Kim Kelly

Australian Author

Month: August, 2016

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ALMOST SPRING

Wattle never blooms, it bursts: tiny needles of sunshine laughing at the last days of winter.

I’ve been taking hundreds of photographs of them lately, hoping to capture their laughter, boldest in the late-afternoon sun. My hands blue-cold around the camera, my gumboots slurping along tracks that have turned to ribbons of mud in the biblical quantities of rain we’ve enjoyed since June.

I want to catch just the right shout of mad loveliness, one that might bring inspiration for the cover of a new edition of my first novel, Black Diamonds, which will be published next year. It’s a story of coal and war and invincible love – and wattle bright against the grim struggle for peace.

Ten years ago, when this story was just about to step into the world for the first time, my own heart was breaking. I was still reeling from my mother’s sudden death, a catastrophic cancer having taken her from me before she’d had the chance to read the manuscript. I could still feel her leaving me as I tried to breathe life back into her goneness, on the lounge-room floor where I found her. My father, meanwhile, was returning to the strange childhood that dementia brings, making him unaware of who I was, never mind that I’d written a book. My marriage disintegrated under the weight of grief – a mercy killing of sorts, but nevertheless another space to mourn.

There was no celebration of Black Diamonds then. For almost a year afterwards, I couldn’t go anywhere without walking barefoot over the crushed-glass carpet of my own heart shards. I shredded my feet across the globe to Prague and back. Every shadow I owned engulfed me.

Good friends and a good therapist pulled me out of the black; the needs of my children tugged and tugged at me, too. And words, always my words, made ropeways of light away from any desire to crawl under that sharp carpet and never come out again.

Words, new glimpses of story, would burst like wattle blooms from black branches, bringing new life and new love. Boughs heavy with sunshine would soon garland the adit of my bleak cave, my coal pit, just as they do in my novel.

Yes, ten years on, I can finally celebrate Black Diamonds. I will dance with her in my arms when I hold her again.

Because wattle never fades, either. It smoulders deep gold before it melds into the warmth of spring.

New Microsoft Publisher Document

EASY TO READ

I’ve spent far too much time online lately – out of necessity, though. The way books are sold and marketed is rapidly changing, and most authors are having to educate themselves quicksticks as to how these changes are affecting the way their stories are reaching readers.

This means I’ve been looking at a lot of blogs – on writing, reading writers and writing readers. My word indeedy there’s a lot going on in that world, and much of it hugely exciting. It’s wonderful to find so many people – thousands and thousands – engaged in talking about writing and reading at any one time across the globe. Nonstop festival for narrative junkies.

But with all this fabulousness, there’s also the attendant truckload of how-to spruikers: how to write a bestseller, how to get published, how to write the perfect pitch, how to create your author brand. This sort of thing has always been with us, of course, but it’s been as magnified as everything else has with the internet.

That’s not to say some of these how-tos aren’t helpful, especially for authors just starting out. It’s useful to know how to present your manuscript professionally and what the current trends in publishing are, as well as publisher and reader expectations within various genres. It’s always useful, too, to discuss what makes stories tick, to examine their parts and interrogate what works.

It’s struck me this week, though, how limiting so much of this clangouring advice can be, especially to women writers. The soup reduced, it says: write in the third person, write heroines that are both indomitable and likeable, and don’t buggerise around with fancy language. Whatever you do: make sure your story is easy to read.

Where are the perky posts on how to be original in this sea of sameness, how to break the rules without breaking your career, or how to find your narrative purpose beyond your desire to call yourself a writer? Or, perhaps most importantly, how to respect readers’ intelligence by daring to offer them something a little different.

Being the odd one out. The quester. The dreamer. These can’t be taught by how-to cheat sheets. You either are these things, or you’re not.

The past few days I’ve found a startling contrast to all this easy-reading blather in editing the new work of an old pillar of Australian literature, someone esteemed for their colourful eccentricities, their mellifluous prose and the playful smile beneath every word. I can’t tell you who it is – that would be breaking the Secret Editors’ Business code of conduct – but I can say what a delight it’s been to be reminded of what writing can do inside the pages of this manuscript.

It opens with a passage written in first person reflective present tense, inside the head of a woman so infuriatingly passive you immediately want to shake her (except she’s so frail she’d disintegrate if you did), even as each sentence races one over the other like an untamed river now and again dashed across jagged rocks.

It’s not easy to read. It’s a joyful challenge. It’s full of heart and wonder and danger. It’s elastic, plastic – constantly surprising.

Oh, but the how-toers will tell you that only the very clever can do these tricky sorts of things. Ordinary writers shouldn’t step outside the lines if they want to succeed. Ordinary writers must aspire to seeing their work displayed between men’s underwear and stationery in discount department stores.

I know what kind of writer I want to be. Clever or not, I want to make some attempt at the extraordinary. I want to do things others say I can’t. I want to take readers to places only we can visit together.

And that’s not easy, nor should it ever be.

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REFLECTIONS OF YOU
SARAH

Our intrepid Reflector today is another old pal from uni days, someone whose eloquence and honesty astounded me like a lovely dancing light when we were teens, but someone I lost contact with soon after we each went our separate ways.

I’m not sure that she’d remember, but that crisp candour of hers attempted to warn me off making a terrible mistake with a fellow when I was in my early twenties. I didn’t listen, of course. And of course, she was right about him.

I’ve carried her rightness around with me all these years and, as rightness goes, we’re back in each other’s orbits now.

And I’m delighted to introduce you to her here as she answers our Big Seven questions on life and love…

Who are you and where were you born?

I’m Sarah Maddock, born in Chatham, Kent.

What’s your most treasured childhood memory?

The first time I played Duran Duran’s eponymous first album. I remember putting the LP on the turntable, playing it over and over again and dancing around the living room like a lunatic. It was such an awakening: the realisation that pop music could excite me so profoundly and transport me from my tedious, suburban life into another world. The world of the New Romantics.

What does home mean for you?

I moved from a little village in Cambridgeshire to Manly when I was seven. My mum was terribly homesick and wanted to return to Australia. It was my first time on a plane and I spent most the journey feeling travel sick. I recall being engulfed in a blanket of humidity when we walked across the tarmac during the stopover at Kuala Lumpur airport.

The first thing I did when I arrived in Australia was vomit in a taxi. I remember my stressed dad shoving a clutch of dollars into the taxi driver’s hand to pay for cleaning the car and the shame I felt at having disgraced myself in this foreign place.  

My first Australian home was a migrant hostel with a communal kitchen. Soon afterwards, we moved into an apartment on the beachfront. Everything was so alien. I’d never had a shower before or heard sea spray lashing the windows on a stormy night.

Mum would pack chocolate milk with cream cheese spread and cucumber sandwiches for our school lunches. She’d forgotten what it was like to live in a hot country. Every day I opened my bag to find the milk was curdled and the white bread sandwich melted into a soggy mass of processed cheese and limp cucumber.

After a few months, we moved again. Out to the western suburbs of Sydney, where I was known at school as ‘Pommie bastard’. I quickly learnt I had to be tough and strident to survive. But at least I wasn’t the Aboriginal girl in the year above me or one of the Greek kids who lived in the purple house around the corner. They were the school pariahs. It was white, outer suburban Australia in the 1970s. Barren, small-minded and mean of spirit.

I guess I’ve spent my adult life running away from that version of home. Searching for somewhere that embraces diversity, where there is always something new to see or do, where history and modernity combine to create a place that is as stimulating and vibrant as it is challenging.

Right now, that place is London. London means home.

What makes you smile?

My kids being silly together. Random acts of kindness in public places. Watching the HBO series, Veep. Unexpected invitations. A beautiful garden. Art galleries of all shapes and sizes. Shaun Micallef. Birdsong. Buying books. My neighbour bringing over a plate of date scones. The Cornish coast.

And more, so much more.

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What was the hardest lesson you ever had to learn?

The hardest lesson, so far, has also been the simplest.

About five years ago my relationship with my son was at an all-time low, so we had some family therapy together, which led me to return for some sessions on my own. I’d been to a therapist in my early thirties, but this time it had a more life-changing effect.

I learnt some hard truths about myself, but also – and most importantly – some simple ways of managing my mind. I’m a lot more self-aware and less anxious as a result, and my relationships with family and friends (old and new) have benefitted hugely. I now understand where my negative, controlling thoughts come from and know how to keep them in check.

Whenever I feel the urge to control my environment or someone else’s behaviour, I ask myself, ‘What’s the worse thing that can happen?’ If it’s not death or permanent injury, then I usually just let it go.

Who or what is the love of your life?

Definitely my partner of twenty-one years. He’s intelligent, empathic, patient, forgiving, level-headed, highly organised and a great dad. He’s easy on the eye, too.

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What does your past, your history and family heritage mean to you?

Much as I love history, I’m not particularly interested in my own. My past – and that of my parents, grandparents and so on – is done and dusted. I don’t enjoy looking at old photos very much or revisiting ‘the good old days’. I find no comfort in nostalgia. It drains me.

Perhaps I avoid my own past because my childhood is best forgotten. I was unhappy and bored for much of it and family life was strained and dysfunctional.

(Philip Larkin was spot on when he wrote, ‘They fuck you up, your mum and dad./ They may not mean to, but they do.’)

That’s not to say there aren’t some interesting tales to be told on both sides of my family’s history. But right now, I’m greedy for the here and now and I look forward to tomorrow with the enthusiasm of a small child.

After all, I’ve only a few more decades left to make the most of this one, short life. So I’d better get on with it.

Yes, go on, bugger off now. Thank you so much for your beautiful words, Sarah. And for that precious honesty – may it never fade.

I love the way these Reflections we’re collecting here are creating a kind of a rambling map of women’s experiences. I hope, dear reader, you’re enjoying these glimpses into others’ lives too. We’re all so different, but we share so much, don’t we?

If you’d like to read more about Sarah and her world – and she’s a fabulous writer – you can find her at her blog here.

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REMEMBRANCE

I love old, decaying tin sheds, which is just as well since there are plenty of them around where I live, in rural New South Wales. This shed here lives just at the end of my lane, in a neighbour’s paddock.

Of course, there’s a certain beauty to things of metal and wood slowly, almost imperceptibly returning to the earth, by rust, by mites, so that their demise seems more transformation than death.

But they’re deceptively rich little troves of story, too, these long-abandoned huts. With hawthorn growing through their roofs and up their chimneys, panels blown away who knows how many years past by the bitter wind that belts across the ridge tops here winter after winter, windows empty, doorways agape, it’s easy to forget that these places were once dwellings.

People lived and loved, laughed and lost here, hoped most among it all. When? I don’t know. Sometime before I was born. Perhaps 1960. Perhaps 1860. The design of these homes possibly didn’t change much across that century. Hundreds, maybe thousands of these prefabricated abodes were shipped across the Pacific from San Francisco during gold-rush days, sent over the Blue Mountains on bullock drays, with the bolt holes drilled and fixings provided, so that you only needed a hammer and wrench to whack one up in your paddock of choice.

Someone built the chimney from bricks kilned nearby. Someone made the curtains from bright remnants to keep out the flies. Someone cooked a mutton stew above the fire. Someone put the children to bed in a loft built into the rafters. Times have changed; we don’t live like this anymore.

Don’t we? This house was the original flat pack – cheap and temporary. I can hear whoever made this one swearing across time that they haven’t been supplied the right bloody screws and that the bolt holes are all wrong. Rip-roaring row between man and wife ensues.

We forget too easily these echoes and continuities. We think we do things so differently now. We think our challenges have never been faced before.

We forget that the mistakes we make have all been made before.

I take a photograph of a little tin shed in a neighbour’s paddock and pray to a deaf god for a wounded child in faraway Syria, his world rent apart by a war my country has played its part in causing, and wonder what I can do to stop this history repeating and repeating.

All I can do is tell this story.

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EVER AFTER

Orson Welles purportedly said, ‘If you want a happy ending, that depends on where you stop the story.’

Indeed. Someone else said the best stories end with a new story about to begin. I don’t know who said that, but I say it a lot myself, and certainly end all my own tales that way – not with an ending but with the opening of another door. I love to let the reader, whose story this has now become, decide what will happen next, beyond the resolution, and the happiness it brings.

Why, though, does there so often seem to be an aversion to the happy ending in what we consider to be worthwhile literature?

Are the dark shadows and excruciating confusions of life the only stuff that’s good for our brains?

In real life, that way madness lies. In the everyday grind of existence our ability to draw upon optimism, to look forward to the new day despite the shitfight of today, and to understand the ephemeral nature of absolutely everything is the foundation of mental health and resilience.

Personally, for me, the idea of happiness as some kind of permanent state is a crock. But I damn well grab it with both hands when it comes and hold onto it for as long as it lasts, be that a second or a day. I’ve had to work hardest at dragging myself up from the swamps of despair than at any other aspect of being, and still do, all the time – which probably explains why hope and new beginnings are such important take-away themes in my own writing.

All stories that remind us love and light are ours to have and to share, all stories that show us compassion and empathy are intellectual skills, are valuable stories. Well, I think so, anyway.

Those who know my own will know that I think of love and hope as political acts, too. Bright banners against those who tell us that happy endings should come with price tags, sales spreadsheets and share-holder dividends. In this context, I sometimes wonder if the shunning of love in literature is an acceptance of despair and fear – and that that’s precisely where capitalism’s greedmeisters want us to be, so that we’ll buy their crap unthinkingly, or in the belief that it might make us, um, happy.

But my pink-tinged politics aside, I really do think it’s about time we brought a bit of happy back into style. A bit of a sense that although life is often miserable and baffling, our capacities to give and learn and grow with each resolution not only make life bearable – they’re important to our survival. Perhaps really, truly. Unless we turn this ship around, away from the grim black of endless war and mindless destruction we seem to have on loop right now, things probably won’t end well for any of us.

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MORE HAPPY LOVE!
MORE HAPPY, HAPPY LOVE!

You know how groany and eyeball-rolly I get at unthinking, automated disparagements of romance from those who really should know better. I’ve heard it all – had my work called chicklit by a feminist (!), been told my work suffers from too much sentiment, been asked, a bit too often, when I’m going to write something serious.

Because love – and the need to laugh, to sing, to heal, to be joyful, to be insane with it and smashed by it – is not serious business? Not worthy of examination? Not stuff to be shared in any intellectual sense? Not fairly vital to being alive, like air and food? And never a vehicle for significant thought? As if love and curiosity are mutually exclusive things – as if, say, I couldn’t donate a kidney to my husband because I love him desperately and because I expected the experience would lead me to deeper existential truths.

I tend not to engage with critics and other writers who hold these sorts of wearingly narrow views. As they say in the classics, don’t get mad, get down and get lovin’ – and that’s what I prefer to do.

I’ve done it liberally in my next novel, Jewel Sea. It’s a fictional telling of the tale of the Koombana, a luxurious steamship lost off the West Australian coast in 1912 – a small but no less tragic Titanic. From the moment I first read about the wreck and its haunting mystery in Annie Boyd’s history of the ship, I knew I’d have to write about it myself. And as soon as I learned that the detail on the fingerplates of the first-class saloon doors was a little Grecian urn, I knew I’d be cranking my love engine to full throttle.

What more perfect symbol of both enduring passion and enduring mystery than Keats’ ‘Ode On A Grecian Urn’? And damn sexy, too.  The poem swirls through my story like smoke, and mingles with images from his most decadent, indulgent ‘Endymion’.

Keats, the king of romance. But hey, we all know it’s so much better when a man does it, hm? Whatever, his explorations of high and wild emotion are curled permanently around my heart – along with Beethoven’s vaulting symphonies and Turner’s violent seas, with Eliot’s burnt-out ends and Elgar’s melancholy cello mourning the death of love as the guns on the Western Front rolled in.

Romance – I doubt I could write a word without it.

And Keats’ timeless, yearning ‘Urn’ will outlive and out love all this, too:

Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness,
Thou foster-child of silence and slow time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fring’d legend haunts about thy shape
Of deities or mortals, or of both,
In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d,
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;
And, happy melodist, unwearied,
For ever piping songs for ever new;
More happy love! more happy, happy love!
For ever warm and still to be enjoy’d,
For ever panting, and for ever young;
All breathing human passion far above,
That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy’d,
A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.

Who are these coming to the sacrifice?
To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
Lead’st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,
And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?
What little town by river or sea shore,
Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
Is emptied of this folk, this pious morn?
And, little town, thy streets for evermore
Will silent be; and not a soul to tell
Why thou art desolate, can e’er return.

O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede
Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

Find out more about Jewel Sea here :

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