Nigel Featherstone is an Australian writer of contemporary fiction. He is the author of 50 short stories that have been published in Australian literary journals such as Meanjin, Overland, and the Review of Australian Fiction. His critically acclaimed first novel, Remnants, was published in 2005 by Pandanus Books. His award-winning series of three novellas was published by Blemish Books between 2011 and 2014. His war novel, Bodies of Men, is forthcoming from Hachette Australia in 2019. Nigel has held residencies at Bundanon, Varuna, and in 2013 he was a Creative Fellow at UNSW Canberra / Australian Defence Force Academy, during which he explored different expressions of masculinity under military pressure. Nigel is represented by the Naher Agency in Sydney, and he lives on the Southern Tablelands of New South Wales. For more information, visit www.opentopublic.com.au
The Street talked to Nigel before the world premiere of The Weight of Light in March.
TELL US HOW YOU CAME TO BE WORKING ON THIS PROJECT?
In 2013, just after my 3-month residency at UNSW Canberra/ADFA, Paul Scott-Williams from the Goulburn Regional Conservatorium approached me to write the libretto for a new Australian song cycle. At first I said no, because, being a prose-fiction writer, I didn’t think I had the right skills. However, Paul rather enthusiastically pointed out my life-long love of music and that my most recent novella, The Beach Volcano (Blemish Books, 2014), centres on the trials and tribulations of a contemporary Australian musician. Being at the stage in my career where I do like to try new things, I decided to say yes; perhaps I would have something to offer the project after all? A month or two later I met composer James Humberstone and we immediately bonded over our fondness of a wide range of music , everything from Lamont Young to Arvo Pärt and a heck of a lot in between. In the end, it became a matter of just jumping in and seeing what might happen.
DESCRIBE YOUR COLLABORATIVE PROCESS WITH JAMES (the composer).
Working with James has been a delight from the outset. While it’s no secret that at first James found the first draft of the libretto rather dark and intense, both of us have been very open to each other’s ideas and have been committed to developing the work together. I was always aware that the libretto would be the start of the process, and that the text would change as James produced his score. I think we’ve both appreciated how experimental we’ve been with The Weight of Light; we’ve wanted to produce something new, which, after all, has been what Paul wanted: a unique song cycle with relevance to contemporary concerns.
HOW DID YOU DEVELOP THE CHARACTER OF THE AUSTRALIAN SOLDIER AT THE CENTRE OF THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT?
Being a writer of literary fiction (for want of a better term), all my work starts with character. Because I’d just come off the residency at UNSW Canberra/ADFA, I had already done a lot of reading about how masculinity can express itself when under military pressure. I then started writing notes on ‘the soldier’: who was he, what was his background, how did he think, what did he want, what did he need? From there the plot unfolded, and then the songs. But, as is the way with most writing, this was an organic process – lots of moving backwards and forwards and trying out different things. Then, of course, came James, who had his own questions and requirements. The soldier has become quite a multifaceted character, someone who was once sure of his ideas but now realises that he doesn’t know as much as he thought he did; his mother, who has always been a strong influence in his life, becomes even more important.
THIS WORK EXPLORES MANY DIMENSIONS OF MASCULINITY AND OF BEING A MAN. HOW DOES IT SIT WITH CONTEMPORRY LIFE?
This project started in late 2013, so not long after we had an Australian prime minister saying that he wanted to ‘shirt-front’ a certain world leader. There had also been many media reports about how Australian army personnel who had served in the Middle East were coming home to experience significant difficulties. Then we have the fact that the rate of male suicide in Australia is the highest it has ever been. More recently, of course, are the various high-profile stories of male sexual harassment and assault against women. While The Weight of Light is about an Australian soldier returning home with a dark secret, who then finds his family has a dark secret of their own, I think the work does touch on what it means to be a man, and how masculinity and femininity can often overlap and interact. It also asks questions such as what does sex and gender really mean, and, regardless of sex/gender, what does it mean to be strong, ‘a hero’? As a writer I don’t have any particular position on these issues or an axe to grind, other than to say that things are always more complex than they might first appear, and that love, as fraught as it can be, is almost always the answer.
WHAT ARE THE TECHNICAL AND CREATIVE DEMANDS FOR YOU IN WRITING WORDS TO BE SUNG?
Although from the beginning of the project I understood the need to leave room for the music, as James and I collaborated I became more and more aware of the importance of paring back. I write everything by hand – pen and paper – and it’s a process that has many benefits, but it can sometimes lead to my being overly playful: getting carried away. So, from my perspective, it’s been a process of taking things out – overall the libretto has been getting shorter and shorter – which, I hope, has created more ground on which James has been able to work. Then there has been the way a singer such as a baritone will naturally emphasise every word, every syllable and consonant – this doesn’t happen when a reader is privately reading a written work! Again, it was about being open to feedback and making the necessary changes. With this project, I was always looking for clarity, which, I think, helps to engage audiences.
TALK US THROUGH THE PROCESS FOR YOU OF WORKING WITH A DIRECTOR, REPETITEUR AND PERFORMERS.
Most of my writing involves me sitting at a desk in my house and spending day after day alone. I never really know if a work is any good until a publisher or editor (or my agent) lets me know what they think. Working on The Weight of Light has provided many opportunities for almost immediate feedback. It’s also been lovely – i.e. a relief! – to be able to bounce ideas off others in the creative team and hear how they are feeling and responding. I’ve really appreciated how Caroline Stacey, as director, gently asked very concise questions about intent and expression. Everyone in the team has their own perspective and needs, and all are valid.
OUR WORK WAS PART OF THE STREET’S FIRST SEEN IN 2017. WHAT DID YOU LEARN FROM THE AUDIENCE’S INITIAL RESPONSE?
As mentioned above, most fiction writers work alone and feedback, if it ever comes, happens a long time – sometimes years – after a story is finished. So, receiving audience feedback at the creative development stage was, to be frank, confronting. But it was also essential. Many changes were made to the libretto as a result of the audience feedback, especially in terms of story clarity, but also getting a balance between the beautiful sections and the darker, more challenging moments.
WHAT HAVE YOU DISCOVERED IN WRITING A WORK TO BE PERFORMED?
The main thing I’ve discovered is that room really does need to be left for others. In the hands of a talented composer, an astute director and skilled performers, just three short words on a page can be turned into an entire world and story.
THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT HAS BEEN DESCRIBED AS A SUSPENSEFUL PRODUCTION WHERE SONG CYCLE MEETS THEATRE AND ABSOLUTION IS SOUGHT BY ALL. WHAT CAN AUDIENCES EXPECT?
Definitely suspense! And just a little bit of darkness too. But there is also love and affection, and the distinct feeling that healing is always possible. And then there is James’s amazing score, which has so many contrasts, moving from gentle to sublime to exciting and back to gentle again. In the end, from my perspective, I can only hope that audiences find the work moving.
DO YOU BELIEVE IN WRITER’S BLOCK?
I’m not so sure I do. Some stories are more difficult to write than others, and some days are more productive than others. It’s also true that writers are very good at blocking themselves: most of us struggle with confidence i.e. not having enough belief in our skills. More often than not I find that I have to get out of the way of the words; just let them go down on the page, however they need to do it. Then it’s a matter of editing and rewriting and editing, and then putting the work away for a few weeks or months to ferment, and then rewriting and editing and rewriting and…
WHAT’S INSPIRING YOU IN LITERATURE AT THE MOMENT?
This year I’ve gone back in time a bit. I love the Russian novelists so I’ve been reading Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago (1957) and I’ve also recently read Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1892) by Thomas Hardy. Both Pasternak and Hardy push at the boundaries of what literature can do, and they ask a lot of their readers, but ultimately they’re telling love stories, albeit ones with political intent. Of more contemporary literature, I adore the prose-poems of Cassandra Atherton – so fine and playful.
WHAT ARE YOU READING AND WATCHING CURRENTLY?
These days I’m watching less and less TV, but Black Mirror is dark, human, necessary, and consistently excellent. I read as widely as I can and have recently adored Kim Mahood’s Position Doubtful: mapping landscape and memory. Heather Rose’s The Museum of Modern Love is a beautifully affecting novel about performance art, music and architecture (three of my favourite topics right there!). Melissa Lucashenko’s Mullumbimby opened my eyes to how others see this place we call Australia. See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt, about Lizzie Borden, is an intense exploration of American domesticity gone bad. And then there’s music: Max Richter’s Three Worlds, which is his score to a Royal Ballet piece about the life and work of Virginia Woolf, blows my mind every time I listen to it – extraordinary.