Kim Kelly

Australian Author

Month: May, 2014

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IN THE JUNGLE

“Write what you know,” they say. And I wonder, “What exactly does that mean?” The phrase always makes me think of a comedy skit, the origin of which is lost in the mist of time, where a melancholy Scandinavian chap announces to camera, “My name is Sven and I am writing a novel about my life.” Before staring off into the middle distance again, presumably for quite some time. Apologies to Knausgard but it doesn’t promise to be a very interesting story. Most of life isn’t, is it.

That’s kind of the point of fiction, I suppose: to take you to some place beyond ordinary experience, to invigorate the mundane, uncover the overlooked and tame the preposterous, to give you a fresh and lucid view on something or other. Novel, after all, means new.

This newness could well be staring out into the middle distance across five hundred pages, swinging wildly between angst and anticipation over the next sigh of the wind. Will the wind sigh? Or won’t it? Will I run my fingers through my hair instead? If you’re clever enough and committed enough, you can make even that work. But most of us aren’t that clever, or don’t have a publicist clever enough to convince others that we are.

Cleverness aside, though, is the staring Norwegian really real in the knowingness of what he writes or is his narrative as contrived as everyone else’s? Most of us, I would argue, need to tart up reality a bit, in one way or another, regardless of whether we stick closely with conventions or smash them to pieces. Whether we are staring silently into a fjord or fleeing a mass zombie attack, the vast majority of us must take steps into the realm of the imagined in order to concoct a story in the first place. As writers of fiction, as soon as we ask ourselves the question, “What happens next?” we are there: inside the unknown. Inside the new.

So how do we do this and stick with what we know at the same time? Many novelists go to great lengths to make this newness feel lived and real in their stories: Tara Moss fires guns and visits morgues; Fiona McIntosh haunts the Tower of London, lavender fields and all manner of exotic places; Nicole Alexander is actually a farmer.

But I must confess I don’t do any of these action research sorts of things, partly because some of the things I write about are intrinsically unknowable for me. In my fiction, I’ve been a Lithgow coal miner when ponies still pulled the skips; I’ve been a labourer on the construction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge; I’ve been a geologist grappling with the physics of atomic energy as he explores the Flinders Ranges for uranium. I’ve been a soldier. Even if I wasn’t in real life quite terrified of the thought of doing any of these things and completely hopeless at physics to boot, it would be quite impossible for me to be a bloke doing any of it anyway.

Almost all my research comes from plain old reading and staring into sepia-toned photographs waiting for them to speak to me. That’s not to say that none of my work is informed by my lived experiences. For example, I have fired a .22 – just about rent my shoulder apart with the kickback of the butt on discharge to discover that I am in fact a dreadful shot. And I have pashed my husband in an underground mine, with the clammy blackness thick at the edges of our lamplights and a great big loader growling at the rockface ahead. I must say, too, that in general I am fond of blokes and very much enjoy writing about them. They are some of my favourite people.

More tellingly, though, and regardless of gender, I find that many things I’d rather not write about have a habit of wheedling their way into my stories. Painful points of grief and uncertainty tend to be the surprise real-life guests in my stories, and I’m usually unaware until one or two drafts in that I’ve been quietly workshopping the past through the present of the narrative. It always shocks me when I see this. The loss of my parents is a recurrent theme through all of my novels; the quest for identity and a place to call home another. And of course there is love, in all its danger and thrill; its wonders; its tragedies. Its hold on my heart. My life. Somehow, I just can’t escape the me-ness in the newness.

And I’d say that this is the very centre of the centre of writing what you know: writing who you are. Unselfconsciously seeking out some truth, not only of yourself and your convictions, but the places you think are important to explore. After all, is there anything more real than slashing through the jungle of your mind to get at the sense and meaning of what you feel, of taking here deep into elsewhere to see where you actually are? Not so much a question of write what you know then, but write what you need to discover. Just how you do that – with machete or nail scissors – and what you do with what you find is entirely up to you. It is you.

Image: Kandinsky’s Yellow-Red-Blue, 1925

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WHAT TO DO WITH A CRAP REVIEW

“One star? Seriously? What the flying freckle for?” a fellow author shook her fist at the cyber sky in outrage at having received such a rating on a certain book site recently.

It’s an outrage I share. There should be a special place in the boiling nether regions of eternal darkness for those who give others a cold, dismissive, commentless one-star.

“But some books are total rubbish, deserving of splintered stars, no stars or deep reaching black holes!” I hear a plaintive cry.

And I can’t really agree with that cry. One-stars belong to inanimate, insentient, bloodless pieces of shit, like that cheap and nasty hair straightener you bought online, or the $20 pair of stockings you treated yourself with that got a run in them on the first wear. Or the Federal Budget.

One-stars do not belong on people. Books are people. It usually takes at least a year or two for most books to be written. A year or two of brain-twisting heart and soul. No matter how much you hate that book, it’s a large piece of a person in there.

If you’re a committed misanthropist, then I suppose you could be excused. One-star away in that nether region all of your own: we understand from your rating history that you just can’t help yourself. But it seems to me that most people in the book-reading community aren’t hate-filled grumps. They are thoughtful and curious and generously wondering folks. Of course they are: they read books.     

Oh all right, I suppose there is the odd book that will really give you the pip. You can’t understand how the author, much less the publisher, ever thought it should be let loose in the world. Maybe it does deserve that single star. It probably deserves your silence and ignore far more than anything else if it’s really that bad, but if you must give the one-star, please, please, please, I beg of you this one thing: tell the author why.

Or this might happen to you: when I received a one-star (just the one so far), my own curiosity overrode my pride and I sent a message to the reader asking her why. Oh lordy, the writerly fourth wall had been crossed – what mayhem would ensue! We ended up having quite a nice chat about it, as it turned out, and she raised her one-star to a two, with a bit of an apology for being a crank thrown in. Sweet outcome. But it could have been far worse, of course. She could have given me a private and most jagged piece of her mind. Or I might have lost it myself and unleashed on her.

With the full force of all the nearly twenty years I’ve worked as an editor, caring for other authors’ work, and this past nearly decade I’ve put into my own. I’m a big girl, though. I can handle criticism. Most authors who’ve earned a few stripes actually appreciate criticism plenty and profoundly: it usually means that people are reading their books, and this is a good thing. When one of My Authors (as I call those I’ve edited, as if I remain forever their doting mad aunt) recently copped a one-star with the comment, ‘Terrible. Didn’t like this,’ after the impulse to slap the reader passed, I reflected on My Author’s sales figures and said to myself simply: ‘Heh. Suck it up, trollster.’

But young authors just out of the blocks, or struggling authors, or those skating close to the edge of sanity do not deserve contempt. Ever. And you’ll never know just who the fragile are. It’s usually not written in the blurb. WARNING: THIS ONE WILL HAVE A BREAKDOWN WHEN THE HARSH REALITIES OF THE PUBLISHING INDUSTRY HIT, AND THE GREAT AUSTRALIAN NOVEL THIS AUTHOR MIGHT OTHERWISE HAVE WRITTEN WILL BE LOST TO HUMANITY FOR ALL TIME.

So if you must give a one-star, please be kind. If you can’t be kind, please be reasonable. Put a little something of yourself into a review to throw the author a chink of light – something they might use to improve their skill. After all, the author put rather a lot into this book, this gift of themselves to you. Remember that next time your cursor is hovering over those five empty ones in tortured indecision. Fill as many with gold as you can. Too often, it’s the only significant gold that author will ever see.

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ON SPONTANEOUSLY COMBUSTING WHILE SPEAKING IN PUBLIC 

At the age of 16, in the midst of preparing for an inter-schools public speaking competition, I suddenly became stage struck. Knees knocking, throat parched, mind blanked, I ran from the room in tears of shock and shame at my failure to rise to the challenge. I’m not sure why this happened. Hormones or non-specific heebee jeebees, or maybe because my older brother had won the national competition the year before and headed off to London to compete with the rest of the world. Who knows! (Sibling rivalry? Me? Never.)

Anyway, this anxiety is something that I’ve never quite got on top of since. I’ve gone out of my way over the past thirty years to avoid any kind of public speaking at all. When my first novel, Black Diamonds, was published I didn’t even have a book launch, I was so wracked with fear.

Overlaid with indignant defiance. Why can’t an author just write? I railed (to myself, obviously). What’s this public performance rubbish writers are required to do? Are we circus animals? Why can’t I be Lionel Shriver and get invited to only the best festivals (or any festivals) and schlep along moaning about the unfair demands placed upon artists in this outrageously over-commericalised world? It’s marketing madness! It’s just not me.

Oh the layers and layers of bullshit I buried myself under in order keep out of sight. Out of fear’s way.

Until the penny dropped one day: Aha!  If no-one can see that you’ve written a story they might like to read, then no-one will read it at all and you’ve just spent several years talking to yourself and taking up precious publishers’ space to no purpose. A more committed writer might be more deserving of your spot, so lift your game if you want to keep writing novels and having them published, luvvy!

I did and do want to keep writing – forever, if I can. And I have therefore lifted my game. Slowly, over the past twelve months, since my second novel, This Red Earth, was published last year, little by little I’ve been pushing the boat of self-promotion out. I actually held a launch for that book. People showed up, mostly family, but people nevertheless. I cried during my speech (which was mercifully short but otherwise outstandingly terrible). And, most importantly, I didn’t die from it. Neither did anyone else, by the way.

I’ve made a couple of speeches in between, incrementally less dreadful each time. This blogging caper and facebooking bits and pieces have helped break down my neurosis too. It’s not such a bad thing to connect with others who are as enthusiastic about books and stories as you are, hm? Terrifying, awkward and comfort-zone-stretching, but not so bad at all.

And here, at the very bottom of the truth, is why…

A couple of days ago, driving to the launch of brand new third book baby, The Blue Mile, I felt the nerve-monster burbling and rising and I punched the radio button on the dash, growling at myself: “Stop it, Kim – you stupid child!” Only to hear the opening strains of The Carpenters “Top of the World” – if not the soundtrack of my childhood, then most definitely on the B side of it.

And to distract myself I started to sing along to it. Very loudly. This made me laugh as loudly too. Then, at the end of the song, I punched off the radio, and sang it again a cappella. This was, I realised, an inarguably dreadful performance. I was not about to subject my lovely little audience to anything like it – I could be more than confident of that. I was only going to have a chat about my book to people who turned up because they wanted to hear it.

And hear it they did. I can’t remember much of what I said, but I felt in my knees and in my throat that I’d done much better than the last time. My voice didn’t shake and squawk so much; I was able to see faces – smiles and nods of interest. And not one family member in the audience this time to give me reason to think they were just being kind in their applause. I must have done better, mustn’t I?

Signing books afterwards, one woman told me she’d really enjoyed it. “Really?” I smiled. I could have cried with relief if I wasn’t a little suspicious she was only being sweet or slightly doddery, but she said: “Really,” nodding with a small and thoughtful frown.

And then she told me: “I loved your first novel. Every time I drive through Lithgow, I think about it. I was hoping to meet you to tell you that.”

I could have cried then too, but I was too busy dancing inside like one of Nietzsche’s exploding stars.

There is no other thrill like this for a writer. To have someone tell you that your story touched them is magical. To have someone tell you that it touches them still seven years on is out of this world.

A tiny shard of infinite joy that I’d never have found if I hadn’t been there at my own book launch.

I’ll carry that joy onto the next event, and the next, if I’m lucky enough to continue to be invited anywhere, with the knowledge that I will only continue to get better at this speaking thing, because it’s not all about me at this end of the deal – it’s all about readers too.