I’ve been eagerly awaiting this post from one of my favourite writers, Nigel Featherstone. Nigel’s latest novel, ‘My Heart is a Little Wild Thing’ has been described as, ‘Powerful, tender, visceral and sublime–a must-read piece of Australian literature.’ (Holden Sheppard)
If you’re not familiar with Nigel’s books and essays, you’re in for a treat today, so grab a cup of tea and settle in for some wonderful writing and thoughtful insights. It’s a Q&A, and I love the questions Nigel has chosen to answer. Keep reading to the end, especially for the things he’d do differently if he had his time over. (Don’t we all have this list, and isn’t caring less about what others think on our lists, too?)
Nigel Featherstone is an Australian writer who has been widely published and awarded. His latest work is the novel My Heart is a Little Wild Thing, published by Ultimo Press in May 2022. It has been described as ‘Powerful, tender, visceral and sublime–a must-read piece of Australian literature’ (Holden Sheppard). Nigel’s war novel, Bodies of Men, was longlisted for the 2020 ARA Historical Novel Prize, shortlisted for the 2020 ACT Book of the Year and in the 2019 Queensland Literary Awards and received a 2019 Canberra Critics Circle Award.
Nigel’s stories have appeared in Meanjin, Review of Australian Fiction, Island and Overland, and his writing has also appeared in the Guardian Australia, Sydney Morning Herald, Canberra Timesand the Chicago Quarterly Review. Since 2014 Nigel has also been writing for the stage. He is represented by Gaby Naher of Left Bank Literary.
My Heart is a Little Wild Thing
About My Heart is a Little Wild Thing – its themes, characters, and inspirations. Were they intentional, or did they just come about?
I like to describe My Heart is a Little Wild Thing as a three-way love story – a love story between a middle-aged man called Patrick and his ageing and frail mother, between Patrick and a rather mysterious man called Lewis who will change his life, and between Patrick and a place that was very important to him when he was a child. Despite that – and I think it’s important to remember that, as Amanda Lohrey has noted, the reader brings 50% of the meaning to a story – in my view My Heart is a Little Wild Thing is more a nature novel than a romance. I wanted to explore the idea that if the natural world is in deadline, we are all in decline; if the natural world is sad, it’s very difficult for us to be truly happy; if we start to rehabilitate the natural world (as complex as that can be), we can start to rehabilitate ourselves.
I began writing the novel in 2007 and since then we have seen the world’s ecosystems continue to collapse, and they are collapsing at an increasing rate. As the new Australian government has recently noted, there is no doubt we are heading in the wrong direction. I wanted to explore that in a highly personal way, through Patrick, a man who cares deeply about is mother but has never been able to live the life he’s always wanted to live. After a terrible disagreement with his mother, Patrick decides to remove himself away from his domestic situation and revisit the Monaro, the barren but beautiful high plain between the Snowy Mountains and the Far South Coast of New South Wales; his family used to spend holidays in an old stone barn. There, he sees a strange animal, which will lead him to Lewis. Patrick and Lewis bond while planting trees – and that will send them on their journey.
In terms of whether the themes of the novel were intentional or just came about, it is probably fair and accurate to say a bit of both – I knew I was writing a nature novel, but the sub-themes (if you like) arose from the writing, and then some arose from the editing. Perhaps the themes were always there; they were just brought to the surface.
Did the story change over the editing process?
As mentioned above, I’ve had the core idea – a man, who realises that his life is not going in the right direction, returns to a place from his childhood, where a strange animal will change his life – for 15 years. I made various attempts – sometimes Patrick was young, sometimes old, sometimes married, sometimes not – and, while I completed a number of manuscripts, none of them achieved what I had set out to do. It wasn’t until early 2020, between the end of the drought, the fires and the beginning of the pandemic, that I spent a week on a farm down on the Monaro, and that changed things for me. In fact, I threw out the manuscript I was working on at that time and started again, from scratch and by hand (though that’s not unusual, as I write everything by putting pen to paper). I wrote the first draft of the new manuscript in 14 days, and then did another 12 drafts over 18 months. That is quite fast for me. My previous novel, Bodies of Men, took 40 drafts over six years.
To answer your question more directly, yes, My Heart is a Little Wild Thing did change during the editing process. I knew that with this version of the story that I was writing Patrick’s memoir, or giving Patrick the permission and space and time to write his memoir, and that it would be almost excruciatingly personal for him. I also wanted to give him the permission to write in whatever way he felt was appropriate; that meant it became a ‘mosaic novel’ – really quite fragmentary. My publisher Robert Watkins was very keen for it to have more narrative flow. He also wanted it to be as ambitious as possible, which encouraged me to go to parts of my imaginative that had otherwise been locked.
Why I write and how it feels while I’m writing:
I write because there is something I want to explore, or there is something I’m angry about, or there is something about the world I’d like to change, or there is something I want to know more about. I write because I like creating something out of thin air. I like writing literary fiction because it is an act of extreme imagination, and an act of creative empathy. I write because I love language and playing with words. I write because I get meaning from literature; most of the richness and depth in my life comes from reading books.
But I don’t find writing easy. I am quite a pessimistic person, and I can be hard on myself. Most days, I tell myself that I am no good at this and should leave it to others.
A breakthrough came a few years ago when the Australian novelist Charlotte Wood told me about ‘optimistic curiosity’: now, each time I sit down at the writing desk, I ask myself, what will I discover today? Perhaps I’ll discover that I’ve started a new novel in the wrong place, but that’s okay – I needed to find that out.
When I’m writing well, it feels as though something is in control of my hand: the words just flow. But that’s rare, and certainly delightful when it happens. Indeed, there is nothing quite like it.
When and where I write:
I am better in the morning than the afternoon and evening – as a writer and as a human being. In terms of writing, I’m certainly sharpest in the morning. I like to get up before dawn and be at the writing desk when the sun is just beginning to appear over the horizon. I’m convinced that writing fiction comes from the same part of the brain that creates dreams, so, for me, it’s important that the brain is still able to dream when I put pen to paper.
I’m lucky enough to have a writing room in my house. In it are two desks: one for writing and one for editing. There is no internet. I keep the laptop hidden beneath books and only bring it out when I need to turn it on. There is no phone in my writing room, and only on very rare occasions is my mobile phone allowed in this space. Adjacent my writing room is a small library, where I read. I like to think all those novelists and poets are cheering me on.
What were my favourite books when I was a child? As a teen? In my twenties?
Books from childhood that still resonate include My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George and The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Important books from my teens would be Kes by Barry Hines, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, George Orwell’s 1984, and The Dingo Summer by Ivy Baker. In my twenties I discovered the work of Tim Winton before being bowled over by Colm Tóibín, Annie Proulx, Kazuo Ishiguro, Helen Garner, and JM Coetzee. Two books that have stunned me recently are Time is a Mother, which is the latest poetry collection by Ocean Vuong and The Grass Hotel by Craig Sherborne, which is one of the most inventive mother-son novels I’ve ever read.
What am I reading now?
The Mother by Jane Caro.
Is there anything I’d do differently if I had my time over?
I’ve always wanted to live a creative life, a life of the mind, and that’s more or less the life I have lived. But there have been times when I’ve been too cautious, and too scared of what other people might think – about something I’ve written, or something I’ve done. So, I should have thrown caution to the wind and cared much less. I also think it can be helpful to remember that creativity is, in essence, a playful act. For the last few years, I have been writing for the theatre. Recently, during a creative development of a play that I had written and was getting a little stressed because I was concluding that it really didn’t work, one of the actors, who is also a director, turned to me and said, ‘Nigel, theatre is play. Don’t overthink it. Let’s just keeping playing and see what we discover.’ Such wise words.
So, when I get back to the writing desk first thing tomorrow morning, I will say to myself, ‘Don’t think too hard – just play.’