PODCAST SHOW NOTES
Episode 20 is here! Join hosts Veronica and Darren for industry and book news, discussions about the beautiful importance of themes in art and literature, a small dive into the Voynich manuscript and a brief chat about a failed hot water bottle/winter jacket hybrid concept... but more importantly, there's a truly wonderful interview with renowned author Kim Kelly, who was also gracious enough to perform a reading from one of her books!
What Country do you write on?
I live and work on Wiradjuri Country today, but was born and raised on Gamay (northern shore of Botany Bay), Country of the Gameygal people, and began my writing life on Darug and Gundungurra Country.
When did you first admit that you were a writer?
Not until the fact of publishing made me, as it had been a secret held close since childhood. It still seems an odd way to refer to myself sometimes. Australians can be a bit dubious about creative types, and in non-writerly or readerly company, I’ll often say I’m an editor instead – which is where my career in literature began.
What was your favourite book as a child?
My grandfather’s encyclopedias. I seemed to skip most popular kids’ books and fairy tales, going hardcore early. Still love to lose myself in reference books, too, especially history books. Go, nerds!
What inspired you to write/this book/these books?
In the late 90s, an old uni friend, Jen Smith, was murdered in a bag-snatch gone wrong, and she’d been writing her first novel at the time. Jen had a wicked sense of humour, too, and a laugh that’s haunted my imagination in the best of ways ever since. I’d also been wanting to write about some of my own experiences working as an in-house editor in Australian publishing. The stars aligned a couple of years ago and – bang – the story roared out of me. It’s not autobiographical at all, but it’s definitely infused with the truth of real life, real grief, and real laughter.
As for my books generally, mostly what inspires me are the contradictions of Australia: our vast spaces and small-mindedness, our wonderful generosity and the scars of our stubborn bigotries; fossicking for the extraordinary in the ordinary, and for the deeper, more confronting truths of our history. And I weave my findings into tales of romance and intrigue because I’m in this business to entertain in ways that might change a change heart or mind along the way, rather than preach to the choir.
Do you write for yourself or for a particular audience?
Kind of both. I have a firm understanding of why I write what I write, and I don’t deviate from the little field of ideas I plough. At the same time, I’m talking to my country, writing for an Australian audience – and getting a huge buzz when I pick up readers from overseas now and again.
Is there anything specifically Australian about your book/books?
Every word of my stories is distinctly Australian, either in place, or character, or both, and from sparkling Sydney Harbour to the red dirt roads beyond Bourke, from immigrants just stepped off the boat to those whose history knows no other land. I’ve tried to write outside ‘what I know’, and what I love, but it doesn’t work, for me. I’m also partial to colourful vernacular, and there’s no slang like Aussie slang, cobber.
Are there any secrets hidden in your writing?
What a great question! And, yes, there are. I often leave a trail of literary breadcrumbs throughout a story, works that have inspired my writing but aren’t relevant necessarily to the narrative. I also hide my favourite numbers in all of my books. The biggest secrets that lie inside my tales, though, are those of personal grief and loss and other emotional traumas: I often explore the hands life has dealt me, but I usually don’t realise I’ve done it until I’ve finished a first draft – which is always a bit of a ‘wow, I see what I did there’ moment. There’s also a similarly weird thing that happens with snippets of family history finding their way into my stories, as if ghosts of the past are whispering to me – or more likely I’ve simply forgotten some long-lost family tale but my subconscious has retrieved it for me during the writing process.
Why do you think listeners should read your book/s?
I don’t think anyone should read my books. There are so many great books in the world. But I hope those readers who do find my work find some food for thought, a few laughs, the warmth of love and the Australian sun, and some soul nourishment there. I hope those readers who enjoy language, voice and lyricism find some fun in the playfulness of mine, too.
Are there any passages you’d like to read on air to give listeners a sample of your writing?
The opening chapter of Her Last Words is a rush of writing that still surprises me – it just kind of appeared on the page one day – and it begins in the middle of a stoush between Thisbe and her boyfriend John, about his reluctance to read her precious manuscript …
They kept their voices low even as their tempers rose. It was a hot night, last-blast-of-summer hot, the cool change running late like a train held up between stations, leaving them nowhere to go but irritation.
Thisbe gripped the back of the kitchen chair nearest, her small, slim fist white-knuckled as she hissed: ‘I don’t think I can trust a man who doesn’t read.’
‘A man who doesn’t read?’ John snorted, sloshing the rest of the red into their glasses – apportioning slightly more into his own, she noted. ‘I never said I wouldn’tread it, Thizz. You know that. It’s just that I don’t have time right now.’
‘Don’t. Have. Time.’ Thisbe mocked him, mimicking the flare of his nostrils: his arrogance, slouching, easy and amused; even the way his bleach-streaked hair fell across his forehead seemed insulting, lazy – up itself. You’re no one special, John Jacobson, Thisbe thought these words, fiercely, but wasn’t quite drunk enough to say them. And yet, only halfway through her second glass, she was already drunk: overtired and undernourished, having eaten nothing since about half past three that afternoon, stuffing a box of sushi down on her way to work. Work: her job as door bitch at The Garden, Sydney’s latest after-dark playground for the rich and soulless, wasn’t real work. She was paid to judge who was admitted and who was rejected, based on what they were wearing, how good-looking they were and whether or not they were famous, at the same time maintaining a roughly seventy-thirty chick–bloke split, and resisting the temptation to press her stamp too firmly into their botoxed foreheads instead of their wrists. It was not a great use of her first-class honours in literature. But, well, she had to pay the rent, didn’t she, while she was —
While John stood there with that smug smile of his, speck of parsley on a front tooth – and he made even that look like it should be a new trend.
‘Thizz, come on …’ He held out her glass. ‘Be nice.’
‘Nice?’ Her annoyance vaulted into anger. ‘I’ve never been nice in my life and I don’t intend to start now.’
‘What —’ John was shocked. She could see he was struggling to keep his own emotions controlled; she could hear the snarl beneath his words: ‘You’d think I just refused to, I don’t know, give up my other lover or something. I’ll read your novel when I can concentrate properly on it – when the shoot has wrapped up for the season. Is that too much to ask?’
Thisbe’s mind spun through all that seemed too much. She was jealous, so maddeningly jealous, that John had got his first big part in a TV series – he’d leapt from shampoo and pizza commercials to Constable Gary Dawson in the popular justice drama Hard Evidence, and although it was a fairly terrible show, it was a start, a more-than-decent start that had seen his bare torso already gracing the pages of at least two high-circulation women’s magazines. That Thisbe didn’t really watch TV and never read women’s magazines was beside the point: he was on his way. And she was – nowhere. They’d been travelling the same road for so long: six years.
They’d met at university, at an audition for the drama society’s production of No Room for Dreamers, a play about an eccentric idealist who believed good sex was the answer to the world’s problems but who self-immolates at the end; John got the lead; Thisbe had baulked at the last minute, too shy to perform at all. He was a couple of years older, and he was so beautiful she could hardly believe he wanted to talk to her at the bar afterwards.
She confessed to him there and then that she wasn’t an actor, but a writer, looking to be inspired, and his smile had filled her universe. Still, a bundle of nerves and insecurities meant she baulked at every advance he made from there on, until a little over a year ago, when she finally struck on the thing she wanted to write – struck on a vein of certainty and confidence, and she’d held on tight. Now that she had actually written it, how could he not want to read it? Immediately. How could he not be celebrating her achievement – this second. How could she have raced to the Office Shop on her way to work to have it printed out – for him and him alone – only to have him say, ‘Hey, that’s great, Thizz,’ as if she’d just told him she’d scored a new pair of shoes on discount. ‘I’m dying for you to read it,’ she’d bounced up and down in front of him to show how shining with excitement she was; and he’d said: ‘Oh. Yeah. Sure. Of course. When I get a chance.’
How could this be happening? They’d been talking about moving in together – after all these years of being so careful with her heart, and piece by piece giving it over to him. In so many essential ways, the manuscript in her backpack was him – and now?
A coldness swept through her, black as the sea beyond the surf, as she told him: ‘It would take you a couple of hours to read it. It’s not very long. You don’t have a couple of hours for me.’
‘You know that’s not true,’ John said, but where there should have been all kindness and sympathy, all Thisbe heard was his impatience.
He took another gulp of wine: ‘Thizz, come on …’
Somewhere inside her tumbling tangle, she knew she was overreacting; she knew she would calm down in an hour or so and resolve this, like the twenty-five-year-old grown-up she was; their fights were never anything more than spats, churlish little bursts, mostly from herself, that were quickly sorted with apologies on both sides and the best sex imaginable. But not tonight. Tonight, her disappointment raged like a monster unleashed from an ancient cave. Primal. Wounded.
She picked up her backpack, felt its weight as she slung it over her shoulder, heavy with unloved manuscript, though it was only 187 pages in length. Tiny. She was as tiny as her resentment was huge. Overwhelming.
She walked down the hallway towards the front door …
And things go very wrong for Thisbe after that!
Is there a message in your book/books/writing? What’s the main message you’d like readers to take away after reading your book/books?
There’s always a bunch of messages in my writing, and usually the emphasis is on stripping back our presumptions and prejudices, and of upturning stereotypes and predictable tropes, but in Her Last Words, the focus is on the power of telling the truth, of letting love sit at the centre of our creativity, and of how kindness is so often the real hero in our lives.
Who is your most or least favourite character to write?
Well, naturally, my favourites are the romantic leads who struggle and prevail, as well as the heroes, large and small, who bring light and love into a tale. I must confess I have difficulty writing bad guys, the shallow and the nasty: either I end up making them not so bad, because we’re all a little bad, or they’re terrible sociopaths I should really torture and kill, but somehow I let them they get away with all their nonsense (after all, they say, write what you know, huh?). In all my eleven novels, I’ve only managed to kill one bad guy! But I also must confess that I did enjoy writing the bad guy in Her Last Words – she’s a piece of work.
What’s the best response you’ve ever had to your writing?
I’ve been very lucky to have made some beautiful connections through writing, but the best, the one that makes my heart sing, was a letter from a reader who told me that one of my novels had helped her emerge from the fog of her depression after the loss of her husband, and that it had reignited her joy in reading – something she’d lost when her husband died. It still brings tears to my eyes, as well as an intense sense of achievement.
What genre/s do you write in?
Mostly historical fiction, with forays into contemporary settings. But always very Australian.
What genre/s do you mostly read?
I’m a bit of a bower bird with my personal reading. I love history and fictions that take me on a journey of understanding – deep into an event or place or character, or ideally all three.
As a writer, are you a plotter or a pantser or somewhere in between?
I always have an idea of where I’m going and why. I just don’t know exactly how I’ll get there, or what might happen along the way.
How much research is involved in your writing?
Lots! Especially for my historicals. I love research so much that I sometimes think I write novels just so that I can pretend I’m doing something useful with all my reading and wandering around museums and antique shops. I once spent three hours inspecting a collection of Depression-era washing machines for one small reference to laundry in a paragraph that didn’t even make the final cut – it was at that point I realised I had a problem…
What’s your writing routine – if you have one?
I like to have large chunks of time to write. I tend to smash out the first draft of anything very quickly, and I tend to want to edit in one go when it comes to subsequent drafts – to keep all threads of character, narrative and the mesh of themes in the front of my mind all at once – so I try to give myself weeks or months, and put my head down and just get the work done. If that means writing most of the day and night, and seven days a week, that’s what I do. I’m very fortunate to be able to do that when I need to now. When I was starting out, with young children and a full-time job, it was a different story…
Where do you write?
On a couch near the kitchen. I’ve tried to work in an office like a grownup, but when my kids were small, I needed to be able to work and parent from the centre of the house – and that’s where I’ve stayed.
What’s your favourite writing food and drink?
I always break from writing to eat. Maybe all that yelling at the kids: ‘Don’t eat over the keyboard! Don’t eat in your room!’ etc. But I’ll drink my body weight in strong black tea while at the keyboard.
Who helped you most when you were starting out?
Oh man, there were a few, but there are a couple of standouts. I have one friend who has read everything I’ve ever written since uni days, and his interest in my work is like a kind of extra backbone in finding courage to move forward when fears crowd. I also have one cherished editorial friend who read my first finished manuscript back in 2004, and when she confirmed, ‘Yep, kiddo, you’ve written a novel,’ a world of possibility opened up for me. There is no help like the gift of confidence and genuine encouragement from those whose literary opinions and honesty you value.
23.What’s the most useful writing advice you’ve been given?
Always be writing something. For all its sometimes maddening frustrations and what-the-freakeries, writing is a way forward in itself, salve for disappointment and a path paved with love.
What’s your writing goal for the next twelve months?
I’m not very goal oriented. No master plan here. That way, I can always surprise myself – and often do! But I have high hopes for tackling a deep-delve into family history that will take me into London’s theatre scene in the early 1800s. I’ll just have to wait and see how that pans out.
What inspired your book cover/s?
My cover designer, Alissa Dinallo, is magical. The roses on the cover of Her Last Words are significant to the story of the missing manuscript and the solving of Thisbe’s murder, and I’d said something in the cover brief like, ‘Can you make them sweet but dark, and kind of full of movement?’ and Alissa said, ‘Sure.’ She nailed it. She always does.
26.Who would you most like to read your book as an audiobook?
All of my novels have been made into audiobooks already, and all of the narrators are fantastic. For Her Last Words, though, I was stoked out of my mind that the rockstar voice actor, Caroline Lee, would be the narrator for this book. As many in the business say, Caroline could read a phone directory and make it sound fabulous. She’s a genius.
What words of advice would you give an aspiring author?
Skill up. You will never spend too much time trying to understand what a story is, how it works, and how you might go about writing yours. And you’ll never, ever stop learning, either. But building your knowledge of the nuts and bolts of language, voice, narrative approach and characterisation, will feed your creativity in ways you haven’t yet imagined. Invest in your work as much as you can – even if it’s only ten minutes a day. Respect your work always. Speak your truths. Mean what you say. Dare to want to change the world, knowing every word counts, somewhere, somehow. Writing stories often seems a hopelessly indulgent thing to do, but the world will always need more stories, and the world needs yours – because no one else is going to write it.
Any final words for potential readers or writers?
We need to keep our storytelling light alive and burning bright in Australia – in all its diversity. We’re all in a bit of a bind at the moment: on the traditional side of the things, corporatisation and mergers of the major houses have led to lists becoming too samey and trend-oriented over the past little while, and on the indie side of things, it’s too easy for Australian stories to get lost in the wash. It’s great when we band together, when we promote and read each other’s work, but I think we need to do more than this. We need to get behind a bit of a cultural shift, start talking about the benefits of long-form storytelling to grow reading in Australia. We can’t complain about shrinking markets if we don’t all get involved in trying to turn the reading lights back on in people who’ve lost the spark, or in younger people who haven’t yet discovered the feel-good, brain-food and mental-health wonders of reading – especially reading stories written for us, by us and about us.
SHOW LINKS AND RESOURCES
Website is kimkellyauthor.com