When the writing community looks back on the literary gems of 2016, it’s entirely possible that we’ll talk about it as the year that Australian readers fell in love with the novella. Nick Earls’ Wisdom Tree, a series of five novellas that explore contemporary urban life in five cities around the world, has readers and critics alike singing the praises of these elegant and expertly crafted stories.
With each title released on the first of each month between May and September, this ‘slow release’ approach has been agony for those of us who are products of our instant gratification culture. But these short and beautiful books are worth savouring and reward the patient reader — the kind of story you just want to sit quietly with for a moment after turning the last page.
Sure to be one of the most popular events at this year’s Festival, Wisdom Tree Live will be a rare opportunity to hear excerpts from all five novellas read to a live audience by surprise Festival Artists. Spend an evening on the Maiwar Green and be enchanted by Nick’s ability to mix sparse and economic prose with rich storytelling that packs an emotional punch. In Gotham, celebrity culture brushes up against family responsibility when a middle-aged music journo interviews young black rapper Na$ti Boi; in Venice, actually set in Brisbane, four-year-old Harrison lives in the shadow of his mother’s ambitions to be accepted into the international art scene.
For those who love to read about how a story comes together in a writer’s mind, Nick's blog is a fascinating window into how each of these stories evolved. There’s also a great conversation with Kim Wilkins recorded at the UQ launch. One of the problems with novellas, Nick has found, is that their length (longer than a short story, shorter than a novel) has often been their defining feature — a length, he adds, that the publishing world often finds ‘inconvenient’. He’s tried to push beyond this definition by exploring the dimension of depth, making the story richer in detail and broader in theme than a short story, but without expanding it to the length of a novel.
At the heart of Wisdom Tree is a quiet, and often poignant, reflection on how we relate to each other when our complicated lives intersect. Nick is also an astute observer of modern life, family dynamics, and the thoughts we often have but keep to ourselves. The emotional punch often lands somewhere different from where you’re expecting it to — it’s a bit like looking through a camera lens that never quite focuses on its subject, but zoom out a fraction and the focus snaps into place, letting you see with clarity what the real subject has been all along. Hearing them read all together on the Saturday night of the festival is sure to be a memorable treat.
Wisdom Tree Live is presented by our partners at The Weekend Edition