Kim Kelly

Australian Author

Category: Uncategorized


With Pamela Cook

pam cook

It’s so lovely to welcome wonderful fellow author Pamela Cook onto my blog today for a little Q&A and book giveaway. Pam and I have been cahooting a bit lately on ways that women can stretch their literary wings and write outside the lines too often imposed upon us by the publishing industry. Here, Pam talks about her latest novel, Cross My Heart, and shares her thoughts on what it means for her to write out her authentic self on the page.

 Your latest novel, Cross My Heart, is a such a soulful story about friendship. Tell us a little bit about it, and what inspired you to dig into such deep emotional territory?

Thanks so much, Kim. My previous books all focused primarily on family relationships, with any friendship element on the periphery. I’ve always believed that for women, strong friendships can truly be lifelines and I wanted to honour that by putting a friend relationship at the centre of the story. My closest friend passed away four and half years ago after a terrible battle with motor neurone disease. We had been friends for 40 years, travelled the world together, watched our children grow up together and spent many hours sharing the joys of a beautiful friendship. To say I feel her loss deeply does not capture the level of my grief, so writing about the death of a close friend was also a way for me to process some of those emotions.

Relationships between women feature strongly in your work. What’s the most special thing about female connection for you?

Women connect to each other in completely different ways to women and men. Maybe because we share the same biology and hormones, we empathise with the experiences our friends, mothers and sisters are going through. I know in difficult times in my own life, my circle of women has been there for me and pulled me through. I’m so inspired by the strength I see in women around me who have been through heartache and tragedy and yet have survived and become even stronger.

Women writers are the engine-room of the publishing industry – we are phenomenally creative and giving and sparklingly clever. What’s the deepest delight you take in reading books written by women?

You are so right, Kim! I pretty much read books exclusively by women these days, most of them Australian. I love the way these stories focus on women taking the lead in their lives, often taking back control they may have lost or given away, becoming more empowered by challenging the status quo. I’m seeing this as a real feature of writing by Australian women right now, whether they write contemporary or historical, romance or general fiction. It’s inspiring and definitely something to celebrate. Long may it continue!

Your own work is very original, straight from the heart, and it’s not always easy to fit into a genre box. What words of wisdom do you have for others yearning to tread their own path?

I’ve struggled with the whole box thing for a while now. For years my books were marketed as rural romance but I never felt comfortable with the label because they aren’t romances, they’re stories about women coming to terms with their past and with themselves. All of them have rural settings because that’s the environment I love and draw inspiration from. The whole box thing is really for marketing purposes – so publishers know who to target in advertising and on bookstore shelves. My most recent publishing experience, as an indie author, has confirmed my suspicion that it’s okay to write across genres. Cross My Heart is a contemporary or women’s fiction title but it has elements of mystery and suspense. Feedback from readers has been that they are fine with a mixture of elements. If you’re a traditionally published author, what I would say is to be aware of the boxes and be comfortable with where you are placed, but also know it’s possible to break out of those confines.

What kind of heart country are you going to take us into next with your writing?

I have two projects on the go right now. One is a revision and re-packaging of my second novel Essie’s Way. It was written to a very tight deadline and while I’ve always loved the characters and story, I’m relishing the opportunity to tighten the writing and give it more depth. It has a historical thread which I really enjoyed writing, so there’s another genre boundary I’ve crossed! I’m also writing a new contemporary story about a woman who loses her children to a narcissistic ex-husband and resolves to get them back. Both these books have a mother-daughter thread running through them, and also a grandmother thread, and hopefully will tug at readers’ heartstrings in the best possible way.

So many have had a rough time lately, with all the worry, fear and loss COVID-19 has left in its wake. What’s your warmest thought to help carry us through the winter days to come?

It’s certainly been a worrying time, particularly for the more vulnerable in our society – the elderly, those already living on the breadline and women living in situations of abuse. But we have also seen so much kindness, people reaching out to help and support each other, and it’s been a time where we have been forced to stay home and perhaps reflect on the business of our lives. I hope the kindnesses we have witnessed during this time, to ourselves, each other and the planet continue. My mother is 96 and has lived through world war, depression, becoming a widow at the age of 40 with four children to care for, and losing most of her friends and siblings. Watching the way she has come through all this has taught me that we are stronger than we think we are, and that even when we think we can’t go on, we have the strength deep down inside us to survive and even thrive.

Thank you so much for your beautiful words, Pam.

Reading friends, if you’d like to be in the running to win one of two copies of Cross My Heart, please comment on this blog post or on the Facebook post here – we’d especially love to hear your thoughts on the importance of women’s stories. Two lucky winners will be chosen at 5pm, Friday, 3 July 2020 (Australian addressees only, please).  


pam picPamela Cook is the author of five page-turning women’s fiction novels. Her stories feature flawed but strong women, tangled family relationships and deal with the complications of life. Her latest novel, Cross My Heart, is a haunting story of friendship, guilt and redemption set in the beautiful central west of New South Wales.

Pamela’s previous novels are Blackwattle Lake, Essie’s Way, Close To Home, and The Crossroads. She is the co-host of the exciting new podcasts Writes4Women and Writes4Festivals, and is proud to be a Writer Ambassador for Room To Read, a not-for-profit organisation that promotes literacy and gender equality in developing countries. When she’s not writing, reading or podcasting, Pamela wastes as much time as possible riding her handsome quarter horses, Morocco and Rio.

Find out more about Pamela and all her books here:



Instagram: @pamelacookwrites

Twitter: @PamelaCookAU

Writes4Women Podcast:

her last words roses


It’s the most inappropriate time to be even thinking about promoting a new book. There is so much pain and uncertainty throughout the world right now, so much injustice and tragedy that is all too real for too many. Black Americans are pleading for peace after four centuries of exploitation and murder, while their president swaggers, brandishing a bible. The UK is under the charge of a giant, dishevelled toddler up past his bedtime, and Australian leadership, bereft of all imagination, wants to ‘snap back’ to normal with bulk kitchen renovations for the rich and near silence on the black deaths in custody that continue in this country like fresh strikes upon an open wound. And meanwhile, in my sleepy arcadian patch of central New South Wales, the Rural Fire Service is backburning forested hills ahead of the extreme fire conditions expected to return as a result of our collective abuse of the planet.

Yeah, buy my book.

But if books are little lights in the dark, I hope mine is, in its own way, a plea for good things: understanding, kindness, a walk in another’s shoes. I hope all my stories seek these ends, however humble my skill at this business of writing might be. I hope my stories are objects of healing. Some nourishment in the brain space. Some resting of the soul in places near and far. Whispered words that encourage other hearts to fight another day. A soft place to land after a crap day. I hope I use my privilege well, to lift rather than crush. I hope I put helpful thoughts into the world.

So, yeah, this latest one – Her Last Words – is out on audiobook this week, from the lovely people at Bolinda; the paperback and ebook will follow on 7 July. Yayo. Before I say anything else about it, though, if you can’t afford to buy books in any format right now, please ask your local library to order in the books, audios and other reading joys you crave. No-one who needs one should go without a story. Ever.

That’s the philosophy of the heroic bookseller in Her Last Words, Rich O’Driscoll – erstwhile Irish backpacker and loser in love, he’s the quiet, steady heart of my version of a romcom. Because it’s my romcom, it has a murder in it and lots of gags about the publishing industry, too. It also has a few serious things to say about depression, especially the kind of depression brought by grief, and the way the past haunts the present.

In real-life, it all began when a friend from uni days, the incomparable Jennifer Smith, was assaulted and murdered on an inner-city Sydney street one summer night in 1998 – a bag-snatch gone very, very wrong. I can still see where I was and even what I was wearing when I heard the news.

I can still see every moment of Jen’s memorial service, and all that day my heart had wondered: what will become of the novel she was writing? I had little idea of what she was writing about, only that she’d nearly finished it and that I couldn’t wait to read it. I can still see her eyes glittering with excitement and enthusiasm.

But when I asked a mutual friend if we could get hold the manuscript and do something with it, the very idea was waved away, ‘Oh, but it wasn’t any good.’ And oh, but did that quick dismissal of Jen’s excitement and enthusiasm sit in my craw. For all these years, it’s been waiting for its moment to make up story brimming with Jen’s inventiveness, generosity, nuttiness and sparkling intelligence.

My heroine, Thisbe Chisholm, is not Jen, though, and her friends, Penny Katschinski, John Jacobson and Jane Furlow, aren’t Jen’s friends. None of the story in any way explores the real-life crime committed against her, either – because that was never the point. I wanted to write a story about a murder, a missing manuscript and an undying love that would make an old friend laugh. I hope in my heart of hearts, in whatever corner of the universe the wisps of our souls bump subatomic particles, that I’ve succeeded.

Her Last Words is, really, a novel about yearning – be it for fulfillment, love, peace, or the truth. It’s a story that implores all of us who grapple with the dark, including myself: please, don’t give up. It can be hard, so hard, to see how loved and necessary you are when everything has gone to shit. But you are loved and necessary. Let the brightest sparkles in us all have the last laugh.

And believe that justice is coming to those who have caused such trauma and grief. In one way or another, justice is coming to those who commit crimes of violence against women. Hate criminals. Racist criminals. Their time is running out. We have to believe that.

Love must win, and the contribution each of us makes to this victory, however small or frail or faulty, is mightier than kings.


The Bolinda audiobook is available now here and wherever audiobooks are sold, as well as through the Borrowbox library app.


girl and book water



Does the world need my stories? A multi-award-winning Australian writer once asked me that question, and I could only answer: ‘No.’ No-one needs my stories, in particular, and I certainly have no right, culturally or morally, to tell any of them to anyone. I’m just a writer, a storyteller with things to say, and for whatever the reasons might be, there are enough readers in the world wanting to hear those stories to have made writing them worthwhile beyond the telling of the tales.

Under challenge from loftier artists, or from the publishing industry, or from the public, I’ve tended to shrink away from defending my craft and retreat into what I do and know best: writing. I pull down the shutters and write it out. Why? What is driving me? I know why I write what I write: I mostly explore the contradictions of Australia and my own personal and family-historical experiences of it, in order to dig into truths of who we are; I follow threads of love and hope because I want to put bright things in the world; I also love playing in my mud-puddle of words and antique ephemera, losing my way in tangles of etymology and the workings of ancient household appliances. It’s a mix of serious intellectual endeavour, a hard-wired need to entertain, and pig-in-shit indulgence.

But when my audience is relatively modest and my bank account does not exactly reflect all the effort, why do I continue to write? The more I write, the less I can answer that question. Is it the blarney of my mother’s line, or the chutzpah of my father’s? Both maybe, but it seems less relevant the more I write, too. I’m fifty-two next week; I wrote my first complete piece of writing at twelve; after forty years then, ten published novels, some short stories and a whole career in editing and mentoring other writers, maybe I can call myself a writer? I don’t know. What is my worth?

In this time of corona chaos, a lot of artists are asking themselves this same question. There is no question that the present disruption has been devastating to the arts – every corner of it. A couple of publishers have pluckily reported increases in sales during lockdown (I’ve seen a rise in online sales for my own books too), but there seems little doubt that the fallout has only just begun. Some publishers won’t survive; some authors will see the career they thought they had suddenly change in trajectory; the whole shebang will contract again, almost certainly resulting in fewer opportunities all round for Australian authors. For actors and musicians, many have had the carpet brutally ripped from under them; some will lose their homes; some will lose their minds – from simply not being able to perform, not to mention the practicalities of life.

It’s all caused me to reflect on my nuts-and-bolts actual worth as an artist, and I’m surprised at what I’ve found. I’ve been a mostly independent artist for the past four years, so I have all the figures in front of me, but while I can see the numbers add up to reasonably impressive amounts, they represent much more in creative terms than they do in mere cash.

For starters, they represent many thousands of readers who have bought a copy of one or more of my books either for themselves or someone else, not including the thousands more who have borrowed one from a library.

Within the number-crunching, there is my editor, Alexandra Nahlous, who has nurtured and queried and corrected five of my manuscripts. There is my designer, Alissa Dinallo, whose beautiful images grace the covers of new books and reissued backlist titles. These two artists are highly respected industry specialists without whom many Australian books would not be what and where they are today. Then there’s my publishing consultant, Joel Naoum, who arranges the production and distribution of the books. None of these people need me – not by any stretch – but all of them are paid something because I write books. I also happen to promote their talents wherever I go, which is always a delight.

Then there are my local booksellers, BooksPlus in Bathurst, Collins in Orange and the Book Connection in Dubbo, with whom I have much more than a mere business relationship – we have fun promoting regional authors and each other’s work and services. No matter how it’s sliced or diced, sales of my books are a part of the Central West economy, supporting small business and the people it employs. Then there is the printer in Melbourne, and the people that printer employs – including the truck drivers who deliver the books across the country.

Then there are the special formats of my books, published through Read How You Want, in large print, dyslexic and braille formats. Not only does this mean the stories get into the hands of those who read differently, but again it means that someone is paid to reformat and distribute these titles.

Then there are the audiobook editions, and the publishers and production staff who put them together, and the actors who read them – seventeen in all so far, and three employed during this time of extreme crisis for actors. No, these actors will not be earning vast sums, but enough to keep careers going and spirits hardy. I’m enormously proud that two young actors with their stars just on the rise – Lucy Ansell and Laurence Boxhall – will read Walking in coming weeks for Bolinda Publishing.

And I can’t forget my agent, the inimitable Selwa Anthony, who might make peanuts from me but never wavers in her belief that stories made of love and the need to tell them will find a way – and are essential to getting us all through dire times.

I’m far from experiencing dire times in any financial sense. The Public Lending Rights payments I earn from the federal government each year are enough to justify writing the next book. But if this were my only source of income from writing, as it is for many, it’s not enough to live on – it will not pay the rent or put food on the table. It will not make more art.

Pushing artists into poverty and despair will mean that some artists won’t be heard from again – full stop. Not the famous ones, but those like me, and most artists are just like me: we have small but dedicated audiences; we bring joy and thought and wonder; and in our small but significant ways we increase good feeling in the community, we throw out life lines, and we contribute in cash terms to the lives of other artists and industry professionals. We are, as a job lot, pretty damn economically and socially essential.

Those who light up the dark for others deserve to be supported during their own dark times. But just who will be the first artists to be discouraged from continuing? They will be women, especially mothers and carers, Indigenous artists, working-class artists, those from all kinds of diverse backgrounds, those with a disability and regional artists – people who are less likely to be able to take time off work, take the financial risks or make the cold, hard cash sacrifices that creating art requires. People with important things to say.

But we deserve support all the time – not only when the proverbial hits the fan. We need support every ordinary day, to stave away feelings of worthlessness that can come at any time. In the world of acting, a recent survey showed almost half of all performers felt their mental health was ‘poor or average’; I don’t know what it is for writers, but I guess it would be about the same. Your identity is wrapped up in what you do for a living. If you’re an actor, you’re an actor whether you’re in work or not – you have those skills and that brave heart. If you’re a writer, you’re a writer whether or not you’ve signed a contract for that next book – you will write while your house is burning down around you. All artists have to be bloody tough to ride the highs and lows the way we do, but there is no culture presently in Australia that ever pats us on the back for our grit, or for all we give.

In my darkest times, the demon that has pushed me closest to turning suicidal ideation into reality is a lack of respect, a lack of acknowledgement of the hard work of my own brave heart. I often wonder how many artists our collective lack of respect has killed. We’re bludgers and ne’er do wells, dreamers and wankers; at times, we cop abuse and savagery from armchair critics, some of it searingly personal. We’re expected to grin and bear it, and we do. We’re expected to front up – for free – at all kinds of events, to charm, inspire, bring bums on seats. I do several freebies a year myself, whether we’ve had a bushfire or a pandemic or not. But we’re not worth supporting? Not in any special way?

Oh, but artists are supported by publishers, production houses, galleries and tribes of luvvies, aren’t they? No, they are not. Captains of the arts industry have no incentive to love artists or care about them individually – unless we can pull in big bucks, in which case these kinds of relationships based on cash and cache can be highly insecure anyway. But as a society – as people who benefit directly from the enjoyment and nourishment of the arts – we should care.

And this is why I think it’s time we looked at introducing a special income support for artists. It doesn’t need to be huge, and it would need to be means tested and supported by the artists’ bodies of work, but it is essential. I wouldn’t qualify for such a thing now myself, but I want to know it’s there should I need it in the future. I want it there right now for my fellow artists who are struggling. I want it there as a mark of respect for what we all do.

Look at what I have contributed – tiny fish that I am – and tell me the world doesn’t need my hard work or brave heart. Maybe the more meaningful question might be: would the world be better off without my stories? The answer to that must be: ‘No.’


Walking front cover


It’s not long now before my ninth novel, Walking, steps out into the world – in February – and I’m letting myself get a bit excited.

This story has been fifteen years in the dreaming and scheming, and as always, she’s a bright, bold piece of my heart – maybe even brighter and bolder for the long wait.

I came across the inspiration for Walking way back when I was researching my first black diamondsnovel, Black Diamonds. That story was set during the First World War and, much to my shock and dismay at the time, about halfway through it I blew my hero up – then had to figure out how I was going to put him back together again. In the process, I learned more than I wanted to know about early orthopaedic medicine. But it was there that I came across the real-life story of German-Australian surgeon, Max Herz.

Max’s exploits and the challenges he faced were so incredible he deserved a novel of his own, but I wasn’t sure how to tell his tale. He was a medical genius, and a complex man; he was also interned and unjustly, insanely persecuted in Australia during the war – only to then emerge as a quietly powerful hero who changed the lives of thousands of Australian children. What a guy.

The more I researched Max himself, though, the more elusive he became – there just wasn’t enough information out there to show what really made him tick. But then, out of the soul-soup of all that reading and wondering, his essence appeared to me in fictional form. He stepped into my imagination as a man called Hugo Winter – and with him came his young protégé, Lucy Brynne.

Hugo and Lucy took off with the story from that moment on, and at such a pace I could hardly keep up.

Each day writing, and even throughout editing, the rhythms of Hugo’s and Lucy’s intertwined narratives drove me on as though the words were charged with music. And in a way, they are. Real-life Max was a musician and performer in his spare time, renowned for partying like a champ – that man had energy to burn. And the mystery man lovely Lucy falls for turns out to be a bit of a musician too – among other surprises.

As the story shifts from scene to scene, so too do the tunes, ranging through jumpin’ jive, tango, jazz crooning, string quartet and big band sounds, such a mix, I thought it might be fun to put together a little playlist of the beats that give Walking her bounce.

And here they are for your listening pleasure …

  1. The irrepressible Louis Jordan with Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Chickens
  2. A good old-fashioned tango!
  3. Al Bowlly’s perennially romantic Goodnight Sweetheart
  4. A bit of Beethoven with your schnapps
  5. Glenn Miller’s boppiest rendition of Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree
  6. Billie Holiday’s timelessly silky interpretation of The Man I Love 
  7. Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue – was a clarinet ever so sexy?
  8. And the happiest, toe-tapping-est beats ever in Benny Goodman’s Sing Sing Sing

I hope you enjoy that little sentimental journey. And I hope you enjoy Walking, too.

If you’d like to order the paperback, you can here at Booktopia or Book Depository, or if you’re treblelocal, put your hand up for a signed copy at Collins Booksellers Orange or Books Plus Bathurst. The ebook can be found at all the usual places, iBooks, Kobo, etc. Lots of other retailers to come – including the audiobook from Bolinda Publishing. News on all that soon!

  booktopiaamazon ibookskoboB&N



So many heartbreaking and frightening things have happened lately, and are continuing to happen, most of us here in Australia are finding it hard to celebrate the new year this time around. But I’m taking a moment to take stock of what I can merrily shout about, to mark the end of the decade.

As we leave the Terrible Teens behind and head into 2020, here are my top ten personal achievements of the past ten years, in no particular order:

  1. I took a gigantic leap of faith and married my muse de bloke Deano, and we’ve made the homiest home I’ve ever known at The Bend.
  2. I’ve delighted in watching my boys grow into men, and acknowledged that I might have had something to do with that, warts and all (and plenty of grey hair to show for it).
  3. Seven of my novels were published, all of them going on into audio, too. Wowzies, that seems a lot in a bunch. A lot of work. A lot of love. A lot of persistence.
  4. One short story of mine shocked me out of the park by actually winning a prize.
  5. I donated a kidney and witnessed a miracle of life.
  6. I’ve learned to (mostly) control my social anxiety, and bit by bit I unleashed my true carny soul at author events all over the place – and even on the radio. Can’t shut me up now.
  7. I’ve made wonderful new friends, especially through books and reading, and strengthened some old bonds as well.
  8. I wrote my way through two quite scary depressions, crying buckets and shamelessly laughing at all my own jokes, and found a new respect for my resilience and tenacity (previously known as resistance and obstinacy).
  9. I began reviewing for The Newtown Review of Books, and discovered that even my sensible, grown-up voice needs to colour outside the lines.
  10. I’ve gradually been living smaller, with less waste, less plastic, less corporate crap, less stuff generally (except for frocks), and I’ve let this aphorism of Nietzsche’s speak to my heart every day: ‘We must remain as close to the flowers, the grass, and the butterflies as the child is who is not yet so much taller than they are … Whoever would partake of all good things must understand how to be small at times.’

May the next decade bring more of the same: love, curiosity, wisdom, growth, togetherness – and for everyone, as we face the challenges ahead. I hope we learn to care larger and more fiercely, for each other and for our world. Let’s try to make these coming years the Terrific Twenties.

Good health and good cheer to all, and if you feel like shouting out your own bunch of good things, please feel free to share them here.

Kim xx

men and horse of the royal scots


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 



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


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.

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.