Kim Kelly

Australian Author

real like

REAL LIFE

He smiles at me across the twelve-pack of toilet rolls on the checkout conveyor: ‘How are you today?’

‘Hm. Good. You?’ I look away, blushing, suddenly flustered.

The checkout boy is about twenty, fresh-faced, intelligent eyes, and he has no idea I’ve used him as the model for a World War II RAAF flight engineer in my latest manuscript. This boy is younger, possibly still at university, and whenever I see him at the supermarket, I have a compulsion to tell him not to join the air force. A rush of maternal concern: as if I know him.

Somehow, somewhere amid the universal soul soup we’re all adrift within, perhaps I do. All of my characters certainly appear out of it, and often without me knowing at the time. My RAAF man came to me quite unexpectedly in the middle of my chapter three and while he looks very much like checkout boy, in spirit he’s the whispering shadow of a real-life RAAF man. Fred Dennis was his name and, as navigator, with set-square, pencil and stopwatch, he flew in the Battle of Britain, and once flew Winston Churchill himself. He’d have been in his seventies when he stole my heart with his stories. In many ways, he’s nothing like my fictional man – for a start, they’re not even the same nationality – but my imagination, questing through the soup, has sought to honour him and his quiet, melancholy heroism. And I didn’t realise I’d done it until I found myself at the end of my story in tears of recognition: ‘Oh – Fred!’

When I say, as I often do, that all my characters are real people to me, this is what I mean: they are made of fragments of love and wonder at the people around me.

Of course sometimes that wonder explores aspects of humanity that frighten me. Netty Becker in The Blue Mile, for example, is an awful, sniping gossip, amusing on the one hand for her know-all nosiness, but breathtakingly destructive on the other, spreading lies about others for no purpose other than her own gratification. And then there’s Alec Howell, the sadistic, misogynist uncle from Paper Daisies: he is every bully I’ve ever met – and I found a great deal of satisfaction in killing him on the page. It is a bit of screwed-up fun to punish those who’ve punished me in real life in these ways, but generally I don’t do bad guys. I suppose, in my experience, they seem so far in the minority, why give them more attention than they deserve? I’d rather celebrate the strengths and triumphs of those I admire: there is an ever-increasing multitude of them. And, if my stories are my legacy in this life, I want to leave behind me trails of light: kindness, compassion, wisdom.

We’re all miraculous survivors in one way or another. We are stupid, annoying, frustrating, blind to our faults and more, yes, but we’re all amazing, too. As I’ve said elsewhere and several times, if that makes me a sentimentalist – oh well. What did Nietzsche say about playing with monsters and staring too long into the abyss?

I stare into my soup instead and find more interesting depths of reality there, sprinklings of interconnectedness I can’t begin to understand. But I want to.

How is it that in writing The Blue Mile, whose colourful hero Olivia is so much my Nana, I inadvertently discovered one of her most closely held secrets? I gave posh Olivia a convict grandfather in her family closet completely unaware that this was Nana’s truth. It was only during some idle research of her unusual maiden name, Mellish, a year or two after the novel was published that I stumbled upon the facts – and I swear I heard Nana gasp from the stars. Sorry, Nana.

Although I’m not a religious person or in any way into woo-woo, the idea that we’re somehow atomically, interdimensionally entwined is a compelling one for me. Did my convict want me to find him? Did he stare back at me from the soup?

If so, he’s not the first to have done it. When I was madly scrambling at the final, final, last-minute history checks for my first novel, Black Diamonds, before it went to print, I thought I’d just better make sure none of my German-Australian family went to the Western Front during World War I – as does Daniel Ackerman in the story. I searched the Australian War Memorial databases, as I had done several times already – I even remember thinking, ‘Why am I being so neurotic about this? Who cares if there was family there or not?’ – when the name Henry James Schwebel shouted back at me: ‘Here I am!’ One of my Pop’s cousins, as it turned out, and he’d died in Flanders, slaughtered like so many thousands of other Australians there. I hadn’t known he’d existed at all until that moment.

I was suddenly awash with ninety years of untold grief, floods of it, and astonishment that I’d just written a novel that might as well have traced Henry’s path – only Daniel, in the story, makes it home again.

The real-life model for Daniel was a lovely young man not unlike my supermarket checkout boy. He’d gone to school with my own boys, a little older than my eldest. When I first began writing Black Diamonds, I sketched much of its opening chapters in the car while my eldest played cricket on Saturday mornings, and whenever I looked up at the sports field I couldn’t help but notice the boy with dark hair, a glint of auburn in it, who was bigger and more skilled than all the others. The way he moved, so gracefully, and his encouragement of the younger, smaller boys, had me magicking him into a man on my pages. I can’t think about Daniel without thinking about him.

But I can’t name him. Not here. This boy didn’t quite get to become a man. He was killed in a car accident on the highway not far from where we lived a few years after the novel was published. I’d always meant to tell his mother what I’d done, how I’d used her beautiful son, and I couldn’t tell her then. Perhaps I will one day. Or perhaps she’ll read the novel sometime and find a whisper of him there. Either way, he is there and always will be. Really.

pigs flying

STRETCHING THE IMAGINATION

‘And this is Kim Kelly, our beloved local writer,’ so I was introduced at a function a little while ago.

‘Acclaimed and celebrated beloved local writer,’ I corrected the host and, being a bookish, non-bullshitty pair, we had a jolly old chortle at it.

It seems a writer can’t go anywhere without a string of wildly hyperbolic adjectives these days. Or maybe it’s always been this way. After all, how else do we sell writers to readers? Left up to most writers I know, including yours truly, the more apt exaggeration would likely read:

‘Certifiably barking and semi-permanently exhausted and broke author of fiction she always hopes is a bit better than the mental excrement she fears it might really be, [insert author name] has navigated tsunamis of self-doubt and industry indifference to bring you this still beating piece of her own heart. Here you go – please don’t say too many mean things about it.’

No matter how much honesty there might be in it, it’s not an attractive pitch. Unless desperation is your winning brand, most authors are compelled to learn early on that honesty is not the best policy.

No-one wants to hear how your insecurities and frustrations drive you to the point of dangerous despair. The tortured artist might have been fashionable in Paris or Prague once upon a time in Literary Fantasyland – such a character might indeed be the subject of your novel – but readers, and publishers especially, don’t want to know too much about the depths of your reality. Unless, of course, such chat will help sell your book.

Talk up your strengths and your winning goals, we’re told. Don’t mention your failures and disappointments. I had one adviser early on in my career who told me it was best never to speak at all unless spoken to: ‘And Kimmy, don’t even answer the phone unless it’s a journalist from a respectable publication. And whatever you do, DO NOT SPEAK TO BLOGGERS!’

Those were the days. Can anyone remember what it was like before blogging? I can’t. When my last novel was published, I agreed to a blog tour across which I was called upon to provide some 12,000 interminable words about myself – for free – and within about a three-week period. The insanity that little fiesta of writer-ripoffery induced has wiped all pre-blog memory from this brain – but I digress.

‘Smile! Remember everyone who loves you!’ my better angel somehow always manages to make herself heard above the din. Oh and how I do hold all loveliness close. Those who say nice things about my work, however glancing, are my glue in this game – and that’s no exaggeration. When a reader tells me they liked my book and I tell them that I wept with relief and gratitude on receipt of their praise, I mean I wept with relief and gratitude. Bumping souls with strangers in this strange and wonderful space is the reason I write in the first place. I really do weep with some awe that any of it is possible at all.

‘You should use an exclamation mark there, Kimmy, to emphasise your sincerity. Learn to use emoticons effectively too – you know readers might not understand your tone if you don’t show them.’ Like they’re not capable of absorbing and interpreting whole books.

For Feckenerty’s sake. The book-buying public needs to be enticed, yes, but contrary to all marketing and sales estimates, not a lot of them are stupid. And today, in this brave new age, they have Uncle Google to help them should they be unsure of an author’s adjectives.

If you’re going to say, for example, that you were longlisted for the Miles Franklin, you’d better be certain you were. Or so wisdom might suggest. Such is the pressure on authors now, such is the scrabbling to stand out from the crowd, some risk treading a very fine line between souped-up spruik and lie.

‘Award-winning author of fiction,’ reads a banner that stretches obscure prize for a thesis on poultry-keeping into a bold and authoritative claim. Not that I have anything against chickens, but…

I had to laugh when, some time ago, one publisher described my own novels as ‘bestselling titles’. Of course, being the lowbrow carny I am, I’ve used that line, in all its industry technicality, in correspondence here and there, but I wouldn’t lay such a steaming one at the feet of readers. What’s wrong with: ‘Enjoy more of Kim Kelly’s novels, which have sold respectably well!’? Seriously, is that so bad?

One of the saddest porkies I’ve ever been handed came from a fellow author, though. We’d been toasting a fabulous review of their latest work when the author turned to me and said: ‘And it was such a surprise! Isn’t it incredible to know your words have found their mark across the void?’

‘Hm. Indeed,’ was all I could manage in reply, as the stench of overcooked fib swirled in the air between us. I knew the author and the reviewer were old friends. It wasn’t any secret: I’d just read the book and the name of the reviewer was still blinking at me from the acknowledgements page. Oops.

I guess any industry that even vaguely trades in razzle-dazzle is going to be rife with these sorts of deceptions, these tweaks of the truth, but I wish my industry could be free of them. How good would it be to have a moratorium on hype? Prove how unnecessary it is. Focus on the brilliance in each other’s work instead. Save the tricks of fiction for our pages. Perhaps one day…

Or perhaps pigs might fly.

snippet

YES, YOU NEED AN EDITOR

You want to publish a book? Fantastic! I’m one of those annoying people who believes that everyone indeed has at least one book in them and that it should be let loose in the world. Why not? If only your mum and Aunty Mavis ever reads the thing, who cares. If it’s something you want to do with your time and your brain and your money, then do it.

(Superior types who believe storytelling should be the preserve of some arcane cult of genius elite, please stop reading here.)

Writing a book – a novel, a memoir, a family history, a collection of all your poems, whatever it might be – is a massive achievement. In twenty years of editing and writing and banging on about writing, I’ve never met anyone who’s ever regretted getting their story down. ‘Gee, I wish I’d never written that book,’ said no-one ever – unless Aunty Mavis decided to sue.

But, and it’s a rather large but, if you want your work to shine its best and brightest light, then you need an editor. (A moment of disclosure here: yes, I’m an editor myself, and no, I don’t want to edit your manuscript, because I’m usually either booked up or writing.) I would not dream of having one of my own novels go out into the world without a couple of very rigorous rounds of editing, so why should you?

And yet, I’ve been hearing around the indie traps a lot lately that self-editing skills are sufficient to prepare a book for publication.

They are not.

Even if spelling and grammar are your strengths, even if you have three doctorates in story craft, you will never be your own best editor. I’m one of those doubly annoying people whose manuscripts tend to be exceptionally clean and tidy by the time they do reach an editor’s desk. I’ve fine-tooth-combed the lot, scrutinised every dot and squiggle, triple-checked word choices, facts and figures, and I’ve busted my brain over making sure my story makes sense – and I STILL NEED AN EDITOR.

Let me give you some examples from my very own secret drawer of editorial shame. Even when I try not to, I overuse certain words – ‘now’ and ‘just’ are usually the main culprits. Even though I’m a stickler for crisp dialogue, sometimes I’ve not made it clear who’s speaking. Even though I try to keep my narratives tightly focussed, I sometimes ramble away from the story for a paragraph or two, chatting to myself rather than the reader. And despite my pathological perfectionism, I’ll still fail to spot a typo, or an unnecessary repetition, a character’s name misspelled, an anachronism of some kind, or a plain wrong fact missed in the rush and clutter of writing.

There are so many things going on in your head when you’re at the task of getting a story down, you can’t possibly see them all at once, all the time, and even over several readings, there will still be things you miss.

A personal favourite from Jewel Sea: ‘She rolled her eyes across the table.’ I picked that one up myself, in a paroxysm of laughter, but imagine if it went out?

Of course, books do go out with silly errors in them, but they’re usually small, blink and you’ll miss it, and most readers are forgiving. Most readers understand that books are big things and even with a whole troupe of editors, little mistakes will still be made. So long as the slip-ups don’t interfere with meaning or break the spell of the story, no-one is going to get upset.

And yet, increasingly, I’ve noticed readers getting upset at indie books that could have done with a decent edit. Comments like, ‘I might have enjoyed this novel but the sloppy punctuation throughout was too distracting and confusing.’ Problems with paragraph formatting, tenses, and all manner of easily remedied failures of clarity, seem to be common complaints.

Readers just want to read. They don’t want to walk through rubbish to get to the good stuff. And why should they? Whether they’ve paid $0.99 or $10.99 for a book, they expect to be able to concentrate on what they’re reading without tripping over mess, and if they aren’t able to do that, they’re not going to come back for more. That’s a pretty simple equation.

If it comes to a financial choice between investing in design and marketing or in editing and typesetting, go the editing and typesetting. What’s the point in great window dressing if what’s inside is going to be a letdown? Okay, yes, yes, there are plenty of books out there that have sold squillions and could have done with a firmer editorial hand, but this is your baby. Your book; your forever thing in the world. Your legacy. The traces of you that maybe your great-great-great-great-grandchildren will unearth one day on an ancient library database. Give them your very best and clearest expression. They’re not going to care about your Amazon ranking.

Besides, working with an editor can be a wonderful learning and nurturing experience; it can be the beginning of a great relationship in words and ideas, too. A good editor is not only a highly skilled and dispassionate reader, but someone who cares deeply about books and writing – and writers.

A good editor can help you reach deeper into what it is you’re trying to say. An example here from my not-so-secret drawer of editorial love: when I wrote Wild Chicory, it came out in such a mad torrent, I knew it was a trove of the things I most needed to say, but little Brigid, the child whose story it really is, became lost in the wash along the way. Without the care and insight of my editor, Alex Nahlous, I might not have seen how necessary it was that I hold Brigid inside the narrative more closely for the reader. I’d had a nagging suspicion that something was missing, but my conversations with Alex gave me that ‘Aha!’ moment I needed to find that piece and place it right where my heart needed it to go.

A good editor never tells a writer what to do, but through a combination of objective wisdom, respect and enthusiasm strives to inspire a writer.

Where can you find a good editor, though? In this new realm of online everything, where anyone can whack up a shiny shingle, it can be difficult to know what you’re getting, and there are some shonks around, so go to your local or state writers centre as a first port of call; the Freelance Editors Network is also teeming with talent; and there’s nothing like the endorsement of another writer – if someone you know has sung the praises of their editor, go read that book and look at the quality. Educate yourself on the editorial process and reader expectations; ask questions; make connections.

It might take some time to find the right editor for you – the one who really gets whatever it is you’re trying to do. But it’ll be worth it.

 

 

Red Earth blog

HEART COUNTRY

As a serially displaced Irish-German-Catholic-Jewish atheist with a convict or two in the closet, notions of home and belonging have always been wonders to me. Where do I come from? Why am I here? What kismet has made me so lucky I get to live in Australia? What is Australia?

These are questions of an outsider, I suppose, the fascinations of an immigrant, and I return to them again and again in all my fictions. Even though by one thread of family, I’m sixth-generation Australian, most of the time I feel like a visitor, just passing through, no fixed address. And yet the land and the light, the shapes and the sounds and the smells of this country are part of me like no other place on earth.

It’s a curious push-pull many Australians feel, especially those of us who are of mixed heritage. There seems to be a whispering everywhere: you’re not authentically anything. Not really one thing or the other.

We tie ourselves up in knots over cultural connections to country. First Nations’ people who live on traditional lands are on the one hand at the pinnacle of belonging – belonging to the oldest continuous culture and continent in the world – and yet in every other sense they are too often neglected and disrespected by the rest of us. Those of us of European background are on the one hand at the pinnacle of power and privilege, and yet we seem to have forgotten that our culture, too, has deep and beautiful roots that stretch back as far as time itself – to the same place we all began, a place far beyond any knowing.

Culture isn’t a competitive sport but we’re quick to rank each other in these terms – and far too quick to say those who are mixed or conflicted have no culture at all, or that those who are citified have no true connection to country, either. I don’t own an Akubra or a cattle station; most of my forebears were wandering working-class nobodies who washed up on these shores with nothing and died with nothing too. Does this mean I have less claim to call this place home today? Some, it seems, really do think so. Just as some confuse a rejection of religion with a lack of spirituality.

Every day I walk along the track that leads to my house in central New South Wales and from the ridgetop it sits upon I look east towards Bathurst and Sydney and west towards Canowindra and the rest of the continent, and it’s not unusual for me to be overwhelmed with joy and gratitude at the beauty that surrounds me. The rolling hills that sweep green over gold over green with the seasons; the huge sky: mad bright blue in January; pale and grey-bellied with snow in July. The countless small miracles of my history, every twist and trick of fate that brought me here, to this place.

I feel this beauty and this history rising up through my feet. I feel the sun on my shoulders as the hand of love. I feel my heart swell in my chest. I feel a longing for this place whenever I’m away. I feel relief when I return.

I am in love with this country. I came to live here, on this piece of it, with my love, my Deano, who happens to be of English, Ulster Irish and French descent, my enemy in every heritage, and who was born in the red-dirt country of the desert’s edge, just as I was born in the city by the sea.

This country – every speck of it my boots have touched – inspires me to think and dream, to tread more carefully, to listen with my feet and my skin and my heart. My stories are all songs to this country, my country, told with the music and the poetry that beats in my blood across millennia.

I come from many cultures, many countries of bold and courageous travellers: we all do. Those whose feet have walked these tracks forever and those who arrived just yesterday, kissing the rock-solid safety of this place.

It took every one of us such a long time to get here. Let’s cherish this country, our sacred country, our Australia, and cherish all who live and love within it, wherever we’ve come from.

beach maroubra

Images: view across one of the neighbours’ paddocks from The Bend, where I live today, and Maroubra Beach, in eastern Sydney, where I was raised. 

heart tree

TRULY MADLY KIDNEY: TWO YEARS ON

Three days before I gave my husband Deano a kidney for Christmas 2014, I received an email from a psychology PhD student asking me to participate in a long-term study of organ donors. She only needed half an hour of my time, but I didn’t have five minutes to spare then.

I was scrambling to complete the final editorial queries on my novel, Paper Daisies. I pressed send to the publisher with less than twenty-four hours to go until the surgery. The rest of my head was consumed with pumping myself up with confidence that Deano would love my kidney like his own and that I wouldn’t die in the process.

I was in a place beyond sensible conversation. I was standing on the cold, hard threshold of my mad aeroplane door waiting to jump.

But now, today, I’d like to answer that student’s questions, whatever they might have been, about how things have turned out for me as a donor.

To begin with, not a day goes by when I’m not blown away by the fact that things have worked out so well for us. The kidney elves at Westmead Hospital did a magnificent job: so much so that Deano and I often forget he was ever deathly ill, and his renal physician is apt to scratch his head at the wonder that such a small-girl kidney could produce such a stunningly great result inside such a big-bloke body. Yay, team.

But, apart from having a healthy husband returned to me, the experience has brought gifts I could never have foreseen.

Perhaps the most astonishing, and beneficial, has been that my own chronic illness – anxiety – has never managed to get its hooks into me too deeply ever since. Jumping out into that place beyond sense seems have caused some kind of psychic shift in my brain.

I’m no longer so fearful of failure; I’m no longer so interested in what others might think of me, either. I no longer listen to people whose opinions I don’t respect and at the same time I can hear smaller voices so much more clearly.

I’m a better mother to my boys: more relaxed in my support of them, less distracted by panic and more tuned in to their needs. I’m probably a much better friend than I ever was, too, with my head uncluttered of so much of the self-consciousness that used to get in the way of everything.

It feels as if, in my own giving of that little piece of flesh, something in my soul has been turned permanently outwards.

Only a few months after the surgery, in the May of 2015, at the Bathurst Writers & Readers Festival, I was suddenly able to talk about my books and myself without feeling as though my heart was going to leap out of my chest and run for the hills. I could now see all the people who helped me and encouraged me to get on that stage and I was flooded with gratitude rather than terror. I could see the audience now as a bunch of people just wanting to connect with something outside themselves, hear something interesting. I could imagine that if someone in that audience was having a shitty day, a chat and a laugh with me might make their day a little less shitty.

I can’t begin to describe how liberating this has been. I’ve just spent the weekend participating as a speaker and workshop-teacher at this year’s Bathurst Festival and I can barely believe how much my confidence, and my joy, in sharing my thoughts and skills with others has bloomed.

The knocks and disappointments that are part and parcel of publishing don’t rock me the way they used to, either. Back in 2015, when I was told by one publisher that my work was of no interest to them, I wrote Wild Chicory – a book that has become my statement piece, the story that articulates most powerfully who I am in the world, and arguably the one my readers love best.

Since then, my creativity – my love and curiosity for words and stories and what they can do – has been in overdrive, and I’ve written four manuscripts; one of them, Jewel Sea, was published last year, hot the heels of Wild Chicory. Pause for the arithmetic: yes, in a little under two and a half years, I’ve written five books altogether; two of them have been published, and two of them are being read by a publisher right now. This publisher is a weighty, prestigious block of concrete, and while it’d be nice to have them take me on, it’s no longer essential to my writing schemes and dreams.

I know who I am, I know what my story is, and I’ll drive my own publishing bus regardless of whose logo might grace the imprint pages of my books. I’m already in the midst of a major test drive with the republishing of my first four novels, which will be out in July. When a deal for them fell through earlier this year, I picked up sticks and organised it myself – something that would have been unthinkable for me a few short years ago. I wouldn’t have known where to begin; I’d have been too ashamed to ask.

But maybe most extraordinarily of all, I’m thinking about going back to uni. Twenty years ago, I dropped out of my Master of Letters because I’d unexpectedly found myself having to return to full-time work and more or less sole-parenting my two small boys, making study impossible. But now – right now – I’m in discussion with an academic to see if the manuscript I want to write next might be a good basis for my own higher research degree. Whether or not this eventuates, it’s a turn that has truly shocked me for what it says about how much my faith in my work has grown.

So, dear psychology PhD student, organ donation has been a great, big, beautiful boon for me. I’d do it again in a blink, if I had another kidney available.

And dear readers, if you or anyone you know ever needs to chat through the process or the emotions of organ donation, my heart is always here for you. Drop me a line.

In the meantime, love recklessly, love large. It’s good for you. Really.

XXX

Image: creator unknown

Drysdale_The_Drover's_Wife_1945

THE GREAT AUSTRALIAN WOMAN

What do we think of when we hear the words ‘Aussie hero’? Ten bucks says it’s not a woman. Soldiers, sportsmen, farmers, emergency services workers all vie for glossy advertising space in my mind, their smiling, sweaty poster-blokes too loudly high-vis to allow a view of much else.

That’s some stubborn social conditioning, I guess, but I’ve had some very interesting conversations lately on the place and constitution of the Great Australian Woman that have led me to wonder if she’s been sent further to the background than ever before.

In doing a bit of research for an upcoming festival chat, I’ve been asking around: Where are our women heroes of Australian literature today? Our favourites seem to be those of the past, among the most beloved of them, Sybylla from My Brilliant Career, and Philadelphia from All the Rivers Run. Intriguing and complex gals, too: Laura from Voss, and Cushie from Swords and Crowns and Rings. Even our contemporary lady protagonists step from the mists of history, however glitteringly: Edith Campbell Berry from Grand Days et al, and the unflappable flapperish Phryne Fisher.

Whole women, imperfect women, their voices distinct, their ways idiosyncratic, and all of them women of personal agency and intrinsic power. Women rich in character. Women who drive their own stories and sit at the centre of them.

Where are they in Australian literature today, though?

A disturbing head-scratch seems to have followed the question: Hmmmm? Dunno.

Perhaps we lack the critical distance to identify them in the bustle of now. More worryingly, perhaps they’re no longer marketable.

At the more commercial end of things, Australian publishers are leery of ‘difficult’ women protagonists, preferring more safely saleable action Barbie heroines who rarely falter in their stride, always beat the bad guys and always get their man. They almost always wear Akubras, and if they don’t, they’re almost always miraculously able to travel the world being multi-talented while overcoming every single obstacle in their path. They are loads of fun but fairly shallow – and there are hundreds and hundreds of them.

Over the past ten years or so, I’ve watched the pressure to conform grow. I’ve been on the receiving end of that pressure myself and it’s as upsetting as it sounds: write to market-tested template or fail. I’ve chosen the latter, at least in spreadsheet terms – because I’m trying to forge something uniquely my own, however foolhardy that choice might be. The publishing industry isn’t somehow deliberately devaluing female protagonists, though: if difficult women equal difficult selling, in an ever contracting and perhaps steadily failing traditional business model, they have no choice. Whack a chick on the cover, whack her on the shelves of as many discount department stores who’ll have her and cross fingers for maximum units moved as quickly as possible – they’re compelled along this track to financially survive.

But what of the ‘literary’ side of the story? One publisher friend made the observation that trends here have seen grittier female characters cast as unreliable narrators for the tricksy plotting possibilities they provide, or used as vehicles for exploration of the troubles of the world, limbecks for the distillation of today’s big-ticket political agendas of gender, race, climate, and going to hell in a handbasket as lyrically as possible.

That particular conversation led me to wonder if the whole idea of heroes is a bit passe now. Perhaps we’re so chained to the idea that we’re indeed going to hell, heroes as such have become pointless diversions from reality.

And that led me scrambling back to the Greatest Australian Woman I know – the one who’s had the greatest influence on me: Henry Lawson’s nameless bushwoman from ‘The Drover’s Wife’. It’s a tiny thing, this short story of 1892 – read it here over a coffee – but it defines the female hero for me, and one that can be found nowhere else on earth but the land I call home.

The drover’s wife lives in a kind of hell – on a remote and ruined sheep station Lawson tells us is remarkable only for its lack of anything resembling beauty or safety or peace. Her husband has been gone, droving, for six months, and she’s alone on the property with her four kids and their dog, Alligator, when a deadly snake is seen slithering under the house.

In no-nonsense fashion she bundles the kids into the earthen-floored kitchen set back from the main house, and makes up a bed for them there, where they’ll wait out the night – and wait for the snake to emerge so that it might be killed before it kills one of them.

As her children sleep, ‘she has an eye on the corner, and a green sapling club laid in readiness on the dresser by her side; also her sewing basket and a copy of the Young Ladies’ Journal.’

Like all great heroes, she locks into a lonely psychological struggle against her enemy, but she doesn’t let that get in the way of her mending and her enjoyment of her preferred magazine – of course!

The struggles of her existence are overwhelming, and she reflects on them through the night: she’s given birth to two of her kids in the bush; and when one them died, she had to ride nineteen miles for assistance. When bushfire threatened the family home, she literally donned her husband’s trousers and fought it off as best she could until help arrived. When flood threatened the family home, she dug an overflow trench herself, but failed to save her husband’s crop. She once fought off a mad bullock, shooting him and skinning him, selling the hide; and she has regularly fought off the unwanted company of wandering swaggies, too.

To the superficial gaze, she is a woman made hard by her circumstances and her grief, but she’s as sensitive as any other: she weeps at her losses and she loves her children fiercely; she loves her somewhat hopeless husband as well, for the goodness in him. Above all, she laughs. In tears at being hurt by a falling woodpile that stressful night, she attempts to wipe her face only to have her thumb rip through her threadbare handkerchief, and she laughs now, too.  She has, so Lawson tells us, ‘a keen, very keen, sense of the ridiculous’.

So much so that she religiously dresses in her best every Sunday, dressing up the children too, and they walk for miles through the bush, seeing no-one and going to no church.

Her moral compass is internal. No-one instructs her. She is entirely herself and she is the fulcrum of her world.

When Alligator does his job, thrashing the snake to death on its reappearance at dawn, the bushwoman throws it on the fire and cries quietly again. Why? In relief at the ordeal ended, or in some sorrow for the snake, Lawson deftly doesn’t say.

Does she exist today? Can she? I peppered my first novel, Black Diamonds, with references to her, and every novel since has celebrated the heroic in those like her – the unseen and unsung, the extraordinary in the ordinary – but all my characters, all my women heroes, come to me from the past, too.

And perhaps here’s the answer and the challenge: I’ll have to write a Great Australian Woman for today myself. One day.

In the meantime, I’m sure she’s out there already. I’m sure she’s with us. In the as yet barely navigable and ever expanding realms of independent publishing, she’s there. In the dreams of hundreds and hundreds of Australian writers, she must be there.

Waiting for her dawn…

 

Image: ‘The Drover’s Wife’, Russell Drysdale, 1945

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THE UGLY AUSTRALIAN

I’ve had some interesting conversations over the past twenty-four hours on how and when Anzac Day became hijacked by fascists – by the kinds of people Australian servicemen and women have sacrificed themselves in fighting across various wars for more than a century now.

Of course, I’m referring to their howls yesterday that writer, engineer, TV presenter and general over-achiever Yassmin Abdel-Magied be sacked and deported to some unnamed corner of hell for daring to suggest that we might, on our day of remembrance, spare a thought for those we have locked up in indefinite detention – those refugees who by some savage irony have, in their attempt to escape one form of authoritarian evil, found themselves deep inside Australia’s special version of same.

I’m not going to recount Yassmin’s tale here – plenty has been written on her crimes of unAustralianness already, and it’s all already boring. Strip it down to its pathetic nuts and bolts and we have a woman who, in exercising free speech, has not only said something plainly true, but has had it viciously condemned by those who purport to be the great white defenders of freedom in our land. It’s an irony sandwich with onions.

But the conversations behind the headlines have provided rich fields of thought. In one lively chat among a bunch of women, one asked if it was John Howard – the prime minister who went to war with Bush on Blair on a lie, sending the West on a spree of war crimes after September 11 – who reshaped Anzac Day in his own image.

And I replied, no, not exactly. In the red team/blue team death spiral that passes for politics in Australia, the left blames the right for everything morally corrupt (and vice versa) and tends to unremember that ‘their’ Labor leaders have been just as guilty of firing up the undesirables as the conservatives. It was our beer-drinking, working-class Rhodes scholar Bob Hawke who unleashed a new Aussie pride in the build up to the bicentennial celebrations in 1988, encouraging public involvement in Anzac commemorations that hadn’t been seen since the First World War, painting all in the bright colours of some kind of sport. And of course, lest we forget his Zegna-suited successor Paul Keating, while eschewing reflected military glory or anything that might ruin his manicure, set up the system of offshore immigration detention in which those refugees Yassmin was referring to languish today.

Next, John Howard, being the whore for a score he is, picked up the ball and ran with it. That ball was Australia’s working class. Their new wealth, new confidence and new pride, became a potent political force and remains so. They’re goaded by politicians, conservative commentators and radio talkback narcissists to hate anything and everything they deem unAustralian. They’re encouraged every day and in every election to blame everyone but themselves for any problem the country might face. They are anti-socialist, anti-union, anti-immigration, anti-compassion, anti-thought – anti everything that’s brought them the good life in the first place. It’s revolting, yes, and what they’ve done to Anzac Day – with their jingoistic displays of arrogance, drunkenness and violence – would embarrass and confuse my working-class grandparents.

And it’s this thought of my grandparents that had me walking away from yesterday’s bunfight with a gnawing knowledge that our ugliness runs much deeper than this. Perhaps the unthinking jingoes are louder and brasher now, but they’ve been with us from the beginning.

During the First World War, my Irish grandmother, as a little girl, regularly had rocks and other abuses thrown at her walking home after school in inner Sydney’s Surry Hills, because she was Catholic and poor and deemed a traitorous Sinn Feiner, even though one of her brothers was at that time away fighting in France – and copping mustard gas that would send him to an early grave.

On the other side of my family, my schoolboy grandfather’s name was changed from Schwebel to Swivel, because the violence against German Australians was gathering steam, even though one of his cousins was at that time away fighting in Flanders. In fact, there was a ferocious campaign waged at Marrickville Council to change the name of Schwebel Street to something unGerman, which was only abandoned when Henry Schwebel was killed at Zonnebeke and the jingoes were shown up for deadshits they are.

I woke up this morning with all this ringing in my ears. Because of those who hate, my name, the name I grew up with, is not my own. Of course, I’ve always known this – the stories of bricks through windows and reputations trashed has been with me since I was a little girl – but it came to me with fresh sadness.

How fucking dare you, was my next and predictable thought. You load of nano-minded human pollutants. I could hate, too. But somehow the lessons of history have settled in me – and across my family – with a greater need to love. To learn. To choose to be grateful, too, for the luxury of peace that enables me to love and learn so freely.

I channel those questions of homegrown hatred into all my writings, my stories about Australia, and I throw love at them there, too. It’s curious that this has seen my work labelled as romantic and sentimental over the years, made some literary confreres a little squeamish at what I do. But good grief – fuck you, too.

The Australia I work for is an inclusive one, a fair and just one, and the moral high ground is a figment of the conceited on each side.

I will seek out and sew the threads of all that’s beautiful about us until the day I die. I will hurl my salvos of love at every ugliness – at every hate and every hurt.

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BALANCING ACT

‘You edit fiction as well as write it?’ I was asked by a fellow word-wrangler recently. ‘Wow,’ she sighed into her coffee: ‘That’s tough.’

‘Yeah!’ I laughed above the shared editorial melancholy, and with some strange delight, because it was the first time this tricky toughness had ever been acknowledged by a colleague.

‘Tough’ is probably too tough a word for it, but working on both sides of the storytelling curtain as I do is a little like walking an emotional tightrope at times.

Despite making a conscious effort to always maintain a critical distance, to not get too close to the authors I work with, I become very close to their words, their stories, and the hearts that exist within them. I often hear my father at my shoulder, telling me: ‘Stick to the text. Don’t pay any attention to the author’s biographical note or photograph, or care anything about their circumstances, or for what others say about them. Find everything you need to know inside the story, inside the way the author uses words and ideas.’ And so, in the intense intimacy of this kind of reading, I often fall in love with the manuscripts that come my way, or at least feel a profound sense of respect for them.

When one of these manuscripts becomes a published book, I fizz with all kinds of sunshine for the author, as if at some atomic level I have a stake in the work’s success, but at the same time, if that work is harshly or hollowly dismissed by a reviewer, or treated with disregard by a publisher, I feel the wound, too. It’s not uncommon for me to have a bit of a cry at each tip of the balancing pole, at the fabulous achievements and the devastating losses. Just as I do with my own writing.

Of course, there are also those few infuriating manuscripts that have been picked up by a publisher predominantly for the saleability of the author or to follow some trend in the market. These little heartbreakers can sting all round. Their words are tossed about with little care but for the money involved, which is usually a great deal more than the norm; the editor is expected to fix holes made by soullessness, and we do, with our story-love – enough so that readers will buy the book and not be too disappointed.

Editors are meant to be invisible in this way, and so they should be. There are plenty of beautiful books in the world wrought by wonderful, sparkling minds that just needed a little assistance, whether that be in seeing a flaw, overcoming a block, or the clarity that comes from simply having a conversation with someone who loves their beautiful thing almost as much as they do. An editor can help an author find the courage to make an essential change they’ve been resisting; courage to dive deeper into a place they’ve been fearful of going. An editor can help an author find the confidence to step out into the spotlight for the first time, or to get back on the horse. And none of this behind-the-curtains stuff is anyone else’s business.

But for me as a writer, although editing others’ work has nourished my own in all manner of marvellous ways, it’s also thrown a shadow. I might have worked with lots and lots of writers over twenty years in the biz, but the private nature of these relationships has meant that I don’t have a tribe of other authors willing or able to endorse my own books, and that has made my tightrope walk a little lonely. It’s as if I don’t quite belong to either world – as if the writer in me is some kind of impostor and the editor is some kind of spy.

I do try to keep the two worlds separate – working as an editor under my father’s name, Swivel, and writing under my mother’s name, Kelly – but really they’re two halves of a whole. The thought of dropping one completely in favour of the other is more frightening than falling from my wire. And fall I do, all the time. I’m still learning how to tumble so that I don’t hurt myself too badly. But I couldn’t ever stop this gig.

‘I’m just a narrative junkie,’ I told my editorial coffee companion.

And she laughed with me: ‘Aren’t we all?’

Too true: editors, writers and readers of all kinds, we’re all hopelessly devoted. We’re all suckers for a good story.

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BAD GUY

This beautiful boy is August Macke – or at least this is how he painted himself in 1906, at the age of nineteen. He looks a little bit like one of my sons, and though August lived a century ahead of him, both boys began their careers as costume designers. Boys any mother would be proud of, for their sparkling talent, their diligence, their abilities at adorable pouting.

By 1910, barely out of art school, August had become a rising star among the avant-garde, an insatiably curious and studious member of Der Blaue Reiter, a group of expressionist painters that formed in Germany just as August decided he’d give it a proper go.

He was demonstrably averse to boundaries, his style slipping through periods of impressionism, fauvism and cubism in rapid succession, his colours bold and deeply emotional. The sort of young man who would have walked into any room with his brain in gear, wondering with some excitement: Who am I going to meet here tonight? A young man constantly in love – he’d married his childhood sweetheart, Elisabeth, at twenty-two.

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His mates Wassily Kandinsky, Franz Marc and Paul Klee would go on to become great names in the art world. But August would not.

At the outbreak of war in 1914, August was perfectly ripe for conscription, and he was dead within a month, erased on a battlefield in France, where the front ran through Champagne.

Just another German soldier. And just another reason I don’t do bad guys in my stories.

We love to hate the enemy, or so we’re told. Storytelling 101 says the hero needs bad guys in order to be the very best of the good, in order to gain and sustain our sympathy, to keep us turning the pages.

But I can’t do it. And not only because my own German heritage has played havoc with the standard all my life.

The only truly bad guys I know are psychopaths, incurably destructive people who need to be removed from the rest of us. I made one of them in Paper Daisies, a nasty character a little too close to my own experience of encountering such, except that in real life I’m not permitted to kill the like. I’ve written a similar character in my latest manuscript, Walking – a sadist, a creep, someone ruled by jealousy and the monsters that can be unleashed when ambitions outweigh talents, perhaps a little like a certain German führer who could never help overplaying his pathetic hand. I didn’t kill that one, though: I took the realer road and had him more or less get away with it.

Bad guys, by their deliberate, calculated cruelties, don’t deserve to be among us. They don’t deserve equal billing with those of us who strive to make and give and love. They don’t deserve to be remembered.

But where’s dramatic tension in a tale without a full-bodied, slavering and ever-menacing nemesis? I can hear some writers ask, and I can only answer that the nemesis I want to explore most of all is the trickiest and most powerful one: the enemy that sits within the hero. The best battle that’s ever fought and won: with the self. Yeah okay, it’s not an approach that’s worked its way to the top of the sales charts for me. Yet – heh.

Graduation from bestseller school isn’t why I’m in this game, though. I want to use what’s left of the blink in time that’s mine to say things about the best of us, about the most of us who just want to be better tomorrow than we were yesterday.

To say that boys like August were heroes too.

Just as the world descended into madness, he painted this picture called ‘Farewell’. It’s incalculably sad: the colours dull, the faces rubbed out.

The heart of a boy who didn’t want to go to war. A boy who didn’t need to meet a bad guy to prove his worth.

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LIFE WELL LIVED

Letting go of a story that’s lived in your imagination for years is no easy thing to do. In fact, for me, it’s not so much a matter of letting go as riding a cold wave of change – a little like dealing with grief, or at least shades of it. It’s not a goodbye so much as an adjustment to a new reality.

None of my characters are just characters; none of them are inventions serving only a plot. They’re pieces of me, cyphers that lead me to an understanding of something I need to know, a line of love I need to follow, and for all that, they are very real.

Hugo Winter, the orthopaedic surgeon at the centre of the novel I finished last month, has been with me for the last twelve years, a man whose tale of love in all its colours insisted I tell it. Sometimes it’s felt as if he’s been sitting beside me, looking over my shoulder, telling me to hurry up with whatever I’m writing so that I can be with him.

He’s based on a real chap: a doctor called Max Herz who lived and worked in Sydney across the first half of the twentieth century, quietly curing children of disabling injuries, reconstructing their bones, reshaping their lives. A man who would charge the rich and famous a premium for his services so that he could treat the poor and the small for free. A man who put a lot of important noses out of joint because of that – and because he was a foreigner, a German, a Jew. Not someone the Establishment was ever going to love; not someone who ever cared what the Establishment thought, either.

Apart from the surgical skills and a few other obvious details, Hugo is me: an outsider, a solo flyer, an unashamed unfitter-innerer, but one with a lot to give, and one who will continue to give regardless of whether or not those in power value what’s being offered. That’s not something I could ever farewell or put away: it’s indelibly tattooed upon my own character.

As I set off now on a new story adventure – a dazzling date with an acrobat, and an actual cup of tea with one of Australia’s leading physical performers next week – Hugo continues to sit with me. Right now he’s harassing me about a few lines in one of the last chapters of the manuscript. It’s called Walking, and as an orthopaedist he’s concerned I have one of the other characters – a fellow called Jim Cleary – up out of bed and walking too quickly after a badly broken leg. Yes, I’m arguing a point of medicine with man who doesn’t exist. But he loves Jim as much as I do; and he’s especially fond of Jim’s physiotherapist Lucy Brynne. Hugo taught Lucy everything she knows – they’ve been close ever since he treated her for a terrible injury she suffered when she was a little girl – and he doesn’t want her getting any medicine wrong, never mind things not working out well with Jim’s leg. The stakes are dizzyingly high! For Hugo, anyway.

And I listen to him. He’s more than a friend, imaginary or otherwise. He’s taught me so much about living, and giving, and the point of it all. He’s taught me so much about dignity and diligence, and the wisdom of walking away from those who aren’t ever going to share your page.

As an old man reflecting on his achievements and his readiness for making his final cheerio in the spring of 1948, he understands: ‘He’d made others smile; he’d made children smile. He’d taken care of those in need wherever he could and changed their circumstances for the better… He’d felt more joy than sadness on balance across all the years. He was loved.’

What else is there?

Thank you, Hugo, for all your hanging around. Now, back to that point of medicine…