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.

pigs flying

STRETCHING THE IMAGINATION

‘And this is Kim Kelly, our beloved local writer,’ so I was introduced at a function a little while ago.

‘Acclaimed and celebrated beloved local writer,’ I corrected the host and, being a bookish, non-bullshitty pair, we had a jolly old chortle at it.

It seems a writer can’t go anywhere without a string of wildly hyperbolic adjectives these days. Or maybe it’s always been this way. After all, how else do we sell writers to readers? Left up to most writers I know, including yours truly, the more apt exaggeration would likely read:

‘Certifiably barking and semi-permanently exhausted and broke author of fiction she always hopes is a bit better than the mental excrement she fears it might really be, [insert author name] has navigated tsunamis of self-doubt and industry indifference to bring you this still beating piece of her own heart. Here you go – please don’t say too many mean things about it.’

No matter how much honesty there might be in it, it’s not an attractive pitch. Unless desperation is your winning brand, most authors are compelled to learn early on that honesty is not the best policy.

No-one wants to hear how your insecurities and frustrations drive you to the point of dangerous despair. The tortured artist might have been fashionable in Paris or Prague once upon a time in Literary Fantasyland – such a character might indeed be the subject of your novel – but readers, and publishers especially, don’t want to know too much about the depths of your reality. Unless, of course, such chat will help sell your book.

Talk up your strengths and your winning goals, we’re told. Don’t mention your failures and disappointments. I had one adviser early on in my career who told me it was best never to speak at all unless spoken to: ‘And Kimmy, don’t even answer the phone unless it’s a journalist from a respectable publication. And whatever you do, DO NOT SPEAK TO BLOGGERS!’

Those were the days. Can anyone remember what it was like before blogging? I can’t. When my last novel was published, I agreed to a blog tour across which I was called upon to provide some 12,000 interminable words about myself – for free – and within about a three-week period. The insanity that little fiesta of writer-ripoffery induced has wiped all pre-blog memory from this brain – but I digress.

‘Smile! Remember everyone who loves you!’ my better angel somehow always manages to make herself heard above the din. Oh and how I do hold all loveliness close. Those who say nice things about my work, however glancing, are my glue in this game – and that’s no exaggeration. When a reader tells me they liked my book and I tell them that I wept with relief and gratitude on receipt of their praise, I mean I wept with relief and gratitude. Bumping souls with strangers in this strange and wonderful space is the reason I write in the first place. I really do weep with some awe that any of it is possible at all.

‘You should use an exclamation mark there, Kimmy, to emphasise your sincerity. Learn to use emoticons effectively too – you know readers might not understand your tone if you don’t show them.’ Like they’re not capable of absorbing and interpreting whole books.

For Feckenerty’s sake. The book-buying public needs to be enticed, yes, but contrary to all marketing and sales estimates, not a lot of them are stupid. And today, in this brave new age, they have Uncle Google to help them should they be unsure of an author’s adjectives.

If you’re going to say, for example, that you were longlisted for the Miles Franklin, you’d better be certain you were. Or so wisdom might suggest. Such is the pressure on authors now, such is the scrabbling to stand out from the crowd, some risk treading a very fine line between souped-up spruik and lie.

‘Award-winning author of fiction,’ reads a banner that stretches obscure prize for a thesis on poultry-keeping into a bold and authoritative claim. Not that I have anything against chickens, but…

I had to laugh when, some time ago, one publisher described my own novels as ‘bestselling titles’. Of course, being the lowbrow carny I am, I’ve used that line, in all its industry technicality, in correspondence here and there, but I wouldn’t lay such a steaming one at the feet of readers. What’s wrong with: ‘Enjoy more of Kim Kelly’s novels, which have sold respectably well!’? Seriously, is that so bad?

One of the saddest porkies I’ve ever been handed came from a fellow author, though. We’d been toasting a fabulous review of their latest work when the author turned to me and said: ‘And it was such a surprise! Isn’t it incredible to know your words have found their mark across the void?’

‘Hm. Indeed,’ was all I could manage in reply, as the stench of overcooked fib swirled in the air between us. I knew the author and the reviewer were old friends. It wasn’t any secret: I’d just read the book and the name of the reviewer was still blinking at me from the acknowledgements page. Oops.

I guess any industry that even vaguely trades in razzle-dazzle is going to be rife with these sorts of deceptions, these tweaks of the truth, but I wish my industry could be free of them. How good would it be to have a moratorium on hype? Prove how unnecessary it is. Focus on the brilliance in each other’s work instead. Save the tricks of fiction for our pages. Perhaps one day…

Or perhaps pigs might fly.

snippet

YES, YOU NEED AN EDITOR

You want to publish a book? Fantastic! I’m one of those annoying people who believes that everyone indeed has at least one book in them and that it should be let loose in the world. Why not? If only your mum and Aunty Mavis ever reads the thing, who cares. If it’s something you want to do with your time and your brain and your money, then do it.

(Superior types who believe storytelling should be the preserve of some arcane cult of genius elite, please stop reading here.)

Writing a book – a novel, a memoir, a family history, a collection of all your poems, whatever it might be – is a massive achievement. In twenty years of editing and writing and banging on about writing, I’ve never met anyone who’s ever regretted getting their story down. ‘Gee, I wish I’d never written that book,’ said no-one ever – unless Aunty Mavis decided to sue.

But, and it’s a rather large but, if you want your work to shine its best and brightest light, then you need an editor. (A moment of disclosure here: yes, I’m an editor myself, and no, I don’t want to edit your manuscript, because I’m usually either booked up or writing.) I would not dream of having one of my own novels go out into the world without a couple of very rigorous rounds of editing, so why should you?

And yet, I’ve been hearing around the indie traps a lot lately that self-editing skills are sufficient to prepare a book for publication.

They are not.

Even if spelling and grammar are your strengths, even if you have three doctorates in story craft, you will never be your own best editor. I’m one of those doubly annoying people whose manuscripts tend to be exceptionally clean and tidy by the time they do reach an editor’s desk. I’ve fine-tooth-combed the lot, scrutinised every dot and squiggle, triple-checked word choices, facts and figures, and I’ve busted my brain over making sure my story makes sense – and I STILL NEED AN EDITOR.

Let me give you some examples from my very own secret drawer of editorial shame. Even when I try not to, I overuse certain words – ‘now’ and ‘just’ are usually the main culprits. Even though I’m a stickler for crisp dialogue, sometimes I’ve not made it clear who’s speaking. Even though I try to keep my narratives tightly focussed, I sometimes ramble away from the story for a paragraph or two, chatting to myself rather than the reader. And despite my pathological perfectionism, I’ll still fail to spot a typo, or an unnecessary repetition, a character’s name misspelled, an anachronism of some kind, or a plain wrong fact missed in the rush and clutter of writing.

There are so many things going on in your head when you’re at the task of getting a story down, you can’t possibly see them all at once, all the time, and even over several readings, there will still be things you miss.

A personal favourite from Jewel Sea: ‘She rolled her eyes across the table.’ I picked that one up myself, in a paroxysm of laughter, but imagine if it went out?

Of course, books do go out with silly errors in them, but they’re usually small, blink and you’ll miss it, and most readers are forgiving. Most readers understand that books are big things and even with a whole troupe of editors, little mistakes will still be made. So long as the slip-ups don’t interfere with meaning or break the spell of the story, no-one is going to get upset.

And yet, increasingly, I’ve noticed readers getting upset at indie books that could have done with a decent edit. Comments like, ‘I might have enjoyed this novel but the sloppy punctuation throughout was too distracting and confusing.’ Problems with paragraph formatting, tenses, and all manner of easily remedied failures of clarity, seem to be common complaints.

Readers just want to read. They don’t want to walk through rubbish to get to the good stuff. And why should they? Whether they’ve paid $0.99 or $10.99 for a book, they expect to be able to concentrate on what they’re reading without tripping over mess, and if they aren’t able to do that, they’re not going to come back for more. That’s a pretty simple equation.

If it comes to a financial choice between investing in design and marketing or in editing and typesetting, go the editing and typesetting. What’s the point in great window dressing if what’s inside is going to be a letdown? Okay, yes, yes, there are plenty of books out there that have sold squillions and could have done with a firmer editorial hand, but this is your baby. Your book; your forever thing in the world. Your legacy. The traces of you that maybe your great-great-great-great-grandchildren will unearth one day on an ancient library database. Give them your very best and clearest expression. They’re not going to care about your Amazon ranking.

Besides, working with an editor can be a wonderful learning and nurturing experience; it can be the beginning of a great relationship in words and ideas, too. A good editor is not only a highly skilled and dispassionate reader, but someone who cares deeply about books and writing – and writers.

A good editor can help you reach deeper into what it is you’re trying to say. An example here from my not-so-secret drawer of editorial love: when I wrote Wild Chicory, it came out in such a mad torrent, I knew it was a trove of the things I most needed to say, but little Brigid, the child whose story it really is, became lost in the wash along the way. Without the care and insight of my editor, Alex Nahlous, I might not have seen how necessary it was that I hold Brigid inside the narrative more closely for the reader. I’d had a nagging suspicion that something was missing, but my conversations with Alex gave me that ‘Aha!’ moment I needed to find that piece and place it right where my heart needed it to go.

A good editor never tells a writer what to do, but through a combination of objective wisdom, respect and enthusiasm strives to inspire a writer.

Where can you find a good editor, though? In this new realm of online everything, where anyone can whack up a shiny shingle, it can be difficult to know what you’re getting, and there are some shonks around, so go to your local or state writers centre as a first port of call; the Freelance Editors Network is also teeming with talent; and there’s nothing like the endorsement of another writer – if someone you know has sung the praises of their editor, go read that book and look at the quality. Educate yourself on the editorial process and reader expectations; ask questions; make connections.

It might take some time to find the right editor for you – the one who really gets whatever it is you’re trying to do. But it’ll be worth it.

 

 

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.