Kim Kelly on the Stories That Shaped Her Writing

Kim Kelly is an Australian author who has published five books.

Kim Kelly is the author of six novels, all lorikeet-coloured tales about Australia, its heritage and its people. An editor and literary consultant by trade, stories fill her everyday – and most nights, too.

Can you tell us some more about yourself, Kim?

I’m a book editor in ‘real’ life and have been for twenty years – starting out at Random House, and freelancing since 2001. I also do consultancy work for Varuna, The Writers’ House, in the Blue Mountains, mentoring other authors there.

I think of my editorial work as having been a very long and fruitful apprenticeship in story craft – an intensive study of writing you can’t really get anywhere else. Although I’d always scribbled and dreamed of writing a novel one day, I was very shy and uncertain, and I needed to meet and work with a lot of other authors before I could get my courage up to have a go myself.

That first go happened in 2005, with my first novel, Black Diamonds. I was so terrified of embarrassing myself in front of colleagues, I hid behind the name Kelly – my mother’s maiden name. Sadly, my mum had died suddenly in the January of that year when I’d just completed the first draft, and as she was my staunchest encourager in terms of my writing, it felt right to use her name – and to blame her if my manuscript was no good.

It turned out that my manuscript was a goer, though, and so here I am, five books later..

Was your mother a story-teller herself?

My mother was a mad keen reader – of everything, from Dickens to dirty crime thrillers, and anything Australian. She couldn’t tell a story to save herself, but she loved losing herself inside the stories of others. My abiding memory of her will always be a picture of her curled on the sofa with a novel, intently flicking the pages, utterly engrossed. But just as importantly, Mum was also a very pragmatic and no-nonsense person who told me at a crucial time to stop talking about writing and start writing – an order that I was expected to obey. She was quite a shy person in a way, too, and I think she hoped I would overcome my own shyness and do things she hadn’t been able, or felt able, to do.

My father, by contrast, was a bit of a spellbinding raconteur – especially after a few – and when I was a kid he demanded of my brother Mark (who is a playwright, among other things) and I that we tell tales round the dinner table, too. Dad was also a closet poet and great lover of a lyric – and it’s from him that I get my own love of the music of language.

But really, it’s from my grandmother, Lillian Kelly, that I get a deeper understanding of what story is and means. I grew up with her tales of Ireland and Sydney in the early 1900s, snippets of history that connected me to the larger story of who I am. And much of Wild Chicory has come from all she told me when I was small.

What books or writers have influenced your writing?

My first great book loves were my grandfather’s Reader’s Digest How-To volumes, on things like home maintenance and carpentry. I absolutely loved finding out how stuff was made, how it worked – still do. He also had a fabulous collection of encyclopaedias, on everything from music to medicine. My absolute favourite was on Classical Mythology. I’d lose hours across those pages when I was a child – and I ended up studying quite a lot of Greek and Roman literature at uni.

I didn’t really discover the wow of narrative fiction until I was about thirteen and I picked up Frank Hardy’s Power Without Glory from Mum’s wildly eclectic shelves. Before that, I think I saw stories as just entertainment, places to go when you weren’t going anywhere else. But in reading Power Without Glory, for the first time – a tale of crime and political thuggery set in 1950s Melbourne – I saw the real power of story: to expose truths. Of course I was barely more than a child then, so I didn’t understand a lot of the goings on in the novel, but I knew I was being shown how the adult world operated – and what a mess of corruption it was. Delicious!

Great narrative loves that followed were Picnic At Hanging Rock, Johno, Great Expectations, Tom Jones, The Great Gatsby, Les Miserables… too many to name! And when I became an editor, the influence of dozens of other writers – of all kinds – was impressed upon me in immeasurable ways. Barry Dickins, Roger McDonald, Judy Nunn, David Foster, Mandy Sayer, Christos Tsiolkas, Matthew Condon…so many wonderful Australian writers, and I learned so much from each of them.

But I think my most enduring love, and the place I go to when I need replenishment, is poetry. I can marvel at the mechanics and lose myself in the melody at the same time. Of course, I grew up with Dad reading poetry as just a joyful thing you do. I have so many favourite poems, but my all-time font of wonder is A D Hope’s ‘The Death of the Bird’. I must read it at least ten times a year, and it makes me cry every time. It also makes me strive to write well, with as much compassion as clarity, and to tell the truth with as much beauty as I can.

Can you discuss your writing process?

My writing process always begins with a fascination for an event or a period in Australian history, and often something in the present will trigger it. For example, John Howard’s wrapped-in-the-flag politicisation of the army and Anzac Day caused me to wonder more deeply about Australia’s involvement in the First World War, which led me to the story of my first novel, Black Diamonds.

A sense of place emerges from that curiosity – and it’s almost always a place of personal significance – and I’ll wonder what was going on there. Again, in Black Diamonds, that place ended up being Lithgow in 1914, a place I find beautiful and one I was living quite near to at the time. In This Red Earth, it was Coogee Beach in Sydney, near where I grew up; in The Blue Mile and Paper Daisies, it was inner city Sydney – the Harbour Bridge, and Sydney University – places that live large in my personal history.

I’m a bit of a magpie with my reading and research, and I’ll wander fairly haphazardly through the databases of Trove – the National Library of Australia’s vast digital vault of newspapers and photographs and all manner of ephemera – looking for a sense of the period and answers to the questions spinning round my mind.

Then, out of this wondery soup, the characters appear – just about fully formed. That’s when I know I’ve begun another novel. They tell me who they are and what they’re doing and pretty much direct the show from there.

I never really know what’s going to happen in my novels, but I do have a vague story arc in my mind from the beginning, in the sense that I know where we’ll all end up. One of the greatest pleasures for me in writing is that element of not knowing what’s going to happen next. A character will tell me that, say, his mother is dying of cancer, in 1901, as Ben does in Paper Daisies, and then I’ll have to dive into some research to find out what that experience might have been like then. This kind of interplay between character revelation and research is what drives all my narratives along. I love the constant sense of anticipation and surprise – and I hope readers enjoy that, too.

When I first sat down to have a crack at a novel, though, things didn’t run this way. I’d long admired Judy Nunn’s ability to bring iconic moments in Australian history to life in her wildly colourful sagas, and I thought I might do something like that – but with more politics and a tighter focus on character. When I began, though, my attempts to imitate her style were atrocious. Judy has the rich and commanding tones of stage performer, her third-person prose arresting and authoritative. I just sounded like a dill, a cardboard cut-out on the page – a faker. But as soon as I switched to first person – bang – suddenly my characters spoke and I was away. Or at least they were away with me.

It’s not all been smooth-sailing from there, though. I completely binned my attempt at a second novel, because I wasn’t happy with the story. It had got away from me, and become too muddy and complex, with too many characters and too many parts – a total mess. Nothing is ever wasted in writing, though. Much of the research I did for that novel, and many of its ideas ended up in my third novel. I think the lessons we learn in the act of writing is what makes us writers – there’s no other way to get there but to keep going. Keep learning.

And keep ploughing that field you’ve been given from wherever it is ideas come from. My field is obviously Australian history, looking at what the past can tell us about who we are today, and peering behind the curtains of our national iconography to find truths there that might have been sitting in a dark and dusty corner for a spell. In Black Diamonds, it was the reality of the experience of war behind the Anzac legend; in This Red Earth, it was the experience of the Second World War on the home front and the devastating drought that gripped the country through all those years;

The Blue Mile looks at the Great Depression and the startling facts of the poverty experienced in Sydney; Paper Daisies looks at the struggle for the Women’s Vote during the time of Federation through the lens of family violence. In my latest book, my novella, Wild Chicory, I look into the experience of Irish migrants in early 1900s Sydney, struggling with poverty and bigotry – as my grandparents did. That all sounds terribly heavy, but in each of these stories I contrast the grim with bright splashes of humour and love – it’s not possible for me to tell a story without jokes or romance.

In all this, I’m always exploring what it is to be an Australian and the contradictions in our national character. We have the worst droughts and the worst floods on earth, we are the most friendly and the meanest – we are a very clever country, and often wilfully stupid. I don’t think I’ll ever run out of curiosity for any of it.

Why am I so fascinated? Like many a scribbler, I’ve always been a bit of an outsider – not only from that shyness that has dogged me, but because I’ve never quite fitted in neatly enough anywhere. My background is Irish and German, and my family was a little offbeat, so I was never the model Skip growing up. I had the wonderful privilege of attending La Perouse Public School, though, on the northern peninsular of Botany Bay. These days it’s a million-dollar suburb, but when I was a kid it was windswept working-class coastal paradise and my school was filled with kids from all over the world – migrants from Greece, Italy, Turkey – and lots of my friends were Koori, too. I was in Year 5 when I first heard the word ‘invasion’ in reference to European ‘settlement’; meanwhile, my parents were careful to make sure our Croatian and Serbian friends were never invited over at the same time. I’ve always had an understanding then that there’s more to the Australian story than we’re fed in prime-time. I’m compelled to tell those stories, and I think I always will be – just as my stories will probably never quite fit any genre box, either.

Kim Kelly is an Australian author who has published five books.

Read the book review of Wild Chicory by Kim Kelly

Read the interview with Kim Kelly celebrating 10 years as an author

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