Welcome to Tea with Mrs B, an author interview series. Here to share a pot of tea and to chat about her brand new book, Sunshine, is Kim Kelly.
Kim Kelly is the author of eight novels exploring Australia and its history, including the acclaimed Wild Chicory and The Blue Mile, and UK Pigeonhole favourite, Paper Daisies. Her stories shine a bright light on some forgotten corners of the past and tell the tales of ordinary people living through extraordinary times.
With warmth and lyrical charm, Kim leads her readers into difficult terrain, exploring themes of bigotry, class conflict, disadvantage and violence in our shared history – issues that resonate through the social and political landscape of Australia today.
A widely respected book editor and literary consultant by trade, stories fill her everyday – most nights, too – and it’s love that fuels her intellectual engine. Love between lovers, friends, strangers; love of country; love of story. In fact, she takes love so seriously she once donated a kidney to her husband to prove it, and also to save his life.
Originally from Sydney, today Kim lives on a small rural property in central New South Wales just outside the tiny gold-rush village of Millthorpe, where the ghosts are mostly friendly and her grown sons regularly come home to graze.
Hello Kim. It is my pleasure to warmly welcome you to my blog, Mrs B’s Book Reviews. Thank you for joining me for Tea with Mrs B, an author interview series. To set the mood for our tea infused interview, what is your preferred beverage, tea, coffee or other? And side accompaniment, scone, cake or other?
Tea, please! I love a strong brew, and I’ll have it with my latest sweet-treat addiction – lemon myrtle biscuits. Buttery, peppery, citrusy yumness. Would you like the recipe?
Mrs B: Yes please!
Can you tell us what genres you write for and how many books you have had published?
I write mainly Australian historical fiction, stories that explore the big social and political shifts of our past, ask what’s changed today, and try to show how we all fair better with the power of love in our lives. I’ve written eight novels along those lines now – Black Diamonds, This Red Earth, The Blue Mile, Paper Daisies, Wild Chicory, Jewel Sea, Lady Bird & The Fox and Sunshine (so many colours and flowers! That’s me.). Lately I’ve been experimenting with some contemporary stories, though – still political, still brimming with love, and this time just a teensy bit autobiographical. Yikes and stay tuned.
I’m also a ghostwriter and editor, and I’ve worked on many interesting books that don’t have my name on the cover. One I can shout from the rooftops, though, is a memoir called Dangerous Days, by World War II veteran Ernest Brough. I wrote down Ernie’s wild and courageous experiences of the war for him, shaping them into narrative form, and the publication of this book has been an unbeatable career highlight ever since.
Last year, to my surprise and delight, I had a short story published in the beautiful Hope Prize anthology, Hope Shines, too. I’ve always written small pieces as well as large ones, but I didn’t think I was much chop at the tightly contained writing required for short storytelling. I love proving my inner critic wrong.
Sunshine has just been released. Can you describe it in just a sentence?
Set in 1921, in the wake of the First World War and centring on the lives of returned servicemen and women, Sunshine is a very Australian tale of home, hope and healing, of the power of growing life and love, and discovering that we are each other’s greatest gifts.
(There was a long sentence!)
What came first in the creation of the book – the title, plot, characters or setting when you first set out to write Sunshine?
Sunshine arrived via a 1921 newspaper snippet describing some land on the Darling River outside Bourke, on the desert’s edge in north-western New South Wales, which had been opened up for soldier settlement – and was said to be perfect for growing citrus fruit. I’d wanted to write a story set in this area for a long time, as it’s where my lovely husband, my muse de bloke, Deano, was born, and where my mother-in-law had spent an idyllic childhood living in camps across the vast sheep stations up there, where her father worked as a water driller. As soon as that little newspaper clipping caught my attention, I was off and writing, the characters coming out fully formed, straight from my heart.
What ingredients do you feel are necessary to compose a successful historical fiction based novel?
Great question. Different writers have different reasons for wanting to explore the past, but I think if you want to write historical fiction that captures what you want to say and where you want to go, you first need to have a firm idea of why you’re doing it. For me, the ingredients that are most important are this firmness of purpose combined with the excitement of discovering things I didn’t know, as well as deeply respecting the facts as I go.
As for success, any novel that does what the author wanted it to do is a successful novel in my book. No novel is perfect, and not everyone will like what you have to say or how you say it, but if you’ve spoken your truths on the page to the best of your abilities at the time, you’re a winner.
Did you have to undertake a research process to bring Sunshine to the page? How did you incorporate this research into the book?
I’m a research junkie, with endless curiosity for how or why things are they way they are, and where we’ve come from, so fossicking for facts is a joy for me, and weaving them into narrative and character is always a happy challenge.
Yes, there was a great deal of research I had to undertake for Sunshine, from understanding the plight of Aboriginal Light Horsemen during the First World War, to finding out the finer points of citrus growing in the 1920s. Some of this research was utterly heartbreaking, some of it breathtakingly gorgeous. All of it changes me in some way, and makes me a better writer, in terms of striving for truths that show how ordinary people, like me, my friends and family, lived, coped and loved.
Can you tell us more about the chosen setting featured in Sunshine?
Sunshine itself is a fictional hamlet that lies to the north of Bourke, on a bend in the Darling River, but readers familiar with the area will recognise the location straightaway. It’s a place where hundreds of corellas chatter in the boughs of the rivergums, with the red dirt sprawling across the continent beyond, and where stray camels occasionally visit to pinch tomatoes from your veggie garden.
How long did it take you to write Sunshine?
Almost embarrassingly, the first draft of Sunshine took about four or five weeks to write. It was an odd experience reading it back afterwards, too, and finding I didn’t want to change much, except to enrich the tale with some further research. I didn’t know if I’d lost the plot, lost the ability to judge my own work, but it turned out that Sunshine is also the only manuscript I’ve ever written where my editor didn’t suggest any changes, either. It just came out the way it needed to, and I trusted the process, I suppose – or maybe I just didn’t give myself time to let that inner critic stump me. Whatever it was, it was a beautiful experience.
Where did the inspiration for your characters come from?
My characters tend to create themselves – they just are. I don’t hunt around for them, or construct them. They just turn up. And I think that’s because they all come the heart somehow, from people I know and love, or from wondering what life was like for my own forebears. Quite often I’m not aware of how I’ve allowed someone I love in real life to come out in character until after I’ve written them. The muse de bloke turns up quite a lot, as do my kids, my late parents, and my girlfriends.
Did you find it challenging to capture the emotions and powerful themes of this novel?
I cry like a madwoman throughout the writing of all my novels, and each time one of my greatest challenges is to contain my feelings on the page. Injustices that hinge on bigotry and poverty run deep through Sunshine, as they do in all my stories, and as these issues affect people I love in real life, and have affected my own family’s history, I take it all very personally. I never want my stories to be heavy-handed or didactic, though, so I really have to grapple with my anger and fight for the light, so that I can invite readers into difficult situations with warmth, to share rather than shout about what I see there.
What do you hope readers will take away from reading Sunshine?
I always hope readers take away a deeper interest in Australian history, in where we’ve come from, and are also uplifted by the way love can change the course of our lives, even in the worst of circumstances.
Do you have any advice for the aspiring writers out there?
If you’re writing, you’re not aspiring. You’re writing. All committed writers aspire to be better with every new adventure on the page. It’s a life-long journey for those lucky enough to be able and willing to embrace it. Go with it and keep with it. It’s hard work. Some days will be so difficult and disappointing you’ll wonder what on earth possessed you. Some days will be nothing short of magical. All of it is important. Storytelling is the means by which we understand each other and form bonds with people we’ll never meet. It’s our best social glue. It’s a good and noble thing to do. Go do it.
Is there a genre you haven’t tried writing yet, but want to in the future?
I want to write them all. Believe it or not, I’d been wanting to write a heart-warming Christmas story when Sunshine came along – just something romantic and fun. Somehow, though, I always end up ploughing the same patch of dirt, returning to the themes and questions that intrigue me. I’m sure if I tried to write a dystopian sci-fi, I’d still end up with a story of love and politics, either set in the bush, or in my hometown of Sydney. I have a file on my desktop that’s stuffed with stories ideas – more than I’ll ever be able to write in this lifetime. But the stories I end up writing come as and when they do. Like Sunshine, they just arrive, saying, ‘Hello, let’s go…’
What is next on the horizon for Kim Kelly? Do you have any writing projects you would like to share with us?
See question one above: a couple of contemporary tales I can still hardly believe I’m writing. I guess I’m old enough now to want to start delving into my own past more closely, and that’s all as scary as it is exciting. I’m also super excited that Sunshine and Lady Bird & The Fox are going to become audiobooks later this year. I can’t wait to hear the narrators.
What 2019 book releases are you most excited to read?
Hands down, Nigel Featherstone’s Bodies of Men is the novel I most want to read this year. I’m also looking forward to Mary-Rose MacColl’s The True Story of Maddie Bright.
If you could slip back in time, what era would you travel to and why?
I can’t resist following in the footsteps of my ancestors, whether it’s Irish immigrants arriving in Australia with nothing in the early twentieth century, or Jews leaving London behind for the bright skies of Sydney, a German carpenter setting up shop in Newtown in the 1860s, an elegant milliner striving to make her name in the 1930s, a young man escaping poverty by joining the army and ending up on the brutal battlefields of France. They’re all me – they are where I’ve come from.
Finally, wrapping up our tea themed interview, who would you most like to share a pot of tea with?
Apart from you? This is going to sound so cheesy, but I love sharing a cuppa with anyone who has a story to tell – glad times, bad times, mad times, I want to hear them all. And the older I get, the more I realise that listening is the better part of writing anyway.
Thank you for taking the time to visit Mrs B’s Book Reviews for Tea with Mrs B Kim. Congratulations on the publication of Sunshine!
A tale of longing, loss and growing love under the bright Australian sun.
It’s 1921 and the Great War has left in its wake untold tragedy, not only in lives lost, but in the guilt of survivors, the deep-set scars of old wounds and the sting of redoubled bigotries.
In the tiny hamlet of Sunshine, on the far-flung desert’s edge, three very different ex-servicemen – Jack Bell, an Aboriginal horseman; Snow McGlynn, a laconic, curmudgeonly farmer; and Art Lovelee, an eccentric engineer – find themselves sharing a finger of farmland along the Darling River, and not much else. That is, until Art’s wife Grace, a battle-hardened nurse, gets to work on them all with her no-nonsense wisdom.
Told with Kim Kelly’s inimitable wit and warmth, Sunshine is a very Australian tale of home, hope and healing, of the power of growing life and love, and discovering that we are each other’s greatest gifts.
Sunshine by Kim Kelly was published on March 5th 2019 by Jazz Monkey Publications. Details on how to purchase the book can be found here.
Connect with Kim here: