a few times this past month that I barely felt like I knew myself, which makes sense, since I wasn’t writing or blogging or doodling in a notebook. I desperately needed to write stuff down so I could comprehend what had happened, how I felt about it, and who I am now in what feels like a new era for my career and my life.
And now that I’ve given myself a few minutes to stop and think, the first thing I’ve noticed, or remembered, is that actually, there were loads of times over the past three months that I badly wanted to write a blog post. A few times I even jotted something down on my phone, thinking it would make a good post to share. But something stopped me – an invisible force that had nothing to do with my claims of being too busy (which I was) or not having enough time (which I didn’t).
So, the truth is, I actually stopped blogging for three months because I was really fucking scared.
Almost every time I thought of something I wanted to comment on or share, a thought bubbled up from within my blood – an acidic, corrosive thought:
What if you write how you are feeling, and Fremantle Press happen to read the blog post, and realise you’re sometimes sensitive/boofheaded/confident/a bit odd/a bundle of nerves/cocky/a total mess?
That thought was like a springy, five-metre high diving board into an overly-chlorinated pool of an even more insidious thought:
If they know what I’m really like as a person, flawed and sensitive, they might decide not to publish me.
And that little rhizome of terror took root in my psyche; like a weed choking a flower, it overpowered the cheers of support from friends and fellow writers. The fearful thoughts were actually louder than the momentous fact that the publisher had gone and shortlisted me in the first place.
So I froze for three months, and I chose to write nothing at all. I became completely paranoid that if I said one slightly dumb or embarrassing comment in a blog post, I might lose everything.
I’m not particularly proud of shying away from blogging like this, but when I reflect upon it, I would probably do it the same all over again if I had to. I have wanted to be a writer since I was seven; this is the dream and goal I’ve been working towards my whole life. Three months of dubious self-censoring was worth it even if, on the other side of receiving the award, I can see it was probably just fear talking. The people who work at my publisher are totally amazing people – I feel like I’ve joined a new family – and I feel very welcomed as both a writer and a human. I don’t have anything to worry about from that perspective.
But things have changed. Prior to the shortlisting, I felt like I was just some random toiling away in obscurity; now, I feel like people are actually watching, listening, waiting for my novel to drop.
And to be honest, I’m not used to people watching me. Nobody was watching when I fell apart trying to complete my Honours writing project in 2012. Nobody saw my quiet struggles in 2014-2016 of working on my first fantasy novel. Comparatively few people engaged with my short stories when I released them digitally in 2017.
It was easy to be authentic in those eras, because nobody knew who I was and even when they did, few people cared.
The post-Hungerford world feels different. I have to consider the other partners in my publishing career – such as my agent and my publisher. And every now and then I think about the fact that fellow authors, some much more established and esteemed than me, also follow me on social media, and thus might see my blog posts, and thus might judge me for how I write and talk and feel.
When I started thinking about this last week, I had the horrible thought that I was now going to have to be more cautious in what I write. And that thought snowballed. Shit, I’m going to have to censor myself. I should probably try to come across positive all the time, especially since I’m getting published so I should just try to be permanently happy and grateful and never say anything dark or negative again. I shouldn’t talk about how I feel as frankly as I used to. I shouldn’t blog in the unfettered, authentic way I used to. What if people think I’m a tool? What if they think I’m too soft, too annoying, too cocky? Or what if they just want me to shut the hell up since I’ve won the Hungerford? What if everyone’s already sick of me?
This led to a truly abysmal weekend. I felt like I was suffocating; like I couldn’t be myself anymore. It was painfully similar to how I felt when I was younger and in the closet: thinking that how I am is inherently not okay; that I needed to put on some kind of front to be accepted by the people around me. It really affected me, and eventually, on Sunday, the bough broke. My anxiety skyrocketed, and I felt physically and emotionally sick. The option of shutting up, or of sanitising my online presence to present a more polished “published author” vibe from now on, loomed over me – a quiet, claustrophobic death of expression.
A death of my authentic self in the place of a palatable, saleable version of Holden.
While I was in this headspace, a lyric from one of my favourite Cranberries songs, “Free to Decide”, kept spiralling to the top of my consciousness:
It’s not worth anything more than this at all
I’ll live as I choose, or I will not live at all
I have always loved this song and this lyric, but Dolores O’Riordan’s words meant something new to me on Sunday. I realised in that moment that a life without free expression is not a life I want to lead. If self-censorship were ever the price of my career, the career simply wouldn’t be worth it.
And so I decided, on Sunday afternoon, that I won’t pay that price.
And as soon as I made that decision, my anxiety ebbed back to low tide. I felt immediately human again; and I felt like me again. My three-month-long self-imposed moratorium on expression had been shattered and I decided never to go back there. That’s no way to start a career as a novelist, and no way to live any kind of meaningful life.
The reality is, I can’t breathe if I can’t express myself freely. I’m pretty sure the free expression is what actually makes my writing worth anything, anyway. I am bolder in my writing than I am anywhere else, and that bravery occasionally leads to a good story or a good novel or a good blog post. Other times it doesn’t, but you win some, you lose some.
What matters to me as a writer and a man is that I am free to say what I want to say. When I am free and unencumbered, I feel like myself.
So, on Sunday night, I decided to commit myself to being as authentic and honest as I always have been. I value these qualities, in my writing and in my life, over almost all others. I don’t want to be seen as singularly positive and happy, nor singularly angry or anxious or depressed. I want to make space for all emotions. I want to be okay with them, not just as they happen, but in the sharing and expressing of them, if I so choose.
I am sometimes light and sometimes dark; both parts exist within me, within all of us, and I am going to allow myself to express these parts of myself as they come up.
Maybe this isn’t normal once people are watching and expecting certain things of my writing, but I don’t care. It feels right to me to be unfettered. I can’t live any other way.
This mindset feels like a good way to tackle the adventure that’s just over the horizon. 2019 is going to be an incredible year. The Invisible Boys era is about to begin, and I can’t wait to share all of it with you – the ups and also the downs, honestly and openly – over the year to come.
Here’s to a big year of triumphs and fuck-ups and everything in between.
It’s only two weeks until my first *ever* appearance at a writers’ festival and I am SO pumped.
I’ll be making two appearances at the 2018 Australian Short Story Festival on 20th October in Perth, both at the Centre for Stories in Northbridge.
The first appearance is on a storytelling panel for the Bright Lights, No City project I took part in back in May this year, which was all about telling stories of what it was like growing up gay in country WA. At this panel, I’ll be chatting with amazing storyteller (and my coach/mentor for the project) Sisonke Msimang, plus Josie Boland and Damien Palermo, my fellow storytellers from that project. It’s going to be pretty intense and vulnerable but I can’t wait to hang out with those three again and share my true story in oral storytelling form to a new audience.
The second appearance is my first time as a panel chair. I’ll be chairing a session called The Ventriloquists, which is all about the importance of voice in the creation of short fiction. I’ll be chatting with H.C. Gildfind, Luke Johnson and M.J. Reidy, who are all very talented writers.
As part of the promo for the festival, the awesome people at the Australian Short Story Festival interviewed me about my writing. The interview is available here if you are interested! Being the classy mofo I am, I used the words “buttloads” (thinking it would be more polite than “fuckloads” which was my instictive response) and “horseshit”. I am starting to suspect I may drag this literary festival into the gutter ever so slightly. I hope they don’t mind! 😉
Back to regular blogs soon, I swear … til then, happy weekend all! 🙂