Kim Kelly

Australian Author

beautiful home

TRUE ROMANCE

One of the loveliest joys of research is coming across a hidden gem now and again, a glint of the past and shines straight into my soul.

Just now, trawling old newspapers for reflections of men returning from war, I found this tiny snippet of sweetness from Berton Braley – an American, early twentieth-century poet I’d never heard of before – published in the Cowra Free Press, a country paper from central west New South Wales, in 1922.

ROMANCE

All of us dream of it,
Seek for the gleam of it;
Distant, afar,
Pore through each book for it
When, if we’d look for it,
Lo, we should find it
Right where we are.

Delvers and hewers all,
Workers and doers all
Patiently plod,
Forging, unknowingly,
Visions that glowingly
Flame on the anvil
Built by God.

View not too jealously
Those who dare zealously
Earth’s broad expanse;
You, who must stay at home,
Toil, love and play at home,
Also are living
Lives of Romance!

What a beautiful little thing it is, and it reminds me of why I write the stories of ordinary people living and loving large in the small places of home.

I often joke about it, saying that I take my readers to all the exotic locations – Lithgow, Nyngan, Hill End, Blayney, Port Hedland, the tumbledown slums of Chippendale – but these places are as romantic as Paris or Prague, when we’re in love.

We’re told from all quarters that romance is escapist, a break from reality, somehow false, too good to be true, too rose-coloured, as if thwarting and want and terror are somehow loftier, worthier subjects for reflection. As if love were ever easy.

Here at The Bend, my home that lies between two tiny dots on the map in the vast expanse that is Australia, I’m in love every day. Even on dull days, hard days, grieving days, romance is the sun on my shoulders. Love, in all its shapes, steadies my heart and focuses my mind. And romance, like a smile or the warmth of kind words, like a line of light, brings me home whenever bleak doubts cloud my way.

money

THE ECONOMICS OF UNQUESTIONING

When did it become unfashionable for bookish and thinkery types to rattle their chains against the ever-creeping greed of capitalism? Or am I dreaming that we ever did?

I’ve just begun tinkering at the edges of a new story set in the 1980s during my university days, where the most subversive thing I ever said was, ‘I think Paul Keating might be an economic conservative and a traitor to his class.’ In the clatter of loud, proud New Age feminism, the bombing of the Rainbow Warrior and the tail end of Cold War threats of Nuclear Holocaust, no-one cared much about what teenage me thought of our federal treasurer and soon-to-be PM.

But his policy bent would begin the dismantling of the socially secure Australia we once knew: he privatised the Commonwealth Bank, instigated offshore processing of refugees, reintroduced university fees and even dreamt up a GST. Yes, he did a bunch of good stuff, too, but he opened the gate to a savage neo-conservatism that’s seen institutions like Centrelink become enemies of the poor, a system where hard-won, sensible checks and balances on industrial exploitation have been steadily eroded, and no-one’s had the guts to shut the gate since.

Socialism itself has just as steadily become a dirty word, or now denotes a radicalism we once took for granted in Australia. I grew up in those quaint ye olde days when a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work was as standard an expectation as meat and three veg and a cold can of VB. Yes, the Builders Labourers Federation was a fat sack of rats – but hey, Commonwealth Bank anyone? What’s the difference between a punch in the face and having your shirt stolen off your back? A hair-split, really.

But when did the bulk of our brains trust stop demanding better – and demanding it with a firm fist to the table?

The digital communications revolution has seen a fracturing of massed intellectual power. I’ve seen this up close in writers’ groups where thousands of words are expended over stoushes on cultural appropriation or over some perceived anti-feminist slight. Usually, if you scrape the surface of these bunfights, you’ll see most of those involved actually agree with each other, and are generally kind and concerned people – just people distracted by the vast amount of opinionating social media forums allow in a world that seems to be making us feel increasingly small and voiceless.

Hm. Capitalism likes things like that. Turning us all into hyper-distracted and needy peas means we’ll buy any and every gadget or diet or lie to try to feel better as we scream ever closer to living hell.

But there’s a worse and far plainer hip-pocket consequence of this revolution: individual economic insecurity. Yep, there’s a flavour tailored just for you.

I remember, in the early 90s, during Keating’s fantastic Recession We Had To Have, I was so scared of losing my job, I accepted whole plates of unsavoury and unethical shit – from sexual harassment to being illegally threatened with the sack if I didn’t return early from maternity leave. Nasty – but it worked.  I was young and vulnerable.

You don’t have to be young or particularly vulnerable to be held hostage like this today. It’s become the norm.

Saddest of all, I’ve seen these hooks get into the industry that once upon a time gave me shelter from the storm: publishing. Everything about making books, making thoughts on pages, has been screwed down to within an inch of its life to feed corporate monsters, be they the publishing behemoths themselves, or soulless supermarkets addicted to discounts so low those who make the products that fill their stores have become nameless and utterly expendable. It’s resulted in inhumanely overworked in-house staff, disgustingly underpaid freelancers, and a wholesale exploitation of writers that increasingly leaves me so gobsmacked it’s just about dislocated my jaw.

And there’s not much resistance; when there is little will within the ranks, the tiger has no teeth.

It’s alright for me. I’ve grown into my own ratbaggery as I was probably always going to. My mother told me, at the age of thirteen, in her succinctly hard-arse way: ‘Don’t strive for popularity. Prostitutes are popular.’ Thanks Mum. Now, at fifty, on the cusp of reaching my full lady powers, I have the personal security and means to hurl whatever truth bombs I like. Once an odd bod too shy to let her freak flag fly, I don’t care who sees it anymore.

There’s not a whole lot of honesty going on outside my front gate, though – at least not among the mainstream fishies. One well-respected Australian journalist recently justified her failure to call out misogynistic attacks on our first female PM, Julia Gilliard, with an argument that basically said, ‘Mea culpa, I was bamboozled by the sweeping inrush of the 24hour news cycle.’

That’s only half the story. We can’t blame our tools. This journalist was surely thinking of how in the name of Holy Pay Packet she was going to keep her job in an industry under siege. A world under siege from greed raging out of control. From a social contract of fairness and care now so pathetically broken we shrug at every new revelation of the corruptions nibbling away at our democracy and our freedom.

How can we question those who oppress and manipulate us all if we can’t pay the rent? How do we turn back this tide?

I hope today’s kids have some bright ideas. And will one day forgive us for the way we’ve let it all slide.

 

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LADY BIRD & THE FOX

 

meme LB quotes

What happens when a hardworking farm girl and a spoilt rich-boy gambler are mistaken for bushrangers on the road to the goldrush? At a breakneck gallop through wild colonial Australia, Lady Bird & The Fox untangles a tale of true identity and blind bigotry, of two headstrong opposites thrown together by fate, their lives entwined by a quest to get back home – and the irresistible forces of love.

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Praise for Lady Bird & The Fox

Lady Bird & The Fox is a marvel of a novel…It’s a story that will stay with me forever.’ –  Wendy James, The Golden Child

Kelly is a masterful creator of character and voice. Reminiscent of Mark Twain’s dry humour…’ – Julian Leatherdale, Palace of Tears

Lady Bird & The Fox is a completely unique tale. It’s a fast-paced, deeply evocative story of life, love and adventure in early Australia. I read it in one sitting, loved every single word.’ Kelly Rimmer, Before I Let You Go

Lady Bird & The Fox is brilliant. Thought provoking, funny – as in, actually laugh out loud funny – historically accurate, meticulously researched, and crafted with impeccable inference.’ – Theresa Smith, Australian Women Writers

Praise for Kim Kelly

‘colourful, evocative and energetic’ – Sydney Morning Herald

‘impressive research’ – Daily Telegraph

‘Why can’t more people write like this?’ – The Age

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raspberry

RASPBERRY VINEGAR

She couldn’t tell a story straight if she tried – there’s my epitaph. That is, all charges of tall tale-telling blarney aside, I can’t write historical fiction in neatly episodic chunks of third-person, past tense, plain-English prose.

I love language too much, for a start: I love falling down magical rabbit holes of etymology, to wonder at the way language changes across time, and from person to person. I love every quirk of the vernacular – every skerrick of slang, every blessed curse word, and that way Australians have with inventing new ones – like ‘wowser’ and ‘flummox’ and ‘maggoty’, whole dictionaries full of them. I love to wonder at every influence upon our Strine: the Irish, the Americans, the Germans, the many First Nations languages spoken across the continent. Our language is constantly changing, and those fine-detail changes can tell us a lot about our history, who we are and where we’ve come from.

But what I love best is the utterly unique idiom we each carry around inside our heads. Each of us has a distinct way of speaking; and we each have at least two different speaking versions of ourselves: the one we use when we’re actually talking, and the one we use when we’re talking to ourselves. Our actual talking voice is also split into at least two versions: a more formal one for use with strangers; and a more relaxed one we use with our friends – a language often laced with code, the beautiful, secret language shared by those who hold each other dear.

Obviously, this is why writing in the first person – writing in character – is a very natural way for me to explore story, and to explore Australian history. But of course, novel-writing is more than talking, and more than the nuts and bolts of story, too. Novels, generally, are about people, and those people must step from the page and into readers’ imaginations immediately and truthfully for readers to want to follow them anywhere at all. Constructing character then – dreaming up a living, breathing, believable person – is the happy challenge that entwines itself around the voices in my head, and it’s right here, in the meeting of voice and character, that I find the beginnings of every new novel.

And a great deal of research goes into all that dreaming up, too. The first glimmers of my new novel, Lady Bird & The Fox, came to me in the form of Annie Bird’s voice. She virtually shouted at me, she arrived so wholly, and her first words were: ‘This is a disaster!’ Who was she, and where did she come from? A combination of reading about gold rush Australia and puzzling over the scant traces left of the life of Australia’s probably one and only female Aboriginal bushranger, Mary Ann Bugg; as well, I carried voices with me of the strong and forthright Aboriginal women of La Perouse who peopled my childhood; I also carried with me the voice of one of my oldest and most cherished friends – the strong and forthright daughter of one of those women.

I saw Annie raise her hand to shield her eyes from the rising sun, and I saw not only the warm, deep brown of her skin: I saw the shape of her wrist, her long slim fingers and the fineness of her bones.

And then followed the delight of getting to know her, this woman of great conviction, who is stubborn and funny, both soulfully compassionate and rip-you-to-shreds critical. What did she wear? What did she love to do in quiet moments alone? What were her prized possessions? What was her favourite food? What was her favourite drink?

In answering these kinds of questions for any character, I hit the newspapers of the year – in this case, 1868. And when it came to Annie’s preferred cold beverage on a hot day, it took a while for me find the one that really was hers. Lemonade? No – too common. Soda water? No – too plain. Beer? No – she was always too busy for alcohol. Iced tea? Wasn’t invented yet in the far flung outer reaches of mid-Victorian Sydney.

Then I came across an ad for a public house outlining its basic provisions, and one of them was raspberry vinegar. I had no idea what that might be – and that was intriguing enough in itself for me. Best of all, the combination of sweet and tart it suggested made it perfect for Annie. She is lovely and sharp at once.

But while I soon discovered raspberry vinegar was a popular cordial of the day, for the life of me I couldn’t find a recipe. It was so annoying that I couldn’t quite taste this drink that Annie loved.

That was, until dinner with friends a few years later, when Lady Bird & The Fox was at the typesetter, pretty much done and dusted. My lovely real-life friend, for reasons I can’t now remember, produced one of her mother’s beautifully handwritten recipe books, dating back to the 1930s – and there within its pages lay Annie’s raspberry vinegar.

When serendipity strikes like this – especially in such a way that makes the world feel wonderfully small and bright – it strikes with a thrill that makes me tearful, and grateful, and intensely aware that we are all somehow connected through soul-threads of love.

As soon as I could, I made up the recipe, tweaking it for a little less sugar, and we enjoyed it with a splash of vodka, soda and mint.

Chin chin then, Annie Bird. Not just a voice, not just a character, but a friend. I might never be able to tell a story straight, but I – or rather we – will always tell them true.

Oh, and by the way, Annie’s favourite word is ‘collop’, but you’ll have to read the story to find out why, and what it really means – to her.

Lady Bird cocktail

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UNLIKELY LOVERS’ TRUE LOVE STORY

The lovers in my new novel, Lady Bird & The Fox, seem such an unlikely couple, at first glance.

Annie Bird is a part Mulgoa, part English woman searching for her Wiradjuri grandfather. She’s Aboriginal in both her understanding of herself, and in the way others treat her; but she’s been robbed of the vast majority of her culture, her Aboriginal inheritances, and especially mourns the loss of her mother’s language. At the same time, she is both intellectually and conscientiously Christian.

Jem Fox, on the other hand, is part Polish, part French, and although educated in London, in the English public school system, with all its oppressive Christianity and class snobbery, he is inescapably culturally Jewish. As a result of these clashes and confusions, he’s rejected religion, and any convention, pretty much entirely.

Both of them are Australian, though. Their starry paths cross and they fall in love with each other. Like people from diverse backgrounds do, every day. The love of Annie and Jem is a love that’s destined to be successful in every way, and yet the more successful they become in business, the more the complex cultural details of their lives will be whitewashed away. Jem’s Jewishness disappears from annals of the day; the colour of Annie’s skin is omitted from any mention. Their grandchildren, and great grandchildren, and so on down the line, might inherit little more than a whisper of who these lovers that made them really were.

It’s a trick of history Australians are particularly champion at. It’s also a form of identity theft against those who sit outside what the mainstream decides an Australian should look like, and we do it all the time, every day, today. We have done it, forever and most profoundly, to First Nations people, and these thefts should be considered crimes.

The year after the novel ends, 1869, the Aboriginal Cricket Team mentioned in the story, a group of grown men who’d been touring England, returned to a country in which the laws had been changed, at least in Victoria, to ensure an Aboriginal person couldn’t leave these shores again without government permission; those men could now also have their applications to marry arbitrarily refused.

The year this novel was begun, 2014, a beautiful, vibrant Aboriginal woman, Miss Dhu, died of complications of septicaemia and pneumonia in a police cell in Western Australia, there for unpaid traffic fines. The same year, in the case of another young Aboriginal woman, Lynette Daley, who was raped so savagely that she died of her injuries, the New South Wales Department of Public Prosecutions decided that the white men who attacked her could not be charged despite coronial recommendation and the glaring evidence against them; an injustice that has only been overturned, by the determined efforts of her family, as I wrote these trail-of-breadcrumbs notes for the novel more than three years later.

Throughout the writing of it, I came up against immeasurable holes in the historical records of what happened to the Mulgoa and the Bathurst-Wambool Wiradjuri, after colonisation. Half-sketched or absent acts of war that remain unresolved by truce or treaty today. Open wounds that can only be closed by the telling and acknowledgement of the truth.

What really happened and is continuing to happen is that Australia has a devastating problem with racism.

As an Australian of European descent, I wrestled for a long time with the ethical dilemma of taking on the voice of a First Nations, Aboriginal character, but Annie’s is a voice that’s been with me a long time. This woman is my friend. I grew up at La Perouse, on the northern, axe-edged tip of Botany Bay, where half my friends were Koori and the other half came from all over the world. Few of us fitted neatly into the white-bread square of what an Australian should be. The Aboriginal people in my life today are not only people I’m proud to call friends, but are among my oldest friends. Maybe it was inevitable that I would one day try to write a bold, determined and triumphant black woman to match the examples in my own reality.

It was a chance encounter that really got Annie Bird whispering, and sometimes shouting, into my ear, though. I was roaming through some research, wanting to discover the history of the wild west of the New South Wales goldfields, where I live today (and indulging my long-held love affair with that period, the 1970s TV series Rush and my abiding crush on the actor John Waters), when I came across a fleeting footnote to the white male history of the times: the real-life bushranger wife of Captain Thunderbolt, Mary Ann Bugg. Bugg was the daughter of an ex-convict English farmer and an Aboriginal woman of unknown nationality (possibly Worrimi or Biripi) from the Hunter Valley area; she was boarding-school educated in Sydney and variously said to be exceptionally beautiful and articulate, a cracking good opera singer and a resourceful, britches-wearing bushwoman; some time after her husband was shot dead by police in 1870, in one account, she stated that her heritage was Maori rather than Aboriginal, possibly in order to obtain work and perhaps to retain her independence, to avoid being corralled on a mission station and having her life controlled by church and state. Her story, or the wisps of it that remain, intrigued me for what it says about the nineteenth-century myth of the First Nations peoples’ inability to make their way in the white world or between cultures; and what it says about survival.

My story is not an Aboriginal history, though, and doesn’t pretend to be. The intricacies of that history are not mine to tell. Like all my stories, Lady Bird & The Fox is an expression and invention of the love, curiosity and despair I have for the country I call home. There are many First Nations writers exploring stories of dispossession and survival and triumph through their fiction today, the complexity and diversity of that experience infused with living, contemporary culture: Anita Heiss, Alexis Wright, Kim Scott, Tony Birch, so many more – discover them and be richer for it. It’s my hope only that I inspire readers of all kinds to go and find out more – more and more of the truth.

As for my credentials as an 1860s larrikin Ashkenazi Jew, well, perhaps there’s a fair amount of that in my DNA, both Prussian and Irish, an intense need to know what Sydney was like when they stepped off the ship, and to understand how and why that element of my family identity has remained so strong so far down the line. To have an Irish Catholic great-great-grandmother, as I do, is one thing; to have an Irish Jewish great-great-grandmother as well feels, to me, like I’ve inherited some kind of cultural jackpot.

But Jews have often been painted out of the picture of Australia, too. It’s a consistently overlooked fact that they have been a significant part of the fabric of Australian life since British colonisation, and have contributed to this country enormously – far beyond their weight of numbers, and despite religious and racial prejudice. Among the approximately one hundred and fifty thousand convicts transported to Australia, it’s thought that around one thousand of them were Jews; by 1868, when the colonies had swelled to a population of about one and a half million, about six thousand Jews had come to call Australia home. From the beginning, they’ve comprised only about half a percent of the population and yet gave us our first Australian-born governor-general, Sir Isaac Isaacs, and our first and most famous military general, Sir John Monash – both of them born here during the gold rushes.

These identities aren’t political dots points. They are real people, who live and love. They are the twenty-four million from all over the world who call Australia home today.

They are Annie and Jem.

They are you and me.

bigot wttle

GET OVER IT

This is the catchcry of every Australian hard-arse bigot: ‘Get over it.’

Lost your job and ended up homeless? ‘Get over it. Pull your socks up and get another job.’

Lost your country and ended up in an offshore gulag? ‘Get over it. Save the sob story for someone who cares.’

Been abused for speaking a language other than English in public? ‘Get over it. And I asked for extra peanuts on my Gang Ped Goong or are you frigging deaf too?’

Been refused service in a pub because your skin is darker than the barman’s? ‘Get over it. Don’t think you’re going to get away with playing the race card, either – I just don’t like the look of you.’

It’s 2018 and this stuff is still everyday.

Yesterday, an old school friend, noted for being a well-balanced realist with a sense of humour that delights in just about every absurdity, put up a Facebook post which included the words: ‘Most who know me know that I’m not overly touchy on racism subjects…’

But…

Someone he knows had just experienced the humiliation of being refused a drink in a hotel. The man in question is a well-respected member of the community, and he wasn’t drunk – apparently, he hadn’t yet had the chance to get a drink of any kind at all. Behind him, the bar was filled with very pissed and very loud backpackers. This man was refused a drink for only one reason: he’s Aboriginal. The name of the bar was said to have been Scruffy Murphy’s, by the way, in Sydney’s CBD – a well-known den of excess, sitting across the road from Chinatown, oblivious to every irony.

What followed, in the Facebook thread, made me cry: men sharing their own experiences of this rejection, this casual cruelty, not with anger, but with sad resignation. One man, another I went to school with, said, ‘I’ve never been allowed to enter Coogee Dolphins.’ Another man said simply, ‘It will never stop.’

We hear everywhere, blasted from mainstream media megaphones, that Australia has no problem with racism. We’re told that if only Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people got over themselves and the past they’d be fine. We allow the powerful – academics, politicians, former prime ministers – to dismiss any claims of hurt with counter-claims that colonisation was good for everyone. ‘Hey, don’t they like having mobile phones and all that?’ We have a present prime minster who greasily asks a gathering of the top First Nations thinkers in the land how they might best influence public policy, and then promptly, shamelessly, ignores the advice.

The advice to First Nations people from the maggoty heart of all our reflexive, guilt-rancid racism is: ‘Get over it. Or would you prefer to be hurled back into the Stone Age?’

And yes, a ‘journalist’ from the Murdoch press actually said words to this effect in the lead-up to Australia Day – and no, I’m not going to name him, because I’m not going to lend him one dot more of the infamy he craves.

Over the past few months, I’ve been riding my regular little rollercoaster of worry that I have no business, as a gub who is White As, writing about race. The increasing colour-between-the-lines strictures of identity politics say I should leave this space to those who face it. The mostly middle-class demands for authenticity and purity of voice shake me daily. But I can’t step away. I can’t see these things, and feel these reflections of trauma, and be quiet.

I see the small-boy faces of those men I went to school with and it breaks my heart. And I won’t be getting over it myself, because they never will.

*

The newspaper clipping above is taken from the Freeman’s Journal, Sydney, 1877

Greghamstown 1

LOST & FOUND IN GREGHAMSTOWN

This is Greghamstown, one of the tiniest dots on the map of New South Wales. These days, its main street consists of half a handful of tin roofs and a few dozen outlying rural properties, one of which is The Bend, where I live, and depending on which map you consult, it appears as a hamlet of Millthorpe or of Blayney – or doesn’t exist at all.

It was only a strange trick of time that brought me here in the first place. My muse de bloke, Deano, and I were facing the grinding crisis of his surprise bout of catastrophic kidney failure, and the promise and fear of impending surgery that would see me give him one of mine. What else do you do at such a juncture but buy a small and gorgeous slice of nowhere?  That’s what we did, anyway. An act of faith in defiance of heartbreak.

A home. And one I’ve never felt so much at home within – which was a surprise in itself. I’ve always been unanchored to place, being a person of blended identity and aware since childhood of my status as interloper. Outsider. Cultural drifter. This is where my fascination with history began: who am I and how did I get here? Questions that have revealed an infinity of time tricks and shown me always how very blessed I am to have any home in this country at all.

Even before we moved into The Bend, I began fossicking for stories about this place, and one of the first I found was a snippet from The Leader, an old newspaper printed out of Orange, in 1912:

A thoroughly enjoyable afternoon and evening was provided by the Greghamstown folk on Wednesday when the usual picnic and concert in aid of the Anglican Church was carried out in the church grounds. The day was an ideal one for a picnic, and in consequence the attendance was unusually large, about 300 adults and children being present, including many visitors from Blayney, Millthorpe, and the whole of the district. Afternoon tea was served in a marquee specially erected for the purpose, and it speaks well for the ladies in control that notwithstanding the extra number of visitors there was ample for all. The concert was held in the marquee, which was packed. A bright varied programme met with generous applause and appreciation.

Three hundred people at a picnic, here? Of course that then sent me off fossicking further into the past, finding all kinds of stories, clues to the changing shapes of this country – whispers of war and land-grabbing, gold rushes and grazing.

In our shiny, grimy, ever-swelling cities that cling to the coast, it’s easy to imagine that our knock-em-down-build-a-bigger-one approach to urban development is just the way things are, and that the bush is somehow a static mystery we’re all a bit too busy to be bothered with. But places like Greghamstown hold the archaeological keys to the dynamic, ever-epic identity we all share: fierce battles between the Wiradjuri and the military force sent out to crush them; the corruptions of wealthy pastoralists who thrived on stolen land; the savagery of bushranging outlaws who sought to tear it all down; the genteel carving up of the vast squatters’ runs into smaller selections in hopes of taming this country and her people. All these things happened in and around Greghamstown – a place that’s all but been reclaimed now by the bush its imagineers fancied they might conquer.

Just as our lives are ephemeral, so is everything we make and do, but in another act of faith in defiance of heartbreak, I started a novel here that first spring we arrived at The Bend. When we wrestled with doubt about the move, I’d asked my Deano, ‘Where do we want to be if things go bad?’ Whispering with all my soul: Where do you want to die? No contest. We had to make our move. But in my own quieter terror, I asked myself: ‘What do I want to die writing?’

Fast and loud the story roared onto the page, driven by all my own wonderings of who I am and how I got here, and urged on, too, by all those who gazed out at this country before me. I wrote to laugh with every lucky hand that had brought me to this precise place, so full of questions itself, and to cry with every loss that had delivered its mortgage documents to me.

As the unlikely hero of my story, Jeremy Fox, falls in love with Annie Bird, a young woman searching for her own place on the map, searching for her Wiradjuri grandfather, he is struck by the truth of Aboriginal dispossession and dispersal as it contrasts with his own Hebrew heritage:

Things change, times change, names change, people come, people go, like tides, Jews flee Tangier once every century, and return to begin again, but there’s something about Annie Bird’s loss, some lonely-moon marcasite enormity in it, that’s overwhelming.    

And it remains overwhelming. But while we can’t turn back the clock to right the wrongs of the past, we can tell our truths about it for a fairer future – before it all slips through our fingers like sand. I’ve chosen to tell my truths in a spirit of love and justice and gratitude, mostly because that seems to be the only way I can tell a tale.

And I can’t wait to share this one with you. That story I began back then with a pocket full of wishes is at the typesetter now. She’s called Lady Bird & The Fox and come April this year she’ll be set free in the world, taking this little speck of wonder hidden in the hills out around the globe.

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Find Lady Bird & The Fox at Goodreads here.

nana beach

FINDING NANA

We have a saying in my family: ‘It’s Nana’s fault.’

Nana was highly strung. If you’ve had an anxiety attack, a bout of melancholy, general hysteria or hypochondria or any other disturbance of the mind – there’s Nana. If you’ve had a blazing barney with your lover – Nana strikes again. If you’ve cooked an inedible meal – evidence of Nana’s genetic legacy.

Nana was also a soprano, a costumier, a milliner, a crack-shot at any game requiring fine motor skills. She was imperious, slightly scary, intensely creative – painting, drawing, designing, draping, taping, climbing up the walls of her tiny Coogee flat. Never still. She was just as intensely beautiful, too, tall and long-limbed, and her creamy skin remained unblemished to her final breath.

She could arrive for Christmas lunch dressed as the festive tree. And dare you to laugh. And dare you not to laugh.

She could be jealous and manipulative, and a shocking snob.

She was there, at the end of the telephone, sitting quietly while I cried at having miscarried, saying only, ‘I’m so sad for you, my girl.’

She was lovely. She was nuts. My Nana. So very much my model for high-pitched Olivia in The Blue MileThe woman I recognise instantly in the photograph above: Nana, about the same age I am now. Is she glaring at the lens contemptuously or having a bit of fun? Probably both.

But trawling through Trove, the National Library’s online archives, I’ve just last night found her anew, as a much younger woman. Ivy Mellish, as she was, born in 1906. I was actually looking for someone else – a freshly discovered cousin called Edward who perished in a shipwreck somewhere between Cuba and Brazil the year before, but that’s another story. The Ivy that emerged from my newspaper search of the Windsor & Richmond Gazette seemed suddenly more acutely heroic – and very close.

I’d known that Nana hung out her dressmaking shingle in 1922 at the age of sixteen, frocking and flouncing the ladies of the district. Windsor and Richmond in those days were quaint farming villages on the postcard-pretty Hawkesbury River at the foot of the Blue Mountains, tiny satellites of Sydney, but judging by the volume of press clippings detailing Ivy’s exploits, this was where her star shone its brightest.

She made her public debut as a songstress at the age of ten, taking part in a fundraiser for the School of Arts, in 1916, and across the following decade seems to have done her bit for every fundraiser going: for the hospital, the church, the local Home for the Infirm, the Men’s Sports Club, the Pitt Town Parents and Citizens Association, the Municipal Band, and for cancer research. She gathered talent about her as she grew, organising concerts, musical plays and fashion parades at the Old Windsor Theatre – many of them raising money for worthy causes as well. Her generosity and her craving for the light flutter together from every mention.

But I also learned that Ivy won the writing prize at Windsor Public School, aged fourteen. I never knew she might once have loved words as I do.

Nana. Perhaps my endless, never-still scribbling is your fault, too.

nana

Windsor & Richmond Gazette, 1922

 

LB & F

LADY BIRD & THE FOX

I’m so thrilled to share the news that my next novel, Lady Bird & The Fox, will be out in the world come April 2018. I can’t wait to introduce you to these two characters, who took up residence in my heart with this tale three years ago, but have really been with me forever.

And here’s the blurby bit…

It’s 1868 and the gold rush is sprawling across the Australian wild west, bringing with it a new breed of colonial rogue – bushrangers. A world far removed from hardworking farm girl, Annie Bird, and her sleepy village on the outskirts of Sydney.

But when a cruel stroke of fortune sees Annie orphaned and outcast, she is forced to head for the goldfields in search of her grandfather, a legendary tracker. Determined and dangerously naive, she sets off with little but a swag full of hope – and is promptly robbed of it on the road.

Her cries for help attract another sort of rogue: Jem Fox, the waster son of a wealthy silversmith, who’s already in trouble with the law – up to his neatly trimmed eyebrows in gambling debts. And now he does something much worse. He ‘borrows’ a horse and rides after the thieves, throwing Annie over the saddle as he goes.  

What follows is a breakneck gallop through the Australian bush, a tale of mistaken identity and blind bigotry, of two headstrong opposites tossed together by fate, their lives entwined by a quest to get back home – and the irresistible forces of love.

Yeehaa!