Sooky, the conflicted artist-heroine of Feather Man is a consummate loner, a girl with guts and a sense of irony who suffers romantic illusions that blind her to the reality of her four relationships with the men in her life. She grows up in the suburbs of Brisbane in the conformist 1950s where sinister sexuality is on the loose, and later tries to escape her eccentric childhood and paint her way to better chances in the grubby London of the 1970s.
She’s a fragile character, but not always a nice girl. You could even say that sometimes she’s cruel and unlovely. She has a habit of wavering dangerously between wanting to please and getting up people’s noses, especially when she’s had too much to drink.
Four men twist Sooky’s fate and challenge her identity:
Lionel – the grandfatherly figure next door, a morally lightweight ‘feather man’ who betrays her childish trust.
Peter – her first boyfriend, the local football hero who doesn’t quite make the grade.
Redmond – Lionel’s grown up son with whom Sooky makes a disastrous marriage. She follows Redmond on an ill-fated journey to London in the 1970s, where she meets
Paul – a gallery owner and an older man, who may or may not rescue Sooky from herself.
Kerryn Goldsworthy in the Australian Literary Review suggested that Feather Man “is in some ways a novel about privacy, about an experience so secret and so traumatically internalized that its effects go on reverberating long after the child victim has grown up.”
Reviews are handy because they can tell you what you’ve really been writing about. I think it was Helen Garner who said that writers don’t know what they’ve written and what’s more, they can’t remember how they did it. But I knew I wanted to talk about the impact of child sexual abuse on adult life and to notice that the betrayal of trust involved in sexual assault might do even more damage than the assault itself.
Christina Hill in the Australian Book Review suggested that I was interested in the fragility of identity and the dynamics of personal power, and when I read that I thought, “That’s it; that’s what I was doing!”
I also wanted to take a good hard look at the narcissistic personality type and its disorders, as epitomized by Redmond. Writers are not very interested in ‘nice’ or ‘normal’ but we are fascinated by ambivalence, and sociopathology, by what’s going on under the surface, and by what’s not being talked about in the open.
Pure Fiction – It’s All Made Up:
Feather Man began as a series of fragments that were never going to become poems. I knew I had started on a narrative journey that needed more space than the poem on a page. So when my youngest daughter left home I took over her bedroom and wrote the first draft in three months, working from 8am to late at night.
Initially the manuscript was called Pure Fiction, because I wanted to explore the shifting nature of truth. I’m convinced we make ourselves up as we go, perhaps in order to live with damaging realities, orperhaps simply because it’s a possibility of human nature. We’re dramatizations on the run.
The artist Julie Rrap, in an exhibition at the MCA, said of her self-portraiture:
“I see myself as talking from the third person, not as a self-portrait… I use my self-image in a more disembodied way… I am in two positions at once as model and author. The use of the self is almost like a ruse.”
I believe writers use the same method, especially in first person narrative; they attempt a disembodied view, the long stare in the mirror, and that objectified intimacy is, I believe, how fiction is formed.
You can’t talk ‘about’ somebody in 1st person narrative so I did that by way of Sooky’s dreams, which allow the reader to know something about her that she doesn’t yet understand about herself; and by letting her describe her paintings I found another way in which to get to know what she’s feeling without her having to tell us. Most of Sooky’s paintings came from my dream diaries which I kept for a number of years. Use of the first person narrative gives extra authenticity and immediacy to writing, but it does bring accusations of autobiography, which only shows the effectiveness of the technique. In fact, so strong is the autobiographical effect with 1st person narrative that one of my siblings is now convinced that Dad did indeed have an affair with the second violinist in the Qld. Symphony Orchestra, and nothing I say will now change her mind.
All the characters, including Sooky, are fictitious. The idea of the burning bride came from a friend’s experience. Peter, the football hero is based on someone I had an unrequited crush on when I was 18 and never spoke a word to, and Pammy came to me fully clothed from the story of Medea, a poisonous woman who accompanied Jason on his many adventures chasing the Golden Fleece. When abandoned by Jason, she avenged herself on his new bride by sending her a wedding present: a dress which consumed her with an inextinguishable fire; and something like this happens at Sooky’s wedding. But although I did grow up in Brisbane and spent some time in London in the 70’s, nothing ever happened to me in a chook shed, my father did not run off with the aforesaid second violinist, I have never suffered a miscarriage, I am not a childless only child, and I can’t paint.
The Novelist’s Intentions:
I started out with the idea that my book would be an amalgam of the feeling of every memorable novel I had ever enjoyed. I wanted to achieve that magical immersion that happens with the very best books.
John Mullan in How Novels Work suggests that the novel is the genre “that examined private life and audaciously made heroic the private person” and that the novel has been “dedicated to discovering ever more discriminating ways of conveying the complexities of human motivations.”
It is a genre “that would have us believe that its characters might have a life beyond its pages.”
Novels are unlike real life, which in my experience tends to be either rather dull or else unnervingly chaotic. A good novel, on the other hand, projects someone other than our small selves onto an outsize screen, into lives that are staged and illuminated works of art.
I had been used to holding my breath and writing a poem, so when I started to write prose I often ran out of puff. So I kept the chapters short as a pacing device. As one reader noted, short chapters are very handy if you’re reading a book on a bus. Thus style is more a self-serving accident than anything else. But I did want to use a surreal element. I was brought up on the Brothers Grimm and my book interweaves myth and fairy tale in a fractured sort of way; as one reviewer suggested it’s a bit like Cinderella meets Bluebeard in a dark Greek myth.
Here’s what Stephen King has to say in his book, On Writing:
Don’t use the passive voice.
Tell the story not the plot.
Cut the adverbs –the adverb is not the writer’s friend.
Tell the truth as you know it.
Kill your darlings – (those bits you are super-fond of are the ones you need to discard).
There are some interesting books written about the narcissistic personality. I recommend A Pattern of Madness by Neville Symington, and Individuation and Narcissism by Mario Jacoby.
Narcissists, like Redmond, are a great way to discuss the moral standpoint or lack of one, because narcissists are self-referential to the point of amorality. It’s hard to be ethical when you’re so consumed by yourself that you don’t feel anything at all for another person. All of us are self-interested to some degree, but one of the hallmarks of a narcissist is this curious blank lack of feeling, even though they mayappear to be thoughtful charmers on the outside.
When I stopped writing poetry on the 18th August, 2000, it was five days after my 53rd birthday, and I was on the Trans-Siberian railway. I had half-written a poem titled At Large, Near Omsk, which was an attempt to describe a scene at the train station where some hefty Russian women were unselfconsciously trying on enormous white bras over their clothing, provided by equally hefty vendors who dangled their merchandise from poles slung across their shoulders. That was the moment when I realized that nothing but narrative would do.
But if intrepid readers want to go in search of the clues, they will find quite a few of my published poems have reverted to prose and inhabit my novel. One reader told me she had been reminded of a poem of mine while reading Feather Man, and when she chased it up in an anthology, discovered that I had pinched one of my own poems and turned it back into prose – I think that’s called self-referencing and is my attempt at post post- Modernism.
The Editing Process:
I have been lucky to have had two good editors. Rodney Hall helped me with a structural edit in one of the early drafts, when the second half of the novel wasn’t quite gelling. He told me to make it less surreal, more real-life and to make the character of Redmond more sympathetic. Making Redmond more sympathetic was the hardest part, but the smartest thing I ever did.
Diana Giese was my final editor. She corrected grammar, cut my darlings (although I put a few back), suggested some chapter titles, edited some overwriting, suggested re-arrangement of some chapters, and generally helped me to a leaner, meaner, more readable manuscript. Where we differed over the tone of a particular paragraph, I usually won, but we always discussed it. If I was unclear in what I was trying to say, then Diana won that round. It was a fine collaboration, and this page-by-page work is absolutely indispensable to the process of writing and doesn’t happen often enough.
Voices On, Voices Off:
My novel is full of voices. So here’s Christine, the girl friend, commenting in Sooky’s head as she prepares to go out on her first date with Redmond; at this stage Sookie is about 19 or 20 and Redmond is about 10 years older:
‘I have applied liberal dots of Blue Grass perfume at strategic spots: wrist, elbow crease, behind my knees, cleavage, back of the neck. ‘Pulse points,’ I hear Christine say. ‘Or where you might get kissed. Don’t put it on your nipples.’
And here, Christine and Sooky are having a joy-ride at night through the outer Brisbane suburbs with two jackaroos they’ve picked up at the Bowling Alley:
‘In the headlights now I can see a female figure walking along the side of the road. Steve sees her too and applies the brakes.
‘Geez, what’s that Sheila doin’ out here?’ asks Greg. It unsettles us. It is late at night and the roadside is empty of houses. We come up alongside her and our driver winds down his window and sticks his head out. ‘Need a lift?’
‘Lucky it’s not between the legs,’ intones the voice in my head.
There is a whumping sound and a male figure tries to smash my greyhound’s head in with an iron pipe. Steve is in gear and careening off as another whump sounds on the bonnet.
‘Shee-it! Jesus Christ,’ howls Greg. Nothing as exciting as this has ever happened to him.
‘Didja see that. Shiiit! Hey matey, whaddya reckon? A set-up, hey?’
I must be in shock because I am still trying to work out Steve’s name and Greg is not helping.
Greg is still fulminating. ‘Geez, hey. What a bitch! Didja see her? What a hooer!
They appear to lay the blame on the girl for tricking them. They admire the aim of the male assailant. ‘Geez, he almost got me.’ My greyhound shakes his shoulders. ‘I would’ve been a gonner. I’ve got a plate in me head. Here,’ and he guides my hand to the side of his crew cut where I am to feel the metal plate. I can feel nothing but a small indentation and the silky bristle of his hair.
‘You’d better take us home,’ says Christine.’
Here’s Sooky’s mother expressing her doubts about Sooky going out with the dashing Redmond:
‘Incidentally,’ my mother has snuck up on me and hovers in the doorway, ‘I hear he drinks a lot. And they say he’s had a lot of girlfriends.’
‘Who are you talking about?’
‘You know who.’
This was, for her, strong interference. She surprised me. I believed, divorced or not, she thought Redmond was a good catch.
‘Bloody old golf biddies.’
‘I’ll ignore that remark.’
‘Go right ahead.’ I thought she would stop then, but she returned to the attack.
‘I don’t know why you don’t go out with that nice fellow Peter any more,’ she whined. ‘You’re just throwing your chances away.’
‘Mind your own beeswax’
‘Mark my words.’ She wagged her finger at me and I thought of a chicken bone. ‘They were always a moody lot. The whole family. I hope you don’t live to regret it.’
The situation with Redmond goes from bad to worse. He and Sooky have had a fight and Sooky hasn’t heard from him for a month. Here’s Sooky arguing with her mother again:
‘He can go to buggery as far as I’m concerned,’ I informed my mother.
‘You don’t want to upset him,’ she suggested. She always wanted to placate.
‘Yes I do. He’s upset me.’ But doubts nagged.
‘Give him a ring.’
‘That’s the last thing I’d do. Anyway, you’ve changed your tune. I thought you didn’t like him.
‘I never said that.’
‘Yes you did. You said he was a moody drunk.’
‘I don’t remember saying that at all. You’re making it up.’
And here is her mother again, a page later:
‘Friday night,’ my mother sighed, ‘the loneliest night of the week.’
‘That’s Saturday night.’
‘I’m sure you’re wrong.’ She looked put out. Then her face became alert. ‘Is that a car?’ I half expected her to issue a muffled woof.’
Here’s the voice of the wooden-faced Dolly from next door. Rosie is Redmond’s exotic Irish wife:
‘Before Rosie finally disappeared, it became very quiet. My mother spoke to my father in a lowered voice, and they both stopped talking when I walked in.
‘What are you talking about?’
‘You can’t be talking about nothing. You must be talking about something. Tell me.’
‘Nothing for your ears.’ My mother looked across at my father.
‘A wigwam for a goose’s bridle,’ Dad grinned.
One afternoon I heard Dolly talking to my mother. ‘That Rosie used poor Redmond as a ticket out. She packed her suitcases and called a taxi. She’s gone to live in a flatette in Yeronga.’
‘Yeronga?’ My mother seemed gratified. ‘What a cheek! Did she take anything she shouldn’t have? I don’t suppose you really knew where she came from.’
‘Fancy calling a taxi. At that hour of the night,’ Dolly whimpered.’
Now here’s Sooky, at the pub with Redmond, getting drunk and misbehaving:
‘Finally Redmond came over with the Professor, who swayed over me holding an opened bottle of champagne at a dangerous angle.
‘Sweetheart, this is Henry. Henry’s going out to the public sector, so he’s celebrating.’ Redmond, behind Henry, winked at me.
I thought, Don’t wink at me Redmond, as if I’m an acquaintance.
‘Henry’s a friend of the arts.’
‘Hi.’ I gave him my most unimpassioned smile. Henry looked offended but sat down next to me, put his swollen hand on my knee and ogled my breasts.
‘How’s it going, girlie. You’re very succinct. Got a kiss for your Uncle Henry?’
‘No, I’m not your niece.’
‘Oho!’ thundered Henry. ‘What’ve we got here, Red, a femmo?’
Redmond laughed the suggestion away.
Fuck it, why should I have to lighten up? I vowed to myself. Not to this creep, not ever. ‘Can I have some champagne?’
‘You surely can, my dear,’ slurred Uncle Henry. ‘Here we go.’ And he picked up someone’s used glass that had held red wine and sloshed champagne into it. It turned a rather nice pink.
‘And a cigarette.’ This time he tilted himself from the waist in a courtly gesture and lit one for me. I blew a stream of smoke over his left shoulder, as close to his ear as I could get it.
‘I didn’t know you smoked,’ Redmond said.
‘Sure do.’ This time I gave Uncle Henry my warmest smile. ‘I do everything.’
And a little while and a few drinks later. Redmond has gone off talking with Pammy and she’s left with the horrible Henry:
‘I felt dizzy. Henry was leaning forward gloating over my breasts as if they were a plate of liver put in front of a hungry dog.
I made a decision. I stood up.
‘Well, I must be off to the loo.’ I drank down the rest of my champagne and gave the glass to Henry, who took it, dumb. I stared at him and felt my rage rising.
‘But look, why don’t you have a feel, since you’re so keen.’ I took his free hand and plunged it down the scoop neck of my black top. He was holding tight to the glass so I fished his hand out for him and walked away, threading through the tables. I smiled as I passed through the staring crowd. I had always wanted to be one of them, but it was too late to worry now.’
And Finally, Sex:
Every author wants to try their hand at sex scenes. It’s always a bit of a minefield; you have to be careful you don’t end up winning the prize for the worst sex scene ever written. Here’s one episode:
‘I watch Redmond, my enchanter. He takes my hand and leads me to his bedroom. He does not switch on the light. Pushed against the windows is an unmade three-quarter bed. The streetlight shines in yellow rays across an unzipped sleeping bag that acts as a quilt. There are some dusty suitcases underneath the bed, and a metal tube with the lid off. What does it have in it?
He is not at his best as we get into bed. Perhaps it is the wine. I have drunk enough to make me feel that I can do anything and not worry about the consequences. He may have drunk too much.
Redmond sits on the bed, draws me to him and kisses me. He is a natural. It is a stirring kiss. But it ends too soon. It is almost as if he won’t enjoy it or that it is distasteful. I worry that I might have bad breath. He takes off his shoes but leaves his socks on. Being winter they do not smell too much, although there is a slight mushroom odour in the cold air. Suddenly it comes to me. The tube reminds me of the casing for rabbit fumigant pellets that my cousin used. I want to ask Redmond why he has such a thing under his bed, but I stop myself. Now he undoes his zip and pulls me on top of him.
‘Take your pants off, Sweetheart.’
I think: ‘Shouldn’t you be doing that, peeling them off in slow, languorous movements?’
The moment has a flavour of clinical deadness. He has taken off his trousers and his shirt and I see he wears a string singlet. Oh, Redmond, I grieve.
Below the dreadful singlet, in the light from the street, I can see his erection. That looks funny too, a polyp or sea worm waving around in the current. I admonish myself: It is not really waving. I can never harness my mind to the task. His socks, which are still on, distract me.’
And if you want another love scene you’ll have to buy the book and turn to page 194.