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.