IT FEELS LIKE a lifetime ago that I embarked on my dream to write a novel and have it published. In fact it is… in 1988 I received the first of many rejections over three decades, for a Young Adult novel I wrote when I was 15.
If anyone had told me I would wait thirty-three years to see my first novel in print, I would probably have taken myself off to acquire a trade with a better strike rate for success.
But I never came close to giving up. Was it grit, ego, refusal to accept that my storytelling might be unworthy, or a combination? I’m not sure, but I will undoubtedly write about it one day because that’s how I am hard-wired.
Here is the announcement about my coming-of-age thriller set in rural Australia – Tank Water – from Books + Publishing, March 26 2021…
MidnightSun acquires Burge debut novel
MidnightSun Publishing has acquired debut novel Tank Water by Michael Burge, a story of homophobic hate crimes and the dangers of growing up feeling different in rural Australia.
Burge met MidnightSun publisher Anna Solding at a pitch session hosted by New England Writers Centre in 2018.
‘From the first time I met Michael, when he pitched his manuscript to me in Armidale, I’ve known that Tank Water is an important Australian novel,’ said Solding, adding that ‘it delves into themes that don’t often appear in our national literature’.
‘Through the taut and haunting narrative spanning two decades, Michael articulates what it can be like to grow up gay in the country and how prejudice and hate crimes are an extension of people’s fear of difference. We are so honoured and proud to be publishing this book.’
Born in the NSW New England region, Burge returned to live there in 2017. He said Tank Water has a fictional rural setting and is not based on any one case.
‘In the country, there are many stories about gay hatred leading to extremes of violence, and fiction is a way to start the difficult but necessary process of telling them at a relatively safe distance. I’m so excited and grateful that Anna acquired this tale about how three generations of a country family deal with toxic masculinity and must dig very deep. Taking a risk on such edgy subject matter is a testament to MidnightSun’s vision.’
WHEN I was fourteen living in the Blue Mountains of NSW, Australia, two life-changing things happened to me: I developed the ability to draw and paint well; and I realised I was gay.
“Capturing and generating emotion – not validation – is the real skill in all arts.”
One of these led me to years of study and training in visual, fine and applied arts, with others fostering my nascent skills. The other led me to fifteen years’ profound fear and confusion. It’s likely you’ve already worked out which is which.
Creative skills and homosexuality are traits I was born with. Although I had relatives who were artistic and same sex-attracted, both states came out of nowhere for this kid, who in the early 1980s had become quite accustomed to blending in with the furniture.
But when I sold my first artwork at the age of 14 and started receiving regular commissions, I was coaxed from behind the sofa. My single mother wouldn’t let me accept money, initially, but when I reached the age when others in my school year were earning pocket money pumping fuel or at the checkout, she shrugged and said that I should be paid for the work I was producing.
Exhibiting in group charity shows I earned a decent sum after the commission and framing was paid for. At the time, the Blue Mountains had a booming arts scene with prolific artists whose work was instantly recognisable, names like David Brayshaw, Robyn Collier, Fiona Craig and plenty more were sources of great inspiration for me.
It didn’t take long for people to open avenues for my artwork. One of the earliest was the encouragement from a teacher for me to enter the annual Gould League art awards, with a particular focus on the subject of birds. I entered several works and received three prizes.
There was a huge resurgence of wildlife art during the 1980s and despite my youth I rode the wave. Commercial prospects for my art opened wide when a school trip to New Zealand required a fundraising effort, and stationary was printed with a range of my wildlife studies. It sold like the proverbial hot cakes and suddenly my bespectacled, pimply demeanour had a creative context.
But to anyone paying close attention, I was entering an extremely dangerous phase.
As the decade ended and I went off to tertiary studies that included a design diploma at Australia’s National Institute of Dramatic Art, I felt the creeping need for something to be done with my innate skills. Arts are defined as ‘fine’ or ‘applied’, after all, but my grasp on validation slipped during the post-recession era of the 1990s.
Validation… what a subtle poison it was for me, allowing one side of me to be singled out at the expense of the other. HIV/AIDS was tightening its terrible grip and while homosexuality had been decriminalised in NSW in 1984, any sign of it in my conservative community was treated with disdain.
I recall believing that if I could express myself in other places I might find true acceptance, and part of my journey to tertiary studies in Sydney and in the United Kingdom was an attempt to shuffle off the kid who could draw in order to find the adult in another art form altogether.
But it was harder than it should have been, and trying to manifest other skills and dreams led me down several blind alleys, because every one of them brought me face-to-face with myself, and, being deeply closeted, my basic composition was squeezed into a frame that left me looking and feeling terrible.
For years I didn’t paint or draw. Living in the United Kingdom and trying to earn a crust in the post-Thatcher economy, I eventually picked up the paintbrush and generated a portfolio that no-one I showed it to was the least bit interested in.
So I came home, came out, and did something outrageous: I went and studied acting. I was determinedly playing catch-up and wasn’t content to replicate what I saw on canvas, I wanted to be the art, in every cell.
Life outside the closet got suddenly very tough when my partner Jono died in 2004. I struggled for creative direction for many years. It wasn’t until I found myself in a new relationship that I started, quite tentatively, to paint again.
It was stop/start for a few years, and it took a while for others to get their heads around my artwork, which was often staunchly abstract instead of a replication of nature. I came to realise that my realistic works were not much more than the ability to keenly observe what I saw, and that capturing and generating emotion – not validation – is the real skill in all arts.
In 2016, friend and artist Ellen Paxton gave me some paints and told me to just get going. She purchased the first work I executed and I have not stopped painting since.
The smell of oils when I squeeze colour onto my palette is a great motivator, because it calls to mind almost four decades of art as second nature. All those years of discipline in composition, perspective, colour theory, life drawing; all those exhibitions when work walked off the walls, and all those when it didn’t… every single part of the journey is a brushstroke on my psyche. I wouldn’t be without a single one.
This month, some of those 35-year-old Gould League-winning works came back to me. They arrived in a dangerously inadequate envelope with a miserly amount of postage, but thankfully the postie alerted me before delivering, saying he’d have had to fold it if I hadn’t been home.
When I opened the completely uninsured, unregistered correspondence, my past came rushing at me in these original sketches. I recall the hours spent solo in my childhood bedroom, every line of the Artline pen (I went through hundreds of the things in the 1980s); but also the loneliness, confusion and the desperate need to hide in that room.
Their appearance in my letterbox is a timely lesson in validation, because I have watched young, artistically-skilled people rise into the world in the decades since I did, and I have quietly reminded people – emotionally immature teachers and mentors, particularly – to take great care with them.
It’s hypocritical to validate someone for their innate skills, yet refuse to respect something equally as innate, such as their sexual orientation. In the case of the people who were gifted these artworks, returned to me after being carelessly cut from their frames, acceptance of my sexuality (and that of many others in our community) was painfully piecemeal.
But I’m very glad to have these precious early brainchildren of mine back. Considering the open-hearted manner in which I donated the reproductions to send clueless private school kids to New Zealand 35 years ago, then gave the originals to people who no longer value them, or me, they’re wonderful proof that I have always been much bigger creatively and emotionally than the narrow frame others envisaged for me.
A decade ago, while paying for new tyres, the bloke who’d done the job read the name on my credit card and asked: “Are you Michael Burge, the artist?” and I nearly fell over. He described the pen-and-ink sketch of galahs that he and his wife had been gifted for their wedding and shook my hand with gratitude for a piece of art they love, another from my Gould League-winning collection.
It was a pivotal year when more of my teenage works came to the surface, including my first work of non-fiction, which failed to launch because of jealous adults but came rushing at me while on assignment for a piece of journalism. “Could you please sign my copy of your book?” a guest at the same event asked. Again, the shock was profound since I’d lived for many years without the validation of such moments.
Validation… too many are unaware of just how much of it you relinquish when you come out, but I have lived long enough to learn how shallow it really is when compared with the depths that flow with just a little acceptance.
Coming on top of a self-determined life that includes the right to marry and the broadest equality rights Australian LGBTIQA+ have had in our history (despite there being much, much more to achieve), these days I treat validation as more of an incentive.
It’s a reminder to keep up the hard work and the difficult, vital process for creatives to put ourselves right out there in a way that very few who live within the safe walls of validation will ever understand.
THE northern NSW town of Tenterfield is opening its heart to four same-sex couples for an affordable and unique pop-up wedding event in September.
‘One of many rural electorates that voted in favour of altering the Australian Marriage Act to allow equal access to same-sex couples.’
To celebrate the arrival of marriage equality in Australia, a group of local businesspeople has created a fun, intimate wedding experience in this colourful corner of the New England country region.
Say I Do in Tenterfield is an initiative of Amanda Rudge, Sharon Julius, Desley Roos, Kim Thompson and Wendy Roots.
According to the group, the pop-up wedding concept was inspired by locals noticing a trend, but also a major shift in national politics.
“In the past 12 months our town has become a very popular wedding destination for city and coastal brides and grooms seeking to have their wedding in a beautiful, relaxed country town,” the group said in a statement.
“As 2017 rolled to a close, Australia voted yes for marriage equality! The group of experts behind Say I Do in Tenterfield wanted to celebrate, so we’ve teamed up with the 2018 Peter Allen Festival to launch something special.”
Immortalised as the birthplace of Grammy-nominated and Oscar-winning singer-songwriter Peter Allen in his single ‘Tenterfield Saddler’, the town is an LGBTIQ-friendly destination.
Tenterfield is situated in one of many rural electorates that voted in favour of altering the Australian Marriage Act to allow equal access to same-sex couples, and local LGBTIQ have been taking their vows ever since.
Constituents in this region didn’t have much leadership on the issue. Held by the National Party at federal level by the staunchly anti-marriage equality Barnaby Joyce MP, assisted by the similarly opposed Senator John ‘Wacka’ Williams, the wider community rallied during the marriage equality survey to show how out of touch its Canberra representatives are on LGBTIQ equality.
I should know, because it was here that I finally got to marry my long-term partner, silversmith Richard Moon. We tied the knot in the New England in May this year, after more than a decade of pushing for a change in the law.
I was born at nearby Inverell, and after living and working throughout the world in the four decades since I left, it was a touching experience to be able to marry in the place which has become my homeland once again.
Richard was born at nearby Toowoomba, so these two country boys have been able to come home and get married in the border country where we hale from.
And since moving to the region from southeast Queensland in 2017, we have found the New England community very LGBTIQ-friendly. We know of two lesbian weddings in the New England region this year, in fact Richard created the wedding rings for one couple.
Better than Eloping
According to the Say I Do in Tenterfield team, their pop-up wedding event will be “better than eloping”.
“If you’ve always wanted to get married but you don’t want to deal with all the fuss and fluff, let us take care of it and create an intimate wedding for you to enjoy!”
The group underlined that the Say I Do in Tenterfield consortium has all bases covered for stress-free and affordable nuptials, without putting couples through a media circus.
“From published photographers and first-class stylists, to a world-renowned wedding cake creator, let us take care of the lot for under $10,000!”
The Say I Do team includes Amanda Rudge, co-owner and manager of Tenterfield’s Our Place Wine and Espresso Bar; Sharon Julies and Desley Roos, business partners of Inspired By You wedding style and hire; Kim Thompson, owner of The Bungalow and Ivy Leaf Chapel and Tenterfield Topiary Hire, and Wendy Roots, owner of Tenterfield Weddings.
“We look forward to holding more themed pop-up weddings and renewals in the very near future,” the group said in a statement.
“Our aim is to include as many local and regional businesses, services and products as we can.
“Come and experience first-hand what other brides and grooms have already experienced and loved! Taste, smell, see and feel our exceptional regionally-produced products, services and our soulful town.
“Tenterfield has so much history: beautiful old buildings, picturesque landscapes and is central for wedding guests to meet.”
According to the Say I Do in Tenterfield team, the cost of a wedding in the country is considerably less than city prices, and much more stress-free.
“Couples can’t believe the value you get for your money, and how relaxed and easy it is to deal with our local businesses and services, with nothing too hard to put together,” they said.
“You can make your wedding rings in one day with Richard Moon; have a private Yogalates session for you and your family and friends; get gourmet picnic packs sent out with you as you explore our magical national parks, and there’s many more little secrets to come!”