Monday, July 17, 2017

Interview with Kim Kelly


Kim Kelly has penned six works of Australian historical fiction, including the acclaimedWild ChicoryandJewel Sea. Noted for a style that is ‘colourful, evocative and energetic’ (Sydney Morning Herald) and for her ‘impressive research’ (Daily Telegraph), Kim’s writing shines a light on forgotten corners of the past, exploring Australian cultural iconography with humour and heart. ‘Why can’t more people write like this?’ said the Melbourne  Age. Born and raised in Sydney, today Kim lives on a small rural property in central New South Wales just outside the tiny gold-rush village of Millthorpe, where the ghosts are mostly friendly and the verandah posts nicely preserved. Kim is also a respected book editor with twenty years’ experience in the Australian publishing industry, and is a literary consultant for Varuna, The National Writers House. 

What is the inspiration for your current book? 

The inspiration for Jewel Sea found its spark one rainy afternoon a couple of years ago. I was idly trawling Goodreads, looking for some new Australian history to entertain me, and up popped a book called Koombana Days by Annie Boyd. I don’t know if it was the photo of handsome sailor lads on the cover or the whisper of magic in the name of their ship, Koombana, but I knew almost straightaway I would write a fiction inspired by this true tale. 

Here was Australia’s own Titanic tragedy, a luxury steamship lost to the forces of nature, and yet, history nerd that I am, I’d never heard of it. Here was a story that unfolded off the coast of Western Australia – a place I knew very little about but would soon discover was filled with amazing history, of the pearl and cattle industries and the frontier conflicts of the Kimberleys. Very early on in my research I also discovered there was a cursed pearl said to have been aboard the ship when she went down. I mean, it doesn’t get much more tantalising than that for me.  

I love the surprise of discovering new places in history or seeing something familiar afresh there, so Jewel Sea was a wonderful research odyssey for me, a journey I couldn’t wait to embark upon once that first flash of story had captured my imagination. 

Is there a particular theme you are exploring in this book? 

All my historical fictions look at some element of Australia’s past through dual lenses of love and politics, and in Jewel Sea these focus in on the themes of theft, greed and dispossession, in many and varied guises. I’m particularly interested in how ordinary people experience the big, iconic events of history, too. There are no kings and queens in my stories – just people trying to live and love and, hopefully, learn something along the way.  

Which period of history particularly interests you? Why? 

Most of my stories are set in early twentieth century Australia, and I’m drawn to these decades for a number of reasons. Australia was moving from colony to nation; our political divide – and its red-team-blue-team idiocies – was not only forming but quickly ossifying; war and depression inflicted terrible wounds on the national psyche, but arguably also shaped the tenacity in our character. Interesting waves of immigration also occurred over this time, as well as the burgeoning of Aboriginal political identity – so many rich veins of both cultural expansiveness and hideous bigotry to mine. But possibly of greatest significance, this was the Australia of my grandparents – the people whose lives inspired me first, as a child, to want to know where I come from.   

What resources do you use to research your book?  

Because I try to take the view of the ordinary person in the street, I use a lot of primary sources that show me the lived, social history of the period. I’m a mad Trover – I’m sure I write novels just as an excuse to read masses and masses of old newspapers. Photographs, audio and film archives and oral histories are often hugely useful to me too in trying to not so much reconstruct a facsimile of the past but to get a feel for the heart of my characters: their concerns, the rhythms of their daysBut probably the richest little treasure stash I have is one I carry around all the time in my own heart: family stories, the myths and legends that make me – and so often inspire my curiosity, calling me to explore a period or event more broadly. 

What is more important to you: historical authenticity or accuracy? 

I always say I write historical fiction in order to attempt to do something constructive with all my research. I’m an absolute Australian history and politics junkie – just can’t get enough. As I said above, I’m a Trove-aholic too, so research is just a part of my every day. I love to build my research as I’m writing, and to have that research inform and sometimes steer the direction of the narrative, to keep the thrill of discovery alive – and hopefully make it all compelling for the reader too. 

As for the facts, I reckon they must be stuck to, especially in terms of dates and well-documented events and characters. But it’s the question marks and blank spaces between the facts we historical fictioneers are mostly so attracted to – the what-ifs – and I reckon, so long as we stick with plausibility, and keep a measure of respect for our subjects as fellow human beings, we can do whatever we like inside those questions. 

Which character in your current book is your favourite? Why? 

I never have favourites as such – all my characters are significant to me, pieces of me, reallyJewel Sea was the first time I tackled a real character from history in any depth, though – a pearl dealer called Abraham DavisHe’s not a well-known character, history doesn’t have too much to say about him, and it was a tricky line to tread attempting to fill in the gaps of his character in order to bring him to life. A challenge I enjoyed, although it was a little nerve-wracking – so much so that I tracked down one of his descendants to warn him I’d done the deed, and had included some not-so-flattering conjecture on his dealings. Thankfully that relative took it well – phew. 


Are you a plotter or a pantser? How long does it generally take you to write a book? 

All of my stories begin with the voices of the characters. I write mostly first-person stream-of-consciousness, so the characters have to drive the whole show.  Without them there is no impetus, no launch pad. I don’t plan my plots – again because I love the surprise  of discovery – but I do sketch out my rough history timeline so that I don’t wobble off from the necessary facts as I go. I sort of also know where I’m going to end up, too, when my characters set out. I just don’t know how they’re going to get there. 


Which authors have influenced you? 

Reading as a teen was where my novel-writing dreams really took flight. Picnic At Hanging Rock and Power Without Glory, two iconic Australian tales, switched me on not only to the idea of wanting to write big narratives one day myself, but to the idea that Australia and Australian history are fascinating places to explore. 

I’ve got to say I do love a story with a sense of humour. Playfulness in voice and narrative approach are big draws for me. One of my perennial favourites there is Liz Jensen’s War Crimes for the Home. I also love stories that place love at the centre of the universe – not necessarily in a romantic sense, but in an uplifting sense. The older I get, the less interested I am in reading any grim exploration of the darkness of humanity for its own sake. We’re living in dark times – maybe we should be throwing each other ropes out of the mire, or at least valuing those who attempt to. One of my recent love-favourites is Anita Heiss’s Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms for its ability to range into tricky political terrain with compassion and joyfulness.  

What advice would you give an aspiring author? 

Respect your work enough to invest in it – time, money and tears. Build your skills all the time through reading and thinking about your work. Study the work of others you admire, steal their magic and make it your own. Know that there is no end to this learning and thieving and reinventing, and that success is not seeing your name on the cover of a book. Success lives brightest in the completion of each piece of work and in your perseverance against the knowledge that nothing you do will ever be truly finished. Success is your white-knuckled and tender-hearted courage to do this thing despite all your reasons not to. Don’t count your worth by the measures of others – ever. Let love and curiosity drive your ambition, let them take you to places you haven’t dreamed of yet. Value those who tell you that your work means something to them – value their criticisms and their every compliment too – because they are your gold.  

Tell us about your next book or work in progress

 I have three manuscripts on the go right now: a Cold War story, a gold rush tale, and one about orthopaedic surgery across the first half of the twentieth century. There’s a mixed batch! I’m about to begin another on travelling performers during the years of the First World War – just for something different again. Heh. I have far too many stories to write; not enough years left on earth to see them written.  

Jewel Sea



March, 1912, a sultry Indian summer hangs over the west coast of Australia and aboard the luxury steamship SS Koombana, three tales entwine.  Irene Everley longs to leave her first-class fishbowl existence, secretly penning a gossip column as her life spirals out of control into soulless liaisons and alcohol, the long shadow of a tragedy clouding her view.  James Sinclair, an investor on his way to Broome is not the man he says he is but can he be trusted?  Abraham Davis, a wealthy dealer whose scandalous divorce is being dragged through the press, prepares to take the gamble of his life: to purchase an infamous, stolen pearl along the journey north.  Perfectly round, perfectly pink, this pearl comes with a curse and with a warning – destroying all who keep it from returning to the sea.  

Based on the true story of the loss of the luxury steamship Koombana to a storm off the coast of North-Western Australia, Jewel Seais a tale of fatal desire, theft and greed – a story of kindred spirits searching for courage and redemption. 

Buy Kim's books here:

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Kim Kelly will be appearing at the HNSA 2017 conference in the following panel: 

Immigrant Stories and Disapora: how pioneers adapt and survive in their new land
Immigrants have helped build our multicultural nations over many generations. Hanifa Deen explores how Maxine Alterio, Arnold Zable, Vicky Adin and Kim Kelly breathe life into tales of prejudice, hardship, homesickness and adaptation.


Kim will also be appearing at our Sydney satellite event at Gordon Branch of the Ku-ring-gai Library on 26 July 2017 at 6-8 pm with Justin Sheedy, Michelle Morgan and Winton Higgins. More details via our website.

HNSA 2017 Conference 

The HNSA 2017 Melbourne Conference is being held on 8-10 September 2017 at Swinburne University. This celebration of the historical fiction genre will showcase over 60 speakers discussing inspiration, writing craft, research, publishing pathways and personal histories in our weekend programme. Among the many acclaimed historical novelists participating are Kerry Greenwood, Kate Forsyth, Deborah Challinor, Libby Hathorn, Lucy Treloar, Sophie Masson, Sulari Gentill, Robert Gott and Arnold Zable. The HNSA’s speakers’ list is available on the HNSA website.  

In addition to the two stream weekend programme, there will be ten craft based super sessions and two research masterclasses.You won’t want to miss our interactive sessions on armour and historical costumes either! Purchase a ticket and you will be entered in the draw to win a $100 Dymocks Gift Card. 


Our First Pages Pitch Contest offers an opportunity for submissions to be read aloud to a panel of publishers. And we are delighted to announce the introduction of our inaugural HNSA Short Story Contest with a $500 prize!  





Let’s make a noise about historical fiction! 

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