Kim Kelly

Australian Author

image

FOR THE RECORD

Well, I just finished that novel I began in January. Forty-three days, it took to write, or probably thirty-eight taking away real-life interruptions. I’ve broken more personal bests than the weather with this one. I’ve never written anything so quickly, with such a desperate, aching need to pour a story from my heart and onto the page.

It’s called Walking, and it’s inspired by a true tale of a brilliant German orthopaedic surgeon who became quietly famous in Sydney for making crippled children walk when others said it was impossible. The Australian-British medical establishment was so miffed by his success they arrested him at one point and threw him into prison. It’s a sprawling novel that spans two continents, two world wars and two love stories.

I’m still inside that mad infatuation any writer can feel for a completed story – a dangerous time when all emotions are raw and all words should be put away for a while. But words don’t stop, do they – they’re a part of every day.

A few days ago, I was having dinner with some friends and the conversation turned to the idea of retirement. Everyone at the table was in their forties, some getting more tired of the grind than others. In the thick of my madness, the last few chapters of Walking shouting to get themselves out of my head and somewhere more comfortable, I told the table: ‘I’m terrified of the idea of retiring.’

My husband said dryly: ‘She wouldn’t retire if she had an off switch.’

But the crack was lost in the dismissive response of another: ‘It’s different when you’re doing something you love.’

I mumbled something about it not being a daily frolic in the woods, and shovelled some food into my mouth to stop anymore words escaping.

Like: ‘I’m in physical and psychic pain right now from lack of sleep and the almost indescribable rush of anxiety that overtakes me when the novel I’m writing begins to end. I have a permanent headache from crying because one of my characters has died and this grief feels so real it’s a new form of mental illness. It’s not much fun at the moment doing this thing I love.’

And I’m not getting paid for it. Doesn’t work like that for writers, or most other artists. You do the work first and then maybe someone will want to pay for it, but not always; sometimes not often; sometimes never.

I’ve written six published novels and have three manuscripts at present to shop. I’ve had no amazing record of sales, but not a terrible record either. I love my readers like my writing life depends on them – because it does. I work very hard at book promotion and all sorts of author profile palaver, as expected by publishers. I’m very easy to work with because, when I’m not writing, I work in the industry as an editor, and I know what a shitfight it can be on that side of the curtain. I have bundles of energy for all this work and not enough years left to live to write all the stories I want to write.

Despite all this, I find myself with no publisher right now for my new works. This is not in any way uncommon for a writer. The constantly shifting circumstances of publishers and their lists mean the whole thing is a circus precariously arranged upon a damp paper plate balancing on a mile-high pin. It’s a tough business.

And it means I’ve just busted my guts to write a story that has every chance of not being picked up by a publisher. It means I might get nothing in return except for the fact of having done it.

Just as well I love it. Just as well I’m in love with it.

Not everyone, given the opportunity – the time, the space, the financial wherewithal – has the guts to put themselves on the line this way. All artists do it every day.

So yeah, maybe next time I’m told I have an easy time of things, I might say: ‘Have a go yourself. Take forty-three days out of the grind. Do that thing you love. I dare you.’

(Photo: Judy Davis, ‘My Brilliant Career’)

image

MAGICKED AWAY

I’ve been so quiet bloggery-wise lately, I thought I’d best explain: I’ve been kidnapped by a story.

Inspired by a real-life surgeon who changed the lives of countless children in Sydney in the early twentieth century, it’s a story that was planted in my heart some twelve years ago when I was researching medical techniques for my first novel, Black Diamonds.

A couple of the characters from that first-baby novel make an appearance in this one, too – such a wonderful, emotional experience for me to re-meet these imaginary friends, I cry as we say hello.

The photograph of the little girl above sits on my desktop every day, watching my words, whispering to me to keep going.

I’m writing very quickly, my prose concise and sharp, my whole mind at the coal face. I guess that sort of thing happens when a story has been waiting, waiting, waiting for so many years to be told.

So cheers, friends here in this space. I hope 2017 is unboxing all manner of long-held dreams for all of you.

xxx

image

RISK

Writers are fancy gamblers, addicts suffering from collections of random personality disorders. At least I am.

Every novel I write, and I’ve written eight (six in the world and two on the way), I tell myself I won’t make myself ill this time. But each time I do.

In the final weeks of completing the first readable draft, I don’t sleep. I slip into a kind of inescapable mania which, near its end, leaves me physically wrecked and emotionally raw. Skinless. Sore. Exhausted. That’s where I am right now.

The day after Christmas, I finally completed a novel that’s taken me more than two years to write; earlier in the year, I completed another that had been kicking around in my consciousness for three years. There is never a time when I’m not somehow immersed in story, and while huge and happy amounts of research go into those stories, their narrative threads come from me: pulled, coaxed, wrenched directly from my heart. It’s a process of personal interrogation that hurls me towards understanding and empathy as nothing else can. But it’s also often painful.

There are times when I disconnect from my family, friends, colleagues; times when terrifying doubt causes me to disconnect from everything but the tiny light-tunnel of story.

I take every one of these trips not knowing if my story will be published; and knowing that if it is published, it’s unlikely to sell in any quantity that might justify such enormous effort – because that’s life for the vast majority of authors.

All this, but I can’t stop.

I have a co-conspirator, though. My muse de bloke, my lover – Deano. As much as he struggles with my struggles, he’s besotted with my addiction, too. He loves watching those lights switch on in me, how alive my mind becomes.

Three hours after I finished my latest manuscript, we lay in bed, washed up on the shore, and I told him I’m not writing anything for at least two weeks.

He asked me: ‘What do you think you’ll write next?’ Knowing that there are two ideas I have burbling away in the back-brain.

We spent the rest of the day discussing that next book. I’m already itching to dive in.

I wouldn’t change a thing.

newtown

THE HANDS THAT MAKE OUR WORLD

I’ve had a fascinating time in 1860s New South Wales over the past few months, falling down all kinds of research rabbit holes, rich and deep – and usually full of gold.

I’ve spent hundreds of happy hours trying to reconstruct city and townscapes from 150 years ago, tracing the roads my great, great grandfather Georg Schwebel might have travelled as a young man from Germany in love with a strange new land and a girl who was born here.

The world of young men is a place I return to again and again in my stories probably mostly because I am a mother of sons, but also because I’ve always been drawn to the stories of those who make our human world – the artisans, engineers, tradesmen, miners, those who forge all the convenience we enjoy with the strength of their bodies and the skill of their hands. Those who made the roads. And up until recently they were mostly young men.

Georg was a carpenter and a carter hauling building materials here and there under government tender. He lived in Newtown, in Sydney, and died in 1896 in an accident at work. According to the Sydney Evening News that November, Georg was “placing the winkers on a horse attached to a cart in Trafalgar street, Newtown [now Annandale], when the animal bolted, and threw him on the roadway. One of the wheels of the vehicle passed over his face. The injured man was taken to Prince Alfred Hospital and admitted by Dr Zlotkowski for treatment.” But that was the end of the road for him.

In trying to find out what working life brought a young man 30 years earlier, when my story is set, I’ve found many a moving account but none more so than the stark simplicity of this accident report in the Maitland Mercury of 1862 for the township of Murrurundi:

During the past fifteen months the following accidents occurring in the district have been attended by our Medical Practitioner, Mr. Gordon:

15 broken legs, 1 broken thigh, 11 broken arms, 1 amputation of arm through the bursting of a gun, 5 cases of amputation of fingers through same and blasting, 6 broken collar bones, 8 cases of broken ribs, 3 deaths by drowning, 1 ditto by lightning, 1 case of absorption of animal poison, 3 snake bites, 2 dreadful cases of burning, 1 fracture of skull from falling from a horse, 1 death from being jammed against a tree by a dray, 1 attempt at self-destruction by cutting the throat, 4 cases of kicks from horses, 3 cases of goring from horns of oxen, very bad, 1 bite from a pig, 22 cases of jams and cuts upon the hands and arms, some very bad, from picks and blasting stone.

Not one recorded baby born nor woman lost to the fight for it, but men working away, most of them probably thinking about that girl, somewhere, some of them working only for rations.

In Australia, we often save our praise and our accolades for soldiers and sportsmen, for squatters and schemers and rogues, but these ordinary hardworking men who laid the ground of so much we see today deserve to have their stories told too.

I will always place them in the frame. I will always sing their love songs. They are the men who made me.

 

Photo: King Street, Newtown, Paul McCarthy (Wikimedia Commons)

image

CULTURAL RELEVANCE

As the aftershocks of the Alt-Right quake continue to rock the Western World, there’s been much browbeating about who to blame for it. Quick out of the finger-pointing blocks has been the assertion that ‘identity politics’ is the culprit here.

Apparently, all of us who believe that encouraging tolerance of difference, rather than always pressing for sameness, are the reason why the poor and desperate are revolting. Ahem. Nothing to do with economic insecurity caused by corporate greed and the demonisation of any collective action or social policy that doesn’t make money for the rich. Duh.

How could we have been so blind! Oh well.

Identity is inescapable. From the time we each get up in the morning and look at our faces in the mirror, we’re aware of who we are in the scheme. We carry the physical and genetic markers of who we are around with us all day: fair, dark, ginger, injured, young, old, indifferent, tall, short, skinny, fat, fabulous and ugh.

What I see personally is a woman who, apart from a need for spectacles, has pretty much won life’s lottery in terms of privilege, status, the ability to do whatever I want. On the surface of things, I’m so in the middle of the pocket of acceptable norms, among my major complaints is that I never get the bumper specials on frocks and shoes because my size is always gone first. Boo hoo.

But more powerful than the obvious is the invisible: the histories each of us carry behind our eyes. Generational racism and dispossession, intimate struggles with sexuality, memories that flicker with violence and fear. These things can’t always be seen, but they can hold a person back from giving all they have to give and getting the best from life.

How can it be wrong to say at the highest levels: your difference is respected and acknowledged as important to the fabric of humanity? Of course it’s not wrong. Blaming ‘identity politics’ for the scary place we find ourselves in right now is just run-of-the-mill, look-over-there scapegoating – a familiar and distinctive feature of the fascist, authoritarian brand. Bajeepers, ‘Alt-Right’? That’s just another euphemism for opportunistic arseholes who exploit the despair of others.

We’ve been here before – loads – and most notably in the late 1930s when the world lurched into another mega war. Part of my personal identity is a wonder about one German politician, Georg Schwebel, member of the Social Democratic Party, who spent that war in a concentration camp care of the Nazis. He represented the home town of my Schwebel forebears – Wald Michelbach in Hesse, in central Germany – and he makes me curious as to whether the rich vein of social democracy that runs through this part of my family is some quirk of heredity, like the name Georg.

For me, there are also the whispers of my Jewish forebears, the Miers and the Woolfs, one slim thread of which ended up in Australia. Why? Who knows? But they make me related to the guy who co-wrote the lyrics for the Wizard of Oz – Edgar Allan Woolf, a New Yorker and purportedly quite a wild thing. Some quirk of heredity there, too, perhaps, for the similarly rich vein of performers and storytellers and storylovers who live in my family tree.

But the strongest strain of all, of course, is my Irish heritage – and its chin-up, show-em-what-you’re-made-of grit. Courage, decency, loyalty, faith, I can still feel the warm hands of the one who gave me these precious things: my grandmother, Nin. As well as a soft spot for sentimentality and an inclination for kitsch.

So, when I found this little carving of a kangaroo and her joey a couple of weeks ago at a local op shop, my heart did a triple somersault of joy. Nin had one just like it all the years of my growing up. I don’t know what became of it except that it’s here with me again now.

A small but significant representation of where I’ve come from.

A reminder of how heartbroken I would be if some Alt-Right jackboot told me I could no longer identify as me, could no longer cherish these bits and pieces that make me. That’s never going to happen of course – I’m too much a Joe Norm. But if you’re black or gay or Muslim, it might just become an unpleasant reality if we let bullies rule.

I look into the fake emerald eyes of my little roo and she tells me to reject absolutely those who attack others for their own gain. Reject all nastiness of spirit. She tells me that there is nobility and honour in caring for others – that everyone really does deserve a fair go.

This is my culture. This is who I am. A fiercely proud Australian.

factory

TRUMPET

People do crazy things when they’re hurt – like voting to install a flagrantly manipulative narcissist as leader of the free world, or leaving the European Union, or imprisoning refugees indefinitely in concentration camps on remote equatorial islands.

When hope and opportunity are ripped away piece by piece over time, it wears down resilience, and blows away empathy with it.

The woman who serves me at the supermarket checkout or the young man who wipes my windscreen at the carwash don’t care about me or how shocked and disapproving I might be at recent radical political shifts which threaten the peace of my pleasant, middle-class life. Nor should they care.

Because we – the privileged – have let them down.

Regardless of which way we vote, or whatever hackneyed, hypocritical rubbish we spout about equality, every time we indulge in such perks as tax minimisation and negative gearing and the moral superiority that makes it all possible, we hurt the woman at the checkout and the boy at the carwash. We shrink their world to keep ours comfortable.

When the darling of Australia’s left, Paul Keating, began the privatisation of the Commonwealth Bank and brought in superannuation tied to the stock market, I thought this wouldn’t end well. When I expressed this worry, I was scoffed at by my uni mates who knew so much better.

They didn’t, but I didn’t know better than to doubt myself. I’d dropped out of uni for a spell and was working at the Commonwealth Bank at the time, in the late 80s; before that, I worked at Coles variety store in Redfern. I watched workplace agreements and their attendant secrecy divide colleagues, destroying not only solidarity but camaraderie.

Later, I watched Keating’s ‘recession we had to have’ result in mass sackings and pave the way for more and more corporate gobbling – the mergers and takeovers that would result in more and more economic rationalisation, aka more sackings and lower wages.

We walk the same streets today as those who never recovered their dreams, their promised lives, from those strokes of bad luck that had nothing to do with them.

And yet we blame them – the unlucky. Or perhaps choose not to see them. We smile perfunctorily at the woman at the checkout and the boy at the carwash, unseeing smiles that judge them for their losses and their lackings to stave off our guilt at having all that we have at their expense.

Because this is the way it works – and we know it. We know the economic pie is finite. We know the disparities inherent in the way we value labour are a disgrace – because we all learnt that at university.

A note to those traumatised today at Trump’s ascendancy: stop the bullshit right now.

More than two thousand years ago, the Greek philosopher Aristotle dreamed us – the middle class – into existence. He called us the ‘mean between extremes’ – those who would be so fearful of falling into servitude but so constantly, graspingly aspirational that we’d be the tiller, the steadying force of democracy, keeping revolution at bay, keeping all bastards honest.

We have failed. We are a waste of our education – which most of my vintage largely got for free, before we started chipping away at that, too, to pay for our chardonnay, our turmeric shakes and quinoa salads.

We sigh at the enormity of the problem. Globalisation and mechanisation have smashed the unlucky further down in recent times but how can we possibly help? All our investments are tied up in the corporations that are keeping them in relentless poverty. It’s becoming positively Dickensian.

But really, what can we do?

Deny all responsibility. Shrug our shoulders as history repeats and repeats. Be horrified at what checkout woman and carwash boy have done.

Pretend sometime in the far away future that we were the good Germans because we bought free-range eggs.

hill end 1 (2) reduced.jpg

THE GLAMOROUS LIFE OF AN HISTORICAL FICTIONEER

Crime writers might book themselves in for autopsies, thriller writers might throw themselves out of planes, while romance writers might rather fly themselves to Paris, but never let it be said that historical fictioneers don’t love a research challenge, too.

I spent almost two full days this week researching the whereabouts of a nineteenth century pub. Sober.

The pub in question is, or was, quite a famous one – the Weatherboard Inn – which once upon a time fed and watered travellers on their way over the wild and beautiful Blue Mountains of New South Wales.

In 1814, or thereabouts, a hut was built here to service those building the Bathurst Road (the forerunner Great Western Highway), and this little hut was constructed of weatherboards, of course. The Blue Mountains being a bit of a fire trail, though, the hut burnt down in 1823, only to be rebuilt – bigger and better – in 1829.

At its height, the Weatherboard Inn boasted seven bedrooms and stabling for seventeen horses, as well as three parlours, a taproom and a bar. Charles Darwin overnighted there in 1836 during the Australian leg of his worldwide Beagle tour. Taking a walk through the bush to view the nearby falls, he looked out across the Jamison Valley and found there in the ancient sandstone cliffs his first inklings of sedimentary geology.

One of the last to see the pub in all its glory was Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, who, in 1868, took a lavish, celebrity excursion to the falls and on his return to Sydney was promptly shot in the backside by a Fennian rebel – a bullet which, though it didn’t kill him, rather brought down the tone of his visit. But I digress.

The thing is, this Weatherboard Inn was conspicuous. Being the only building for several miles around, thousands of tourists would have taken refreshments here before it went out business – something that appears to have happened about the time the railway came through and made the place redundant as a travellers’ rest on the hard, steep road through the range.

All of these snippets of history are fascinating – to me at least! But all of them are irrelevant to my research adventure. All I needed to know was where, more or less, the bloody thing was on the map.

Now, I do love me a geographical puzzle. I love to reconstruct long-since bulldozed streetscapes and ragged colonial roads. Give me a stash of 140-year-old train time tables and I’m there with bells and whistles. But this puzzle proved among the trickiest I’ve come across.

The more sources I consulted, the less clear the whereabouts of the pub became. In all manner of newspaper and journal mentions of the place, the name of the village it was supposed to have been located in wasn’t consistent, having been variously and imaginatively said to have been called ‘Weatherboard’, or ‘Weatherboard Creek’, or ‘Weatherboard Falls’, or, on actual train time tables, ‘The Weatherboard’.

In contemporary references to the place, it was said Weatherboard was the original name of Wentworth Falls, and yet, Australian placenames being a fascinating and often infuriating study in themselves, the historical primary sources I looked at had it variously and possibly creatively located in Blackheath (originally named Hounslow), Mount Victoria (originally named One Tree Hill) and Lawson (originally named Blue Mountain). Confused? I certainly was.

So where was the pub at the end of all this?

I eventually found a New South Wales state government report that sites archaeological evidence of the remains of a building’s foundations just north-west of where the village of Wentworth Falls sits today.  But really, who knows?

And who cares? Well, I do. The heroine of my gold-rush bushranging tale makes a visit here on her own wild and beautiful tour.

But for now, this historical fictioneer needs a drink…

(NB: the pic above is of a random timber building in Hill End, because of course no photograph or drawing of the Weatherboard Inn survives either!)

 

20160826_090045

LOVE IN A TEACUP

I’ve never gathered much in the way of stuff around me. Nice roof over head, nice frocks and nice bed linen, what more does one need? Apart from a laptop, phone, a stupid number of books, novelty socks and decorative pillows… Ahem.

Yes, I buy far too much crap. I’m not wealthy by Australian standards, but I am very conscious of my privilege: I’m white, well-educated and well-loved. I am my parents’ and my grandparents’ hopes and dreams made manifest. I am the living proof that sunshine, schooling and safety wipe the slate clean of any trace of poverty or dislocation.

But I think the simple living of my forebears must remain somehow in my DNA, so that as much as I buy too much crap, I’m also constantly giving it away. From handbags to lounge suites, I can always find someone to pass things on to, because they might need them, or because they might like them. Because one or several of my sons’ lovely lady pals are in need of a party frock. Or a fruit bowl.

My husband thinks this is a pathological compulsion, and worries that one day he’ll come home and I’ll have given away the cats, the chooks and all the family photographs. Not true!

It is true that having too many things around me, too much clutter of stuff, can make me feel overwhelmed – too greedy perhaps, wracked with remnant Catholic guilt – but there is one thing, one little clutter of things, I could never part with: my grandmother’s teacups.

An eclectic mix of Royal Albert, Wedgwood and Noritake, I’ve carted them around with me since I left home, and I’ve collected teacups of my own to keep them company wherever we go.

Looking at them brings me more than happiness; they bring me back my grandmother, and my mother too. They connect me to them through the stories I hold in my heart, bright and diverse as these hand-painted blooms on porcelain, though neither of them lived to see me write stories of my own. They return me to long, lazy school-holiday afternoons when I nagged them to get out all the good china for me to dream over.

Munching Arnott’s Lemon Crisp biscuits, I’d imagine my grown-up life, all the tea parties I’d throw. I couldn’t have imagined where these teacups would find themselves over the years that followed: mad places, wild places, sometimes frightening, sometimes beautiful. Wonderful. And not a chip or crack among them for all that, I hold them so dear.

Of course I do. My grandmother – Nin as we called her – never owned much. She never bought a house or a car; she never saw Paris or London or Rome. But she owned fabulous teacups. She owned fabulous stories, too. I can only imagine the look on her face – and Mum’s – at my telling them that Nin’s favourite actress, Helen Morse, is the narrator of my latest novel. We’d get out the teacups for that!

There’s one little green, gilt-edged cup that’s always been my absolute favourite, though. It has no great name, and no grand style, only a Chinese stamp under the base, blurry and bright gold.

I would ask my Nin on school-holiday loop: ‘And where did you get this one?’ Always wanting the tale, wondering if this little cup came from ancient Greece, or maybe from the table of an Egyptian queen.

And I remember Nin replying with some faraway quizzical frown, ‘Oh, I don’t know.’

As if it had come to her by some magic.

Perhaps it did.

20160826_090335

kiss-1920s

LET’S TALK ABOUT SEX

If you’re going to write about lovers, as I do, then invariably sex is going to make an appearance at some point in your story. But for most of us, the question is, how do we do it so that readers are seduced rather than turned off? How do we express sex without it seeming unintentionally creepy or ugly? How do we make it seem natural? How do we depict it as the lovely-amazing-bizarre-shocking-sometimes-painful thing it truly is?

The general advice is, of course, that less is more – unless you really are going for erotica, or there is some other compelling reason for a blow-by-blow description (ahem). If you’re writing a romantic saga or a story that is underpinned by relationships, then you probably want the sex to be just one aspect, maybe even only an embellishment, to a more complex whole. Some writers shut the door on sex altogether, preferring to leave the bedroom entirely up to the reader’s imagination – an off-screen event they can either magic up in their own minds, or not.

Personally, wherever it makes sense for the characters to go there, I love to take readers into the bedroom – into that intimate place where we’re at our most vulnerable, where bonds are forged with our bodies. Where the characters shut up at last and feel for each other through the dark, be that an actual night-time affair or an existential searching for connection between souls. And I love the challenge of exploring and trying to make real this beautiful and baffling human wonder on the page.

How each of us deal with the deed in our work is going to be unique to every author, of course, but when this very question came up recently in a writers’ forum, it got me searching through the old files to have a closer look at just how I have done it across all my novels.

In my first, Black Diamonds, my lovers, Daniel and Francine, are so young and naïve in 1914 that their shock at their own excitement and the strange brutality of sex means it’s all over in a couple of minutes. It’s a fairly typical start to a long and beautiful marriage. Some years later, in 1918, they make love, both of them wounded, and Francine tells us: ‘It is fierce and it is infinitely gentle. Gloria.’ A rush of relief.

Bernadette in This Red Earth says of her first experience of sex with her boy-next-door geologist, Gordon: ‘…my terror becomes wonder against his skin, and then something else altogether as he fills me so that I am the vast warm ball of melted rock that he says is inside the earth. And afterwards, safe and sleepy in his arms I look up at the stars through my window, wondering how it is that a man so strong and heavy in the chest could be so light upon me…’ She’s curious about the whole thing, rather than surprised.

By contrast, In The Blue Mile, my lovers don’t have sex at all. Olivia would love to fall into Eoghan’s arms, and do all manner of delightful things to him, but he won’t let her until he can sort himself out and, because he’s religious, until they can be married. The ship’s whistle at the very end might indicate just how fabulous that off-screen activity turns out to be when they sail off into the sunset, though.

In Paper Daisies, intimacy is fraught with grief and fear. Berylda dares to let Ben love her before she imagines her life will be over, and it’s all pretty explicit, if brief: ‘I have never known such pain, nor such a longing for it to remain. I hold him deeper and deeper to me; I am filled with stone; I am filled fire; I am filled with light. His kiss swallows my cry.’ There’s a bit of Aussie Gothic.

Wild Chicory, by contrast again, is probably the most romantic thing I’ve even penned: ‘Away from the old, draughty, make-do homestead, she made a place for them, a warm and secret place in a corner of the hayshed, where only the chicory could hear them; and on a few precious occasions, deep in the winter, only the softly falling snow.’ So old-fashioned and glancing but somehow all the sexier for it.

Then, most recently, there’s Irene dragging Fin into her cabin aboard the Koombana in Jewel Sea: ‘I take him with such hungry violence my wanting turns the iron bedstead beneath us to dust, to steam, to stars.’ Whoa. Where’s my fan and my smelling salts?

What all these expressions of sex have in common is that each one is a sketch, a glimpse, a few quick brushstrokes that give the reader enough of an idea to take them into the experience, but it remains one the reader must interpret for themselves. In all of my stories, set as they mostly are in the early twentieth century, there’s also the consideration of language appropriate to the times – one wouldn’t have ‘got laid’ in any of them. Who needs a sexual cliché anyway? Inventing languages of love spoken only by two is such a delicious thing to do.

But what do you think? What sort of sex do you like in your stories?

surf

CONSCIENCE CALL

This morning I woke up inside a dream – a nasty one. I was walking along a Sydney beach – Maroubra Beach – on a beautiful sunny day and, as I headed south, I passed two young men and their surfboards.

I saw the water glistening on their deep brown skin, their black hair still heavy with the sea, dripping onto their shoulders. I heard them chatting to each other about the waves. Just two young men who could have been any of the young men I grew up with in that part of the world.

Over my shoulder, I watched as two policemen approached them. There was a brief exchange, one of the young men trying to convince the officers that he was a student at the University of New South Wales, and then – BANG BANG – both of the young men were shot dead.

I stood there in shock, unmoving, a scream trapped inside me.

I woke up with my heart belting, my stomach turning, and my husband asking me: ‘What’s wrong?’

I know where this dream has come from.

There’s been quite a ruckus the last few days over Lionel Shriver’s Brisbane Writers Festival speech examining cultural appropriation and political correctness – howls of outrage that a white woman should think the preserve of fiction, and the strength of fiction, is to pretend, and to do so fearlessly. On all manner of social media threads, anyone suggesting Shriver might have a point in there somewhere has pretty much been told to check their privilege, get back in their white boxes and shut up.

Meanwhile, people of deep brown skin continue to languish on Nauru and die in police custody in Australia, their stories largely untold to the mainstream, or largely ignored. Facts too often drowned out by the relentless white noise of opinion seething from all quarters.

The greatest power of storytelling, of fiction in particular, lies in the way it can spread empathy into popular consciousness. An author can borrow another’s hat and shoes for a time to give readers an enlightening glimpse of what it might feel like to be that other person. But right now it seems we’re imposing rules upon what white authors should or shouldn’t empathise with through fiction – what characters, what identities and histories writers like me can write.

It’s affected me personally. I’m struggling with the ethics of having written a black heroine in a manuscript I finished almost two years ago. On the one hand, do I have any right to speak through a character whose skin and life experience are different from my own? On the other hand, can my conscience deal with being silenced when this character’s story might just have a whisper of a chance to broaden a narrowed mind?

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether my story sees the light of day or not – I’ve let stories go before, because they’re not ready or not mine to be told. What’s got me caught up here is a deeper, more fundamental question of what I’m allowed to write. Should that even be a wonder? Am I being a coward in my hesitation? Or virtuous?

My heart can’t draw characters without love – that’s not a moral decision but just the way I roll. I’m no intrepid pillager; I know that my explorations of others’ points of view are never cynically undertaken, never gratuitous or exploitative. These are real people to me, these imaginary friends: never embellishments or trophies. My black heroine represents about forty-three years’ investment of thought. She is part of me somehow, in that way people who are important to you work their way into your soul.

And yet I’m so conflicted over the rightness of these explorations that I am, for the moment, stuck on that beach, struck mute – a guilty witness to crimes my silence will only condone.

The answer will come to me, eventually, at least for my story, but I’m not sure this shutting-up is a good thing for anyone generally. Is it really going to lead to better structural parity of creative opportunity for writers of all colours if white writers stick to writing only white stories, or will it tribalise us in ways that make divisions and misunderstandings worse? Will it only mean that some stories in want of telling simply won’t be told? I just don’t know.