Vivienne Kelly’s first novel, Cooee, takes the reader into the world of thoroughly unreliable narrator Isobel and her fractured family. Isobel pines for her second husband, the charismatic Max, moons over her beloved granddaughter Sophie and distant son Dominic, and views the rest of her clan (placid daughter Kate, mild-mannered ex-husband Steve, bossy big sister Zoe) with withering distaste. Toni Jordan, the first author to be featured in our Readings series on new and emerging Australian authors (sponsored by CAL) spoke to our final author for 2008 for Readings.
Partway through Vivienne Kelly’s enthralling debut novel, the narrator, architect Isobel Weaving, stands on a vacant block of land in Hawthorn surveying the site. She’s been commissioned to design a home for a client who will become her husband. ‘The house sprang around me. Stairs flowed in shallow curves; doorways unfolded; space crystallised into shapes; my head hummed with the rhythms of it … I was practically orgasmic with it.’ She has already constructed her home in her mind.
Cooee is a story about constructions: Isobel designs her relationships, her family and her own character. She makes these things with her bare hands and force of will, but as her delusions are gradually and cleverly revealed, we come to realise that the life Isobel has built is a Hollywood set that bears little resemblance to the realities behind it. Vivienne Kelly, the master architect behind Cooee, might be a debut novelist – but this witty, layered work is clearly not that of a beginner.
‘I’ve always written,’ Kelly says. ‘On and off, all my life. There are times when I’ve been busy and I’ve had small children and things like that, and there hasn’t been much writing going on, but I’ve always sort of come back to it.’ There are previous novels tucked away in her bottom drawer, but ‘they were written a while ago and I honestly don’t think they’re very good,’ she says. ‘I think for most writers there’s a training ground they go through. For most of us, we write a few duds first.’ But Kelly soon realised there was something special about Cooee. ‘When I got about halfway through it I thought, I’m hitting my straps here. I felt at ease with it in a way I hadn’t felt before. Very tentatively, I thought this might be okay.’
Novels aren’t Kelly’s only skill: last year, her short story ‘Passion Fruit’ was included in the anthology Best Australian Stories 2007, and this year her story ‘The Third Child’ won the highly-competitive Australian Women’s Weekly short story competition. She’s also written ‘lots of plays that I’m pretty sure aren’t any good’ and a piece of musical theatre called ‘POETS Day’, about the lives of six people in an office (POETS being, obviously, an acronym for Piss Off Early Tomorrow’s Saturday). ‘The music was written by a very talented composer called Matthew Weekes, and the first act was performed at Monash University,’ she says, but it didn’t progress any further. ‘We tried to get funding for it,’ Kelly says. ‘It’s just so difficult.’
Writing for the stage was an important step in Kelly’s professional journey. ‘What writing plays did for me was it helped me a lot, I think, with the rhythms of speech, and when I came to write some of the conversations in Cooee, it felt like writing a play sometimes. You can sort of hear it in your head.’
We’re sitting in the café at Readings Hawthorn – an apt choice, as key parts of the novel are set in the surrounding tree-lined streets. Kelly is warm and generous, and still a little stunned at her first novel being bought by Scribe, one of Australia’s most respected publishers and the 2008 Small Publisher of the Year. She’s worked as an academic and university administrator and has never been an architect. She seems nothing at all like the high-handed, morally flexible Isobel, but if she were, she surely wouldn’t admit it. ‘It is a totally un-autobiographical novel,’ Kelly laughs. ‘I hope I’m not like that.’
Isobel Weaving chose an unlikely time to appear to Kelly. ‘I was actually writing a PhD thesis [about myth and history in Australia] and I got to the second half and it was driving me absolutely mad,’ Kelly says. ‘I just thought, look, this is my opportunity. I’ve got time off work. I’ll just spend an hour or two every morning trying to write a novel. Just go for it.’
Although Cooee is utterly entertaining and darkly funny, Isobel is certainly a handful. ‘Isobel definitely was a very consuming person to be around,’ Kelly says. ‘Her voice just filled my head. I’d honestly feel like saying, Just go away. I don’t want you at the moment. I did miss her [when I finished the novel], but not too much.’
Over the course of two years, that hour or two each morning Kelly spent with Isobel Weaving and her family became Cooee. She finished the novel in early 2007 and then sent it to her cousin, the respected editor and children’s writer Penny Matthews. ‘I wrote to Penny and said, I finished it but I don’t know what to do with it. Nobody accepts unsolicited manuscripts anymore,’ Kelly says. Matthews introduced Kelly to the Curtis Brown literary agency who took the novel on, but Kelly still wasn’t getting carried away. ‘I just said to myself: don’t get excited,’ she recalls. ‘This could go anywhere or nowhere. I’ve had a lot of rejection slips over the years.’
It wasn’t until she’d received the offer from Scribe, in a phone call at home at the end of last year, that she allowed herself to celebrate. During that call, when Kelly’s agent talked about the editing and publication process that Cooee would go through at Scribe, Kelly had one worry. ‘I knew nothing at all about publishing. This is how naïve I was,’ Kelly laughs. ‘I was sitting there holding the telephone receiver and I was thinking: I’m going to have to tell this terribly nice lady that I can’t afford any of this. And then she said: you know they’ll pay you. And I just thought this is really amazing.’ Then she went out and bought a bottle of champagne, but also ‘hyperventilated for about two days.’
Kelly has never studied creative writing formally, but she’s spent her life devoted to learning. As well as her PhD, she has an undergraduate degree in English language and literature, a Masters in English literature and she tutored for three years at Melbourne University. (‘This is about a hundred years ago, mind you,’ Kelly adds.)
With such an academic background, it might take a while for family and friends to adjust to Vivienne Kelly, novelist. ‘They’re just a bit bewildered,’ she says. ‘I’ve been a closet writer all my life, because I suppose I was just shy about it, and it’s a bit boring and silly when you have someone who’s already writing and never gets published. You don’t sort of go around advertising it.’ Her family and friends will simply have to get used to it. On the strength of Cooee, Vivienne Kelly will be a novelist for quite a while.
Toni Jordan is the author of Addition.