Not Writing a Novel

Photograph: Oliver Mestitz
Photograph: Oliver Mestitz

by Oliver Mestitz

A couple of years ago I told everyone I was writing a novel. I’d finished a Bachelor of Arts, majoring in Creative Writing, which included a class called Novels. I’d written a first and last chapter and planned what would happen in between. I was unemployed and playing in a band and had a job lined up overseas that I had to wait a couple of months for. I spent most of the time browsing the University careers website, looking for participant surveys and PhD experiments that paid ten dollars for an hour’s work. I’d even thought of a title. My novel was called Whalefish.

The only person who knew I was lying was a girl I had a crush on, which in my mind made it seem like an illicit, personal truth that would inevitably bring us together (it didn’t). I met her parents – genuine, non-judgemental people – and when they asked me what I did I told them I was writing a novel. I looked at her after I said it, all knees under the table, as if to say: See?

Most people left me alone. Few seemed to care. Not one person I told about my novel got as far as asking me what the title was or what it was about, let alone how far through I was or if they could maybe read some of it. The exception was my grandfather, famous among his family and friends for his love of literature. He told me once that so many people recommend books for him to read that he’s had to develop the 50 page test – after that it’s pass or fail. Like Joaquin Phoenix in Gladiator, his thumb wavering. He has his own library, which has a ladder in it.

Every now and then my grandfather would send me letters on a slip of letter-writing pad: How’s the novel? Each letter was headed with a sticky label with his name and return address printed in a small but legible font. I would send him long, indefinite answers or else recommend more books for him to read as a distraction. Once I tried to change tack, to lower his expectations: It’s actually more of a short story cycle than a novel. But he didn’t take the hint or else chose to ignore it, asking after the novel whenever he saw me with a persistence that was tragic and flattering.

Eventually I went overseas and came back fourteen months later armed with a new, if temporary, answer to the inevitable question: So What Do You Do? The next time I saw my grandfather I promised to send him a copy of my first EP, which I’d recorded in my bedroom using someone else’s microphone and an 8-track cassette machine. I wrapped a CD in tissue paper and put it in the mail. My grandfather wrote back saying that he could get to like it if only he could hear the words.

You can read, How to Pick Up an Echidna, by Oliver Mestitz in the upcoming publication from Transportation Press, Islands and Cities, for updates on the release subscribe to our newsletter.