AusRom Author of the Month: Kali Napier
In three words, describe to us your novel:
Haunting, Authentic, Suspenseful
The Secrets at Ocean’s Edge was inspired by your own family history. Being close to the history and obviously having such a connection to the story, did that help you or hinder you in the storytelling process? Would you be willing to give us some background on what aspects of your family history inspired the story?
Actually, I wasn’t close to the history at all! I’d lived in the Mid-West of Western Australia for several years as an ‘outsider’ completely unaware that my father’s maternal family had lived in the Mid-West since the 1800s. My father never met his grandfather, who inspired my character of Ernie, and I only met my father’s mother, Girlie [Gladys], a few times in my childhood. By then, the silencing and gaps in family history that comes with migration, estrangement, and second marriages, meant I knew nothing of the people who inspired this story.
It was only several years and a move across country later, that I did a search of Trove, discovering two newspaper articles about my great grandfather, placing him in Perenjori and Dongara – only half an hour away from where I had lived. These two articles indicated that he had become bankrupt during the Depression following a suspicious house fire in Perenjori and as a consequence moved to Dongara (then Dongarra) to set up a shop.
This sparked the idea for my novel, as I sought to discover through fiction what my unknown ancestors’ lives might have been like. What would it have meant to them to have to walk away from their way of life and begin again amongst strangers? What aspects of their past would they have not been able to leave behind, carried within them? And what happens when that which they’d thought long buried catches up with them?
As the story was fictional, I had free rein with the storytelling when it came to my main four characters. None of them are based on people I know, although both my daughter and I relate to the character of Girlie. Where I had to be conscious was with the Indigenous characters. A theme of the book is of stories and how they define us, connecting us to people and place. My book is not about the Indigenous story of survival in the Mid-West as that is not my story to tell; it is a white Australian story that intersects with Indigenous people’s lives.
The constraints on storytelling were provided by the demands of historical accuracy. My original draft had characters who I later discovered could not possibly have been in town at the time, as well as a mechanic’s garage, when apparently very few people owned cars, even in 1932. I had to work out a way to bring a petrol bowser into town, as it was relevant to the story.
The Secrets at Ocean’s Edge is your debut novel and is already receiving fantastic reviews, with your writing style characterised as “devastatingly talented”. What is it that you believe makes Australian romance fiction so unique?
I am quite astonished and grateful that it’s already received high praise. I think authors feel a lot of self-doubt about their abilities and stories, and when our writing contains a lot of the personal, it is a rollercoaster of emotions when readers give feedback. I hope my book resonates with many more readers, provoking questions about the historical social constraints on women’s roles, the control of Indigenous people’s lives, the wrong choices made by previous generations for the ‘right’ reasons. And mostly, I want people to enjoy a gothic family mystery of secrets and lies, set in a part of Australia with which I feel a deep connection. In terms of Australian romance fiction in particular, I feel there is an innate sense of landscape and culture that isn’t often found in novels of the same genre overseas.
What led you on the path of storytelling?
Several years ago, I worked as a family history researcher, connecting Indigenous clients with knowledge of who their family members were, where they came from, and how they were connected to their Country. Because of the long history of forced removals, forced employment, and control of all aspects of Indigenous people’s lives under State Protection Acts in Australia, many of these connections are lost to descendants. Only when piecing together these families’ stories of trauma, secrets, and belonging from the government archival records, did I start voicing aloud an urge to ‘write a book’. But I had to find my own story to tell.
I hadn’t written any fiction, though, since I was a child when I wrote film scripts and plays prolifically, and as a teen when I produced the usual purple poetry. I enrolled in first year creative writing at university, but I was sixteen years old in a class full of mature age students, and aware that I hadn’t lived enough to write about. I dropped out and travelled the world, earning twenty-two years of grist for the mill. When I was made redundant from my state government job as an Indigenous family history researcher, a bout of soul-searching led me to enrol in a creative writing course at university, determined to go back to the beginning and tie up loose ends. The first assignment became my first manuscript, which was selected in the QWC / Hachette Australia Manuscript Development Program in 2015. Through this opportunity I met my publisher, who decided she didn’t want that first book but liked a little idea I had rattling around for a gothic family mystery set during the Depression.
Is there an author who you particularly admire and what aspect of their work/life/personality has inspired that admiration?
I have a fangirl crush on Kate Forsyth. Anyone who has heard her speak knows just how passionate she is about storytelling and of her love and support for Australian writing. I admire her ability to weave gorgeous stories of love, betrayal, and creativity in a historical context, based on extensive research and classic fairy tales. Every single short story and novel I read takes me through a car wash of emotions, leaving me clutching the book to my chest. Even her tweets inspire me, as her joy shines through every word.
The Secrets at Ocean’s Edge
1932: Ernie and Lily Hass, and their daughter, Girlie, have lost almost everything in the Depression; all they have keeping their small family together are their secrets. Abandoning their failing wheat farm and small-town gossip, they make a new start on the west coast of Australia where they begin to build a summer guesthouse. But forming new alliances with the locals isn’t easy.
Into the Hasses’ new life wanders Lily’s shell-shocked brother, Tommy, after three harrowing years on the road following his incarceration. Tommy is seeking answers that will cut to the heart of who Ernie, Lily, and Girlie really are.