Much loved Australian author, Kim Kelly, is celebrating 10 years since the publication of her first novel, Black Diamonds. Beautifully repackaged, Black Diamonds is being relaunched on 1 July 2017, along with all her earlier novels, This Red Earth, The Blue Mile and Paper Daisies.
Originally from Sydney, today Kim lives on a patch of rural paradise in Central New South Wales, just outside the heritage village of Millthorpe. She is the author of six novels, including the acclaimed Wild Chicory and Jewel Sea. Her stories shine a bright light on forgotten corners of Australia’s past and tell the tales of ordinary people living through extraordinary times.
Kim’s writing, with its characteristic warmth and lyrical charm, leads us into some difficult terrain, exploring themes of war, bigotry, class conflict and poverty in our history – issues that resonate through the Australian landscape today.
I caught up with Kim recently to find out what she has been up to since her novel, Wild Chicory;
Can you give readers a brief introduction to your work?
I’m fascinated by Australian history – how the past informs our understanding of the present, and how little most Australians know about their own history. Together with a lifelong love of story, this fascination pretty much drives all of my writing.
I’ve written six novels now, all of them exploring contradictions in the national character, from our mythical ‘fair-go’ egalitarianism and generosity, to the worst of our insularity and meanness. We’re a land of extremes, geographically and temperamentally.
Love is a major theme that runs through my work, too. Love between lovers and friends, love within families, and love of country – that magical pull of the land itself, the drama and intrigue in its shapes from wild coastal cliffs to vast desert plains, the wide, bright blue of the sky, the smell of eucalypts on a hot summer’s day.
I’m not sure my stories have received any special recognition, but the lovely things others say about them are always enough to keep me going – to keep me believing my contribution means something to readers.
What have you been up since the release of Wild Chicory?
I’ve had a new novel out! Jewel Sea was published last September. It’s based on a true story of the loss of a luxury steamship, the SS Koombana, in a cyclone off the coast of North Western Australia in 1912. It’s kind of a scaled-down Titanic tale, with a good dose of Edwardian glamour, but it’s really a story about theft and greed, class and character, and natural justice having the final say in matters of environmental destruction.
A stolen pearl was said to have been on board the ship when it went down and I’ve used that narrative thread to explore all kinds of theft and dispossession, from theft of identity of one of the characters to the dispossession of First Nations’ lands across the Kimberley and Pilbara. There’s always a decent dash of mischief in my stories, but Jewel Sea probably has more than most. It’s narrated in part from the perspective of the stolen pearl – a huge challenge to pull off, but wonderful fun as well.
Since then I’ve been writing as though I have red shoes on the brain, and I have two manuscripts under consideration with a publisher right now, one set during the Cold War in the Kosciusko ski fields and another set in Sydney just after World War II, based on the life story of a brilliant German surgeon. Let’s not mention how nerve-wracking the waiting is…
I’d rather focus on how exciting it is that my first four novels – Black Diamonds, This Red Earth, The Blue Mile and Paper Daisies – are just about to go into the world with beautiful new jackets and a spring in their step.
Can you share what you’ve learned about writing historical fiction over the past decade?
When I first thought I’d have a go at writing a novel, I was inspired, with some anger, by John Howard’s cynical invasion of Iraq, his demonisation of refugees and politicisation of the armed forces. I thought, hey, I’ll tell a tale of World War I, with all the bigotry from that time that touched both the Irish and German sides of my own family, and I show him and all his ilk how wrong they are!
Of course, my novel, Black Diamonds, didn’t change the world, but it did change my life, in that its publication in 2007 marked the beginning of my writing career. I suppose the saddest thing I’ve learned in writing Australian historical fiction across this past decade is that not much has changed. I think we might even have gone backwards in terms of how prejudice, racism and xenophobia have taken hold generally, and how far mainstream politics has shifted to the right, how much the ‘fair go’ my grandparents’ generation fought so hard for has been dismantled by my generation.
I’m not sure my efforts – and those of other Australian historical fictioneers – are making much of a dent in the national psyche. But I’ve also learned that giving up in this respect is not an option. The more we slide towards acceptance of injustices, the more I’m compelled to write – hurl my salvos of love at the bad guys.
But on the bright side, across this writing decade, there’s also been a fabulous explosion of historical information publicly available. When I began my first novel, I spent a lot of time in museums and libraries, but now I spend almost all my research time online. Some writers, I know, have felt a little overwhelmed by this seemingly endless amount material we now have on hand, but I love it – and most writers seem to, too. If I want to find out what sweets were popular in 1932, or what it was like to work on top of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, I can call up hundreds of newspaper articles, and newsreels too, to show me quite precisely. These kinds of primary sources are the ones that help me best in bringing the past to life – bringing history into the living, breathing present.
I want to inspire an interest in history in readers, an interest in reflection on who we are as a people, and little by little, as my readership grows, I’m winning in that regard. I hope so, anyway.
Has your writing style changed over the years?
From the very beginning, I’ve taken inventive approaches to narrative. My first four novels are written in first-person dual voices – from male and female perspectives – and in the present tense. Of course, this has startled and at times confused the purists, but as my intention is to bring the past hurtling into the present, these techniques suited my purpose – and have been a hell of a lot of fun to write. I think I’m a bit of a frustrated actor. Immediacy of voice and character just come so naturally to me.
My last two novels, though – Wild Chicory and Jewel Sea – have seen me shift to a mix of tenses and voices. In Wild Chicory, I have the narrator, Brigid, giving us the present in her nine-year-old voice, and that’s interspersed with third-person narration giving the broader, sweeping historical view, but also giving the grown-up Brigid her writerly voice.
Jewel Sea is different again, in that it’s a triple-thread mix of first person, present tense, from the perspective of the main protagonist, with a third-person strand that focuses on a character of dubious identity, and a first-person, past tense strand from the perspective of an omniscient pearl. Told you I had fun with that one.
I’ve been having more fun since, too. My Cold War manuscript is told in a triple thread of police transcripts, third person and first person; and the story about the German surgeon is told in first person wound around two separate strands of third person. All of them character-driven.
With all this playing about with style, I’m finding deeper layers of story, and a power in that kaleidoscopic view of the past: a puzzle of shattered pieces that gradually form a pattern. Experience is teaching me to take more risks like this, be more ambitious, trust the reader to follow me – and trust myself more, too.
You are a passionate advocate for the power of stories to heal, can you expand on that?
We all know writing novels is something pretty much only the middle-class can afford to do. The time it takes to write a work of any length, and the fact that you’re unlikely to be paid more than a token for it, means that it’s nigh on impossible for those of slender means to pursue writing long term. This can make the writing crowd look rich, white and elite – beyond the realms of the ordinary. It can make all kinds of storytellers feel it’s not worth bothering, and not a world for them.
It makes me sad when I hear a wonderful, natural storyteller say, ‘Oh, I’m not much of a writer.’ As if somehow their stories are worth less because they don’t have the skills to polish them to a white, middle-class, elite standard. Some of the best stories I ever hear are from people who’ve spent more time living their lives than wondering at the purpose of a semicolon. And these are often the stories that need to be told – as much for the wellbeing of the teller as for the nourishment of the rest of us.
For most of us, being able to say who we are, where we’ve been, what we’ve learned, what we hope, are hugely powerful and liberating expressions of self. To say what brings you joy, what makes you angry, what you yearn for, are enormously important articulations that can steady our mental health – and yes, indeed, heal. But somewhere along the way, in our various technological and suburban isolations, in our truncated text-message communications, we’ve forgotten how important our stories are. And how important it is to listen to the stories of others.
I’ve always been that person who loves to sit next to the chatterer on the long train trip. But then, as a writer, I would, wouldn’t I? I’m a story-collector as much as I am a story-lover.
Can you tell elaborate on your life as a writer and also your work as a book editor?
Editing and listening carefully to others’ stories has been important to nurturing my own, that’s for sure. I worked in publishing, intensively studying the work of other writers there, for almost a decade before I dared to begin my own first novel. I think I’ve said to you before that there’s no better apprenticeship than that kind of study. And I still go there. I still need editing – and not only financially! I need to jump out of my own head, away from my own voices, and listen to another’s for a time. It’s good for you! Well, it’s good for me.
Are you currently conducting any writing workshops and where can budding writers find out more?
My next couple of public workshops will be in Bathurst – near my hometown – later in the year. I’ll be looking at understanding characters, and getting under and into their skin; and looking at structural approaches, too, and how to figure out which one is right for your story.
What none of my workshops do is focus on publishing or how to write a best-seller (phlergh). My teaching is all about empowering expression, no matter what kind of a storyteller you are, so that you can say what you need to say, to the best of your abilities. There’s nothing more exciting for me in this regard than seeing a writer leap over an obstacle and surprise themselves with skills they didn’t realise they had. In one of my last workshops I had among the mix a PhD student and a young fellow with communication difficulties who was helped along by his mum – each with important contributions to make. We always have so much to learn from each other.
Finally, what is the hardest thing about being a writer?
Did I mention waiting for publishers to read manuscripts? Shush. Let’s not dwell there. For all the knocks and disappointments a career in writing brings, and for all that it doesn’t pay, the joy and satisfaction telling my stories brings me outweighs it all. I’m writing out my heart, every day. And it’s a privilege.
Read a sample of Wild Chicory below..
Read a sample of Jewel Sea below..