Kim Kelly

Australian Author

Category: Uncategorized

Genuine Fake: questions of authenticity

If novelists and all other types of fictioneers are mimics, armchair actors and intrepid travellers through time and space, what does authenticity mean when we’re always at some level dealing with the imagined?

Does fiction ever give us a free pass to write about whatever and whomever we want? No, it does not, in my emphatic opinion, after a few decades of thinking about authorial voices both as an editor and a writer myself. Can we ever truly portray the experiences of others? No, we can’t, I don’t reckon, either. It’s difficult enough to faithfully portray our own, if you think about it – there’s nothing like attempting to write an autobiographical piece to put you on a collision course with your own bs.

So, perhaps the more important authenticity wonder here is: how can we try to ensure our fictions are steeped in useful, meaningful truths?

There is a solid school of opinion that says authors, for the sake of truth, should write only from within the realms of their personal experience, that all attempts to write outside the parameters of your own identity will be irretrievably fake and possibly even harmful to others. It can be a harsh position to take, especially given that most authors are compelled in some way by curiosity about the unknown, but it’s one that provides an important first check on the road to answering the question of whether or not the tale you’re writing, and its inherent truths, are somehow yours to tell.

That question is, more succinctly, how fake will your fiction be? If you’ve embarked on a story, say, about a young Jewish woman who survives the Holocaust through prostitution, there is an obvious set of questions to ask yourself straight off in trying to get close to her experience. Am I Jewish? Am I a woman? Have I experienced terrifying, life-threatening oppression? Am I a sex worker? It’s unlikely that any author can answer them all with a yes, and not being able to do so is to admit that this story is not yours.

Coming to this realisation doesn’t mean you have to throw out the idea, but it is a cue for humility and honesty. Admitting that your work will be essentially inauthentic is necessary mental preparation for the very long road of research you’ll need to undertake in order to try to turn the tale into something that will hold some useful and meaningful truths.  

Before you hit the books, though, the first homework assignment should probably be an essay to yourself on why you want to tell this particular tale. If your answer includes statements like, ‘because Holocaust stories sell’ or ‘because the scenario is rich in drama’, then your work will be exploitative – even if you’re a passionate anti-fascist who has a PhD in the sex industry and old Yiddish folksongs – and whether or not you should still write that book will be a matter for your own conscience.

There’s no law against cultural or experiential exploitation, just like there’s no law against the tuneless singing arias in the street, and no one can show you where the lines of harm or offence will be drawn – because those lines will be different for every reader. Arguably, if you have something important or complex to say, you’re going to upset someone. But who you’re going to upset is another important question.

In the storyline example above, a poorly researched, inaccurate portrayal of Jewishness is going to cause offence to some Jewish readers, cause them to roll their eyes and sigh, ‘There’s no business like Shoah business.’ Are the feelings of Jewish people important to you in this work? If not, why not? Same goes for the feelings of sex workers. Have you considered the agency and dignity of this character and avoided stereotyping? If not, why not?

If your portrayal of any character is stereotypical, it’s fundamentally unlikely to carry any enlightening truths simply because we’ve seen it all a million times before. Even if the stereotype is benign, it’ll be banal. If the stereotype perpetuates bigotry and prejudice – for example, your character is a weak victim of her oppressors, or her only redemption lies in becoming a ‘good girl’ – then it’s probably time to think about what part your contribution  might play in bringing and keeping others down.     

Yes, it’s a minefield, and it should be. Why would you not want to consider the diverse responses of your audience?

Questions of authenticity are as knotty and complicated as your own sense of personal identity. Think about who you are and where you’ve come from. Very few Australians have a neat, straightforward sense of identity or family history. Many of us are mixtures of various inheritances and influences, our hearts pulled in different directions and holding all kinds of sensitivities, some of them traumatic, some of them intergenerational.

I have my own set of sore points, from tiny irks likes poor-taste Irish jokes and Jewish jokes, to more serious concerns, such as storylines that blame women for violence against them. One of the stereotypes that pushes my buttons like no other is the portrayal by middle-class writers of working-class characters as ugly, ignorant or morally depraved. Very few errors of judgement can make me throw an otherwise good book across a room like this one can, and the reason it can is deeply personal.

At the same time, I’m sure that my portrayal of certain characters and the narrative decisions I have made have raised some eyebrows in some shape or form over the ten novels I’ve written. I haven’t yet received any direct criticism for it, but I imagine some readers might have decided that my work is not authentic enough – and they’ll get no argument from me, precisely because this is a very personal issue. Another person’s sense of themselves and their heritage is not up for debate – ever. My authorial intentions are irrelevant and indefensible if I have hurt someone – for any reason.

Some readers will only ever want to read Own Stories novels – fiction written by authors who have personally trodden the road of the narrative, or have profound cultural connections to it. This is the choice of those readers, and likewise should not be up for debate.

Hopefully, in my own writing (very little of which is obviously autobiographical), I’ve done the work to at least avoid reinforcing unjust and factually wrong tropes and types, but one thing research and moral diligence can never do is make you love your own characters. No matter who my characters are, their spirits and quests spring from people I know in real life, they are parts of my heart and history. I care deeply about what happens to them, and where they’re coming from. I love them as friends and family; I respect them as fellow, equal humans. Even the characters whose experiences are vastly different from my own come from lines of love for people whose lives have been inextricably entwined with mine. For me, it’s not enough to respect or admire a character, or like the idea of them; they must be sitting right next to me, whispering into my ear, sometimes telling me things I don’t want to hear.

If you can’t naturally hear your character’s voice, why are you writing that character? Mimicry without connection and understanding is hard to sustain for the length of a novel. If I can’t hear, see and feel the energy and thoughts of a character off the bat, I can’t write the story at all – it drifts away into the land of Great Ideas That Went Nowhere.

Of course, every writer has a different approach to working their way into a story, and there are always a hell of a lot of trees in that forest, but perhaps the most important question to ask yourself is, fake as all our tales will inevitably be, why do you need to tell this one? Why do you need to make it yours? What in your heart is binding you to it? What burning desire for truth is driving you? An authenticity reader can’t correct superficiality or do the work of immersive, emotional research and deep, lifelong thought for you.

There are so very many stories in the world, and I’m of the view that the greater majority of them do need to be told, but what is the point of telling a tale that’s not somehow of your own soul? Can the truths you want to tell be told from a distance, or should you bring them closer to home?

In the end, like all the best, perplexing conundrums, these questions of authenticity are ones that only you, the author, can answer.

Photo: Arunachal Art

FREEDOM

It’s Remembrance Day again, a day for reflection on the relationship between loss and human foolishness that seems lost in the wash this year.

There’s a lot of noise filling the wide blue sky right now, belligerent flag-wavers claiming their freedom is at stake unless we allow tyrants to have their way. It all sounds like the same old unhinged, clangouring dissonance that has always led us to war. Boring. Nasty. Terrifying.

And pointless, because there’s no such thing as freedom anyway. None of us lives without obligation or responsibility, without consequences following along after our actions. We might like to think we do, but it’s never true.

This time last year, our skies were beginning to fill with smoke from bushfires that would rage into the new year, bushfires caused by climate change, fuelled by our insatiable want for mountains of stuff we don’t need – fuelled by our freedom to pillage the planet.

Here are two kangaroos I snapped on the way home from the shops last November. They seemed lost in the thick blanket of drought dust rolling in from the west, the eerie prelude to the monstrous firestorms that would follow; and they were trapped in the maze of fences out where I live. That day, I felt just like them as I followed slowly in my car. Not free, but fragile, anxious, shedding hope by the moment.

Yes, things do turn around. Yes, we do find that break in the fence, eventually, and push through to a brighter day. A return to some equilibrium, maybe. An escape from oppression. But not to freedom.

This Remembrance Day, I’m reaffirming my obligations and responsibilities: to live smaller and love larger, and to refuse to lose hope that these things make a difference. They’re the only weapons of peace we’ve ever had.  

A NEW DAY, A NEW DEAL

Like many, I couldn’t sleep last night waiting for Pennsylvania to clock over the requisite number of votes to maybe, hopefully put an end to the era of super-charged, greed-fuelled brutality that’s gripped America and infected the world these past four years – or forty if we’re counting its true origins.

At first light, here in the cool, crisp tranquillity of faraway central New South Wales, I got up and went for a walk, listening to the magpies oodling the first notes of the dawn chorus, watching the dew slip from the long spines of spring grass and into the earth, waiting for the first glimpse of the sun.

It appeared as a slim thread of gold above low cloud hugging the distant hills before it rose with its usual slow majesty, the fire gem of our first worship. It’s Sunday in Australia now and this is my only church.

I pray that righteousness comes wearing robes of humility, barefoot and aware of its own frailties. I pray that compassion, the touch of hands reaching to each other, becomes news to celebrate – hell, let’s make it a competitive sport. I pray that we cease sticking dollar signs on all our blessings. Our families, communities and creative spirits are not for sale. This earth beneath our feet is a miracle to be cherished and cared for as our mother and child combined – as the only material thing of worth we ever truly have.  

The long tail of despair is shivering through me and I cry and cry in letting it go. Like so very many, I’ve found the blithe, superior contempt of our political and corporate masters dislocating, gaslighting, a vile and cloying web of silent hatreds that’s made some days hard to bear. I’ve questioned the value of having tried to pour whatever gifts I might have into a world that chucks my efforts onto the trash pile marked ‘sentimental’. I have wondered if the world has moved past hope – that one currency that keeps me alive.

I pray that there is no hollow hollering of self-congratulation from equally superior, sneering, self-described progressives who blame the poor for falling victim to cults that promise deliverance when those who should be tackling the injustices of poverty have quietly betrayed them, calling them ‘deplorable’ as they dial for a driver to bring them food and drink – a driver who works harder than they do and can’t pay his rent. Nothing, nothing whatsoever, to celebrate there.

I pray for the peaceful, sensible dismantling of the monstrous plutocracy that’s thrived like a cancer under our watch – the mega retailers and tech giants and bloated banks and puffed-up publishers and broadcasters – that have brought every one of us low, reducing us to blips within algorithms.

Big prayers, I know.    

But I have reason for big hopes, too. Yes, an old white man has just been elected president of the United States. Whoopie-doo. He’s a career politician not renowned for allowing his sweetest angels to shine through to his policy decisions and manoeuvrings, and yet there’s a glimpse of gold in the choice of this man.

He chose a woman – a highly accomplished woman of colour – to be his chief cahooter, his vice president. Her name is Kamala Harris, and she’s no saint, either. The way to achieving something good and decent is paved with compromise and deals with the devil that will follow you for the rest of your days. But, for mine, the most powerful thing this woman has done to date to was to tell this old white man to his face – in front of an audience of billions during the Democratic presidential primaries – that his past enabling of racism was wrong and hurt her personally.  

When Harris did this, I thought, well there goes your ticket, honey. But that’s not what happened. The old white man ended up winning the race, sure, but then he picked her as his running mate. He chose her to hold the spare set of keys to the United States of America, to the western world and all its long, barbed tails of bigotry. This is what justice looks like. This, fellers take note, is what a truly powerful man looks like, too: when you hurt someone, even unintentionally, do something restorative, do something to give them back their power. Yes, yes, yes, the choice of Harris was electorally savvy, capturing votes from women and people of colour, blah, blah, blah, but it remains, most significantly, a statement of change – a handing of the reins to someone truly new.

Let’s send her strength. And send out one last prayer: for all those who have lost loved ones and are otherwise suffering from the virus allowed to run rampant by the uncaring, may your sun rise again soon, may you wake into a world wrought into shapes of greater kindness.

And there’s enough sermonising from the little blip that is me. Enjoy the bright, beautiful threads of this day however they might appear for you.

Love, Kim x

THE TRUTH & ADDY LOEST

Ta da! I’m a bundle of thrill at being able to share the gorgeous cover for The Truth & Addy Loest with the world, publishing in paperback, ebook and Bolinda audiobook in February 2021. She’s a love song to my misspent youth at Sydney Uni in the 1980s – days of overthinking, too much drinking, live bands, love and literature. If you’d like to read the first chapter, you can right here:

Truth is not a destination – it’s a magical ride.

Addy Loest is harbouring a secret – several, in fact. Dedicated overthinker, frockaholic and hard-partyer, she’s been doing all she can to avoid the truth for quite some time.

A working-class girl raised between the Port Kembla Steelworks and the surf of the Illawarra coast, Addy is a fish out of water at the prestigious University of Sydney. She’s also the child of German immigrants, and her broken-hearted widower dad won’t tell her anything about her family’s tragic past.

But it’s 1985, a time of all kinds of excess, from big hair to big misogyny, and distractions are easy. Distractions, indeed, are Addy’s best skill – until one hangover too many leads her to meet a particular frock and a particular man, each of whom will bring all her truths hurtling home.

Told with Kim Kelly’s incomparable warmth and wit, The Truth & Addy Loest is a magical trip through shabby-chic inner-city Sydney, a tale of music and moonlight, literature and love – and of discovering the only story that really matters is the one you write for yourself.

SIX QUICK WINTER-WARMING THOUGHTS

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).  

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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:

Website: https://www.pamelacook.com.au/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/PamelaCookAuthor/

Instagram: @pamelacookwrites

Twitter: @PamelaCookAU

Writes4Women Podcast: https://www.writes4women.com/

her last words roses

DON’T GIVE UP

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.

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

 

Walking front cover

WALKING RHYTHMS

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

butterfly

STOCKTAKING

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

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.