NiTRO Creative Matters

Perspectives on creative arts in higher education

The Art of Navigation – Novel

by Rose Michael

The year of the Slippery When Wet Tour three girls leave their safe suburban world to spend a life-changing night in a forest on the outskirts of Melbourne, where they plan a half-serious seance to call forth bushranger Ned Kelly. A world away in time – Edward Kelly alchemist, necromancer and crystal ball ‘scryer’ but Elizabeth I’s astrologists Doctor Dee – is beset by visions. Narratives from 1987, 1587 and 2087 merge and converge as this gothic ghost story becomes a fantastic tale of possession in a blazing work of speculative fiction.



Background  Historically, literary fiction has been defined as the opposite of popular fiction. My research identifies an increase in contemporary literary fiction that is not ‘realist litfic’, but rather entertains or explores a science-fiction or fantasy conceit. This research centres specifically on speculative fiction’s melding of clearly distinct but not always obviously differentiated genres which enables novelists to address, or at least take up the challenge of, what it means to be human in the Anthropocene. 

Contribution The Art of Navigation is a speculative fiction set in the Dandenongs, Victoria, in 1987. Three young girls leave their safe suburban world behind to spend a life-changing night in the Emerald Forest on the outskirts of Melbourne. The narrative moves between 1987, 1587 and 2087, with each part telling the same tale from the point of view of a different non-realist literary tradition: the first takes the form of a gothic ghost story, the middle section is a fantastic tale of possession, while the last uses science fiction to imagine the possibility of future time-travel technologies. I bring together different genres in one longform work to offer not only diverse perspectives on an inciting event, but to suggest that any singular understanding (of what is true, or what is real) is inevitably limited when it comes to comprehending a life in our rapidly technically and ecologically changing environment. 

Significance Melding different genres in this way demonstrates how a renewal of form(s) can speak to the contemporary Anthropocene experience. Having a language around this is crucial for mobilising complex dialogues on the subject. The work has received media attention (3CR; Inner North; Books+Publishing, Westerly, Canberra Times, SMH), and festival interest (Emerging Writers Festival, Bendigo Writers Festival, Albury Writers Festival, Dandenong Writers Workshop, The Wheeler Centre, Perth Writers Festival 2018), including a listing on Readings’ ‘Great Reads by Australian Women in 2017’. 


The research statement was submitted just after the publication of the novel. It very much related to my research and thinking at the time, so it came out of the novel, but was not that closely bound to the novel itself, or my novel process/practice either – which is not referenced at all.

Crucially, it doesn’t seem to articulate what I now see I was working at/through/with at the time – both at a deeper level (the sub text or sub conscious subterranean research question), and also at a more surface, plot level. The story description and reception is accurate, but the ability to grasp what the research was (what I was trying to do, what I had or had not achieved) was not yet evident to me. I now see that this novel project is/was more about how genre, and this particular genre of speculative fiction, could help me research TIME – its illusion, or how narrative works to tell it.

I would now also say that I am also, always, researching the novel itself: what it can be, what it is. How it works, how it can be made to work; how things and thoughts like the above emerge through experiment and play and storytelling and pushing and pulling and always, always writing.

In addition to the research statement I felt like I wanted part of a submission to include more acknowledgement of all the engagement we do as novelists – writers festivals, panels, in conversations, radio interviews etc. This is difficult to fit into the short research statement and a list feels sleight. A lot of this effect isn’t yet evidenced at the time of writing a research statement, which is inevitably a summary of intention rather than impact.

I guess I feel like the particular challenge of the novel is its scope, in terms of size (length) of final output and production time – solo work and collaboratively, with publishers … but surely this is the case with other NTROs?! I am thinking of a New Yorker cartoon where an author is sitting across the table from marketing with a huge tome on their lap and marketing says ‘now, can you tell us what it’s about in a sentence?’ I used to always say: if I could’ve said it in less than 80,000 words I would have! I suppose a one-page statement cannot hope to contain the whole, the work done on and in and towards the final production. Having said that, I’m not calling for longer research statements, either!

It reminds me of something a senior academic once said to me about there being no incentive to write a novel; you are awarded the same points for an essay or short story. But if you are researching the novel as form, then you understand that a long-from creative practice does research in a different way and yields different insights. What artist would honestly be motivated by such arguable efficiencies or productivity of shifting form? Only in the academy!

I have written a couple of short pieces on how the institution can support a creative practice and long-form process, particularly in nurturing community and collectivity.

What might make a better ‘research statement’? Time! To reflect … Perhaps if there was some way that it all didn’t need to tie together so well? Sometimes we do a thing, and go into it knowing that and can see it clearly. Other times the result is unexpected. Our research takes a detour and we are no longer the driver but along for the ride. What is that joke from Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee? Sometimes you are the passenger. Sometimes you are in the boot!! What if the statement was more like a series of questions that could be less coherent, allowed for greater inconsistency, were in themselves like a pleasurable interview after the fact?!

Rose Michael My first novel, The Asking Game, was a runner-up for the Vogel and received an Aurealis honourable mention. Short stories from it appeared in Island, Griffith Review, Best Australian Stories and won an UMPA prize. An early extract from my second, The Art of Navigation, was shortlisted for a Conjure award and published in Review of Australian Fiction. I have published speculative fiction criticism in The Conversation, Sydney Review of Books, TEXT and The International Review of Science Fiction, with chapters on the genre in Reading Like an Australian Writer and an international fantasy reader. Experiments towards my new novel appear in Going Down Swinging, Meanjin, Antipodes and are forthcoming in Science Write Now and Speculative Nonfiction.

Main image: Rose Michael, The Art of Navigation 2017 (cover detail)

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