When I was 19, I walked out of an Aberdeen Roadhouse with a burger in one hand, a paperback in the other, and my large blue pack slung awkwardly over my arm. At the road’s edge, I put my pack down, tucked the book in the top pocket, stuffed the burger in my mouth, and held up my sign to the oncoming car. I claim I was Australia’s greatest hitchhiker. This was based on my method and the speeds I managed. And it was during such a trip up the New England Highway that my life changed. In the roadhouse there were some paperbacks on a wire stand. One of them described itself as a ‘sexy romp’. At the time this was my style of book.
I had gone to school in a number of places, the Snowy Mountains, Nowra and Melbourne. I got good marks but was never a good student. I was only interested in maths and science. I was a voracious reader, heavily into Science Fiction and the occult. Harlan Ellison taught me you could write the word ‘fuck’ and get published. My antipathy to school increased as I got older. By the time I was ready to sit the HSC, I was downright rebellious. I convinced two of my teachers that I shouldn’t come to class, so they and the other students got some work done. One was my English teacher. I had worked out a back door and even with poor marks that year, I walked straight into a science degree at UNE in Armidale. I virtually stopped reading fiction. Only some equally ‘sexy’ narratives like MASH and the Tobin series. It was to Armidale that I was headed when I picked up Even Cowgirls Get the Blues by Tom Robbins. In it, the hero, Sissy, who is the United States’ greatest hitchhiker because of her outsized thumbs, spends a night canoodling in a paddock with Jack Kerouac.
I worked out who Kerouac was and read On the Road. A friend told me that if I liked him, I should read other Beat writers and before long I had read Cassady, Burroughs, Wolfe and the drug poets. Around the same time, I took a walk along the lake in Canberra and wrote two poems and showed the same friend, and she gave me a journal and a pen, and I have carried a journal ever since, and filled suitcases with poems and thoughts.
My literary education burned strong, fuelled by second-hand bookstores, Picadors and Penguins, and more well-read friends. I spent many hours in climbing camp tents reading by candlelight.
I had started climbing with my friend John Lattanzio at the age of 14 whilst at school at Nowra, and then stopped when I went to Melbourne. I resumed with a passion when I when I joined John at UNE. The two years I was there could be pictured as a big dial, with the needle swinging from interest in science to interest in climbing. We both dropped out and went to the giant quartzite escarpment of Djurite (Mount Arapiles) in Western Victoria, a place every serious climber in Australia gravitates to, and we were at the mercy of gravity more than most people. In Armidale I had started a small zine, called Screamer, about the local climbing scene. When I left, and in the absence of a national climbing magazine, I upgraded Screamer to a glossy, upskilling quickly in graphic design, compositing, editing, and dealing with printers and advertisers. And I started writing fiction, under various pseudonyms.
The sort of climbing that I practiced, now called Trad, is a cross between dance, chess, and sculpture, with a little Russian Roulette thrown in. It was physical, creative, involved working out the moves under pressure, and it was dangerous.
Moving on rock is one of this corporeal world’s great pleasures. On the sun-drenched quartzite of Djurite, you can feel life pulse through your body. As you move feet and hands up the rock, you become thoughtless and embodied.
And Djurite is a special place, almost magical. It is totally beautiful, the sun bouncing off the yellow and orange quartzite, Crimson Rosellas tinkling in holes on the rock, the purple mint bushes resplendent.
Several of my climbing peers were creative too, and Screamer had more fiction, absurdity and cartoons than other climbing magazines. Equally irreverent English magazine On the Edge published several of my fiction pieces, and the popularity of one, Sid Lives, led to me be included in an edition of their 100 top contributors. Mostly though, it was articles on Australian climbing that I sold to international magazines in America, Europe and Asia. In Australia, I was a regular contributor to other outdoor magazines, and then started trying to sell non-climbing related articles, the high point being an article with photographer Tim Webster on the Aboriginal Cricket Tour of England in 1868 for The Age.
In the late 80s, I lived in Melbourne’s inner suburbs and tried to be a writer. A normal day involved walking down to Brunswick Street, visiting the second-hand book shops, eating Charmaine’s ice-cream, and writing upstairs in a room in Clifton Hill, or Fitzroy, or Parkville, drinking too much coffee, trying to find inspiration.
For all of this, I wasn’t considered a serious writer when I applied for an Australia Council grant. If I’d had one story in a Women’s Weekly, it would have been ok. Anyone who has tried to be a freelance writer knows that it is 95 per cent business and 5 per cent writing. It was disheartening. A friend who was living with me in Melbourne started studying, and was really enjoying it, and inspired, I enrolled off-campus at Deakin to do Journalism and Literature. Almost simultaneously, I moved with my partner and young child to Natimuk, the small village near Djurite, where I could get work as a climbing guide.
My Honours thesis was about the Antecedents of Grunge Literature, and though it was a brief lived phenomena in Australian literature, it gave me the chance to return to the Beats, Bukowski, the amazing and now little-known American writers Nelson Algren and Hubert Selby Junior, and trace right back to the poetry of Verlaine and Rimbaud.
Most of the 90s I spent parenting, working my way through the study units, climbing and guiding. I continued to write climbing articles and published small climbing guides. I often worked with Australia’s premier climbing photographer Simon Carter, and New Holland publishing asked us to do a guidebook to Australian climbing, which I wrote concurrently with my PhD thesis. The success of this book led to others, and editorial work on some South African climbing books.
My PhD was an ecocritical examination of whaling texts. Most work being done in the field was on American landscapes and forests, so I went offshore. The first year of my PhD coincided with my family moving to Warrnambool, and every day I would walk our kelpie Max the one kilometre to the beach, sit in the dunes and read, while watching the Southern Right Whales and their babies. Off Logan’s Beach was one of their nurseries.
Our tenant in Natimuk stiffed us so we moved back there. And I started commuting the two and a half hours back to the Warrnambool campus to teach. But my life was falling apart. My PhD markers took eight months, my partner left, taking my daughter to Melbourne with her. And I lost the sight in one eye due to a cataract.
When the smoke cleared two years later, I had a PhD (granted begrudgingly), a new lens and a new job, stepping from literary academia into a job as Cultural Development Officer with Horsham Rural City Council. I had talked my way into this job on the strength of founding now the Natimuk Frinj Biennale. I first ran this festival in 2000 for $100 after joking with friends in a kitchen, but then directed its second iteration with money from Vic Health. For the third festival I worked with other local creatives and 100 community members (of a population of 500) to create a silo extravaganza, with aerial dance interacting with projection, live music and shadow puppets. Two thousand people turned up. This marked another turning point in my life, and I began to consider myself an artist. Also, that year, I wrote the world’s longest haiku (3.2km) in lime on a road in front of the mountain.
The Natimuk creatives did large projects the following three years, and during these performances Anna Loewendahl, an English theatre maker joined us. I asked Anna if she would work with me on a performance I had written for an agricultural field bin I had painted on the inside, The Sistine Field Bin. She said yes and that started a 10-year partnership devising and writing plays, as Thieves Theatre. In 2011, I wrote a one person show, Oliver’s Tale, about the last man at the end of the world, with the plan of performing on one of the local salt lakes. Anna was director. The Australia Council Theatre Board funded it, but the initial performance was cancelled due a giant storm. I had to send an email to audience members saying the climate change performance was cancelled due to an extreme weather event. We were able to do it the following year.
After this we received money from the Literature Board of the Australia Council to create a stage show from M.T Anderson’s prize-winning young adult novel, Feed, about a world where people have the internet in their heads. We received funding and offers of presentation for this show, and worked with Dave Jones, who gained an Australia Council Experimental Art Fellowship to work on the project, but in the end were unable to bring it to stage. This was disappointing because Dave was working with body tracking and advanced projection techniques that are still not being used.
Despite some successes we became very conscious at the time of the ways in which funding bodies did not consider us serious artists because we were regional. Anna moved to Melbourne, and I took a job as the inaugural Regional Arts Development Officer for the Western Riverina.
The move ushered in a period of full-time employment (my record is still 2 years), work with local writing groups, and international residencies. I had no luck pitching as a writer, so concentrated on my more esoteric visual arts practice. I travelled to Singapore, Indonesia and Senegal. Though I was writing all the time, the only successes were getting the occasional poem published. In 2013, my poem One of the Nights, was published in Australian Love Poems by Inkermann and Blunt. It was reprised on ABC Poetica and featured in an opera of the same poems.
I left the Riverina to travel in Africa, Europe and India. On my return to Australia, I retreated to my brother-in-law’s house on the south coast of NSW. Over the next four months I spent the mornings doing the business of writing and arts, then walked to the beach for a swim. In the afternoon and into the evening I wrote a novel, which I had started four years before. The Dog Tree is set in the Mallee during the Millennium drought. The narrative concerns a woman who has come to the town, to find her father, who is one of three men who raped her mother at a school function. She starts a relationship with an unemployed poet. In the background of the story are the wild dogs that come out of the nearby National Park to maul sheep. I was unable to get it published.
The last years of the 2010s, I was the artistic director of a couple of large regional arts festivals, one in Dubbo and one in Tamworth, which gave me an excuse to drive all over NSW and talk to artists but little time to write. I was back in Natimuk in 2018 working with the same group of creatives and we did a large performance in Bendigo on their Poppet Head lookout. This involved a year of establishing relationships and creating the work with the community.
Back in Natimuk, I met the writer Lia Hills who was working on a book set in the Mallee. We had long discussions about the area’s literature, and when she had a draft of her work completed, she read mine. New Year’s Eve 2019 she rang me with her comments, which were mostly positive. I was inspired to return to my novel.
After the Tamworth event I was given a job in Wagga Wagga with Eastern Riverina Arts, managing a modified container that was set up as an art space to help people with disability enjoy festivals. On 20 March 2020 the festival I had delivered it to was cancelled. One by one all the festivals that were planned cancelled. And then I was unemployed, along with most in the arts and most of my peers. I was locked down in Wagga and set about writing funding applications, conceiving of projects, pitching writing projects, writing job applications. It was a full-time job without pay, and with very little success and everyone I knew was doing the same thing. I pitched to Melbourne’s City of Literature and was commissioned to write about a stumpy tail lizard, a common animal at Djurite. $300 for 300 words. But few other opportunities presented themselves.
Writing was the one thing I could do in lockdown. I wrote poems and performed them online, I won a poetry contest, and I put my hand up to edit Purview, a collection of writings on imagined artworks for the Wayout Artspace in Kandos, an offshoot of the Cementa festival.
As Covid rolls on, I have turned back to writing with a passion. AndI am currently simultaneously working on three writing projects. There is a non-fiction book on the Marrambidya (Murrumbidgee) River. I intend to travel the entire 1420km length. I have an exhibition booked at Canberra’s M16 Gallery next year as an outcome for the photography, video, sound work, interviews, research, artmaking and writing this project will entail. I am also writing a one-person tour-able performance called The Bookshop Bus, about an old man who lives in a bus full of books and talks to the audience about the ten greatest books of nature writing/environmental philosophy and the death of his daughter in an act of environmental activism. And I have been given some money and a residency from Booranga Writers Centre in Wagga, to spend some time rewriting my unpublished novel, The Dog Tree, working on Lia’s suggestions. This will also entail me being the feature writer at a poetry reading in Wagga’s Curious Rabbit bookshop.
Despite the patchiness of my career, I have tried to maintain a writing practice in regional Australia over a substantial period – through many rejections for poetry, manuscripts, and funding applications for writing projects. Undeterred, I am still trying to carve out a place in the rich writing ecosystem for my very diverse practice.
I have just written my first academic paper in a while, on animal consciousness, delivered at an international online conference in July with ASLE (the Australian Society for Literature and Environment). I’ve been reading books by marine zoologists on octopi and fish. I wonder if this would have been my life if I hadn’t picked up that paperback at the Roadhouse?