Working with Words: Kimberley Starr
We spoke with novelist Kimberley Starr about fan fiction, Seven Little Australians, meat pies, and the literary classic that needs an editor's red pen.
What was the first piece of writing that made you laugh or cry? (And why?)
My Year 5 school camp was at a place in New South Wales called Yarrahapinni, and that's where the climax of Ethel Turner’s Seven Little Australians is set. (Don’t read on if you don’t want spoilers!) One of the little Australians, Judy, gives her own life to save her little brother from a falling tree. It was so sudden, and it exposed so many of the fears that people have had about nature in Australia (although that wasn’t something I realised at the time) that even as a child, I had to go back and read over it a few times before I really understood what had happened. I’ve just gone back to check it again. It still moves me:
The crash shook the trees around, the very air seemed splintered. They had heard it – all the others – heard the wild cry and then the horrible thud. How their knees shook what blanched faces they had as they rushed towards the sound!
They lifted it off the little bodies – the long, silvered trunk with the gum dead and dried in streaks upon it. Judy was face downwards, her arms spread out…. Oh, the little dark, quiet head, the motionless body, in its pink, crushed frock, the small, thin, outspread hands!
I love the way that scene gets right into the interactions between Australians and their natural environment. I still wish I could will the life back into Judy.
Did you write during your childhood and during your teenage years? What did you write about?
I wrote my first short story for a Book Week competition when I was eight years old. I remember it being kind of fairy-taleish, but I don’t remember much about the plot. I do remember writing it on torn up bits of brown paper book-covering and stapling it so that it looked like a book.
In my junior high school years, I wrote what we could now call fan fiction. I and my friends – and the members of whatever rock band we were then fantasising about – would have wild, romantic adventures together. There was a lot of kissing and a fair bit of very tame sex. One memorable effort was long enough to fill three school exercise books and involved Duran Duran and a spaceship. I passed it around the class and loved watching reactions from the friends who doubled as characters.
I still keep a journal, but it’s a fictional one. I write down descriptions of places and events and emotions and try to keep to the voice of my characters.
Later in high school, I wrote my first novel manuscript. Perhaps moved by Judy’s death in Seven Little Australians, I wanted it to be a tragedy. My main character was 'very pale and almost beautiful'. She was well intentioned and misunderstood. In the end, she was supposed to throw herself off a train bridge and into the path of an oncoming train. Heartbroken. (I can’t actually remember why. I should go through the boxes I my parents’ garage and try to find out some time.)
What day jobs have you held throughout your life, and how have those experiences influenced your writing?
My first job was working in a bakery, which didn’t really inspire anything except a dread of meat pies. I can’t bite into one without remembering the bucket of slops I had to stir while they were being made. Then I worked for a long while in various fashion departments in Myer. I loved that job, with the opportunities it offered for first dibs at sales and the complete absence of buckets of slops.
My most significant job has been as a teacher. I’ve always thought you spend so much of your life at work, it matters to me to go to bed at the end of each day and think I’ve done something worthwhile. Teaching is a very fulfilling job, despite how difficult some students can be! The main character in Torched is also a teacher. She’s primary school and I’m high school but one element they have in common is how completely a job like teaching becomes part of your identity. We get to meet a variety of people, to feel part of a community, and to have influence over people’s lives. We also get to tell people they have to read books!
If you weren’t writing, what do you think you’d be doing instead?
I tell some of my students that 'When I grow up, I’m going to be an archaeologist', which always makes them laugh. The archaeologist in Torched probably comes from that fantasy. It’s not realistic at all because I don’t really like getting my hands dirty. I think what I really meant was I want to grow up to be Indiana Jones. But someone already did that. (Didn’t he?)
What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?
'Write what you know.' I just don’t get that as a piece of advice. I mean, I do sometimes write what I know, but I’m just as likely to write what I don’t know but would like to find out about. 'Write what you are interested in' seems much better advice to me. Better still: 'write what your readers will be interested in'. If you realise you don’t know enough to make it live, then go and find it out! (I love research, especially when it involves travel.)
I know I’m far form the first person to say this, but I also dislike it when teachers tell students to avoid using the word 'said'. Student writing ends up with characters who 'expostulate' (excuse me?) or 'blurt' (ewwww) or even 'ejaculate' instead. Just don’t, people. There's nothing wrong with 'said'.
Have you ever kept a diary? Do you keep one now?
When I was a child, I kept a diary religiously. I found it really useful to read those pages when developing the voice of the teenage girl who was the narrator of my first novel (The Kingdom Where Nobody Dies). I still keep a journal, but it’s a fictional one. I write down descriptions of places and events and emotions and try to keep to the voice of my characters. Sometimes I find sections in there that I can move directly into my latest manuscript, but mostly it’s a way of exploring a character’s perspectives and perceptions.
It’s a strange document because when I read it, I can remember what I was feeling or what I saw that gave me those impressions, but I don’t think it would be very clear to anyone else at all. What my early traditional diaries and my current ones have in common is that I’ve always used them to try to find voice and perspective. When I was a child, I was trying to find my own. Now they are about character.
Which classic book/play/film/TV show do you consider overrated?
People will hate me for this, but I really dislike Anna Karenina. What I hated about it most was the ending. (Another spoiler alert!) Suffice to say that a train is involved. In Anna’s case I found it really, really frustrating. I wanted the novel to be about her pulling herself together. Then there’s a whole section of the book after the train scene where all we really hear about Anna is that her death was 'the death of a bad woman'. I don’t buy into the idea that only women can write convincing women, but I don’t think Tolstoy does women justice.
I also don’t really like To Kill a Mockingbird, but this might be because I’ve had to teach it so often it’s worn thin to me. And I have a private conviction that the looooooong start of Jane Eyre, where she’s an unhappy child for hours and hours of reading time, would have met more of a red pen in the hands of a modern editor and be better for it … but I don’t think I’m allowed to say that.
Do you have any strange writing habits, customs or superstitions?
I do my best writing early in the day, so I try to get up early before my mind is filled with other, more practical matters. I also think I write quite well when I’ve had a glass or two of wine. These preferences are, sadly, for a woman with a responsible job, not compatible.
Which artist, writer or character would you most like to have dinner with? (And what would you talk about?
I would like to have dinner with some of the Melbourne artists who work on the great street art that I used to love going to see before lockdown, and that I hope I will get back to exploring really soon. After dinner, I would like them to take me out and show me how to do it. I would like to climb ladders and flourish brushes and spray cans and stay out until I was covered in paint and completely satisfied.