Kim Kelly’s new novel, Jewel Sea, an astonishing historical fiction, is on sale in September! As part of the official blog tour, here’s an interview between Kelly and author Patrick Lenton.
The story in Jewel Sea is based on the loss of a real Australian ship, the Koombana – what about the story of the Koombana piqued your interest so much?
One rainy afternoon a couple of years ago, I was looking about on Goodreads for something to take me away somewhere exotic—and I was looking for a history book in particular, because that’s what turns my lights on. I don’t know if it was the old sepia photograph of strapping sailor boys on the cover or some whisper of magic in the sound of the ship’s name, but I immediately had to buy this book called Koombana Days, by historian Annie Boyd.
The blurb told me that this luxurious, state-of-the-art steamship had been lost in a cyclone off the coast of Port Hedland in Western Australia in 1912—just a month before the Titanic tragedy—and was Australia’s worst civilian maritime disaster. Some 150 people aboard her, including a few of the country’s wealthiest folk, all disappeared with the ship, the wreck of which has never been found. And yet, history nerd that I am, I’d never heard of it. Well, it doesn’t get much more tantalising for me. I knew instantly that I’d have to explore this story in fiction, and find out just what might have happened to the Koombana and all her doomed passengers. Well, at least in my imagination …
There is also the true and mysterious story of The Rosy Pearl—what on earth is it, and how did you discover it in your research?
Of course, I couldn’t wait for Annie Boyd’s book to arrive before getting stuck into some research. Almost straightaway I discovered that Annie had put her own very comprehensive research trails up online and I began gulping it all down. In there, I caught my first glimpse of the legend of the Rosy Pearl—a perfectly round, perfectly pink and perfectly cursed pearl—that was purported to have been aboard the ship when she went down.
A little more digging and I discovered that there were several different versions of this legend, too. The most consistent telling of the tale was that one of Western Australia’s best known and most respected pearl barons—Abraham de Vahl Davis—had purchased this rose-coloured pearl in Port Hedland on the voyage north to Broome. But why would such a revered and otherwise sensible man purchase such a pearl? Yes, this pearl was gorgeous and undoubtedly very pricey, but not only was it cursed—having a string of murders attached to its provenance—it was also stolen. It didn’t make sense that he would take such a risk in purchasing it himself. And there was a little fiction jackpot again: I had to explore just how and why Mr Davis came to be in possession of this infamous jewel of the sea.
Jewel Sea isn’t a straight, cut and dried historical recount—in what way do you play with form and genre in the novel?
Along with the question of why Mr Davis might have had the rosy pearl on his person, I wondered why a cursed pearl might have wanted to sink an entire ship full of blameless travellers. I mean really, even for a fabulously tall tale, this level of destruction seemed excessive. So, I supposed this pearl must have had some kind of motive. According to the various versions of the legend, it was said that the pearl had been stolen a few times, and so the idea that the pearl was acting in revenge against its theft began to grow in me.
I began to look at things from the pearl’s point of view and suddenly the pearl took on a narrative voice of its own. This seemed preposterous at first, but when I told my husband and sons that I’d just taken on the character of a pearl and asked them if I was mad, they said: ‘Yes. And you have to do it.’
As much as Jewel Sea is a tale of theft and greed, though, it’s also a tale of transformation and the redemptive power of love, so, apart from the narrative thread of the pearl, there are two other threads woven around it that tell a story of a steamy shipboard affair that becomes a meeting of souls. Those who know my novels will be familiar with the male-female dual perspectives I follow throughout each of them and this time I’ve had a great deal of fun playing with the two sides of that coin, to keep readers guessing. The magic in the novel isn’t quite what it seems, either, and neither does the love story unfold according to convention—but you’ll have to read the novel to find out just what happens.
Why is the story of an old ship so relevant now?
The story of this particular ship—our own little Titanic tragedy—was one that needed to be retold, it seemed to me, or at least we needed to be reminded that it happened. Too often, as Australians, we let our own history slip from memory in favour of the histories of Britain or America. We have lots to share with all our English-speaking cousins, of course, but we are uniquely ourselves, too.
The tragedy of the Koombana became more than a story of a shipwreck for me. It’s a journey back in time to a place, one hundred years ago, when the disparity between rich and poor was vast, when women and workers—such as pearl divers and sailors—were commonly exploited and voiceless. Those threads of theft and greed that run through the story are, I guess, a bit of a warning to us not to go there again as a country, to not allow inequity or bigotry stretch so far.
Sadly, though, one element in the story hasn’t changed a great deal over the past one hundred years, and that’s the effect theft and greed have had on the Indigenous peoples of the Kimberley and the Pilbara. I’d had little idea of the frontier conflicts that occurred here—conflicts that still resonate today—and that’s a story that definitely needs to be told. I’ve only told a tiny fraction of it—inspired by the real-life but nameless Aboriginal prisoner that was aboard the Koombana—but I hope that he knows, somewhere, that someone remembers him.
Like all my novels, Jewel Sea shines a little light into some neglected corners of the past and looks into the contradictions of who we are—the good, the bad and the breathtakingly beautiful. I hope you enjoy the journey.
Win a copy
You can win a copy of the Jewel Sea print novel—all you have to do is respond in the comments to this question by Kim Kelly! Warning—if she loves your answer, she might write a book about it.
‘What period of Australian history intrigues you and why?’ The most intriguing answer wins!