I even type the word “gratitude” hastily, almost looking over my shoulder in case someone catches me doing it, because I think I was raised (socially/culturally/familially) to see this concept as a bit granola-y, you know?
Like, if I talk about feeling grateful (ecch), it’s a slippery slope to aura cleansing and essential oils and crystal therapy. From there, of course, it’s only a hop, skip and a jump to having a man bun and drinking kombucha.
Worse than that, I was scared that if I ever wrote about feeling grateful for what I have, I would lose it. It sounds superstitious to write this, and is probably a chunky insight into my shattered-glass psyche, but even now as I write this, I am scared that when I hit “publish”, the universe or God (or the therapy crystals, those malevolent fuckers!) will turn on me and take away everything good in my life.
I wasn’t raised to talk about the good things, because that’s showing off and attention seeking, and I grew up learning that pride comes before a fall. No pride, no fall, right?
However, I also wasn’t raised to talk about the bad things, because that’s dwelling on the negative and navel gazing and also, somehow, attention seeking. You just get on with it.
Sidebar: when I look at these two statements, I can only conclude that I was essentially raised not to talk.
But talk I do, now.
In any case, I think I’ve learned over the past few years – through writing my blog posts, through being more open on social media, and of course through my writing of novels and short stories – to talk about the hard stuff, the darker side, the bad shit. It’s been cathartic and revelatory and a constant undulation of learning that it’s okay, and survivable, to feel the full spectrum of human emotion.
But I don’t know if I’ve ever learned how to write about feeling good.
I realised this recently when a wave of the much-maligned gratitude smacked me in the face with the force of a tsunami, and I could barely hold it together.
It happened, of all places, at Disneyland.
This was over a month ago, when I was on my honeymoon in Europe, and we arrived in Paris for the final week of our holiday. I mentioned something to my husband about following him around France to various pop concerts of his choosing, and he suggested I should choose an activity for us while we were in Paris.
The first thing out of my mouth was, “I wanna go to Disneyland.”
This was unexpected, because Disneyland has never been on my radar. I’ve been to Paris twice before and never had any intention to visit it. In fact, in 2013 I was at the train station that takes people from Paris to the theme parks, and I remember seeing the parents with their prams and kids hanging off them like saddle bags and thinking, “That seems like actual hell on Earth.”
And to be honest, I’ve always been fairly critical of the commercial apparatus behind the Disney machine: I don’t like how that studio has taken over so much of Hollywood, how its influence and control sweeps over so many franchises. My first thought of Disneyland was the No Doubt song “Tragic Kingdom”, taken from their hit 1995 album of the same name:
Once was a magical place
Over time it was lost
Price increased the cost
Now the drawbridge
Has been lifted as the millions
They drop to their knees
They pay homage to a king
Whose dreams are buried in their minds
His tears are frozen stiff
Icicles drip from his eyes
The king being Walt Disney; his frozen tears a reference to the urban legend that he was cryogenically frozen upon his death in 1966. (Which, holy crap, I only just discovered was not actually true(!?!), but that’s a discussion for another day.)
The point was: I was a bit cynical about the Disney corporation and yet, when I was given carte blanche to choose anywhere I wanted to go in Paris, I chose Disneyland.
Because, being on my honeymoon, I was in a five-week long permanent good mood, and honestly, fuck the cynicism and shit, I just wanted to go have some fun.
So, the husband and I finally arrived at Disneyland Paris on a cool June day. As soon as we got off the RER train and walked out into the open air, I could feel the sense of excitement building in my limbs.
“I want to explore the village first, before we go into the theme park,” I said, like an absolute geek, but I just needed to know that I had walked around every square inch I was allowed to.
So we did: briefly exploring the retro restaurants and cafes and sports bars of the Disney Village like the kid who keeps his shiny collectible in the box and presses his nose to the plastic, scared to ruin the anticipation of finally opening the new toy.
And while we were still in the village, in one of the giant shops filled with Disney merchandise, the wave hit me.
It was partly the nostalgia factor of seeing so much Aladdin and The Lion King merch on display in the shop. They were the defining Disney animated films of my childhood; Aladdin was the first movie I ever saw at a cinema when I was 4 or 5. I remembered the first time I’d heard of Disneyland. Back in the days of VHS tapes, they used to have advertisements for Disneyland before and/or after the film, so in that moment in the World of Disney shop, it came flooding back.
The memory of being five years old, and seeing all these kids and families having an epic time at Disneyland, and knowing that would never be me.
It would be misleading to pretend that I grew up in some impoverished situation, because I didn’t. But I grew up in an isolated town and we weren’t the kind of family who could afford to fly overseas and go to Disneyland. So, I think I grew up learning that lots of things in life were out of reach for someone like me, and Disneyland and Europe were two of those things.
I had never realised it had imprinted on me in such a way until this moment.
So while my husband was blithely scoping out the merch, I felt a tidal wave of happiness splash over me, gently at first, almost like a fresh dew.
The wave said to me:
Sometimes, we do eventually get what we want. Isn’t it nice?
And then, suddenly, there I was, choking back tears in the Disney shop, surrounded in all directions by those stupid fucking overpriced mugs and Mickey Mouse-embossed glassware while A Whole New World played over the speakers.
Because the wave was right. It was really nice to, eventually, get something that you always wanted. It was a childlike, redemptive state to be in: that I had accessed some hitherto hidden pocket of joy that I had absolutely ruled myself out of experiencing when I was a young boy.
What a lucky doer.
I managed to contain myself, so when the husband decided he was done and we moved on to the next part of the village, I cracked jokes about how this place was so capitalist and how “moichandising” was “where the real money from the movies was made” (quoted in the voice of the character Yogurt from the 1986 parody flick Spaceballs).
But the wave wasn’t done with me yet.
As we walked, the gratitude just kept building inside me. The tidal wave was slushing through my body, a cleansing flood washing out all these other things in my life I had told myself I would never, ever have – except now, miraculously, I did have them.
I felt gratitude to be at Disneyland as a 30 year old man when I’d once believed I’d never have the chance.
I felt gratitude to be walking there, hand-in-hand with the man I love. The first time I came to Paris in 2006, I was with a man and later told myself this would be something I would never have again. I remember returning to Perth Airport after that backpacking holiday and squeezing myself back into my straight guy body, the spectral snakeskin of my old self that I would continue to wear for two years. I thought I would never get what I wanted – but now, here I was with my husband.
I felt gratitude that, after all the campaigning and trauma, I was now legally married to the bloke, something I grew up never even imagining as an option.
I felt gratitude to be in Paris, my favourite city in the world, a million miles from home.
I felt gratitude that my book had just won another award, that people were congratulating me and saying they wanted to read it, that it was actually finally getting published, when I’d been working on that dream since I was seven years old.
I felt gratitude that I was on my honeymoon and having the best five weeks of my goddamn life.
I felt so much gratitude I just wanted to get on my knees and thank God, or the universe, or the essential-oil-crystal-kombucha-auras, for letting anything this good happen to me. I didn’t feel like I deserved any of it, but I was so, so glad it was happening.
While all this was happening, my husband said he needed to pee. While he was in the toilet, I found a quiet corner at the side of a sports bar and let myself shake and cry tears of utter, unfettered joy. I had come to know pain and struggle intimately, but this feeling of being really, truly happy was brand new.
Crying finally let that tidal wave out of my body – and it swept away with it all the junk and detritus a man can build up in thirty years of hating himself, of being afraid, of thinking he will never get what he wants.
When my husband returned, I said I was ready to head into the theme park and enjoy our day at Disneyland. In fact, I decided I was ready to go on a real rollercoaster for the first time ever – something my anxiety had always held me back from until that point. But, in my freshly flooded state, I thought, “to hell with you, anxiety”.
No, more than that.
To hell with everything that ever held me back.
To hell with my own negative thoughts.
To hell with my fear that, if I’m grateful, and enjoy the moment, something will go wrong.
To hell with everything that ever stopped me just being a kid and having some fucking fun.
So I found the biggest, fastest, scariest rollercoaster there was – the famous Space Mountain, of course – and I went on it. We were seated right at the front and we hurtled through a pitch black tunnel at breakneck speed for two minutes, faster and faster, the force of the wind almost solid against our faces, the adrenaline giving me permission to shout and say the word “fuck” a lot.
And it was sick as, because with my arms strapped to my sides, there was nothing I could do but live in the moment and revel in it.
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!
In June 2006, I turned eighteen. A week later, I hopped on a plane and flew to Europe to go backpacking alone for four months.
It was a dream I’d worked towards for four years. When I was fourteen, I got my first job as a storeman (though they called us “floor boys”) at a supermarket in Geraldton. I earned something like six bucks an hour and every penny I saved went into the Eurotrip fund. Since I was a teenager living at home, I think my main expenses were going to the movies with mates, buying CDs and, kind of ironically, buying food to eat at my breaks from said job (I ate a lot of Gummi Bears and Freckles).
The juicy details of my gap year in Europe warrant their own blog post, or maybe even a chapter in a memoir one day when I am old and uber-famous (which is obviously going to happen, thank you). Suffice it to say I had the time of a lifetime, met awesome people (some of whom I’m still in touch with), saw amazing places (go to Cesky Krumlov once in your life – do it!), and maybe most importantly, I grew from a boy into a man in basically every way you can measure that.
In the final month of the trip, I found myself in Cinque Terre in north-western Italy. I was staying in the fishing village of Riomaggiore, in the grungiest shared apartment you can imagine: cheap white furniture, concrete floors and a communal toilet cubicle that doubled as the shower. To shower you just closed the door, put the toilet seat down and held the showerhead over you. It was surreal, and perpetually the wettest toilet seat known to man.
On my first day in Riomaggiore, my bank card declined at the Bancomat. No big deal – this happened sometimes. I just had to transfer some more funds from my savings account to my debit card.
But when I transferred the funds, they didn’t appear in my card. I’d forgotten two things: firstly that my debit card was with a different bank, meaning there would be a delay; and secondly, that it was a public holiday in Australia.
The upshot: I was in a foreign country, completely alone, with four euros and no money incoming for at least two days.
So I went to the nearest shop and bought an apple, so I had something in my belly, and a 1.5 litre bottle of wine, so I could get myself too fucked up to care about being hungry. My remaining four euros were now gone, but what else was I going to do? There was no way to unfuck the situation: I just had to ride it out and try to enjoy it.
I went back up to my grungy apartment to my fellow backpackers and told them how I was broke. I didn’t know any of them: we had all met in that apartment that very day – five of us, all coincidentally Aussies, two guys (me and Ben) and three girls (Sammy, Mia and Mon), each with different backgrounds and ages. I didn’t want to ask any of them for money, and I didn’t, but it struck me then (and still does, now) how it didn’t take money to show they cared.
We all just sat around the table – talking, telling stories, laughing, drinking – and we ended up staying there late into the night. I was wearing a plain white T-shirt a distant relative had gifted to me back in Sicily, and that night it received a gigantic crimson wine stain that I never managed to get out. And I didn’t go hungry in the end: Sammy had made pasta and she let me have some of her leftover macaroni.
When I’d had enough wine, Mia chucked the kettle on and offered me a cup of tea to drown my financial sorrows.
“Tea is so good,” she assured me. “It makes everything okay.”
I wasn’t a tea drinker before that night, but I became one from then on. Mia was right. A cup of tea really did make everything okay. I had tea to drink, and people to speak to, and there was no need to worry about anything else.
The next day, Mia, Mon and I went for a hike from Riomaggiore (the first of Cinque Terre’s five villages) to the last, Monterosso. It was twenty-two kilometres and it took us seven hours. We hiked through a series of hills and cliffs and forests: everything was lush and verdant and bathed in sunlight. Sometimes we walked, sometimes we jogged and sometimes we sprinted like deranged athletes, just for the hell of it. Sometimes we stopped to have some wine and leftover chocolate. We finally reached the beach of Monterosso at twilight. It was a pebble beach and even though it hurt our feet, we took our shoes off and ran into the ocean so the Ligurian Sea could splash over our skin.
That night, we returned to the grungy apartment. Sammy kindly cooked for us all, and we stayed up late drinking cups of tea and writing postcards for each others’ families as a prank. We were the best friends in the world.
And the next morning, we all moved on and went our separate ways. Mia and Mon, who were travelling together, went off to Spain somewhere. I think Sammy and I ended up crossing paths a couple more times in either France or Switzerland. I have no idea where Ben went.
But I never saw any of them again.
Fast friendships – genuinely affectionate but necessarily temporary – are a hallmark of the backpacking experience. But I learned a lot from these particular travelling companions, and this particular leg of my travels.
Firstly, I learned that something I perceive as disastrous isn’t always so. Because I’m an anxious person, I have a tendency to catastrophise. I can be particularly stressed about money at times. I can also panic about being unable to help myself, and having no recourse to funds certainly falls in that category. But my worries about money diminish when I think back to my time in Cinque Terre, when I was briefly stuck with no money, and I survived quite easily.
Secondly, and I know this is a bit mawkish, but I learned the best things in life really are free. The green forests of Cinque Terre. The dappled sunlight. The pebbles at Monterosso. The Ligurian Sea’s spray. The stories. The laughter. I didn’t need money to be happy then, and I know I never will.
And finally, I learned that tea is a legitimate remedy for life’s ills. In fact, tea is what prompted this blog post and the trip down memory lane. Today, life was getting too much for me in a number of ways. I sat there on the couch, a restless bundle of nerves and despair, for several minutes.
And then Mia’s voice echoed from twelve years ago. “Tea is so good. It makes everything okay.”
So I got up, flicked the kettle on, made a cuppa and thought I would distract myself by writing about the time I first heard that advice.
And as has been the case for the past twelve years, Mia was right.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.