Kim Kelly

Australian Author

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SO, WHAT DO YOU WRITE?

I’ve tied myself up in all sorts of gordians over this question. I’ve only relatively recently admitted to even being a writer in general company, and that’s mostly because I am more often introduced as one. But when someone asks, ‘Oh, so what sort of books do you write?’ my initial response usually begins, ‘Errrrr. Um…’

Like most writers, I don’t fit neatly into a genre. What I write sits somewhere in Romance and somewhere in Literature, but neither seems entirely happy to claim me. The tag Historical Fiction seems too broad; but say the words ‘Australian Historical Fiction’ and your new acquaintance’s eyes have glazed over before you’ve reached the last syllable. Apart from being Romantic, Historical, Australian and Literature, then, I could really go for the bore factor and add that what I write is underpinned by a labourist interpretation of our cultural touchstones and mythology, and then confuse the issue completely by revealing that my stories are also threaded aplenty with sparkly bits of comedy and magic which aren’t anything but genrelessly and daggily themselves.

We love to categorise things, though, don’t we? We like to know precisely what cup of tea we’re getting – Earl Grey, Irish Breakfast, Whiny Old Cow – before we decide whether it’s our cup of tea or not. We like product presented in neat parcels, too – individually bagged, bite-sized, snack-sized, standardised. Even though size 12 is never going to precisely fit every girl who possesses those measurements – and on some, that frock will just look crap.

Or worse: pretentious. Mutton dressed up as quail with quinoa salad, or something like that. Sometimes, when I try to explain what I write, I feel the new acquaintance thinking: are you a wanker or what? What do you mean you like to play with the form of the romantic saga as an allegory for Australians’ relationship with their own bullshit?

Errrr. Um. I mean that’s what I try to do. Sorry! And, to make it worse, it all comes from a place of deep affection in me, a genuine fascination with my country and the people who live in it that marks me down as a shameless sentimentalist too. And to make it worser and worser still, a bit of romance, I find, is the very best fun one might have on one’s own. Oh dear. I must be out of my mind.

So, bugger it, I’ve decided I’ll just have to make up a new genre. The Politically Motivated Love Story – that’s what I write. Get out your laminator for a new shelf tag, book babes, it could be the next best thing! Indeed, we should all write our own genres, each of us. Writers of the World unite in reckless invention! We have nothing to lose but our marketing chains!

But seriously, I write novels driven by love and wonder that I hope touch others enough to provoke curiosity about whatever it is I’m trying to say. I don’t want to preach to any genre-choir; I want to meet literary strangers across these pages and show them something new; something borrowed, something true. Something of me, for you, whoever you might be. And that’s pretty much what we all do, isn’t it? As simple and as knotty as that…

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Happy Birthday, Henry Lawson. I wouldn’t write what I do or how I do without you. This poem of yours is somehow a part of me, some essential sinew in my heart …

The Faces in the Street

They lie, the men who tell us for reasons of their own 
That want is here a stranger, and that misery’s unknown; 
For where the nearest suburb and the city proper meet 
My window-sill is level with the faces in the street — 
Drifting past, drifting past, 
To the beat of weary feet — 
While I sorrow for the owners of those faces in the street. 

And cause I have to sorrow, in a land so young and fair, 
To see upon those faces stamped the marks of Want and Care; 
I look in vain for traces of the fresh and fair and sweet 
In sallow, sunken faces that are drifting through the street — 
Drifting on, drifting on, 
To the scrape of restless feet; 
I can sorrow for the owners of the faces in the street. 

In hours before the dawning dims the starlight in the sky 
The wan and weary faces first begin to trickle by, 
Increasing as the moments hurry on with morning feet, 
Till like a pallid river flow the faces in the street — 
Flowing in, flowing in, 
To the beat of hurried feet — 
Ah! I sorrow for the owners of those faces in the street. 

The human river dwindles when ’tis past the hour of eight, 
Its waves go flowing faster in the fear of being late; 
But slowly drag the moments, whilst beneath the dust and heat
The city grinds the owners of the faces in the street — 
Grinding body, grinding soul, 
Yielding scarce enough to eat — 
Oh! I sorrow for the owners of the faces in the street. 

And then the only faces till the sun is sinking down 
Are those of outside toilers and the idlers of the town, 
Save here and there a face that seems a stranger in the street,
Tells of the city’s unemployed upon his weary beat — 
Drifting round, drifting round, 
To the tread of listless feet — 
Ah! My heart aches for the owner of that sad face in the street.

And when the hours on lagging feet have slowly dragged away, 
And sickly yellow gaslights rise to mock the going day, 
Then flowing past my window like a tide in its retreat, 
Again I see the pallid stream of faces in the street — 
Ebbing out, ebbing out, 
To the drag of tired feet, 
While my heart is aching dumbly for the faces in the street. 

And now all blurred and smirched with vice the day’s sad pages end, 
For while the short `large hours’ toward the longer `small hours’ trend, 
With smiles that mock the wearer, and with words that half entreat, 
Delilah pleads for custom at the corner of the street — 
Sinking down, sinking down, 
Battered wreck by tempests beat — 
A dreadful, thankless trade is hers, that Woman of the Street. 

But, ah! to dreader things than these our fair young city comes, 
For in its heart are growing thick the filthy dens and slums, 
Where human forms shall rot away in sties for swine unmeet, 
And ghostly faces shall be seen unfit for any street — 
Rotting out, rotting out, 
For the lack of air and meat — 
In dens of vice and horror that are hidden from the street. 

I wonder would the apathy of wealthy men endure 
Were all their windows level with the faces of the Poor? 
Ah! Mammon’s slaves, your knees shall knock, your hearts in terror beat, 
When God demands a reason for the sorrows of the street, 
The wrong things and the bad things 
And the sad things that we meet 
In the filthy lane and alley, and the cruel, heartless street. 

I left the dreadful corner where the steps are never still, 
And sought another window overlooking gorge and hill; 
But when the night came dreary with the driving rain and sleet,
They haunted me — the shadows of those faces in the street, 
Flitting by, flitting by, 
Flitting by with noiseless feet, 
And with cheeks but little paler than the real ones in the street. 

Once I cried: `Oh, God Almighty! if Thy might doth still endure, 
Now show me in a vision for the wrongs of Earth a cure.’ 
And, lo! with shops all shuttered I beheld a city’s street, 
And in the warning distance heard the tramp of many feet, 
Coming near, coming near, 
To a drum’s dull distant beat, 
And soon I saw the army that was marching down the street. 

Then, like a swollen river that has broken bank and wall, 
The human flood came pouring with the red flags over all, 
And kindled eyes all blazing bright with revolution’s heat, 
And flashing swords reflecting rigid faces in the street. 
Pouring on, pouring on, 
To a drum’s loud threatening beat, 
And the war-hymns and the cheering of the people in the street. 

And so it must be while the world goes rolling round its course,
The warning pen shall write in vain, the warning voice grow hoarse, 
But not until a city feels Red Revolution’s feet 
Shall its sad people miss awhile the terrors of the street — 
The dreadful everlasting strife 
For scarcely clothes and meat 
In that pent track of living death — the city’s cruel street. 

 

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 NERVES OF STEEL

It’s often said that to be a writer you need nerves of steel. Not just to write, though I seem to need to find my courage there daily too, and the effort of holding it steady is often as exhausting as writing itself. But rather, it’s when you’ve finished the hard graft and handed the manuscript baby over to agent or publisher or The Reading World that you need to whip off the spectacles and don the cape of Super Authorlady, who has those nerves of steel. Somewhere… Perhaps I’ve left my pesky nervy things in the shed…or hidden in the back of the pantry.

I seem to have waited an eternity to learn the fate of my next novel, my beloved Hill End story. It’s only been with the publisher about five weeks now (a nanosecond in traditional publishing terms), but not a waking hour goes past when I don’t feel my heart suddenly belting out the prayer: please, please love my manuscript. Please. I’ll die if you don’t. I even had a dream early this morning that someone from the sales department spotted a one-star review for one of my previous novels somewhere online and thereby decided that this was the end of my career. Kaput. Kim Kelly – gorrrrn. Entirely pulped from human history. Just like that.

These jelly nerves of mine are particularly silly in this instance as I know this novel is a goer. I know that it will be published, like I’ve never known any such thing before. More than any of my previous stories, this one seems to have leapt straight out of my soul and onto the page. It’s richer and deeper in voice; it’s more mature and steely in its narrative resolve. It’s more me than anything I’ve written so far. And perhaps because of all that, the stakes are raised even higher, and I need more derring-do, not less.

Maybe this is why we also often hear writers say that, while technical aspects of the craft might get easier the more you practise them, writing novels doesn’t ever really get easier. Recently, another writer mentioned in passing on a facebook post (so passing I can’t remember who it was!) that she felt every new novel was like starting again at the bottom of a mountain she’d never climbed before. And it is very much like that for me, too – a completely new adventure each time, and undertaken somehow mapless. Daunting from the first step. Perhaps it’s one endeavour in which the easier it gets, the harder it gets too because, with each new story, you want to travel further, take new risks, see new things. Fly those stakes higher and higher.

I love it. I wouldn’t swap this writing caper for quids (just as well, given the usual remuneration it brings). And I wouldn’t swap it for those elusive and possibly mythical nerves of steel either. Somehow, being perpetually terrified is just part of the deal, for me anyway.

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IN THE JUNGLE

“Write what you know,” they say. And I wonder, “What exactly does that mean?” The phrase always makes me think of a comedy skit, the origin of which is lost in the mist of time, where a melancholy Scandinavian chap announces to camera, “My name is Sven and I am writing a novel about my life.” Before staring off into the middle distance again, presumably for quite some time. Apologies to Knausgard but it doesn’t promise to be a very interesting story. Most of life isn’t, is it.

That’s kind of the point of fiction, I suppose: to take you to some place beyond ordinary experience, to invigorate the mundane, uncover the overlooked and tame the preposterous, to give you a fresh and lucid view on something or other. Novel, after all, means new.

This newness could well be staring out into the middle distance across five hundred pages, swinging wildly between angst and anticipation over the next sigh of the wind. Will the wind sigh? Or won’t it? Will I run my fingers through my hair instead? If you’re clever enough and committed enough, you can make even that work. But most of us aren’t that clever, or don’t have a publicist clever enough to convince others that we are.

Cleverness aside, though, is the staring Norwegian really real in the knowingness of what he writes or is his narrative as contrived as everyone else’s? Most of us, I would argue, need to tart up reality a bit, in one way or another, regardless of whether we stick closely with conventions or smash them to pieces. Whether we are staring silently into a fjord or fleeing a mass zombie attack, the vast majority of us must take steps into the realm of the imagined in order to concoct a story in the first place. As writers of fiction, as soon as we ask ourselves the question, “What happens next?” we are there: inside the unknown. Inside the new.

So how do we do this and stick with what we know at the same time? Many novelists go to great lengths to make this newness feel lived and real in their stories: Tara Moss fires guns and visits morgues; Fiona McIntosh haunts the Tower of London, lavender fields and all manner of exotic places; Nicole Alexander is actually a farmer.

But I must confess I don’t do any of these action research sorts of things, partly because some of the things I write about are intrinsically unknowable for me. In my fiction, I’ve been a Lithgow coal miner when ponies still pulled the skips; I’ve been a labourer on the construction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge; I’ve been a geologist grappling with the physics of atomic energy as he explores the Flinders Ranges for uranium. I’ve been a soldier. Even if I wasn’t in real life quite terrified of the thought of doing any of these things and completely hopeless at physics to boot, it would be quite impossible for me to be a bloke doing any of it anyway.

Almost all my research comes from plain old reading and staring into sepia-toned photographs waiting for them to speak to me. That’s not to say that none of my work is informed by my lived experiences. For example, I have fired a .22 – just about rent my shoulder apart with the kickback of the butt on discharge to discover that I am in fact a dreadful shot. And I have pashed my husband in an underground mine, with the clammy blackness thick at the edges of our lamplights and a great big loader growling at the rockface ahead. I must say, too, that in general I am fond of blokes and very much enjoy writing about them. They are some of my favourite people.

More tellingly, though, and regardless of gender, I find that many things I’d rather not write about have a habit of wheedling their way into my stories. Painful points of grief and uncertainty tend to be the surprise real-life guests in my stories, and I’m usually unaware until one or two drafts in that I’ve been quietly workshopping the past through the present of the narrative. It always shocks me when I see this. The loss of my parents is a recurrent theme through all of my novels; the quest for identity and a place to call home another. And of course there is love, in all its danger and thrill; its wonders; its tragedies. Its hold on my heart. My life. Somehow, I just can’t escape the me-ness in the newness.

And I’d say that this is the very centre of the centre of writing what you know: writing who you are. Unselfconsciously seeking out some truth, not only of yourself and your convictions, but the places you think are important to explore. After all, is there anything more real than slashing through the jungle of your mind to get at the sense and meaning of what you feel, of taking here deep into elsewhere to see where you actually are? Not so much a question of write what you know then, but write what you need to discover. Just how you do that – with machete or nail scissors – and what you do with what you find is entirely up to you. It is you.

Image: Kandinsky’s Yellow-Red-Blue, 1925

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WHAT TO DO WITH A CRAP REVIEW

“One star? Seriously? What the flying freckle for?” a fellow author shook her fist at the cyber sky in outrage at having received such a rating on a certain book site recently.

It’s an outrage I share. There should be a special place in the boiling nether regions of eternal darkness for those who give others a cold, dismissive, commentless one-star.

“But some books are total rubbish, deserving of splintered stars, no stars or deep reaching black holes!” I hear a plaintive cry.

And I can’t really agree with that cry. One-stars belong to inanimate, insentient, bloodless pieces of shit, like that cheap and nasty hair straightener you bought online, or the $20 pair of stockings you treated yourself with that got a run in them on the first wear. Or the Federal Budget.

One-stars do not belong on people. Books are people. It usually takes at least a year or two for most books to be written. A year or two of brain-twisting heart and soul. No matter how much you hate that book, it’s a large piece of a person in there.

If you’re a committed misanthropist, then I suppose you could be excused. One-star away in that nether region all of your own: we understand from your rating history that you just can’t help yourself. But it seems to me that most people in the book-reading community aren’t hate-filled grumps. They are thoughtful and curious and generously wondering folks. Of course they are: they read books.     

Oh all right, I suppose there is the odd book that will really give you the pip. You can’t understand how the author, much less the publisher, ever thought it should be let loose in the world. Maybe it does deserve that single star. It probably deserves your silence and ignore far more than anything else if it’s really that bad, but if you must give the one-star, please, please, please, I beg of you this one thing: tell the author why.

Or this might happen to you: when I received a one-star (just the one so far), my own curiosity overrode my pride and I sent a message to the reader asking her why. Oh lordy, the writerly fourth wall had been crossed – what mayhem would ensue! We ended up having quite a nice chat about it, as it turned out, and she raised her one-star to a two, with a bit of an apology for being a crank thrown in. Sweet outcome. But it could have been far worse, of course. She could have given me a private and most jagged piece of her mind. Or I might have lost it myself and unleashed on her.

With the full force of all the nearly twenty years I’ve worked as an editor, caring for other authors’ work, and this past nearly decade I’ve put into my own. I’m a big girl, though. I can handle criticism. Most authors who’ve earned a few stripes actually appreciate criticism plenty and profoundly: it usually means that people are reading their books, and this is a good thing. When one of My Authors (as I call those I’ve edited, as if I remain forever their doting mad aunt) recently copped a one-star with the comment, ‘Terrible. Didn’t like this,’ after the impulse to slap the reader passed, I reflected on My Author’s sales figures and said to myself simply: ‘Heh. Suck it up, trollster.’

But young authors just out of the blocks, or struggling authors, or those skating close to the edge of sanity do not deserve contempt. Ever. And you’ll never know just who the fragile are. It’s usually not written in the blurb. WARNING: THIS ONE WILL HAVE A BREAKDOWN WHEN THE HARSH REALITIES OF THE PUBLISHING INDUSTRY HIT, AND THE GREAT AUSTRALIAN NOVEL THIS AUTHOR MIGHT OTHERWISE HAVE WRITTEN WILL BE LOST TO HUMANITY FOR ALL TIME.

So if you must give a one-star, please be kind. If you can’t be kind, please be reasonable. Put a little something of yourself into a review to throw the author a chink of light – something they might use to improve their skill. After all, the author put rather a lot into this book, this gift of themselves to you. Remember that next time your cursor is hovering over those five empty ones in tortured indecision. Fill as many with gold as you can. Too often, it’s the only significant gold that author will ever see.

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ON SPONTANEOUSLY COMBUSTING WHILE SPEAKING IN PUBLIC 

At the age of 16, in the midst of preparing for an inter-schools public speaking competition, I suddenly became stage struck. Knees knocking, throat parched, mind blanked, I ran from the room in tears of shock and shame at my failure to rise to the challenge. I’m not sure why this happened. Hormones or non-specific heebee jeebees, or maybe because my older brother had won the national competition the year before and headed off to London to compete with the rest of the world. Who knows! (Sibling rivalry? Me? Never.)

Anyway, this anxiety is something that I’ve never quite got on top of since. I’ve gone out of my way over the past thirty years to avoid any kind of public speaking at all. When my first novel, Black Diamonds, was published I didn’t even have a book launch, I was so wracked with fear.

Overlaid with indignant defiance. Why can’t an author just write? I railed (to myself, obviously). What’s this public performance rubbish writers are required to do? Are we circus animals? Why can’t I be Lionel Shriver and get invited to only the best festivals (or any festivals) and schlep along moaning about the unfair demands placed upon artists in this outrageously over-commericalised world? It’s marketing madness! It’s just not me.

Oh the layers and layers of bullshit I buried myself under in order keep out of sight. Out of fear’s way.

Until the penny dropped one day: Aha!  If no-one can see that you’ve written a story they might like to read, then no-one will read it at all and you’ve just spent several years talking to yourself and taking up precious publishers’ space to no purpose. A more committed writer might be more deserving of your spot, so lift your game if you want to keep writing novels and having them published, luvvy!

I did and do want to keep writing – forever, if I can. And I have therefore lifted my game. Slowly, over the past twelve months, since my second novel, This Red Earth, was published last year, little by little I’ve been pushing the boat of self-promotion out. I actually held a launch for that book. People showed up, mostly family, but people nevertheless. I cried during my speech (which was mercifully short but otherwise outstandingly terrible). And, most importantly, I didn’t die from it. Neither did anyone else, by the way.

I’ve made a couple of speeches in between, incrementally less dreadful each time. This blogging caper and facebooking bits and pieces have helped break down my neurosis too. It’s not such a bad thing to connect with others who are as enthusiastic about books and stories as you are, hm? Terrifying, awkward and comfort-zone-stretching, but not so bad at all.

And here, at the very bottom of the truth, is why…

A couple of days ago, driving to the launch of brand new third book baby, The Blue Mile, I felt the nerve-monster burbling and rising and I punched the radio button on the dash, growling at myself: “Stop it, Kim – you stupid child!” Only to hear the opening strains of The Carpenters “Top of the World” – if not the soundtrack of my childhood, then most definitely on the B side of it.

And to distract myself I started to sing along to it. Very loudly. This made me laugh as loudly too. Then, at the end of the song, I punched off the radio, and sang it again a cappella. This was, I realised, an inarguably dreadful performance. I was not about to subject my lovely little audience to anything like it – I could be more than confident of that. I was only going to have a chat about my book to people who turned up because they wanted to hear it.

And hear it they did. I can’t remember much of what I said, but I felt in my knees and in my throat that I’d done much better than the last time. My voice didn’t shake and squawk so much; I was able to see faces – smiles and nods of interest. And not one family member in the audience this time to give me reason to think they were just being kind in their applause. I must have done better, mustn’t I?

Signing books afterwards, one woman told me she’d really enjoyed it. “Really?” I smiled. I could have cried with relief if I wasn’t a little suspicious she was only being sweet or slightly doddery, but she said: “Really,” nodding with a small and thoughtful frown.

And then she told me: “I loved your first novel. Every time I drive through Lithgow, I think about it. I was hoping to meet you to tell you that.”

I could have cried then too, but I was too busy dancing inside like one of Nietzsche’s exploding stars.

There is no other thrill like this for a writer. To have someone tell you that your story touched them is magical. To have someone tell you that it touches them still seven years on is out of this world.

A tiny shard of infinite joy that I’d never have found if I hadn’t been there at my own book launch.

I’ll carry that joy onto the next event, and the next, if I’m lucky enough to continue to be invited anywhere, with the knowledge that I will only continue to get better at this speaking thing, because it’s not all about me at this end of the deal – it’s all about readers too.

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 WHO’S AFRAID OF ROMANCE?

There’s been a fair bit flying around the net lately on the value or lack thereof of romantic fiction, amid the usual squawking in and around so-called women’s literature generally. Why isn’t romance taken seriously? Why isn’t it front and centre at the Sydney Writers Festival, goddammit! Can you even use ‘women’ and ‘literature’ in the same sentence? Did I just say that?

I’m not even entirely sure what romance is. In a superficial sense, I suppose it’s a story with girl-boy goosh at its heart. Isn’t it? One in which the heroine weeps, waits and sighs heavily across one thousand and fifty-seven shades of sexual desire, towards every conceivable climax, from a chaste kiss at the threshold of marriage to hot and sweaty action on the back of a black stallion at a gallop across the dales.

I write romance, so I’m told. I like to think I write stories that hold love – its power and its possibilities – at the centre of the human experience. I do this mostly because this is what I believe and how I live my real life. I also find the vaulting arc of a romantic narrative most excellent fun to write.

Will he ever hold her in his arms again? Damn straight, he will. It’s the best adventure there is.

But not all readers of romance like my novels. They are a peskily discerning lot. Rural fiction fans have been disappointed that my storylines don’t focus so much on the land as a plot driver; more traditional romance readers don’t like that the word ‘fuck’ usually appears within the first few chapters, along with way too much stinky masculine point-of-view; and Australian historical romance aficionados have been left cold by my at times irreverent deconstruction of some of the most sacred icons of our national mythology.

The cynical among us might say that I only use romance as a vehicle to peddle my pinko ideas of social justice and equity by stealth upon an unsuspecting audience of fluffheads. And awch – that one hurts. Not.

All writers of romantic fiction are accused by our self-appointed gatekeepers of culture and taste of using sentimentality to manipulate readers. As if fiction isn’t entirely the art of manipulation. As if all writers of fiction aren’t professional bovine excrementalists.

These gatekeepers tie themselves up in knots of great complexity in the attempt to describe the specialness and worth of real proper literature as it contrasts with so-called genre fiction (oh lordy how I despise that g-word). Literary fiction is untamed, it’s convention-stretching, it’s exploratory, and experimental. As if sci-fi, fantasy, romance or crime thrillers can never be any of these things.

On the other hand, romance is as easily described as it is dismissed. Romance is cliché ridden, poorly written, predictable, devoid of any intellectual depth and only for the feeble-minded.

Who are these feeble-minded people buying all this trash then? Who comprise this largest reading market in the entire freaking world?

Women.

Disparaging romance out of hand then (especially if one as freely admits to never having read any) is just another form of disparaging women. Isn’t it?

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Anzac Day is, for me, our most meaningful national day. I’m not a dawn-service goer or marcher or medal-wearer. I’m certainly not a two-up drunk.

The sacrifices of the original Anzacs resonate through me with the quiet shock of long-remembered tragedy. Their day is, and was always meant to be, a day of national mourning, for sons sent far away from home to fight in a bloodthirsty imperial trade war.

The members of my family who joined the Australian Imperial Forces didn’t go to Gallipoli. They did the European tour. And they weren’t boys of Mother England, either. One was a German Australian, and the other an Irishman. One lies still in Zonnebeke, somewhere in West Flanders, his remains never found; the other made it home and took life by the throat, becoming the first member of our family to go to university, only to die early from nephritis as result of his gassing in France.

Once, as a child, coming home from town with my grandmother, Nin, we’d hopped off the Maroubra bus at the Junction and were walking to the taxi stand to get a cab the rest of the way home, when an alcoholic wobbled out of the pub on the corner towards us.

I must have made a face or said something in judgment of the man, for Nin to squeeze my hand and tell me, ‘Shush. Be kind. You don’t know what hardship he’s known.’

I didn’t know what she was talking about, and yet I did. It was Anzac Day.

The sound of The Last Post squeezes around my heart every time I hear it; the lone piper at the Australian War Memorial closing ceremony makes me cry. Not only for those who die far from home but for those who return hurt. Lest we forget the fallen; let us honour and heal the broken.

It’s why I always have two bucks for a legacy badge, and always time for an old digger’s yarn.

Sometimes I feel guilty that my first two novels plumb that part of our heritage. I wonder if I’m just another Anzac-legend parasite, desperate for reflected glory, no better than a twenty-first-century Gallipoli lout.

I’ve asked a couple of old diggers this question over the years. One just laughed at me, growling sharply, ‘The dead don’t care what you write’; the other said, ‘Kimmy, don’t worry, you can’t tell these stories enough – someone’s got to.’

And there are certainly plenty of them to tell. Anzac is not one white-bread homogenous thing. Not one neat narrative. Not one kind of bronzed Aussie. They were German, Irish, Scottish, Aboriginal, Lebanese, Catholics, Coptics and Jews.

They were Our Boys, and we love them still.

This Anzac Day will possibly be louder and larger than usual, with the centenary of the beginning of World War I coming up in a few months’ time, but beneath all that noise, small voices continue to call to us. Among them, the lost tears of the ninety-six Australian Defence Force personnel who have suicided since 2000 as a result of the hardships of the job; triple our fatalities from Afghanistan.

As the brass bands strike up this Friday, I would guess that most of yesterday’s diggers might prefer that we do something to help today’s wounded and weary before we wave too many flags for them. That we listen to their stories, and tell them, and retell them, whenever can.

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I love Easter. For me it’s the richest of the Christian festivals. We mourn a terrible loss and reflect on the injustices inflicted on a man who lived and preached revolutionary kindness; we reflect on our faults and all the things we might do to become kinder people ourselves; we sit quietly with the knowledge that redemption is found in every good thing we do. And then we eat a lot of chocolate. What more could you want from religion?

I’m not religious. Having been raised half Catholic and half Socially Conscientious Agnostic Weirdo, as a kid I went to mass every Sunday and then, once home, was questioned about what I learned there. As an ever questing questioner myself, I was never going to last long in any kind of formal religion. Atheism came gently and logically for me at sixteen, and I’ve never grieved the loss of the Church in my life.

Over the ensuing thirty years, I’ve gained a lot of Easter chocolate, though. Having been raised half Catholic and half Socially Conscientious Agnostic Weirdo, my parents were incredibly stingy with the Red Tulip, and so I decided early on that I was never going to be as mean to my children. Although they are both men now and live far away, I’ve just posted them packages full of eggs and bunnies (and the obligatory undies-from-mum). I have a little box of chocolates hidden in my sock drawer to give to my husband on Sunday morning, too. Because chocolate is nearly as magical as kindness, isn’t it?

But more deeply, and personally, Easter has never lost its melancholy base note for me. Every year, I can almost feel the Good Friday full moon rising over my shoulder, compelling me to take stock: what have I done to improve myself, to overcome my failings, what have I learned, how hard have I tried to make my world a better place, how hard have I worked for others? Not exactly comfortable questions, as the answer is always: not nearly enough.

Is it lingering religion in me, an unsettling aversion-attraction to paschal purple? Or is it just the cranky old man in the moon shaking his finger, telling me that time is getting away as autumn begins to chill the air? I don’t know. It’s Easter. And it’s an excellent thing, really. To contemplate how sadness can be transformed into joy through giving; to consider the miracle it is that we each have the power to roll away the tombstones of loss and live again: sweeter and brighter. Wiser.

So here’s cheers to Easter, whatever this festival might mean for you, may it bring renewed faith and possibility to all your best, big-hearted dreams. As well as bulk loads of chocolate, of course…

nin

This is Lillian Bridget Kelly, nee O’Reilly, my grandmother – the other grandmother and inspirer of all things Blue Mile I promised I’d write a post about. We called her Nin. Or more correctly, Nin the Pin, as she was a tiny person and a mad keen stitcher.

She made most of my clothes when I was a little girl. I have the best memories of catching the bus into town with her to go to DJs and Farmers to choose fabrics and patterns. She’d always buy me a treat of either a chocolate umbrella from the sweets counter or a pink-iced cake from the cafeteria afterwards. And back home again, she’d stitch me midriff tops and gypsy skirts and harem pants and party dress after party dress.

When my mother was a smart young thing about Sydney in the 1950s, Nin created all her evening gowns. They didn’t have much money, so couture had to be run up on the Singer in their little Coogee flat, and dresses ever reinvented with the addition of trims – laces, fringing, clouds of tulle and rainspot net. And it was all haute indeed: my mum was always fabulously decked out.

Nin was never wealthy, never owned a home or a car, despite working very hard in one way or another all her life. Legend has it that in the 1940s, just about when this photo was taken and when her daughters were small, Nin fibbed to her employer saying she was unmarried so that she could keep her job as stenographer – so that she and Granddad could send their daughters to the best school. There’s no price on good style, is there?

Back in the 1930s, during the Depression and before she met Granddad, Nin was a flapper, a cigarette-smoking, whisky-quaffing imp. If you look carefully, you can still see the glint of it in her eyes. She’d tell me stories when I was small, too many of which I have forgotten, about daring deeds – most memorably that she was among the first to climb right over the top of the Sydney Harbour Bridge when it was opened. I can’t look at the Bridge without thinking of tiny Nin up there. The breeze in her flame-red curls. The quiet fearlessness she had about her.

The youngest of thirteen and the luckiest for it in love, she also told me stories of growing up very poor, very Catholic and rather Irish in inner Sydney during the First War and into the 1920s, stories about inequity and prejudice that have in turn whispered down the years and through me. Snippets of tragedies and triumphs and excellent lines that have made their way into my Blue Mile. I wonder if she knows somewhere, somehow, that I couldn’t have written a word of this novel without her. I hope so.