Kim Kelly

Australian Author

Category: Uncategorized

woolf

CHATTING WITH THE ANCESTORS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Apparently not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Always searching for pieces of me.

real like

REAL LIFE

He smiles at me across the twelve-pack of toilet rolls on the checkout conveyor: ‘How are you today?’

‘Hm. Good. You?’ I look away, blushing, suddenly flustered.

The checkout boy is about twenty, fresh-faced, intelligent eyes, and he has no idea I’ve used him as the model for a World War II RAAF flight engineer in my latest manuscript. This boy is younger, possibly still at university, and whenever I see him at the supermarket, I have a compulsion to tell him not to join the air force. A rush of maternal concern: as if I know him.

Somehow, somewhere amid the universal soul soup we’re all adrift within, perhaps I do. All of my characters certainly appear out of it, and often without me knowing at the time. My RAAF man came to me quite unexpectedly in the middle of my chapter three and while he looks very much like checkout boy, in spirit he’s the whispering shadow of a real-life RAAF man. Fred Dennis was his name and, as navigator, with set-square, pencil and stopwatch, he flew in the Battle of Britain, and once flew Winston Churchill himself. He’d have been in his seventies when he stole my heart with his stories. In many ways, he’s nothing like my fictional man – for a start, they’re not even the same nationality – but my imagination, questing through the soup, has sought to honour him and his quiet, melancholy heroism. And I didn’t realise I’d done it until I found myself at the end of my story in tears of recognition: ‘Oh – Fred!’

When I say, as I often do, that all my characters are real people to me, this is what I mean: they are made of fragments of love and wonder at the people around me.

Of course sometimes that wonder explores aspects of humanity that frighten me. Netty Becker in The Blue Mile, for example, is an awful, sniping gossip, amusing on the one hand for her know-all nosiness, but breathtakingly destructive on the other, spreading lies about others for no purpose other than her own gratification. And then there’s Alec Howell, the sadistic, misogynist uncle from Paper Daisies: he is every bully I’ve ever met – and I found a great deal of satisfaction in killing him on the page. It is a bit of screwed-up fun to punish those who’ve punished me in real life in these ways, but generally I don’t do bad guys. I suppose, in my experience, they seem so far in the minority, why give them more attention than they deserve? I’d rather celebrate the strengths and triumphs of those I admire: there is an ever-increasing multitude of them. And, if my stories are my legacy in this life, I want to leave behind me trails of light: kindness, compassion, wisdom.

We’re all miraculous survivors in one way or another. We are stupid, annoying, frustrating, blind to our faults and more, yes, but we’re all amazing, too. As I’ve said elsewhere and several times, if that makes me a sentimentalist – oh well. What did Nietzsche say about playing with monsters and staring too long into the abyss?

I stare into my soup instead and find more interesting depths of reality there, sprinklings of interconnectedness I can’t begin to understand. But I want to.

How is it that in writing The Blue Mile, whose colourful hero Olivia is so much my Nana, I inadvertently discovered one of her most closely held secrets? I gave posh Olivia a convict grandfather in her family closet completely unaware that this was Nana’s truth. It was only during some idle research of her unusual maiden name, Mellish, a year or two after the novel was published that I stumbled upon the facts – and I swear I heard Nana gasp from the stars. Sorry, Nana.

Although I’m not a religious person or in any way into woo-woo, the idea that we’re somehow atomically, interdimensionally entwined is a compelling one for me. Did my convict want me to find him? Did he stare back at me from the soup?

If so, he’s not the first to have done it. When I was madly scrambling at the final, final, last-minute history checks for my first novel, Black Diamonds, before it went to print, I thought I’d just better make sure none of my German-Australian family went to the Western Front during World War I – as does Daniel Ackerman in the story. I searched the Australian War Memorial databases, as I had done several times already – I even remember thinking, ‘Why am I being so neurotic about this? Who cares if there was family there or not?’ – when the name Henry James Schwebel shouted back at me: ‘Here I am!’ One of my Pop’s cousins, as it turned out, and he’d died in Flanders, slaughtered like so many thousands of other Australians there. I hadn’t known he’d existed at all until that moment.

I was suddenly awash with ninety years of untold grief, floods of it, and astonishment that I’d just written a novel that might as well have traced Henry’s path – only Daniel, in the story, makes it home again.

The real-life model for Daniel was a lovely young man not unlike my supermarket checkout boy. He’d gone to school with my own boys, a little older than my eldest. When I first began writing Black Diamonds, I sketched much of its opening chapters in the car while my eldest played cricket on Saturday mornings, and whenever I looked up at the sports field I couldn’t help but notice the boy with dark hair, a glint of auburn in it, who was bigger and more skilled than all the others. The way he moved, so gracefully, and his encouragement of the younger, smaller boys, had me magicking him into a man on my pages. I can’t think about Daniel without thinking about him.

But I can’t name him. Not here. This boy didn’t quite get to become a man. He was killed in a car accident on the highway not far from where we lived a few years after the novel was published. I’d always meant to tell his mother what I’d done, how I’d used her beautiful son, and I couldn’t tell her then. Perhaps I will one day. Or perhaps she’ll read the novel sometime and find a whisper of him there. Either way, he is there and always will be. Really.

pigs flying

STRETCHING THE IMAGINATION

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or perhaps pigs might fly.

snippet

YES, YOU NEED AN EDITOR

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

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

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

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

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

They are not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Red Earth blog

HEART COUNTRY

As a serially displaced Irish-German-Catholic-Jewish atheist with a convict or two in the closet, notions of home and belonging have always been wonders to me. Where do I come from? Why am I here? What kismet has made me so lucky I get to live in Australia? What is Australia?

These are questions of an outsider, I suppose, the fascinations of an immigrant, and I return to them again and again in all my fictions. Even though by one thread of family, I’m sixth-generation Australian, most of the time I feel like a visitor, just passing through, no fixed address. And yet the land and the light, the shapes and the sounds and the smells of this country are part of me like no other place on earth.

It’s a curious push-pull many Australians feel, especially those of us who are of mixed heritage. There seems to be a whispering everywhere: you’re not authentically anything. Not really one thing or the other.

We tie ourselves up in knots over cultural connections to country. First Nations’ people who live on traditional lands are on the one hand at the pinnacle of belonging – belonging to the oldest continuous culture and continent in the world – and yet in every other sense they are too often neglected and disrespected by the rest of us. Those of us of European background are on the one hand at the pinnacle of power and privilege, and yet we seem to have forgotten that our culture, too, has deep and beautiful roots that stretch back as far as time itself – to the same place we all began, a place far beyond any knowing.

Culture isn’t a competitive sport but we’re quick to rank each other in these terms – and far too quick to say those who are mixed or conflicted have no culture at all, or that those who are citified have no true connection to country, either. I don’t own an Akubra or a cattle station; most of my forebears were wandering working-class nobodies who washed up on these shores with nothing and died with nothing too. Does this mean I have less claim to call this place home today? Some, it seems, really do think so. Just as some confuse a rejection of religion with a lack of spirituality.

Every day I walk along the track that leads to my house in central New South Wales and from the ridgetop it sits upon I look east towards Bathurst and Sydney and west towards Canowindra and the rest of the continent, and it’s not unusual for me to be overwhelmed with joy and gratitude at the beauty that surrounds me. The rolling hills that sweep green over gold over green with the seasons; the huge sky: mad bright blue in January; pale and grey-bellied with snow in July. The countless small miracles of my history, every twist and trick of fate that brought me here, to this place.

I feel this beauty and this history rising up through my feet. I feel the sun on my shoulders as the hand of love. I feel my heart swell in my chest. I feel a longing for this place whenever I’m away. I feel relief when I return.

I am in love with this country. I came to live here, on this piece of it, with my love, my Deano, who happens to be of English, Ulster Irish and French descent, my enemy in every heritage, and who was born in the red-dirt country of the desert’s edge, just as I was born in the city by the sea.

This country – every speck of it my boots have touched – inspires me to think and dream, to tread more carefully, to listen with my feet and my skin and my heart. My stories are all songs to this country, my country, told with the music and the poetry that beats in my blood across millennia.

I come from many cultures, many countries of bold and courageous travellers: we all do. Those whose feet have walked these tracks forever and those who arrived just yesterday, kissing the rock-solid safety of this place.

It took every one of us such a long time to get here. Let’s cherish this country, our sacred country, our Australia, and cherish all who live and love within it, wherever we’ve come from.

beach maroubra

Images: view across one of the neighbours’ paddocks from The Bend, where I live today, and Maroubra Beach, in eastern Sydney, where I was raised. 

heart tree

TRULY MADLY KIDNEY: TWO YEARS ON

Three days before I gave my husband Deano a kidney for Christmas 2014, I received an email from a psychology PhD student asking me to participate in a long-term study of organ donors. She only needed half an hour of my time, but I didn’t have five minutes to spare then.

I was scrambling to complete the final editorial queries on my novel, Paper Daisies. I pressed send to the publisher with less than twenty-four hours to go until the surgery. The rest of my head was consumed with pumping myself up with confidence that Deano would love my kidney like his own and that I wouldn’t die in the process.

I was in a place beyond sensible conversation. I was standing on the cold, hard threshold of my mad aeroplane door waiting to jump.

But now, today, I’d like to answer that student’s questions, whatever they might have been, about how things have turned out for me as a donor.

To begin with, not a day goes by when I’m not blown away by the fact that things have worked out so well for us. The kidney elves at Westmead Hospital did a magnificent job: so much so that Deano and I often forget he was ever deathly ill, and his renal physician is apt to scratch his head at the wonder that such a small-girl kidney could produce such a stunningly great result inside such a big-bloke body. Yay, team.

But, apart from having a healthy husband returned to me, the experience has brought gifts I could never have foreseen.

Perhaps the most astonishing, and beneficial, has been that my own chronic illness – anxiety – has never managed to get its hooks into me too deeply ever since. Jumping out into that place beyond sense seems have caused some kind of psychic shift in my brain.

I’m no longer so fearful of failure; I’m no longer so interested in what others might think of me, either. I no longer listen to people whose opinions I don’t respect and at the same time I can hear smaller voices so much more clearly.

I’m a better mother to my boys: more relaxed in my support of them, less distracted by panic and more tuned in to their needs. I’m probably a much better friend than I ever was, too, with my head uncluttered of so much of the self-consciousness that used to get in the way of everything.

It feels as if, in my own giving of that little piece of flesh, something in my soul has been turned permanently outwards.

Only a few months after the surgery, in the May of 2015, at the Bathurst Writers & Readers Festival, I was suddenly able to talk about my books and myself without feeling as though my heart was going to leap out of my chest and run for the hills. I could now see all the people who helped me and encouraged me to get on that stage and I was flooded with gratitude rather than terror. I could see the audience now as a bunch of people just wanting to connect with something outside themselves, hear something interesting. I could imagine that if someone in that audience was having a shitty day, a chat and a laugh with me might make their day a little less shitty.

I can’t begin to describe how liberating this has been. I’ve just spent the weekend participating as a speaker and workshop-teacher at this year’s Bathurst Festival and I can barely believe how much my confidence, and my joy, in sharing my thoughts and skills with others has bloomed.

The knocks and disappointments that are part and parcel of publishing don’t rock me the way they used to, either. Back in 2015, when I was told by one publisher that my work was of no interest to them, I wrote Wild Chicory – a book that has become my statement piece, the story that articulates most powerfully who I am in the world, and arguably the one my readers love best.

Since then, my creativity – my love and curiosity for words and stories and what they can do – has been in overdrive, and I’ve written four manuscripts; one of them, Jewel Sea, was published last year, hot the heels of Wild Chicory. Pause for the arithmetic: yes, in a little under two and a half years, I’ve written five books altogether; two of them have been published, and two of them are being read by a publisher right now. This publisher is a weighty, prestigious block of concrete, and while it’d be nice to have them take me on, it’s no longer essential to my writing schemes and dreams.

I know who I am, I know what my story is, and I’ll drive my own publishing bus regardless of whose logo might grace the imprint pages of my books. I’m already in the midst of a major test drive with the republishing of my first four novels, which will be out in July. When a deal for them fell through earlier this year, I picked up sticks and organised it myself – something that would have been unthinkable for me a few short years ago. I wouldn’t have known where to begin; I’d have been too ashamed to ask.

But maybe most extraordinarily of all, I’m thinking about going back to uni. Twenty years ago, I dropped out of my Master of Letters because I’d unexpectedly found myself having to return to full-time work and more or less sole-parenting my two small boys, making study impossible. But now – right now – I’m in discussion with an academic to see if the manuscript I want to write next might be a good basis for my own higher research degree. Whether or not this eventuates, it’s a turn that has truly shocked me for what it says about how much my faith in my work has grown.

So, dear psychology PhD student, organ donation has been a great, big, beautiful boon for me. I’d do it again in a blink, if I had another kidney available.

And dear readers, if you or anyone you know ever needs to chat through the process or the emotions of organ donation, my heart is always here for you. Drop me a line.

In the meantime, love recklessly, love large. It’s good for you. Really.

XXX

Image: creator unknown

20160313_120517

REFLECTIONS OF YOU
JO

Our latest and most lovely Reflector is the wonderful person who, in her sharp-brained and super-enthusiastic way, said to me one day a few years ago, ‘Kim, I think you should have a blog.’ I told her I wasn’t so sure about that – what on earth would I talk about on a blog? Rather a lot, as it has turned out, hm?

So, now you know who to blame for my mad rambling here. But apart from that, Jo McClelland is a bookseller and a beautiful writer herself, with plenty to say for that self as well. And through our shared love of words, she’s someone who has become a treasured friend.

A brave one, too – answering our Big Seven questions on life and love right here…

Who are you and where were you born?

I was born in a place that no longer exists; North York was swallowed up by Toronto some years ago so that my passport confuses border people. But that is still an easier question than “who am I?”

The problem is it’s easy enough to answer “what am I?” I am a mother, a daughter, a sister, a wife and a friend. I am a writer and a storyteller. I’m a shop girl and a wonderer, a seeker and climber. I listen well in French and communicate best through email, and if the weather is right, I can sing. I prefer to read outside and eat on the floor. I once swam with stingrays on purpose and the most magical place I’ve ever been is a village in Nice. I have a mountain soul and I sometimes believe six impossible things before breakfast.

But who am I not in regards to you or any other person; not related to what I do or where I am or even what I read?

I’m someone looking for the answer to that question.

What’s your most treasured childhood memory?

One summer, I decided to create Panda Bear Magazine. I was reporter and illustrator as well as managing editor. I called aunties and asked questions about their families, and wrote articles; included interviews and I think even a family recipe. My mother said that I taught myself to read by writing that magazine.

I distinctly remember asking her to tell me how to spell ‘remember.’ When I write that word I actually can smell what she was cooking in the kitchen. I can feel the chair and table under me. I can see the whole room as it was even though I have to work to remember that house. And I feel my hand writing the word on an envelope even when I’m typing it.  

The first issue of Panda Bear Magazine came out at the end of August, but there was never a second issue, due to the start of school.

What does home mean for you?

Since I was small I have had the ability to make myself at home anywhere. I arranged any new space to feel at home even with minimal belongings and drawings or writings. I’ve always felt transient and never let a space control me. There are some places that I choose to frequent but home is a place inside my head. The closest I’ve ever gotten in the real world is a bookshop in the Lithgow valley, with huge windows, soft chairs, a mountain view and a coffee shop next door.

What makes you smile?

Those wonderful mornings, when I walk out my front door, look up into the mountains and think, “I love living here.” My husband’s way with words and also his kisses on my neck. Like most people, I love getting mail; especially packages and fresh flowers; or saying “hello” to a friend whom I haven’t seen in a while; or curling up in a patch of sunlight with a really, really good book. My baby’s infectious giggles are super contagious and I can’t help but laugh at my dad’s jokes. And nothing gives me more joy than when two people I love share a smile and a cuddle.

What was the hardest lesson you ever had to learn?

I had a bad case of the “know-it-alls” when I was nineteen. Ten years later I had to face myself in the mirror and accept that sometimes life just doesn’t turn out like you planned, no matter how hard you try to hold onto it. I had to forgive myself, let go of my teenaged-ideals and start from scratch. The result, I hope, is I’m a little wiser, a little kinder, and less judgmental of others who have taken a left turn in life. I have also discovered that thirty isn’t too old to start living the life you want and people who have been hurt are some of the most caring, tolerant, and understanding of those who have lost it all.

Who or what is the love of your life?

A year ago, my answer would have been so different. This year I have fallen in love with a little person who loves music, dogs, books, and Jatz. She’s the delight of my every day and a super warm cuddle buddy when it’s cold. I didn’t realize I could love someone as much as I do my daughter. When she wakes me up in the middle of the night for a cuddle, her warmth lulls me back to sleep. When I see her smiling face in the morning, I don’t mind getting out of bed.  The best smell in the world is the freshly shampooed head of a baby girl. She roars like a scary dragon, chirps like a cricket, and claps for more. I feel like the reason my body hasn’t returned to my pre-pregnancy size is because my heart swelled when she was born.

What do your past, your history and family heritage mean to you?

My father came to Canada on a boat from Northern Ireland and my mother’s mother was French Canadienne and could trace her family back generations. Theses cultures, traditions, and languages have enchanted me since I was young, like I was descendant from two magical groups of people here on Earth as much as if my ancestors were Tolkien’s elves.

Even more than the people who lived and led to me, are the readers in my family tree, like my mother, who named me for Jo March in Little Women, by Louise May Alcott. At my most disconnected – A.K.A. my teenaged years – I still felt connected to that book through Alcott’s character. Even on days I hated my own name, I loved that I was named Jo.

Jo was on the lookout for something extraordinary. She longed for Europe and New York and all those place that are “so good for writers”. Through my name, I feel as though I have not only inherited Little Women, but also every book, library and bookstore. These are the homes of my ancestors and each one holds a story from my histories.

My husband and I wanted to pass all this onto our daughter, giving her a name that was both French and Irish in origin, and was fresh from the pages of a book by Joanne Harris. Vianne is a free spirit, following the North wind with a love of chocolate and an imaginary kangaroo. All this felt, to me, like a good starting place to not only share the history I grew up with, but to, also, give my daughter a history all her own.

Isn’t that one of the most beautiful gifts for a child ever? Thank you for sharing that, Jo, and for your sparkling prose.

One thing Jo hasn’t mentioned is the fabulous bookshop she and her husband Paul own in Lithgow – A Reader’s Heaven – and you can find out more about their trove of wonder here.

IMAG0073_1

20160506_204529

IF PHOTOGRAPHS COULD TALK

What would this one say? It looks like a Depression-era snapshot of some ordinary, struggling family.

But it’s my family. My dad, Charlie, is the young fellow on the left gazing whimsically out of the picture with what appears to be a fly on his face.  My grandfather is handsome; my grandmother is disappointed. And little Johnny is calculating his future golfing handicap.

They lived in Coogee, near the beach. Certainly a nice place to be a bit broke, sometime in the mid-1930s.

I saw this photo for the first time last night, my brother, Mark, on a flying visit, whipping it out of his wallet and asking, ‘Have you seen this one?’ I hadn’t, and I fell in love with it instantly, dancing round the kitchen bench trying to get a good focus on my phone.

All of them are gone now. And not gone at all while I’m alive and wondering who they were. How the sand might have felt between their toes, what awful meal Nana had on for dinner (she was the worst cook), how long Pop stayed in the surf that day, avoiding going home (he was the worst husband). Dad practising his modified cursive (for what would become the most beautiful handwriting ever); Johnny scribbling on the front page of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie with a crayon (I still have that book with my uncle’s early masterwork, cherished). Nana knowing, if she could just find her chance in this man’s world, her art and style would clothe every woman in Sydney.

Dreams that echo somehow atomically through me.  Whispers of stories that make up my own.

machine

INSIDE THE MACHINE

“Geez, you churn them out,” I’ve been hearing a bit lately from those surprised by my output of scribblings in recent years. And yes, when you look at my novels in a bunch, it does seem I’ve made quite a lot of them – five so far and another due out later this year.

But I wince a bit each time I hear that word ‘churn’. Churning suggests I have some simple mechanism that neatly spins the stories out of me, and this couldn’t be further from the truth.

Each of my stories is driven from within me by love and a mad curiosity that sends me along vast uphill treks through uncharted wildernesses. Each journey through story and discovery is different, and not once have I returned to the real world unscathed or unchanged.

Right now, I’m in the middle of editing Jewel Sea, that next one, and my gathering nerves at her impending September arrival are jangling against a new story that’s already pushed its way into my heart and taken up residence in my mind. This one is so pushy, and such an unexpected visitor, I woke up at five a.m. on Monday morning with a character literally talking to me.

That character is called Richard Ackerman, and he’s a doctor at Canberra Hospital in 1954. He’s also the youngest son of Daniel and Francine Ackerman, the heroes of my first novel, Black Diamonds. And he won’t leave me alone.

This pushy thing is the Snowy Mountains story I blogged about a few weeks ago – a sketch of a tale of secrets and spies I’d almost forgotten I’d written. Somehow – and I don’t know how – it’s insisted it must be written, as in right now.

Pushing aside my 1860s gold-rush novel waiting to be taken to a final draft and the other story I’d just begun on early twentieth-century circuses in Australia, I’m now deep in the Monaro high country skiing and plotting acts of espionage.

This little machine here doesn’t so much churn as send me at some giddying velocity through time, through dreams, through all I’ve learned and am yet to know.

Making me a little bit insane with weariness every day. And I wouldn’t want it any other way.

20160313_120517

REFLECTIONS OF YOU
DONNA

My word, I’m enjoying this series of spotlights on the wonderful people who colour my world, and I hope you are, too. Our next intrepid Reflector is someone I first met at university, when I was seventeen and pretty naïve about most things. Donna was a couple of years older; she was articulate, confident and worldly – someone who actually knew what the word feminist meant – and her long blonde hair and fabulous laugh seemed always at the centre of the party.

She was dazzling then and remains so today. Wise, honest, smart and still with that fabulous laugh, I’m thrilled she’s agreed to share something of herself with us here in answering the Big Seven questions. Read on and you’ll catch a glimpse of one of the best real-life love stories I know, too…

Who are you and where were you born?

My name is Donna Meadows and I was born in London in 1965. My father is Australian and was working as a musician for big bands in London when he met my mother. My parents, my grandmother (my mother’s mum) and I came to Australia by boat in 1968. My parents separated not long after arriving in Australia and I lived with my mum and nan but spent weekends with my dad. I am the only child of my parents’ union but have four brothers and two sisters from other marriages. I have two daughters, aged 14 and 10, and have a shared care arrangement with the girls’ Dad. I have a partner, Konrad, who lives in Canada, and we have a long distance relationship.

What’s your most treasured childhood memory?

Catching a ferry with my nan when I was five or six from Circular Quay to Manly at night and sitting in the ‘ladies compartment ‘while going through the heads – the boat was rocking from the swell, and we were accompanied by seagulls catching a ride in the wind alongside the ferry. Thrilling!

What does home mean for you?

Being a child of separated parents, I had a number of ‘homes’ in my childhood. I lived with my mother, stepfather and brothers in four places on the Northern beaches, and would spend time across the bridge in Glebe and Newtown with my father and his family. 

My father moved up the mid north coast when I was fifteen, so I then had that place as a home as well. I also left the family home quite young, just before I turned sixteen, as I had a fraught relationship with my stepfather, and my mother rightly thought it would be more stable, and in the best interests of doing my HSC, for me to live with one of my stepsisters, not far away in the next suburb.

When I was eighteen, the lure of the urban environment drew me back to Newtown and I then moved into share accommodation with strangers, in a terrace house, while going to university. The strangers became lifelong friends, and I continued to stay around the inner west in share accommodation for most of my twenties. ‘Home’ was about parties, boyfriends, breakups and fantastic friendships.  

My sense of ‘home’ was always about the people around me. I always felt loved and safe in whatever ‘home’ I was in, and had the constant support and security of my parents as backup wherever I was. In many ways, it was a great way to experience ‘home’ as I am not scared of change and continued to live in a number of places, including overseas, with friends and partners throughout my thirties and forties.

I hope my daughters also have the opportunity to live in different homes at different stages of their lives as it teaches you an enormous amount about getting on with a variety of personalities, being considerate of others, and being independent – all great skills for a fulfilling life.

I think I am settled now for a few years with my daughters, living back in the house I consider the ‘family’ home; the one where my mother and brothers lived. I’ve built a granny flat for my mother at the back, and my daughters and I live in the main house. It is a great beach cottage and is a welcoming port for all the brothers and sisters, my father, stepmother and my partner Konrad.

‘Home’ continues to be a place of relationships for me, but I also feel very fortunate and grateful to live in such a beautiful environment and try to impart this sense of appreciation to my daughters.

What makes you smile?

  • When my daughters show mettle and resilience at life’s challenges
  • Heading east towards the ocean on Seal Rocks Road, NSW, any time of day
  • An illicit afternoon with my partner, Konrad.

What was the hardest lesson you ever had to learn?

Too many to list here! The only thing I will say is NOTHING beats getting professional help for overcoming patterns of behaviour and choices that are not positive – a good therapist is worth every cent.

Who or what is the love of your life?

I’ve had three significant relationships with men in my life and they have all been based on either love or friendship at that time, and gave me maturity, confidence and my beautiful children. They have all been worth the pain and heartache that comes with the waning of love and ultimately breakup.

However, the relationship that I have now is without a doubt the love of my life. Konrad and I met in our twenties and had a brief but intense fling before parting ways; me travelling, and him returning to Canada. We didn’t stay in touch but both had a sense of ‘the one that got way’ about each other.

While clearing out his mother’s basement, Konrad rediscovered a postcard I’d written from Nepal all those years ago and felt a burning need to find me again. It wasn’t easy as I was not on Facebook or any social media, so he had to do some digging. He is a collector, which helped as he is tenacious and good at research. He eventually found me and fired off an email to my work address.

Both of us were in relationships that were ending, with small children, so writing to each other was a form of support and distraction from our domestic issues. Over the course of this old fashioned epistolary romance, we fell in love all over again. It was sealed when Konrad eventually flew to Sydney to meet me in person and we knew then that there was no turning back.

The challenge of having a long distance relationship is nothing compared to the challenges that face most failed relationships; communication breakdowns, contempt, and different values. We talk every day, and see each other for a few weeks every three months. We will continue long distance for a few more years as we both have jobs and children in our respective countries.

The advantage of having a long distance relationship is that there is a constant hum of yearning, and that is good for any relationship. The thousands of emails that we wrote also provided a very solid foundation for knowing each other extremely well, which is important. People ask us about ‘trust’ and ‘loyalty’ but for us it’s a non-issue. Frankly, if we couldn’t trust each other, it just wouldn’t be worth it. This relationship is a gift, and I will be forever grateful to Konrad for finding and wooing me. He is, without a doubt, the love of my life.

What does your past, your history and family heritage mean to you?

In a nutshell, not much. Neither of my parents have shared much about their parents or their grandparents’ lives. It is like getting blood from a stone finding out anything. My mother’s mother came from a family of strong women and business owners in England, and her father came from working class stock from Perth, Scotland. He was an abusive alcoholic and my mother and grandmother left him when my mother was twelve or so. I think this is why my mother hasn’t looked back much and has always been more focussed on the present. My father grew up in Sydney and is third generation Australian, with Scottish background. He is now starting to tell me stories of spending fun childhood holidays with his grandparents who lived fairly simply in the bush, in western NSW.

Now that I have a partner who is a collector, and very interested in stories of history and family heritage, I have taken more of an interest but it is difficult getting any information out of my parents.

Although it is not my bloodline, I am particularly interested in a story from my late stepfather’s family history, to which my brothers Bill and Frank are connected, which involves a ‘kidnapping’ in the mid nineteenth century of a great grandmother ‘Rosie’ by an Aboriginal tribe in Victoria. We still have the walking stick that was carved by her ‘Aboriginal’ father for her when she was a toddler. The story itself needs to be researched for the truth to emerge and I am planning to do this over the next couple of years.

My own family heritage is vague and unreliable, a few stories here and there. My main take away from it is the value that feminism has brought to women’s lives. I have a sense of strong women in my family history who were limited by inequality and misogyny. This political view was formed in me early on, at the age of fifteen or so, and I always look at history, including my own family history, from a feminist perspective.

And what a magnificent woman you are, Donna Meadows. Thank you so much for your openness and generosity here. Cheers to many, many more years of story-sharing friendship ahead. And when you find out about Rosie’s ‘kidnapping’, you have to tell me all about it – my wordy, indeedy you do!

PicCollage