Kim Kelly

Australian Author

Month: February, 2016

lady drum

BANGING YOUR DRUM

Self-promotion is a weird little kettle, isn’t it? Those of us who work for ourselves – whether you’re a writer or a plumber or florist or an Elvis impersonator – have to talk about what we do or no-one will know that we exist. And if no-one engages our services, we can’t pay the bills.

More importantly, if we can’t share what we love to do, then what’s the point of doing it?

There seems to be an increasing squeamishness about the whole idea of promoting our own work, though, particularly among writers and other artists.

‘Sorry for the shameless plug!’

‘Apologies for this moment of media-whoring but…’

So we begin our posts throughout our networks, letting people know about the release of a new book, a gallery exhibition, a new show, a radio interview, a library talk.

Why should we feel compelled to grovel and cringe like this, though?

Yes, as Australians we’re champion cringers by tradition. We have to be careful not to be seen to ‘big-note’ ourselves – bragging and swaggering is a sure fire way to lose credibility, not only among friends, but even your mum will tell you to pull your head in. Likewise, if you’re seen to be too clever or too good at what you do, you’re torn down by ‘tall poppy syndrome’ – a curiously Australian phenomenon in which we selectively revive our long-dead egalitarianism for the purposes of attacking anyone who dares to stand out from the crowd.

And yes, it’s also true that we’re all a bit tired of being sold something everywhere we turn, here inside this extraordinary intersection of extreme capitalism and digital revolution that’s boggling the lot of us right now, but what’s got me curious lately is that it seems to have become fashionable to play coy at selling your thing at all.

Writers I’ve known for decades, who previously had no difficulty banging all manner of drums, are suddenly putting on the virtual blush, while some younger writers seem to think a sprinkling of false modesty is required with every spruik. Why?

Of course I’m always sympathetic to the shy. I know what it’s like to be rabbit-in-the-headlights terrified of taking my wares to market. Learning to simply feel okay about talking in public has been a massive achievement for me over the past couple of years. Anyone who lives with anxiety will know what a savage prison it can be. Breaking free of it doesn’t seem something anyone should apologise for. Indeed, learning to stop apologising for myself when I haven’t done anything to be ashamed of, has been a specific goal of mine – and one I’m very happy to say I am netting most of the time these days.

So what are the usually un-shy really cringing at here? Let me hazard a guess, go on.

Writing, like most other artistic pursuits, is a game dominated by the lucky, lucky life-lottery winners of the middle class – by those who have the time, or the financial ability to take the time, to shake their creative tail feathers – and the blushing apologisers perhaps don’t like the way social media exposes the reality that have to get their hands dirty with the business of promoting their own work, largely because no-one else will.

What?! You mean writers don’t all have personal social media whoring assistants to do this boring, commercial crap for them?

No, they don’t. Most writers make big sacrifices to pursue their art, ones that only their perplexed tax accountants will ever know the truth about. And besides, with ever shrinking publicity and marketing budgets across the publishing board, there is literally no alternative to self-promotion.

Well, there is, I guess. One could refuse to participate. But there’s another great Australian word for keeping one’s pleasure to oneself alone, isn’t there? Starts with ‘w’ and ends with ‘anker’. (Oops. Did I say that? Yes, I think I did.)

Really, though, while self-promotion does seem a little awkward and strange sometimes – for example, I often avoid looking at my author photo when I’m on social media, not just because it scares me but because I get so sick of looking at it – without it, I couldn’t communicate with my readers.

And it’s communicating with readers – the little exchanges we have about my stories, and their stories, and all sorts of stuff, both silly and serious – that not only makes my day, but makes me feel more and more okay about being in the world. It’s you, dear readers, who continually help me break down my walls of doubt and fear. And that would never have happened at all, if I wasn’t here, banging on, doing this thing I love…

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LOVE, SEX & LABELS

Labels are great in the supermarket. How else do you find your preferred soap powder among the thirty-seven different brands in the soap powder aisle? How else could you tell Spam from No-Name corned beef? But labels don’t belong on people.

As the fabulously commonsensical Wendy Harmer recently wrote on the business of being human: ‘labels are at best useless, at worst tragically destructive’.

I couldn’t agree more. Labels on people never tell us how it is. For example, while I have one gay son and one straight son, there’s little that’s straight about my straight son and my gay son is so straight that, if he didn’t look remarkably like me, I couldn’t be sure he was mine.

Those labels, ‘gay’ and ‘straight’, aren’t ones I use unless I specifically need to refer to someone’s sexual identification – and that is a very rare thing. Generally, other people’s sexuality, like what they read or eat in bed, is none of my business. I might wonder fleetingly, hm, is she a vegemite toast and crime novel kind of girl? But because such a wonder is a dim-witted waste of my own head space, I let the thought go quick as it came.

When my kids were young, I had a neighbour loudly proclaim – in the street – that her ‘gaydar’ was never wrong and she’d bet my gay son was gay. I remember looking at her askance and saying: ‘He’s ten years old. He’s still playing with dolls. I’m pretty sure he hasn’t had sex yet.’ This woman was an accomplished academic with personal life-experience of the pain that prejudices surrounding sexuality can cause, so it really was a WTF moment on several levels, but it illustrates how casually we fling around labels – like they mean something.

I’m so superficially ‘normal’ even my shoe size is average. I can make my way through my little world over here utterly unremarked upon, unless I’m wearing a nice frock. But even I’ve felt the sting of a label.

This might sound petty, but bear with me for a moment. It’ll come as no surprise to anyone that, now and again, a book snob will refer to my writing as chicklit or romance, or that as a not-book-snob, I find those labels largely redundant. If a reader tells me they found one of my stories romantic, or loved the emotional journey I sent them on, I’m thrilled – this is pure gold for me. But if a reader disparages my work for its romantic and emotional elements, it hurts. It always hurts.

And here is the serious bit: it hurts so much that I once considered making plans for not waking up the next morning because one person too many, someone on quite a high horse, in a position of power, told me that my work was worthless because it was ‘just romance’. This is a tiny glimpse of how devastating a label can be, especially when it’s chucked about recklessly and uncaringly – by those who have no freaking idea what they’re talking about.

Imagine then, how it must feel to be a person whose sexuality is disapproved of. If I really, really wanted to, I could change my writing style and my literary concerns, I could choose not to write about love, but I wouldn’t be me anymore; I would be faking it, and I would be miserable. Your sexuality is something you can’t change, though, just as your gender is something only you can truly know. You can put on the suit in the morning; you can apply all the lipstick and mascara you like. But you carry you around in your heart all day long, as you carry all your love.

Being told that your love is not good enough is a wrong and hurtful thing for another person to say to you, no matter what you’re wearing – and no matter what their excuse is for being a bigot. Your love is everything that is wonderful about you, and it’s the one thing that no-one will ever do just the way you do, or as beautifully as you will if you’re allowed to grow and glow inside your love, inside the best of you.

If we need a label to categorise people at all, let it be the only meaningful one there is: are you one who chooses love, or not?

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HELP ME CHOOSE MY NEXT STORY!
(AND WIN MY ETERNAL GRATITUDE + A FREE BOOK)

I have what’s arguably the best problem I will ever have in my writing life. It’s no secret that I’ve been writing like a mad lady over the past year – there’s something about the beauty of Millthorpe and the Blayney hills I look out on every day that fills me with wild rivers of words. But this has meant that I’ve ended up with two manuscripts.

They’re both at first draft stage – my favourite stage where the hard work of getting the story down is done and it’s time to play and polish. I love them both. So does my publisher. Both novels push my passions for story and country forward along veins of gold and wonder I just have to follow. But I can’t work on both at the same time now.

I have to make a choice: which novel will be published next?

Will you help me decide?

The first novel is set during the gold-rush years of the 1860s, in these very hills of central western New South Wales I call home. Part Aussie Deadwood, part rollicking romance, it follows the adventures of a very unlikely and very gorgeous couple, involving mistaken identity, horse theft, dynamite explosions and squawking chooks. It explores racial conflict and cultural identity in the mad melting pot of those years. A homage to my own European heritage, and also to the First Nations whose land this was before the world arrived to take it from them, it holds the true story of how the West was won. And like all my novels so far, it’s love that really wins in the end – the sweetest love shared by lovers, mates and families.

The second novel is set during the glory days of luxury steamship travel, and the dreamy Edwardian fashions of the 1910s that went with it, when Australia’s swaggering super-wealthy contrasted starkly with the rusty tin sheds that passed for international ports along our coastlines in those days. The story is three tales entwined: a steamy, illicit affair between a socialite and a conman, a cursed pearl, and a devastating catastrophe at sea. It explores where Australia’s super wealth came from – gold, pearls and the cattle trade – and those who were robbed in the game. But unlike all my other novels so far, it’s a different force of nature that wins in the end – and one that will haunt the heroes of this story forever.

So, what do you think, friends and universe both? Which story speaks most strongly to you? Which would you like to read first?

Because this is such a strange request, and kind of a fun one too, I’m going to give away a signed copy of Wild Chicory, my latest book, to the reader who comes up with the best and most sparkling reason for their choice – either here on this blog or over on Facebook or Goodreads. I’ll choose the lucky winner on 8 March.

Whatever your thoughts might be on my dilemma – thank you! You will be helping me set my course.

And the winner of the signed copy of Wild Chicory is…Kayla De Rooy! Over on Facebook. I ended up drawing a name from a hat because your answers were all too good.

And the novel I’ll be cracking on with is…the Edwardian steamship adventure. Of course!

Thanks one and all for playing xx 

 

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CRITICS SHMITICS

I’ve been thinking a lot about criticism lately, partly because I have a new book out, and partly because I recently had to put together a workshop on writer’s block, helping other writers identify what gets in the way for them when they sit down to work.

Of course one of the toughest blocks any creative person comes up against is negative criticism – especially the kind that comes from within. It pretty much goes with the territory of making stuff out of nothing that we step back from the work from time to time – and too often too many times – and regard our masterpieces as total crap.

Calling yourself an idiot – just like calling a friend or a child or a lover an idiot – is never going to get you the desired result. It’s never going to move anything forward or lead to learning or deepen understanding.

Only asking yourself why can ever do that. Why do I feel dumb? Why do I think this piece of writing is stupid? Or, on the flipside of this kind of madness, why do I think it’s a work of genius? Any criticism that doesn’t seek evidence to support your feelings is not going to show you anything you need to know.

Two snippets of external criticism I received smack bang in the middle of writing the workshop illustrate this excellently. I gave my new book, Wild Chicory, to two friends, of similar age and literary accomplishment. One friend didn’t read the book, saying that they could only make it through the first couple of chapters and it just wasn’t working for them. The other friend gulped down the lot, saying they loved every word, giving precise examples of what about the writing and the story affected them.

Naturally, I prefer Friend Number Two’s response, but in thinking beyond the flattery, it’s the evidence that makes the criticism useful to me. If Friend Number One had read the book and offered examples of what they felt wasn’t working, I’d have learned something about their response, and about the way my writing spoke to them. I might even have picked up something that would improve my work in future.

But as it was, I did learn something important about myself in the process, and it came as a sweet surprise: I no longer take on board criticism from others that doesn’t have reasons attached. I binned the unsubstantiated negative almost as soon as it was issued.

And that, for this little pony, is gold. It tells me that maybe one day I will take my own advice and learn to dispatch unreasonable self-disparagements as quickly. Bring on that day!

 

If you’d like a copy of Wild Chicory, you can get one here – and you can tell me what you think.

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DANDELION

Betrayal is the sharpest grief,
Quick, cruel,
But it is not death.
It is a fleet storm,
The cold breath of disappointment
Kicking up dust through
Dandelion drifts.

I am the dandelion,
Common, irreducible,
Beautiful pest.
No fear of the storm,
For I fly best upon its savagery,
To sow my brightness
Everywhere.

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CHICORY, PIG FEED & ME

History isn’t so much an interest or a hobby of mine but a way of being in the present. I can’t walk into the world – anywhere – without wondering what was here, or who was here, before me.

Must have been all those Sunday treks through The Rocks in Sydney as a kid, and my dad Charlie dragging us to every Roman ruin and every medieval cathedral across Europe. My most vivid memory of entering the University of Sydney at seventeen is a picture of my little black canvas mary-janes stepping onto the sandstone flags on my way into Quadrangle off the lawn, those flags worn down by more than a century of footsteps, before me.

So, thirty years later, when I first saw the blue chicory flowers that speckle the roadsides from Millthorpe to Blayney in the rural district of rolling hills that Dean and I would soon decide to call home, I wondered not only at their cheerful beauty, but why they were there at all.

It’s these wonders that feed all my stories, as chicory once fed pigs here, so I discovered, and then fed a processing plant in town. Locals are mostly surprised, though, when I tell them the history of this pretty weed, its importance to the economy once upon a time. One chap said he’d thought the seed had spread out here by falling off trucks coming through from Sydney, not quite believing the chicory had long ago been a crop.

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Bathurst Advocate, 1900

The broad brushstroke of history tells us only that that this country was taken for sheep stations, and gold. The war of 1824 that was fought over this land I live on is rarely if ever mentioned but I can’t look out across our front paddock without thinking of those warriors, the Wiradjuri, seeing them at some edge of memory not my own, their general, Windradyne, striding towards Sydney, tall and handsome in his possum-skin cloak, seeking a peace, a treaty, he would never receive from those who found theft more expedient than honour.

History, rich and wild and colourful, exists wherever we step and mostly it’s unknowable, but the tiny threads I catch are fascinating to me, for all they tell us about today, and more than that: they tell me how it is that I am here.

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And you can find out more about my new novella, Wild Chicory, right here, too.

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LOVE CATS

My dad, Charlie, bought me this little porcelain cat from somewhere in Berlin, maybe fifteen years ago, probably more – I can’t remember precisely when.

I loved the cat immediately, mostly because Dad bought him for me, and because there’s something of Dad in the cat: sweet, chin-up optimistic, and always a bit abstract. Dad’s favourite artist was Modigliani, with all his beautiful, melancholy angles, and I think if Modigliani ever imagined my dad, he would be this little cat.

The artist who actually imagined him is the Austrian painter and sculptor Rosina Wachtmeister, a prolific creator of cat characters, but I didn’t know that when I first met him. He was just my little Berlin cat, and I called him Jazz Cat, for Berlin and the bright, odd note he strikes just in being.

He’s been with me ever since, always somewhere near – under a lamp by the lounge, on my desk, or on a shelf where he will greet me eye to eye while I am writing. He’s seen a lot. He saw Mum leave us in the summer of 2005, and then Dad three years later; and my real cat, Harold, too, two years on again. He’s moved house four times. He’s survived a few indoor soccer balls, children’s birthday parties, my brother’s crazy dancing. He’s waved me off on my own trip to Berlin, where I saw several porcelain cats in a shop window but none as jaunty or sunny as mine.

When it was time to look for a new real cat friend, I thought it was funny that the one who leapt right at me, taking possession by perching on my shoulder, was called Jazz by the carers at the shelter where we found her. This little cat, a splashy tortie with white paws, has a face that’s half black and half gold. A little abstract. Of course, this was meant to be, wasn’t it? Must be a bit of magic, I thought.

More than a bit, it seemed, a few years on from there, in the winter of 2013. It was July, and a heavy grey storm was crashing all around as I left our house in Orange, half-blinded by tears and in need of a bit of a wander to get my own emotions under control. My husband, Dean, was very ill with end-stage kidney disease and I was terrified. The specialist who was meant to be seeing him that day had to cancel his appointment because his flight from Sydney had been delayed in the bad weather.

I didn’t know where I might go – just out – and I ended up at one of the op shops in town. No-one looks twice at a dishevelled and quietly distressed woman in an op shop, do they?

But just inside the door, above a little table, two Berlin cats greeted me – one with a face half black and half silver, and one that was white with silver stripes. Well, there was a distraction. Still in their original plastic wrapping with euro price stickers, they were signed prints: Rosina Wachtmeister. It was the first time I recall ever having seen her name, but I recognised her style straightaway. I bought both prints for a few dollars each and my smile returned: desperately necessary magic had come cheap today. I would have three Jazz Cats now, and a pretty white, stripey one for extra luck. It somehow seemed a sign, perhaps from my parents, telling me that things would be okay.

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Things would work out of course – you can read about our kidney love story here. Black Cat and White Cat, looking down on us from the wall above our bed, looked after us. But this was not the end of the magic.

Last April, when all was blue skies for us once more and we’d finally moved to our little patch of Millthorpe hilltop bliss, a sudden storm swept in. It tore the leaves from trees and swiftly identified a leak in the roof. Over in Orange, about thirty kilometres away, in a lull in the storm, Dean heard what he thought sounded like meowing outside the window of the office where he works. He and a colleague went out to investigate, and found a tiny kitten under a tree there, all alone.

A tiny white kitten with a cinnamon-striped tail and a very large, squawking meow, who we would call Monkey, for he’d seemed to have dropped out of the tree, or some kind of heaven, and into Dean’s hands. These days he’s Dean’s best mate, who follows him everywhere around the property, and who completes our picture here.

Whenever I look at him, or any of our cats, real or imagined, a smile of gratitude curls and stretches inside me, for all those who send the magic of their love into the world. Artists, surgeons, storytellers, parents. What would we do without them?

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You can find out more about Rosina Wachtmeister and her art here.