Nick Earls grew up in my home town. He studied medicine in the university I am studying in. When I was in high school, he taught me at a writers’ camp. I noticed that he ran past me on the local bike path several times a week. He once had an argument with his publishers that the local newspaper was called the “Courier-Mail”, with a hyphen in the middle. He had to send them a clipping of the front page to settle the dispute – yes, in the actual post. I have been calling it the “Courier hyphen Mail” ever since. Listening to Nick’s experiences as a Doctor-turned-Writer were one of the many experiences that nudged me toward a career in publishing. If you’d told me back then that I would ditch the publishing career to go to medical school, I’d have raised an eyebrow of suspicion in your general direction.
About a year ago, I got back in touch with Nick to let him know I was living his life in reverse. He advised me against continuing the trend, as the step before medical school had been an all-boys high school. He is wise.
Welcome to Normal is Nick’s newest collection of short stories. I’m sorry that I can’t imbue you with the knowledge of all the books and stories preceding it. You’ll have to trust me that they are extraordinary. Nick’s style, to the extent that I’m game to summarise it while knowing he’ll read this, is like that moment with the newspaper clipping. He can take the ordinary things we see day-in, day-out and change them forever, most often by highlighting the details that we forget to question, accustomed as we are to their presence. These may be as subtle as toilet paper packaging copy that calls a colour “executive grey,” as enormous as the completely unnecessary hyphen in the state’s News Limited paper or as sweet as the tiny, age-appropriate behaviours of a toddler.
He also has a supreme nose for the absurd and can be relied upon to use it judiciously. Just when you think things are becoming serious and grown up, with a widower struggling to raise an infant and extend his kitchen repertoire beyond the wok, you’re faced with a cringeworthy bathroom moment in which a guy pees on a girl’s cat and chaos ensues*. Welcome to Normal reads similarly. Amidst touching stories of familial discord, childish blissful ignorance and the utter fallibility of parents, you’ll find a novella, The Heart of Robert the Bruce, in which a man proposes a challenge to his partner on an organised group tour through spain:
Duncan: “Okay, here’s what we’ve got to do…” He was scheming, and he liked where it had taken him. “At any group meal, each of us – you and me – has to take one of those gaping silences and tell a massive but harmless lie about the other. And the other one has to go with it. All the way. Has to flesh it out.”
And the first lie?
Duncan: “I’m not sure Greg would want me to mention this, but the last woman he dated was the woman whose voice they use for the [GPS navigation software], the Australian voice. Her name’s Karen. She lives in New York now, but they’re still in contact.”
My personal favourite is Greg’s claim that Duncan’s internal organs are reversed. Every so often, a bit of medical nerd creeps into Nick’s writing. And there I am, sitting outside the hospital, trying to simultaneously read the story, drink my coffee without it going up my nose, and to communicate via WordPress on a smartphone how brilliantly Nick has captured the moment when a total stranger is exposed to a couple of physicians as having the strange anatomy found in 1 in 10,000 people, and probably even fewer grown adults. The physicians act exactly as I would have done – barely contained enthusiastic curiosity – toward a man who, until this moment, had no idea that such a thing was even possible. Brilliant.
There’s quite a bit of a compassion in these stories. Sometimes it is for men whose lives have taken a bit of a detour from the one they had anticipated, who are learning to work with the cards they have been dealt. Sometimes it is for small boys who are beginning to discover the world is not quite the place they thought it was. Sometimes it is for men who just don’t have the emotional vocabulary to express themselves. The combination works well. There are no solutions. Just observation and pure, simple perception.
As a whole, Welcome to Normal marks a bit of a change from Nick’s previous work. His setting, with the help of Google Earth, has stretched beyond Brisbane to Arizona, Spain, California, Illinois and Taipai. Far from detracting from his usual intimate knowledge of his surrounds, he takes armchair travel to new and impressive heights! His characters are perhaps a little more mature (in age), in that there are fewer washed-up rockstars and university students binging on creme de menthe.** And for better, or worse, there are no supremely awkward, destined to fail, coming-of-age sexual encounters. But the clear, sharp voice I’ve been following for a good (oh my god) twelve to fifteen years now? It’s there. Waving back from the pages. Making me laugh, as always.
Nick is in the process of opening up his work and writing to a broader audience and I think the way he’s going about it is pretty great. You can download his new and older works in Kindle or ebook format from Amazon and you can visit his blog to learn a bit about his writing process. Sometimes he writes a ripping great post on local issues – most recently the canning of the Premier’s Literary Award… (don’t even get me started).
Nick’s posts relating to Welcome to Normal
On The Heart of Robert the Bruce: An old heart, an old poem, a new story and the actual tour behind it, Nick Earls via WordPress
On the book release: Welcome to Welcome to Normal, Nick Earls via WordPress
- Is there a writer in your home town I should know about?
- Nick, feel free to have your own actual say about all the above. I know how much you love reading complete fiction about yourself… I did restrict the Nick Hornby references though, just for you.
* This is not in Welcome To Normal, it’s in a novel, Perfect Skin. You needed to know about the cat incident. Everyone needs to know about it.
** References here are to The True Story of Butterfish and Frank & Philby from Headgames and World of Chickens respectively.