Kim Kelly

Australian Author

Month: December, 2015



The truth is always the trickiest fish. With at least two sides to every tango, and with no two children ever growing up in the same family, as well as any number of other cliches about the subjectivity of our perceptions, the truth in any real sense seems nigh on impossible to me.

Which is why I write fiction. Makebelieve lets me reach for truths without the restrictions of having to get every detail right lest I misrepresent someone or something. Obviously, in my research, I go to great lengths to get the facts right – or as right as it’s possible for them to be. Accuracy in historical detail – dates, places, names and language, the run of big events and descriptions of real-life characters – is essential to what I do. And it can be maddening.

I once spent most of a week trying to pin down just what colour eyes infamous premier of NSW Jack Lang had, to no avail, and much to my own heartbreak had to leave the detail out of The Blue Mile. You can’t fudge such an irrefutable fact as eye colour – tinted lenses weren’t invented in the 1930s, either. The man’s physical presence, on the other hand – the way he moved through the world, and the stirring way he spoke – I could be much freer with. There were plenty of accounts to base my Jack Lang scenes upon, but in the end, it was my imagination that constructed him in the novel – an impression of one of my political heroes, a noble giant, a courageous battler, a little bit of a prick. Not the truth – only my truth, and the larger truth of the crazy-brave among us who, in the fight against injustice, defy authority to make their own rules, and make a girl weak at the knees.

When it came to writing my latest story, though – Wild Chicory – this fact and fiction puzzle took a deeper and cloudier turn. My initial inspiration for the story came from a memory – a strikingly vivid memory – of my grandmother telling me wonderful stories when I was small. Stories about being poor and Irish in Sydney during World War I, being mischievous and hardworking and always smartly frocked no matter the circumstances. She was standing with her back to me, at her kitchen sink, distracted by something, as I sat on one of the kitchen chairs annoying her with my endless little-girl questions.

It was a memory, though. Snippets of truth glimpsed through time, distance, and who knows what fancies of my imagination. As I let the vision of my grandmother compel me to write about all those tales she told me when I was a child, I quickly I found that my memories had vast holes of absent fact in them. The past – my past – seemed a jumble of hazy, elusive images and half-remembered dreams.

I couldn’t even establish how her name – Lillian – was spelled. Half the family documents gave her two l’s; and the other half one. I decided she should have two as I felt she deserved an extra one of everything. In my search, among old bank books and family papers, I found this gorgeous photograph of her with my mother, Geraldine, taken in George Street in around about 1943 or 44, but the photograph couldn’t tell me what they were doing there, or where Granddad was. Because my grandmother was no longer here to ask about these details – she has been gone from me now for thirty years, and my mother has been gone a decade now, too. I had to make do with my snippets and fancies. I could only let Wild Chicory go where it wanted and needed to. Lillian in real life became Nell in my story, and so she unfolded as she wished.

Inspired by my grandmother, Lillian Kelly. Her essence. The wisps of her love for me that remain in the air still. The taste of chocolate-butter icing. The smell of her cigarette smoke. The sound of her sewing machine whirring. The magic in her eyes.

It’s the truth of our bond. The best truth I could devise.



There’s nothing like the return of an old friend after a long absence, when you find that some connection you thought might have been lost or forgotten was really there all along. It’s even lovelier when a connection you thought was small becomes far deeper than you would ever have imagined.

Some twenty years ago, when I was a baby book editor at Random House, I met another young woman there called Lou Johnson, who worked in the sales and marketing department. Looking back, I remember her energy and passion, and the respect she quietly commanded from all around her. I found her a little intimidating.

I was surprised then, a few years later, when she was making her farewells to go off on some new adventure, that she made a point of saying goodbye to me, telling me she’d enjoyed our working together. I was struck most of all by her sincerity. Corporate culture can rob even the most genuine people of their warmth, but Lou seemed a bright light amid it.

Her parting handshake stayed with me. Over the years I often wondered what she was up to, and followed her career through publishing. Our paths diverged and diverged, as I left the in-house fray and began writing novels, and Lou took up challenge after challenge, taking the helm of Simon & Schuster as managing director and, with the team there, transforming its Australian list – particularly in women’s fiction. I found her even more intimidating then!

And then, the stars somehow aligned. Lou found herself wanting more – wanting to create a new approach to publishing and supporting Australian authors. I found myself wanting more, too – more from my own stories, and more of a relationship with my publisher. A little less corporate culture. A little more warmth. A need to stretch wings.

Lou began masterminding a new company – The Author People. I began writing a new story – Wild Chicory. These things occurred quite separately, until Lou sent me a message out of the blue one day asking if I would be interested in doing some editing for her. ‘Of course!’ I said, and then the conversation flowed like it had been waiting here all this time for us to arrive, in this place, a conversation about books and publishing and what essential soul-food stories are.

When Lou asked if she could read Wild Chicory, nothing had ever felt so right. My skin tingled with the dare of newness and reinvigoration we had both set ourselves.

A few days ago, I found myself on the train going over the Harbour Bridge, past Luna Park and the old building at Milsons Point where Random House used to live – where I first met Lou – but this time, I was on my way to meet with only her. I was on my way to a handshake that has become an embrace, and to an adventure we’re now taking together.



One of the most magical things about this writing caper for me is the special bonds that sometimes grow over time with readers, where fans become friends. I’m so blessed to have made a few of them, and with one beautiful friend in particular, we correspond the old-fashioned way – pen, paper, envelopes, stamps, et cetera.

Her name is Helen and her letters bring me not only the warmth of her heart, but a reminder to slow down – breathe – and reflect. Between writing, editing and social-media-ing commitments, as well as tending the needs of husband, children and other animals, not to mention the mad pace of life generally, sometimes it seems impossible to find time to sit down and write a letter. But for Helen, I must, and I love that her love brings me these still, quiet moments.

Helen also has a marvellous sense of humour. Knowing my interest in odd pockets of Australian history, and knowing that my husband had newly acquired some chooks, she recently sent me some pages from a magazine entitled, POULTRY – Australia’s Weekly Newspaper on Poultry Husbandry, from 1925. This rare and precious publication belonged to one of her neighbours, also a chook man, and the pages she sent are from a column entitled ‘For the Mothers, Wives and Sisters of Poultrykeepers’ – by ‘Aunt Patience’.

One of them includes ‘The Ten Commandments for Women’, which I must share with you here.

  1. Do not be extravagant. Nothing appeals more strongly to a man than the prospect of acquiring independence.
  2. Keep your home clean. Nothing is more refreshing to the eyes of the tired, nerve-wracked worker than the sight of a well-tidied home.
  3. Do not permit your person to become unattractive.
  4. Do not receive attentions from other men. Husbands often are jealous, and some are suspicious without cause.
  5. Do not resent reasonable discipline of children by their father.
  6. Do not spend too much time with your mother.
  7. Do not accept advice from the neighbour or stress too greatly even that of your own family concerning the management of your domestic affairs. Think for yourself. Consult your husband.
  8. Do not disparage your husband. Your ill-advised opinion of him, uttered in a moment of petulance, may be eagerly seized upon by others as the true measure of his character and abilities.
  9. Be attentive in little things. A smile will oft dispel ill-humour. Consideration for your husband’s feelings makes him respectful of yours.
  10. Be tactful. Be feminine. Men are really overgrown children. They do not mind coaxing but they resent coercion. Most men prefer their opposites. Femininity attracts and compels them.

Those were the days, hm? Don’t say you weren’t told…