Kim Kelly

Australian Author

Month: May, 2015

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I’LL BE BACK

I keep promising myself that my next story will take me outside New South Wales, for more than a chapter or two at least, and five books along, this time I really, really mean it. I’m going off shore. But then I pass some rusty old hayshed or decaying house like this one while I’m coming back from the shops or taking a different track into town and the yen to paint this place I call home makes off with my heart once more

I need to know who lived in this roofless, abandoned rubble cottage called Carrington Farm. Why did they make a home here? What did they grow on their land? Potatoes, I imagine. I dive into the archives of Trove and find scant traces. A man called Holland was prosecuted for failing to deal with the rabbits on this property in 1950. In 1921, a Mrs Holland won second place at the Millthorpe Show for her crocheted set of three d’oyleys.

I’m vaguely frustrated that I can’t find more information on this farm, but I’m swept into the homestead with the quaint spelling of d’oyley. How posh. I look again at the photograph I snapped and the tin is suddenly restored to the roof, the cracked clay render patched; the chimney puffs away on this cold autumn afternoon. And now I can see Mrs Holland herself, setting out her best china and decrying the lack of decent domestic help these days. Her wedding band clinks against the handle of the teapot. A conversation begins.

And I have to stop it there, or I’ll wander off with her entirely.

I’m taking to the waves for a time, far away from my usual places of love and curiosity, to test my mettle and taste a different air. I’ll be back, though, Mrs Holland – not a promise but a guarantee.

stage curtain

TOGETHER

A magical thing happened to me this weekend. It began with an invitation to speak at the inaugural Bathurst Writers’ Festival – and speak I did. Now that might not sound too magical, but those who’ve been following this blog from the beginning would know that public speaking is not my favourite thing to do: anxiety has tended to rob me of any joy the spotlight might shine on me, and has done since I mysteriously lost my bottle for it at fifteen.

Way back then, thirty-two years ago now, I was just about to begin practising my prepared speech for the inter-schools plain English-speaking competition when I suddenly, inexplicably took fright. My teacher, Mr Emery (who by another lovely line of wonder went on to become the esteemed Australian poet Brook Emery), tried to call me back into the room as I apologised and ran, but I was gone. Physically and emotionally, I just could not do it.

Why? I’ll never know. Up until that point, the stage was no mystery to me. From the age of eleven I’d been involved in the theatre – I was even paid to sing and dance my way through school holiday pantomimes at the old Phillip Street Theatre in Sydney. I’d survived being the show-opener of one of them dressed in a fluorescent green cat suit wriggling sinuously against a black flat under UV light like some kind of psychedelic snake outcast from Eden.

When I wasn’t covered in grease paint and spangles, toting my tap shoes to and from the city, I was in school uniform nutting out argument strategies on the debating team. I’d always get nervous before a debate, just as most sane people do before public speaking. That mad fear I might forget my words as soon as I stood up was always part of prep, but I was always a bit pumped for it, too. Always willing to give it a go.

As I’ve said elsewhere, maybe it was as simple as hormones overwhelming will, as well as the general family trait of nerviness kicking in for me with a special serve, but I never really took to the stage again. I tried a few times in uni days, and even enlisted the help of alcohol, but sadly the whole business of being a part of the show, never mind the centre of it, was just too much of a terror.

It was a terror that turned into a monster by the time I started publishing novels a few decades later. How was I going to promote them if I couldn’t speak in public? Well, I must admit, for my first two books, I pretty much avoided it. I didn’t launch my first novel at all and I thought I could get away with having my brother Mark, his partner Kathryn, and my old teacher Brook Emery launch my second one for me – they’d be so eloquent and gorgeous on my behalf I’d only have to stand up the back and raise my glass as required. Even a five-minute pre-record radio interview I could do in my pyjamas would have me whipped up into a blinding mess of anxiety for days beforehand and leave me exhausted afterwards. No exaggeration. I muddled through, but it was awful.

‘But you’re great, Kim,’ my friends would insist, although really they were urging me to get over myself or I’d never be able to enjoy the fruits of sharing my work. And then two friends in particular pushed me, not with words, but with action. Instead of saying, ‘Come on, you can do it, alone and afraid,’ they stood beside me and we did it together – those wonderful women are Margaret Schwebel from Collins Booksellers in Orange, and Julia Zemiro, who quite likes a stage herself. I’ll never be able to thank them enough for what they have done for me simply by looking past my nerves to what I had to say – nor could I ever thank my most stalwart friend Jody Lee, whom Margaret pushed out under the spotlight ahead of me on launching my third novel to say a few words about it, without warning or preamble, and before Jody had had a chance to read it. Truly, champions all – though I don’t think Jody needs my thanks so much as an apology for that one.

And then along came Jenny Barry, another bookseller extraordinaire, from BooksPlus in Bathurst. She’s one of the masterminds behind the Bathurst Writers’ Festival and from the moment I first met her a year ago, her passion for books and stories eclipsed any silly self-consciousness I might have felt. Her warmth and humour, as well as the easiness with which she carries her vast knowledge of literature, makes every conversation a little adventure into the light.

When Jenny asked me to be a part of the festival, as she and the committee were nutting it all out, I had no hesitation in saying yep to anything she might have in mind about including me and my fourth novel, Paper Daisies, in the run of events. I knew whatever we would do, we’d be doing it together.

And so we did. Behind the black stage flats of the Bathurst Memorial Entertainment Centre as we waited to go on, we were smiling excitedly at each other adjusting our headset mics when Jenny whispered to me, ‘I haven’t been backstage quite like this before – have you?’

I had to laugh: ‘Yeah – I have, sort of. Long story, and a long time ago.’ I felt like a schoolgirl again.

And that’s when the magic happened. As I stepped out into the stage lights with Jenny, I felt I’d come home. Not only was I with Jenny but for the first time since my adolescence I was with the room, too, riding the same wave of anticipation as the audience. I was inside the show, and it was beautiful. I actually had fun.

In fact my whole experience of the Bathurst Writers’ Festival has been fun. After twenty years in the book business I’ve been to a few literary shows, and some of them are just that: performances. At Bathurst, however, there was such genuine engagement, happy diversity and good feeling all around that everyone I met glittered.

Here’s to many more Bathurst Writers’ Festivals to come. And here’s to all those who stand together, because together is a brilliant place to be.

jenny & me

flower footpath

CHARITY BEGINS ANY WAY YOU WANT IT TO

Have you ever come home after a bad day and poured a glass of wine – and then another? Have you ever had a really stressful run at work, or in a relationship, or had a health issue ambush you, and to cheer yourself up gone on a bit of a binge, be it a spot of shopping or a pig-out on your favourite comfort food? I’ve done all these things at certain times.

It’s not such a leap then to imagine what it must be like for someone to live through a prolonged crisis and to let the comforting indulgences go that little bit too far, or maybe even spiral out of control altogether. Is it?

Before judging those who stumble into despair, and the destructive behaviours that sometimes go along with it, I ask myself: how would I cope if I lost my job and, say, my husband at the same time? I’d probably freak out and drink too much – before somebody who loves me picked me up and said, ‘Kim, it’s okay, I’m here, you’ll be all right.’

But what if I had no-one to tell me that? What if most of the people in my life were also going through a tough time? What if, then, out of my feelings of hopelessness other monsters of despair emerged? Past hurts of, say, abuse or neglect. Some unspeakable trauma. Or maybe, after trying so hard to drag myself up from poverty, this setback starts to make me believe I’m not deserving of success.

My shoulders hunch, I can’t afford to have my good suit dry-cleaned. I miss out on all the jobs I go for. The woman at the employment agency tells me I have a bad attitude; I take this as further evidence that I’m not worthy of a second chance.

I’d probably start to become depressed and drink more. I might eat more cheap and cheerful crap food than I should, too – and then I’d start putting on weight to feel even worse about my situation.

I don’t fit my good suit anymore and I can’t afford to buy another. I start to distance myself from the friends I have left; I’m so ashamed of what is happening to me.

At this point, I might also start to mentally break down. After one binge too many on the rot-gut red wine, I might become so confused about who I am and what I’m supposed to be doing, I might wander out into street in my nightie and end up in a psychiatric ward.

My life would then have been stamped with failure in every way.

I don’t think I’ll ever be able to live a normal life now.

This line of empathy is a simple one. It’s pretty much that basic principle of ‘don’t judge others lest ye be judged yourself’ common to all major religions. I don’t think you need to be religious in order to understand it, though. I’m not religious, I’m not even particularly virtuous, but I can feel empathy. Just because.

The thought of others going hungry, or cold, or lonely, upsets me. And it worries me that our society seems generally to be drifting away from valuing these sorts of ordinary human urges: kindness, compassion, understanding. In our more shouty, judgy, me-me-me culture, it’s becoming frighteningly common to publicly make fun of the unfortunate, to blame them for lacking the nous to get themselves out of strife. We watch ‘poverty porn’ on TV, tweeting our disgust at the way other people live. We blame single mums for budget deficits. We tell the needy at our door: there’s no room at the inn, and you shouldn’t have tried to come here in the first place.

But we are all other people, fragile and vulnerable. Every single one of us. Precious. Easily broken. It’s overwhelming sometimes, thinking: but what can I do to help those who fall down? Sometimes guilt at my own good fortune is overwhelming, too. But I can’t do nothing when I think of others left wanting. Right now, as winter sets in, I’m buying an extra bag of food for a local charity each time I do the shopping, because their cupboard is bare. And it should never be. They need tinned food – urgently. My offering is too small, but so very necessary.

I imagine some child, some little boy like my own sons used to be, somewhere in my district sitting down to a bowl of hot pumpkin soup tonight, soup I gave to his mother, through another who respects her dignity enough not to ask why she’s broke again this week, and it makes me happy to know I did that one tiny thing, to tell her: hang in there, someone cares.

girl

SMALL AND IMPORTANT

There are certain wisps of love that survive all tests of time and interpretation. One I return to again and again, especially whenever I feel a bit lost in the wash, is a little epigram by the infamous epigrammist Marcus Valerius Martialis, otherwise known as Martial. He wrote all sorts of wildly filthy ditties to entertain the wealthy in Rome in the 1st Century AD, and has often been criticised down the ages for selling his soul to flatter the worst of the Roman Emperors. He didn’t have much choice, though: Martial was a talented, cynical, loudmouth drunk from what is now northern Spain; he wasn’t noble, he had no money, and he had to sing for his supper – literally. He had to pander to the cool crowd, or he’d have been out on the street.

But now and again, he unmasks himself in what is left to us of his work, and this, Epigram #34, a simple elegy to a tiny waif, always breaks and mends my heart at once:

To you my parents, I send on
This little girl Erotion.
The slave I loved, that by your side
Her ghost need not be terrified
Of the pitch darkness underground
Or the great jaws of Hades hound.
This winter she would have completed
Her sixth year had she not been cheated
By just six days. Lisping my name,
May she continue the sweet game
Of childhood happily down there
In two such good, old spirits’ care.
Lie lightly on her, turf and dew:
She put so little weight on you.

This small jewel of love, between a son and his parents, between a man and a child only randomly connected in some long-forgotten villa two thousand years ago, reminds me that this is the best of what we might mark of ourselves on eternity, and reminds me most of all never to be ashamed to write about love myself. I’m very, very lucky that I can.

babies

NAMING BABY

Today, as we all wait with collective baited breath to know if Kate and Wills will name their little princess Charlotte or Alice, to distract myself from the agony of anticipation, I thought I’d take a moment to reflect on some of the more unusual choices inflicted upon the small among the hoi polloi past and present.

Of course, we have Gwyneth Paltrow’s ‘Apple’, Beyoncé’s ‘Blue Ivy’, and la Kardashian’s ‘North’ at the contemporary vanguard of kook. In the previous generation, we had ‘Zowie’ Bowie, and the Zappa progeny, ‘Moon Unit’, ‘Dweezil’ and ‘Diva Muffin’.

But in our great-great grandparents’ day the weird ones were just as weird, it seems – though probably a little more creative, and explicit. Here’s a selection I found noted in The Riverine Grazier, 1901:

QUEER NAMES

The following personal names are to be found in the records of the General Register Office: — In 1847 a girl was registered as ‘It is Maria’; in 1853 a boy as ‘Napoleon the Great’; 1857, ‘Robert Alma Balaclava Inkerman Sebastopol Delhi’; 1860, ‘Arthur Wellesley Wellington Waterloo’; 1861, ‘Not Wanted James’; 1885, ‘Edward Byng Tally-Ho Forward’; 1870, ‘One Too Many’; 1877, ‘Peter the Great’ and ‘William the Conqueror’, twins; 1883, ‘Richard Ceour de Lion Tyler Waller’; 1886, ‘ That’s It Who’d Have Thought It’; 1887, ‘Laughing Waters’. Remarkable single names are to be met with, such as ‘Righteous’, ‘Comfort’, ‘Happy’, ‘Elector’, ‘Hopeful’, ‘Redemption’, ‘Mediation’, ‘Obedience’, and ‘Alphabet.’ As twins, ‘Love ‘ and ‘Unity’ are to be found, and ‘Faith’, ‘Hope’ and ‘Charity’, as triplets. ‘Alpha’, ‘Beta’ and ‘Omega’ have been given to two boys and a girl.

Poor ‘Not Wanted’, he breaks my heart, and ‘Tally-Ho’ would want to be a lively little person, wouldn’t he. But I do like the bigness of some of these names. ‘Love’ and ‘Unity’, now they’re names to grow into, aren’t they?

And now I’m wondering if the pundits’ royal choices might be a little too plain. Perhaps ‘Charlotte the Conqueror’ or ‘Alice the Great’ would better be-title the babe?