Born for it: Kim Kelly has loved writing since her youth.When we think of Australia’s involvement in war, Kim Kelly says, ideals such as bravery, heroism and mateship all come to the fore.
”I explore all of those wonderful things in my work but there’s also a sadder, more tragic and melancholy side of things that we don’t often think about,” the author of This Red Earth says.
”We have sacrificed an awful lot for conflicts which really had little to do with us.”
Abroad and at home, she says, lives were lost, loves lost, and a country was turned inside out. This Red Earth is the story of Bernadette Cooper and Gordon Brock, young lovers caught up in World War II. While they contemplate marriage, circumstances have different plans for them both, as Gordon enlists and Bernie prepares to fight her own war at home, a war against an unknown future.
”Both my first and second novels are about war and the way Australia has responded to war,” Kelly says. ”I have quite a deep desire to paint a fuller picture of what was going on.
”Black Diamonds was about the First World War and with this one I wanted to have a look at what the Second World War was like, not just for the generation of people who experienced it firsthand, but what it was like reflecting on their parents’ experiences of the first one. There are tragic tales behind these beautiful young people … even before it affected them.”
Kelly grew up around the southern beaches of Sydney, but now lives in Orange, in central-west NSW. She has always written, but university and raising two boys rattled her creative confidence. Instead she ”fell into work as a book editor”, which eventually led her back to thinking she could write books.
In her second novel she wanted to explore the idea of how life at home continued even while there was a war on: how relationships developed, how children were still at school, how jobs were maintained on the home front, or the effects of a drought that crippled the country. More than 30 million sheep were lost between 1939 and 1945 and many farmers lost everything.
”I had no idea about the drought at that time,” Kelly says. ”Things like that excite me. How could we not know? How could we forget about what’s happening at home? There’s a whole other life that’s still going on.”
The concept of love of country is one that interests Kelly. ”When we think about Australians at war we think about that love of country,” she says. ”And when we think about love of country we also think about people on the land, what they might go through in a drought. The two just seemed to intertwine.”
Kelly says Australians tend to look at their history with ”big broad brush strokes with slogans attached. And that gets confused because we’ve got politicians and corporations who attach themselves to those slogans”.
”What fascinates me as a writer is Australia and who we are and why we are who we are, and a great love of country that’s got nothing to do with politicians or corporations.”
Kelly’s interest in historical fiction began when she ghost-wrote the memoir of Ernest Brough, Dangerous Days: A Digger’s Great Escape, about his escape from a prison camp in Austria and his experiences as a Rat of Tobruk during World War II.
”Ern’s real-life experiences burnt into my soul and I knew there were stories to be told about the wars,” she says.
She first thought about telling stories as a 12-year-old. ”I remember writing a poem and realising for the first time that I could make pictures out of words,” she says. ”That was very exciting.”
But she started in book publishing when she returned to work after having children. Working with other writers ”reignited my passion for writing”, she says. ”When I finally decided to do it myself, the words screamed out of me.”
There’s a section of the novel in which Gordon, who is a geologist, moves to Canberra after the war to work for the then CSIR, the precursor to the CSIRO. It doesn’t paint the capital city in a particularly good light.
”It’s not called Bush City for nothing,” she writes. ”The centre of town, where the shops are, is not more than two miles wide. Who else has a capital city like this one? No one in the streets, all shut up in their offices napping for their country, around an artificial lake that famously hasn’t been built yet because of this flaming war … This isn’t a town. I don’t know what this alien place is … how can anyone live here? … I’ve got to get out of Canberra.”
Kelly laughs. ”I’m terrible, aren’t I?” she says. ”I did spend a lot of time in Canberra as a kid so my view of the place was probably coloured by that. Sorry!”
This Red Earth by Kim Kelly is published by Macmillan, $27.99.
The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.