Interview by Nicole Melanson ~
Kali Napier is a former anthropologist, who worked in Bangladesh on gender programs before moving home to Australia where she undertook Indigenous family history research for the Queensland government and worked in Native Title in the Mid-West of Western Australia, the setting for The Secrets at Ocean’s Edge. The novel was longlisted for the Bath Novel Award, as was her first manuscript — also a finalist in the Hachette Australia Manuscript Development Program.
Kali is currently an MPhil candidate in creative writing at The University of Queensland. When not writing, studying or working, she parents her two children, binge-watches Outlander, and drinks sangria with friends.
What’s your book about, Kali?
1932. Ernie and Lily Hass, and their daughter, Girlie, have lost almost everything in the Depression; all they have keeping their small family together are their secrets. Abandoning their failing wheat farm and small-town gossip, they make a new start on the west coast of Australia where they begin to build a summer guesthouse. But forming new alliances with the locals isn’t easy.
Into the Hasses’ new life wanders Lily’s shell-shocked brother, Tommy, after three harrowing years on the road following his incarceration. Tommy is seeking answers that will cut to the heart of who Ernie, Lily, and Girlie really are.
You drew inspiration for this novel from your own family history. Were there any limitations associated with that approach?
The story was inspired by an article I read about the Great Emu War, which took place in Western Australia, between October and December 1932. The Australian Artillery was brought in with Lewis machine guns to cull the emus destroying farmers’ wheat crops. The emus won!
I started wondering about the lingering effects of war on men who no longer had a war to fight, and the ongoing fallout for their wives and children. So I had a time period and theme for my novel, but no characters.
I remembered some basic family history research I had done years before on my father’s maternal family. I’d discovered two newspaper articles about my great grandfather who’d become bankrupt during the Depression, moving to Dongarra to start a new business after a suspicious house fire in Perenjori. That is all I knew about him. There are no family stories passed down due to the silencing that comes with second marriages, estrangement, and the institutionalisation of children in homes. This gave me full license to use my imagination to develop the story. My great grandfather’s circumstances became Ernie’s, as I tried to answer this question: What happens to your second chance when the past catches up with you?
This story is about secrets, which means lots of layers and a precisely paced reveal. How strict did you have to be with plotting?
My initial draft was fast and furious. The story climax appeared immediately as soon as I had a setting and theme, and the four characters fell out of that. I worked my way backwards to find out how they might reach that point. I knew I wanted Lily to have the most chapters, then Girlie, Ernie, and lastly, Tommy. Though there are four points of view, it is really Lily’s story.
I did enough research to have a basic framework for the setting, including the historical social attitudes, leisure and entertainment, occupations, community institutions, and events that occurred in that place at that time.
Once I started writing, the flashbacks to 1919 and 1926 were a surprise, as I’d intended to set the story wholly in 1932. It wasn’t until much later drafts, and through research, that I learned how these flashbacks related to the present, and the secrets that were hidden within them.
Your novel is set during the Depression and there’s not a lot of light in it. Was it difficult spending so much time in that world?
I’m a West Australian who’s lived over east for ten years, so it wasn’t a hardship for me at all to dwell by the beach in WA in my imagination. The light in WA has a different quality to anywhere else. It is intense and expansive. In the book, Tommy feels like he needs anchoring to his physical body otherwise he will dissolve into the light.
The darkness in my novel comes when my characters dwell within themselves, in their hidden shames, or shadow side, so that they’re not fully living in the present.
For me, the Depression era represents this idea of being caught between the light and darkness. The characters are living between wars, still feeling the lingering effects of trauma. But there is a great deal of community spirit in the book, which lightens the hardships. There was so much going on in small towns at the time: the Country Women’s Association, euchre and dances, sporting fixtures, progress associations, church.
You’ve made your characters sympathetic, if not entirely “likeable”. Was that a hard balance to strike?
Short answer: yes. The most recalcitrant character was Tommy. From the earliest draft, readers responded with “poor Tommy”. He was the character I hated most! In ensuing drafts, I laid on the malevolence in his character, but to no avail… I finally resigned myself to him being the most sympathetic character.
Lily was initially very cold and unlikeable. This is essential to her character, as a protective mechanism to cope with her losses. But I had to bring her motivation to the surface, so that the reader might relate to why she appeared uncaring towards her daughter Girlie.
Your Aboriginal characters are largely lacking overt flaws. Did you consciously exercise caution in representing Indigenous culture?
I did exercise caution in representing Indigenous culture, recognising that Indigenous stories are not mine to tell. There are Indigenous authors, established and emerging, better placed to tell these stories and to decide how much to tell a wider audience.
I was also conscious of not drawing on the patronising “white saviour” archetype. Lily makes clear her stance on what was then termed the “Aboriginal Problem” in a way that is historically authentic, though quite sympathetic for the time, when racism was more overt than it is now.
The Aboriginal family in the book, the Feehelys, might seem to not have any flaws. However, I conceived them as a mirror family to the Hasses. We mostly see Ruby Feehely. As a child, like Girlie, her flaws are yet to develop and become explicit. But we get a sense the Feehelys are as conflicted as the Hasses, especially as Mrs. Feehely keeps her own secrets from her husband. Ruby becomes fearful, having to carry the burden of her parents’ secrets, just as Girlie had to for hers.
Lastly, where can we buy your book?
The Secrets at Ocean’s Edge is available in paperback, ebook, and audio book formats.
Thank you, Kali Napier!
— Nicole Melanson
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