Kim Kelly

Australian Author

Drysdale_The_Drover's_Wife_1945

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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THE UGLY AUSTRALIAN

I’ve had some interesting conversations over the past twenty-four hours on how and when Anzac Day became hijacked by fascists – by the kinds of people Australian servicemen and women have sacrificed themselves in fighting across various wars for more than a century now.

Of course, I’m referring to their howls yesterday that writer, engineer, TV presenter and general over-achiever Yassmin Abdel-Magied be sacked and deported to some unnamed corner of hell for daring to suggest that we might, on our day of remembrance, spare a thought for those we have locked up in indefinite detention – those refugees who by some savage irony have, in their attempt to escape one form of authoritarian evil, found themselves deep inside Australia’s special version of same.

I’m not going to recount Yassmin’s tale here – plenty has been written on her crimes of unAustralianness already, and it’s all already boring. Strip it down to its pathetic nuts and bolts and we have a woman who, in exercising free speech, has not only said something plainly true, but has had it viciously condemned by those who purport to be the great white defenders of freedom in our land. It’s an irony sandwich with onions.

But the conversations behind the headlines have provided rich fields of thought. In one lively chat among a bunch of women, one asked if it was John Howard – the prime minister who went to war with Bush on Blair on a lie, sending the West on a spree of war crimes after September 11 – who reshaped Anzac Day in his own image.

And I replied, no, not exactly. In the red team/blue team death spiral that passes for politics in Australia, the left blames the right for everything morally corrupt (and vice versa) and tends to unremember that ‘their’ Labor leaders have been just as guilty of firing up the undesirables as the conservatives. It was our beer-drinking, working-class Rhodes scholar Bob Hawke who unleashed a new Aussie pride in the build up to the bicentennial celebrations in 1988, encouraging public involvement in Anzac commemorations that hadn’t been seen since the First World War, painting all in the bright colours of some kind of sport. And of course, lest we forget his Zegna-suited successor Paul Keating, while eschewing reflected military glory or anything that might ruin his manicure, set up the system of offshore immigration detention in which those refugees Yassmin was referring to languish today.

Next, John Howard, being the whore for a score he is, picked up the ball and ran with it. That ball was Australia’s working class. Their new wealth, new confidence and new pride, became a potent political force and remains so. They’re goaded by politicians, conservative commentators and radio talkback narcissists to hate anything and everything they deem unAustralian. They’re encouraged every day and in every election to blame everyone but themselves for any problem the country might face. They are anti-socialist, anti-union, anti-immigration, anti-compassion, anti-thought – anti everything that’s brought them the good life in the first place. It’s revolting, yes, and what they’ve done to Anzac Day – with their jingoistic displays of arrogance, drunkenness and violence – would embarrass and confuse my working-class grandparents.

And it’s this thought of my grandparents that had me walking away from yesterday’s bunfight with a gnawing knowledge that our ugliness runs much deeper than this. Perhaps the unthinking jingoes are louder and brasher now, but they’ve been with us from the beginning.

During the First World War, my Irish grandmother, as a little girl, regularly had rocks and other abuses thrown at her walking home after school in inner Sydney’s Surry Hills, because she was Catholic and poor and deemed a traitorous Sinn Feiner, even though one of her brothers was at that time away fighting in France – and copping mustard gas that would send him to an early grave.

On the other side of my family, my schoolboy grandfather’s name was changed from Schwebel to Swivel, because the violence against German Australians was gathering steam, even though one of his cousins was at that time away fighting in Flanders. In fact, there was a ferocious campaign waged at Marrickville Council to change the name of Schwebel Street to something unGerman, which was only abandoned when Henry Schwebel was killed at Zonnebeke and the jingoes were shown up for deadshits they are.

I woke up this morning with all this ringing in my ears. Because of those who hate, my name, the name I grew up with, is not my own. Of course, I’ve always known this – the stories of bricks through windows and reputations trashed has been with me since I was a little girl – but it came to me with fresh sadness.

How fucking dare you, was my next and predictable thought. You load of nano-minded human pollutants. I could hate, too. But somehow the lessons of history have settled in me – and across my family – with a greater need to love. To learn. To choose to be grateful, too, for the luxury of peace that enables me to love and learn so freely.

I channel those questions of homegrown hatred into all my writings, my stories about Australia, and I throw love at them there, too. It’s curious that this has seen my work labelled as romantic and sentimental over the years, made some literary confreres a little squeamish at what I do. But good grief – fuck you, too.

The Australia I work for is an inclusive one, a fair and just one, and the moral high ground is a figment of the conceited on each side.

I will seek out and sew the threads of all that’s beautiful about us until the day I die. I will hurl my salvos of love at every ugliness – at every hate and every hurt.

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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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THE RULE OF LAW

A few days ago, something scandalous happened in Australia. Our leading lady trade unionist, Sally McManus, said this dreadful thing:

‘I believe in the rule of law, when the law is fair and the law is right. But when it’s unjust, I don’t think there’s a problem with breaking it.’

The prime minister, whatever his name is, has now said he will not work with Sally in the future, remarking ruefully, ‘There’s not much we can do with her.’ His defence minister has called her words ‘anarchic Marxist claptrap’; his immigration minister has called her ‘a lunatic’; his employment minister has said she is ‘outrageous’.

Yeah.

Oh, and the leader of the opposition, who is hardly less forgettable and regrettable than the prime minister himself, has mumbled: ‘If you don’t like the law, change the government and change the law. That is the way to do business, not to break the law.’

Because it’s soooo easy for the poor, the powerless and discriminated against to get justice. Write a letter to your local politician, click your heels three times, et voila, democracy magic happens.

Obviously ‘business’ has written every word of the above socialist-bashing song sheet: the big end of business that wants to see annoyances like trade unions made illegal. Indeed, while we’re here, why should the ordinary have access to decent education, health care and laws that ensure a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work? The bludgers. What did the ordinary ever do for Australia?

Ermm. Everything? Look around you: your house, your laptop, your phone, your table, your teabag, all of it was made by ordinaries, and delivered by truckies and postmen. Should it be legal that the people who make all the daily wonders of your world have no right to be paid a wage that will enable them to pay their rent and feed their kids?

The people who hate Sally think so, and they’re getting away with telling lies about her and the rule of law because Australians are not only among the most politically complacent people in the world, we are out and out the laziest bunch of no hopers when it comes to understanding our own history.

Breaking the law has a long and proud history in Australia – and no, I’m not referring to the convicts shipped out here by a British government that couldn’t think of any more creative way to solve poverty at home other than by invading and stealing other people’s land.

Without civil disobedience – without people having the guts to stand against unjust laws and get arrested for their trouble – we would not have democracy in the first place. Eureka Stockade anyone? No, that bloody battle was not just about a bunch of whingeing miners with easy access to firearms. It was about men – ordinary men – wanting the right to vote, and a couple of years later they won it.

Without civil disobedience, Aboriginal children would still be barred from public swimming pools and homosexual people would go to prison; women would have no rights to financial independence and there’d be no such thing as a minimum hourly rate.

Without civil disobedience, Australia would never have witnessed the horrors of anti-Vietnam War mums protesting in the streets, as pictured above. Dangerous criminals, that lot.

Without civil disobedience, every card falls the boss’s way, the vulnerable are exploited for profit, oppressed so that the powerful remain powerful. So that the powerful can break laws with impunity: environmental laws, political donations laws, politicians’ codes of conduct, and pesky international rules that say we shouldn’t bomb other people’s countries without a good reason. Iraq anyone?

Without civil disobedience, authority becomes a beast, rather than a creature of our democracy helping and protecting us all.

Sally McManus has said no radical thing. She’s only stated the obvious. And the only truly frightening thing about this is that no mainstream journalist is sticking up for her or the principle that if injustice is to be exposed or overcome, then sometimes that will mean breaking the law.

Well, I’m sticking up for you, Sally – and for every man and woman who has fought against the law to make my world a better, fairer place.

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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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THE PRICE OF FREEDOM

By some miracle of immigration, all my forebears managed to escape most of the great horrors of the twentieth century. The Irish avoided the Troubles, the Jews avoided the Holocaust, the Germans avoided the firestorms of World War II.

But it’s that last which has kept returning to me in recent writings. Both my Snowy Mountains story and my latest manuscript about a German-Australian surgeon hold the destruction of Dresden in their hearts.

My family didn’t come from Dresden but it’s a city of deep personal significance for me. A decade ago, when I was very lost and lonely, wounded and in quite desperate need of healing, I washed up here on the banks of this jewel of the Elbe not really knowing where I was. I had run away from home for a few weeks to try to get a grip, that was all.

I got more than a grip. I’ll never forget walking across the Altmarkt and seeing the Frauenkirche for the first time. This magnificent church had been reduced to rubble during the bombing in World War II and had only recently been restored to its former gilt-edged rococo glory. The people of Dresden had had such hopes even then – in that deadly February of 1945 – that one day this beautiful building would stand again, they collected as much of the original stone as possible to use in the restoration.

When I stepped inside, I was overwhelmed with such a force of love and possibility I had to sit down. I’m not a religious person, but here, in this church, something of goodness and faith hit me like a tonne of bricks.

I walked back through the city with clearer eyes. I saw the last remnant holes in the ground left by the war now as building sites, I saw the unashamed contrasts of elegant old buildings sitting cheek by jowl with bold new ones as symbols of regeneration and resilience. Suddenly, for me, joy seemed not only achievable but a responsibility. Get up and get on with it, Kimbo.

I did, and a few years later, I dragged my teenaged kids across the world with my new man, Deano, so they could experience it too. The three of them survived the trip and my mad need to have all my love and wonder in one place for a spell. My eldest boy turned eighteen there and Deano shouted him his first legal pilsner on the Altmarkt. Beautiful, beautiful memories.

But this morning, I was confronted anew with destruction that has lain a little closer to home all this time.

My German family is from a small town called Wald-Michelbach, nestled in the gentle fir-clad slopes of the Odenwald, and in my imagination it’s always seemed a little slice of fantasy fairytale, an idyllic place from which two brothers stepped long ago, taking a ship from Bremen across the seas to Australia. I’ve been thinking I should rattle the dream and see what true tale I might find there – one I can turn into a new novel. A glimpse of such a story flitted through my mind, beginning here in the mid-nineteenth century, a young travelling musician…

‘I want to go back to Germany,’ I called out to Deano.

He groaned. We have this conversation a lot. He’d like to go back to Germany too, but we don’t have time, can’t justify the expense right now, and at six feet, five inches tall, he groans at the mere idea of long-haul flight.

Nevertheless, I started plotting a trip. We could come into Frankfurt, tootle around Wiesbaden, Weinheim, Heidelberg, Darmstadt, Pforzheim, Mannheim… And then I realised half these places no longer exist as my ancestors would have known them – the last three had their centres almost completely obliterated by fire-bombing. Frankfurt’s medieval streets – gone.

With some other sudden clarity, I saw the scale of destruction right across the entire country. So much history lost; so many people. To give a sense of the numbers involved, if 32,000 ordinary workaday civilians were killed by the Germans during the Blitz throughout Britain, no-one knows how many were killed in Dresden alone by the Allies – estimates range from 35,000 to 135,000. In Darmstadt, 12,000; in Pforzheim, 17,000; Frankfurt 5,000, and on and on; by 1945 millions throughout Germany were homeless.

Of course, this is the price of freedom. No-one argues that. The British remain quietly, sombrely defensive about the figures; the Germans cling to lessons of mass madness and contrition in a Europe that seems set to tumble towards fascism again.

Whatever happens now, only one thing is clear: none of us can go back. We can only continue to seek out and tell our tales, to try to keep the truths of the past alive – and heed their warnings.

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(Photos: the Frauenkirche, Dresden, before and after)

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A LITTLE KINDNESS

They say write what you know – whoever they are. I’m not sure about that advice.

First, it’s my own ignorance, and the questing curiosity always hoping to rectify it, that drives my desire to investigate all kinds of stuff through narrative and character – everything from surgery to nuclear fission, from underground mining to botanical classification. Second, since I write historical fiction, I can’t in any authentic sense know anything much of the experiences I write about.

What I do know about, though, is the emotional landscape of the stories that weave their way from heart and brain onto the page.

Love. Grief. Friendship. What home means. Disconnection and reconnection. Hurt. Healing. The deep, intimate madnesses that all of the above can trigger.

But I’ve realised over the past little while that the pulse that runs beneath all my tale-telling is kindness. Characters who have too little of it learn it. Characters who don’t have any of it lose. Heroes possess it in spades.

My heroes – the guys and the gals – are all flawed and frail in some way. Sometimes they’re annoying: stubborn, foul-mouthed, shoulders chipped and packaging damaged inside and out. Sometimes they betray those they love – and themselves. But kindness is at the top tip of their growth, their success and their nobility.

I’ve copped a bit of shit over this from both sides of the literary fence. Lovers of romance can occasionally get uppity that my heroes are, really, a bunch of basket cases. Culture creatures, on the other hand, accuse me of sentimentality and Pollyanna-ism.

The thing is, though, these characters are, to me, in all their feels very real. They are me. The more I write, the more I realise I am writing not so much what I know but what I live.

The pursuit of kindness – how to be generous towards others, to be compassionate, a listener, a forgiver, an understander, how to be larger than your own smallness and stronger than all your weaknesses, how to walk away from anger – is a quest at the centre of my own life. I fail daily, but I will die trying.

Why? It’s no moral cause. Those who know my work well know I fall firmly into Nietzsche’s camp on that: good and evil are crap constructs, reductive idiocies that cause untold war and pain. I don’t want to be kind because I think I’ll be rewarded – in heaven or by others. I want to be kind because it makes sense, because it reduces conflict and creates safe bases in chaos, because, as a chronic anxiety sufferer, I need as much peace and order as I can get.

But more than this, I’ve been on the receiving end of unkindness. I know what it’s like to be bullied, raped, kicked, spat on, belittled, told I’m worthless. I know what it feels like to have the life of someone you love ripped from you so that all you can do in response is scream. I know that these terrifying experiences never go away.

This afternoon, Deano – my husband, best mate and muse de bloke – came in from work talking about a program he’d just heard on the radio about economic violence, that mind-twisting, sadistic game where someone takes such control over your life, they steal your money. I started to cry as we talked about it, because I know what that feels like too, to be shrunk so low, and the conversation sent me straight into a traumatic flashback from many years ago.

Why don’t I write about those experiences instead? Why don’t I write about that darkness and disempowerment? Because I want to tear the power from bullies and bigots of all kinds while I’m alive. Sharp-eyed readers might have spotted that I never mention the name of a certain genocidal German leader whose name was barely off the front page during World War Two. I don’t mention his name because to do so maintains his power. I might detail the acts – but not that man.

I detail the triumph of kindness instead because it’s the only truly effective weapon I have.

Plus Deano, of course. He’s the kindest man I know.

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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’)