I had the amazing opportunity to listen to Kit Fennessy talk about his books and writing at my local library recently. He is such a charismatic speaker and is wonderful to listen to. I also feel honoured that, when I reached out to him, Kit agreed to do an interview with me!
Buckle up my dear bibliophiles, as Kit is a man of many words but he has many interesting things to say including some wonderful advice!
Amy: Hello Kit and thank you for taking the time to answer some of my questions.
Kit: It’s more than my pleasure, Amy the Zany Bibliophile. I may wax a little loquacious in my responses, but please take it as a compliment as I’m so thrilled to be here in your pages…
A: What was your favourite book as a child and why?
K: Hmm. (Thinks to self.)
Well, I’ll tell you one thing. My older brother, James, is a multi-millionaire who lives in America. I had an appalling distaste for his completely unimaginative choices in books; I particularly detested his favourites, ‘the Hardy Boys’. Ugh. What a bunch of dead heads (Ha ha! – only joking… not really).
Still, he’s an unimaginative millionaire, and I’m a struggling writer, so go figure.
Not that I’m bitter.
I recall having the flame of literature lit by the discovery of a book in my primary school library titled ‘the Last Battle’. It’s quite an obscure book, the very last in the Narnia series by CS Lewis; by accident I read the last one first. It had a lot about a monkey dressing a donkey up to look like a lion to impress everyone that the donkey was Aslan – some kind of Christian analogy, I assume.
I found the rest in the series were never quite as bizarre or arcane, though I still enjoyed the LOT as a young Christian youth with an under-developed brain. I even read ‘the Magician’s Nephew’ ahead of ‘the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe’… ‘the Magician’s Nephew’, incidentally, (badly) explains everything about parallel universes.
Anyway, my mum was a teacher, so she kind of channelled my reading – I suppose.
Though actually, if I’m entirely honest, the single greatest book of my childhood experience was one called ‘Down with Skool’ by Geoffrey Willans and illustrated by William Serle. It’s a little hand book about being a boy in a private boys’ school in Britain in the 50s, with Latin masters, and the cane, maths, religion, compulsory sport, and all of the things that go on in those mad pressure cookers that are private boys (and girls) schools. The hero, Molesworth I, who wrote this instruction manual couldn’t spell, the thing was full of drawings, and it was very, very funny indeed. I am kind of old (47), and was not only at the tipping point of the personal computer age, but also when Latin was still taught at my all boys school in Australia. His struggles were my struggles. I give Molesworth (the lead character) five hundred stars, particularly “becos” of his terrible spelling and the wonderful freedom it inculcated in me about the potential in writing. An absolute favourite.
A: What is your favourite genre to read and are there any new releases you are anticipating?
K: Hmm…. Hmmm hmmmmm hmmmmmmmmmmm.
That is a very curly question. Perhaps it’s better if I talk a bit about what I like and what I don’t like.
I like action. I love smart arses. I adore comedy. I quite like suspense, and if you can throw in something gruesome, I’m all yours.
So genres kind of crap-out, as far as I’m concerned. For example, I quite like Raymond Chandler, the famous hard-boiled detective novel writer, but mostly because of his beautiful turn of phrase. To say I like detective novels would never work.
What don’t I like?
“M’lud, if I may take the floor”.
Gosh, I’m a literature graduate from Melbourne Uni, though you’re not allowed to call it that anymore; you have to call it The University of Melbourne… a moot point, except it should be alphabeticised by the letter “T”.
I guess what I don’t like is “literature”. I like writing. I like to read. But as soon as our exalted leaders (literary critics) are swooning, my hackles are up. For example, Hilary Mantle’s ‘Wolf Hall’ (a best seller, and very thick) has won just about every award going around. “Wow”, everyone said “you have got to read this”. The critics said “she doesn’t just stand head and shoulders above the competition, she’s walking in on stilts”… etc.
I can’t agree. There’s no punctuation. Her thought flow is annoying to me as a reader. Plus, it is HIGHLY political and skewed toward English “anti-papists” (a sure sign of endorsement in the UK). She denigrates Sir Thomas More as a self flagellant nutter and exalts the Cromwells as politically correct porn stars.
Clearly, different strokes for different folks.
Alternatively, some like to roll around in pain, misery and social division. Not me. Give me light and life. With the occasional scare. And naked lady.
Am I looking forward to any blockbusters? Besides my new book, not really. Most of my new reading comes by surprise. I tend to research the old (by this I mean from the last ten years backwards) and chase up leads I’m given by people who say “have you ever read…?” For example, the best “new” book I’ve read lately is ‘Get Shorty’ by Elmore Leonard (written in 1990).
A: What do you do when you are not writing books? (e.g. hobbies)
K: Well, I run a business with my wife. It’s called Blue Vapours, and we’re a creative studio, which means we can do anything, though our clients tend to fall in a couple of categories. Mostly it’s graphic design, doing logos, corporate websites. I get to do a bit of professional writing. I’ve written editorials for House and Garden and Women’s Weekly magazines. I’ve even written an ad for Sea Monkeys, an ad I used to see in comics when I was a kid, and at which point I thought “I’ve finally made it”. (Editors’ Note – wrong!!)
But my hobbies?
Food – Big time. I write a food blog, I cook, I have a restaurant as a commercial client that I do social media for which is one of the joys of my life (it’s a very good restaurant).
Travel – it’s a great way to see the world, you get to meet other people, broaden your perspective, and eat (food again).
Dogs – well, they’re just the nicest people.
Sensate pursuits – this mostly relates to eating, drinking and lying down with naked women, but the less said the better, assumedly…
A: What inspired you to begin writing?
K: My mum. I can tell you the moment. I was really, really bored at about three years old. I’m the youngest of four, and everyone else had left for school, and it was just mum and me at home. She left me in the lounge room of our house on St Clems Rd in East Doncaster, and told me to do some writing while she tidied up. I lay on the floor with a crayon and wrote every letter I knew. I called her back and said “What does ‘a-b-z-k-r-d-z-l-i-e-n-z-k-I’ spell?”
“Abzkrdzlienzkl”, she replied.
From then on in, I was sold.
Still, you get your prods along the way.
I won a bunch of English prizes at high school. I had the most fantastic English teacher in year twelve; Clive O’Connell, who used to write the classical music reviews in the Age. He was a really dryly funny, sarcastic man, with a brain like a ferret – fast, febrile, and prone to biting the slow, rather hard.
Over the years I learnt to keep a diary, or a journal, which I’ve improved on and have been printing off in hard-bound covers for the last ten years or so.
Certainly I’ve had NO encouragement from the publishing industry. The odd bookseller has agreed to take my books and given me reviews (with huge thanks to Kerrie Window from Dymocks), but I wish I could be like William Goldman and say “if I’d never had any encouragement that would have been the end of me”. I’ve been the total opposite. I’ve kept on writing just to annoy the nay-sayers…
A: What experience since publishing your works has been your favourite so far?
K: I think probably the best thing I’ve had, besides the sense of self pride, the sales, or hearing a positive review, is getting genuine fan notes from readers. I had one recently from the Australian Embassy in Rome which pleased me, which I include below:
I have just finished reading your book “The Hidden People” (which you gave to Ambassador French with a personal message inside when you were here in Rome in September last year) and wanted to let you know how much I enjoyed it. It was so compelling and funny and sometimes scary (heart-stopping, especially re the trolls!!). I was sorry when I finished it and glad that it had a happy ending. It was so entertaining and I am sure I will read it again one day. Well done!
I always try and send my heroes fan notes as a result.
A: Your short stories and poems in Tales of the Dark are rather eclectic. Was this intentional or just a collection of short stories you had written at the time?
Ahhhh. You’ve found me out. It certainly is eclectic.
My short story compendiums tend to be “the best bits” of my journals. So you can wind up with a bit of everything – from a poem, a thought, a glib statement to a full short story… although there also might be a discarded shard from a novel as well.
But it’s curated; things are edited, you get the best bits, and bits that stand alone, and make sense of them to the reader… I hope.
That collection was originally put together to be a Christmas comic for friends, in between novels, but it wound up having over a hundred pages, so it got released as a book.
A: How did you come up with the idea for The Hidden People?
K: The first inspiration for the Hidden People was my reading of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I was totally dissatisfied with the reason the King went to war with the Queen of the fairies. I thought the entire premise was s.h.i.t. … even if it was all fantasy.
Meanwhile, I went on a trip to Iceland, and was thoroughly fascinated by the concept of the Huldufólk – or the Hidden People. They’re the unseen ones, who live inside mountains, and inside fairy stones. They even have a fairy minister in Iceland, to consult the hidden people if they are being transgressed.
I thought I’d write a novel that combined the two concepts; one where the King of the Faeries had a real reason to be annoyed at his wife, using Icelandic folklore.
It starts in New York… where my brother lives. I visited there too, and thought not only might it make my trip more tax deductable, but might also open myself to an American readership. If you’re a best seller in Australia, you might make tens of thousands of dollars. If you’re a best seller in America, you’re a millionaire every week… (lesson for the kids out there).
… so I made all the spelling American, which is more work than you’d believe, with their “trash cans” (bins) and “pavements” and “sidewalks” (footpaths), “debussing” (getting off a bus, or disembarking) and what-all.
I have yet to break the American market (another lesson for the kids out there).
Or the Australian market, really (a lesson for me, probably…)
A: How long do you usually spend working on one of your books?
K: My short story collections come from journals, which might be made over a couple of years. You choose the pieces you like, clean them up, get them proofread, then there’s production, layout, another proof. So in the wide sense it might be two or three years, but in a more immediate sense it might be three months?
I’ve written a couple of novels, and they’ve each taken me about three years, which I understand is par for the course.
The new novel I’m working on, I was working on for about two years (and getting nowhere), and then I threw the whole thing to one side and started from the start and have just been hammering it out; in the last two and a half months I’ve knocked out 75 thousand words and am nearing completion.
I’m following Stephen King’s advice from ‘On Writing’ (an excellent book – you should read it) – “If you take too long to write a book, it feels clunky, out of shape, like different people wrote it. You’re better off taking three months to write a book. One season. Then it feels whole, or organic.”
Clearly, I’m paraphrasing here, but I concur. I think this new book will be my best to date… I hope.
A: Can you give us a one sentence summary of each of your books?
K: I’ll do you one better; a one word summary.
The Floatation Tank – Exploratory.
Tales of the Dark – Fun.
The Hidden People – Exemplary.
Tales of Enlightenment* – Funnier.
The Cornerstone – Astounding.
A: Can you share any details about your next project?
K: Ah, you were anticipating me there.
So, my new novel ‘the Cornerstone’ is an action novel. I’ve set myself a few projects over the coming years, and the next novel I suspect I’ll write is a science fiction novel about a spacecraft that came and seeded the earth with life from an alien planet… but that’s a way off now.
‘The Cornerstone’ is built on a few ideas. I worked on an exhibition with the Melbourne Museum about ancient Mesopotamia, and met their curator and archaeologist Sarah Collins at the British Museum; she now works for the UAE. Anyway, she told me this great story about going on a dig and being evacuated by the US forces due to the invasion of Kuwait, and the story has grown from there.
Meanwhile, I also went to Italy a couple of years ago, and was fascinated by one of the Savoy palaces in Turin that had been a military school for daughters of men who had served, and then was robbed in the fifties while Italy’s economy was depressed.
And then the ideas came tumbling out…
A: After writing multiple books, what advice would you give to aspiring authors?
K: #1 (with a bullet) – Don’t give up.
Not only will you not get encouragement, you will be actively discouraged. People will tell you you’re wasting time, that you’re no good (even if you are), how you won’t make money, and you will be rejected by publishers… more than once.
Don’t write for financial reward. But if you can get paid, genius!
Write because it’s something you want to do.
Money is good, but you can make that doing things you hate. If you love writing, do it. And the more you do it, the better you will become. Think of writing like music. Not everyone gets to become the Rolling Stones. There are tonnes and tonnes of other bands out there. But the Rolling Stones – besides being in the right place at the right time – have something else. Longevity. Consistency. They keep playing. Play your heart out. Work on your craft. Talk to other musos. And get good! (and sleep with someone from the record company if it helps…!!)
#2 – Have a set time you write. Do it consistently. Like music practice.
End of sermon.
A: Is there anything else you would like my readers to know?
K: Now I think about it… yes!
I learned this from John Clarke. You might not know him, but he was a hero of mine, in a small way. A New Zealand Comic who has gone to God (i.e. kicked the bucket, passed, been given three yellow canaries, or – in the vernacular – died). He was a genuinely funny and kind fellow, who wrote books, was a fine actor and comedian and appeared in movies and on tv.
I had the special pleasure of knowing him because we would run into each other occasionally at a coffee shop near his office. Any time I said hi, he passed the time. If I wrote to him, he called me back. He gave me a quote for a book cover.
He was a thoroughly nice person.
But it wasn’t by accident.
You see, when he was a kid, he wrote a fan letter to one of his rugby heroes in New Zealand, and that player wrote back to him. And it made such a big difference to him, that he always did the same to people who were kind enough to write to him too.
So if you’re reading this, and you ever become famous, I’d like you to remember John Clarke, and write back to that kid who liked rugby, or whatever it is that you do that inspired that kind note, too.
And with that, I’ll take my leave, but with warm thanks and great encouragement to you, Amy the Zany Bibliophile. I’ll leave you and your readers with an Irish blessing:
May the road rise up to meet you
May the wind be always at your back
May the sun shine warm upon your face
And rains fall soft upon your fields.
Thank you so much again to Kit for taking the time to answer my questions!
Until next time bibliophiles!