Kim Kelly

Australian Author

Month: September, 2016

kiss-1920s

LET’S TALK ABOUT SEX

If you’re going to write about lovers, as I do, then invariably sex is going to make an appearance at some point in your story. But for most of us, the question is, how do we do it so that readers are seduced rather than turned off? How do we express sex without it seeming unintentionally creepy or ugly? How do we make it seem natural? How do we depict it as the lovely-amazing-bizarre-shocking-sometimes-painful thing it truly is?

The general advice is, of course, that less is more – unless you really are going for erotica, or there is some other compelling reason for a blow-by-blow description (ahem). If you’re writing a romantic saga or a story that is underpinned by relationships, then you probably want the sex to be just one aspect, maybe even only an embellishment, to a more complex whole. Some writers shut the door on sex altogether, preferring to leave the bedroom entirely up to the reader’s imagination – an off-screen event they can either magic up in their own minds, or not.

Personally, wherever it makes sense for the characters to go there, I love to take readers into the bedroom – into that intimate place where we’re at our most vulnerable, where bonds are forged with our bodies. Where the characters shut up at last and feel for each other through the dark, be that an actual night-time affair or an existential searching for connection between souls. And I love the challenge of exploring and trying to make real this beautiful and baffling human wonder on the page.

How each of us deal with the deed in our work is going to be unique to every author, of course, but when this very question came up recently in a writers’ forum, it got me searching through the old files to have a closer look at just how I have done it across all my novels.

In my first, Black Diamonds, my lovers, Daniel and Francine, are so young and naïve in 1914 that their shock at their own excitement and the strange brutality of sex means it’s all over in a couple of minutes. It’s a fairly typical start to a long and beautiful marriage. Some years later, in 1918, they make love, both of them wounded, and Francine tells us: ‘It is fierce and it is infinitely gentle. Gloria.’ A rush of relief.

Bernadette in This Red Earth says of her first experience of sex with her boy-next-door geologist, Gordon: ‘…my terror becomes wonder against his skin, and then something else altogether as he fills me so that I am the vast warm ball of melted rock that he says is inside the earth. And afterwards, safe and sleepy in his arms I look up at the stars through my window, wondering how it is that a man so strong and heavy in the chest could be so light upon me…’ She’s curious about the whole thing, rather than surprised.

By contrast, In The Blue Mile, my lovers don’t have sex at all. Olivia would love to fall into Eoghan’s arms, and do all manner of delightful things to him, but he won’t let her until he can sort himself out and, because he’s religious, until they can be married. The ship’s whistle at the very end might indicate just how fabulous that off-screen activity turns out to be when they sail off into the sunset, though.

In Paper Daisies, intimacy is fraught with grief and fear. Berylda dares to let Ben love her before she imagines her life will be over, and it’s all pretty explicit, if brief: ‘I have never known such pain, nor such a longing for it to remain. I hold him deeper and deeper to me; I am filled with stone; I am filled fire; I am filled with light. His kiss swallows my cry.’ There’s a bit of Aussie Gothic.

Wild Chicory, by contrast again, is probably the most romantic thing I’ve even penned: ‘Away from the old, draughty, make-do homestead, she made a place for them, a warm and secret place in a corner of the hayshed, where only the chicory could hear them; and on a few precious occasions, deep in the winter, only the softly falling snow.’ So old-fashioned and glancing but somehow all the sexier for it.

Then, most recently, there’s Irene dragging Fin into her cabin aboard the Koombana in Jewel Sea: ‘I take him with such hungry violence my wanting turns the iron bedstead beneath us to dust, to steam, to stars.’ Whoa. Where’s my fan and my smelling salts?

What all these expressions of sex have in common is that each one is a sketch, a glimpse, a few quick brushstrokes that give the reader enough of an idea to take them into the experience, but it remains one the reader must interpret for themselves. In all of my stories, set as they mostly are in the early twentieth century, there’s also the consideration of language appropriate to the times – one wouldn’t have ‘got laid’ in any of them. Who needs a sexual cliché anyway? Inventing languages of love spoken only by two is such a delicious thing to do.

But what do you think? What sort of sex do you like in your stories?

surf

CONSCIENCE CALL

This morning I woke up inside a dream – a nasty one. I was walking along a Sydney beach – Maroubra Beach – on a beautiful sunny day and, as I headed south, I passed two young men and their surfboards.

I saw the water glistening on their deep brown skin, their black hair still heavy with the sea, dripping onto their shoulders. I heard them chatting to each other about the waves. Just two young men who could have been any of the young men I grew up with in that part of the world.

Over my shoulder, I watched as two policemen approached them. There was a brief exchange, one of the young men trying to convince the officers that he was a student at the University of New South Wales, and then – BANG BANG – both of the young men were shot dead.

I stood there in shock, unmoving, a scream trapped inside me.

I woke up with my heart belting, my stomach turning, and my husband asking me: ‘What’s wrong?’

I know where this dream has come from.

There’s been quite a ruckus the last few days over Lionel Shriver’s Brisbane Writers Festival speech examining cultural appropriation and political correctness – howls of outrage that a white woman should think the preserve of fiction, and the strength of fiction, is to pretend, and to do so fearlessly. On all manner of social media threads, anyone suggesting Shriver might have a point in there somewhere has pretty much been told to check their privilege, get back in their white boxes and shut up.

Meanwhile, people of deep brown skin continue to languish on Nauru and die in police custody in Australia, their stories largely untold to the mainstream, or largely ignored. Facts too often drowned out by the relentless white noise of opinion seething from all quarters.

The greatest power of storytelling, of fiction in particular, lies in the way it can spread empathy into popular consciousness. An author can borrow another’s hat and shoes for a time to give readers an enlightening glimpse of what it might feel like to be that other person. But right now it seems we’re imposing rules upon what white authors should or shouldn’t empathise with through fiction – what characters, what identities and histories writers like me can write.

It’s affected me personally. I’m struggling with the ethics of having written a black heroine in a manuscript I finished almost two years ago. On the one hand, do I have any right to speak through a character whose skin and life experience are different from my own? On the other hand, can my conscience deal with being silenced when this character’s story might just have a whisper of a chance to broaden a narrowed mind?

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether my story sees the light of day or not – I’ve let stories go before, because they’re not ready or not mine to be told. What’s got me caught up here is a deeper, more fundamental question of what I’m allowed to write. Should that even be a wonder? Am I being a coward in my hesitation? Or virtuous?

My heart can’t draw characters without love – that’s not a moral decision but just the way I roll. I’m no intrepid pillager; I know that my explorations of others’ points of view are never cynically undertaken, never gratuitous or exploitative. These are real people to me, these imaginary friends: never embellishments or trophies. My black heroine represents about forty-three years’ investment of thought. She is part of me somehow, in that way people who are important to you work their way into your soul.

And yet I’m so conflicted over the rightness of these explorations that I am, for the moment, stuck on that beach, struck mute – a guilty witness to crimes my silence will only condone.

The answer will come to me, eventually, at least for my story, but I’m not sure this shutting-up is a good thing for anyone generally. Is it really going to lead to better structural parity of creative opportunity for writers of all colours if white writers stick to writing only white stories, or will it tribalise us in ways that make divisions and misunderstandings worse? Will it only mean that some stories in want of telling simply won’t be told? I just don’t know.

 

aviatrix

PIGEONHOLING

An amazing thing is just about to occur in my world. My new novel, Jewel Sea, is going live as a serial with the brilliantly innovative UK publisher, The Pigeonhole – today!

This means that across the UK and wherever else in the world the Pigeon flies, Jewel Sea will be delivered in snack-sized reading morsels direct to The Pigeonhole subscribers’ phones. These subscribers form one great big digital book club, and at the same time, across this next week of communal Jewel Sea serial reading, I’ll be chatting to those readers – in real time – as we journey through the story together.

This is blowing my mind, and we haven’t even kicked off yet – still two hours to go until showtime!

The way we’re reading and receiving stories is changing at lightning pace, and as much as it can all be a bit bamboozling, it’s pretty wonderful, too. The world feels fabulously small at this moment, for me.

In a lovely way, we’re also returning to an old-fashioned idea here, with the serialisation of novels. Designed for busy people who are reading on the go, it’s not unlike the way Charles Dickens’ works were published more than a hundred and fifty years ago: as chunks to be devoured in a weekly sitting, shared with the family, argued over with friends at the pub. In fact his first novel, The Pickwick Papers, set off the whole trend for this style of reading – and I think he’d be fascinated and delighted at the way the old is becoming new again with the internet. I’m certain he’d be wide-eyed and grinning at the global, instantaneous reach of story today, too.

But there’s another loveliness here for me, in this digital flight of Jewel Sea, and a very unexpected one. This is the first time one of my novels has been taken up by a publisher overseas. Once upon a time, I was told that my stories were too parochial and my language too peculiar to Australia to garner any interest outside these wide brown bounds of home. I was told – quite bluntly and without asking – by a stuffy old-school publisher that the English in particular would never be convinced I had anything much to say.

Well, ahem. Never say never, I say! Especially in this day and age.

What an adventure this Pigeonholing will be. What a thrill. And one that wouldn’t be happening without my equally brilliant and innovative Australian publisher, The Author People.

I’m putting on my virtual flying cap and goggles, synchronising watches and already laughing that the London-Sydney time difference will mean I’m probably not going to get much sleep this week.

Bring it on!

 

Image above is, of course, the fearless Katherine Hepburn.

pearly

DEADLY TREASURE

Legend has it that if you don’t want to suffer misfortune at the hands of your jewellery, then it’s probably wise not to acquire it by wrongful means. Gems of exceptional beauty have gathered wild tales of theft and retribution about them over the centuries, curses no doubt fabricated to increase their allure, and their value.

Probably the most famous rogue jewel is the Hope Diamond. A brilliant stone of deep ocean blue, it was said to have been stolen from the eye of a statue of the Hindu goddess Sita, sometime in the seventeenth century.

Passing through many illustrious hands, including those of the ill-fated King Louis XIV of France, she vanished during the French Revolution, only to surface a little over a century later in the coat pocket of London banker, Henry Hope.

Hope sold the gem – with its rich provenance – to the daring American heiress Evalyn Walsh McLean, and that’s when the curse really came into its own. Tragedy clouded Evalyn’s life from then on: her son was killed in a car accident; her husband Ned ran off with another woman, lost their fortune, and then died from alcoholism; her daughter died from an overdose of valium, and the next year, Evalyn died too, after which the diamond was sold off to pay all the family creditors.

hope diamond

It now lives in the Smithsonian, and as far as anyone knows, none of its seven million visitors a year have perished after looking at it. Well, no-one’s complained, anyway. Perhaps it’s a civic-minded sort of diamond.

A little digging turns up an enormous array of similarly bedevilled minerals: there’s the Black Prince’s Ruby, thieved from the corpse of a sultan by Pedro the Cruel of Castile (seriously) in the fourteenth century, and which Henry V was said to have worn at the bloody battle of Agincourt; there’s the Purple Sapphire of Delhi that’s really only an amethyst but despite which has managed to leave a trail of suicides, disasters and financial ruin in its wake ever since it was looted from a temple to the god Indra; and of course there’s the Star of the Sea, the glittering necklace that was said to be aboard the Titanic when she plunged to the icy depths – at least in the movie.

But then there’s the Roseate Pearl, a perfectly round, perfectly pink, perfectly massive pearl, which legend says really did take down a ship – the SS Koombana, a luxurious liner that was mysteriously lost off the coast of Western Australia in a cyclone in 1912, just one month before the sinking of the Titanic. This pearl sits at the centre of my latest novel, Jewel Sea, as a symbol of greed and desire, but apart from destroying a ship and all aboard her, this pearl, too, had a string of gruesome murders and untimely deaths to her name.

This rosy, deadly pearl was said to have been stolen from a humble pearl diver, finding its way onto the ship some years later via a well-respected and popular pearl dealer, Abraham de Vahl Davis.

But why on earth would Mr Davis – in real-life an extremely wealthy and highly principled gentleman – have purchased a stolen pearl? Rare beauty or not, why would he risk his reputation on such a grubby, backdoor deal? And why was this pearl so accursed, so angered, that it took out its revenge on a ship full of innocents?

These were the questions that drove my curiosity in writing and researching Jewel Sea, but the one thing Rosy couldn’t tell me was where she is today. Unlike all the other jewels of infamy, this pearl appears to have been successful in her quest to escape human clutches. Perhaps she remains with the ship, somewhere on the ocean floor. Perhaps she never existed at all. Or perhaps she floated free, returning to the warm, turquoise waters that made her. Perhaps she simply went home.

broome

 Jewel Sea can be found at your favourite retailers here.