About Vivienne Kelly
I was born and educated in Melbourne, where I’ve lived for most of my life and still do. I’ve had a number of jobs, but mostly I’ve worked in various kinds of university administration, mainly at Monash University and the University of Melbourne. I did a degree in English Language and Literature at Melbourne, and many years later I completed a PhD at Monash, in which I studied ways in which myth and history intersect with different kinds of performance. My first novel was Cooee, published in 2008.
I was born and bred in Melbourne, and I’ve lived here all my life, apart from brief spells here and there in England, especially London, where I went for what was then known as the Australian girl’s working holiday – a significant rite of passage – when I was nineteen or so. Ever since then I’ve deeply loved London, and always enjoy visiting it. I did a BA in English Language and Literature, and an MA in English Literature, both at the University of Melbourne, where I tutored for a little while; many years later I completed a PhD at Monash. In fact a good deal of my working life was spent at those two universities, but as an administrator rather than an academic. I’m married; I have three children and two granddaughters, as well as a large extended family (including two more granddaughters and a grandson) through my husband’s side of things.
Writing has always been of the first importance to me: I can’t remember a time when I didn’t write. Poems, plays, novels, stories, articles, diaries, bits and pieces. I wrote my first novel when I was twelve: it was a wildly improbable story about an English aristocratic family. When I was ten my parents gave me a small portable typewriter. I bought a Pitmans book called Teach Yourself Typing and set to with a good will. Not surprisingly, I never did quite manage proper touch typing, but I taught myself well enough to be able to achieve a reasonable speed and indeed was employed as a typist for a couple of times early in my career. And that sturdy little typewriter was beaten to death!
It’s hard to write on a part-time basis, as anyone knows who has tried it. Trying to fit in paid work, housework, cooking, and above all looking after small children, leaves little time and energy for anything else. And for writing you need time; you need energy. Although I continued to write through the years, it was sporadic and piecemeal: I grabbed time here and there, wherever I could, but it was never enough. Publication remained elusive until I was in my fifties, when Cooee was accepted. I’ll never forget the feeling. It was as if I’d been a sort of grunty, half-blind little mole, caught in dark underground tunnels all my life, and had at last emerged, blinking, into the sunlight. Now that I’ve retired from paid work, I no longer have to balance lots of priorities and imperatives, and being able to write whenever I like is a great luxury.
People often ask where writers get their ideas from. I can tell you the answer to this. Writers get their ideas from experience, from imagination, and from their own reading. These three streams blend and sometimes fuse, so that it’s often impossible quite to know where a particular thought has originated. Seeds frequently lie dormant for many years before shooting and flowering. I am sure a lot of my writing springs from my reading. Just as I’ve always written, I’ve always read. I was a precocious child and I read early and widely – largely, I now realise, because my extreme myopia wasn’t diagnosed until well after I started school; and by the time it was diagnosed and I was given glasses, the reading habit had been well and truly established. I was hopeless at all outdoor activities (and even indoor activities that required a modicum of vision): it was natural for me to curl up with a book, where I felt safe and happy, where I was transported to other places, other times. My mother used always to say Books are our friends, and I’ve never found any reason to disagree. There were lots of books in our house and I roamed through them pretty much at will. Children’s books were less numerous in those days, so, although I did read children’s books (inherited mainly from my older sister and brother), I read many adult books as well, with varying levels of comprehension. Australian books also were few and far between: most of the books I read were English. That was how it was in those days. I think the first classic I read was Jane Eyre, which held me spellbound. I read Rudyard Kipling, Richmal Crompton, Charles Dickens, Enid Blyton, Noel Streatfeild, Lorna Hill, Louisa Alcott, A.A. Milne. I loved Mary Grant Bruce and Ethel Turner, and cried every time I read Seven Little Australians. I read Lewis Carroll, Georgette Heyer, D.K. Broster, Edgar Allan Poe, Mary O’Hara, W.E. Johns, Jane Austen, Mazo de la Roche, Kenneth Grahame, Elizabeth Goudge, Susan Coolidge, R.M. Ballantyne, J.M. Barrie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Daphne du Maurier, Evelyn Waugh, Somerset Maugham, and many others. I got halfway through Gone with the Wind before my father to my indignation took it away from me and placed it out of reach on top of his wardrobe. Also all kinds of annuals and albums and compilations, poetry anthologies, short story collections, and plays. There was a big old library bus that used to visit the local shopping centre every Monday afternoon and I preyed on that too. I was undiscriminating, uncritical, and voracious.
I’d always read a lot and never thought much about a career, so it was natural that I should do an Arts degree with a major in English Literature. I adored the course. Nothing seemed better than reading books, talking about books, writing about books. From my undergraduate days comes my love of nineteenth-century novels, seventeenth-century poetry, Shakespeare, Chaucer, and much else besides. Great books are like great music: they are sustaining, enlightening, lovable, demanding, and ever-changing. Reading has played such a large part in my life, I cannot imagine living without it.
Photo: Nicholas Purcell