Kim Kelly

Australian Author

Category: Uncategorized

BoM - high rez short

Book chat with Nigel Featherstone

Author of Bodies of Men

Kim: Nigel! It’s so lovely to meet you here in my little bloggy space, and especially lovely to be chatting with you about your latest novel, Bodies of Men – a war story, a story about what it is to be a man, and an unforgettable love story as well.

From the opening pages of the novel, you’ve captured such an impressive authenticity of place – the North African desert-scapes of 1941, the streets of Alexandria, and the facts of military life. What research did you undertake to make it all so rich and real?

Nigel: Thank you so much, Kim. I’m so very glad you enjoyed the novel. You make my novelist’s heart sing.

The manuscript began in 2013 when I spent three months as a writer-in-residence at UNSW Canberra, which provides the campus for the Australian Defence Force Academy. The Academy Library is an extraordinary resource – it claims to be one of the best military libraries in the world, and it’s a claim that could well be true. I spent the first few weeks of the residency reading novels, non-fiction works including memoir, and poetry; I also watched films, especially documentaries. Essentially I immersed myself in the topic of war. I found that I wasn’t interested in the technical aspects of war, but I was interested in the small moments: the things servicemen did (and thought about, and desired) while waiting around for something to happen or were on leave.

I also became very interested in what could be considered ‘bad behaviour’. In this regard, two books made my blood pump faster. Deserter: a hidden history of the Second World War by Charles Glass (2013) – this movingly chronicles the lives of three servicemen who for a range of complex reasons could not perform as required. And Peter Stanley’s Bad Characters: sex, crime, mutiny, murder and the Australia Imperial Force (2010) – based on military files, this work summarises the experiences of soldiers who were charged for various crimes, challenging the notion that all servicemen were angels.

Once I had my main characters and the key scenario, I started writing, finished a draft, did more research, rewrote, asked for advice from eminent Australian war historians, rewrote, did more research – repeat as required. For six years.

In terms of how to bring to life the Alexandria and Western Desert of the time, I made a decision quite early on in the writing process to rely as much as possible on what I could find on the historical record: diary entries, memoir, paintings, photos, hand-held movie footage, much of which can be found in the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. Of course, what appear in the novel are my creative interpretations, but I do hope they give readers the sense of Egypt in 1941 as two young Australian soldiers may have experienced it.

Kim: You’ve certainly achieved that – in spades. Now, it’s always a big question, but can you tell us a little about the inspiration behind Bodies of Men? What drew you to this story above all others?

Nigel: What I wanted to do when at UNSW Canberra was research different expressions of masculinity under pressure. What does it mean to be a brave man? What does it mean to be a brave human being? How might bravery express itself when we’re a little more open-minded about military history? What are the stories that have been buried by the dominant historical military narrative? So, I didn’t set out to write a love story per se, though I did know that I would explore how gender, sexuality and intimacy might be expressed during war, which is essentially human nature at its worst.

More specifically, in Peter Stanley’s Bad Characters there is a paragraph about a man called Thomas Chilton, who was born in Scotland but enlisted in Melbourne; he was a former member of the British regular army, so was valuable to the AIF. Chilton went on to be wounded in Gallipoli and, despite facing a charge of stealing and receiving stolen goods, received a promotion. In Belgium, on Christmas Day 1918, Chilton was caught being rather intimate with a local man; a court-martial on St Valentine’s Day found him guilty of a serious demeanour, but he failed to appear at the dock to return to Australia. The AIF chose not to pursue him. Whatever happened to Thomas Chilton? Did he disappear in Europe with his lover?

Kim: There’s a romantic thought – and I hope it’s true. There are some very difficult truths in your novel, though, A particularly Australian brand of toxic masculinity seeps into every corner of the story – both at home in wartime Sydney and in the army overseas. It seems an enemy more terrible than any other as it shapes the experiences James Kelly and William Marsh. Was it confronting to write out these kinds of terrors?

Nigel: You’ve tapped into the core of the novel.

Toxic masculinity is something I’ve been interested in for years – decades really. I’ve always thought that the Australian version of masculinity is dangerously narrow. And you’re right: it is an enemy, and it’s certainly an enemy that James and William must face. One of things I was interested in exploring when writing the novel is that war, even just the idea of it, is a poison; that war harms even those at the periphery; and it harms people for generations.

In terms of the writing, I needed to go to some challenging places. Even though, in a way, the novel is quite sweet, there needed to be harrowing terrain, and that involved James and William receiving some rough treatment. I grew very fond of them – perhaps even a little in love with them – so, yes, it was hard to experience what they had to experience. But that’s life during wartime, even when not at the frontline.

Kim: Incorrigible romantic that I am, I certainly fell in love with William and James – pretty much immediately. Theirs is a true love that will stay with me forever. Did you set out to write a great romance, or did it just play out that way as their story revealed itself to you?

Nigel: I’m so glad that you fell in love with William and James too. And to know that their story will stay with you forever – well, I could faint right here, right now! As already mentioned, I didn’t set out to write a love story; I was looking to write about different expressions of bravery. Of course, love – and falling in love – can be a brave act, and different expressions of love (i.e. not heterosexual) can be especially brave, as can merely being yourself. So I guess I knew love would be a key part of the story. During the edits it became the key to illuminating the lives of James and William.

Kim: At every turn, William struggles with what it means to be a man and carries a weight of failure to live up to expectations – so dreadful at one point he thinks of himself as ‘poison’. What are the pressures that trap William in this false sense of himself?

Nigel: William comes from a traditional, upper-middle-class Australian family: he is born and bred on Sydney’s very affluent North Shore; his father was a solicitor before becoming a politician (though, as a young man, he served in the World War One); he attends a private school and spends much of his spare time in Boys’ Brigade. He has two older brothers: one is a professional soldier, the other an Anglican minister. His mother is buckled under the weight of the expectations of her narrowly defined role in the family. So William has all these external pressures, though he is also intelligent – even as an adolescent he asks questions about what it means to be male. And then he finds himself in the army environment and serving overseas, where he ends up having a position of responsibility, albeit a rather strange one. The odds are stacked against him being able to follow his own path. But he does follow his own path, despite his innate caution. Of course, James, who is more certain of himself, partly, perhaps, because he has been raised in a pacifist household, is there to gently – though persistently! – guide William.

Kim: James has the benefit of unconditional love in his life, in the form of his wonderful mum – and he’s the risk-taker of the pair. How important is having that soft place to land for him, or any young person, grappling with the reality of being different?

Nigel: Isn’t James’s mother, Frances, terrific? I adore her. You’re right that out of the two boys, James is the natural risk-taker, because of that unconditional love his mother has given him (though there is also a tragedy in the family, which will be a part of James’s psychology for life and it certainly drives much of his narrative in the novel). I love your idea that James provides a soft place for William to land – that’s exactly what James does, and it’s exactly what William needs. We all experience fear, but those of us who are born different experience a heightened level of fear, because of shame and rejection, of the isolation that comes from not being able to live the life we should be leading.

Kim: We all send our books out into the world as salvos of love in some shape or form, with our best hopes and dreams. What do you hope the love in Bodies of Men will do in the world?

Nigel: Novels as ‘salvos of love’ – that’s terrific.

In the first instance I just hope readers will be moved. However, I also hope it helps to shine a light on different experiences of life during wartime, and not just male experiences. And then there’s a political hope, because the novel does have a political purpose: at its core, even at its heart, is a fiercely anti-nationalistic position. Ever since former prime minister Bob Hawke took a group of Australian ‘pilgrims’ to Gallipoli in 1990 we have experienced an amplification of the ‘Anzac spirit’, which is often a very simplified – and potentially even untrue – version of the story. In essence, Gallipoli has become a myth, one that’s been placed at the centre of Australian history and used to overpower other stories. Shouldn’t we be telling a much broader range of stories? And shouldn’t we be basing those stories on fact? I know that’s a strange question for a novelist to ask, but perhaps novelists have a role in questioning the status quo, in respectfully challenging the dominant mythologies, especially when they are used to limit what a country can be. Australia is – and has always been – much more than a slouch hat.

Kim: I could not agree with you more – and no, I don’t think your question is strange. Facts and political purposes are what underpin my own work. We are living in strange times when novelists are reticent about these things, although in Australia perhaps we’ve always had to be. We do love a good fantasy about ourselves, don’t we?

Finally, and fantastically here, though, we have one copy of Bodies of Men to give away to a lucky Australian reader. If you, dear reader, would like to be in it to win it, please post a thought on how important unconditional love is in your life, below or on my Facebook page. Nigel and I will choose the most beautiful answer on Friday afternoon, 24 May – chat closes at 5pm**. Thanks in advance for all your loveliness.

*

BoM - high rezAbout Bodies of Men

Egypt, 1941. Only hours after disembarking in Alexandria, William Marsh, an Australian corporal at twenty-one, is face down in the sand, caught in a stoush with the Italian enemy. He is saved by James Kelly, a childhood friend from Sydney and the last person he expected to see. But where William escapes unharmed, not all are so fortunate. William is sent to supervise an army depot in the Western Desert, with a private directive to find an AWOL soldier: James Kelly. When the two are reunited, James is recovering from an accident, hidden away in the home of an unusual family – a family with secrets. Together they will risk it all to find answers. Soon William and James are thrust headlong into territory more dangerous than either could have imagined.

International bestselling author of The Lightkeeper’s Wife Karen Viggers said of Bodies of Men: ‘A beautifully written, tender and sensitive love story told within the tense and uncertain context of war.’

Find the book at all major Australian and New Zealand retailers – buy links are all here.

NF_5785-HRAbout Nigel Featherstone

Nigel Featherstone is an Australian writer who has been published widely. His new novel, Bodies of Men, is published by Hachette Australia. His other works include the story collection Joy (2000), his debut novel Remnants (2005), and The Beach Volcano (2014), which is the third in an award-winning series of novellas. His short stories have appeared in numerous Australian literary journals, including Meanjin, Overland, and the Review of Australian Fiction. Nigel was commissioned to write the libretto for The Weight of Light, a contemporary song cycle that had its world premiere in 2018. He has held residencies at Varuna (Blue Mountains), Bundanon (Shoalhaven River), and UNSW Canberra at the Australian Defence Force Academy. He lives on the Southern Tablelands of New South Wales.

Find Nigel on twitter and instagram @ngfeathers, at his website here.

Find my full review of Bodies of Men at The Newtown Review of Books here.

**The giveaway is for Australian addressees only, please, as postage costs from downunder are scarily prohibitive.

 

Two Kellys

Move over Corbett and Barker, Kelly Rimmer & Kim Kelly are coming to town… 

We two Central West writers will be getting together to talk about taking our stories to the world and the triumphs and challenges of writing stories close to our hearts.

Here’s the blurby bit:

Kelly Rimmer is an internationally bestselling author of gripping women’s fiction, with novels translated into more than 20 languages. Kelly hails from Orange and her new novel, The Things We Cannot Say, is a story of war, sacrifice, uncovering truths of the past, and the present – and it’s inspired by some very personal stories, too.

Kim Kelly is an acclaimed author of Australian historical fiction, stories of ordinary people enduring extraordinary times, told with lyrical charm. Kim hails from Millthorpe and her new novella, Sunshine, is a tale of returned soldiers finding new lives out the back of Bourke – literally. Kim’s story holds some deep personal significances for her too.

When Australians think literary talent, they don’t immediately think beyond the sandstone curtain of the Great Divide, but these two writers have been quietly carving out successful careers, and delighting readers from all over the world. Kelly and Kim each write different stories and in different styles but share a dedicated passion for telling them. Come and be inspired by their tales tall and true.

At Bathurst, Booksplus, April 10, 6pm, and dates to be announced soon at Newcastle and Central Coast.

WWWW banner

WILD WEST WOMEN WRITERS BOOK TOUR

I’m so excited to be gallivanting around with fabulous Australian authors Alissa Callen and Kelly Rimmer on book tour this year. Here’s the blurb and buzz on who we are and what we’ll be chatting about as we make our way around the state…

Three popular writers from the Central West of New South Wales take to the road to chat about their new novels – and share the secrets of their writing success.

Kelly Rimmer is an internationally bestselling author of gripping women’s fiction, with novels translated into more than 20 languages. Kelly hails from Orange and her new novel, The Things We Cannot Say, is a story of war, sacrifice, uncovering truths of the past, and the present.

Alissa Callen is an internationally bestselling author of rural fiction, woven along secrets and romance, from the red dirt roads of home to far-off cowboy ranches. Alissa hails from Dubbo and her new novel, The Round Yard, is a heartfelt tale of discovering where you really belong.

Kim Kelly is an acclaimed author of Australian historical fiction, stories of ordinary people enduring extraordinary times, told with lyrical charm. Kim hails from Millthorpe and her new novella, Sunshine, is a tale of returned soldiers finding new lives out the back of Bourke – literally.

When Australians think literary talent, they don’t immediately think beyond the sandstone curtain of the Great Divide, but these three wild west women writers have been quietly carving out successful careers, and delighting readers from all over the world. Kelly, Alissa and Kim each write very different stories but share a dedicated passion for telling them. Come and be inspired by their tales tall and true!

TOUR DATES

Sydney

Cronulla Library, Monday 11 March, 6.30 pm

Hills Shire Library, Tuesday 12 March, 6.30 pm

Regional

Narromine Library, Tuesday 26 March, 11 am

Dubbo Library, Tuesday 26 March, 3 pm

Orange Library, Wednesday 27 March, 5.30 pm

Forbes Library, Thursday 28 March, 2pm

Mudgee, fireside night at The Cellar by Gilbert, Wednesday 19 June

Parkes Library, Thursday 19 September, 5.30 pm

And more dates to come – yeeha!

 

me xmas

WORST CHRISTMAS EVER

This morning, Facebook reminded me with a photograph of my own cheesy smile that it’s been four years since my muse de bloke Deano and I spent Christmas recovering from kidney surgery. Not everyone’s preferred choice for celebrating the yuletide but I don’t think I’ll ever beat that Christmas for the best. Marvelling that my little kidney was powering my rather much larger husband, returning the light into his eyes – those blue eyes so bright! – every moment was a rush of joy and wonder.

Seven years prior, though, I was in the midst of my very worst. My ex had called to ask me not to attend the usual family Christmas in Sydney – to drop the kids and leave. He’d begun seeing someone else and didn’t want me to make a scene. I could have laughed: I’m not exactly renowned for making scenes other than those written in books. But laughter, along with any other kind of light, drained from me in that instant. I was out of my mind that anyone would dis-invite me to Christmas for any reason.

Not being a scene-maker, I did as I was bid: dropped the kids and slunk away. I had other things to do that day anyway. My darling old dithery father Charlie was dying, tucked up in the final stages of dementia and the bewildering heartbreak of having lost Mum almost three years before.

I met my brother Mark at the hospice where Dad lay. Mark had been Dad’s stalwart advocate and chief entertainer as I dealt with the fallout of my own small but epic family disintegration – and because I lived a couple of hours away, in the Blue Mountains. This hospice, though, necessary to Dad’s care at that time as it was, could only be described as a place of grey desolation. Cheap deodoriser mixed with stale smells of last days, baked-on despair and loneliness. The loneliness, sharpest of all, wrapped me in a fog so dense, so bleak I could hardly even see my father.

My brother and I had a quick lunch in Chinatown but I wasn’t really there. I tried to focus on the conversation but I couldn’t understand what was being said. The words wouldn’t settle in my head. So I got on the train back to the mountains, a Christmas Day train that was empty and greyer and lonelier still. I picked up my car from the station and went home to a family home that didn’t hold a family anymore.

My many failures overwhelmed. Whole armies of failure: I was a terrible mother, daughter, sister, person. Everything.

Practical, get-on-with-the-job sort that I am, I tried to write that night. The deadline for my second novel loomed, but I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t see my way clear to do anything. I couldn’t even cry. The pain was too intense, too large. Monstrous. I was staring at the abyss and it was staring back at me.

I wanted to die. More precisely, I wanted to do what too many had done before me: throw myself off the clifftop at Govett’s Leap and let the forest take care of the details. If it hadn’t been for my children, I might have done just that. My heart quickens even now at the fact.

If it hadn’t been for the kindness of friends in the weeks that followed, I might not have got the help I needed – to understand that I was not any kind of failure at all. I was in grief.

Grief has a way of obscuring the light like nothing else. Like smoke, it gets into every corner, into your eyes, into your clothes, and whispers through your every move.

If someone had said to me then, Kim, in seven years, you’ll have let so much light in you’ll want to invent a new word for happiness, I would have thought it the cruellest platitude. But it happened.

So, if you’re having a shit Christmas this year, know that my heart goes out to you. Know that it’s just Christmas. It’s only a day. Your thoughts of despair and failure are liars. You are wonderful and worthy of love. And despite your loneliness, you are not alone. You will let the light in again, one day, when you’re ready. And you will shine more deeply for the darkness you’ve known.

XX

 

beautiful home

TRUE ROMANCE

One of the loveliest joys of research is coming across a hidden gem now and again, a glint of the past and shines straight into my soul.

Just now, trawling old newspapers for reflections of men returning from war, I found this tiny snippet of sweetness from Berton Braley – an American, early twentieth-century poet I’d never heard of before – published in the Cowra Free Press, a country paper from central west New South Wales, in 1922.

ROMANCE

All of us dream of it,
Seek for the gleam of it;
Distant, afar,
Pore through each book for it
When, if we’d look for it,
Lo, we should find it
Right where we are.

Delvers and hewers all,
Workers and doers all
Patiently plod,
Forging, unknowingly,
Visions that glowingly
Flame on the anvil
Built by God.

View not too jealously
Those who dare zealously
Earth’s broad expanse;
You, who must stay at home,
Toil, love and play at home,
Also are living
Lives of Romance!

What a beautiful little thing it is, and it reminds me of why I write the stories of ordinary people living and loving large in the small places of home.

I often joke about it, saying that I take my readers to all the exotic locations – Lithgow, Nyngan, Hill End, Blayney, Port Hedland, the tumbledown slums of Chippendale – but these places are as romantic as Paris or Prague, when we’re in love.

We’re told from all quarters that romance is escapist, a break from reality, somehow false, too good to be true, too rose-coloured, as if thwarting and want and terror are somehow loftier, worthier subjects for reflection. As if love were ever easy.

Here at The Bend, my home that lies between two tiny dots on the map in the vast expanse that is Australia, I’m in love every day. Even on dull days, hard days, grieving days, romance is the sun on my shoulders. Love, in all its shapes, steadies my heart and focuses my mind. And romance, like a smile or the warmth of kind words, like a line of light, brings me home whenever bleak doubts cloud my way.

money

THE ECONOMICS OF UNQUESTIONING

When did it become unfashionable for bookish and thinkery types to rattle their chains against the ever-creeping greed of capitalism? Or am I dreaming that we ever did?

I’ve just begun tinkering at the edges of a new story set in the 1980s during my university days, where the most subversive thing I ever said was, ‘I think Paul Keating might be an economic conservative and a traitor to his class.’ In the clatter of loud, proud New Age feminism, the bombing of the Rainbow Warrior and the tail end of Cold War threats of Nuclear Holocaust, no-one cared much about what teenage me thought of our federal treasurer and soon-to-be PM.

But his policy bent would begin the dismantling of the socially secure Australia we once knew: he privatised the Commonwealth Bank, instigated offshore processing of refugees, reintroduced university fees and even dreamt up a GST. Yes, he did a bunch of good stuff, too, but he opened the gate to a savage neo-conservatism that’s seen institutions like Centrelink become enemies of the poor, a system where hard-won, sensible checks and balances on industrial exploitation have been steadily eroded, and no-one’s had the guts to shut the gate since.

Socialism itself has just as steadily become a dirty word, or now denotes a radicalism we once took for granted in Australia. I grew up in those quaint ye olde days when a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work was as standard an expectation as meat and three veg and a cold can of VB. Yes, the Builders Labourers Federation was a fat sack of rats – but hey, Commonwealth Bank anyone? What’s the difference between a punch in the face and having your shirt stolen off your back? A hair-split, really.

But when did the bulk of our brains trust stop demanding better – and demanding it with a firm fist to the table?

The digital communications revolution has seen a fracturing of massed intellectual power. I’ve seen this up close in writers’ groups where thousands of words are expended over stoushes on cultural appropriation or over some perceived anti-feminist slight. Usually, if you scrape the surface of these bunfights, you’ll see most of those involved actually agree with each other, and are generally kind and concerned people – just people distracted by the vast amount of opinionating social media forums allow in a world that seems to be making us feel increasingly small and voiceless.

Hm. Capitalism likes things like that. Turning us all into hyper-distracted and needy peas means we’ll buy any and every gadget or diet or lie to try to feel better as we scream ever closer to living hell.

But there’s a worse and far plainer hip-pocket consequence of this revolution: individual economic insecurity. Yep, there’s a flavour tailored just for you.

I remember, in the early 90s, during Keating’s fantastic Recession We Had To Have, I was so scared of losing my job, I accepted whole plates of unsavoury and unethical shit – from sexual harassment to being illegally threatened with the sack if I didn’t return early from maternity leave. Nasty – but it worked.  I was young and vulnerable.

You don’t have to be young or particularly vulnerable to be held hostage like this today. It’s become the norm.

Saddest of all, I’ve seen these hooks get into the industry that once upon a time gave me shelter from the storm: publishing. Everything about making books, making thoughts on pages, has been screwed down to within an inch of its life to feed corporate monsters, be they the publishing behemoths themselves, or soulless supermarkets addicted to discounts so low those who make the products that fill their stores have become nameless and utterly expendable. It’s resulted in inhumanely overworked in-house staff, disgustingly underpaid freelancers, and a wholesale exploitation of writers that increasingly leaves me so gobsmacked it’s just about dislocated my jaw.

And there’s not much resistance; when there is little will within the ranks, the tiger has no teeth.

It’s alright for me. I’ve grown into my own ratbaggery as I was probably always going to. My mother told me, at the age of thirteen, in her succinctly hard-arse way: ‘Don’t strive for popularity. Prostitutes are popular.’ Thanks Mum. Now, at fifty, on the cusp of reaching my full lady powers, I have the personal security and means to hurl whatever truth bombs I like. Once an odd bod too shy to let her freak flag fly, I don’t care who sees it anymore.

There’s not a whole lot of honesty going on outside my front gate, though – at least not among the mainstream fishies. One well-respected Australian journalist recently justified her failure to call out misogynistic attacks on our first female PM, Julia Gilliard, with an argument that basically said, ‘Mea culpa, I was bamboozled by the sweeping inrush of the 24hour news cycle.’

That’s only half the story. We can’t blame our tools. This journalist was surely thinking of how in the name of Holy Pay Packet she was going to keep her job in an industry under siege. A world under siege from greed raging out of control. From a social contract of fairness and care now so pathetically broken we shrug at every new revelation of the corruptions nibbling away at our democracy and our freedom.

How can we question those who oppress and manipulate us all if we can’t pay the rent? How do we turn back this tide?

I hope today’s kids have some bright ideas. And will one day forgive us for the way we’ve let it all slide.

 

FREE & EASY

That’s me. And it’s NetGalley, too.  Best of all, it means Lady Bird & The Fox is free to read and review over on the biggest book hub there is. Find her here, and start reading today: F&L hi-res

Yeehaa!

 

LADY BIRD & THE FOX

 

meme LB quotes

What happens when a hardworking farm girl and a spoilt rich-boy gambler are mistaken for bushrangers on the road to the goldrush? At a breakneck gallop through wild colonial Australia, Lady Bird & The Fox untangles a tale of true identity and blind bigotry, of two headstrong opposites thrown together by fate, their lives entwined by a quest to get back home – and the irresistible forces of love.

PAPERBACK

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BRTD     foyles         B&N

booktopia     kino    wstones

EBOOK

All the major ebook retailers can be found here.

Praise for Lady Bird & The Fox

Lady Bird & The Fox is a marvel of a novel…It’s a story that will stay with me forever.’ –  Wendy James, The Golden Child

Kelly is a masterful creator of character and voice. Reminiscent of Mark Twain’s dry humour…’ – Julian Leatherdale, Palace of Tears

Lady Bird & The Fox is a completely unique tale. It’s a fast-paced, deeply evocative story of life, love and adventure in early Australia. I read it in one sitting, loved every single word.’ Kelly Rimmer, Before I Let You Go

Lady Bird & The Fox is brilliant. Thought provoking, funny – as in, actually laugh out loud funny – historically accurate, meticulously researched, and crafted with impeccable inference.’ – Theresa Smith, Australian Women Writers

Praise for Kim Kelly

‘colourful, evocative and energetic’ – Sydney Morning Herald

‘impressive research’ – Daily Telegraph

‘Why can’t more people write like this?’ – The Age

F&L hi-res

 

 

raspberry

RASPBERRY VINEGAR

She couldn’t tell a story straight if she tried – there’s my epitaph. That is, all charges of tall tale-telling blarney aside, I can’t write historical fiction in neatly episodic chunks of third-person, past tense, plain-English prose.

I love language too much, for a start: I love falling down magical rabbit holes of etymology, to wonder at the way language changes across time, and from person to person. I love every quirk of the vernacular – every skerrick of slang, every blessed curse word, and that way Australians have with inventing new ones – like ‘wowser’ and ‘flummox’ and ‘maggoty’, whole dictionaries full of them. I love to wonder at every influence upon our Strine: the Irish, the Americans, the Germans, the many First Nations languages spoken across the continent. Our language is constantly changing, and those fine-detail changes can tell us a lot about our history, who we are and where we’ve come from.

But what I love best is the utterly unique idiom we each carry around inside our heads. Each of us has a distinct way of speaking; and we each have at least two different speaking versions of ourselves: the one we use when we’re actually talking, and the one we use when we’re talking to ourselves. Our actual talking voice is also split into at least two versions: a more formal one for use with strangers; and a more relaxed one we use with our friends – a language often laced with code, the beautiful, secret language shared by those who hold each other dear.

Obviously, this is why writing in the first person – writing in character – is a very natural way for me to explore story, and to explore Australian history. But of course, novel-writing is more than talking, and more than the nuts and bolts of story, too. Novels, generally, are about people, and those people must step from the page and into readers’ imaginations immediately and truthfully for readers to want to follow them anywhere at all. Constructing character then – dreaming up a living, breathing, believable person – is the happy challenge that entwines itself around the voices in my head, and it’s right here, in the meeting of voice and character, that I find the beginnings of every new novel.

And a great deal of research goes into all that dreaming up, too. The first glimmers of my new novel, Lady Bird & The Fox, came to me in the form of Annie Bird’s voice. She virtually shouted at me, she arrived so wholly, and her first words were: ‘This is a disaster!’ Who was she, and where did she come from? A combination of reading about gold rush Australia and puzzling over the scant traces left of the life of Australia’s probably one and only female Aboriginal bushranger, Mary Ann Bugg; as well, I carried voices with me of the strong and forthright Aboriginal women of La Perouse who peopled my childhood; I also carried with me the voice of one of my oldest and most cherished friends – the strong and forthright daughter of one of those women.

I saw Annie raise her hand to shield her eyes from the rising sun, and I saw not only the warm, deep brown of her skin: I saw the shape of her wrist, her long slim fingers and the fineness of her bones.

And then followed the delight of getting to know her, this woman of great conviction, who is stubborn and funny, both soulfully compassionate and rip-you-to-shreds critical. What did she wear? What did she love to do in quiet moments alone? What were her prized possessions? What was her favourite food? What was her favourite drink?

In answering these kinds of questions for any character, I hit the newspapers of the year – in this case, 1868. And when it came to Annie’s preferred cold beverage on a hot day, it took a while for me find the one that really was hers. Lemonade? No – too common. Soda water? No – too plain. Beer? No – she was always too busy for alcohol. Iced tea? Wasn’t invented yet in the far flung outer reaches of mid-Victorian Sydney.

Then I came across an ad for a public house outlining its basic provisions, and one of them was raspberry vinegar. I had no idea what that might be – and that was intriguing enough in itself for me. Best of all, the combination of sweet and tart it suggested made it perfect for Annie. She is lovely and sharp at once.

But while I soon discovered raspberry vinegar was a popular cordial of the day, for the life of me I couldn’t find a recipe. It was so annoying that I couldn’t quite taste this drink that Annie loved.

That was, until dinner with friends a few years later, when Lady Bird & The Fox was at the typesetter, pretty much done and dusted. My lovely real-life friend, for reasons I can’t now remember, produced one of her mother’s beautifully handwritten recipe books, dating back to the 1930s – and there within its pages lay Annie’s raspberry vinegar.

When serendipity strikes like this – especially in such a way that makes the world feel wonderfully small and bright – it strikes with a thrill that makes me tearful, and grateful, and intensely aware that we are all somehow connected through soul-threads of love.

As soon as I could, I made up the recipe, tweaking it for a little less sugar, and we enjoyed it with a splash of vodka, soda and mint.

Chin chin then, Annie Bird. Not just a voice, not just a character, but a friend. I might never be able to tell a story straight, but I – or rather we – will always tell them true.

Oh, and by the way, Annie’s favourite word is ‘collop’, but you’ll have to read the story to find out why, and what it really means – to her.

Lady Bird cocktail

F&L hi-res

UNLIKELY LOVERS’ TRUE LOVE STORY

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.