Varuna: The Week I’ll Never Forget

Last November, I was lucky enough to win the 2017 Ray Koppe Residency Award from the Australian Society of Authors. The prize was a one week residency at Varuna, the National Writers’ House. I never expected to win the award, so the residency was an absolute dream come true.

I rushed forward and took the residency in January this year. And it’s taken me a whole four weeks of sitting on my hands to work up the motivation to write about it. It was today that I realised why I’ve been putting it off for so long. It’s because once I write this, it will actually be over – a relic of memory and experience and nothing else. Subconsciously, I think I wanted to cling to it a bit longer; keep it in the present day. But the days are passing inexorably, and the memories are no longer fresh but faded.

So I want to record them, before they atrophy any further.


Monday 15th January 2018

This day barely counts as a day of my residency, because I was in Sydney for most of it. I had breakfast at a creperie with my teenage nieces and nephews. Double maple for me. I ordered in French to an entirely unimpressed French waitress.

Lunch was at a burger joint in Sydney’s CBD with my amazing literary agent, Haylee Nash of The Nash Agency. We spent about half an hour talking excitedly before either of us remembered we were actually meant to order food. It was a brilliant meeting and I left feeling so pumped for what’s ahead of me and INVISIBLE BOYS – in 2018 and beyond.

I swanned around the city for a few hours exploring – it was my first time in Sydney, ever, and I was so enraptured. It was like being back in Europe, but this city was also so unlike Europe, and certainly a long way from anything I had ever known as Australian.

My first glimpse of the Blue Mountains, from the taxi heading to Varuna. Magnificent.

In the arvo, I collected my suitcase from my older brother’s office on George Street and then began my navigation of peak-hour traffic on Sydney’s trains. I was crushed into a skinny, cuboid version of myself – now that part was really reminiscent of being on the tube in London – and trained it out to the Blue Mountains.

I thoroughly underestimated how long the ride would take: I arrived at Varuna, the National Writers’ House, at around 8:30pm, travel-weary and kind of worried. I honestly expected to rock up to a darkened house; I kept imagining that I’d be knocking on the door to no response, calling every phone number I could to the dejection of unanswered voicemails. I figured I might have to curl up and sleep on the pebbles outside.

My reception at Varuna was actually very warm. Before I even got out of the taxi, one of the other four resident writers – the wonderful and celebrated poet (and fellow Perthite) Nandi Chinna – was already out the front of the house to greet me.

“You must be Holden,” she said. “We were worried about you.”

I was really touched by this. I was alone in a new place and a bit overwhelmed that I had even been chosen to go to Varuna. I will never forget her saying that.

Out the front of Varuna House at sunset. NB: Not my Fiat. NB2: How much could this be somewhere in Italy, though?

The Varuna staff (who are all super nice people) had already gone home for the night, so the other writers took me into the house, gave me a tour and showed me to my room. The caterer, Sheila, had saved my dinner for me – a delicious chicken curry – so I microwaved it and wolfed it down while chatting to my fellow writers.

The vibes were immediately warm and supportive, which relaxed my nerves and made me feel ready for the next day.


Tuesday 16th January 2018

I usually wake up at 6am, so I must have been running on Perth time still as I woke at 9am and felt instantly like I’d wasted half my day. I was a bit thrown off, so I took my breakfast up to my studio to get to work straight away.

I’d been allocated the Bear Room, and I still find it hilarious that they chucked the gay bloke into something called the Bear Room. Alas, no hot bears within, but it was a charming and quaint bedroom and writing studio. I was instantly drawn to the space, even though it was the smallest of the five studios at Varuna. I could have had my pick of the bigger spaces if I’d chosen a later residency, but I was desperate to get to work as soon as possible, and January was the earliest slot that worked.

Deffo the most appropriate room for a homo. Spoilers: no actual bears within.

As soon as I threw the curtains open, I realised this was the perfect place for a writer to work.

Morning mountain sunlight breaking over trees and green lawn and quaint gardens below. The workspace backs directly onto my bedroom, and used to be a sunroom, which is why it’s so incredibly light and airy. I took so many photos of my view, and not a single one of them gets close to doing the view any justice. Birds were chirping, which the other writers were able to name and identify, but with my ignorance of the animal kingdom I could only gaze on and appreciate their colours, and the flutter of their wings, and their uninhibited songs.

It really was tranquil and superb.

The tranquil view from my desk. Feat: oats.

The first thing I did when I sat down at my desk was sigh and imitate Colin Firth in the film Love, Actually when he first arrives at his writing retreat in France.

“Alone again,” I muttered to the open window. “Naturally.”

And then the work began.

I looked over INVISIBLE BOYS – the manuscript that actually won me the residency – but there was really no further change I could make without wanting to heat up a hot poker and slide it slowly into my eyeball. I was done with it, for now. I’d just delivered a fresh revision to my agent and making any further changes would be counterproductive. Not to mention the whole poker/eyeball thing.

So I started work on my next novel instead. I had the deepest pangs of latent Catholic guilt about this and I was totally waiting for someone to turn around and boot me out of the house for working on a different piece than the one that won the award. Thankfully, the awesome people at the Australian Society of Authors (who offer the Ray Koppe Award) assured me this didn’t matter; as did the friendly team at Varuna House.

My next work in progress is a contemporary YA novel with a bit of a mystery element to it. It was originally conceived as a YA thriller and so I knew I had to do some work to rejig the outline and shift its focus and locus of control, as it were. I desperately wanted to just start throwing words on the page, but even though it would have felt productive, it would have been a Sisyphean task.

So I spent the whole day plotting. That’s it. All day. Plotting what would happen when. Changing characters’ names. Changing them all back two hours later. Deciding someone would die. Then saving them. Then killing them off again.

In the arvo, I went for a run around the nearby streets of Katoomba, which is the main town in the Blue Mountains. Katoomba is such a beautiful town: green and lush with trees so much bigger than the dirt and scrub I grew up around.

On Katoomba’s main street. Is it just me or did this place just get a whole lot more STUDLY? 😉

What really threw me about Katoomba was how mountainous it was. Not just the nearby indigo shapes of the peaks: I mean just the streets themselves. I have never realised how incredibly flat Western Australia is compared to somewhere like the Blue Mountains. Every street was a massive slope, and I constantly felt like Atlas was about to shake the world globe and I’d go sliding off the face of the planet. On and off all week, I was actually pretty dizzy.

The run did me good after a day of heavy plotting. Sweating, getting back into my body, is some of the best healing I have found.


Wednesday 17th January 2018

When you’re a writer, and especially when you’re undertaking a residency, I think the expectation you put on yourself is that you will write a lot of pages. Pages are sexy.

But I spent Wednesday returning to my necessary outlining and planning documents, including Excel spreadsheets, which are the least sexy or creative thing in the entire universe.

Hard at work in the Bear Room.

The Varuna staff asked me if I wanted a writing consultation with an excellent editor who could help me with my work. I had to say no – not because I didn’t want to, but because I couldn’t afford it. That stung me, and made me feel like a bit of a lame duck.

Over the course of the day, I continued to work hard, but I started to feel frustrated. I wasn’t producing page after page of good writing. I wasn’t even producing page after page of shit writing that could be fixed later on. I was just plotting, and even though I knew it was necessary, I started to feel stagnant, like algae in a river’s listless meander.

In fact, I started to feel like a failure. And then a fraud. What kind of useless writer was I? Fucking around with plots and plans when the other four around me were probably churning out literary masterpieces with panache. Oh God. I’d actually won this place. Some very esteemed judges picked my writing over every other entrant’s.

And here I was screwing around in my spreadsheet. I bet the other entrants would have done so much better than me. Written more than me.

I spiralled down. Big time.

That night at dinner, the imposter syndrome ramped up to eleven. I don’t really know why, but probably because of the spiral I was already in, my insecurities got amplified.

Incidentally, one of my favourite things about the entire Varuna experience was that every night, all five resident authors come together in the dining room and share a catered meal together. The food by the amazing cook Sheila was delicious; the conversation was always vibrant and there was plenty of laughter.

Dessert at Varuna: Some kind of molten chocolate delicacy that was so rich I don’t think any of us could finish it. But man, it was incredible.

There was also so much to learn from my fellow writers. About writing, about craft, about passion, about publishing, about promotion, about sales, about business. About being an artist.

This is, in fact, one of the most valuable things about being a Varuna writer. Having dinner and conversation with a diverse group of both emerging, developing and established authors every night for a week goes beyond even the best networking. I would liken it to being on summer camp. There’s something about sharing a living space with a group of people that bonds you in some way. It was truly an uplifting experience, and I grew from it – as an artist and as a man.

On the Wednesday night, however, I was spiralling hard. No matter what progress I make in my career as an author, I inevitably find myself feeling like an imposter. That night, as all these published and successful people sat around the table talking about something highly intellectual, I felt like the dumb outsider, the uncultured and poorly-read bogan, the country boy who for a whole number of reasons did not belong at that table, and never would.

I didn’t sleep that night.


Thursday 18th January 2018

When I say I didn’t sleep on Wednesday night, I’m exaggerating a touch. I crashed for three hours after chatting to my fiancé over text (silence is vital in the rooms at Varuna as the walls are thin and other writers might be concentrating). But I woke up at 2am and couldn’t get back to sleep. My synapses were sparking, still short-circuiting with the fear I didn’t belong here.

I opened the curtains of the Bear Room at around 4am. I listened to some music in my earphones and watched the sky outside slowly change colour, quietly hoping I could trick myself into sleep somehow.

It didn’t work.

I was utterly wrecked on Thursday. I opened my laptop and felt like throwing up. Nope. Not today.

Instead, I read a novel: Steelheart, by Brandon Sanderson. An excellent piece of fantasy spliced with sci-fi (or maybe the other way around).

I tried naps. They failed.

In the arvo, I abandoned trying to rest or trying to write. I put on my cap and my backpack and went for a hike up to Echo Point, which is where you can see the natural rock formations known as the Three Sisters. It was incredible to face out onto an open green valley and feel so tiny compared to the earth and its body.

The famous Three Sisters feat. some tourist wanker. You can’t tell but I was reaching the limits of exhaustion in this photo.

There was a bar close to Echo Point. I went out onto the terrace which overhung the verdant valley. I drank lemonade over ice, stared out at nature, listened to tourists speaking foreign tongues around me, and wrote several pages of notes in the monogrammed Moleskine journal my agent gave me for Christmas.

I walked back to Varuna, thinking the walk would have exhausted me enough for a late arvo nap, but no cigar. I was at that point where tiredness turns to astonishment that you can possibly still be awake.

Writing on the edge of a cliff at Echo Point.

Dinner that night was the best one of my whole stay at Varuna. Not in terms of the food – that was uniformly delicious – but the banter. The night started on a positive note, with fellow Varuna resident Miranda Luby finding out she had a short story shortlisted for an award. The spirit among everyone was one of congratulations and collegiality.

After our usual dinner conversation we went off on a tangent talking about words we each despise – stuff like the ambiguous “inappropriate” or actually saying the word “hashtag”. My word was “impactful”. It crops up more and more each year but it is NOT a bloody word. And even if “impactful” becomes a recognised word by some shitty dictionary, it shall nevertheless forever remain a hideously inelegant one.

Back in the Bear Room, sleep finally hit me, like a house brick to the face.


Friday 19th January 2018

It’s not until you wake up feeling human again that you realise you weren’t feeling human before. Friday morning did that: it was like I’d been booked into the Pokémon Centre overnight and was now at full HP and fighting fit again (thanks, Nurse Joy!).

So battle, at last, I did.

Friday was the day where the writing finally flowed. I wrote about 2000 words, which is more than my daily average when I do something like NaNoWriMo, so I’d call it a success. I reckon it felt especially exultant after the nadir of the previous couple of days.

There was a relief that came with writing what was basically the first chapter of my new novel. The pressure valve was released. I didn’t feel like a total fuck-up. And when I closed my laptop late that afternoon, I felt like I’d actually achieved some of what I was sent here to do.

Working out in the Katoomba gym. There were no other humans in there. It was fairly eerie.

It made for an uplifting end to the week. I went to the local Katoomba shire gym (which, for any future resident’s knowledge, requires you to traverse one of the steepest slopes in town). I lifted weights. Sheila made us all pizza for tea. It was excellent.

At about 9:30pm I went for a night-time stroll down the main drag of Katoomba. With everyone else silent in their rooms, and after five days without a television or other background noise in the house, I desperately needed to be around some sound and movement.

I ended up at the Station Bar in the heart of Katoomba. Two hours of soul-replenishing live rock ‘n’ roll.

A square in downtown Katoomba where I ate lunch.


Saturday 20th & Sunday 21st January 2018

After finally churning out some pages and making good progress on my novel, I relaxed a bit on the weekend – both Saturday and Sunday. I made time to finally explore Katoomba in more depth, by which I mostly mean I ate a lot of food. Gelato, waffles, coffee, baked goods, pretty much anything that I shouldn’t have been eating.

I also went to a local barber and got a haircut (the Mohawk doesn’t trim itself) and walked around a classic car convention that had taken over the main street. Katoomba has an artsy, touristy vibe the way WA’s South West towns do – though it’s probably amped up a lot more.

Classic cars in the main street of Katoomba.

One thing I haven’t yet mentioned about Varuna is that each room has its own library, which is fundamentally cool. Even better, each library is different to the other in terms of the geographic origin of its tomes. For instance, one of the rooms might have Asian fiction, a second one might just have Australian books, and so on.

The Bear Room was home to the European Collection, and the calibre of novelists and writers and thinkers on the shelf beside me was unbelievable. I felt quite humbled, looking at these famous spines and titles, some of them household names and some of them quite unknown to me but critically acclaimed and influential writers of their times.

This also reignited the ambition flame in me: I want to be like them. I want to my books on these shelves. I want my name on spines.

I flicked through some books and read what I could, but there wasn’t time for everything. The piece I remember best was a story called “Adam, One Afternoon” in a collection by Italian writer and journalist Italo Calvino. It sticks in my mind because it was so incredibly light and very odd and unsettling at the same time. The flow of the writing was somehow hypnotic and I both liked and was unnerved by it.

Two of the books I read while in the Bear Room. Camus’ “The Rebel” was not a novel, but an essay – and rather masterfully written (though I didn’t have time to read it all).

The other aspect of Varuna that I haven’t really talked about is the fellow writers. I am reticent to go into too much detail about the other authors I stayed with, because I guess that’s their story and I don’t know how much detail they like to share about their jaunts and residencies. They may be intensely private people, so I’ve kept this part minimal.

But honestly, the other authors are such a massive part of what makes a residency at Varuna worthwhile. I learned so much from them in different ways.

Gabrielle Carey (non-fiction author, and co-author of the very famous novel Puberty Blues) had some real insights on the publishing industry. She also holds the distinct honour of being the person who (very generously) taught me step by step how to make percolated coffee when she found me bumbling around the Varuna kitchen on my first day.

The view from Varuna’s kitchen. NB: Rum not included in the residency.

Stuart Cooke (published poet and academic) shared so much about the inner workings of the poetry world, and of the difference between poetry in different languages. He is also well-versed in cat videos and is the most proficient dishwasher stacker known to man.

Nandi Chinna (poet, essayist, eco-activist) has one of the most friendly spirits of any human I’ve encountered. Apart from making me feel exceedingly welcome, she also taught me a lot about publishing, and poetry, and ecology, and birds. She also made me stop beating myself up about not making progress and stressed the importance of taking break days – which was vital to getting through my Varuna experience with my ego intact.

Miranda Luby (fellow YA author) was a kindred spirit in a lot of ways. We both write YA fiction; we’re both emerging authors; we’re both enjoying the last of our twenties; and we are both ambitious and relentless in our drive to get our debut novels published. I had a fantastic time connecting with Miranda and we’ve continued to connect on social media. Watch out for this one – I think her debut novel will do big things, and I’m kind of quietly hoping we’ll both end up on some YA author panel at a festival a few years from now.

I think the main thing I want to point out here is that the five of us were all so different from one another. Non-fiction authors. Academics. Poets. YA contemporary and YA fantasy authors. Despite my insecurities earlier in the week, by the time it came to Sunday night dinner I realised Varuna House is a place for all writers. We all belonged there.

Even displaced country boys who write YA fiction.


Monday 22nd January 2018

Miranda and I left Varuna in a taxi Nandi had kindly arranged for us. As the taxi arrived, I realised I hadn’t written in the Varuna guest book, so I dashed out the quickest and most uninspired message in history while the taxi driver waited. Then, duty done, I fled.

I had a great chat with Miranda on the journey back to Sydney. And as viridian mountains receded to the fumes and umber of the outer suburbs, I realised this whole adventure really was over. I felt like an American kid coming back from summer camp. I’d learned a lot. I’d seen new places. I’d made new friends. And I wanted to come back again next summer, preferably for even longer.


At Katoomba Station with Miranda Luby. NB: Not our shit on the bench, we asked some bloke to move so we could take our selfie.

So many published authors tell younger writers that the key to success is to “write every day”. The spectre of this advice cast a long shadow over my stay at Varuna, until I recently saw a tweet by bestselling fantasy author Garth Nix.

Garth made a point that writing every day does not necessarily mean pumping out words of usable prose daily. It also means outlining. Dreaming. Plotting. Picking character names. Making Excel spreadsheets for chapter outlines. Writing a sentence and deleting it. Jotting down notes in a journal. Exploring a new place. Reading books and finding inspiration. Even just staring into space thinking about what you’re going to do next with the unwieldy blob of clay that is your work in progress.

And Varuna made all of that happen for me. I got a lot done. I made some progress on my next novel. I learned about writing and editing and publishing. I learned about mountains and birds and nature and poems. I learned about myself and I slayed a few demons (or at the very least, I fired some warning shots across their noses).

I have to thank everyone who made this experience possible for me: the awesome team at the Australian Society of Authors; Ray Koppe and the Koppe family for their generous legacy and gift; the award judges Tristan Bancks and Aoife Clifford for thinking INVISIBLE BOYS was good enough; and the team at Varuna who were so willing to help with anything I needed during my stay.

If you’re ever considering a residency at Varuna, or anywhere else, do it.

Especially do it if you think you’re not good enough, or that you won’t belong there, because you might just get lucky and discover that you are, and you do.


I’ll never forget my week here.

When Poetry Spreads Its Wings … Into Prose

Inspiration always strikes at the least convenient of times.

This morning, it was just as I was about to leave the gym. I went for an hour’s run, pushing through the crusty fatigue of having returned to work this week, and I was riding a nice sweat-coated endorphin high.

As I refilled my water bottle (the gym’s water is so much cooler than my tap at home), I passed by one of the workers from the gym’s creche carrying a kid down the corridor. She said something dumb in that inane “I’m dealing with a child” kind of voice, jollying the toddler along, and it triggered some strange melange of memory and thought in my brain.

And, BAM, just like that: inspiration.

By the time I reached the car park, I had lines of written expression cascading out of my pores like water overfilling a swimming pool. As soon as I got into the car, I put the windows down (it was bloody warm) and grasped at my phone to open the Memo app. A few disjointed lines of what I thought was a poem gushed out of my fingertips and onto the screen.

Now, despite being pretty comfortable calling myself a writer, that usually extends only to the world of prose and, every so often, a brief foray into journalism (after which I usually retreat for a bit). But poet is not a word I am comfortable using on myself.

It’s not that I haven’t written poetry over the years. I went through a particularly prolific period from about 2005-2009 where I wrote notebooks and notebooks absolutely filled with poems and lyrics and stream-of-consciousness ramblings and other art.

And I did dabble in taking this a bit more seriously at uni, around 2008-2009, when I crafted a couple of cycles of poems that I actually thought were not half bad and my lecturers liked them enough, too. One longer collection of poems from 2009, GOOD BOYS, is actually something I’d love to revisit one day, because it was the first time I made a genuine attempt to tackle the themes and tone and style of what has now become my debut novel manuscript, INVISIBLE BOYS.

Nevertheless, I know my own skills well enough to know poetry isn’t really something I am going to pursue at a professional level. So, I spent the drive home wondering what to do with this piece. I figured I might chuck it up here on the blog, or even make it into a graphic and share it on Instagram and Twitter and, maybe if I was willing to be criticised by people in my family, even Facebook.

Once home, I chugged through my usual morning routine. This usually consists of:

  • submerging my soul in a hot shower;
  • meticulously weighing and consuming oats, protein powder and egg whites (I eat for performance, not taste, during the week, as my trainer invariably reminds me); and
  • singing unabashedly into the empty, but very receptive, living room (today’s selected tune was John Butler Trio’s 2011 album track To Look Like You).

Mid-morning, I sat down at the laptop ready to work on my second novel, for which I really need a working title that I can share, because I don’t want to share the actual working title yet as it lets on a little too much, I reckon. I’ll make something up soon. It will be a working-working title.

Anyway, I open the word document and WHOOSH. It’s not the novel that explodes from the tips of my fingers like blue streamers of electricity: it’s that damn poem again! Only this time, it’s magically rearranging itself into full sentences … and … aha!

Turns out it was prose all along; the poem I spat out in the car was just a Metapod that, once given the right space, burst free from its cocoon and spread its wings as a glorious Butterfree.


I now have in my possession a sharp, 94-word piece of flash fiction titled VIOLET.

I might try to find a home for this one – maybe a competition, or a journal, or something along those lines. This one tapped into some old feelings – fear, bitterness, anger – so it’s going to be a spiky one and I almost dread certain people reading it.

Yet, at the same time, I want them to read it because I want them to know.


PS. Varuna blog post next week, I swear!



How Alanis Morissette Saved My Life

One day in 1995, I rocked up to primary school to see a whole bunch of classmates gathered around an enclave behind the Year 2 classroom. Someone had scrawled an angry message in black Artline texta on the otherwise non-threatening beige bricks. The message read:

“Are you thinking of me when you fuck her?” – Alanis Morissette

Keep in mind we were all seven years old, so we were mystified by this strange message which actually contained One Of The Really Bad Swear Words. Now, one of the other kids alerted us that the teacher was coming, so we raced back to line up for class, and I suspect for everyone else that was the end of the mystery.

But my curious little sponge-brain kept churning. Who was this mysterious Alanis Morissette? Was he the dodgy guy who roamed around in the bushland next to our school? Was he a killer? Was he threatening to fuck someone, whatever ‘fuck’ actually meant? I was quite convinced I’d found a clue to some kind of local murder case. Of course, being seven, I eventually forgot about the brewing criminal investigation, failed to inform the Geraldton Police, and went back to learning my times tables.

I was too young to place the name – but looking back, I can clearly recall that was my first exposure to the woman who would, some years later, become my favourite musical artist of all time.

Over the next decade my awareness grew a tiny bit. I had a vague knowledge of Alanis Morissette as some angry chick with a harmonica on the radio. I heard her thank India on the radio when I was ten years old but never knew it was her song.

It was in 2004 that something significant happened. I was draped over the couch one Sunday and my dad was reading the entertainment magazine that came inside the weekend newspaper.

“Hey, you know that Alanis Morissette?” he asked me. (Everyone’s name has a “that” before it when my dad uses it.)

“Yeah.” The local bushland killer guy. No. Wait. Famous singer-songwriter bird. “What about her?”

“She says in this interview that she wanted to kill herself back when she was younger. Can you imagine? All that fame and money and she still wanted to top herself.”


And that little factoid got stored in my brain. I didn’t dwell on it that day – I went back to whatever I spent my weekends doing at sixteen, which was probably either working on my awesome Pokemon fanfiction (it was super cool, thanks) or planning how to sneak away for my next wank.

A few weeks later, maybe, I heard Alanis’ single “Out is Through” on the radio and watched the video on Rage with my little sister. I liked it enough to wait for it to come on the radio and tape it on a cassette to listen to later, and it ended up as a mediocre track on one of my many top 40 mixes.

In 2006, a German girl I met while backpacking through Europe burned me a mix CD for my discman (I’d got with the times). Track 4 of that album was Alanis’ song “Everything”. It was a nice enough song.

The reason I list all these little touchpoints is because even though I knew who and what Alanis was by this point in my life, she was always just another singer-songwriter. Pleasing to the ear; lyrically skilful; beautiful voice. But nothing groundbreaking. I was quite heavily into Killing Heidi and The Offspring and The Darkness and solo artists didn’t really enter that equation.

It was in 2007 that everything changed. I was on a trip to Melbourne with my family to see Collingwood play at the MCG, and at some point later that week we wound up in a record shop. I had grown my hair long and my face was covered in typical eighteen-year-old bumfluff and I was in a moody depressive haze, and suddenly while flicking through CDs I came across a purple disc with a hand on the cover.

Alanis Morissette: The Collection.

And immediately, I heard my Dad’s voice from three years before. She wanted to kill herself.

It meant nothing to me in 2004, but everything to me in 2007, because by then, in that very moment, I was a rage-filled, repressed, suicidal timebomb and I was ready to explode.

Compelled, I bought the album and went straight to the hotel, put my earphones in and listened to it.

It was a song called Eight Easy Steps that changed my life. These lyrics, in particular, struck a chord inside me so deep that my soul reverberated until my teeth shook:

How to lie to yourself and thereby to everyone else
How to keep smiling when you’re thinking of killing yourself
How to numb à la ‘holic to avoid going within
How to stay stuck in blue by blaming them for everything

I’ll teach you all this in eight easy steps
The course of a lifetime, you’ll never forget
I’ll show you how to in eight easy steps
I’ll show you how leadership looks when taught by the best

I was stunned. She knew. She knew what this shit felt like. Real shit. And she knew exactly how I was feeling. She had written it down and articulated it in a way I didn’t have the skills, or emotional capacity or distance, to do. I’d never heard someone sing about wanting to kill themselves in such a way.

And all I could think was, “well, she’s still alive, so maybe she knows something I don’t”.

And so, I let Alanis Morissette show me how leadership looks. I followed her songs, one by one through YouTube searches, and became more and more amazed at her lyrical and musical artistry. I found the 1998 hard rocker “Joining You” on a YouTube video about gay suicide and must have played it a hundred times before finally going to a local record shop to buy the album it came from, Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie.

Junkie was the first studio record of Alanis’ I heard, and it remains my favourite album of all time to this day. It is a sprawling mess of dirty riffs, drum loops, Eastern-influenced strings and dark, experimental lyrics, and each song was – and still is – like therapy. Before long, I’d worked my way through Alanis Morissette’s entire discography.

People who know me personally already know that I am a huge fan, but they may not know the extent to which Alanis’ music quite literally saved my life.

When I describe myself as a timebomb in that era, I mean I was a mess of sparking, short-circuiting emotions and I had no way of processing or understanding them. That changed when I found this artist. Her music and lyrics helped me to get through each black day. They made me unravel and try to understand myself. They eventually made me want to keep living.

“Joining You” and “Eight Easy Steps” and “Can’t Not” and so many other songs helped me tackle the dark shit in my head.

“Right Through You” and “Sympathetic Character” and “Not The Doctor” helped me to channel my rage.

“I Was Hoping” and “Hands Clean” helped me rethink and reprocess my teenage dalliances with much older men.

And beyond helping me endure the hardest times and make sense of the mess that was my own brain, Alanis’ approach to art informed my own. I became utterly convinced that good art is honest art. Art that is unflinching and unfettered; art that speaks to what hurts more than anything else; art that yields to no sacred cows, but speaks the truth regardless of fallout.

It is a philosophy that now, in 2018, is at the very core of who I am as a writer and an artist. It’s what made me throw caution to the wind and write my novel INVISIBLE BOYS, which is, upon reflection, incredibly unabashed and honest.

This same drive is now burning anew in my chest since last night’s concert, when I saw Alanis perform at the ICC Theatre in Sydney. The way the songs connected directly to my inner self, like a lariat of healing wrapped around my heart, brought tears to my eyes again. Her voice during Mary Jane reminded me of the power of putting all your emotion into something. Her delivery of You Oughta Know recalled the power of channelling truth into art.

And so I’m revitalised for 2018 – not just to write another novel, but to write a novel that brims with honest emotion. Honest and unfettered expression is my ultimate paragon in this quest, and I can’t wait to see that spill across the page.

It’s hard being an artist and it’s hard being a sensitive person. But it’s a little easier when someone leads the way and somehow manages to understand and express your inexpressible feelings for you.



2017 Is Done, And I’m Still Breathing

I always find it hard to sum up a year when I’m still living it.

Every 31st December, the prevailing sentiment for most people is that we are weary battlers who made it through another year of global spite and personal chaos. So often, we are quick to deliver the departing year a few quick bludgeons on the back of the head as it crosses the threshold from felt experience into history. I know I’ve shared more than one meme about the years lining up to beat the living shit out of me.

Sometimes it really feels that way, doesn’t it? We barely escape a calendar year with our sanity and hope intact, only to get clobbered by the next January.

This is just life, of course. With each passing year, I’ve come to realise that it’s the nature of every year that there are some significant highs and often some crushing lows. Even when I’ve had a terrible year – like perhaps 2010 and 2013 (not incidentally, years where I worked full-time in day jobs and didn’t write a word) – there were some really amazing things that I enjoyed about those years. Likewise, happier years like perhaps 2008 (when I hit my stride at uni) and 2011 (when I started my Hons degree and finished an important story) had their share of bullshit and pain, too.

fork in the road 2017a
As usual at this time of year, I find myself at a literal fork in the road.

2017 is no different. The year started horrendously: I had just been made redundant at my old full-time job, and the novel I had spent two and a half years working on garnered no interest from literary agents. At first, I fell into an abyss and gave myself permission to stay there for a little while.

But I always prefer to push on, and not wallow. So I decided to see losing my job and my first novel’s failure to get any interest from agents as a chance for a new beginning. I was determined to find a new job that I really loved. I would push on and work harder to get published. And dammit, I would try to change my unhealthy habits along the way, too.

If I could encapsulate this year in one image and one moment, it would be me sprinting and sweating on a treadmill at sunset while “Marry the Night” by Lady Gaga throbbed in my eardrums. Man, that song was a driving force behind me all year long.

2017 for me was a year of intensely hard work; and a year where I learned intensely hard work does not just apply to paid jobs or manual labour. I worked hard and sacrificed – day and night, weekdays and weekends – until I got bits and pieces of what I wanted.

In the work domain, I eventually landed a bunch of casual jobs that just barely allowed me to make ends meet. It was uniquely stressful trying to cram so many roles into my week’s calendar, but I did it. Often it was not enough money to pay for everything, so it was a damn tough year financially and I had to sacrifice and struggle, but I refused to give in and go back to full time work. That part of my life is now over. I am a writer, first and foremost, now, and I will take on only part-time and casual work to get me through.

In the writing sphere, I had the best year of my life, hands down. I released three of my short-stories as e-Books, and got to see one of them chart on iBooks in the US which was incredible. I became the Vice-President of my local writing centre. I wrote a significant and highly personal article on same-sex marriage for the Huffington Post which went viral and briefly tapped into the national conversation. I was interviewed a few times on commercial, community and AM radio.

And best of all, I wrote my second novel. This novel was birthed as a novella in February, and came screaming and kicking out of me in July and August. INVISIBLE BOYS was completed this year, and went on to win the 2017 Ray Koppe Residency Award. It also caught the interest of literary agent extraordinaire Haylee Nash of The Nash Agency, who I gleefully signed to in November.

I also kept working on my fitness this year: I lost another 20 kilos (bringing the grand total to 30 kg lost since 2016) but most importantly, I kept and maintained a dedicated fitness and diet regime, which continues into 2018. I also finally quit smoking (again) but this time it seems to have stuck: as of five hours from now, 2017 will be my first whole year without a cigarette since 2009, and I am very thrilled about this.

Often these kinds of “year-in-review” posts can be seen to be in bad taste. I see people on Facebook often mocked for showing off their achievements, or cherry-picking only the good stuff. I guess I see the humour in that (the Bell Tower Times had a hilarious post about this just today) but I also see the value in reflective thinking and summarising one’s experience in a way that starts to build a narrative for oneself.

And no, 2017 was not uniquely a good year. In fact, in a whole load of private ways, this year was one of the most painful and difficult of my entire life. I don’t dwell on these matters, or even identify all of them, because I don’t want to and it’s too painful. But I suppose I want to acknowledge that they’re there.

The only one I will cast some light on is that writing a novel like INVISIBLE BOYS was a total headfuck and required me to mine the depths of some very old trauma and pain, and this had an enormous effect on me. In fact, when I lived some of the experience that contributes to this fictional book, it nearly killed me. And when I first tried to write about it in 2012, it nearly killed me a second time. In 2017, I managed to revisit it and write about it with honesty and transparency and no sacred cows, and I am still breathing.

In fact, that’s my proudest achievement of 2017: that even after tackling my demons, I’m still breathing.

2018 promises to be an even more arduous year of hard work, dedication, sacrifice and courage (and probably spear-tackling some demons again, just for good measure), so I’m excited to dive in and keep breathing through next year, too.

Congratulations to all of you for surviving 2017, and I can’t wait to travel more of this road with you next year. Happy new year! 🙂



Success is an Iceberg

It was to my absolute surprise a couple of weeks ago that my debut YA novel, INVISIBLE BOYS, was announced as the winner of the 2017 Ray Koppe Residency Award.

This award recognises the outstanding manuscript of a young Australian writer (under the age of 30). It is run by the Australian Society of Authors, provides the winner with a one-week residency at Varuna, the National Writers’ House, and was judged by some fantastic and well-known published authors (Aoife Clifford and Tristan Bancks).

In short: it was a significant win, and definitely the most significant win of my writing career thus far.

It also caught the attention of a wonderful literary agent in Sydney, whom I have now signed with: again, a massive win in my career as an author.

The truth is, though, I never expected to win this award, and I was utterly shocked (and elated) when I did.

I apply for as much as I can, partly because I believe in seizing as many opportunities as possible, and partly on the advice New York agent Janet Reid always gives on her blog, which is, in a nutshell, “Write well, and query widely.”

I pretty much operate by that mantra. I write as well as I can. I seek constant feedback. I am always trying to improve, to write more economically, to write from the heart about what hurts, to avoid the cliche.

And I query as widely as I can. Not just in my submissions to agents and publishers, but when I send short stories to journals, and in my applications for residencies, mentorships, writing programs of all shapes and sizes – you name it.

Mind you, I don’t just hurl applications into the stratosphere and hope something sticks. I only apply for stuff where I fit the criteria, and stuff that I really want.

When I first got the email about my award win, I was confused, because I’d just applied for something completely different a few days ago, and I wondered how they could possibly have turned that around in such a short space of time.

Then the penny dropped.

Fuck, I lost my shit, man.

I won’t go into too much detail, but there was some jumping, some shouting, and some very loud music. I spun around my home office like a dervish whirling, though I don’t know any dervishes who like whirling to “Marry the Night” by Lady Gaga.

This was all the more sweet because, to be frank, 2017 has been a hard bloody slog.

I worked hard all year building my career as an indie author. I released three short stories, two of which sold decently and one which sold surprisingly well. I tweeted and Facebooked and blogged. I managed my own website, my own promotion. I poured what little money I have into my writing career instead of saving it. So many days, I would knock off from a day at working one of my five jobs (sometimes doing several of them in a single day), and then, before I could sit down and write my novel, I’d have to drag my arse to my trainer at the gym, who would pummel me for an hour – mentally and physically. And only then would I get home, shower, eat, and get stuck into a few more pages.

I burned out several times. When I wasn’t burnt out, I was either a pre-burnout neurotic mess or a post-burnout shell. I had to fit in doctor’s visits and counselling sessions into what was already a ridiculous schedule.

And during all of those godawful days, I never once thought of giving up.

Not once did I wonder if I would ever get anywhere with my writing.

At every stage, I just wondered, “How long will it take?”

Because I’m so deadset on my career as an author, nothing will stop me. If everything else fails and I lose everything, I’ll be that crazy homeless guy in the park and I’ll just read my novels aloud to the people walking by on their lunch break trying to avoid my gaze.

Of course, I hope it won’t come to that. The signs are really good. But I’m half Sicilian, and Sicilians can be a little cautious and a little superstitious.

There is some overused meme out there in the cyber-ether that says success is an iceberg. It is very, very true. I’m surprised at how many people recently have suggested, after congratulating me on the award win or landing my agent, that everything’s always rosy for me.

I probably should just let those comments slide – especially as they are usually well-intentioned – but, perhaps because I’m a writer, I want the picture painted by passing words to be accurate. Not just for myself, but for other writers to know that it’s the same for all of us. That’s why I’m at pains to point out that the overnight successes are never overnight, nor are they pure success.

In fact, in 2017 I think I faced more rejection than ever.

My first manuscript (not INVISIBLE BOYS, but a fantasy novel) was rejected by everyone who laid eyes on it.

And my other works were knocked back by journals, magazines, newspapers, websites, writing centres and publishers.

Over and over.

I don’t announce every rejection. Firstly because they hurt; secondly because I don’t want to be a downer.

But they happen all the time. They happen to every writer, aspiring, emerging and yes, even published authors get rejected.

This hasn’t been an easy year, so having a win at the end becomes an even bigger celebration for me.

I am so, so grateful that Ray Koppe’s legacy has enabled young writers like myself to have this opportunity. And I’m thrilled that the Australian Society of Authors keeps this program going.

The moment in the sun has reached its twilight now. I have deadlines now, and I need to make some edits to my manuscript, so it’s back to hard work mode.

But, man, after everything – the hard work, the failure, the sacrifice – it was really nice to have a bloody win this year.

More from me, soon.









10 Things I Wish I Knew About Being an Author When I First Started

As a boy, I was easily duped by some of the myths that swirl around becoming an author. The Myth of Overnight Success. The Myth of the Rich and Famous Author. The Myth of the Divine Muse and Her Timely Inspiration. The Myth of the Validation of Publication.

It’s easy to get lost in the myths of an industry when you’re a total noob and don’t know anything about it. It wasn’t until I became a practising author that I discovered what was really involved – and, usually, I found out the hard way.

So, I wanted to share the 10 things I wish I knew about being an author when I first started this quest. These are the lessons that helped me grow from a wannabe into a published author.

1. Writing Time is Made, Not Found  

As a teenager, I would spend my summer holidays writing relentlessly, because for two months I had literally no other demands on my time. Man, I loved those days. But after I turned eighteen, adulthood struck me like a blunt shovel to the face. I found myself mired in a listless struggle. I was eternally wanting to work on my novel, but work, and study, and family, and relationships – not to mention bills and administration – all jostled for pole position in my schedule. Progress was not just painfully slow, it was often non-existent: there were a couple of years in there where I don’t think I wrote anything at all, other than notes.

The reason for my progress paralysis was that I was expecting to find those golden free months to write, but this time doesn’t happen when you’re a grown up. As an adult, one’s schedule – like nature – abhors a vacuum. Your days will constantly be full of the usual humdrum, and this won’t magically clear one day. You probably won’t get to the bottom of your email inbox. There will always be more housework to be done, or another friend to catch up with for a drink. You have to actually clear time in your diary. You have to make time for your writing.

Since learning this in 2014, I’ve made regular time for writing in my schedule. Every week, there are hours dedicated to both administration and creative time. This means that I sometimes withdraw socially, or don’t go to an event, or blow off some other work until a later date – but it’s what took me from a wannabe to a practising artist.

This is my first ever guest blog post for another author’s blog. Check out the rest of the list at Rebecca Cahill’s blog here.


Why Promo Makes Me Crap My Pants

It’s no wonder people think writers are head cases. We make absolutely no sense as creatures, and least of all to ourselves. There are about 8263283 reasons why this is a true statement, but for today I’m focusing on our unique capacity to vacillate between Regina George-level attention whores and panicky, milquetoast, aw-shucks-m’am Clark Kent types.

Specifically, when it comes to promo.

So, in late July, and again in mid-August, a couple of opportunities cropped up for me to promote my work (and myself) on radio.

On one hand, as a writer, I crave attention. I want my work to be well-received and for it to reach as many people as possible. And I really enjoy speaking about my stories, too. So these opportunities were incredible, and I jumped at them both.

But despite being a fairly extroverted kind of guy, especially for a geeky artist, I was completely shitting myself both times.

My first instinct when it comes to promotion is panic. There is something incredibly vulnerable about actually putting yourself out there for people to listen to, or read about. It taps in to many old insecurities: what if I am not interesting? Unlikable? Sound foolish? Get tripped up by a popular culture reference I don’t understand? And then there’s all the more primal insecurities: what does my voice sound like on radio? Is it rich enough, compared to the seasoned broadcasters? Do I sound too much like a bogan? What if I have a sneezing fit at the exact moment I go on air?

The second response is “say yes, you dumb arse, before they change their mind and rescind the invite!”

I’ve been fostering my writing career for some time, so I’m savvy enough to say yes to every opportunity. Well, every good opportunity. There are a lot of dodgy offers out there, though mostly on the Internet as opposed to the traditional media. Nonetheless, once I do agree to some promo, it brings on nights of restless sleep and causes my stomach to churn even more frequently than Harry Potter’s did in The Order of the Phoenix. (Seriously, Rowling mentions his guts roughly once every ten pages. Especially when Cho Chang is around. Check if you don’t believe me.)

When I was featured on Thursdays with Robyn on Twin Cities 89.7 FM in July, I was

twin cities fm photo
RADIO GA GA: Hanging out after the show with the lovely Robyn from Twin Cities FM.

nervous as hell right up until we went on air. Once that switch was flicked on the console, I reverted back instantly to my days as a radio host (many moons ago, I did some community radio) and the confidence came back. Robyn was a fantastic host, highly accomplished and professional and we had some great banter. I was thrilled to read excerpts from THE SCROLL OF ISIDOR and THE BLACK FLOWER, as well as chatting about my writing, my background and writing in general. The full clip is on my YouTube channel here.

I really enjoyed the experience in and of itself – but I was also delighted when I had a huge sales spike that same day. That spike helped land THE SCROLL OF ISIDOR at #3 on the iTunes Epic Fantasy Chart and #19 on the Barnes & Noble Fantasy Short Stories Chart. I was stoked. Pushing through the nerves paid off.

More recently, I wrote a piece for the Huffington Post about Australia’s same-sex marriage postal vote, which is hugely contentious right now. The piece was unexpectedly very well received and went viral. I had messages from people across the country – everything from dissent and abuse to praise and thanks and support. I was very touched by the response to the article, and so glad that something I wrote (initially intended for this blog) ended up not only getting published in the mainstream press but seemed to make an impact on the discourse around this issue.

One of the people who read the piece was Tanya Wilks, co-host of the breakfast show on Newcastle’s top-rated brekky radio show, Tanya & Steve, on KOFM 102.9 FM Newcastle. Tanya’s producer reached out to me and the next morning, I was on air discussing not just the article, but the highly personal nature of it.

I was a giant bundle of nerves for the entire day and night before the interview. (Harry’s stomach tumbled like a washing machine as he spotted Cho drinking a butterbeer …) This one was more nerve-racking than the first. Instead of talking about my writing output and myself as an author, I was talking about a very hotly-debated topic and about myself as a human – and as a man who is affected directly by the marriage equality debate.

*stomach gurgling intensifies*

As it panned out, Tanya and Steve were fantastic hosts and asked some really insightful questions. I didn’t make a complete idiot of myself on air; I didn’t pass out from sharing stuff that was too close to the bone; and I didn’t drop a turd in my jocks. These are all my criteria for nailing it at life, so that was a win.

What I’ve really learned from these experienced is that I want to get more comfortable with doing promo. I absolutely love sharing and talking about my work, and I am a good public speaker and an engaging presenter and lecturer, but I want to get even better at this. So, as with anything worth doing, I’m going to start seeking out more opportunities to practice this whole promotion shebang. Like a runner training for a marathon, I want to start getting in shape and really stepping up my game in how I approach promo and how I handle the nerves. I want to be able to tackle these opportunities with aplomb.

My measures for success? No more Order of the Phoenix stomach-sloshing every time Cho Chang appears.

And clean pants.

See you at the next promo op!