I’ve worked out why it’s been so hard to write lately. 🧐🧐
I’m not alone. I’ve spoken to or heard from so many other authors who are finding themselves stymied and creatively paralysed in the face of the global catastrophe we are all witnessing playing out around us in real time.
These past few weeks, I’ve been intensely tuned into what’s going on in the world, scouring and refreshing news feeds to find out the latest on this crisis.
But when I focus on facing outwards, it makes it impossible to look inwards. And that’s what I need to do to write. Although I believe good writing comes from scars, this doesn’t mean I need to suffer while I write. In fact, it’s the opposite: I write best when I am peaceful and can comfortably reflect on what’s going on inside, or what happened in the past.
This is why, many years ago, I made the decision not to express political opinions or become a writer-slash-activist. It is not good for me; it inhibits my ability to effect good things in the world through my words and my art. 🤘🤘
I see what’s happening in the world and I have spoken out on the things that matter to me. I will keep doing this when and if I choose. But I cannot make this my default setting. I will be of no use if my headspace is solely one of panic, rage and hypervigilance. I’ll never get any writing done.
So, I’m turning my energy and focus within. 🙏🙏
I’m safe at home for the foreseeable future, so I’ve decided to start my third novel as part of Camp NaNoWriMo in April. I’m aiming to have written 30,000 words by the end of the month.
I’m excited to lose myself in a made-up world again – I doubt there will ever be a better time for that than these coming months. I hope writing this new book is a comfort and panacea for me; and I hope you like it when I can finally share it!
The only way out is through. Take care everyone. ✌️✌️
When I last blogged two months ago, I was able to reflect, with some distance, on the experience of releasing my book. Getting my novel published was wild, joyous, and overwhelming. But most of all, it was big: to see a dream realised after years of longing was monumental.
But then the wheels fell off. Just as I was feeling well-rested and grinning like a boofhead, the comedown pimp-slapped me in the face.
The analogy of a comedown is apt: the thrill of publication truly is ecstatic, drug-like, a rush of dopamine. I could get my fix of validation and attention with new reviews, events, interviews, messages from readers, even social media posts. I spent a few months hitting the good stuff every chance I got – and like any drug, the applause/attention begins to wear off after time. My tolerance threshold increased. It was harder to get that dopamine spurt each time.
And then, of course, once everything quietened down over the summer, I needed my usual fix, but there was no fix to be had.
I’ve spoken to a few authors about this, since I’ve been feeling it, and it turns out that a post-book comedown is as commonplace to the writer experience as caffeine addiction, towering TBR piles and being terrified of the blank page.
And it’s not just about the push and pull of public attention, either. The thrill of publication is more than extrinsic validation. As artists we have our own intrinsic expectations and dreams, independent of other people’s valuations of our artistic output, and just being out there, having a book in the world, is its own reward and excitement. And when that hectic promo tornado breathes its last breath and spins itself into the ether, it can feel like it took all the oxygen with it.
So how did the comedown hit me? My mental and physical health both plummeted. This was compounded by other personal life stuff: a lot of things went wrong at once. For most of January and February, I plunged first into a depressive mood, and then into an elevated state of anxiety that saw me having bloody panic attacks again (I hadn’t had any in ages). Crappy mental health is not new to me, though in the past five years I’ve learned to manage it way better than in my self-medicating twenties. These days, I have better strategies in place and stronger connections to the world that keep me generally well.
But, for various reasons, some of these connections weren’t available to me during this comedown. A shoulder dislocation and other illnesses put me out of action at both the gym and at footy – which are both really important to my physical and mental wellbeing – and I wasn’t able to access my usual therapist during this time.
Long story short: I had a really shit couple of months to start the year.
Thankfully, after hitting bottom comes recovery. I’m back at the gym rehabilitating my shoulder, back to doing some light footy training, and back to seeing my counsellor. Being able to still go to footy training with the boys really helps my mood, and finally lifting some tiny dumbbells with my right arm last week made me ridiculously happy. I’m still many weeks away from being back to normal strength, but it has done me the world of good to know that I am on the upswing again.
Today, I woke up keen to write, which is a great sign that I’m past the worst of this comedown. I really missed the experience of writing in isolation. So much of the past year has been lived in front of other people, which is fun but also requires a different set of skills than writing a novel. I miss being able to lock myself away in my man cave and write a made-up story about made-up people. And that’s what I am now craving.
I handed the second draft of my second novel to my agent in January. This book has taken me much longer than Invisible Boys to write. The actual drafting process each time has been pretty quick – two or three months each time – but there have been many false starts on this project. I first started writing it in early 2014; then again in late 2016; then finally started a recognisable version in early 2018 while at Varuna; and finally finished it last year. It’s been developing on-and-off for six years, which feels like an eon.
My agent and I chatted on the phone the other day. There are some further edits to make, and they are good ones that will make this manuscript what it needs to be. I’ll do them soon, but I’ve also reached the point where I need a few months’ break from book two, or I think I’ll print it out just to set it on fire in a wild artistic rage.
Plus, something more exciting has my attention at the moment.
As I’ve emerged from my comedown, I’ve found my mind percolating with ideas for my third book instead. I wrote the first line for this book a couple of months ago, only because it came to me fully-formed, but I didn’t push it any further. Over the years I’ve learned to feel into the rhythms of my creative bloodflow, and I knew it was too soon to try to push for more words. But these past few weeks, more and more ideas have been coming to me. I’m jotting them down on my phone and emailing them to myself to keep track of them, but the percolating is happening faster and faster and I can feel it reaching a pinnacle, like a kettle coming to the boil. This happens for every book I’ve written. Eventually it builds up enough that I feel compelled to start writing, and I’m getting close to that point.
Today, I opened a word document to jot down a rough timeline of when I want to write this book, and before I knew it, I had working names for my two main characters, and about 500 words of ideas too. I’m getting so pumped about this new book and I can’t wait to write it down in full.
In Marie Kondo terms, this third book is sparking the most joy right now – so I’m gonna follow this bubbling excitement and see where it leads. My priority is going to be writing the first draft of this third novel. Once that’s done, I’ll circle back to edit the second book.
I’d love to share more about both books two and three, but at this stage I reckon I’m better served by shutting up and getting them finished.
The best thing about actively writing new material is that it is some of the best medicine I have ever known when it comes to my wellbeing: writing makes me feel good. This bodes well, because there will be lots of writing in the months ahead.
I can’t wait to share these new stories with you each.
So, I finally got what I’ve spent my whole life wanting.
I’ve mentioned before that I first wanted to be a writer when I was seven years old. It was only about three months ago, at thirty-one, that my debut novel was published.
Such a decades-long journey was a saga in itself, and most of the time it felt as painful, despairing and treacherous as a barefoot trek from The Shire to Mordor.
I had always imagined that final moment of triumph – of being a Published Novelist (TM) – would be a uniquely exhilarated instant. Arms raised to the heavens, chin up, crossing the finish line like a less athletic, more creative, just-as-sweaty Usain Bolt.
My imagination didn’t lie to me: that’s how it felt. It was fucken rad.
Releasing Invisible Boys into the world was a thrill-ride, from the moment I was shortlisted for the Hungerford Award in September 2018 until the end of my sixty-day book tour in October and November last year.
The whole thing was a really heady experience. It felt incredible to have finally achieved the thing I set out to do as a young boy. The validation, the sense of completion and the trophy-raising sense of triumph are all so intoxicating I am sometimes scared to dwell on them for too long in case they lose their potency.
There were loads of other joyous moments. Sharing my writing and myself in an honest, open, unfettered way has made me feel more seen and more understood than I’ve ever felt. And since I spent bulk pockets of my life feeling unseen and misunderstood, this has been great for my wellbeing and personal development.
Sharing my story also felt purposeful, because I got to meet and speak with so many people (so many!) who shared their own experiences. Writing this book helped me process trauma, and reading it has helped readers to process theirs. It helped both me and them simultaneously to feel less alone. Altruistically, this is super rewarding.
If the thing humans crave most is connection, and if my soul had only really known societal disconnection since I was a child, then these moments of true connection were a Roman feast for my heart.
But I mean that in the way ancient Romans used to feast: you know, you eat, and eat, and eat, until you are too full, bloated and bursting, and you have to throw up, so you chunder and then you wipe your mouth, stretch out on your lounge and return to your gluttonous feast to keep eating.
It was strange, but so much connection eventually left me feeling like I needed a break. So much visibility made me want to go and hide in a cave until people forgot what my face looked like. I haven’t had any public appearances in over a month now and it’s been the best remedy I could have asked for.
I’m not ungrateful for the success this book has had. I know I am very, very lucky. The sales, critical acclaim and reader responses are all amazing. I’m so grateful to everyone who’s read and supported the book. And the book tour was a mammoth undertaking, and though it was intense, I will never regret doing it.
But that super intense promo period is done.
And now the dust has settled, I’m looking around to find I don’t know where I am. I’ve arrived somewhere I’ve never been. This is foreign terrain; a new land with no map.
Despite knowing better, on some level I thought being a published novelist would revolutionise my life.
I’d heard successful artists talk about this, how achieving your dreams can be amazing but also disillusioning, but I quietly hoped my experience would be different.
For most of my childhood, adolescence and adulthood, I’ve identified with the struggling artist mindset, and it’s made me who I am. I can work hard, achieve, pull all-nighters. I can burn out and recover. I can flail in desperation and pace myself. I can lose faith and think I’m a shit writer and two seconds later think I’m God’s gift to literature. I can withstand people mocking my dreams, telling me I should be an engineer instead, get a big boy job. I can survive people mocking my ambition. I can be dogged and bloody-minded. I can strive for a goal even if it seems impossible and takes twenty-three years.
All of this prepared me for one thing – how to reach my goal – but it didn’t prepare me for what happens after the goal has been reached.
That’s the foreign, mapless terrain I find myself in now.
Achieving a dream does what it says on the box, but no more. I dreamt of being a published novelist; I am now a published novelist, and holy fuck it feels awesome. My whole life, I’ve saddled this desperate thirst for validation, and getting my novel published did quench that. I feel validated in a way I always craved, and I no longer feel that craving, though it’s etched into my skin so deeply I’ll never forget it.
But that’s it. That sense of validation and victory does not inherently resolve any other deficiency or problem in my life. The same interpersonal conflicts, the same tensions, the same lack of money, the same angst, the same cruelty and neglect, the same self-abnegation, the same neurotic shit that belies my hubris … all of it’s still there.
Achieving your goals doesn’t fix you as a person. That is its own beast.
So, what now? Where am I? Where do I go from here? What happens next?
I’ve set some new goals for the year ahead. Firstly, I’ll keep promoting Invisible Boys: there are author talks, interviews and festival appearances lined up all year, thankfully more spaced out than my tour. I’ll also be polishing my second book, which is with my agent currently for her thoughts (and I’m freaking out about it). And this July, I’m planning to do Camp NaNoWriMo again to start my third novel.
Writing this, just now, gives me perspective. I’m no longer striving for these goals because I crave validation. Some of the self-imposed pressure has come off. I’m now writing because (a) these are stories I really want to tell and (b) writing is the funnest thing in the world to me. Upon reflection, this actually seems like a healthier mindset with which to tackle a writing project.
I’m also writing these books because my real dream, which I wrote about in this post about success, is not just to have one novel published. My dream is to be a full-time writer, earning a living off my books. I’m nowhere near that yet; this is the next goal. It may take another twenty-three years. I hope not, but it might, and if does take that long, I’ll survive. This journey has taught me patience, even though the lessons sometimes made me bleed.
And this moment of reflection makes me think back to my teenage self. How I used to lay on the trampoline on our half-acre block in Geraldton, staring up at the sky, thinking how it would feel to finally make it one day. Charlie in my book has this same energy, same desire. Back then, I’d watch clouds cross blue while my dog Ebony, a staffy cross, trotted around nearby. I used to look at the sky a lot, day and night. The full moon transfixes me; my biggest inspiration; the little beacon by which I promised myself, each month, one day I will make it.
The sky is possibility, potential, everything that could be but isn’t yet.
And the sky is my direction; I am climbing a mountain towards it while knowing I will never touch it.
Reflecting and recalibrating, in this moment now, makes me feel good. My first novel being published was the first peak on the way to a much higher summit. And though this terrain is new and uncharted, the ascent so far has given me all the tools I need.
I have the work ethic of a manual labourer who dug trenches in forty degree heat.
I have the doggedness of a struggling writer who took twenty-three years to break through.
And I have the imagination of a fourteen-year-old boy who stared up at the sky every Midwestern summer, dreaming of his mountain.
So, this weekend, a bookseller from Dymocks Busselton sent me a photo of two chefs on stilts reading my novel at the Manjimup Cherry Harmony Festival.
I cracked up laughing, because I had no context for this image and it seemed like the most random thing I’ve come across in this book’s promo cycle so far. (Sidebar: the bookseller has since told me there was absolutely no context for this photo, she just took it because she thought it would be a cool pic – so that’s even funnier to me.)
Anyway, yesterday, for some reason, this image stirred up an idea. I remembered how one reviewer had mentioned the role food plays in the book. I also hadn’t written anything creatively for three months, since I’ve been so hectic with touring and promo. Apparently a day and a half was enough rest time to have recharged my creative batteries a little: I was eager to write something creative and fun, and I churned this piece out: a menu based on the culinary dishes that feature in the book.
If there’s anything more random than the photo of the chefs on stilts reading Invisible Boys, it’s probably this blog post. But I had fun writing it and it was a great way to reflect on my novel and also ease back into writing creatively again.
Happy reading – or bon appetit!
INVISIBLE BOYS: THE MENU
Anna Calogero’s Traditional Sicilian Potato Salad
How dare those Skips try to put mayonnaise in a goddamn potato salad? This traditional dish is the same Italian recipe handed down by the women in your family since the 1930s and it is not going to change now just because of some Aussie tart pushing her way into your family. This refreshing salad includes peas, red onions and eight litres of olive oil. A versatile dish, it will simultaneously please the palate and, when paired with a hearty spray of Lynx Africa, can competently mask the odour of unexpected bodily fluids in the kitchen bin.
Charlie Roth’s Gummy Shark & Chips
This simple, classic Aussie favourite doesn’t need cutlery or crockery, much in the same way that you don’t need anyone else in your life because they’re all phonies anyway so fuck ‘em. Salty and satisfying, this dish is perfect for hot February nights on the Geraldton foreshore before you dip into the Indian Ocean for a swim, or lurk by the wharf to cruise men for anonymous sex.
Natalie Wright’s Tiramisu
So your Italian mother-in-law hates you, but that’s no reason to stop trying to change her mind. Instead of bringing around your usual pavlova, spice things up by making your own version of the one dessert she prides herself on. Moist, creamy and soaked in liqueur, it definitely won’t trigger her defensive tendencies or remind her of how you’ve swanned in and usurped all influence over her son. Buon appetito!
Matt Jones’s BBQ Snags
Who says the gays need to be known for delicate baked goods and effete brunches? Be true to you and embrace your retrosexual masculinity by treating your Valentine’s Day date to a hearty slab of your meat. Best cooked with plenty of ventilation to ensure just the right amount of smoky barbequed richness. Pairs well with a Bushchook or eight. For added Northampton flair, surprise your beau with snags made of native Aussie meat and wait to see how long it takes him to notice.
Zeke Calogero’s Gnocchi in Traditional Sugo
Perhaps these potatoes wanted to end their lives rolled into lumpy gnocchi, perhaps they would have preferred to be French fries, but the existential anthropomorphism you try to project onto them doesn’t detract from how deliciously filling they are in your belly. A staple of the Sicilian peasant diet, these hearty dumplings are enriched by a homemade Italian tomato sauce: just because you can’t squeeze a drop of goddamn empathy out of your rigid Catholic parents, doesn’t mean you can’t squeeze some ripe tomatoes to form a zesty and herby condiment. Bellissimo!
Kade “Hammer” Hammersmith’s Onion Rings á la Bilby’s Burgers
Nothing says “self-sabotage” like interrupting your closely-monitored diet of protein shakes, creatine and BCAAs with a greasy post-footy feed from Bilby’s Burgers. Whether you’re dining in or sequestering a lover away in your brother’s ute, these crunchy, beer-battered onion rings are the perfect, masculine accompaniment to your 100% Aussie Beef burger from Bilby’s. Do your best not to tell your date how you wonder if your dick would fit through the middle of the onion rings. Best served with aioli, or any other salty white sauce.
(PS. Did you really think this post wouldn’t end up where it did? :P)
I feel like I won’t know how I feel right now until I look back a decade from now when I’m 41 years old (or maybe still 29 ;)) and I have some distance from this whirlwind and I can appreciate that really in the scheme of the industry I was only ever a small fish with a book that was an indie hit for a few months and then maybe it will stall maybe it or I will flail or sink and in a decade none of this or me will even matter to anyone at all or maybe it will get even bigger than that even bigger than it is now and maybe it will launch rockets from here hurl me up into the stars like that ambitious fucker Orion
I kinda hope it does no who am I fucken kidding of course I want it to get bigger its like when they interviewed me on that podcast after I won the Hungerford and the bloke asked me “what’s your goal in life, Holden?” and I said “world domination” and he laughed and I looked him square in the eye and said “but I’m really not joking”
yes I want bigger I want enough money to live off I want to be able to focus just on writing I want to not be transferring money between my accounts so I can afford red rooter for tea or fuel for my shitbox Commodore I want to be not stressing about paying the rent or fixing my car or can I really afford this massage of course I can’t afford any massage it’s all beyond my station in life but sometimes it feels good to say fuck it all what’s the point of any of this if I can’t feel good every now and then
and I don’t know how to put up more boundaries than I already have I feel intruded upon constantly but that’s what you get for putting yourself out there so vulnerable it’s like you can’t stop yourself it’s vulnerability porn really and eventually I know someone is gonna get sick of it and me and say I’m old news and I’m beating a dead horse flogging flogging and what else do I really have to offer other than baring my flayed skin for everyone?
fuck I live for the attention my ego loves it and I try to tell people I am Hammer I am a cocky arrogant dickhead and nobody seems to properly believe it but I am (but you seem so down to earth! But you’re helping people to process their arcane trauma they shoved down for three decades!) well I’ve been deep in the earth my whole life I’ve rolled in the dirt I’ve tried to hide myself in the soil I’ve soiled myself to survive the scrutiny of being so different so fucken different and so yes I know how to be down to earth and yes I’m self-deprecating to the point where it’s not funny anymore and I do have the pain I have all the pain in the world I have my own and I have yours and anything you have felt in your deepest darkest most alone most depressed most suicidal most dissociated I have felt too I understand you (even if we haven’t met, haven’t spoken, and we don’t need to) I have kept my pain and siphoned it out of my body I decanted the poison out of my blood and it’s outside of me now and you read it and now we see each other
and everyone sees me now and it is like glare like stepping out of a thirty-year dungeon into the brightest sunrise I feel like all I’ve done for the last month (the last year!) is blink and blink and try to get my eyes to adjust but it’s always getting brighter too bright and a little part of me wouldn’t mind crawling back into the dungeon for a bit of rest but I can’t rest the way I used to rest I can’t sleep I can’t switch off I can’t think straight I can’t eat right I can’t get into a routine because I’m driving and flying and I’m always ON which I’ll gladly do a thousand times not just to sell myself (like on a street corner) but so that telling this story helps you not do what I nearly did – I want to help you save you rescue and protect which is too much for anyone to take on but fuck it I’ll try and if I can help you process the nightmare you barely breathed through then that will make it all worthwhile and god knows I live for the attention my whole life is thunder and I live for validation and acknowledgement and I live for the applause applause applause but sometimes when I get it I shrink and think “why the fuck are all these people being nice to someone as shit as me? I’m a fucking arsehole!” and some days I can’t handle a single further word of praise and other days I’ll fall apart if I don’t get it we artists really are a unique brand of needy boofheads
and some days I’m overwhelmed with gratitude when I hear from people who went through the same as me (decades apart or minutes apart) or something goes well like the morning I found out we were going into reprint after just 7 days on sale and I stepped out of my mate’s shower in Richmond, Victoria and dried my Mohawk with his spare towel and then clutched the bathroom sink to hold myself up as I collapsed into a fit of sobs realising oh my fucking God I’m not a failure anymore after 23 years of trying my guts out and being a loser being THE loser that everyone sneered at and said “oh, how’s that writing going lol?” I have finally made this shit work and it was guttural sobs of joy and relief and arrival with my tears splashing on the slate-grey tiles of his modern Melbourne apartment while I listened to ‘I can go the distance’ from Hercules and I realised I had actually gone the distance
and I’m not ashamed of it I’m not ashamed of anything no shame no sacred cows no fucks shall be given because I am good and I am mine and I’m not even ashamed of writing a stream-of-consciousness on a Friday night when I should be (partying? Socialising? Fucking my husband?) but instead I am here putting words on a digital page because when I don’t write I get sick and I haven’t written a word for too long now and so don’t worry this isn’t me being sick in front of you, this is medicine probably the best medicine i have known
Well, I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to check in with my blog! To paraphrase one of the finest philosophers of the 1990s – one Miss Fiona Apple – I’ve been a bad, bad boy.
And also a bad, bad blogger.
I probably should have posted here a month ago to give you all the heads up about my brief absence: for those who don’t follow me on my social media, I have spent almost the entire last month abroad on my honeymoon.
In fact, I’m still swanning around Europe in a cologne-scented cloud of post-wedding bliss. I am currently in my hotel room in Rome, very close to the main bustle of the central Termini station. So close, in fact, that pretty much all we can hear from the hotel room window is:
cars beeping their horns (every fucking three seconds)
vendors shouting at people to buy their cheap-arse shit (yesterday it was raining and they were selling ponchos and umbrellas; today it’s sunny and they’re flogging hats and sunglasses – so adaptable!)
people at bars and cafes shouting for no apparent reason
people at bars and cafes laughing from being drunk
trucks revving their engines
police sirens blaring
trains pulling into the station
church bells chiming into oblivion
And, often times, all of these noises are happening simultaneously, which is kind of like living among havoc – especially since we’re up on the fourth floor of the hotel (shouldn’t it be vaguely quieter up here?). And having grown up in a country town and now living in the outer suburbs of Perth, all of this noise and chaos is foreign to me so it’s practically an adventure in itself.
By the way, I am absolutely loving being on honeymoon. So far my husband and I have visited Lyon, Nice, Antibes, Monaco, Cannes, Sanremo, Paris, Rouen and now Rome. It’s been awesome to see new parts of France and Italy, which are countries we both love. I really love the culture, language and food of both countries, and I’ve been digging having so much time to practice my French (which is decent) and my Italian (which is rusty, but given that I’m half Sicilian and spent 5 weeks in Italy when I was 18, it’s slowly coming back to me).
For those who have asked, *yes*, my husband is actually here with me on the honeymoon but no, we don’t like to post a lot of couples photos online, at least not to our public social media. We both put a lot of ourselves out there in the world – not just in our writing, but on social media and by going to events – so it actually feels really nice to keep our relationship as private as we can. So, that’s why you’re seeing a lot of pics of me on my socials but very few of us together. But rest assured, we’re both spending every day together and we’re having a blast. 🙂
The only downside is that I am defo eating way too much: pizza and pasta of course, but also overloading on crepes with cream, gelato with cream, hot chocolate with cream, cream with cream. We return to Paris this Sunday for our last week of honeymoon, so after that, I’ll be tightening the diet back up again, especially since I have some author appearances to do in about two weeks so I don’t wanna rock up on stage like the big fatty I’m feeling like currently. But the pizza in Rome is just so bloody good – how could I resist? And more to the point – why should I? It’s half of why we chose to come here anyway!
I’ve been exercising a lot while here. Most days I’ve racked up anywhere between 15,000 and 25,000 steps which is probably the only thing offsetting all the food I’ve imbibed. I’ve been doing some bodyweight exercises in my hotel room and some basic stuff with a tiny 5kg dumbbell I smuggled in my case, but it doesn’t do much. In Rouen I found some free open-air gym equipment beside the Seine river which was awesome, so I’d do a few sets of chest and back exercises in amongst my morning jogs. And here in Rome, I found myself going stir-crazy not having been to an actual gym for so long, so I trekked into the San Lorenzo district (which is ghettoville.com) and found a grungy gym and got a day pass for 10 euros. I was the only tourist in the gym I think – everyone else was a local and most of them seemed to know each other. I smashed out some chest and biceps exercises and a bit of abs, plus cardio, and I felt a load better for it.
Anyway … I am 100% sure not a single one of you follows this blog to hear about the banal minutiae of my diet and exercise regime – apologies!
I’m really posting here just to explain why things have been a little bit quiet here lately. In fact, this whole year I’ve only managed one post per month compared to like one post per week or fortnight last year. I’ve had a lot on my plate. From Jan – March I was working on the copy edits for Invisible Boys while simultaneously planning my wedding. In April I was occupied with planning my honeymoon and also finishing the first draft of my next novel. And I have spent basically all of May away from home: first at the Margaret River Readers & Writers Festival, then in Europe on honeymoon. Once we return to Perth, I’ll have a precious few hours at home before zooming up to my hometown of Geraldton, Western Australia for a week for the writers’ festival there.
Truth be told, I’m loving the magical air of suspension and lack of responsibility that comes with a long holiday – but in some weird way, it will be good to get back to normal life again once I’m back home in Perth in mid-June.
As for my writing (which, I remind myself, is what people *actually* follow this blog for), it’s been going really well. Some bullet point updates:
The cover for my debut novel Invisible Boys has been revealed – see the bottom of this blog post – it’s amazing and I love it!
Last week, I was announced as the winner of the 2019 Kathleen Mitchell Award from the Australia Council for the Arts. I am still pinching myself. Its a $15,000 prize, so it’s going to make a huge difference on how much time I can dedicate to writing over the next year. Plus it’s a huge vote of confidence in my book, which has now won three awards before even being published. I’m wildly grateful, still in mild disbelief that such good things could ever happen to me, and I’m desperately hopeful that people will actually like this novel once they finally get to read it in October.
My agent is now reading the manuscript of my second novel. I am freaking the fuck out on the inside while pretending to be a cool, jaded professional on the outside.
I promised myself I wouldn’t write while on honeymoon, as writing constitutes working. Instead, I allowed myself to read a lot, and think a lot. Not having regular access to Wi-Fi has made me pull my head out of my phone and has given my brain so much space to unwind and reflect and imagine, the way I used to years ago. Consequently, I now have a million and one ideas clamouring for my attention!
Among these ideas are:
my third novel, which I’ll say nothing about, other than I pitched the concept to my husband and his eyebrows leapt off his face and he said “whoa, you have to write that!”, which is saying something because he is usually more measured and critical in his feedback;
my fourth novel, which I’ll also say nothing about, but it’s incredibly important to me and I so want this book out in the world, like, yesterday;
a novella, which in some form has been floating around in the ether of my creativity since 2011-12 when I did my Honours thesis, and the other day I was on a train in France reading Bret Easton Ellis’ new book White and suddenly the novella idea just fell into place in a way it hasn’t for the past eight years. I can’t wait to write this one, too … and I can imagine it perhaps anchoring a collection of my short fiction in the future, maybe;
two other, entirely separate series (plural) of novels; and
a TV mini-series, which has been kicking around in my head for a few years now.
So, as you can see, I have enough to keep myself busy for the next few years at least!
In terms of what’s next, after life returns to normal-ish in late June, I’ll probably spend my writing time working on the edits for book 2, and getting back into the groove of a regular blogging practice.
Holden’s Heroes will also return in June with a new interview – I had hoped to do one in May, but it was impossible to fit in before I left overseas, and frankly, I need to learn to give myself a fucken break sometimes!
Thanks to all of you for being awesome, and I can’t wait to get back into the swing of regular blogging again in the month to come. 🙂
PS. Here’s the cover of Invisible Boys as promised – what do you reckon? I can’t get enough of it!
Sooo, this is kind of awkward. I didn’t mean for it to be this long, and I didn’t mean to just walk out on you like that, but everything went a bit nutso since we last spoke, and I sort of lost track of you.
And today, I felt bad, because it suddenly occurred to me that I never actually told you I wasn’t coming back.
I know that makes me sound like a dick. In my defence, you are a manuscript and not a sentient being, so I’m probably not really a dick.
But I’ll cop to being a tad abandon-y on your arse. I did the metaphorical version of pulling out, yanking my pants up and bolting from the room just as you were in a post-coital afterglow, when I probably should have stuck around and spooned you. I mean, for a minute or two. I haven’t got all day.
To be honest, I’m a bit surprised at my own treatment of you, because for a very long time, I thought you were My One True Book. When I had my epic meltdown at the start of 2014 and decided I was going to force myself to finally write my first novel that year come hell or high water, you were the idea that shone most brilliantly and the story I decided to write into a full-length book.
And everything seemed so exciting at the beginning. I thought your main characters were pretty cool; I liked your setting; I thought your plot was solid. I mean, of course I did, I was your author and I made all that shit up.
I also thought your action scenes and battle scenes were absolutely awesome, and I still stand by that. As objective as I can be about these scenes, I think they stack up pretty well against most published fantasy and adventure books.
I think this is what drew me to you in the first place, because you were exciting, and fun, and I was in a place in my life where I was working a very boring full-time job, and I felt unfulfilled, and I was treated poorly, and you were such a total escape from the banal 9-5 office life I was living.
But I’m afraid for all your fun moments and all the high-octane thrills you gave me, there was something missing in our relationship.
When we worked together with my mentor during 2016, I felt something between us wasn’t quite right. During a Skype call with my mentor – an incredibly esteemed editor from over east – I confessed, “This manuscript isn’t quite working … I want it to sing, and it’s not singing.”
And it’s not like I didn’t work on our relationship. After seven drafts, I thought things were looking pretty good, and my mentor seemed to think we’d taken things as far as we could. It was time to pitch.
I’m so sorry, but this is where the wheels fell off.
Because none of the agents I pitched to thought there was anything special about you.
Our relationship survived the total lack of response from one agent, and the form rejection from another, though I did curl up on the couch and sob uncontrollably that you hadn’t been good enough for someone to pick up.
But I’m afraid we couldn’t survive the third response. The agent who emailed me saying he was into your first three chapters and that he wanted to read more of you. That happened the day after the form rejection, and I was so convinced this was the universe opening a window after having slammed a door in my face the day before.
One day I came home from a walk around the block and got a phone call from the agent. I was so happy to hear from him, but he said my happiness was premature. He spoke to me on the phone for a whole 30 minutes, telling me not just that my writing was “competent” (a word that still pierces my ego, and perhaps always will) but that there were many, many problems with you.
Now, I could have worked on almost any of our problems, I swear I could have. The problems with the characters, the problems with the setting, the problems with the plot seemingly unsuccessfully straddling the two very different worlds of Young Adult and Fantasy.
And I would have worked on it because I thought you were the story I was *meant* to tell. I didn’t care how much money you made; I just wanted you to exist, and get out into the world and sing your lungs out. I would have been so proud of you just for doing that.
But this is the point at which I abandoned you.
The last thing I said to you, in this blog post I wrote in early 2017, was that I was going to come back to you. We were going to work on our problems together, we were going to do an eighth draft, and then a ninth, and however many drafts it took, because goddamn it all I wanted was to have a fucking novel published and why couldn’t I ever get anything right in my life. </writerfeels>
But I lied. I told you I was going to the servo for durries and I never came back.
I know it’s probably too late, and that you’ve probably moved on, but I wanted to let you know that I’m sorry I left the way I did.
And this is the hardest part to say: I didn’t bail on you because the agent didn’t like you, or that you weren’t good enough to get published.
I bailed on you because I didn’t love you.
This is why I spent a month feeling sad and fetal position-y in early 2017. This is why I cried. We’d gone through everything we went through only for me to realise that, when an agent criticised you, I didn’t have a comeback.
I could have fixed all the things he told me were wrong with you. I could have made your characters and plot and setting all breathe and operate just fine. But even if I did ten drafts, or a hundred, or a thousand, and even if, in that thousandth draft, all of those elements or plot and setting and character worked the way they were supposed to, it wouldn’t have been enough.
Because you didn’t have a heart.
And that’s why you couldn’t sing. There was nothing wrong with your lungs – you could produce the notes just fine – but no music can ever be made unless there is a heart involved.
So that is why I left you. I realised I didn’t love you, because you didn’t have a heart, and I didn’t say goodbye because you don’t need to say goodbye to things that don’t have a heart. Plus there’s the whole matter of you not being a sentient being.
I suppose I am writing this mostly to assuage my own guilt, because I think it seems like I dropped you like a hot coal the moment I realised you couldn’t make me rich and famous. But that isn’t true. If I loved you, I would have pitched you to every agent and publisher on the planet and, if that failed, I would have self-published you like I self-published my short story, “The Scroll of Isidor”. I had no qualms doing that.
So, for the record, I am afraid it is over between us. I believe you, in your current form, will remain in the drawer. There are parts of you I really like, and perhaps one day, if things go a certain way, I will be able to revisit you and maybe we can do something radical, like give you a heart transplant. Maybe then you will be able to sing. I really like this idea. Or perhaps I will revisit you and borrow some parts of you for another attempt at this story one day, if and when the time is right.
In the meantime, I have several other novels clamouring for my attention. These novels have been successfully pitched to my agent and are waiting to be written. But know that while I’m saying goodbye now, I am leaving the door open on our relationship, at best for the heart transplant, and at worst, for me to one day open the drawer and leaf through your pages and get lost in you again, just for old times’ sake.
As for me, I’m much happier now than when we were together. I wrote a new novel called INVISIBLE BOYS that I love very much. It has a heart that pumps real blood, and it won an award and it’s getting published, which is super exciting (sorry to rub it in).
There is one more thing, and I’m afraid it is the proverbial vinegar-soaked sponge to the spear wound.
I am so sorry to do this to you, but I am afraid I can no longer call you “my first novel”.
I mean, you will always, always be the first novel I wrote and nothing can change that immutable fact.
But now that I have my debut novel soon due for publication – which I have spent a couple of years calling “my second novel” – I’m afraid the nomenclature is due for an overhaul, lest I will have readers hunting for a “first novel” that, to the world of publishing, does not exist.
So my novel, INVISIBLE BOYS, will now be referred to as my first novel, and the book I am currently drafting (and have nearly finished) will be my second.
But I won’t ignore your existence completely, because that feels wrong. So, I am going to call you Novel Zero, instead, because you and I had some good times, you know. You were the first attempt; the training ground. Sometimes your exciting twists and turns captured my imagination and made me dream; other times, you made me want to beat my head against a brick wall.
I wrote you under the influence of caffeine, when I still drank real coffee; so many cups of cheap black instant Nescafe were spent on you. And I wrote you under the influence of nicotine, back when I would break every hour and take my pack of Benson & Hedges out onto the patio for a dart or two. I remember the incredible NaNoWriMo marathons and the all-nighter I pulled to finish you, when I emerged from that electrified room and onto the patio and smoked a celebratory cigarette while watching the sun rise and listening to “Desperado” by The Eagles.
In fact, that was one of the most special moments of my entire life, so thank you, profoundly and sincerely, for being the first novel I ever finished. You showed me that my dreams could come true if I worked hard at them, a lesson I have taken on as a life mantra.
For that, I will be grateful for the rest of my days.
So stoked to share the second interview in my new blog interview series, Holden’s Heroes. During these interviews, I’ll welcome writers to my “home” (virtually) and have some fun asking them all my burning questions. For 2019, I’m focusing on interviewing the fellow members of my #5amwritersclub.
This month’s victimhostage guest is my friend Raihanaty A. Jalil, who has been known as a teacher, trader, hoon, poet, rapper and more. Let’s jump in and see what she has to say for herself!
Holden’s Heroes ~ March 2019
RAIHANATY A. JALIL
Holden: Raihanaty A. Jalil, welcome to my house! As you can see, I haven’t really tidied up since Michael Trant came to visit … our empty bushchook stubbies are still all over the patio, my bad.
Raihanaty: Haha, thanks Holden. I’m actually used to mess and noise – I’m the oldest of five siblings, all living under the same roof with my parents, so it makes me feel more at home!
H: And don’t mind that noise, it’s just the fridge emanating its hourly caterwauling. We suspect it’s haunted by a poltergeist. No biggie. Maybe just sit over here near Raphael’s bookshelf. Much cosier.
R: Actually, the poltergeists were keeping me company during the (un)expected wait …
H: Ahem! I was in the bathroom – this Mohawk doesn’t hairspray itself, you know. Okay, let’s dive into what’s been happening lately for you. You recently won a place on the Indian Ocean Mentoring Project, facilitated by the Centre for Stories. Congratulations! What story did you work on, and how did that piece change during the mentorship?
R: Thanks! Would you believe it’s been half a year since I started the mentorship? Crazy how time flies … It’s quite “magical”, actually, how my final piece came about. I originally submitted a creative non-fiction piece called “Skin in the Game” about my first experience attending a WAFL game. I wrote it about six years ago, so I figured, I might as well do something with it.
During the process of working with Elizabeth Tan, the writing mentor I was partnered with, we both agreed that the piece lacked something- depth, meaning – so Liz gave me these exercises around breaking down the title through word association/manipulation, that kind of thing. That’s how I came up with the phrase “Gaming the Skin”. Also, truthfully, I was a bit sick of the “Skin in the Game” piece—I had literally already spent over six hours editing it before submitting it for the Indian Ocean project. So I decided to write a completely new piece drawn from the phrase/title “Gaming the Skin”.
H: It’s a clever play on words – sounds like you had a really talented mentor. And with that mentorship now finished, what did you get out of the experience of having a mentor, beyond simply reworking your story, and how do you hope it will help your career moving forward?
R: The mentorship was so so invaluable and Liz couldn’t have been a more perfect match, especially because I’ve never formally studied writing while Liz teaches it. I learnt a lot about my own writing – that I’m very verbose (I’m still working on this, as you will see!). I’m sometimes too descriptive when I don’t need to be yet vague when the details matter. There were misconceptions I had about what I should and shouldn’t do—like when to use commas!
On top of that, the more Liz and I worked together, the more I learnt to trust my own instincts because I started to notice that she would bring up something I had already felt may be a problem. That felt really good. Overall, Liz helped me a lot in the “craft” of writing and my self-confidence, which will definitely benefit my career going forward.
H: On that note, would you recommend mentorships to other emerging authors?
Yes, I think my experience answers that question! I should acknowledge, though, that having the “right match” matters. It can make or break a mentorship – however (I know clichés are a cardinal writing sin but …) nothing ventured, nothing gained.
H: I will forgive you your cliché indiscretion this one time, Rai. In my experience, when it comes down to it at the end of the day, clichés should be avoided like the plague. Don’t touch them with a ten foot pole, okay?
R: Please stop.
H: Okay, next question! So, I saw you a couple of weeks ago at Perth Festival Writers’ Week, where you appeared as a guest author on a panel called Home Currents. Tell me, what was it like being a part of that panel?
R: I enjoyed it so much! Priya, Rushil and I actually caught up a few days before over lunch and we just clicked, so I already knew that it would be a relaxed, comfortable experience sharing the stage with them. But it was also the warm atmosphere around the room, I think, that made the whole experience so memorable and being myself easy. Don’t get me wrong; I still felt nervous inside, but I’ve been “forced” into public speaking from school assemblies in my primary school years, so it is something I’ve grown to really enjoy.
H: I totally get that. I practically crap my dacks before every speaking gig, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t also enjoy the thrill. The thrill of speaking publicly, that is, not the thrill of soiling myself.
R: Truthfully, I’m also a bit of an adrenaline-junkie, so maybe that’s another reason why I get a kick out of public speaking?
H: We may be cut from the same cloth! Was this your first time appearing on a panel at a writers festival?
R: Yes, it was my first time appearing at a writers’ festival. When Caroline [Wood, Director, Centre for Stories] emailed me asking if I was interested, I was like, “Hell yes! There’s no parallel universe where I’d refuse such a humbling opportunity!” Okay, that wasn’t my literal reply, but it was the reply in my head.
H: It was really cool to see you up there on the panel. We first met on Twitter about a year ago, and I think the first time we chatted extensively was when you took part in Camp NaNoWriMo last July and we were in the same (online) cabin. How did you find the NaNoWriMo experience?
R: NaNoWriMo is the reason I finished writing my first ever novel! That was the November 2017 NaNo, though, my first time participating. Oh, I should add, I only finished the first “vomit draft”—you know, that draft no one will ever see, not even if a gun was put to my head. It still needs a lot of work. So that’s what I’ve been doing in the Camp NaNoWriMos, setting a time-based goal to work on polishing my WIP(s).
I think what I like about the NaNo concept is that blocking out of a finite time period, only one month, to focus on a writing goal. I just work better with deadlines, although they do often stress me out. It’s a catch 22 (whoops, another cliché …). But in all seriousness, I actually had a lot of self-doubt about if I even had the ability to write a novel. The longest story I’d ever written was about 15,000 words – a cringe-worthy love story I wrote in high school. So to me, overcoming that hurdle, learning that I did have the ability to write longer-form-fiction was the most invaluable part of “winning” NaNo.
H: Winning NaNo is extremely satisfying in and of itself, I agree. What manuscript were you working on for NaNo and is that still your current WIP?
R: My NaNo novel is a cross between the Women’s Fiction and Self-Help genres. It’s based on two themes: communication in a relationship and personal finances – two things that fascinate me. So, it’s ultimately about a couple who are struggling with the two and their personal development along the way. I’m still working on it – along with a few other things. (I suffer from “Shiny Object Syndrome”…)
H: Oh yeah, I totally understand that. It’s so hard to stay focused on one idea when you wake up some mornings with a wave of inspiration for a new idea altogether. So what are you going to be working on next?
R: I’m actually exploring writing a collection of flash fiction around the theme of personal finances. It’s a bit of a business decision, to be honest. It’ll be a way for people to experience my writing style in a smaller bite, which could lead to interest in the novel. But I still have a long way to go with all my WIPs.
H: I think that sounds like an honest creative decision, too, though – you are passionate about personal finance stuff. Another topic I’ve seen in your writing is racism, for instance the everyday manifestations of racism that you explored in ‘Gaming the Skin’. Is this a common theme you tackle in your other writing?
R: In short, no. That was probably my shortest sentence so far this whole interview!
H: Well, I guess that wraps it up. No more questions for you.
R: No, wait – I was going to add … for me, reading is a form of escape, so I gravitate towards light-hearted stories that don’t remind me of real life. Even my NaNo novel, I actually found it a bit of a struggle because of the serious tone it needed to have. In shorter pieces like “Gaming the Skin”, I don’t mind experimenting with themes and genres I wouldn’t normally write in. But sustaining heavier themes for a whole novel – that would kill me!
H: This actually segues perfectly into my next question. There is a movement within the literary scene at the moment known as #ownvoices, and this was raised during your panel at Perth Fest. I thought your answer to this was really interesting – would you mind sharing your thoughts again for my blog readers?
R: Absolutely, I don’t mind at all. When it comes to this idea of diverse characters being written by authors from the same diverse groups, I personally feel a resistance to write what is expected of me.
Just because I happen to be a “Muslim Hijabi Aussie Chick”, it doesn’t mean that I want to write stories about a Muslim girl living in a Western Society and how she manages her multiple identities, etc etc. Not to say I’ll never write this story, but rather, when people tell me, “You should write this story,” if my heart’s not in it, I feel it’s almost tokenistic.
I personally love surprises and twists and the unexpected. I thrive on a challenge while I get bored quickly with the ordinary and mundane. At the same time, I want to make a lasting impact but in a creative way. These are some things people could expect from my stories.
H: I think your response to this is so important and I wanted to amplify it here. I know a lot of #ownvoices authors who want to be able to tell their stories in their own voices, and this is so needed. Hell, this is what I’m doing with Invisible Boys. But a lot of diverse authors also want the publishing world to take them seriously as writers in their own right, regardless of the ‘diversity’ angle; that is, they want to be seen as capable of writing stories beyond solely their own unique experience. We should be liberating these voices, not confining them, in my view.
Anyway, thank you for coming to my unexpected sermon. Back to the interview: I love your bio because it mentioned you have previously been a rapper and a hoon. Please tell me more about both of these! Am I likely to find you blasting 50 Cent from a car and doing doughies in Armadale one day?
R: You know what’s funny? I love Hip Hop as a form of artistic expression, but I actually don’t like a lot, no, most rappers. I’ve always written poetry, since primary school. To me, Hip Hop is a form of poetry that you simply “spit” in time to a rhythm or beat. The first piece of Hip Hop I heard that made me fall in love with this art-form was actually, would you believe, on Microsoft Encarta! If you’re too young to know what I’m talking about, it’s a digital encyclopaedia where I discovered one of the “fathers of Hip Hop”, Grandmaster Flash.
H: Okay, I’m not *that* embryonic haha – we had Microsoft Encarta too when I was a kid in the mid-90s. I didn’t use it much, though, because I preferred poring over our World Book Encyclopedia set. I was a seven-year-old Neo Luddite, I think. So, this Encarta discovery led you to hip hop?
R: Yes. I mostly write “normal poetry” but I have written and “spat” some verses on the odd occasion, in particular when I was a youth worker. Actually, funny story, one afternoon, I was walking through the city with a friend. There was a teenager who had a mic and speaker setup and some beats playing while he freestyled. We were about to pass but I caught him mentioning us “girls” and a stupid comment rappers always make about women that isn’t worth mentioning. I just couldn’t let it go. So I spun around, walked up to him and gestured for him to give me the microphone. He was so shocked he nearly dropped the mic as he handed it to me. Then I gave him a schooling on how to “spit”. When he took the mic back, he nodded at me – this is a rapper gesture meaning “respect”.
H: That is brilliant! Remind me not to mess with you. Does this explain your ‘hoon’ status?
R: Haha, no – actually, I’m into sporty cars and V8 racing on a proper racetrack, which I did at Barbagallo Raceway for the first time in 2018 for my birthday. Best experience ever! I’d go every week if it wasn’t so pricey. But I’ve also bought a “drifting” experience that I’m rewarding myself with when I achieve one of my writing milestones.
H: Man, that’s an awesome writing reward, and it has no calories, too! I might need to look into this. Now, we’re both part of the same #5amwritersclub. What made you join the club, and what made you stay?
R: I love my sleep, so the thought of waking up at 5am to write wasn’t at all appealing. As you have seen, I write for, maybe, a token 5-15 minutes to be able to still say, “Yes, I’m totally a 5am writer!” It was more the opportunity to connect with writers like you, Jess [Gately], Louise [Allan], Michael [Trant], to name just a few of you. You all inspire me and I have learnt so much from your experiences. So really, you guys are the reason I’ve stayed and, sort of, write at 5ish.
H: Aw shucks, that’s nice to hear. Likewise, I love connecting with other writers because you discover new methods and new ways of writing. Something I’ve noticed about your writing is how you can write in really short, sharp blocks of time – like you just mentioned above. Can you talk about this? I find it fascinating and I am always a bit envious of your ability to do this!
R: Sure! During my entrepreneurial days, I had a business coach, Mahindra Raj, who taught me this time management strategy called “The Pomodoro Technique”. You use a timer to break down your work into intervals, traditionally 25 minutes, separated by short breaks, because our brain can only hold attention for so long.
The way I apply it for my writing is, I set a 5-15 minute timer (depending on my mood, energy etc.) and attempt to write. I emphasise attempt because, my aim is to just stay seated with the intention to write. Sometimes I’m in the zone and when my timer goes off, I actually hit the repeat button and remain seated and work for longer. But sometimes, I’m just dog-tired and after 5 minutes, I’m done. Other times, at a 15 minute interval, I can feel my brain waning, so I’ll get up, stretch, grab a drink of water before sitting back down for my next 15 minute block.
I’ve been able to write like this, literally, for over four hours and not feel tired at all because I’m doing it in these short blocks of time. But also, I use this strategy to overcome my lack of motivation some days by telling myself, “I’ll just write for 5 minutes”, but once my head is in my writing world, I often feel like working for longer!
H: It sounds fascinating. Tell me, Raihanaty, what advice would you give to aspiring authors who are just starting out – or, rather, what do you know now that you wish you’d known at the beginning?
R: Be kind to yourself. More often than not, we are our worst critic. We set such high expectations on ourselves then beat ourselves up when we fail to meet those expectations that were unrealistic to begin with. We verbally abuse ourselves in ways we would never others, then we wonder why we lack motivation the next time, why we may even be depressed.
I remember hitting a mental block in my writing at the beginning of 2018 because of the stress of unachievable deadlines I had burdened myself with. It was when I decided to become kinder to myself, patting myself on the back for the 5 minutes of writing I achieved (instead of reprimanding myself that it should’ve been 1 hour), that I started enjoying writing and life again. So, be kind to yourself from today!
H: That’s a warm fuzzy note to finish on – almost. I’m a huge believer in setting goals, and with your own interests in personal finance I get the feeling you might share my focus on goal-setting. For our last question, tell me, without this being too job-interviewy, where would Raihanaty like to be as an author, five years from now?
R: Five years from now, my aspiration is to have released at least one self-published novel and one traditionally published book and – well, I’ll just say it – I hope to have been on the New York Times Best Seller List for at least five minutes – long enough for me to capture a screenshot! I just hope I’m awake if it happens!
H: That’s an awesome goal, and I can’t wait to see you achieve it. Raihanaty A. Jalil, it has been such a pleasure to have you over for a good yarn. Thanks for sharing such insightful responses.
R: All good, Holden. It’s been a lot of fun! I really appreciate the opportunity and the thought you put into non-generic questions. I was actually pleasantly surprised when you sent me the brief.
H: Aw cheers cob, I aim to please. Hey, do you want to stay on for a drink or two? What’s your poison?
R: Sure, do you have peppermint tea?
H: Does the Pope shit in the woods? Wait, I think I’ve got my metaphors mixed up. Yep, let’s hit the hard stuff and crack open a couple of peppermint teas!
~ Social Media Links ~
I hope you enjoyed this interview with the fascinating Raihanaty A. Jalil. She’s a good egg and even more fun to interact with on the socials, so here’s where you can give her a like and a follow:
Well, this is exciting! One of the new things I wanted to launch in 2019 was an interview series with other authors, so I’m delighted to announce the start of a series I’m calling Holden’s Heroes.
This will be a regular series of interviews with fellow writers: I’ll welcome them to my “home” (virtually only, but let’s use our imaginations) and have some fun asking them all my burning questions. My favourite thing about interviews is when there’s some deeper or more personal insight than would usually be revealed, so coaxing out some of these insights is going to be my aim when interviewing my victimssubjects friends.
The aim will be for interviews to be published on a monthly basis, and I thought for 2019 I would begin by focusing on the fellow members of my #5amwritersclub. I’m calling this the “January” interview even though we’re in early Feb, so just go along with it, okay? Great.
I’m starting things off with my buddy Michael Trant – he has the fine honour of becoming the first ever featured author for Holden’s Heroes and chatting to him was as fun and fascinating as I expected. Let’s dive in and see what he has to say for himself!
Holden’s Heroes ~ January 2019
Holden: Michael Trant, welcome to my house and sorry the place is such a bloody mess. Please, don’t mind the piles of clothes and rubbish everywhere. I swear I’ll pick them up one day.
Michael: What mess? You’re talking to a guy who’ll buy more coffee cups just to avoid washing the pile on his desk.
H: Now, this explains why we’re mates. Okay, let’s dive in: your debut novel Ridgeview Station was published by Allen & Unwin in 2017, and it’s a cracking rural fiction read about life on an outback station in the Midwest. In your acknowledgements, you mention this is inspired by your time on Gabyon Station near Yalgoo. I am fascinated – what was it like living on, and running, a station?
M: To be honest most of the running was, and still is, done by my former wife Gemma. Having a station was always her goal, so that’s what we aimed for. And in 2009 we achieved that, though I spent most my time looking after our Geraldton farms so she could go up and help her parents who moved there. It is a great life, but it is very hard, and that’s something I wanted to put across in the book. Simple things like getting hot water, keeping the power running, even before you get to the actual working side of it. And just the sheer scale of those places. That’s why I rib you about your ‘huge’ drive down to Fremantle.
H: I maintain Butler to Fremantle is like The Shire to Mordor, but you’re a guest here, so go on.
M: Later on, after we had to sell the farms, I ended up working four and one FIFO to pay some bills. So really I only spent about a year fulltime on the actual station, but travelled up and back quite regularly. I do miss the place though. One thing I’ll always remember is the stars and the stillness. They run a station stay up there and I highly recommend it. It’s only *coughs* five hours from Perth. Not far at all.
H: Still closer than Butler to Freo, ha! I wanted to ask as well, since the novel is so heavily autobiographical – can you actually fly a plane? And also, did you actually fight off a bushfire?
M: I never did get my pilot ticket, but I was generally the one who went up with my father-in-law Mike as a spotter for the ground crews on motorbikes. Mike is getting on a bit, so I made sure to ask what everything did, you know, just in case we were 500 feet up and he blacked out or something. I figured I could land it if I had to, even if the plane may not fly again afterwards, but any landing you can walk away from is a good one. Thankfully I never had to test it, but not long after I left he was very lucky. Just after take-off a cable snapped and ploughed him sideways into the dirt, just missing a shed and the house. He was okay, but normally I’d have been with him, so who knows what might have happened?
The fire scenes are pretty much as it happened to us, with the exception of Ash’s near miss. I made that up for a bit more excitement. But we’d had record rain the year before, just as the book starts, and then it all lit up in the summer from lightening. We lost 80 000 hectares, about a third of the place. Unfortunately most of the scenes with the fire control officers I didn’t have to change too much. Murder was nearly done that week, I can assure you.
H: I was about ready to strangle those guys when I read the novel, so I would hardly blame you for a murder there. On a serious note with the autobiographical stuff, after you wrote this novel, you separated from your wife and left Gabyon Station. Is it difficult to look back on the novel and revisit these experiences from a distance?
M: It was extremely hard and I struggled. The publishing contract came through about five months after we split, which was fine, but the first round of edits hit six months later, just when the reasons for the split start to fade a little and you begin to look back with rose tinted glasses. I am very grateful our split has been mostly amicable, but at the same time when you’re not clawing each other’s eyes out there are times when it’s not easy either.
Coupled to that I attended a family funeral around the same time and it was like I’d never left. No animosity at all, just open arms from everyone. Plus I was working on a farm just down the road from where it all started which brought back more memories, so yeah, I wasn’t good there for a while and did some stupid stuff that hurt both Gemma and my current partner Kylie, but we got through it and I’m very grateful to get that sorted. And for Kylie’s understanding. Every event we go to she sits there and listens to me tell the same story about how Ridgeview came about. I don’t know how many other partners would accept that, but she does and I’m very appreciative of it.
H: I think we can all agree Kylie is a good egg! Speaking of good eggs, I really love a lot of the characters in this novel – especially Pete and Alexi, who are both foregrounded – but I seriously think Bull is the coolest character of all and I want to be him when I grow up. What inspired Bull and why do you think you’ve had such a response to him?
M: Bull’s just one of those real old school ocker kind of guys. I love him. Swears like a trooper, but immediately apologises for it if he’s in front of an older lady. Jovial and jolly, but not afraid to front up to someone if needed. He’s a combination of a few people, but mostly an owner-operator stock carter called Steve. He had this massive red beard and these two beautiful big Huntaway truck dogs.
The scene with Mork and Mindy towards the end came from his two dogs, and I’ll never forget his face when he told me that. I’ll also never forget when he shaved off his beard. I thought he’d put a new driver on until this pasty face man spoke.
H: There is a genuine, down-to-earth, masculine quality to your writing that I really enjoy reading – there’s swearing and humour and it’s the kind of humour I grew up with, being a Midwest boy myself. Is this something you consciously craft for your writing, or is it just something that seeps into your work?
M: Not intentionally, but because most of those characters were drawn from real people, or a combination of, I already knew how they spoke. I’m lucky in the fact that I’m very musical. I play, and I listen. John Harman, a Perth based writer who assessed Ridgeview early on and who runs very good writing courses, says ‘good writers do not have a tin ear,’ and he’s right. I can hear accents, how people phrase words when they talk, where they pause or run on, just as I can hear riffs and base lines under a melody. Alexi is a good example. She’s based off many backpackers we had through. People who come to English as a second or third language phrase things very differently to native speakers. ‘We go now then?’ as opposed to ‘So we going now or what?’ or ‘So we be going soon then, lad?’ if they’re Irish. But you have to be careful not to overdo it or its hard work for the reader. I toned Alexi’s dialogue back a bit in the final version after advice from the editors. I did refuse to change the phrasing of one of Kev’s lines though. I forget what it was, but is was worded extremely strangely and I said no, that’s how this guy speaks.
H: Speaking of editors, many readers of this blog will wonder what it’s like to be published by one of the bigger publishing houses in the country. What was it like to have your precious book edited, altered, packaged up, branded and sold?
M: I loved it. To finally have some guidance was so good. During the negotiations before a contract came through, my publisher Louise wanted to make sure I was happy to change a few things. Her opening email line was along the lines of ‘It’s really good, but needs a lot of work.’ My response was ‘You say jump, I’ll ask how high. You’re the experts.’ I had no idea what I was doing when I wrote the manuscript. I had multiple points of view in the same scenes, I took far too long to get the story moving and had pages of beautiful prose describing a stone tank. I think we ended up cutting about 15 000 words from the original submission, but replaced them with another 10 000. Less describing stuff, and more ‘stuff actually happening.’ Looking back, I think the start is still a bit of a slow burn, but once it ramps up it seems to hook people in.
Having the support of those who know what they are doing was invaluable. The cover design is amazing. I was always going to self-publish, and had a lovely photo of an old windmill that was going to be the cover, but when the email with the pdf came through I was stunned. And then to see it in a bookshop for the first time, I’ll never forget that. The first reader-submitted photo of it out in the wild came from Wagga-Wagga. Couldn’t think of a better place for it.
H: It would be surreal to reach that point. I’m in the editing stage for my novel at the moment, and part of me is like “there is no end to this”. Once your novel was published, did you look at it and think “it’s perfect”, or do you look at it now and still want to change stuff?
M: Haha, first page of my copy I opened had a bloody typo. No, I don’t think anyone is ever one hundred percent happy with their work, but I think it’s as good as I could do knowing what I did back then. I feel for those writers who launch their book while working on the next one. By the time launch comes, that book is way out of your mind, you’re already in another world working on the next.
H: Well, I am now dreading opening my book once it’s printed. The typos will scream at me, I’m sure of it. Okay, so I wanted to ask about your beginnings as a writer. You initially made the leap from farmer to writer when you started a successful blog a few years back. How did that happen and do you think blogging is important for authors?
M: I’ve always been able to pen something half decent, but mostly they were strongly worded letters to people who owed us money, or politicians. I think I get that from Mum. But when the whole live export thing blew up there were no farmers on social media, and as part of a push by industry to change that I started a blog, mainly just to give an insight into how things worked on a farm. It was mostly humorous anecdotes about what we were doing and why, but every now and then I’d pen something really serious. It kind of blew up, and through it we organised the biggest rally of farmers in Perth since the early 80s, and met the then Federal Agricultural Minister for a one on one discussion.
I think blogging is important, but only if you really want to do it. My original blog is mothballed now. I wasn’t going to post on it after I left the station, and the new one I created is sorely lacking in content, so I would suggest only do one if you’re prepared to put the effort in.
H [*looks wistfully at irregular blog post history*]: So, since Ridgeview was published eighteen months ago, you’ve been writing a lot. What new projects have you completed and what are you working on now?
M: Yeah, I actually listed them all the other day for this upcoming writer’s retreat and went, oh wow. I have actually been busy. So far I’ve finished (I use that term loosely) two novels; Ned, the life of a sheepdog from his point of view, and Fly-out Day, which follows a farmer struggling to balance work/life after taking on a FIFO job (sound familiar?). I’ve just finished the first draft on a third novel I’ve tentatively called Where Wild Dogs Roam, where an outback dogger stumbles across a people smuggling operation and is paired with an Afghani refugee as they try to find his family. This one took me ages to write. I kept getting stuck so in between I penned a novella called The Last Waltz, which I’ve set in a fantasy world based on Australian folklore. I’m really excited about this one, and am halfway through a second novella set in the same world. And this year I plan to do a narrative non-fiction piece on the rescue of a two year old boy who fell down a borehole in 1952. It’s an amazing story and I know some of those involved in the rescue. Finally I’ll keep pumping out short stories based around my Australian folklore/fantasy idea until I work out what to do with them.
H: Your pitch for a speculative fiction novella has just been shortlisted for the Drowned Earth novella competition – congrats mate! How does it feel, and what’s this one all about?
M: Stunned would be the word I’d use. When the email came it had the usual opening line. ‘Thank you for your submission etc etc we were inundated etc etc.’ Here we go again, I thought. ‘We are pleased to inform you…’ Wait what? So yeah, quite surprised. It’s an interesting concept. 9-12 writers are going to pen individual novellas about The Rise. The ice caps have melted much quicker than expected, so what happens next? Coastlines have flooded, hundreds of thousands of people displaced. I’ve always thought outback stations are the perfect setting for dystopian survival. They’re already pretty much self-sufficient so that’s what I pitched, a family living relatively unaffected until refugees turn up on their door step. Do they accept them or tell them to go back where they came from. I’ve got until March 3rd to pen a 1000 word sample, and we’ll see what happens, but it’s a great boost to my confidence, regardless of the outcome.
H: It’s a great boost, and you have other cool stuff ahead. My amazing literary agent Haylee Nash is running a writer’s retreat and I believe you’re flying over east to take part in it. What’s it going to be like, and what are you hoping to get out of it?
M: I’m really looking forward to this, particularly the sessions on pitching and the current publishing industry status. Unfortunately for me, my publisher resigned just as Ridgeview was released (completely unrelated, for sure) and I’ve kind of fallen through the cracks a little, so this seem a good way to get feedback and advice on some work from someone in the know. Rachael Johns and Josephine Moon are also presenting, and those two are great fun. I’m actually doing a talk with Rachael at Centre for Stories in early April, and really excited for that too. She’s been a huge help in the last year.
H: I’m going to that – should be a fantastic event. Tickets are available here.
M: Ideally what I get out of the retreat would be for Haylee to read my samples, go absolutely nuts over them and sign me up there and then. But I’ll settle for solid advice and some direction for the coming year. I’ll be dropping your name so hard your ears will hurt, by the way.
H: Hey, I have no problem with that – namedrop away. Although I’m way behind on my deadline for the next novel, so mentioning my name *may* make my agent snarl something like “that bastard owes me a manuscript”. So, namedrop at your own risk.
Something I just thought of … we’re both Midwest boys – should I dig up my old Akubra some day and we can take our books for a tour in the bush?
M: Absolutely. We’ll load up the ute and hit the dust. They won’t know what hit them. Are you sure you’re up for the road trip though? I mean, you consider Fremantle practically in another state, and that sort of trip length would get us to Bindoon, which I still consider suburbia.
H: Don’t forget I’m a Midwest boy myself – I hate long city drives, but I’ve done more road trips between Geraldton and Perth than I could ever count! Hmm, I suspect we may start quibbling on the road trip. Let’s move on. What made you join the #5amwritersclub, and what made you stay?
M: Peer pressure. I am a procrastinator, so posting a pic of me writing then having fellow writers saying ’See you tomorrow!’ makes me get out of bed and sit bum on seat. I haven’t been doing much of it lately because I’m fortunate to work flexibly, so I’m writing during the day at the moment. But when I head up to Three Springs I’ll start getting back into it. Urgh. I hate mornings. What makes me stay is the awesome people I met through it, such as yourself, and just having that support group around really helps. Published, unpublished, all writers go through the same problems, and sharing them really helps. And while I think of it a huge thank you to fellow member Bec for putting me onto the Drowned Earth competition.
H: Bec is a legend, and she has agreed to be interviewed on Holden’s Heroes in a few months’ time, so stay tuned.
Meantime, Mike, we’re nearly done with our chat. I want to ask you what advice would you give to aspiring and emerging authors who are just starting out – or, rather, what do you know now that you wish you’d known right at the beginning?
M: Be patient. Don’t send of unfinished work in a rush because you’re afraid you might miss out. Finish the manuscript and stick it in a draw for a month or more. More is better. Read it with fresh eyes and tighten it up again. Because it will need tightening. Then get other writers or avid readers to read it, and listen to their advice. You don’t have to accept it but if three out of four say it’s a little slow, they are probably right. And if you find a reader who is not afraid to be blunt, hang on to them.
Read. You have to read. You can’t improve your craft if you don’t observe how the pros do it. Last year I burned through 600 hours of audio books at work and learned so much. I can see it in what I’m writing now, it’s much tighter the first time around.
Find your writing tribe. Pretty much what I said about the #5amwriterclub. You’ll be surprised how common your problems or concerns are, and when something goes really well for you they’ll understand just how big a deal it is.
H: So agree, especially the last one – sometimes I’d tell non-writer friends my good news about a mentorship or residency and they’d be like, “okay … is that a big deal?” But writer mates totally get it, and get almost as excited as you do.
Okay, final question: I’m a big believer in goal setting and dreaming. Tell me, what would you love to have accomplished five years from now?
M: Firstly, getting something else published, or at least contracted to publish. That’s this year’s goal. But in five years I’d like to be able to repay Kylie’s faith in me. I quit a six figure FIFO job, not just to write, but partly because of it. It’d be nice if one day she had the option to do the same on the back of that faith.
H: What a poignant note to finish on. Michael Trant, it’s been awesome having you over for a chat and thanks for being so generous in your responses. Care to hang around for a drink? What’s your poison?
M: Been a pleasure. I’ll have whatever is cold, wet and free. I post a lot of Emu Export pics, but just quietly those are usually provided by work. I don’t normally drink the stuff, but when in Rome, as they say …
H: Bushchooks it is! 😉
~ Social Media Links ~
I hope you enjoyed this interview with the wonderfully talented Michael Trant. He’s a top bloke and even more fun to interact with on the socials, so here’s where you can give him a like and a follow:
Lately, I feel like driving past my current work in progress, winding the window down and mooning it with my hairy wog arse while simultaneously flipping the bird.
(This is assuming someone else is driving the car, of course, or maybe that I’m an octopus.)
Seriously, writing can be a bitch sometimes. There are times when you’re on a luxury river cruise of creativity, soaking up the sunshine, knocking back a refreshing beer and chortling at how fucking amazing you are.
Other times you’re standing on the river bank, watching all the writer-boats sail past while you get sunburnt, spill your beer and step in day-old duck shit.
And for the last few months, I’ve been stepping in duck shit the way a kid jumps into a puddle of mud.
I’m working on the first draft of my next contemporary YA novel, but my progress has been staccato from the start. I know it’s not unusual for writers to have issues with producing their second novel, but since Invisible Boys was my second novel written and this current one is my third, I figured I’d already managed to break the curse of the second novel.
With my first two novels, the first drafts were written very quickly. My YA fantasy novel was written in three months; Invisible Boys was even faster, barely a two-month timeframe.
But the wheels kind of fell off with this third novel, and as I sit here today reflecting on why, it’s pretty clear what’s going on.
Both my first two novels were written in total obscurity, and that is what gave me the license to write in an unfettered way, without considering the audience or market. All I had to consider was what I wanted to say, and then I gave myself total permission to say it.
With Invisible Boys in particular, I gave myself more freedom than I would give myself on this blog, or on social media, or in conversation. I told myself firmly, “there are no sacred cows: write whatever you feel like writing, what hurts, what burns at you, what you desperately wanted to say fifteen years ago but the words died on your tongue, and to hell with anyone having a problem with it”.
The freedom I granted myself writing Invisible Boys was spectacular. It sounds geeky to admit, but writing like this is one of the best feelings ever. The sensation of total liberty infused me with a general enthusiasm for living more boldly. I woke up each morning feeling like I had power; like I was able to say more than usual, because I was giving myself permission to not give a fuck about the consequences.
But a lot changed last summer. Invisible Boys won the Ray Koppe Award; I signed with an agent; and I undertook my residency at Varuna. Suddenly, I felt like other people were watching me, and this loaded a barbell of expectations onto my shoulders: a wordless and ineffable process, but nonetheless real.
My prevailing thought was:
If I’m an agented, award-winning author and also a friggin Varuna alumnus, I’d better be writing amazing works of staggering literary genius and if the next thing I produce isn’t amazing, people will realise I am an untalented turd and Invisible Boys was just a fluke.
As we know, first drafts are unequivocally duck shit. So, applying this kind of thinking when you’re drafting is capital-N Not Helpful.
And as it so happens, I started drafting this version of my third novel while I was at Varuna last January, so the soil this story springs from is kind of neurotic and self-doubty, reflecting the pressure I was putting myself under at the time. I only produced one chapter at Varuna, which I was disappointed with, and the quality wasn’t fantastic.
I returned to the manuscript between July and October, but my progress was staccato again. The last time I worked on it was late November. Life got in the way: I had edits and promo for Poster Boy, Hungerford promo, other writing events, day job, Christmas, and finally the structural edits for Invisible Boys (which are now finished, yay).
But this week, I am not excessively busy: I have time to dedicate to writing for the first time in two months and so I am forced to face my manuscript again. I don’t have the get-out-of-jail-free card of being ‘busy’. It’s just me and the novel.
And I realise those expectations I felt last summer at Varuna are still weighing on me now, perhaps more than ever, post-Hungerford.
And those expectations, really, are born from fears.
I am scared of this novel not being powerful.
I am scared it won’t impact upon people as much as Invisible Boys.
I am scared of being a one-trick pony.
I am scared people will be disappointed in me.
I am scared people will roll their eyes and say, ‘Really, he won awards for writing, and that’s the best he can do?’
I am scared readers will give up on me.
I am scared of losing everything.
I’m experiencing classic Second Novel Syndrome, only for me it’s Third Novel Syndrome. The number doesn’t really matter. If someone wrote six unpublished novels and their seventh got published, they’d go through Eighth Novel Syndrome.
The truth is, it’s not the second novel per se that gives writers more grief than any other; it’s whatever novel we write after experiencing some kind of success for a previous novel; the first novel we write when we are no longer working in total obscurity.
The fears I listed above are mostly centred on what other people think about my writing, which isn’t something I used to worry about. Prior to 2017, I felt no external pressure, only an internal desire to express myself.
I can’t go back to that state of obscurity – and nor would I want to. I worked hard to get to where I am, and things like the Hungerford Award are incredible gifts that I am deeply grateful for.
However, my response to this recognition has been one of fear, which is now holding me back. I know the only way I can complete my third novel is by setting fire to my fears, giving them a good roasting and then plating them up and swallowing them.
So, here I go.
Firstly, I have to accept that my fears are beyond my control. Even if I write an amazing novel, people might still not like it. Ultimately, I have no power over how other people receive and interpret my work, and I never will.
Secondly, I have to remember how I began this journey: with nothing. I started out as a seven-year-old boy from Geraldton with an exercise book and a pen. I didn’t need anyone’s approval or support to write. I did it on my own because what I wanted more than anything was to express myself. It’s easier to risk losing what you have if you remind yourself that you coped just fine without any of it.
Ultimately, the only thing within my control is the writing itself. All I can do is get my arse in the chair, open my laptop and express myself one word, sentence, page, chapter at a time, until I’m done. Writing unabashedly has always brought me incredible joy and fulfilment. I can’t recreate the obscurity I used to experience, but there’s no reason I can’t write just as honestly and freely as I used to: it’s within my control, and so I will choose to do it.
And hell, maybe I’ll fail. Maybe all my fears will come true and everything will go tits up, but I can’t control that.
I only own my process, and my words, and that starts with my attitude.
Novel number three, prepare to be finished. No sacred cows. Duck shit ahoy.