Kim Kelly

Australian Author

Month: June, 2017

real like

REAL LIFE

He smiles at me across the twelve-pack of toilet rolls on the checkout conveyor: ‘How are you today?’

‘Hm. Good. You?’ I look away, blushing, suddenly flustered.

The checkout boy is about twenty, fresh-faced, intelligent eyes, and he has no idea I’ve used him as the model for a World War II RAAF flight engineer in my latest manuscript. This boy is younger, possibly still at university, and whenever I see him at the supermarket, I have a compulsion to tell him not to join the air force. A rush of maternal concern: as if I know him.

Somehow, somewhere amid the universal soul soup we’re all adrift within, perhaps I do. All of my characters certainly appear out of it, and often without me knowing at the time. My RAAF man came to me quite unexpectedly in the middle of my chapter three and while he looks very much like checkout boy, in spirit he’s the whispering shadow of a real-life RAAF man. Fred Dennis was his name and, as navigator, with set-square, pencil and stopwatch, he flew in the Battle of Britain, and once flew Winston Churchill himself. He’d have been in his seventies when he stole my heart with his stories. In many ways, he’s nothing like my fictional man – for a start, they’re not even the same nationality – but my imagination, questing through the soup, has sought to honour him and his quiet, melancholy heroism. And I didn’t realise I’d done it until I found myself at the end of my story in tears of recognition: ‘Oh – Fred!’

When I say, as I often do, that all my characters are real people to me, this is what I mean: they are made of fragments of love and wonder at the people around me.

Of course sometimes that wonder explores aspects of humanity that frighten me. Netty Becker in The Blue Mile, for example, is an awful, sniping gossip, amusing on the one hand for her know-all nosiness, but breathtakingly destructive on the other, spreading lies about others for no purpose other than her own gratification. And then there’s Alec Howell, the sadistic, misogynist uncle from Paper Daisies: he is every bully I’ve ever met – and I found a great deal of satisfaction in killing him on the page. It is a bit of screwed-up fun to punish those who’ve punished me in real life in these ways, but generally I don’t do bad guys. I suppose, in my experience, they seem so far in the minority, why give them more attention than they deserve? I’d rather celebrate the strengths and triumphs of those I admire: there is an ever-increasing multitude of them. And, if my stories are my legacy in this life, I want to leave behind me trails of light: kindness, compassion, wisdom.

We’re all miraculous survivors in one way or another. We are stupid, annoying, frustrating, blind to our faults and more, yes, but we’re all amazing, too. As I’ve said elsewhere and several times, if that makes me a sentimentalist – oh well. What did Nietzsche say about playing with monsters and staring too long into the abyss?

I stare into my soup instead and find more interesting depths of reality there, sprinklings of interconnectedness I can’t begin to understand. But I want to.

How is it that in writing The Blue Mile, whose colourful hero Olivia is so much my Nana, I inadvertently discovered one of her most closely held secrets? I gave posh Olivia a convict grandfather in her family closet completely unaware that this was Nana’s truth. It was only during some idle research of her unusual maiden name, Mellish, a year or two after the novel was published that I stumbled upon the facts – and I swear I heard Nana gasp from the stars. Sorry, Nana.

Although I’m not a religious person or in any way into woo-woo, the idea that we’re somehow atomically, interdimensionally entwined is a compelling one for me. Did my convict want me to find him? Did he stare back at me from the soup?

If so, he’s not the first to have done it. When I was madly scrambling at the final, final, last-minute history checks for my first novel, Black Diamonds, before it went to print, I thought I’d just better make sure none of my German-Australian family went to the Western Front during World War I – as does Daniel Ackerman in the story. I searched the Australian War Memorial databases, as I had done several times already – I even remember thinking, ‘Why am I being so neurotic about this? Who cares if there was family there or not?’ – when the name Henry James Schwebel shouted back at me: ‘Here I am!’ One of my Pop’s cousins, as it turned out, and he’d died in Flanders, slaughtered like so many thousands of other Australians there. I hadn’t known he’d existed at all until that moment.

I was suddenly awash with ninety years of untold grief, floods of it, and astonishment that I’d just written a novel that might as well have traced Henry’s path – only Daniel, in the story, makes it home again.

The real-life model for Daniel was a lovely young man not unlike my supermarket checkout boy. He’d gone to school with my own boys, a little older than my eldest. When I first began writing Black Diamonds, I sketched much of its opening chapters in the car while my eldest played cricket on Saturday mornings, and whenever I looked up at the sports field I couldn’t help but notice the boy with dark hair, a glint of auburn in it, who was bigger and more skilled than all the others. The way he moved, so gracefully, and his encouragement of the younger, smaller boys, had me magicking him into a man on my pages. I can’t think about Daniel without thinking about him.

But I can’t name him. Not here. This boy didn’t quite get to become a man. He was killed in a car accident on the highway not far from where we lived a few years after the novel was published. I’d always meant to tell his mother what I’d done, how I’d used her beautiful son, and I couldn’t tell her then. Perhaps I will one day. Or perhaps she’ll read the novel sometime and find a whisper of him there. Either way, he is there and always will be. Really.

 

 

Red Earth blog

HEART COUNTRY

As a serially displaced Irish-German-Catholic-Jewish atheist with a convict or two in the closet, notions of home and belonging have always been wonders to me. Where do I come from? Why am I here? What kismet has made me so lucky I get to live in Australia? What is Australia?

These are questions of an outsider, I suppose, the fascinations of an immigrant, and I return to them again and again in all my fictions. Even though by one thread of family, I’m sixth-generation Australian, most of the time I feel like a visitor, just passing through, no fixed address. And yet the land and the light, the shapes and the sounds and the smells of this country are part of me like no other place on earth.

It’s a curious push-pull many Australians feel, especially those of us who are of mixed heritage. There seems to be a whispering everywhere: you’re not authentically anything. Not really one thing or the other.

We tie ourselves up in knots over cultural connections to country. First Nations’ people who live on traditional lands are on the one hand at the pinnacle of belonging – belonging to the oldest continuous culture and continent in the world – and yet in every other sense they are too often neglected and disrespected by the rest of us. Those of us of European background are on the one hand at the pinnacle of power and privilege, and yet we seem to have forgotten that our culture, too, has deep and beautiful roots that stretch back as far as time itself – to the same place we all began, a place far beyond any knowing.

Culture isn’t a competitive sport but we’re quick to rank each other in these terms – and far too quick to say those who are mixed or conflicted have no culture at all, or that those who are citified have no true connection to country, either. I don’t own an Akubra or a cattle station; most of my forebears were wandering working-class nobodies who washed up on these shores with nothing and died with nothing too. Does this mean I have less claim to call this place home today? Some, it seems, really do think so. Just as some confuse a rejection of religion with a lack of spirituality.

Every day I walk along the track that leads to my house in central New South Wales and from the ridgetop it sits upon I look east towards Bathurst and Sydney and west towards Canowindra and the rest of the continent, and it’s not unusual for me to be overwhelmed with joy and gratitude at the beauty that surrounds me. The rolling hills that sweep green over gold over green with the seasons; the huge sky: mad bright blue in January; pale and grey-bellied with snow in July. The countless small miracles of my history, every twist and trick of fate that brought me here, to this place.

I feel this beauty and this history rising up through my feet. I feel the sun on my shoulders as the hand of love. I feel my heart swell in my chest. I feel a longing for this place whenever I’m away. I feel relief when I return.

I am in love with this country. I came to live here, on this piece of it, with my love, my Deano, who happens to be of English, Ulster Irish and French descent, my enemy in every heritage, and who was born in the red-dirt country of the desert’s edge, just as I was born in the city by the sea.

This country – every speck of it my boots have touched – inspires me to think and dream, to tread more carefully, to listen with my feet and my skin and my heart. My stories are all songs to this country, my country, told with the music and the poetry that beats in my blood across millennia.

I come from many cultures, many countries of bold and courageous travellers: we all do. Those whose feet have walked these tracks forever and those who arrived just yesterday, kissing the rock-solid safety of this place.

It took every one of us such a long time to get here. Let’s cherish this country, our sacred country, our Australia, and cherish all who live and love within it, wherever we’ve come from.

beach maroubra

Images: view across one of the neighbours’ paddocks from The Bend, where I live today, and Maroubra Beach, in eastern Sydney, where I was raised.