Kim Kelly

Australian Author

Category: Uncategorized




This dirty little three-letter word is just about the worst thing anyone could say about another’s creative efforts.

‘My darling, I’ve cooked you a beautiful meal.’ Meh.

‘Do you like the new outfit I made?’ Meh.

‘I think I might, in my wildest imaginings, have just glimpsed the cure for cancer!’ Meh.

‘Yeah, I can hardly believe it either, but I think I’ve written a novel.’ Meh.

It’s the worst word with which to condemn another’s endeavours to make and do as it carries not only dismissal and contempt, it suggests that the effort was so dull and pointless it barely deserves any reaction at all.

I received a ‘meh’ once, a few years ago now, and it was a fairly unforgettable experience, made far more revolting by the fact that it came from a fellow author, who felt the need to express it publicly. We all say half-arsed things from time to time, but among them the meh is somehow indelible. I met that author face to face a few months ago and all I saw was the meh, as if that word were tattooed across their forehead, and, as per the immutable laws of emotional physics, I was instantly so overwhelmed by a desire to spit on the ground at their feet in disgust, I was compelled to turn away. No meh about it.

Boohoo me. But there’s a depth of meh yet more putrid still – meh-ing a classic, a work of great skill – and I stepped into steaming example of such just yesterday.

Backstory: one of my human babies recently worked on the forthcoming Bruce Beresford film adaption of the novel, The Women in Black (most fabulously as an assistant costumier, go baby, mamma woot, punch the air). Written by the late Madeleine St John twenty-five years ago, it’s an impeccably crafted slice of stultifying mid-century Sydney, sans aircon and avec lashings of satire. One of its central characters, a young woman on the cusp of going to university, is so excruciatingly and beautifully caught between her parochialism and her yearning to discover herself and the world through words, she is me – and millions of other Australian women, timelessly. The novel also has more layers of butter and salt than a post-war Hungarian cheese puff: cultural cringe and kitsch, sacred Australiana, our top-class competitive sports of anti-intellectualism, insularity and misogyny on full-colour display, a text that asks, ‘What’s changed?’ with wisps of Voltaire, Tolstoy and Blake dancing round its edges, both mocking our smallness and beckoning larger and more dangerous thoughts.

And then yesterday, in wanting to have a look at the resurgence of interest the book was no doubt enjoying as a result of said film, I decided to consult the usual review hubs to see how it was being received by readers, and there my eyes almost immediately fell upon the word ‘meh’.

You have got to be fucking kidding, I said to myself at first glance, but when I saw the reviewer was yet another fellow author my heart hit the floor.

Really? Madeleine St John is dead and even if she were alive I’m sure she wouldn’t give half a sliver. What upsets me – inconsolably – is that other authors, who know what it means and what it takes to write a book, would even think to treat others of their ilk with such flagrant disregard.

Meh is not clever. As a writer and permanent student of literature and life, your feelings about a text are irrelevant; let them interfere with your critical faculties, and your opinions are even less worthy. As a writer, a thoughtful, curious writer, your primary quest, surely, is to consider the intentions of any author you read, weigh up how well you consider those intentions have been executed in light of your own ever-gaping ignorance, and to pinch what you can of their best bits. Anything else is arrogance.

Use the meh and you prove you warrant no better yourself.

F&L hi-res


The lovers in my new novel, Lady Bird & The Fox, seem such an unlikely couple, at first glance.

Annie Bird is a part Mulgoa, part English woman searching for her Wiradjuri grandfather. She’s Aboriginal in both her understanding of herself, and in the way others treat her; but she’s been robbed of the vast majority of her culture, her Aboriginal inheritances, and especially mourns the loss of her mother’s language. At the same time, she is both intellectually and conscientiously Christian.

Jem Fox, on the other hand, is part Polish, part French, and although educated in London, in the English public school system, with all its oppressive Christianity and class snobbery, he is inescapably culturally Jewish. As a result of these clashes and confusions, he’s rejected religion, and any convention, pretty much entirely.

Both of them are Australian, though. Their starry paths cross and they fall in love with each other. Like people from diverse backgrounds do, every day. The love of Annie and Jem is a love that’s destined to be successful in every way, and yet the more successful they become in business, the more the complex cultural details of their lives will be whitewashed away. Jem’s Jewishness disappears from annals of the day; the colour of Annie’s skin is omitted from any mention. Their grandchildren, and great grandchildren, and so on down the line, might inherit little more than a whisper of who these lovers that made them really were.

It’s a trick of history Australians are particularly champion at. It’s also a form of identity theft against those who sit outside what the mainstream decides an Australian should look like, and we do it all the time, every day, today. We have done it, forever and most profoundly, to First Nations people, and these thefts should be considered crimes.

The year after the novel ends, 1869, the Aboriginal Cricket Team mentioned in the story, a group of grown men who’d been touring England, returned to a country in which the laws had been changed, at least in Victoria, to ensure an Aboriginal person couldn’t leave these shores again without government permission; those men could now also have their applications to marry arbitrarily refused.

The year this novel was begun, 2014, a beautiful, vibrant Aboriginal woman, Miss Dhu, died of complications of septicaemia and pneumonia in a police cell in Western Australia, there for unpaid traffic fines. The same year, in the case of another young Aboriginal woman, Lynette Daley, who was raped so savagely that she died of her injuries, the New South Wales Department of Public Prosecutions decided that the white men who attacked her could not be charged despite coronial recommendation and the glaring evidence against them; an injustice that has only been overturned, by the determined efforts of her family, as I wrote these trail-of-breadcrumbs notes for the novel more than three years later.

Throughout the writing of it, I came up against immeasurable holes in the historical records of what happened to the Mulgoa and the Bathurst-Wambool Wiradjuri, after colonisation. Half-sketched or absent acts of war that remain unresolved by truce or treaty today. Open wounds that can only be closed by the telling and acknowledgement of the truth.

What really happened and is continuing to happen is that Australia has a devastating problem with racism.

As an Australian of European descent, I wrestled for a long time with the ethical dilemma of taking on the voice of a First Nations, Aboriginal character, but Annie’s is a voice that’s been with me a long time. This woman is my friend. I grew up at La Perouse, on the northern, axe-edged tip of Botany Bay, where half my friends were Koori and the other half came from all over the world. Few of us fitted neatly into the white-bread square of what an Australian should be. The Aboriginal people in my life today are not only people I’m proud to call friends, but are among my oldest friends. Maybe it was inevitable that I would one day try to write a bold, determined and triumphant black woman to match the examples in my own reality.

It was a chance encounter that really got Annie Bird whispering, and sometimes shouting, into my ear, though. I was roaming through some research, wanting to discover the history of the wild west of the New South Wales goldfields, where I live today (and indulging my long-held love affair with that period, the 1970s TV series Rush and my abiding crush on the actor John Waters), when I came across a fleeting footnote to the white male history of the times: the real-life bushranger wife of Captain Thunderbolt, Mary Ann Bugg. Bugg was the daughter of an ex-convict English farmer and an Aboriginal woman of unknown nationality (possibly Worrimi or Biripi) from the Hunter Valley area; she was boarding-school educated in Sydney and variously said to be exceptionally beautiful and articulate, a cracking good opera singer and a resourceful, britches-wearing bushwoman; some time after her husband was shot dead by police in 1870, in one account, she stated that her heritage was Maori rather than Aboriginal, possibly in order to obtain work and perhaps to retain her independence, to avoid being corralled on a mission station and having her life controlled by church and state. Her story, or the wisps of it that remain, intrigued me for what it says about the nineteenth-century myth of the First Nations peoples’ inability to make their way in the white world or between cultures; and what it says about survival.

My story is not an Aboriginal history, though, and doesn’t pretend to be. The intricacies of that history are not mine to tell. Like all my stories, Lady Bird & The Fox is an expression and invention of the love, curiosity and despair I have for the country I call home. There are many First Nations writers exploring stories of dispossession and survival and triumph through their fiction today, the complexity and diversity of that experience infused with living, contemporary culture: Anita Heiss, Alexis Wright, Kim Scott, Tony Birch, so many more – discover them and be richer for it. It’s my hope only that I inspire readers of all kinds to go and find out more – more and more of the truth.

As for my credentials as an 1860s larrikin Ashkenazi Jew, well, perhaps there’s a fair amount of that in my DNA, both Prussian and Irish, an intense need to know what Sydney was like when they stepped off the ship, and to understand how and why that element of my family identity has remained so strong so far down the line. To have an Irish Catholic great-great-grandmother, as I do, is one thing; to have an Irish Jewish great-great-grandmother as well feels, to me, like I’ve inherited some kind of cultural jackpot.

But Jews have often been painted out of the picture of Australia, too. It’s a consistently overlooked fact that they have been a significant part of the fabric of Australian life since British colonisation, and have contributed to this country enormously – far beyond their weight of numbers, and despite religious and racial prejudice. Among the approximately one hundred and fifty thousand convicts transported to Australia, it’s thought that around one thousand of them were Jews; by 1868, when the colonies had swelled to a population of about one and a half million, about six thousand Jews had come to call Australia home. From the beginning, they’ve comprised only about half a percent of the population and yet gave us our first Australian-born governor-general, Sir Isaac Isaacs, and our first and most famous military general, Sir John Monash – both of them born here during the gold rushes.

These identities aren’t political dots points. They are real people, who live and love. They are the twenty-four million from all over the world who call Australia home today.

They are Annie and Jem.

They are you and me.

bigot wttle


This is the catchcry of every Australian hard-arse bigot: ‘Get over it.’

Lost your job and ended up homeless? ‘Get over it. Pull your socks up and get another job.’

Lost your country and ended up in an offshore gulag? ‘Get over it. Save the sob story for someone who cares.’

Been abused for speaking a language other than English in public? ‘Get over it. And I asked for extra peanuts on my Gang Ped Goong or are you frigging deaf too?’

Been refused service in a pub because your skin is darker than the barman’s? ‘Get over it. Don’t think you’re going to get away with playing the race card, either – I just don’t like the look of you.’

It’s 2018 and this stuff is still everyday.

Yesterday, an old school friend, noted for being a well-balanced realist with a sense of humour that delights in just about every absurdity, put up a Facebook post which included the words: ‘Most who know me know that I’m not overly touchy on racism subjects…’


Someone he knows had just experienced the humiliation of being refused a drink in a hotel. The man in question is a well-respected member of the community, and he wasn’t drunk – apparently, he hadn’t yet had the chance to get a drink of any kind at all. Behind him, the bar was filled with very pissed and very loud backpackers. This man was refused a drink for only one reason: he’s Aboriginal. The name of the bar was said to have been Scruffy Murphy’s, by the way, in Sydney’s CBD – a well-known den of excess, sitting across the road from Chinatown, oblivious to every irony.

What followed, in the Facebook thread, made me cry: men sharing their own experiences of this rejection, this casual cruelty, not with anger, but with sad resignation. One man, another I went to school with, said, ‘I’ve never been allowed to enter Coogee Dolphins.’ Another man said simply, ‘It will never stop.’

We hear everywhere, blasted from mainstream media megaphones, that Australia has no problem with racism. We’re told that if only Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people got over themselves and the past they’d be fine. We allow the powerful – academics, politicians, former prime ministers – to dismiss any claims of hurt with counter-claims that colonisation was good for everyone. ‘Hey, don’t they like having mobile phones and all that?’ We have a present prime minster who greasily asks a gathering of the top First Nations thinkers in the land how they might best influence public policy, and then promptly, shamelessly, ignores the advice.

The advice to First Nations people from the maggoty heart of all our reflexive, guilt-rancid racism is: ‘Get over it. Or would you prefer to be hurled back into the Stone Age?’

And yes, a ‘journalist’ from the Murdoch press actually said words to this effect in the lead-up to Australia Day – and no, I’m not going to name him, because I’m not going to lend him one dot more of the infamy he craves.

Over the past few months, I’ve been riding my regular little rollercoaster of worry that I have no business, as a gub who is White As, writing about race. The increasing colour-between-the-lines strictures of identity politics say I should leave this space to those who face it. The mostly middle-class demands for authenticity and purity of voice shake me daily. But I can’t step away. I can’t see these things, and feel these reflections of trauma, and be quiet.

I see the small-boy faces of those men I went to school with and it breaks my heart. And I won’t be getting over it myself, because they never will.


The newspaper clipping above is taken from the Freeman’s Journal, Sydney, 1877

Greghamstown 1


This is Greghamstown, one of the tiniest dots on the map of New South Wales. These days, its main street consists of half a handful of tin roofs and a few dozen outlying rural properties, one of which is The Bend, where I live, and depending on which map you consult, it appears as a hamlet of Millthorpe or of Blayney – or doesn’t exist at all.

It was only a strange trick of time that brought me here in the first place. My muse de bloke, Deano, and I were facing the grinding crisis of his surprise bout of catastrophic kidney failure, and the promise and fear of impending surgery that would see me give him one of mine. What else do you do at such a juncture but buy a small and gorgeous slice of nowhere?  That’s what we did, anyway. An act of faith in defiance of heartbreak.

A home. And one I’ve never felt so much at home within – which was a surprise in itself. I’ve always been unanchored to place, being a person of blended identity and aware since childhood of my status as interloper. Outsider. Cultural drifter. This is where my fascination with history began: who am I and how did I get here? Questions that have revealed an infinity of time tricks and shown me always how very blessed I am to have any home in this country at all.

Even before we moved into The Bend, I began fossicking for stories about this place, and one of the first I found was a snippet from The Leader, an old newspaper printed out of Orange, in 1912:

A thoroughly enjoyable afternoon and evening was provided by the Greghamstown folk on Wednesday when the usual picnic and concert in aid of the Anglican Church was carried out in the church grounds. The day was an ideal one for a picnic, and in consequence the attendance was unusually large, about 300 adults and children being present, including many visitors from Blayney, Millthorpe, and the whole of the district. Afternoon tea was served in a marquee specially erected for the purpose, and it speaks well for the ladies in control that notwithstanding the extra number of visitors there was ample for all. The concert was held in the marquee, which was packed. A bright varied programme met with generous applause and appreciation.

Three hundred people at a picnic, here? Of course that then sent me off fossicking further into the past, finding all kinds of stories, clues to the changing shapes of this country – whispers of war and land-grabbing, gold rushes and grazing.

In our shiny, grimy, ever-swelling cities that cling to the coast, it’s easy to imagine that our knock-em-down-build-a-bigger-one approach to urban development is just the way things are, and that the bush is somehow a static mystery we’re all a bit too busy to be bothered with. But places like Greghamstown hold the archaeological keys to the dynamic, ever-epic identity we all share: fierce battles between the Wiradjuri and the military force sent out to crush them; the corruptions of wealthy pastoralists who thrived on stolen land; the savagery of bushranging outlaws who sought to tear it all down; the genteel carving up of the vast squatters’ runs into smaller selections in hopes of taming this country and her people. All these things happened in and around Greghamstown – a place that’s all but been reclaimed now by the bush its imagineers fancied they might conquer.

Just as our lives are ephemeral, so is everything we make and do, but in another act of faith in defiance of heartbreak, I started a novel here that first spring we arrived at The Bend. When we wrestled with doubt about the move, I’d asked my Deano, ‘Where do we want to be if things go bad?’ Whispering with all my soul: Where do you want to die? No contest. We had to make our move. But in my own quieter terror, I asked myself: ‘What do I want to die writing?’

Fast and loud the story roared onto the page, driven by all my own wonderings of who I am and how I got here, and urged on, too, by all those who gazed out at this country before me. I wrote to laugh with every lucky hand that had brought me to this precise place, so full of questions itself, and to cry with every loss that had delivered its mortgage documents to me.

As the unlikely hero of my story, Jeremy Fox, falls in love with Annie Bird, a young woman searching for her own place on the map, searching for her Wiradjuri grandfather, he is struck by the truth of Aboriginal dispossession and dispersal as it contrasts with his own Hebrew heritage:

Things change, times change, names change, people come, people go, like tides, Jews flee Tangier once every century, and return to begin again, but there’s something about Annie Bird’s loss, some lonely-moon marcasite enormity in it, that’s overwhelming.    

And it remains overwhelming. But while we can’t turn back the clock to right the wrongs of the past, we can tell our truths about it for a fairer future – before it all slips through our fingers like sand. I’ve chosen to tell my truths in a spirit of love and justice and gratitude, mostly because that seems to be the only way I can tell a tale.

And I can’t wait to share this one with you. That story I began back then with a pocket full of wishes is at the typesetter now. She’s called Lady Bird & The Fox and come April this year she’ll be set free in the world, taking this little speck of wonder hidden in the hills out around the globe.

greghamstown 3

Find Lady Bird & The Fox at Goodreads here.

nana beach


We have a saying in my family: ‘It’s Nana’s fault.’

Nana was highly strung. If you’ve had an anxiety attack, a bout of melancholy, general hysteria or hypochondria or any other disturbance of the mind – there’s Nana. If you’ve had a blazing barney with your lover – Nana strikes again. If you’ve cooked an inedible meal – evidence of Nana’s genetic legacy.

Nana was also a soprano, a costumier, a milliner, a crack-shot at any game requiring fine motor skills. She was imperious, slightly scary, intensely creative – painting, drawing, designing, draping, taping, climbing up the walls of her tiny Coogee flat. Never still. She was just as intensely beautiful, too, tall and long-limbed, and her creamy skin remained unblemished to her final breath.

She could arrive for Christmas lunch dressed as the festive tree. And dare you to laugh. And dare you not to laugh.

She could be jealous and manipulative, and a shocking snob.

She was there, at the end of the telephone, sitting quietly while I cried at having miscarried, saying only, ‘I’m so sad for you, my girl.’

She was lovely. She was nuts. My Nana. So very much my model for high-pitched Olivia in The Blue MileThe woman I recognise instantly in the photograph above: Nana, about the same age I am now. Is she glaring at the lens contemptuously or having a bit of fun? Probably both.

But trawling through Trove, the National Library’s online archives, I’ve just last night found her anew, as a much younger woman. Ivy Mellish, as she was, born in 1906. I was actually looking for someone else – a freshly discovered cousin called Edward who perished in a shipwreck somewhere between Cuba and Brazil the year before, but that’s another story. The Ivy that emerged from my newspaper search of the Windsor & Richmond Gazette seemed suddenly more acutely heroic – and very close.

I’d known that Nana hung out her dressmaking shingle in 1922 at the age of sixteen, frocking and flouncing the ladies of the district. Windsor and Richmond in those days were quaint farming villages on the postcard-pretty Hawkesbury River at the foot of the Blue Mountains, tiny satellites of Sydney, but judging by the volume of press clippings detailing Ivy’s exploits, this was where her star shone its brightest.

She made her public debut as a songstress at the age of ten, taking part in a fundraiser for the School of Arts, in 1916, and across the following decade seems to have done her bit for every fundraiser going: for the hospital, the church, the local Home for the Infirm, the Men’s Sports Club, the Pitt Town Parents and Citizens Association, the Municipal Band, and for cancer research. She gathered talent about her as she grew, organising concerts, musical plays and fashion parades at the Old Windsor Theatre – many of them raising money for worthy causes as well. Her generosity and her craving for the light flutter together from every mention.

But I also learned that Ivy won the writing prize at Windsor Public School, aged fourteen. I never knew she might once have loved words as I do.

Nana. Perhaps my endless, never-still scribbling is your fault, too.


Windsor & Richmond Gazette, 1922


LB & F


I’m so thrilled to share the news that my next novel, Lady Bird & The Fox, will be out in the world come April 2018. I can’t wait to introduce you to these two characters, who took up residence in my heart with this tale three years ago, but have really been with me forever.

And here’s the blurby bit…

It’s 1868 and the gold rush is sprawling across the Australian wild west, bringing with it a new breed of colonial rogue – bushrangers. A world far removed from hardworking farm girl, Annie Bird, and her sleepy village on the outskirts of Sydney.

But when a cruel stroke of fortune sees Annie orphaned and outcast, she is forced to head for the goldfields in search of her grandfather, a legendary tracker. Determined and dangerously naive, she sets off with little but a swag full of hope – and is promptly robbed of it on the road.

Her cries for help attract another sort of rogue: Jem Fox, the waster son of a wealthy silversmith, who’s already in trouble with the law – up to his neatly trimmed eyebrows in gambling debts. And now he does something much worse. He ‘borrows’ a horse and rides after the thieves, throwing Annie over the saddle as he goes.  

What follows is a breakneck gallop through the Australian bush, a tale of mistaken identity and blind bigotry, of two headstrong opposites tossed together by fate, their lives entwined by a quest to get back home – and the irresistible forces of love.




I’m often asked why I write historical fiction, and it’s often difficult to answer that in a way that truly shows my endless fascination with and commitment to exploring the past, especially Australia’s past, questing for glimpses of who we are, where we’ve come from, what’s changed and what hasn’t.

But this morning, researching the conditions for working women in the late nineteenth century, I came across this article, published in the Brisbane Telegraph, in 1886:


It would be difficult nowadays to mention any sphere of labour into which women do not enter, or try to enter; even in laborious and toilsome work they try to take a share. I have read with great interest (says a writer in Sydney Town and Country), the census returns reporting the remunerative employments entered into, and creditably performed by what is known as the ‘gentler sex’.

It is admitted that they make efficient clerks, bookkeepers, postmistresses. The Telegraph Department in other countries encourage busy female manipulators. Then there is a new introduction, in the form of a machine called a type-writer, by which women of intelligence make a very fair income. Lady doctresses and dispensers, lecturesses and preachers, are deemed desirable, more or less. Photography is another field for them, especially the branches of tinting and re-touching negatives, which require delicate handling. Literature is a ‘pecuniary prize’ suitable for ladles of education many of whom win fame and profitable distinction. Women have been miners and ‘pointsmen’, and occasionally flagswomen are seen on our own lines. Then in artistic work in glass, painting, decorative art, tapestry, wood-engraving, plan-tracing, and mural mosaic work, feminine talent has been recognised. Women have been, and are, in printing establishments as compositors and proof-readers. Even shorthand reporting has been systematically undertaken by ladies.

So, after all, the term ‘working women’ is not a misnomer, however novel it may sound as a novelty. The subject has of late undergone such eager discussion that it might be excusable to think at times that the working woman has just arrived on our planet! Yet women have been thorough and hard workers from time immemorial. In all ages there have been some whose talents brought them to the front to show the world what women can do. In the quieter and less conspicuous home life they have been, and are supreme. Women, as a rule, are thorough; in whatsoever their hand findeth to do, they do with all their might.

Considering the great interest taken in the increased sphere of usefulness of women it is surprising that so little is done respecting the ‘overworked,’ for of all enthusiasts the world has known there are none more eager than women workers. Of course, I refer to the energetic ones, for there are, we know, drones in every hive. But the treadmill of labour is not ‘scamped’ by women, even at the loss, as too frequently happens, of health, spirits, and hope itself, though that is the anchor they cling to last of all. In the domestic circle the anxious mother and fretted wife heroically bears ‘the thousand natural shocks’ that are inevitable, the tender helpmeet of every trouble that assails the home-nest. She is the willing and patient sufferer, and the thoughtful heart does grieve when she is overworked.

Speaks for itself really, doesn’t it?


Photo: Women undergraduate students of Sydney University, 1893.



This is my road home from the shops, a place that changes its shapes and colours with the seasons. Now, it’s fifty shades of green; in summer it turns to straw; in winter, bare-branch grey; autumn flashes red and gold. And always this enormous sky: blue or bruised, it’s beautiful.

This black-ribbon road strings my two worlds together: whatever story I might be writing, and what I need to pick up for dinner. Deciding what I’ll put on my husband’s sandwiches for the week as I grapple with my imaginary hero’s journey: my present companion, back in 1883, doesn’t want to get married at all. She’s a scientist.

My narrative goes where it needs to go, into country held deep in my heart. Every writing day is a new combination of blind bends and crests, a new blend of exhilaration and terror.

I’m responsible for the soundness of this abstract engine, for keeping my story from veering off the road, or crashing head-on with another. Alone, I’m the one who has to turn on the ignition and ease her up the potholed track; some days, I only get as far as the gate; it’s too hard.

Harder than any unkind review; harder than waiting for publishing news; harder than walking across the smashed-glass of other writers’ despair: ew, I hated that book; urgh, I loathe anything written in present tense; god, first person hist fic is soooo pretentious – none of these things said to me, of me, but that might as well have been. They say: give up, there’s no point, it’s all hopeless – as though any writer needs help with issuing that instruction to themselves.

My scientist won’t have a bar of it, though. She’s intrigued by the movement of particles: in the sky, in ashes blown from Krakatoa, and in the water, in the limestone floating in the pools of Jenolan. She’s also about to fall in love.

And the road home, our road, is paved with joy. I can’t wait to write her story – however she wants it told.



I’ve spent the last few days putting together a workshop for a state-wide family history convention, and feeling a bit out of my depth. To be honest, I know as much about genealogy as I do quantum physics – just enough to be confused. Counting back generations of great-greats and calculating cousins once or twice removed puts me in a spin.

Fortunately, I’ve been asked to focus on something I’m a little more proficient at: listening to voices from the past, searching for their lives, piecing together their worlds and making the distance between now and then disappear. I couldn’t think of anything I’d rather do on a Saturday with a bunch of enthusiastic strangers.

But I wasn’t sure how I might piece a workshop together for a group who will all have differing experience levels in writing – and differing desires in how they might want to go about presenting their ancestors on the page.

The query sent me on a hunt for snippets in my own family archives, to illustrate all the different ways we can try to capture something of the real lives of long ago.

I re-read a history from the pen of an uncle-by-marriage that tells a patchwork pastoral of Central Western and Riverina existence through the twentieth century in plain but highly informative language.

At the other end of the scale of historical imaginings, I also re-read Wild Chicory, my thoroughly fictive approach to showing how our cultural heritage and what we remember of family thread through us indelibly, informing all of our todays. It’s a story that explores my Irishness, and, in a way, how easily accessible that piece of my fabric is to me – how bright these story threads are.

As bright and constant, though, is the sense of my European heritage: threads of Germany present in my father’s taste for rollmops and sauerkraut, and always a glint of quiet pride at the Jewishness entwined around this side of the family, too. But these elements of my history are much more mysterious. I clutch at any hint of them as if they might hold the secrets of the universe.

So, you’d think I’d have scoured every last relic, every document in my possession, for all trace of them.

Apparently not.

This afternoon, I discovered the transcript of an obituary written for my great, great, great (I think!) grandfather, Benjamin Woolf, in among a folder full of long-hidden Hebrew treasure given to me by a distant relative about eight years ago. How I missed it, I don’t know – except that my ditzyness probably explains why I’ve always erred on the side of the imaginative.

Published in an unnamed London newspaper in 1832, the headline of this obituary calls Benjamin Woolf, ‘The Celebrated Vocalist’, and the equally unnamed writer details his life fabulously and thusly:

The well-known and much admired theatrical singer & convivialist was born in the year 1780. At the early age of eight he was apprenticed to a watchmaker, with whom he continued for six months. Becoming weary of mechanical pursuits, he prevailed upon his master to cancel his indenture, after which, in opposition to the wishes of his parents, he applied himself to the cultivation of ‘sweet sounds’, & met with considerable encouragement. But finding his musical avocations less profitable than he expected, he was soon induced to enter upon another speculation, & hired himself to a glass cutter, when one of those misfortunes so attendant on youthful negligence, caused him to be dismissed from his servitude. A review in St James’s Park, having attracted him at a time when he had to convey a basket of cut decanters to a customer residing near Whitehall, the pressure of the crowd assembled there forced the basket of glass from his arm, & the contents were crushed to atoms. For this he was dismissed from the service of the glass cutter.

In the year 1793, having attained the age of thirteen, considered amongst the Jews as the first age of manhood, his singing at the Synagogue excited the admiration of the auditory, & from the approbation bestowed upon him on that occasion, we may trace his path through life.

In the year 1798, he became acquainted with some merchants bound on a voyage to Jamaica, who prevailed upon him to follow their fortunes. At that period, the black fever was raging there with more than ordinary fury, & eight of the nine of Woolf’s companions fell victim to its baneful effects, he having a very narrow escape.

On his arrival in England in 1800, he became acquainted with Simpson, the celebrated Harlequin, who, on hearing him sing, introduced him to public notice…

Details of Benjamin’s incredibly illustrious stage career with Sadler’s Wells, Drury Lane and a number of other popular London theatres follow. I’m still digesting how famous he must have been in those circles. But most preciously, the obituary concludes:

He was an affectionate husband, an indulgent parent & an excellent companion…his talent and urbanity always made him a welcome guest.

He left behind him a wife and ten children ‘to lament his loss’, as the writer clearly did too, declaring himself to have been Benjamin’s friend for eighteen years.

He sounds like a chap I’d want to know. Perhaps I already do.

Earlier this year I put the finishing polish on a manuscript that centres, in part, on the life of a raffish London Jew called Jem Fox; it’s with my agent now. I was searching for myself in him, no doubt.

Always searching for pieces of me.

real like


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.