Kim Kelly

Australian Author

Category: Uncategorized

men and horse of the royal scots

REMEMBERING

Today is the 100th anniversary of Remembrance Day, but for many in Australia there won’t be time for much remembering. Those whose homes are under attack from fire, and those who have gone to rescue them will be too tired and distressed for any ceremony.

It seems this Remembrance Day heralds a new era, where the face of the enemy has morphed into something else, something scarier. But history tells us it’s really the same old foe: politicians who lie in order to please their greedy masters. Corruption smoke-screened by empty promises and platitudes; by ‘thoughts and prayers’.

I’d wanted to commemorate today with a small victory of my own. After twelve years of hoping and wishing, my very first novel, Black Diamonds, is now an audiobook – available for pre-order right now, as they say.  The First World War and my country’s labyrinthine fantasies about our part in it made this book, and provided the first spark of my whole writing career. I’ve never stopped examining this fascinating creature of us ever since, with equal parts affection and despair. But it doesn’t seem right to mark today with anything other than sombre reflection.

Personally, this year has been a struggle. I’ve been unwell for most of it, grappling with low-level dysphoria between depth-charge spikes into the dark. I’ve wondered long and hard about the value of stories at all in a world that seems determined to ignore so many bright and wonderful voices telling truths we need now more than ever.

But as dawn follows darkness, last week, just when I’d thought I should give the game away myself, stop bothering, find something more useful to do with my time, I received a little branch to cling to, some unexpected good news – which I’ll also share another day.

Because today is one that should turn our minds to what is lost, forever. And the true cost of refusing to listen to reason.

 

Photograph: Royal Scots Dragoon Guards Museum 

Bundesarchiv_B_285_Bild-04413,_KZ_Auschwitz,_Einfahrt

TRUE STORY

Dedicated authors of fiction are story whores. We’re all questing fools who search for truths like gold-hunters scanning tracts of sand with make-believe metal-detectors.

Once a truth is glimpsed, we pounce on it, pocket it and then shape it to fit into our dreams and schemes. It’s this kind of fossicking and finding that keeps most of us addicted to storytelling. It’s also what makes us all incidental thieves.

No story is ours to tell, and yet the courage it takes to tell a story that doesn’t belong to us is a superpower that can change the world, or at least touch the soul of a reader or two. But it’s a power that comes with some heavy responsibilities.

Authors should perhaps, like doctors, take some kind of oath to help and do no harm – unless it’s necessary to, for example, slaughter a few sacred cows in the telling of truth to power. Of course, we’re going to make all sorts of mistakes in the process of suturing facts into fiction. Storytelling is a skill learned on the job, and we never stop learning. There’s a line in my first novel that clangs in my head as gutless and naïve, and will for all time, but I wrote it fifteen years ago, when I was rather more gutless and naïve, so I let it stand as it is, to remind me of my own unflattering truths.

I understand, deeply, viscerally, that authors’ first works are tender creatures; and as editor, over the last twenty-odd years, I’ve touched and prodded the rawness and soreness of all kinds of virgin-storytelling bravery with great care, learning all the time there, too.

These understandings have made me very cautious about openly criticising the work of others. My taste, my preferences, and my reactions to a text are small beans and largely irrelevant in the face of whatever it is the author is attempting to achieve with their own longings and leanings.

But there’s one recent debut that has challenged my resolve to keep my opinions to myself, and that is The Tattooist of Auschwitz, the blockbusting sales juggernaut that tells of a Holocaust survival and concentration camp romance. I’m not about to review the book here – there are literally thousands of reviews out there in bookchatting land, and most of them are effusively in favour of the work. If you’ve enjoyed the story, and been inspired to higher thoughts because of it, good for you – and let no-one take that from you.

My problem with the novel stems from what I see as an abuse of the power of storytelling, a betrayal of truthy trust. I have no way of knowing how this has come about: whether it lie in decisions made by author or publisher or sales maven. But come about it certainly has.

Emblazoned across every copy of the Tattooist are the words, ‘Based on an incredible true story’, and in speaking about it, the author has presented the work as ’95 percent fact’, a story recorded word for word from the real-life protagonist, declaring her own research to have been thorough and extensive, such that many readers believe that what they are reading is a true story in virtually every sense. Indeed, in one Australian readers’ forum, the review categories on the book were spilt between ‘historical fiction’ and ‘history’, illustrating the confusion starkly.

It would be reasonable to say that readers respond to ‘true stories’ in a slightly different way than they do fiction. When we know something is fictional, we understand that facts are being craftily assembled to lead us to deeper truths; we let the story play with our emotions and imaginations. When we believe we’re being told a true story, we tend to let that story go straight to the heart – we let the facts hit us unfiltered. In this way, true stories are often going to move us more profoundly, where we embrace the chance to walk with a real person as they endure their experiences, sympathising with them every step of the way.

It doesn’t matter who the writer is. I’ve ghostwritten a not wholly dissimilar true story of war, imprisonment and escape myself (from a combatant’s point of view), disappearing behind the real person as I helped him tell his extraordinary tale on the page. I’ve felt the dread of getting it wrong, the weight of care in trying to get it just right, picking over each word, checking each fact, in the knowledge that memory, decades on, is faulty. This can be especially true where great trauma has been experienced in the original storyteller: to protect ourselves, to cope, we meld some recollections into manageable clumps and scatter others. Some things can’t be spoken about at all, no matter how robust the teller might seem: there will be no-go zones, areas so painful they will remain in a locked box in the furthest corner of the brain forever. For my soldier, that area tended to be the experiences of his comrades, and of his wife when he returned: he was so protective of them, even sixty years later, he would give me only the barest and most benign sketches. The author of the Tattooist has been said to have been a social worker in real life herself, so she might then know these quirks of the mind more keenly than I would, but she has not, to my knowledge, outlined how she has addressed them in her book, only repeating that the story came straight from the mouth of her subject.

Despite the author’s and publishers’ claims, however, the Tattooist is not very exactly a true story. It is riddled with errors: from the pernickety oops of placing a town in Slovakia near the border of Romania, forgetting that Hungary sits between the two countries; to a growing objection over multiple discrepancies of fact and implausibilities from venerable sources, such as the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum and relatives of the real people named in the Tattooist (as well as the just-released sequel, Cilka’s Journey).

But rather than stepping away from their claims of high truth, the author and at least one of the publishers have dug in with the bizarre defence that the story is both 95 percent true to the real lives involved and fiction at the same time. How can this nonsense be conscionable?

If the author had wanted to take some licence with the trauma of others (and haven’t we all), why use the real names of survivors? It’s particularly disturbing that this author’s most stunning and affecting confections appear to involve the rape of women in the camps. Maybe my moral compass is wobbly but it’s probably disrespectful to make shit up about another person’s experience of sexual torture – even a little bit. And when the victim of that torture is dead and therefore unable to object or defend her privacy, it makes the twisting of the truth even worse. No matter how much research you’ve done (which the silly old Holocaust museums and historians just happen to have overlooked), you can’t buy a ticket to do that. Not in my book, anyway.

There are other problems with this book, or books (a third is reportedly planned), not least of which is the perversity of using the Holocaust as so much fodder for romance – and so successfully it appears to have spawned its own sub-genre if the present rush to publish Holocaust romance is anything to go by. Yes, there are many amazing stories of survival to be plundered from such a vast crime against humanity, but it’s those who did not survive who must sit at the forever-wounded centre of any true story of the Holocaust. Survival did not depend on pluckiness or prettiness; it was luck. Cruel, stupid luck.

My last word on this, though, is to my fellows in the storytelling business. If the Tattooist series had been set, say, in an African slave community in the American South, there’d be an outcry of concern and even anger at the appropriation and distortions of others’ pain – never mind the profits ka-chinged from this one. Yet, from the publishing industry and writing community generally, at least in Australia, I have only heard an unnerving silence. And, personally, I feel more than a little bit ashamed about that.

On a brighter note, readers searching for more authentic stories of the Holocaust can find a great selection here at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum bookstore.

 

Photograph of KZ Auschwitz: Bundesarchiv, B 285 Bild-04413 / Stanislaw Mucha / CC-BY-SA 3.0

gilr books

POST-CAPITALIST STORYTELLING

I’ve been quiet on the blog for a while, finding it hard to pin down any one of the many wonderings I have about the future of fiction in this world that seems to have lost its way in so many ways.

Novelists trade in pretty lies, so you’d think we’d be ahead of the game, but the magic tricks storytellers perform are generally designed to conjure deeper truths that bring strangers closer together. The lies our world leaders are almost uniformly feeding us are by contrast designed to divide and confuse, to keep us fearful, suspicious, worried our neighbours want what we have.

Anti-intellectualism seems to have become so entrenched on the right that things like scientific consensus and political differences of opinion are now called virtue signalling there; and on the left, say the wrong thing or read the wrong book, and a gang of modern-day temperance policewomen will peck you to death with slivers of your own shattered moral conscience.

Call me old-fashioned, but I’ve always thought the job of storytellers was to provide some nourishing buffer between the screaming existential loneliness of the individual, and all that other shit going on outside your front door. A story at its most basic can be an escape, where we can imagine our best selves winning against the bad guys; at its most powerful, a story causes us to meet and begin to understand people and predicaments we might never have encountered otherwise. At its most shining and zeitgeisty, a story can create vast and unfathomable pools of friendship across the globe.

We need stories of all kinds: to delight and entertain, to provoke thought and compassion, to recognise ourselves out there in the great muddle. To share in stories is a fundamental need in all of us, but one that never ceases to surprise me. At a book-chatting event recently, I read a little of one of my stories to a small crowd, and afterwards, a self-confessed non-reader approached me to say he didn’t want me to stop reading. I laughed with my own delight as I thanked him for the compliment – not least because the thought of having to listen to my nasally Australian accent for more than ten minutes sounds like a version of storytelling hell to me.

Books and the long-form stories inside them aren’t in danger of disappearing. Most readers in my own circle ravenously consume paperbacks, ebooks and audiobooks as the mood takes them; libraries remain hubs for book-borrowing and book clubs abound. I never hear anything but a hunger for more from the reading community. Reader preferences and plain old bad writing aside, the only major complaints seem to be about misleading marketing or, sometimes, the over-flogging of a trendy trope. Readers gonna read.

Book publishing then has a captive audience. Although the mainstream, traditional publishing industry has taken a battering from the digital revolution and the way our reading time and tastes have changed, love of books and reading has remained. But what has this powerful section of the industry done with that loyalty and inherent social need? Ever increasingly it publishes books that fit neatly into marketing boxes as dictated to them by discount department stores. Yes, publishing companies need to make money – freakin’ duh – but like supermarkets ruining dairy farmers by selling milk at a dollar a litre, the corporate relationship between the Australian publishing industry and discount department stores is screwing down the price and, at times, the quality of our books.

It should not be the case that an outlier like me makes more money than a traditionally published author. All of my print and ebooks are now published under my own imprint and this financial year I smashed the average income for Australian writers. Yeeha. All of my books fail the mainstream marketing test for women’s commercial fiction: they are wordy and uncertain explorations of Australia, colourful, playful, questing, each one a chunk of this One Big Thing I’m making from the stories written in my heart.

I’m the vainest of vanity writers: I really do just do it just because I can. And while there remains a terrible distaste among some in the industry for people like me, we’re not going anywhere, either. Storytellers gonna tell stories.

Because the ordinary rules of industry don’t apply to storytelling.

Scratching my head at this a few months ago, a wise veteran of the trade told me: ‘Australian book publishing has been taken over by every kind of corporate bastardry, leaving only cottage-industry incompetence where its heart used to be.’  Ouch. But possibly a little bit true. Publishing books primarily for shareholder gain or under notions of steady profit growth seems laughable. Some things – like music, the visual arts, and great pasta sauce – aren’t meant to be corporatised or commodified.

How does one mark up ‘staring out the window talking to imaginary friends’ or ‘corresponding with readers’ or ‘joy’ or ‘grief’ within productivity spreadsheets? Devoted storytellers don’t do it for the money anyway. Call that middle-class, Euro-centric, white-privileged nonsense if you like, but it’s true – and every publisher knows it. Cross-culturally, storytellers will and do pay to develop and practice their art, in one way or another, and as no Australian government will ever adequately fund the arts, in my whacko-pinko opinion, money should only go to those who cannot fund themselves – which ain’t never gonna happen, either, is it? Not this side of total economic revolution, at least.

So much of my opinion is stating the obvious, and yet, despite the writing all over the wall, there’s been a startling shift towards authors participating in corporate slickery themselves. From posting glamour shots of the latest research trip or exotic workshop location, to outright boasting about deals and sales figures, much of which really is utter nonsense. One author even bragged that they could now afford their kid’s private school fees. There’s nothing wrong with celebrating success – there should be more of it! – but this is vanity. It’s keyed into the very old lie that wealth and celebrity equals superiority, and it makes me cringe – not only because it’s graceless and often smacks of passive-aggressive elitism. By any reasonable person’s terms, I’m stupidly wealthy and outrageously lucky, too. But I’m presently pretzelling myself over making what will possibly be my last trip to Germany because it seems over-indulgent that I should add another streak of pollution to our skies just to go to Ribnitz to stare at the Baltic Sea dreaming up a story about my ancestral grandfather. THIS is vanity.

How do we reel back the bullshit and return heart to the industry? I don’t know. My darkest thoughts have me believing traditional publishing is a dinosaur best left behind. Nothing about it seems sustainable: from the way non-publishing corporations are dictating what we popularly read to the ridiculousness of printing thousands of copies of books at a time, only to have half of them end up in discount bins, and half of them end up in landfill.

It’s not only writers and readers who are affected by all this. Over twenty years in the business I’ve watched wonderful, highly skilled editors and publishers leave the industry, disillusioned and exhausted – remarkably, a few have thought a return to legal practice would bring them a greater sense of fulfilment. Publishers constantly remind authors that publishing is a business, not a charity, but they lean on freelance editors as if it’s the other way around. Those colleagues of mine who remain are almost invariably underpaid and, in-house, have had their decision-making power curtailed within the sales-heavy structure of their companies; they hang on for the handful of books and authors they love, and because they’re dedicated to the fabulous gamble that is and always will be publishing. We’re all in our fifties or older now, though; when the last of us who remembers a pre-corporate industry goes, I don’t know what book publishing will look like.

Except that ratbags will keep finding ways to get under and around the status quo. For now, traditional publishing remains the pinnacle of prestige, but for how long? It’s becoming clear that capitalism is on the slide. Corporate abuses are destroying our democracies and the liveability of our planet. Last gasp capitalism will not destroy storytelling, but it’s having a fair crack at skewing mainstream publishing. What will post-capitalist storytelling look like? Like it’s always looked, I guess: vibrant, alive with questions and intellectual generosity. Human. Hopefully a little more appreciative of stories and their tellers beyond their dollar value. Hopefully an all-you-can-eat smorgasbord of diversity, where independent writers are as worthy of respect as all other independent artists.

Personally, I’m heading towards a space where writing for a small audience is respectable enough again, where the natural reach of my work creates no waste and no exploitation of others. I’m getting there: my printed books are made in Australia, in Melbourne, and by other local suppliers around the world; and I collaborate with industry professionals who share my enthusiasm.

Success for me lies in the relationships I build with readers, and there’s no price on any of that. Last week, I met a ninety-two-year-old woman who shocked me with her tale of having fallen in love with one of my wholly independently published titles – and having gotten into trouble from her local librarian for being late with the return. A few weeks before that, I was giving a general talk about Australian storytelling at a function in a country town when a man from Sydney interjected to say that this same book had captivated and cheered a depressed Vietnam vet mate of his. That book is a bushranging comedy that blazes an offbeat trail through Australian racism. Whether it’s a good book or the right book or on trend or not is irrelevant. It’s brought little sparks of thoughtfulness and happiness to readers all over the place, in America, Canada, Europe, the UK, and at home. Beyond my wildest expectations, it’s about to be made into an audiobook by Bolinda. And it wouldn’t be in the world at all if I hadn’t found the guts to put it there.

I have the technical sophistication of my cat and the business acumen of my other cat, so if I can achieve these kinds of things, I’m sure the next generation of storytellers are going to blow my mind with the way they shape the future of book publishing. Like most things my generation has fucked up, the kids will retrieve it, and I suspect that the process has already begun. They’ll return the heart we sold for a few pieces of silver. Well, I hope so. We need stories more than ever, and as many as can be made.

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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.

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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.

 

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Yeehaa!