An interview with Nigel Featherstone

Interview by Samuel Elliott

What was the impetus for Bodies of Men? Had you the concept already, or was there a single arresting image that launched your imagination?

Back in 2013, I was given the opportunity to be a writer-in-residence at UNSW Canberra, which is the campus for the Australian Defence Force Academy, and quite honestly, I thought – why would I do that?
Basically, I’m a pacifist, I’ve protested wars on the street, I thought why would I spend three months on a military campus and I decided that because it was making me feel uncomfortable, I thought I should probably do it. So, a few months later, there I was, at a room in the academy library. It turns out that the library is one of the best military libraries in the world.
I was pulling a whole heap of books off the shelves, literally. If there was a book about the history of tanks in WW2, I couldn’t care less, or about the politics of WW1, I couldn’t care less. Then I found two books.

One was called Deserters, which is basically the biographies of three men in the second world war who did desert. I suddenly thought, ah, there’s something I’m now really interested in. Why would someone desert? Is that an act of bravery, or cowardice, or courage? Is that something I would do? Would I be brave enough to desert?

The second one was a book I found called Bad Characters which is basically a look at all the files of soldiers in WW1 that have been marked as having bad characters. They could’ve been thieves, or deserters, they could’ve had sexual crimes, they could’ve done a whole range of things, they could’ve been discovered to be aboriginal.

There was just one chapter about Chilton, a young Melbourne man, he volunteered for the first world war, he went to Gallipoli, survived Gallipoli, and then went to Europe and on Christmas Day, I kid you not, this was on his file, he was caught having sex with a local man and he was court-marshalled and charged and the punishment was to turn up to a particular wharf in Belgium and catch the next boat back to Sydney or Melbourne to serve out what would’ve been 20-30 years of military prison.

The great thing he is, the file ends there, he never turned up to the wharf. He obviously thought, bugger this for a joke, I’m never going to do that. So, what happened to him? Did he find this guy again? Did he just disappear in Belgium? And so, suddenly I thought that with these two books. I thought, at last, I’ve got the start of my novel. From there it grew and developed.

There’s a lot of themes to unpack in Bodies of Men, but at its core, was Bodies of Men a love story? Or is it something that can’t be as simply classified as that?

I think there are a lot of layers and I think the book does have a political purpose, a lot about nationalism, perhaps more than the gay stuff. In a way, that’s not what interests me, even as a gay man, that in itself is not particularly interesting. But themes around desertion, about nationalism, about patriotism, about loyalty, about who you are loyal to, there the sort of things that I was very much interested in writing about.

And also because, as we know, in the last thirty years, military in Australia has been amplified for political purposes and we’ve been given this idea that every single serviceman or servicewoman who has ever served has been an absolute angel and that’s what Peter Stanley’s book was about, about challenging that.

They do extraordinary things, I wouldn’t want to do any of it, but many of them have done terrible, terrible things. So, I was really interested about, at its core, what are different expressions of masculinity under extreme military pressure. And it seems to me, based on research, is its not just about going over the top of a trench and machinegunning a whole lot of people.

I did forty drafts, there’s thirty-seven in my computer and then Hachette and I have done at least three together. As we worked on it and worked on it and worked on it, the love story became more prominent. It probably started as a political book and ended as a romantic book.

How did you go about balancing all your obviously exhaustively detailed research with maintaining the momentum of the narrative itself?

I think there are some writers who can just research and research forever and then they just get to the point where they start writing. Whereas, I’m a little messier. So, I certainly knew a lot about James and William, I knew a lot about what I wanted to write about, in terms of the scenario and then I would do a draft, and then another draft, and another draft and another draft, and then I’d ditch a lot of material and focus on other stuff and build the manuscript up again, and then I’d ditch stuff and do another five drafts and then ditch more stuff and through all of that, I’d go back and think I’ve got to learn more about, how the army was working, or how the military police would work, or I’d go and speak to experts about certain things and then I’d write again and just use my brain, my creative brain, to create stuff and then I’d have to go back and check with people.

And sometimes, they’d go nah that’s too far-fetched, ditch that, or this is good, build on that. So, it was much more iterative and organic. There were times where I’d find stuff and write about, then I’d go check and ditch stuff.
You know, even six months ago, one of my editors said – ‘Nigel, do you know, factually, that there is a citadel like that in Alexandria?’ and then I had to go find that out. So, sometimes, I’d be emailing people in Alexandria, so yeah, in that way, it was a messy process. I don’t want to be too driven by research, but I also don’t want to ignore the research. As a historian told me, I’m not trying to say this did happen, but I’m trying to suggest that this could’ve happened.

You’ve managed to faithfully depict war, including the atrocities of war, without ever being gratuitous. Did you find this a difficult to achieve while faithfully depicting what war is like?

To be honest, I found the writing of the violent parts really difficult, for a lot of the drafts I avoided it. Early on within writing the novel and I still think it’s there, is two Australian soldiers going off to serve and end up having a lovely time, I mean that literally. And of course, that is an interesting vision for a novel, but it doesn’t actually carry a novel, it’s probably more like a short story or a novella, and also, in a way, it’s a bit of a lie to write about war and not have any violence. But I had no interest, whatsoever, in writing another trench-warfare story.

I still wanted to write about that idea that, really in a way, the idea of war is inherently violent and will affect every part of society and it took me a while to work that that’s what I was writing about. It was really difficult to write that violence, but it needed to be there. Hopefully, the reader will agree, that the book, as a whole, is not a violent book.

Following up from that, you’ve created a unique and engaging story, how did you subvert tropes and clichés of the war genre and again? Was that something you considered and avoided purposefully, or is that something that happened organically with the way in which you were writing it?

I think that basically I had no interest, in just writing another story of an Australian man, inherently brave, who does great stuff within the context of war, that’s been done to death so to speak and I just had no interest in that.

This is the first time I’ve approached historical fiction, I wanted to do something in my own way and it’d be new and fresh and surprising maybe.
I was ready to spend my life writing domestic dramas, often about families in fraught situations, with a lot of secrets and the interposition of families, and things of that nature and I think, in a way, Bodies of Men, is following on from that, within the context of war.

You’ve briefly mentioned the staggering amount of drafts you completed. Thus, did you find that Bodies of Men, changed drastically during the editing process? Did it turn out as you originally envisioned?

My first drafts were probably far too complicated, which is a typical fault of mine, I try too much and it did take a while, just to find the heart of the story, which is the love story and really hone in on the key plot.
It’s an old analogy, but it’s true, the first draft is a piece of clay and then I’m just sculpting and sculpting and sculpting, until it starts to take form and then I’m sculpting, sculpting, sculpting, until I start to see all the beautiful details and then I’m just sculpting, sculpting, sculpting until the things start to pulse with life and discovering things as I go and hopefully the reader discovers as they go too.

I had a lot of help. This wasn’t just a novel where I sat in my room, there was a lot of that, but in the back of the novel, there’s an acknowledgements section that mentions something like twenty to twenty-three separate brains-trust people. A lot of them are historians and academics, and they were instrumental in the shaping of the novel.

What about the Yiddish poetry that features a few times?

The Yiddish poetry. Right. In many ways I think Bodies of Men is told through three main characters, the story is mainly told between James and William’s perspectives and we alternate between the two, but Yetta, looks after James and then William. She’s really strong, I feel like she is the moral compass of the story.

And I knew she’d be a poet from the word go and I knew James would find a collection of hers and I knew it would be written in Yiddish. Which also then posed the challenge of having Yiddish poetry in the novel and I did get help from a Canberra Yiddish speaker, who gave me some context around that, and I ended up getting it translated by a scholar in the United States.
It was important to me that it was translated professionally, but it was also important to me that it remained not translated in the novel and I wanted the readers to get the feeling of the poetry without actually knowing exactly what it’s about. There are hints, that came about in the editorial process. But I was always keen to leave it untranslated.

You mentioned that Bodies of Men was the first real historical fiction you’ve ever written. Did you find that the process for writing it, changed from how you’d written your other novels or short-form work?

Generally, I write by hand, as in, pen on paper, so all those drafts. Well, actually the first draft is written entirely with a pen and everything I do, is written by hand and pen on paper, even blog posts are first written like that.

That process hasn’t changed, and I don’t think it ever will. It’s not particularly because I’m on an old fuddy-duddy. A writer who I love once said to me, ‘when you type, you type but when you write by hand, you compose’ – and it’s a ripper of a thing.

My handwriting is also very, very bad, I find it quite excruciatingly difficult to write by hand, which means I’m writing very slowly and considering what I’m putting down on the page. Clearly that doesn’t stop me from editing the shit out of it and I think I’m an annoying writer that way because I rewrite, rewrite, rewrite but it’s part of what we do.
I think the first draft of anything, even a short story, is like an archaeological dig, you’re just looking for evidence and remains of a story, or a suggestion of a story. Roger McDonald, an Australian novelist, once said to me, ‘writing a novel, is just putting a sentence one after the other and following the energy that you’re building’. And that’s what I do, but then I get to the end of the draft, and then go back and say, that bit is good, that bit is good, I’m going to ditch that bit. I’m very finnicky about every sentence to be alive.

I also read a lot of my prose out aloud, and if I’m getting good flow, then that’s great. If I’m finding myself thinking about whether I should make pizza for lunch, then maybe I’m getting disengaged. I hope that smoothness is there for the reader and I do a lot of paring back. One of my greatest dangers is getting carried with that.

But I don’t think my process has changed and one day I would love to go back to historical fiction again. I was born in 1968, and I was writing about guys born in 1920, so what was life like then, what was Sydney like then, what sort of lives would they have ended up living? These are great questions for novelists.

Bodies of Men, is available from bookstores, or via Hachette’s website at: https://www.hachette.com.au/nigel-featherstone/bodies-of-men

About the interviewer: Samuel Elliott is a Sydney-based author that has been published in Antic, The Southerly, Compulsive Reader, MoviePilot, Writer’s Bloc, Vertigo, Good Reading, FilmInk, Veranadah, The Big Issue and The Independent. He is currently working on his novel series, ‘Milan Milton: Heiress’ in between completing a degree and working two jobs within the television industry. Find him at:
www.facebook.com/samuelelliottauthor

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