This is an interview with Kim Kelly, author of several books, most recently the novel Jewel Sea.
Jewel Sea is the story of the Koombana, Australia's forgotten Titanic tale, a narrative of ambition and greed at the end of the empire, and one perfect, cursed pearl. To read the first chapter for free, click here.
Here, in conversation with our Content Director Liam Pieper she discusses: Jewel Sea, the legend that inspired it, the supernatural, and shining a light on forgotten corners of history.
Let’s start with an embarrassing admission - this is the first time I’ve encountered the story of the Koombana. How is it that such an intriguing piece of history has fallen off the record? When did you discover it, and when did you know you would write a novel about it?
Well, I have to admit I’d never heard of the disappearance of the Koombana, either – and that’s an embarrassing enough admission for a devoted Australian history magpie like me.
I only discovered the story by happy accident, trawling Goodreads one rainy afternoon a couple of years ago, looking for something interesting to lose myself in, when I stumbled across Annie Boyd’s marvellous history of the ship, Koombana Days. I don’t know if it was the photograph of the handsome sailor lads on the cover or the magical sound of the name of the ship, but this story seemed to call me from the first. I mean, here was Australia’s worst civilian maritime disaster – the breathtakingly tragic loss of a luxurious, state-of-art coastal liner – and I’d had no idea it had ever occurred.
From that moment, I had to get my hands on Annie’s book and find out all about this ship, as well as the violent storm that took her and all her passengers to the bottom of the sea, never to be found. Almost straightaway, though, in my fossicking, I also discovered the legend of a cursed pearl that was said to have been aboard her on her fateful last voyage. Suddenly, I was a lot more than intrigued – I just knew I’d have write a story about the Koombana myself.
The SS. Koombana
But why did such a fascinating tale fall from popular memory? Perhaps, as it happened in March 1912, just a month before the Titanic sank, it was so eclipsed in the news of the day that it seemed a tame event by comparison. More cynically, I do wonder if its having happened on the west coast of Australia might have had something to do with it going by the wayside as well – we can be a bit blinkered to anything that doesn’t happen in Sydney or Melbourne sometimes, can’t we? Perhaps, too, it happened at a time when these kinds of misadventures were less sensationalised.
When I set off down the rabbit hole of research, it seemed to me that there were more traces of the legend of the pearl than facts about the ship. There was something about the loss of the story itself that compelled me to want to reimagine it, too – to acknowledge those who lost their lives that terrible day.
Let’s talk about the legend of the cursed pearl. I love me a good cursed treasure. There aren’t enough of them these days. There is something so early-20th century about a cursed pearl, that swash-buckling kind of age where the British Empire was starting to crumble, and the greed, hubris and ambition that had driven it kind of cascaded all over pop culture. As an author, a narrative device that’s both poignant and, well, fun, must have been hard to resist?
Fun indeedy. I’ve been smitten with tales of evil jewellery since watching the Hope Diamond episode on the TV series ‘In Search Of…’ when I was a child in the 70s – Leonard Nimoy convincing me of its deadly curse. But these tales, of course, were popular inventions of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when all things occult were fashionable, and when the price of a gem could be upped considerably with a little nasty provenance.
There certainly was something nastily grasping about fag-end of Empire wealth – a meanness that contrasted sharply against Edwardian elegance. All those dreamy, classical lines, that air of Arcadian ease – just before the heavy artillery of the First World War rolled in to smash it away for good.
That sense of impending chaos is very much the energy of my pearl – a retributive force, a maelstrom on the build, a natural justice coming for the wilfully blind and greedy. I’d had little idea of the extent of the money swashing up and down the coast of Western Australia at that time – the pearl barons, the gold miners, the cattle kings – but neither did I know much about the frontier wars waged across the Kimberley and the Pilbara by those desperate to keep these invaders out.
These dim corners of our history, these things we don’t like to remember, are the places I like to poke my little torch into.
And yes, the pearl seemed perfect for that purpose. As much as it was an irresistibly entertaining idea, it held a serious question: why would a pearl sink a ship full of otherwise innocent travellers? The answer I found there turned out to be both sad and a little existentially frightening, but oddest of all for me is that this pearl explains itself directly to the reader. I am so not a fantasy writer or one who thinks of magic as anything more than a little mischief, but here I was channelling the voice of a pearl – seriously. I remember telling my husband and sons about it and asking them: ‘Am I mad?’ They said: ‘Yes. And you must do this thing.’
I wanted to go right inside a legend while I was there, and have a close look at that great Australian tradition of yarning, that telling of the tall tale, and how we build these little icons of story for ourselves. I had a lovely time searching through old newspaper and magazine articles on this Roseate Pearl, and found no two tales told alike there. The pearl makes an appearance in that master tall-tale-teller Ion Idriess’s Forty Fathoms Deep, too – naturally. And of course there was Steinbeck’s mesmerising fable, The Pearl.
The mystical power of shiny minerals runs deep through us somehow, although I should warn readers that the magic in Jewel Sea is not what it at first appears. Nothing is, really.
I think “Am I mad” is a question every good writer must ask themselves on the regular.
Always, yes, and always a little fearful, too – you know, I’ve worked as a book editor for the past twenty years, so I’ve seen more than fifty shades of madness among the fold. I suppose by that question, ‘Am I mad?’ I mean, ‘Can I pull this off?’ If you’re not asking yourself this question, you’re really not pushing the envelope, hey? This pearly envelope, though, didn’t require so much a push as a huge leap from anything I’d written before. Wonderfully terrifying.
I’m glad you brought up Steinbeck’s fable, The Pearl. That work had come to be regarded as one of Steinbeck’s great moralising tales warning against greed, and the assumed value that we place on various substances and people – the way humanity allows itself to be destroyed by avarice and untrammelled drive for acquisition, so that spirituality, the natural world, and non-Anglophone cultural heritage all fall to the wayside. Am I seeing some parallels here?
Yes, there surely are parallels in the ideas that drive Jewel Sea and The Pearl, but Steinbeck’s story wasn’t a direct inspiration for mine – in fact, it only began to ring its bell for me towards the end of my first draft. My fable grew from that original wonder about evil pearly motives and retributive justice, and how a similar set of social and political complacencies and disconnections from the natural world are sending us on a course towards untold destruction once more. In the world of Jewel Sea, it’s the coming of the Great War; for us today, it’s the looming climate crisis. Both involve deadly storms.
Unlike Steinbeck’s The Pearl, my story seeks to paint a picture of a multicultural fabric in all its colours and economic-chessboard patterns, a picture of Australia – a snapshot of our excesses too. That idea of the snapshot, the familiar but otherworldly glimpse, came to me first, and that’s why I began the novel with an epigraph taken from Keats’ ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ – ‘What leaf-fring’d legend haunts about thy shape…’ – a picture that provokes us to all manner of wonder, and a motif that weaves its way through the whole narrative. A tale of lovers and thieves and, again unlike Steinbeck, steeped in romanticism – that seductive, very gorgeous thread of our most dominant culture that thrills and blinds at once.
I’d like to ask you about the dim corner of history that you went poking in to write this story. Did you find anything along that way that completely changed how this story was going to take shape? And (forgive me for mixing metaphors here) when poking about with this torch of yours – do you find it more exciting as an author to find some hidden fact in the darkness? Or when the darkness remains impenetrable and gives you an opportunity to fill it with your own creation?
Loads of serendipitous finds shaped Jewel Sea – and that’s the way I like to roll with research. I don’t read great piles of tomes before setting out. I strike the page with my characters’ voices and let them drive the story, and as they do, they drive my research, too.
For example, according to most versions of the legend, a real-life pearl dealer, Abraham de Vahl Davis, was the one who was said to have brought the cursed pearl aboard the Koombana, and it was his character that emerged first on the page for me – quite quickly and compellingly, too. But why would a man such as Davis – sensible and scrupulous, devoutly religious and universally respected in his business – suddenly decide he should purchase a stolen pearl, and an infamous one at that? In searching for some kind of answer through the newspapers of the day, I discovered he’d just been through a very public and humiliating divorce, and there was fiction bingo – a whole bunch of vulnerabilities and motives for a crazy deal appeared.
Abraham de Vahl Davis, pictured with his son.
Often answers can’t be found at all, though, no matter how hard we dig for them. The saddest note here involves a nameless Aboriginal prisoner who was also aboard the ship at the time. Who was he? Where was he from? The Kimberley or the Pilbara? What was his crime, apart from being on the wrong side of the frontier?
Saddest of all, in researching the racial conflict and the theft of land from the traditional custodians of the Nor’West, I came across quite a few references to a massacre that occurred at a place called Mowla Creek, but I couldn’t find a precise date for the crime. Imagine that! As many as perhaps 300 people killed there and not one policeman or pastoralist thought to record the precise date? Er, right. Nothing like whitewash to hide unsightly darknesses, is there? In making reference to Mowla Creek, or any such travesties in any of my fictions, I hope to push it into popular consciousness – or into our consciences – however small and clumsy my attempt at a push might be.
None of my character creations are ever intended to be definitive, though, and in a strange way I don’t really consider them to be mine. They are themselves (not mad at all, I just happen to have many imaginary friends), and I hope to make others want to know more about their world. I hope mine is a little torch for curiosity and empathy, rather than an instructive one – let’s leave the teaching to the irresistible powers of the pearl, hmm?
Let’s change tack for a minute and talk about your back-catalogue. By my count, Jewel Sea is approximately the millionth book you’ve written. Firstly, do you have any secrets for other writers on maintaining such a healthy rate of production?
I was tortured by anxiety for about the first thirty-five years of my life, to sometimes a quite debilitating extent, so the only secrets here were the ones I kept about my writing. By the time I did summon the courage to open that door, to let others see my work, stories immediately began charging out. I don’t see that door ever closing now. To chuck another metaphor into the mix, I have red shoes on the brain these days. They’ll have to guillotine me to stop me from writing. Actually, I have a ridiculously well-stuffed story sketch file on my laptop that contains more ideas for novels than I have years left alive to write them.
You’ve recently been writing in the novella form - a notoriously tricky length to work with. How do you make it work for you?
Perhaps that feeling of pressure to get these stories out is most responsible for the shift. If I look at my six novels in a bunch, my language gets tighter with every crack at it, my brushstrokes firmer. I also become braver each time with form – playing with voice and structure and the bounds of genre – and that is enormous fun. But really, I don’t think I’ll ever be clever enough to deliberately set out to write this or that type of story. Somehow the story works its way through me and simply is what it is when I get to the end of it. A bit of magic in itself, I suppose – my dreams splashed down across the page. Dreams that are, of course, a bit of an unholy mess at first, demanding the sternest of edits from me before I press send to publisher, but I am addicted to the exhilaration of letting the story – the characters – have their way with me. I hope I’m lucky enough to be able to keep seeing them made into books, to be read and hopefully loved – there’s no thrill quite like that one.
My advice to other writers? Always be writing something, no matter how mad or sad or bad you feel. The only thing madder than writing, for a writer, is not writing, no matter where you are along your voyage with words. Keep learning, keep studying, plunder the magic of other writers but take care to make it your own. Have the courage to keep questing for what it is you want to say in the knowledge that you’ll never quite say it just the way you meant to. You’ll never be finished. (Cue evil laughter.)
Evil laughter is usually a wonderful place to finish an interview. Before we sign off, is there anything you’d like to add, or that you’d like people to know about Jewel Sea?
I guess there is one invisible but rather fabulous aspect of Jewel Sea I’d love your readers to know about, and that’s that it probably wouldn’t have been published at all if not for The Author People.
My first four novels saw me placed into the historical-romantic-disposable-chick-lit marketing box and it was a box that was never quite a comfortable fit. My work is maybe a bit too playful, and sometimes probably too political too, to thrive in the discount department store world of so-called ‘women’s fiction’ where a greater adherence to convention is more desirable.
My stories are magpie nests full of heart and wonder and excitement at what words can do, and they’re only going to become more eclectic and experimental. That my publisher at The Author People – the amazing Lou Johnson – is willing to see where these stories go, and take them to a global audience, is a whole other kind of magic. There is no sweeter luck than finding a publisher who truly believes in your work.
And perhaps one last thing before I go. You know how I just mentioned my grappling with the beast that is anxiety? Well, I’d like to tell any similarly afflicted writers out there that writing has also been the best way for me to get that beast under control. The more I write, the better I get at writing, and that has fed my confidence in expressing myself in all kinds of other ways. Only a few years ago, I couldn’t have spoken at my own book launch, but now I can be found wittering on to rooms full of friendly strangers at libraries and festivals, over the radio and on excellent blogs such as this one. I even give workshops to other writers – unsupervised! Sometimes I still tremble and stumble with fear, but it seems the more I write, the more I dare myself, and the more courage I have.
This is a Writers Bloc Interview, part of a series of discussions with some of the most exciting writers from Australia and the world. To read more like this, click here.
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