Kim Kelly

Australian Author

Month: April, 2017

image

THE UGLY AUSTRALIAN

I’ve had some interesting conversations over the past twenty-four hours on how and when Anzac Day became hijacked by fascists – by the kinds of people Australian servicemen and women have sacrificed themselves in fighting across various wars for more than a century now.

Of course, I’m referring to their howls yesterday that writer, engineer, TV presenter and general over-achiever Yassmin Abdel-Magied be sacked and deported to some unnamed corner of hell for daring to suggest that we might, on our day of remembrance, spare a thought for those we have locked up in indefinite detention – those refugees who by some savage irony have, in their attempt to escape one form of authoritarian evil, found themselves deep inside Australia’s special version of same.

I’m not going to recount Yassmin’s tale here – plenty has been written on her crimes of unAustralianness already, and it’s all already boring. Strip it down to its pathetic nuts and bolts and we have a woman who, in exercising free speech, has not only said something plainly true, but has had it viciously condemned by those who purport to be the great white defenders of freedom in our land. It’s an irony sandwich with onions.

But the conversations behind the headlines have provided rich fields of thought. In one lively chat among a bunch of women, one asked if it was John Howard – the prime minister who went to war with Bush on Blair on a lie, sending the West on a spree of war crimes after September 11 – who reshaped Anzac Day in his own image.

And I replied, no, not exactly. In the red team/blue team death spiral that passes for politics in Australia, the left blames the right for everything morally corrupt (and vice versa) and tends to unremember that ‘their’ Labor leaders have been just as guilty of firing up the undesirables as the conservatives. It was our beer-drinking, working-class Rhodes scholar Bob Hawke who unleashed a new Aussie pride in the build up to the bicentennial celebrations in 1988, encouraging public involvement in Anzac commemorations that hadn’t been seen since the First World War, painting all in the bright colours of some kind of sport. And of course, lest we forget his Zegna-suited successor Paul Keating, while eschewing reflected military glory or anything that might ruin his manicure, set up the system of offshore immigration detention in which those refugees Yassmin was referring to languish today.

Next, John Howard, being the whore for a score he is, picked up the ball and ran with it. That ball was Australia’s working class. Their new wealth, new confidence and new pride, became a potent political force and remains so. They’re goaded by politicians, conservative commentators and radio talkback narcissists to hate anything and everything they deem unAustralian. They’re encouraged every day and in every election to blame everyone but themselves for any problem the country might face. They are anti-socialist, anti-union, anti-immigration, anti-compassion, anti-thought – anti everything that’s brought them the good life in the first place. It’s revolting, yes, and what they’ve done to Anzac Day – with their jingoistic displays of arrogance, drunkenness and violence – would embarrass and confuse my working-class grandparents.

And it’s this thought of my grandparents that had me walking away from yesterday’s bunfight with a gnawing knowledge that our ugliness runs much deeper than this. Perhaps the unthinking jingoes are louder and brasher now, but they’ve been with us from the beginning.

During the First World War, my Irish grandmother, as a little girl, regularly had rocks and other abuses thrown at her walking home after school in inner Sydney’s Surry Hills, because she was Catholic and poor and deemed a traitorous Sinn Feiner, even though one of her brothers was at that time away fighting in France – and copping mustard gas that would send him to an early grave.

On the other side of my family, my schoolboy grandfather’s name was changed from Schwebel to Swivel, because the violence against German Australians was gathering steam, even though one of his cousins was at that time away fighting in Flanders. In fact, there was a ferocious campaign waged at Marrickville Council to change the name of Schwebel Street to something unGerman, which was only abandoned when Henry Schwebel was killed at Zonnebeke and the jingoes were shown up for deadshits they are.

I woke up this morning with all this ringing in my ears. Because of those who hate, my name, the name I grew up with, is not my own. Of course, I’ve always known this – the stories of bricks through windows and reputations trashed has been with me since I was a little girl – but it came to me with fresh sadness.

How fucking dare you, was my next and predictable thought. You load of nano-minded human pollutants. I could hate, too. But somehow the lessons of history have settled in me – and across my family – with a greater need to love. To learn. To choose to be grateful, too, for the luxury of peace that enables me to love and learn so freely.

I channel those questions of homegrown hatred into all my writings, my stories about Australia, and I throw love at them there, too. It’s curious that this has seen my work labelled as romantic and sentimental over the years, made some literary confreres a little squeamish at what I do. But good grief – fuck you, too.

The Australia I work for is an inclusive one, a fair and just one, and the moral high ground is a figment of the conceited on each side.

I will seek out and sew the threads of all that’s beautiful about us until the day I die. I will hurl my salvos of love at every ugliness – at every hate and every hurt.

image

BALANCING ACT

‘You edit fiction as well as write it?’ I was asked by a fellow word-wrangler recently. ‘Wow,’ she sighed into her coffee: ‘That’s tough.’

‘Yeah!’ I laughed above the shared editorial melancholy, and with some strange delight, because it was the first time this tricky toughness had ever been acknowledged by a colleague.

‘Tough’ is probably too tough a word for it, but working on both sides of the storytelling curtain as I do is a little like walking an emotional tightrope at times.

Despite making a conscious effort to always maintain a critical distance, to not get too close to the authors I work with, I become very close to their words, their stories, and the hearts that exist within them. I often hear my father at my shoulder, telling me: ‘Stick to the text. Don’t pay any attention to the author’s biographical note or photograph, or care anything about their circumstances, or for what others say about them. Find everything you need to know inside the story, inside the way the author uses words and ideas.’ And so, in the intense intimacy of this kind of reading, I often fall in love with the manuscripts that come my way, or at least feel a profound sense of respect for them.

When one of these manuscripts becomes a published book, I fizz with all kinds of sunshine for the author, as if at some atomic level I have a stake in the work’s success, but at the same time, if that work is harshly or hollowly dismissed by a reviewer, or treated with disregard by a publisher, I feel the wound, too. It’s not uncommon for me to have a bit of a cry at each tip of the balancing pole, at the fabulous achievements and the devastating losses. Just as I do with my own writing.

Of course, there are also those few infuriating manuscripts that have been picked up by a publisher predominantly for the saleability of the author or to follow some trend in the market. These little heartbreakers can sting all round. Their words are tossed about with little care but for the money involved, which is usually a great deal more than the norm; the editor is expected to fix holes made by soullessness, and we do, with our story-love – enough so that readers will buy the book and not be too disappointed.

Editors are meant to be invisible in this way, and so they should be. There are plenty of beautiful books in the world wrought by wonderful, sparkling minds that just needed a little assistance, whether that be in seeing a flaw, overcoming a block, or the clarity that comes from simply having a conversation with someone who loves their beautiful thing almost as much as they do. An editor can help an author find the courage to make an essential change they’ve been resisting; courage to dive deeper into a place they’ve been fearful of going. An editor can help an author find the confidence to step out into the spotlight for the first time, or to get back on the horse. And none of this behind-the-curtains stuff is anyone else’s business.

But for me as a writer, although editing others’ work has nourished my own in all manner of marvellous ways, it’s also thrown a shadow. I might have worked with lots and lots of writers over twenty years in the biz, but the private nature of these relationships has meant that I don’t have a tribe of other authors willing or able to endorse my own books, and that has made my tightrope walk a little lonely. It’s as if I don’t quite belong to either world – as if the writer in me is some kind of impostor and the editor is some kind of spy.

I do try to keep the two worlds separate – working as an editor under my father’s name, Swivel, and writing under my mother’s name, Kelly – but really they’re two halves of a whole. The thought of dropping one completely in favour of the other is more frightening than falling from my wire. And fall I do, all the time. I’m still learning how to tumble so that I don’t hurt myself too badly. But I couldn’t ever stop this gig.

‘I’m just a narrative junkie,’ I told my editorial coffee companion.

And she laughed with me: ‘Aren’t we all?’

Too true: editors, writers and readers of all kinds, we’re all hopelessly devoted. We’re all suckers for a good story.

image

BAD GUY

This beautiful boy is August Macke – or at least this is how he painted himself in 1906, at the age of nineteen. He looks a little bit like one of my sons, and though August lived a century ahead of him, both boys began their careers as costume designers. Boys any mother would be proud of, for their sparkling talent, their diligence, their abilities at adorable pouting.

By 1910, barely out of art school, August had become a rising star among the avant-garde, an insatiably curious and studious member of Der Blaue Reiter, a group of expressionist painters that formed in Germany just as August decided he’d give it a proper go.

He was demonstrably averse to boundaries, his style slipping through periods of impressionism, fauvism and cubism in rapid succession, his colours bold and deeply emotional. The sort of young man who would have walked into any room with his brain in gear, wondering with some excitement: Who am I going to meet here tonight? A young man constantly in love – he’d married his childhood sweetheart, Elisabeth, at twenty-two.

image

His mates Wassily Kandinsky, Franz Marc and Paul Klee would go on to become great names in the art world. But August would not.

At the outbreak of war in 1914, August was perfectly ripe for conscription, and he was dead within a month, erased on a battlefield in France, where the front ran through Champagne.

Just another German soldier. And just another reason I don’t do bad guys in my stories.

We love to hate the enemy, or so we’re told. Storytelling 101 says the hero needs bad guys in order to be the very best of the good, in order to gain and sustain our sympathy, to keep us turning the pages.

But I can’t do it. And not only because my own German heritage has played havoc with the standard all my life.

The only truly bad guys I know are psychopaths, incurably destructive people who need to be removed from the rest of us. I made one of them in Paper Daisies, a nasty character a little too close to my own experience of encountering such, except that in real life I’m not permitted to kill the like. I’ve written a similar character in my latest manuscript, Walking – a sadist, a creep, someone ruled by jealousy and the monsters that can be unleashed when ambitions outweigh talents, perhaps a little like a certain German führer who could never help overplaying his pathetic hand. I didn’t kill that one, though: I took the realer road and had him more or less get away with it.

Bad guys, by their deliberate, calculated cruelties, don’t deserve to be among us. They don’t deserve equal billing with those of us who strive to make and give and love. They don’t deserve to be remembered.

But where’s dramatic tension in a tale without a full-bodied, slavering and ever-menacing nemesis? I can hear some writers ask, and I can only answer that the nemesis I want to explore most of all is the trickiest and most powerful one: the enemy that sits within the hero. The best battle that’s ever fought and won: with the self. Yeah okay, it’s not an approach that’s worked its way to the top of the sales charts for me. Yet – heh.

Graduation from bestseller school isn’t why I’m in this game, though. I want to use what’s left of the blink in time that’s mine to say things about the best of us, about the most of us who just want to be better tomorrow than we were yesterday.

To say that boys like August were heroes too.

Just as the world descended into madness, he painted this picture called ‘Farewell’. It’s incalculably sad: the colours dull, the faces rubbed out.

The heart of a boy who didn’t want to go to war. A boy who didn’t need to meet a bad guy to prove his worth.

image

10296_66cm_ 001

LIFE WELL LIVED

Letting go of a story that’s lived in your imagination for years is no easy thing to do. In fact, for me, it’s not so much a matter of letting go as riding a cold wave of change – a little like dealing with grief, or at least shades of it. It’s not a goodbye so much as an adjustment to a new reality.

None of my characters are just characters; none of them are inventions serving only a plot. They’re pieces of me, cyphers that lead me to an understanding of something I need to know, a line of love I need to follow, and for all that, they are very real.

Hugo Winter, the orthopaedic surgeon at the centre of the novel I finished last month, has been with me for the last twelve years, a man whose tale of love in all its colours insisted I tell it. Sometimes it’s felt as if he’s been sitting beside me, looking over my shoulder, telling me to hurry up with whatever I’m writing so that I can be with him.

He’s based on a real chap: a doctor called Max Herz who lived and worked in Sydney across the first half of the twentieth century, quietly curing children of disabling injuries, reconstructing their bones, reshaping their lives. A man who would charge the rich and famous a premium for his services so that he could treat the poor and the small for free. A man who put a lot of important noses out of joint because of that – and because he was a foreigner, a German, a Jew. Not someone the Establishment was ever going to love; not someone who ever cared what the Establishment thought, either.

Apart from the surgical skills and a few other obvious details, Hugo is me: an outsider, a solo flyer, an unashamed unfitter-innerer, but one with a lot to give, and one who will continue to give regardless of whether or not those in power value what’s being offered. That’s not something I could ever farewell or put away: it’s indelibly tattooed upon my own character.

As I set off now on a new story adventure – a dazzling date with an acrobat, and an actual cup of tea with one of Australia’s leading physical performers next week – Hugo continues to sit with me. Right now he’s harassing me about a few lines in one of the last chapters of the manuscript. It’s called Walking, and as an orthopaedist he’s concerned I have one of the other characters – a fellow called Jim Cleary – up out of bed and walking too quickly after a badly broken leg. Yes, I’m arguing a point of medicine with man who doesn’t exist. But he loves Jim as much as I do; and he’s especially fond of Jim’s physiotherapist Lucy Brynne. Hugo taught Lucy everything she knows – they’ve been close ever since he treated her for a terrible injury she suffered when she was a little girl – and he doesn’t want her getting any medicine wrong, never mind things not working out well with Jim’s leg. The stakes are dizzyingly high! For Hugo, anyway.

And I listen to him. He’s more than a friend, imaginary or otherwise. He’s taught me so much about living, and giving, and the point of it all. He’s taught me so much about dignity and diligence, and the wisdom of walking away from those who aren’t ever going to share your page.

As an old man reflecting on his achievements and his readiness for making his final cheerio in the spring of 1948, he understands: ‘He’d made others smile; he’d made children smile. He’d taken care of those in need wherever he could and changed their circumstances for the better… He’d felt more joy than sadness on balance across all the years. He was loved.’

What else is there?

Thank you, Hugo, for all your hanging around. Now, back to that point of medicine…