AusRom Today Author Interview—Kim Kelly
AUSROM: In three words, describe to us your novel:
KK: Rollicking. Romantic. Bittersweet.
The story’s main character, Annie, is a part Mulgoa/part English woman who is seeking to reconnect with her Indigenous culture. What led you tell Annie’s story using this particular character arc?
The yearning search for who we really are is a storyline I use a lot. We all need a place to belong, a sense of home and family, and for Annie, the quest to find that belonging is essential. Tragedy of all kinds has made her so alone in the world.
Annie is more than just a character for me. She’s someone I’ve carried around in my heart for a long time. I grew up at La Perouse, in Sydney, where Aboriginal history and culture was a part of everyday, and the friends I made in childhood there remain my friends today. I was probably always going to one day try to write a bold, beautiful and ultimately triumphant Aboriginal woman to match the examples in my own reality.
Annie’s story is only half the story of Lady Bird & The Fox, though. It’s told in alternating chapters with Jem Fox – the man who falls in love with her. Now, Jem is the spoilt, no-good son of one of Sydney’s most respected Jewish businessmen, a bloke with a few hard life lessons to learn. There may be quite a bit of Jem in my own DNA…
It is wonderful to see Australian authors bringing Indigenous Australian stories to life with authors such as Anita Heiss obviously springing to mind. Firstly, what motivates you to tell our Indigenous stories and secondly, what research, specifically for Lady Bird & The Fox, did this require?
I want to tell stories about Australia – who we are and where we’ve come from – and to do that I can’t leave out the way colonisation has affected First Nations peoples. At the same time, I want to be careful not to be talking about people of other cultures, but to give those characters unique voices and lives of their own within the tales I tell, to let them speak for themselves.
If you’re after historical romance infused with lived Aboriginal experience, you can’t go past Anita Heiss’s Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms. There are whole worlds of Aboriginal writing to explore now, and as a country we’re richer for it all – personally, I can’t wait to read Melissa Lucashenko’s new novel, Too Much Lip, later this year. I only hope my story does its little bit to encourage more curiosity about the truths of the past, which, whether we like it or not, affect every one of us today.
Research into any non-Anglo Australian history can be a challenge, though. Details are often thin on the ground because the powers that were often didn’t record them. For example, we’ll never know how many Wiradjuri people died during the Bathurst War in 1824 – an event that shapes Annie’s history in my story. For Annie, it’s not history, it’s her life, and it’s the loss of her Mulgoa mother’s language that she mourns most sharply, as it fades from her own memory, as she feels these ties to family slipping from her grasp. These aren’t facts, but feelings, and who wouldn’t feel that grief?
The best research, for me, comes from listening to others’ real-life stories, and for Lady Bird & The Fox, listening to Aboriginal people talk about their own histories and knowledge of the past. It was also important for me to have my work read by someone of the particular Aboriginal nation I was writing about, to make sure that I wasn’t perpetuating unhelpful stereotypes or plain wrong information.
But as always, serendipity played its part, too, in bringing the character of Annie Bird to life. I was researching the history of the wild west of the New South Wales goldfields, where I live today (and indulging my long-held love affair with that period, the 1970s TV series Rush and my abiding crush on the actor John Waters), when I came across a newspaper snippet on the real-life bushranger wife of Captain Thunderbolt, Mary Ann Bugg – an extraordinarily accomplished and daring Aboriginal woman whose story, or the wisps of it that remain, intrigued me.
Before I start writing an essay on Mary Ann, suffice to say, it struck me that we’re still telling too many stories that make the white guy the hero and the black woman the victim, and I couldn’t let that stand unchallenged. My own history – Irish and German, Catholic and Jewish – carries the sting of bigotry, and in one way or another all my stories try to dig at the truths of our prejudices, to show the hearts that love and live beneath it all – and to celebrate our better selves.
What makes Australian romance fiction unique?
This land is its own romantic hero: breathtakingly beautiful one moment, terrifying the next. Inside the vast spaces of this country we’re so tiny and vulnerable we can’t help clinging to each other, and when circumstances force us apart, the distances are a wrench like no other.
What led you on the path of storytelling?
I’ve always been a storyteller, probably because I grew up in a family where stories were valued – I was taught that everyone has an amazing tale to tell.
My first crack at a novel came at the age of ten, a ghost story called ‘Hall of Horror’, and it was truly horrible. I only lasted three pages at it, but Mum kept them, and they have now been framed.
Adolescence and university knocked the confidence out of me, though, and almost by accident I became a book editor instead – which was the best thing that could ever have happened. Working so closely with other authors was not only a fabulous education in writing, it inspired me to give it a proper go myself.
By that time, I was a crazy-busy wrangler of two young children and a scary mortgage, trying to do it all on my own. Not an ideal time to decide I really truly wanted to be a writer. But I did, and seven novels later, I can’t imagine not doing this storytelling thing forever. (PS: The kids survived.)
Is there an author who you particularly admire and what aspect of their work/life/personality has inspired that admiration?
Because I’m still an editor as well, I enjoy the privilege of watching authors grow their manuscripts, and I admire pretty much every one of them, for the love they bring to their work, their perseverance and belief in the power of storytelling. Three authors I’ve worked with in the past have novels out this year – Lisa Walker with her Antarctic romance, Melt, Donna Cameron’s magical tale, Beneath the Mother Tree, and Lauren Chater’s historical heart-stopper, The Lace Weaver.
Every author I work with has an influence on me, too – I always learn something new, or see something in a different light. I don’t think I could ever give up making these soul-nourishing connections, either.
Lady Bird & The Fox
It’s 1868 and the gold rush is sprawling across the wild west of New South Wales, bringing with it a new breed of colonial rogue – bushrangers. A world far removed from hardworking farm girl, Annie Bird, and her sleepy village on the outskirts of Sydney.
But when a cruel stroke of fortune sees Annie orphaned and outcast, she is forced to head for the goldfields in search of her grandfather, a legendary tracker. Determined and dangerously naive, she sets off with little but a swag full of hope – and is promptly robbed of it on the road.
Her cries for help attract another sort of rogue: Jem Fox, the waster son of a wealthy silversmith, who’s already in trouble with the law – up to his neatly trimmed eyebrows in gambling debts. And now he does something much worse. He ‘borrows’ a horse and rides after the thieves, throwing Annie over the saddle as he goes.
What follows is a breakneck gallop through the Australian bush, a tale of mistaken identity and blind bigotry, of two headstrong opposites tossed together by fate, their lives entwined by a quest to get back home – and the irresistible forces of love.