“I love to start a conversation, not just about my stories but about Australian stories generally”
AUTHOR Kim Kelly is renowned for diving into the historical details behind her popular novels, and as Glen Innes is soon to discover she loves visiting country towns in pursuit of inspiration.
“I often think I only write novels as an excuse to ferret through piles of ephemera and social trivia,” Kelly said.
“My head is an historical hoarder’s junkyard. I once bailed up a local historian at Gulgong’s Pioneer Museum to interrogate him about early washing machines.”
Kelly’s 2018 title Lady Bird & The Fox is a Victorian-era novel set in the NSW Central West, where she resides.
“I was definitely always going to tell a Gold Rush tale,” she said.
“And as scary as it was to contemplate, I was probably always going to write a sparklingly smart and wonderful Aboriginal heroine.
“I grew up at La Perouse, in Sydney, where the Aboriginal community is vibrant and diverse; the girlfriends I made and the education I received there were an enormous influence on me, and still are. Annie Bird from the novel is in many ways a tribute to those women who have had such an impact on my life.”
As she was gathering inspiration for the book, Kelly came across a newspaper snippet about an Aboriginal bushranger known as Mary Ann Bugg.
“The story sparks began to fly and the voice of Annie Bird emerged – pulling on her knee-high boots and ready to go,” she said.
“But I can’t write an Aboriginal character, can I? That was my first fear. I have no right to take on the voice of someone so culturally and historically different. For a couple of years I wrestled with the question, but Annie just wouldn’t leave me alone.
“She deserved a handsome hero, I supposed – as most of my stories involve some kind of love story, not just romantic love, but partnering, nourishing love, love that leads to all kinds of discoveries.
“Jem Fox is one of my favourite characters so far. Apart from being a very naughty boy and therefore fun to write, in so many ways he represents my own search for my Jewish heritage – and there was a flamboyant rake or two in that lot.”
Kelly describes the search for her Jewish forebears as “a trip like no other” that led to discoveries about the prejudice and difficulties they faced, and the contributions they made to colonial business and industry.
“Those Jews of the gold rush era gave us our first Australian-born governor-general, Sir Isaac Isaacs, and our most famous soldier, Sir John Monash, both born during those ‘wild west’ days – and, eventually, me!” she said.
Kim Kelly is a ghostwriter and book editor with over twenty years’ experience in the Australian publishing industry, yet she still makes time for talking to readers in country libraries.
“The most common reaction I receive at book talks is appreciation that I’m telling Australian tales,” she said.
“Often, there’s interest in my publishing background, too, so I tend to get a few questions about the nuts and bolts of writing and how to get your work out there.”
Kelly is what’s known as a ‘hybrid author’: one who has titles traditionally-published and who also self-publishes.
“All of my novels except for Lady Bird & The Fox and my forthcoming, Sunshine, were originally traditionally-published,” she said.
“My new, independently-published titles and republished backlist are produced by a team I’ve put together myself – editor Alexandra Nahlous, designer Alissa Dinallo, and publisher Joel Naoum.
“It was really important to me that I employ experienced and respected industry professionals if I was going to go out on my own.
“It began as a bit of an experiment, just to see what was possible and what I might learn, and has far exceeded my expectations – not just financially, but in terms of publishing pleasure.”
Despite studying literature and history at Sydney University and the University of New England, it took Kelly a long time to summon the courage to write a novel.
“It wasn’t until I lucked out landing a job at Random House as a book editor that the world of writing possibility opened up for me,” she said.
“Working with so many different authors, from Miles Franklin winners to the big names in romance, taught me so much and dared me to make my secret storytelling dreams a reality.
“Wherever I go, I love to start a conversation, not just about my stories but about Australian stories generally. Sometimes the chat is quite lively, and whenever we go over time, or I hear readers still chatting as they leave, it gives me such a high.
“All of my novels take a moment in Australian social and political history and explore it with that sense of wonder and curiosity, as well as a deep love and gratitude for this amazing country we call home.”
Author Kim Kelly in conversation at The Makers Shed, Glen Innes, for the High Country Handmade Showcase, March 3.