Kim Kelly

Australian Author

Category: Writing

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THE GREAT AUSTRALIAN WOMAN

What do we think of when we hear the words ‘Aussie hero’? Ten bucks says it’s not a woman. Soldiers, sportsmen, farmers, emergency services workers all vie for glossy advertising space in my mind, their smiling, sweaty poster-blokes too loudly high-vis to allow a view of much else.

That’s some stubborn social conditioning, I guess, but I’ve had some very interesting conversations lately on the place and constitution of the Great Australian Woman that have led me to wonder if she’s been sent further to the background than ever before.

In doing a bit of research for an upcoming festival chat, I’ve been asking around: Where are our women heroes of Australian literature today? Our favourites seem to be those of the past, among the most beloved of them, Sybylla from My Brilliant Career, and Philadelphia from All the Rivers Run. Intriguing and complex gals, too: Laura from Voss, and Cushie from Swords and Crowns and Rings. Even our contemporary lady protagonists step from the mists of history, however glitteringly: Edith Campbell Berry from Grand Days et al, and the unflappable flapperish Phryne Fisher.

Whole women, imperfect women, their voices distinct, their ways idiosyncratic, and all of them women of personal agency and intrinsic power. Women rich in character. Women who drive their own stories and sit at the centre of them.

Where are they in Australian literature today, though?

A disturbing head-scratch seems to have followed the question: Hmmmm? Dunno.

Perhaps we lack the critical distance to identify them in the bustle of now. More worryingly, perhaps they’re no longer marketable.

At the more commercial end of things, Australian publishers are leery of ‘difficult’ women protagonists, preferring more safely saleable action Barbie heroines who rarely falter in their stride, always beat the bad guys and always get their man. They almost always wear Akubras, and if they don’t, they’re almost always miraculously able to travel the world being multi-talented while overcoming every single obstacle in their path. They are loads of fun but fairly shallow – and there are hundreds and hundreds of them.

Over the past ten years or so, I’ve watched the pressure to conform grow. I’ve been on the receiving end of that pressure myself and it’s as upsetting as it sounds: write to market-tested template or fail. I’ve chosen the latter, at least in spreadsheet terms – because I’m trying to forge something uniquely my own, however foolhardy that choice might be. The publishing industry isn’t somehow deliberately devaluing female protagonists, though: if difficult women equal difficult selling, in an ever contracting and perhaps steadily failing traditional business model, they have no choice. Whack a chick on the cover, whack her on the shelves of as many discount department stores who’ll have her and cross fingers for maximum units moved as quickly as possible – they’re compelled along this track to financially survive.

But what of the ‘literary’ side of the story? One publisher friend made the observation that trends here have seen grittier female characters cast as unreliable narrators for the tricksy plotting possibilities they provide, or used as vehicles for exploration of the troubles of the world, limbecks for the distillation of today’s big-ticket political agendas of gender, race, climate, and going to hell in a handbasket as lyrically as possible.

That particular conversation led me to wonder if the whole idea of heroes is a bit passe now. Perhaps we’re so chained to the idea that we’re indeed going to hell, heroes as such have become pointless diversions from reality.

And that led me scrambling back to the Greatest Australian Woman I know – the one who’s had the greatest influence on me: Henry Lawson’s nameless bushwoman from ‘The Drover’s Wife’. It’s a tiny thing, this short story of 1892 – read it here over a coffee – but it defines the female hero for me, and one that can be found nowhere else on earth but the land I call home.

The drover’s wife lives in a kind of hell – on a remote and ruined sheep station Lawson tells us is remarkable only for its lack of anything resembling beauty or safety or peace. Her husband has been gone, droving, for six months, and she’s alone on the property with her four kids and their dog, Alligator, when a deadly snake is seen slithering under the house.

In no-nonsense fashion she bundles the kids into the earthen-floored kitchen set back from the main house, and makes up a bed for them there, where they’ll wait out the night – and wait for the snake to emerge so that it might be killed before it kills one of them.

As her children sleep, ‘she has an eye on the corner, and a green sapling club laid in readiness on the dresser by her side; also her sewing basket and a copy of the Young Ladies’ Journal.’

Like all great heroes, she locks into a lonely psychological struggle against her enemy, but she doesn’t let that get in the way of her mending and her enjoyment of her preferred magazine – of course!

The struggles of her existence are overwhelming, and she reflects on them through the night: she’s given birth to two of her kids in the bush; and when one them died, she had to ride nineteen miles for assistance. When bushfire threatened the family home, she literally donned her husband’s trousers and fought it off as best she could until help arrived. When flood threatened the family home, she dug an overflow trench herself, but failed to save her husband’s crop. She once fought off a mad bullock, shooting him and skinning him, selling the hide; and she has regularly fought off the unwanted company of wandering swaggies, too.

To the superficial gaze, she is a woman made hard by her circumstances and her grief, but she’s as sensitive as any other: she weeps at her losses and she loves her children fiercely; she loves her somewhat hopeless husband as well, for the goodness in him. Above all, she laughs. In tears at being hurt by a falling woodpile that stressful night, she attempts to wipe her face only to have her thumb rip through her threadbare handkerchief, and she laughs now, too.  She has, so Lawson tells us, ‘a keen, very keen, sense of the ridiculous’.

So much so that she religiously dresses in her best every Sunday, dressing up the children too, and they walk for miles through the bush, seeing no-one and going to no church.

Her moral compass is internal. No-one instructs her. She is entirely herself and she is the fulcrum of her world.

When Alligator does his job, thrashing the snake to death on its reappearance at dawn, the bushwoman throws it on the fire and cries quietly again. Why? In relief at the ordeal ended, or in some sorrow for the snake, Lawson deftly doesn’t say.

Does she exist today? Can she? I peppered my first novel, Black Diamonds, with references to her, and every novel since has celebrated the heroic in those like her – the unseen and unsung, the extraordinary in the ordinary – but all my characters, all my women heroes, come to me from the past, too.

And perhaps here’s the answer and the challenge: I’ll have to write a Great Australian Woman for today myself. One day.

In the meantime, I’m sure she’s out there already. I’m sure she’s with us. In the as yet barely navigable and ever expanding realms of independent publishing, she’s there. In the dreams of hundreds and hundreds of Australian writers, she must be there.

Waiting for her dawn…

 

Image: ‘The Drover’s Wife’, Russell Drysdale, 1945

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BALANCING ACT

‘You edit fiction as well as write it?’ I was asked by a fellow word-wrangler recently. ‘Wow,’ she sighed into her coffee: ‘That’s tough.’

‘Yeah!’ I laughed above the shared editorial melancholy, and with some strange delight, because it was the first time this tricky toughness had ever been acknowledged by a colleague.

‘Tough’ is probably too tough a word for it, but working on both sides of the storytelling curtain as I do is a little like walking an emotional tightrope at times.

Despite making a conscious effort to always maintain a critical distance, to not get too close to the authors I work with, I become very close to their words, their stories, and the hearts that exist within them. I often hear my father at my shoulder, telling me: ‘Stick to the text. Don’t pay any attention to the author’s biographical note or photograph, or care anything about their circumstances, or for what others say about them. Find everything you need to know inside the story, inside the way the author uses words and ideas.’ And so, in the intense intimacy of this kind of reading, I often fall in love with the manuscripts that come my way, or at least feel a profound sense of respect for them.

When one of these manuscripts becomes a published book, I fizz with all kinds of sunshine for the author, as if at some atomic level I have a stake in the work’s success, but at the same time, if that work is harshly or hollowly dismissed by a reviewer, or treated with disregard by a publisher, I feel the wound, too. It’s not uncommon for me to have a bit of a cry at each tip of the balancing pole, at the fabulous achievements and the devastating losses. Just as I do with my own writing.

Of course, there are also those few infuriating manuscripts that have been picked up by a publisher predominantly for the saleability of the author or to follow some trend in the market. These little heartbreakers can sting all round. Their words are tossed about with little care but for the money involved, which is usually a great deal more than the norm; the editor is expected to fix holes made by soullessness, and we do, with our story-love – enough so that readers will buy the book and not be too disappointed.

Editors are meant to be invisible in this way, and so they should be. There are plenty of beautiful books in the world wrought by wonderful, sparkling minds that just needed a little assistance, whether that be in seeing a flaw, overcoming a block, or the clarity that comes from simply having a conversation with someone who loves their beautiful thing almost as much as they do. An editor can help an author find the courage to make an essential change they’ve been resisting; courage to dive deeper into a place they’ve been fearful of going. An editor can help an author find the confidence to step out into the spotlight for the first time, or to get back on the horse. And none of this behind-the-curtains stuff is anyone else’s business.

But for me as a writer, although editing others’ work has nourished my own in all manner of marvellous ways, it’s also thrown a shadow. I might have worked with lots and lots of writers over twenty years in the biz, but the private nature of these relationships has meant that I don’t have a tribe of other authors willing or able to endorse my own books, and that has made my tightrope walk a little lonely. It’s as if I don’t quite belong to either world – as if the writer in me is some kind of impostor and the editor is some kind of spy.

I do try to keep the two worlds separate – working as an editor under my father’s name, Swivel, and writing under my mother’s name, Kelly – but really they’re two halves of a whole. The thought of dropping one completely in favour of the other is more frightening than falling from my wire. And fall I do, all the time. I’m still learning how to tumble so that I don’t hurt myself too badly. But I couldn’t ever stop this gig.

‘I’m just a narrative junkie,’ I told my editorial coffee companion.

And she laughed with me: ‘Aren’t we all?’

Too true: editors, writers and readers of all kinds, we’re all hopelessly devoted. We’re all suckers for a good story.

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BAD GUY

This beautiful boy is August Macke – or at least this is how he painted himself in 1906, at the age of nineteen. He looks a little bit like one of my sons, and though August lived a century ahead of him, both boys began their careers as costume designers. Boys any mother would be proud of, for their sparkling talent, their diligence, their abilities at adorable pouting.

By 1910, barely out of art school, August had become a rising star among the avant-garde, an insatiably curious and studious member of Der Blaue Reiter, a group of expressionist painters that formed in Germany just as August decided he’d give it a proper go.

He was demonstrably averse to boundaries, his style slipping through periods of impressionism, fauvism and cubism in rapid succession, his colours bold and deeply emotional. The sort of young man who would have walked into any room with his brain in gear, wondering with some excitement: Who am I going to meet here tonight? A young man constantly in love – he’d married his childhood sweetheart, Elisabeth, at twenty-two.

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His mates Wassily Kandinsky, Franz Marc and Paul Klee would go on to become great names in the art world. But August would not.

At the outbreak of war in 1914, August was perfectly ripe for conscription, and he was dead within a month, erased on a battlefield in France, where the front ran through Champagne.

Just another German soldier. And just another reason I don’t do bad guys in my stories.

We love to hate the enemy, or so we’re told. Storytelling 101 says the hero needs bad guys in order to be the very best of the good, in order to gain and sustain our sympathy, to keep us turning the pages.

But I can’t do it. And not only because my own German heritage has played havoc with the standard all my life.

The only truly bad guys I know are psychopaths, incurably destructive people who need to be removed from the rest of us. I made one of them in Paper Daisies, a nasty character a little too close to my own experience of encountering such, except that in real life I’m not permitted to kill the like. I’ve written a similar character in my latest manuscript, Walking – a sadist, a creep, someone ruled by jealousy and the monsters that can be unleashed when ambitions outweigh talents, perhaps a little like a certain German führer who could never help overplaying his pathetic hand. I didn’t kill that one, though: I took the realer road and had him more or less get away with it.

Bad guys, by their deliberate, calculated cruelties, don’t deserve to be among us. They don’t deserve equal billing with those of us who strive to make and give and love. They don’t deserve to be remembered.

But where’s dramatic tension in a tale without a full-bodied, slavering and ever-menacing nemesis? I can hear some writers ask, and I can only answer that the nemesis I want to explore most of all is the trickiest and most powerful one: the enemy that sits within the hero. The best battle that’s ever fought and won: with the self. Yeah okay, it’s not an approach that’s worked its way to the top of the sales charts for me. Yet – heh.

Graduation from bestseller school isn’t why I’m in this game, though. I want to use what’s left of the blink in time that’s mine to say things about the best of us, about the most of us who just want to be better tomorrow than we were yesterday.

To say that boys like August were heroes too.

Just as the world descended into madness, he painted this picture called ‘Farewell’. It’s incalculably sad: the colours dull, the faces rubbed out.

The heart of a boy who didn’t want to go to war. A boy who didn’t need to meet a bad guy to prove his worth.

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LIFE WELL LIVED

Letting go of a story that’s lived in your imagination for years is no easy thing to do. In fact, for me, it’s not so much a matter of letting go as riding a cold wave of change – a little like dealing with grief, or at least shades of it. It’s not a goodbye so much as an adjustment to a new reality.

None of my characters are just characters; none of them are inventions serving only a plot. They’re pieces of me, cyphers that lead me to an understanding of something I need to know, a line of love I need to follow, and for all that, they are very real.

Hugo Winter, the orthopaedic surgeon at the centre of the novel I finished last month, has been with me for the last twelve years, a man whose tale of love in all its colours insisted I tell it. Sometimes it’s felt as if he’s been sitting beside me, looking over my shoulder, telling me to hurry up with whatever I’m writing so that I can be with him.

He’s based on a real chap: a doctor called Max Herz who lived and worked in Sydney across the first half of the twentieth century, quietly curing children of disabling injuries, reconstructing their bones, reshaping their lives. A man who would charge the rich and famous a premium for his services so that he could treat the poor and the small for free. A man who put a lot of important noses out of joint because of that – and because he was a foreigner, a German, a Jew. Not someone the Establishment was ever going to love; not someone who ever cared what the Establishment thought, either.

Apart from the surgical skills and a few other obvious details, Hugo is me: an outsider, a solo flyer, an unashamed unfitter-innerer, but one with a lot to give, and one who will continue to give regardless of whether or not those in power value what’s being offered. That’s not something I could ever farewell or put away: it’s indelibly tattooed upon my own character.

As I set off now on a new story adventure – a dazzling date with an acrobat, and an actual cup of tea with one of Australia’s leading physical performers next week – Hugo continues to sit with me. Right now he’s harassing me about a few lines in one of the last chapters of the manuscript. It’s called Walking, and as an orthopaedist he’s concerned I have one of the other characters – a fellow called Jim Cleary – up out of bed and walking too quickly after a badly broken leg. Yes, I’m arguing a point of medicine with man who doesn’t exist. But he loves Jim as much as I do; and he’s especially fond of Jim’s physiotherapist Lucy Brynne. Hugo taught Lucy everything she knows – they’ve been close ever since he treated her for a terrible injury she suffered when she was a little girl – and he doesn’t want her getting any medicine wrong, never mind things not working out well with Jim’s leg. The stakes are dizzyingly high! For Hugo, anyway.

And I listen to him. He’s more than a friend, imaginary or otherwise. He’s taught me so much about living, and giving, and the point of it all. He’s taught me so much about dignity and diligence, and the wisdom of walking away from those who aren’t ever going to share your page.

As an old man reflecting on his achievements and his readiness for making his final cheerio in the spring of 1948, he understands: ‘He’d made others smile; he’d made children smile. He’d taken care of those in need wherever he could and changed their circumstances for the better… He’d felt more joy than sadness on balance across all the years. He was loved.’

What else is there?

Thank you, Hugo, for all your hanging around. Now, back to that point of medicine…

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HOW TO KEEP WRITING

You know I love a ‘How To’ about as much as I love fish sauce on ice cream, but I have been asked a lot lately how I keep writing and writing when opportunities for publication are continually shrinking and shrinking.

I suppose the first answer to that is: I’ve never written with publication in mind. I write where a story takes me; I write to finish the story.

The second answer is: I always have something to write. I’ve never had a problem with writer’s block, don’t really know what that is or what it might feel like. The voices in my head always seem to have plenty to say – often too much. I have a file full of stories I want to write and not enough years left to live to get them all out.

But let’s not gild that lily. I also have some nasty brain activity always on the go, too – those voices who’d rather I didn’t write anything at all.

Even during boon days where I’m writing up a storm, it’s not unusual for me to spend whole mornings grappling with the arguments ‘You’re Not Good Enough’, ‘Stop Bothering’ and ‘No-one Cares’.

Of course these arguments didn’t begin at some crucial point in time; they’ve always been with me, just as a fascination for stories and words has always been with me. Do they go hand in hand, though? Are creativity and crushing anxiety inextricably pleached? I don’t know.

I was about eight when it first struck me that I could never truly know if I knew anything or not, if I could ever be sure if I was right or not – or if I was all right or not. I remember standing halfway on the steps between the knee-scarring asphalt playground and the wilds of the paddock beyond it, watching my friends running around and having fun, while I was stuck there thinking: I don’t even know if you’re real or not. Yes, I was a weird kid. Weird grown-up, emphasis on the weird.

Most people who end up thinking for a living probably are a bit weird. Grasping oddness, spotting anomalies, finding cracks in the glass, are kind of necessary to curiosity, to being able to embrace difference, to finding the courage to look for answers that may in fact not be there at all.

But while self-doubt is a useful tool, probably essential to making sure you don’t allow your questing soul to break too far and too long from reality, let those doubts take too tight a hold and they become a tool of destruction.

The arguments get darker and louder: ‘Loser’, ‘Flake’, ‘You’re Wasting Your Time And Everyone Else’s’.

It’s embarrassing the amount of time I have wasted fighting my inner nasties, it’s embarrassing to admit to the things they say to me, but while I can’t switch them off, throw them each down a long hole or bury them, I have learned to live with them. Despite their collective efforts, I manage to push through, and I’m getting better at it all the time.

I reflect on the stories I’ve completed. I reflect on the joy and understanding these stories have brought others – especially those who don’t know me and have no reason to say nice things to me. I mentally gather all this best gold I own and shove it under my worst enemy’s nose: cop that, bitchfaces.

My best weapon, though, is very simple but increasingly effective: write. Even when it hurts, write. Even when you’re crying, write. Even when you can’t comprehend the words on the screen as anything above the most putrid muck that’s ever come out of a human, write. Even when there truly seems no purpose, no end to this piece of string that’s yanking you onwards, write.

Remember, it’s important that you do, and that’s no platitude. Remember, it’s the lonely cloud that finds the field of daffodils, and no-one will see them the way you do. No-one is weird the way you’re weird. No-one can say the things you have to say, in the way you will say them.

Just keep writing: because you have to.

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FOR THE RECORD

Well, I just finished that novel I began in January. Forty-three days, it took to write, or probably thirty-eight taking away real-life interruptions. I’ve broken more personal bests than the weather with this one. I’ve never written anything so quickly, with such a desperate, aching need to pour a story from my heart and onto the page.

It’s called Walking, and it’s inspired by a true tale of a brilliant German orthopaedic surgeon who became quietly famous in Sydney for making crippled children walk when others said it was impossible. The Australian-British medical establishment was so miffed by his success they arrested him at one point and threw him into prison. It’s a sprawling novel that spans two continents, two world wars and two love stories.

I’m still inside that mad infatuation any writer can feel for a completed story – a dangerous time when all emotions are raw and all words should be put away for a while. But words don’t stop, do they – they’re a part of every day.

A few days ago, I was having dinner with some friends and the conversation turned to the idea of retirement. Everyone at the table was in their forties, some getting more tired of the grind than others. In the thick of my madness, the last few chapters of Walking shouting to get themselves out of my head and somewhere more comfortable, I told the table: ‘I’m terrified of the idea of retiring.’

My husband said dryly: ‘She wouldn’t retire if she had an off switch.’

But the crack was lost in the dismissive response of another: ‘It’s different when you’re doing something you love.’

I mumbled something about it not being a daily frolic in the woods, and shovelled some food into my mouth to stop anymore words escaping.

Like: ‘I’m in physical and psychic pain right now from lack of sleep and the almost indescribable rush of anxiety that overtakes me when the novel I’m writing begins to end. I have a permanent headache from crying because one of my characters has died and this grief feels so real it’s a new form of mental illness. It’s not much fun at the moment doing this thing I love.’

And I’m not getting paid for it. Doesn’t work like that for writers, or most other artists. You do the work first and then maybe someone will want to pay for it, but not always; sometimes not often; sometimes never.

I’ve written six published novels and have three manuscripts at present to shop. I’ve had no amazing record of sales, but not a terrible record either. I love my readers like my writing life depends on them – because it does. I work very hard at book promotion and all sorts of author profile palaver, as expected by publishers. I’m very easy to work with because, when I’m not writing, I work in the industry as an editor, and I know what a shitfight it can be on that side of the curtain. I have bundles of energy for all this work and not enough years left to live to write all the stories I want to write.

Despite all this, I find myself with no publisher right now for my new works. This is not in any way uncommon for a writer. The constantly shifting circumstances of publishers and their lists mean the whole thing is a circus precariously arranged upon a damp paper plate balancing on a mile-high pin. It’s a tough business.

And it means I’ve just busted my guts to write a story that has every chance of not being picked up by a publisher. It means I might get nothing in return except for the fact of having done it.

Just as well I love it. Just as well I’m in love with it.

Not everyone, given the opportunity – the time, the space, the financial wherewithal – has the guts to put themselves on the line this way. All artists do it every day.

So yeah, maybe next time I’m told I have an easy time of things, I might say: ‘Have a go yourself. Take forty-three days out of the grind. Do that thing you love. I dare you.’

(Photo: Judy Davis, ‘My Brilliant Career’)

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MAGICKED AWAY

I’ve been so quiet bloggery-wise lately, I thought I’d best explain: I’ve been kidnapped by a story.

Inspired by a real-life surgeon who changed the lives of countless children in Sydney in the early twentieth century, it’s a story that was planted in my heart some twelve years ago when I was researching medical techniques for my first novel, Black Diamonds.

A couple of the characters from that first-baby novel make an appearance in this one, too – such a wonderful, emotional experience for me to re-meet these imaginary friends, I cry as we say hello.

The photograph of the little girl above sits on my desktop every day, watching my words, whispering to me to keep going.

I’m writing very quickly, my prose concise and sharp, my whole mind at the coal face. I guess that sort of thing happens when a story has been waiting, waiting, waiting for so many years to be told.

So cheers, friends here in this space. I hope 2017 is unboxing all manner of long-held dreams for all of you.

xxx

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RISK

Writers are fancy gamblers, addicts suffering from collections of random personality disorders. At least I am.

Every novel I write, and I’ve written eight (six in the world and two on the way), I tell myself I won’t make myself ill this time. But each time I do.

In the final weeks of completing the first readable draft, I don’t sleep. I slip into a kind of inescapable mania which, near its end, leaves me physically wrecked and emotionally raw. Skinless. Sore. Exhausted. That’s where I am right now.

The day after Christmas, I finally completed a novel that’s taken me more than two years to write; earlier in the year, I completed another that had been kicking around in my consciousness for three years. There is never a time when I’m not somehow immersed in story, and while huge and happy amounts of research go into those stories, their narrative threads come from me: pulled, coaxed, wrenched directly from my heart. It’s a process of personal interrogation that hurls me towards understanding and empathy as nothing else can. But it’s also often painful.

There are times when I disconnect from my family, friends, colleagues; times when terrifying doubt causes me to disconnect from everything but the tiny light-tunnel of story.

I take every one of these trips not knowing if my story will be published; and knowing that if it is published, it’s unlikely to sell in any quantity that might justify such enormous effort – because that’s life for the vast majority of authors.

All this, but I can’t stop.

I have a co-conspirator, though. My muse de bloke, my lover – Deano. As much as he struggles with my struggles, he’s besotted with my addiction, too. He loves watching those lights switch on in me, how alive my mind becomes.

Three hours after I finished my latest manuscript, we lay in bed, washed up on the shore, and I told him I’m not writing anything for at least two weeks.

He asked me: ‘What do you think you’ll write next?’ Knowing that there are two ideas I have burbling away in the back-brain.

We spent the rest of the day discussing that next book. I’m already itching to dive in.

I wouldn’t change a thing.

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THE HANDS THAT MAKE OUR WORLD

I’ve had a fascinating time in 1860s New South Wales over the past few months, falling down all kinds of research rabbit holes, rich and deep – and usually full of gold.

I’ve spent hundreds of happy hours trying to reconstruct city and townscapes from 150 years ago, tracing the roads my great, great grandfather Georg Schwebel might have travelled as a young man from Germany in love with a strange new land and a girl who was born here.

The world of young men is a place I return to again and again in my stories probably mostly because I am a mother of sons, but also because I’ve always been drawn to the stories of those who make our human world – the artisans, engineers, tradesmen, miners, those who forge all the convenience we enjoy with the strength of their bodies and the skill of their hands. Those who made the roads. And up until recently they were mostly young men.

Georg was a carpenter and a carter hauling building materials here and there under government tender. He lived in Newtown, in Sydney, and died in 1896 in an accident at work. According to the Sydney Evening News that November, Georg was “placing the winkers on a horse attached to a cart in Trafalgar street, Newtown [now Annandale], when the animal bolted, and threw him on the roadway. One of the wheels of the vehicle passed over his face. The injured man was taken to Prince Alfred Hospital and admitted by Dr Zlotkowski for treatment.” But that was the end of the road for him.

In trying to find out what working life brought a young man 30 years earlier, when my story is set, I’ve found many a moving account but none more so than the stark simplicity of this accident report in the Maitland Mercury of 1862 for the township of Murrurundi:

During the past fifteen months the following accidents occurring in the district have been attended by our Medical Practitioner, Mr. Gordon:

15 broken legs, 1 broken thigh, 11 broken arms, 1 amputation of arm through the bursting of a gun, 5 cases of amputation of fingers through same and blasting, 6 broken collar bones, 8 cases of broken ribs, 3 deaths by drowning, 1 ditto by lightning, 1 case of absorption of animal poison, 3 snake bites, 2 dreadful cases of burning, 1 fracture of skull from falling from a horse, 1 death from being jammed against a tree by a dray, 1 attempt at self-destruction by cutting the throat, 4 cases of kicks from horses, 3 cases of goring from horns of oxen, very bad, 1 bite from a pig, 22 cases of jams and cuts upon the hands and arms, some very bad, from picks and blasting stone.

Not one recorded baby born nor woman lost to the fight for it, but men working away, most of them probably thinking about that girl, somewhere, some of them working only for rations.

In Australia, we often save our praise and our accolades for soldiers and sportsmen, for squatters and schemers and rogues, but these ordinary hardworking men who laid the ground of so much we see today deserve to have their stories told too.

I will always place them in the frame. I will always sing their love songs. They are the men who made me.

 

Photo: King Street, Newtown, Paul McCarthy (Wikimedia Commons)

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THE GLAMOROUS LIFE OF AN HISTORICAL FICTIONEER

Crime writers might book themselves in for autopsies, thriller writers might throw themselves out of planes, while romance writers might rather fly themselves to Paris, but never let it be said that historical fictioneers don’t love a research challenge, too.

I spent almost two full days this week researching the whereabouts of a nineteenth century pub. Sober.

The pub in question is, or was, quite a famous one – the Weatherboard Inn – which once upon a time fed and watered travellers on their way over the wild and beautiful Blue Mountains of New South Wales.

In 1814, or thereabouts, a hut was built here to service those building the Bathurst Road (the forerunner Great Western Highway), and this little hut was constructed of weatherboards, of course. The Blue Mountains being a bit of a fire trail, though, the hut burnt down in 1823, only to be rebuilt – bigger and better – in 1829.

At its height, the Weatherboard Inn boasted seven bedrooms and stabling for seventeen horses, as well as three parlours, a taproom and a bar. Charles Darwin overnighted there in 1836 during the Australian leg of his worldwide Beagle tour. Taking a walk through the bush to view the nearby falls, he looked out across the Jamison Valley and found there in the ancient sandstone cliffs his first inklings of sedimentary geology.

One of the last to see the pub in all its glory was Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, who, in 1868, took a lavish, celebrity excursion to the falls and on his return to Sydney was promptly shot in the backside by a Fennian rebel – a bullet which, though it didn’t kill him, rather brought down the tone of his visit. But I digress.

The thing is, this Weatherboard Inn was conspicuous. Being the only building for several miles around, thousands of tourists would have taken refreshments here before it went out business – something that appears to have happened about the time the railway came through and made the place redundant as a travellers’ rest on the hard, steep road through the range.

All of these snippets of history are fascinating – to me at least! But all of them are irrelevant to my research adventure. All I needed to know was where, more or less, the bloody thing was on the map.

Now, I do love me a geographical puzzle. I love to reconstruct long-since bulldozed streetscapes and ragged colonial roads. Give me a stash of 140-year-old train time tables and I’m there with bells and whistles. But this puzzle proved among the trickiest I’ve come across.

The more sources I consulted, the less clear the whereabouts of the pub became. In all manner of newspaper and journal mentions of the place, the name of the village it was supposed to have been located in wasn’t consistent, having been variously and imaginatively said to have been called ‘Weatherboard’, or ‘Weatherboard Creek’, or ‘Weatherboard Falls’, or, on actual train time tables, ‘The Weatherboard’.

In contemporary references to the place, it was said Weatherboard was the original name of Wentworth Falls, and yet, Australian placenames being a fascinating and often infuriating study in themselves, the historical primary sources I looked at had it variously and possibly creatively located in Blackheath (originally named Hounslow), Mount Victoria (originally named One Tree Hill) and Lawson (originally named Blue Mountain). Confused? I certainly was.

So where was the pub at the end of all this?

I eventually found a New South Wales state government report that sites archaeological evidence of the remains of a building’s foundations just north-west of where the village of Wentworth Falls sits today.  But really, who knows?

And who cares? Well, I do. The heroine of my gold-rush bushranging tale makes a visit here on her own wild and beautiful tour.

But for now, this historical fictioneer needs a drink…

(NB: the pic above is of a random timber building in Hill End, because of course no photograph or drawing of the Weatherboard Inn survives either!)