Sticking to my story – Kim Kelly

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By Kim Kelly

Readers are often curious about what inspires writers, and I always love these kinds of questions on where stories come from. It’s essential stuff – without that first spark of an idea, there is no story. ♥

Usually, I talk about the happy accidents that occur during ‘preliminary research’ – which is code for my obsessive reading of old newspapers and trawling small-town museums, things I do whether I’m in the midst of another novel or not.

For example, I wouldn’t have discovered the drought that gripped Australia during World War II if I hadn’t been fossicking through all manner of New South Welsh rural newspapers of 1940 – and this became the narrative drive behind This Red Earth.

Sometimes it’s a contemporary event or issue that sets fire to my imagination and has me delving into the past, searching for its beginnings – that’s what happened with Paper Daisies, when Julia Gillard’s infamous misogyny speech made me sit up and listen, and then scratch my head with wonder.

Things happened a little differently with my latest story, though. Wild Chicory didn’t spring from anything I’d read or heard recently. It came from somewhere deep inside me, from my own history, from the DNA that made me. From that most essential place where my need to tell stories comes from.

Early in 2015, I found myself asking, like so many writers before me and around me: why am I doing this? There’s always plenty to challenge any writer to ask that question. We spend long hours, often years and whole lives, striving to create beautiful and meaningful things, striving to make sense of the world through our words. Most of us do this for little reward in terms of either money or recognition. For me it’s often an almost physical experience, as exhilarating as it is exhausting: writing is like trying to ride and control the rivers of story that run through my mind.

Right when I was negotiating a particularly rocky set of rapids, someone quite high up the publishing food chain suggested to me that it might be time for me to consider changing my style if I wanted to ‘be successful’.

These words capsized my little boat. What? It had never occurred to me that I wasn’t successful. I had four published novels, another manuscript just completed, and yet another bubbling away. I had a bunch of fans telling me they love my work. Changing a piece of me in order to try to give myself a bit more front sounded like a literary boob job to me.

But this voice of authority was serious. The publishing industry is a commercial enterprise first and foremost and demands that its writers be ‘on trend’. The latest trend in women’s historical fiction is dual time-frame narratives. The question really was: Kim, why can’t you write that way and make us all pots of dough?

And it was a good question. Was I just being stubborn? Precious? Stupid? I struggled to find the answer, and I plunged into a shadowy low over it. The question caused me to doubt the worth of everything I’d done and all I’d hoped to do.

I hid under my doona for almost a month, thinking I should probably go and get a job in a cake shop and forget about writing altogether. Do myself, my family and the whole industry a favour by giving in.

And then, in this bleakest moment, a picture of my grandmother came into my mind. She was standing at the kitchen sink in the house that I grew up in. What was she doing there? My mind suddenly flooded with stories once more – the stories she told me when I was small. Stories about Ireland and a great-grandmother I’d never met; stories of being poor and always just a little bit naughty in Sydney one hundred years ago. Stories about kindness and telling the truth. The wisdom of popping on a smart frock when you feel a little glum. The fine art of smiling: of being fabulous and real at the same time. Of setting your own trends, your own course.

Wild Chicory burst out of me then, in one great rush: the answer I’d been reaching for. A story about the stories that make up me.

What more can writers do but stretch and dig and paddle and quest for the things we truly need to say? And thank those who ask us the tricky questions along the way, because without this one that was thrown at me, my lovely Wild Chicory, my little lovesong to my grandmother, wouldn’t be here at all.

Kim Kelly is author of four novels, all lorikeet-coloured tales about Australia, its heritage and its people. An editor and literary consultant by trade, stories fill her everyday, and it’s love that fires her intellectual engine. In fact, she takes love so seriously, she once donated a kidney to her husband to prove it. Originally from Sydney, Kim now lives in Millthorpe, a tiny gold-rush village in central western New South Wales. Wild Chicory is her first novella.

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    March 2, 2016 at 2:26 pm

    Kim, I certainly hope that you never seriously consider changing the way you write. As one of your readers I love your stories and I believe you are very talented. Just keep on writing. forget the cake shop.!

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