It is 10 years since the publication of Black Diamonds, Australian author Kim Kelly’s first novel. To celebrate this milestone, Black Diamonds has been beautifully repackaged, and was relaunched on July 1, 2017, along with all her earlier novels—This Red Earth, The Blue Mile and Paper Daisies (pictured). In this guest post, Kelly describes her passion for historical fiction and why it’s so important to write and read it in Australia’s current political climate. She also shares what she’s learned from writing six historical novels in one decade.
When I first dared myself to attempt writing a novel, my lifelong love of story had been well stoked by almost a decade working as a book editor—no greater apprenticeship in the craft. But it was witness of history happening before my eyes that made me want to plumb the past for tales.
Planes colliding into New York’s World Trade Center, the Coalition of the Willing illegally invading Iraq, and our prime minister at the time, John Howard, rocking on his heels with barely suppressed glee at the political potential of it all, his government’s subsequent demonisation of refugees, his use of armed services personnel as pawns in his flak-jacket-photo-op re-election game.
It had all happened before, I knew, because my other love—history—told me so. I’ll show ’em, I shook my fist at my laptop, and out poured Black Diamonds, my first novel. Steeped in the long-tail sting of every bigotry and pointless hardship my own Irish and German grandparents and great-grandparents had endured during Australia’s first big war—World War One—I wrote a soulfully socialist, anti-war love story. I set it in Lithgow, a place of breathtaking beauty and historical significance—and yet a place that had seemed forgotten too, as overlooked and bypassed as the devastating wounds war inflicts upon the lives of ordinary people.
I’d like to imagine that Black Diamonds’ publication in 2007, a few short months before the federal election that year, had something to do with Howard losing his stewardship of the country and his seat, but that would be silly, wouldn’t it. My novel might not have changed the world or cured my country’s amnesia, but it did begin my career in writing, and set me along a story road entwining history, politics and love—a road I haven’t left since.
Soldiers, slums and millinery
From the time I was about eight or so, spending rainy days rummaging through my family’s bookcases for curiosities, it was history that fascinated me most. While my friends were being swept away by The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, I was taking magical trips into my grandfather Frank Kelly’s Readers Digest collections of encyclopaedia on everything from Ancient Greek mythology to wild colonial Australiana. Those fascinations sent me to university with interests in archaeology and classical literature, but it was always the legends of the land I call home that had the greatest pull. Always the Australian accent and our playful ways with language that had my ear, too.
I struggled a bit to find my way with a follow-up to Black Diamonds. Was Australian history interesting enough as a subject for fiction? Although Black Diamonds had been well-received, the question plagued me constantly. Australians generally seemed only to want to hear the good about themselves. They seemed to want their soldiers cast in bronze, staunch heroes; not messed up and searching for sense. That led me to writing a tale of war that didn’t involve soldiers—This Red Earth—which follows the paths of a young geologist and a restless writer through the brutality of the Japanese invasions across the Pacific, and through the crippling drought that gripped Australia at home, two things I knew little about until I started digging. It also led me into the uranium mines of South Australia that were reopened during World War Two, as the Allies searched the globe for atomic bomb fuel.
My historical curiosities next took me into the slums of Chippendale during the Great Depression—more heart country for me as that’s where my grandfather had been raised. It was a place of poverty and violence he escaped as a young man by joining the army, but in my novel, The Blue Mile, my character scores a job on the Harbour Bridge as his ticket out. In tribute to both my grandmothers, there’s also a thread of fabulous dressmaking and millinery through the story, contrasting the grim with all the bright colours of their industry. It’s really a story about the people who make our world, though—the everyday workers who create all the human comforts we enjoy, and a reminder of the hard-won rights of those workers.
‘Listing in a morass of our making’
A huge shift followed for me in 2012 when, one afternoon during parliamentary question time on TV (yes, I’m that tragic), the prime minister then, Julia Gillard, pointed across the dispatch boxes and said: ‘I will not be lectured on sexism and misogyny by this man.’ This man being the Leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbott, and purported love child of John Howard. I didn’t find her words all that remarkable at first—they seemed so obvious!—but the vitriol that followed, in the press and in all manner of public fora, shocked me. It sent me on a quest to find out how such a country as ours, with such a history of world-beating women’s rights, could have sunk so low—and Paper Daisies, set during Federation and the fight for female suffrage, was the resulting novel.
Since then, I’ve left any pretence at writing commercial women’s fiction behind me (oh how I have come to loathe that term). The two novels that followed next—Wild Chicory and Jewel Sea—certainly display my trademark riffs on love as the glue that holds our leaky ship together, but they are wilder and more confident expressions of who I am as a writer, experimenting with narrative voice and structural forms to take my stories deeper into the mythologies and historical realities that make Australia what it is today.
I’m also presently watching my country list in a morass of our making, towards deeper inequalities of class and race, towards more entrenched injustices and corruptions of power. I’m watching everything my grandparents’ generation fought for being steadily dismantled by my own. And we’re still at war— the same war that set my writing fire aflame in the first place.
As I celebrate these wonderful ten years of novelling, I’m taking a sober moment to note, too, that there has never been a better time to be writing Australian historical fiction—because we need it. Yes, I love my country deeply. I love her enough to tell her a few home truths. And I’m not stopping now.
Black Diamonds, This Red Earth, The Blue Mile and Paper Daisies, $27.99 rrp, from all major online retailers. Wild Chicory ($14.99) and Jewel Sea ($24,99).