Kaz Cooke is a cartoonist, author and broadcaster. She began her career as a cadet journalist at The Age, and soon began her cartoon strip Hermoine the Modern Girl.
Kaz is perhaps best known for her non-fiction works for which she has been ‘the Number One Advisor for Australian girls and women’. These include (and are by no means limited to):
- Up the Duff: The Real Guide to Pregnancy
- Real Gorgeous: The Truth About Body and Beauty
- Kidwrangling: Looking After Babies, Toddlers and Preschoolers
- Girl Stuff: Your Full-on Guide to the Teen Years, awarded the Australian Publishers Association’s General Non-fiction Book of the Year, the Australian Booksellers Association’s Booksellers Choice Award, and an honour prize from Children‘s Book Council of Australia.
In 2013 Kaz received a Creative Fellowship from the State Library of Victoria to create a fashion installation, Raiment and Regalia, which was a popular feature in the Library's Dome gallery exhibition.
In 2017 Kaz published Ada. Kaz has also published articles, cartoons and opinion pieces in the magazines Dolly, The Australian Women’s Weekly, Who and Cleo. She has also written for the Weekend Australian Magazine and The Canberra Times.
Nic Brasch: Kaz Cooke is a cartoonist, most notably is the creator of Hermoine, The Modern Girl, as well as the bestselling author of several guides for girls and women, including The Modern Girl's Guide to Everything, Up the Duff, The Baby Book, and Girl Stuff for both teens and preteens. Her latest work is the novel Ada about Ada Delroy and her bizarre vaudeville troupe. Kaz, welcome to The Garret.
Kaz Cooke: Thank you Nic, it's good to be here.
Nic: Which came first for you, a love for words or a love for pictures?
Kaz: Oh, words, for sure. My mum used to take me to the local library before I went to school, so probably 3 or 4 years old. And we went in her little Volkswagen Beetle, which had an inset parcel shelf that I could get into, and you had a limit of two books that you could bring home, and I would always have finished them – you know, kids' picture books – before we got home, because I loved reading so much.
Nic: Do you remember any particular early ones? Do you remember ones that stick in your mind?
Kaz: No, but it was the library or the op shop. So very soon, I was on a fairly solid diet of Enid Blyton. And then later, pulp mystery fiction and Modesty Blaze, and thrillers and that sort of thing. And as a teenager, I worked in a secondhand bookshop in a suburb of Melbourne.
Nic: Which suburb?
Kaz: It was in Sandringham and very bizarrely, and I think uniquely, that's not even a word, it was a comedy book shop. So the guy who had set it up wanted to specialise in comedy, and he was teaching people how to do stand-up. I never did, I was just the 15 year old working in the shop selling Mills & Boone to people. But I loved that. And that's how I found... because for me, books were very expensive, very difficult things to get a hold of. When I hear other writers saying ‘We had a house full of books’, I think ‘Oh, you bastard! How did you manage that?’ For me it was, how do I find books? That was my quest.
Nic: So when you were working there as a 15 year old, do you remember particular authors or books attracting your attention?
Kaz: Yes, very much so. I was intrigued by what other people wanted to read. And so these women would come in, often older women, with their shopping trolleys, and they would check the back inside cover of one of the, I don't know, maybe 1500 Mills & Boone romances that we'd have. And I couldn't work out, after the first week or so, why are they looking at the inside back cover, not looking at the title? So I went over, in a quiet moment in the shop - there were a lot of quiet moments, Nic - and had a look at one of the inside back covers. And it was full of signatures of these ladies. So, they couldn't remember what they'd already read.
Nic: Oh my goodness!
Kaz: But they put their signatures in the back, so they knew which ones they'd read, and that was fascinating to me.
Kaz: That they loved the formula of it so much that they wanted to keep reading them, but they couldn't remember which nurse had fallen for which doctor, or which outback ranger had... you know, anyway.
But for me, I was amazed at textbooks. I'd had not had much truck with history books or textbooks that weren't maths or something like that at school. And so... I was a very ignorant child. A lot of things came as a revelation to me, and the big one that affected me more than anything was discovering that there were funny books illustrated with cartoons.
And that tradition, which for me, the zenith of it I suppose was the books that I found by Geoffrey Willans, the Molesworth: How To Be Topp. Sort of the first satire of school life, Nigel Molesworth. So it was misspelt deliberately. It was very funny, it was very cheeky, it was poking fun at authority. And it was illustrated with the... And of course, I didn't know that pretty much the first cartoonist I fell across was the best one in the world, which was Ronald Searle. And then to find that he'd done the St. Trinian's drawings of schoolgirls. So to me, they were the first drawings, that was the first funny, but not cruel thing I'd seen directed at or about schoolgirls, who I think are a very maligned bunch in society, actually.
Kaz: And I just loved the way he made schoolgirls into these guerrilla fighters in gym slips, basically. Lipstick and gym slips.
And to this day, that's why I draw cartoons with a pointy nose, because I'd nicked that from Ronald Searle when I first started drawing. I thought, that's how you're supposed to do it. And then when I became a baby reporter at The Age, so I left school and within a month after year 12 I was working at The Age, and then met all of those blokes who were working there, and had a big chance to start my own cartooning career drawing very terrible things. But had enough time to develop it a bit, I think.
Nic: But when did you start both drawing and writing? While you were at school?
Kaz: Yeah. That's what I did, that's what I wanted to do. I kind of did the...
Nic: Both drawing and writing?
Kaz: Yeah, the school magazine. And I was drawing caricatures of teachers and kids, but mostly types. Mostly kind of a type, like posh parents, or a kid who was a bully or something like that. And I've still got some of those drawings. I hadn't seen them for decades. I look back on them the other day, and they were absolutely shocking. But gee, I loved doing it. And I can remember the feeling of ‘Oh, you can do that. You can actually make a living out of that’. That is, okay, well that's what I'd like to do then.
Nic: There's not a moment... was there a moment when you wanted to do something else?
Kaz: I think like a lot of kids I had that sort of... Maybe it was just because of Harrison Ford in Indiana Jones, but I think when I was a kid in the late 70s, I was a teenager, and I think a lot of us wanted to be archaeologists so that we could very gently brush things away and find a beautiful artefact. Very quietly, in the desert, and then have a romance.
Nic: Without realising that it takes six years of brushing before you find something.
Kaz: That didn't last long. Nice hats, I thought too.
Nic and Kaz: [Laughter]
Kaz: But you know, that was an era where you could have a career in journalism. It was unusual to also want to do cartooning. But from the time I was about 15 or 16, my pocket money would be spent every Sunday going to buy The National Times...
Nic: Oh, wow.
Kaz: And seeing the cartoons of Patrick Cooke and investigative journalism. I kind of, for some reason, I didn't think that I was going be an investigative journalist. But of course, when you start being a cadet journalist, you have to do the Jill of all trades thing.
Nic: Of course you do.
Kaz: Which I did very badly in sections like sport and finance. But it was a really, really exciting job to have, and you sort of... there was a series of three interviews that you had to go through. You were winnowed down. And I don't think I... I think one of the reasons I got through, it was a couple of thousand down to six, I think.
Nic: Yes. Very highly sought.
Kaz: I did not know that I should've been more scared, I think. And I remember, I did walk into the final interview, which was at the time with an acting editor. And I walked into his office, on my own. I was 18 year old, I was wearing my mum's dress, had two plaits on top of my head like Heidi. What? Anyway. And walked into his office, and those were the days, must've been 1979. He had eleven o'clock in the morning, a big whiskey, and he had a packet of Winnie Blues on the table on his huge desk, which was about as big as three of our kitchen tables at home, sucking on a fag. And I said, about the whiskey, ‘Is that cold tea or are you just trying to impress me?’ And to this day, I think that's why...
Nic: That's why you got that.
Kaz: I got the job, because I was just...
Nic: Cheeky humour.
Kaz: I'd been reading cheeky books in the bookshop.
Nic: So you talked about, you hinted at the male cartoonist who were there at that time. Who were they... on Ron Tandberg? Or who?
Kaz: Yeah, Ron Tandberg was there. Peter Nicholson, Les Tanner, who was really... Les Tanner also wrote very beautiful personal columns that have sort of been forgotten now. But I still think he was the best at that, and I think now, a lot of people write personal domestic-style columns, and they think that the beauty of them is in the fact that it's their life and they're writing about it. Sometimes that's true. But actually, what elevates those columns is to be a beautiful writer, or someone who has insights into that world, or can convey it in a way that is beautifully structured. I think John Clarke did it, I think Les Tanner did it, I think Erma Bombeck did it. But I think a lot of people think they're doing it.
Nic: Of course. Yes, yes.
Kaz: If that makes sense. But mostly, when you start out, you're doing a lot of... I mean, we were compiling the Muslim prayer times, and all the crap work.
Nic: The shipping news.
Kaz: Oh, sorry you asked me who the cartoonists were! And then there was also... Michael Leunig and John Spooner sat next to each other, and they had these little red conical shaped extendable lights, and they used to put them on their head and pretend they were Devo in the film clip ‘We are DEVO’. I thought they were pretty cool guys, and they were very kind to me. And I was drawing absolute crap. And it wasn't until I started to draw things about the life of a young woman and came up with Hermoine the Modern Girl, is how you'd pronounce it because I'd misspelt it. So it wasn't till J. K. Rowling did Harry Potter that a lot of people realised you pronounced it Hermione... Never mind.
But yeah, that was were Hermoine the Modern Girl came from. 1983 was the first cartoon.
Nic: And where did that appear?
Kaz: It appeared in the weekend section of The Age, which at the time was called Weekender, which had all the listings for where you could go out and what bands you could see.
Nic: So how did it appear? Did you go to the editor and say, ‘This is brilliant’, or did they come to you?
Kaz: Yes. ‘I'm tremendous. Why don't you run the...’ No. It was a little bit like, you were sitting there and someone would come over and go ‘Here is a boring story, can you liven it up with a cartoon?’ To which the answer really should always be no.
Kaz: But it was exactly that thing I'd done at school, which was drawing a type. And the first Hermoine cartoon was, her name was Hermoine Rage-Smythe, because that's original. So I remember drawing her with little spiky legs and little ankle boots, a mini dress, and huge earrings, which is what I was wearing. And that was the early 80s girl. So it was an affectionate send up, in a way, of that group.
Nic: But I'm trying to get my head around how they knew you could do this. You were there as a cadet doing this, which is mainly about writing. It was unusual.
Kaz: I think I must have just, I don't know the answer to that question. I think I must have...
Nic: Bugged them somehow.
Kaz: As I said, I don't know. No, I didn't. I did not ask for the job. I know I didn't do that. And that's it. I would've just been doodling all the time, because I did.
And when I got older and had other jobs and started writing books and then had a family, I didn't draw as much, because I had to choose. People used to say to me ‘Which would you choose?’ And I'd sort of look at them haughtily and say, ‘Well of course I don't have to choose, ha ha ha’. And then I did. So it ended up being more writing than drawing in the end. But I couldn't stop drawing then, I loved it.
And the really good cartoonist, Matthew Martin who I ended up meeting at The Sydney Morning Herald, he draws every day. He does a landscape or a cartoon or something, even if it's not for a job.
Kaz: And I think for some cartoonists it really is that like an artist, they have to do it. But I feel like mine really fell by the wayside. I am still drawing girls with a pointy nose, in the same sort of figure that all my jokes, or everything that I'm trying to say goes through her. So, let's hope I improved as a writer more than I did as a cartoonist.
Nic: [Laughter] How long were you at The Age for?
Kaz: I think it was seven years. Seven and a bit.
Nic: And what sort of work were you doing then after your...
Kaz: By the time I left, I was the editor of that weekend section. So I was in my mid-twenties, I guess. And they would not run a story on page three about a Christmas cabaret, because it was in a drag club. And I wasn't allowed to run a story about gay people connected to Christmas, one of the sub-editors complained, 1987. And I said, ‘Well, if you do that then I'm going to have to go’. And they went ‘Don't be ridiculous, of course you're not’. And then I did, because in 1987 it was sort of – and I'm not saying I was in any way a groundbreaking activist hero – I pretty much thought I could afford to stand on my principles, because I could get another job, and I did. I got another job at an independent paper. It was much safer than it has been for other people to make a stand at other times. And nobody knew either, Nic, that's the thing!
Nic: That's the problem, isn't it?
Kaz: Except the guy who said ‘Oh, you'd better go then’.
Nic: That's where you went wrong. If you're going to resign on a moral issue, you've got to let everybody know!
Kaz: What an idiot I am. Anyway.
Nic: So what was that independent paper, and what opportunities did you have there?
Kaz : That was Business Daily, and that was only on the streets for six weeks because Murdoch got hold of it and killed the distribution.
Ever since then, I've been a freelancer. I went straight to Darwin, because I had a story lined up to do in Darwin. And then I wrote, I think it was that... I think I'd already just, I think 1986, I had written my first book, which was The Modern Girl's Guide to Everything.
Nic: So I was going to ask you, how did that come about?
Kaz: Well that I did ask for. I walked into McPhee-Gribble, the feminist publishing office in Fitzroy. Diana Gribble and Hillary McPhee. And where you could always be guaranteed that somebody would say ‘Hello, love your shoes’.
Kaz: And they were fun to be around. And I walked in and said ‘Here are my cartoons’. I don't know what gave me the chutzpah to do that, but anyway, I did. I suppose I was 26 and it was in Fitzroy. And they said ‘No, we can't be publishing a book of just cartoons. You have to write something to go around it’.
And I was very influenced by a woman called Cynthia Heimel, who'd written a book called Sex Tips for Girls, which wasn't actually that, it was just, that was the title to make people buy it. But she was a very funny satirical writer about love and the way men and women are together. And I thought that was a really clever thing to do.
I did that, but not quite as funny as her. And not quite as useless, and I don't mean that as an insult, but I sort of wanted to be a bit useful as well. Then the second book was safe sex, The Modern Girl's Guide to Safe Sex, because it was the era of AIDS and this gateway thing of people were having, in those days, STDs. Now we call them STIs, sexually transmitted infections.
And I could remember actually doing the publicity for that book and being asked by the weatherman on a Sydney radio station who was filling in and interviewing me, and he was so horrified by a young woman writing a book about sex. It's basically how not to get a sexually transmitted disease, and why that was important, and how some of these infections could make you infertile or whatever, but without saying you're a terrible old scarlet woman if you have sex. Well he was not happy with that approach, and actually said to me on air, ‘How many of these diseases have you had? Have you had all of them? You look like you might've had all of them’.
Nic: Oh, no. Jeez.
Kaz: Yes, that was an interesting... Because I think I had been living in a bit of a feminist bubble, and there was a moment there in the 80s where we all thought it's just going to get better and better for women, and the window's open and we're all going stream in. Well, then they shut the window, and it wasn't quite like that. I was a bit dim, sadly.
Nic: So at what point did you... I mean from the very outset, this mixture of humour and advice and colour, it was there from the... was there a plan to be like that, or how did that come about?
Kaz: No, but it's a bit like in journalism. If you write a story about chickens, you will become the hen rounds person, and you will have to write all the chicken stories from now on. I also think it's because I kind of have the attention span of a grasshopper, so I've got to be entertained and find something, and I always see the ridiculous side of something first.
And then I can remember, I used to decide, is that a cartoon or is that something to write about? And it was usually pretty clear which it was. It was usually that the more serious things were something to write about, and the more ridiculous things that were very personal, like about falling in love, tended to lend themselves towards cartoons more.
I think I was also influenced by the women on, there was a page on The Age called Accent, and I worked on that for a while. And that was the feminist women's page. And then all the male editors said ‘We don't need that anymore, because we're finished with feminism. We've done that now, thank you’.
Nic: You've got what you want.
Kaz: And that went, and it was actually a great page, and they were terrifically talented writers. Deborah Foster, who's a Melbourne novelist, and Sally White who we used to call Gloria, Gloria Sleader.
So there were influences there as well, I think. But I think it was also because I really loved journalism. I really loved the idea of finding stuff out and letting people know, because I think I had been an extremely unsophisticated teenager, from a family that didn't really know how the world worked, or teach me how the world worked. So I used to come to most situations in ignorance. I can remember being a very young journalist, and people went out to dinner, and paid for it after work, which I just found extraordinary. And I can remember looking at the menu and the prices and thinking ‘What happens?’ I did not know. Had no concept of how we were going to pay for that.
So it was that kind of lack of knowledge, I suppose, and sophistication about the world. And then all my books tend to be the thing that I need to find out about. Like when I was pregnant, I wrote Up the Duff, and then it was too late, frankly. For me.
Nic: [Laughter] Well, speaking of that. It was, still remains, but huge success. Was it the right book at the right time? I mean there's...
Kaz: Well it's the only Australian book that's got the research in it. And I still go back to doctors every year if there's a change and I work with the Murdoch Children's Institute. And that's what journalism gave me, the ability to find, even if you're scared, you find the person who is at the top of their game of whatever they're doing, and you've got to go and ask them, ‘How does this work?’ And you know that your... is it condute or conduit? Condute, between the expert...
Kaz: I'm the conduit between the expert and their jargon and what they know, and the people who need to know it and have it presented in a way that is understandable and sometimes funny.
But, you know, there's some stuff about being pregnant that is not funny, so you have to be, for me, the style has to be friendly, but have enough gravitas about it. And I think that's what... Journalism allows you to go to have the guts to say ‘Tell me what's going on’, and the humility to have to say ‘I am the lowest common denominator in this situation’. That is, I know less than the expert, and I know less than people out there who are gonna be reading this story in the newspaper.
Nic: Right, ok. So you touched before, the key to journalism really is building relationships with experts and making contacts, isn't it?
Kaz: It was then. Now it's very often – not everybody, I think there are still some great journalists – but it's very much being fed press releases now. I see press releases that are unchanged, and that was such a no-no for us. We would, us, the people we were then, faced with the journalism today, would have just constantly been pressing our hands to our faces and screaming.
Nic: But that's because there's so many journalists now working in PR because it pays four times as much. So they write the articles...
Kaz: I think it's because, yeah but journalists have really time poor as well.
Nic: Totally and utterly.
Kaz: They're not given enough time to... And that's why stories like the vaccination story got completely out of hand, because the expert science reporters just weren't around anymore. And the whole story was really badly done. The internet made even more people saying what their public relations message was. I think we're only just starting to sort it out now, to be honest.
Nic: Were you surprised by the early success of your books? If you take Modern Girl's Guide to Everything, did you have high expectations? Or low expectations?
Kaz: I don't think I had any. I'm trying to explain to you how dim I was. I really was quite stupid!
Nic: Did they give an advance, or did you say, ‘Don't worry about it?’
Kaz: Yes, but I just would've said, ‘Oh that's lovely, thank you very much Mrs. Gribble’.
Kaz: Mrs. McPhee-Gribble. I was really grateful to be doing it. I just thought what a great thing to do. It's kind of like my wish had come true, from being that person sitting in the secondhand bookshop that, ‘oh you can make a living out of this’. And then I could.
But really, it was about hitting journalism in the 80s not because I was brilliant, it was just... I can remember them saying, ‘Now you get paid every week’. And I was like, great! And then they went, ‘And you go upstairs and you get this envelope, and you get cash in the envelope, a little bit of paper...’ And then my first holiday, they said ‘You can have six weeks off a year, and we pay you for those weeks, plus a 17 per cent loading’.
Nic: 17 and a half percent if I recall, yeah.
Kaz: Wow. So really, what an idiot. I just thought this is good, this'll be good for the next fifty or so years. But it turned out to be seven years.
Nic: Was there any backlash to, well let's say something like Up the Duff – a serious topic – was there backlash against the use of humour, and were people just thought you weren't taking it seriously?
Kaz: I think originally people found the title often... in a couple of interviews, people would say, ‘Why have you been so flippant?’ It's actually the best thing I did, was because it gave people the idea... but then what happens is, it can be harder to... to this day, people will say, ‘I thought that book was just funny, until I was pregnant and I read it. I didn't realise it had all that information in it’.
Nic: Was it meant for people who weren't pregnant already?
Nic: No, I wouldn't have thought.
Kaz: Some people have. But pretty much, most, it's fascinating. It depends on the personality, but the vast majority of people read it week by week, sometimes in bed with their partner. And even in the digital age, people want a pregnancy book. That's fascinating to me, that they want something that they can, to have and to hold, as I say.
Nic: Right. Do you keep a notebook of questions people ask you, for your various books? We've gone through your whole life up to this point through books, haven't we? How do you know what people want to know?
Kaz: That's a really good question. I probably haven't thought about that enough. Because they write to me, and ask, but mostly they don't. Mostly they're time poor and they say, ‘thank you very much’ and that's great. But it's because I didn't know. And if I hadn't kept the notes while I was pregnant, and kept the diary, which is a funny diary, I would've forgotten all of it. That's the thing about being pregnant. I think the brain does that to you, so you do it again.
Kaz: Ridiculous idea.
Nic: Indeed, indeed. You must have had some great comments and feedback over the years from people who've really helped you. What stands out in your mind?
Kaz: It's the girls who are grown into young women, or older woman who say, ‘I had an eating disorder, and Real Gorgeous changed my life’. Or ‘Girl Stuff changed the way that I thought about my body image, and I was really depressed’.
Those are moments that are often very emotional. Often people will take you aside at an event and tell you. And probably the one that made the biggest impact on me was, it came from Girl Stuff which is my book for teenagers, and it was before the younger book for 8 to 12 year olds came out, which doesn't have any sex in it. But it does now have a little bit about abuse, and if someone is trying to do something sexual to you, that that's not okay and you should always talk to a trusted person about that. And originally, that was just going to be in the older book. But when I was doing the research – ‘okay, what do I need in the book for the younger girls, 8 to 12, and what should I leave out?’ – I got a letter from someone in a court, in one of the jurisdictions around Australia. And it was a transcript with the names redacted of a case of two little girls in a family who'd been abused by their grandfather, and the older girl who was 10 said that the reason... she was asked by the judge in a closed court why she'd come forward, and she said because she'd read in Girl Stuff at school that it wasn't okay, and she should tell someone.
If that just happens once to you, then you go it was worth it to be ... and to be so careful. People often think that when a book is funny or friendly, that it's dashed off. And the amount of time that it takes to work out how to talk to girls about issues like that, and not make light of it, but have a light touch in conveying that information... That was a really wonderful thing to hear.
So there is a lot of light and shade, and there is in the pregnancy stuff as well. Because things don't always go the way that you want it to go in a pregnancy, and yet the book... it's really important that it doesn't have everything that can go wrong. It's a book that should make people feel reassured, and not more worried than they already are just from being pregnant, really.
Nic: What do you find the hardest things about the writing process?
Kaz: I am still, somewhere inside me, the just 18 year old journalist with a big fat sub lumbering over to my desk and leaning over, and being like this very physical presence saying ‘You got that wrong, and we're going to get sued’ or ‘why did you write this, and have you checked it?’
I'm still really scared that I'll make a mistake when I'm writing my non-fiction books. And I always think, how can I prove that I did this survey of 7,000 women, or 4,000 girls? So I leave this trail, and I get the IT department at Penguin to... There has to be ways that that information is protected, so that it can't be hacked or used by anybody else. And in the case of the girls, I promised them I would delete it, so I did. So that's a huge body of, that's 4,000 girls answering 30 something questions. But it's really important to me that that happens.
Nic: It gives the whole thing credibility, too.
Kaz: But how can I prove that? And you know what? Nobody's ever asked. Not a single journalist has ever said, ‘Did you really do that survey?’
Nic: Do you then look at journalism today and at writing today, non-fiction writing, so not just journalism, do you look at it and throw your hands up? If you've got that sort of background, that sort of desire to make sure everything can be checked, you must get very, you must bemoan the current state of non-fiction writing and journalism.
Kaz: Well I was joking with one of the publicists from Penguin the other day about all the books by people who can call themselves nutritionists, which is anybody, writing these books about how to be more beautiful and not have cancer by holding a mango in the air on the front cover, and it's some gorgeous person talking absolute shit. And a couple of things have had to be pulled, because not just unsubstantiated, but dangerous claims have been made. That stuff makes me pretty angry, but I think it does everybody.
Nic: Of course.
Kaz: But I think a lot of people are writing great non-fiction stuff. I think The Trauma Cleaner is a fantastic book. I think Chris Masters' stuff when he's being embedded in with our service personnel, a lot of that stuff's really important and really interesting. So I don't think it's all crap. I do think you have to be careful ...
Nic: It's not... But there's a lot of it.
Kaz: But fascinating that how are we going to find that model in digital media and publishing, where people have got enough money to... because there's a lot of that opinion stuff, some of which is really entertaining and great. But it's important to remember that that's what it is, it's entertaining and it's one person going ‘Look at that’.
And there's absolutely, and there always has been a place for observational journalism. There should actually be more of it in newspapers, because in a hundred years, the people who are going to research a novel, like I've just been researching a novel about a time a hundred years ago, they're not going find that stuff in the papers because we don't have all of that descriptive writing. We just think, ‘they'll see a movie or watch a tweet’.
Nic: Well, let's talk about your novel, Ada. It came after you received a Grant Fellowship, or during the time, from the State Library of Victoria. Tell me first of all what the Fellowship involved.
Kaz: Well, I thought I wanted change. I want to try something different, so I applied to... and I wanted to understand more about social media. That was a selfish reason. So I said I want to come and do a blog and put stuff on Instagram so that I can tell people outside the Library what's in the Library. I had only recently found out that the Library doesn't have just books, it has a whole collection of what's called realia, which I just thought was regalia misspelt when I'd seen it, which is stuff that isn't books, so everything from costumes to board games to devices, or you know.
Nic: Badges, things like that.
Kaz: Yeah, political badges. That was part of my project, because my project was what do people wear to say who they are?
So political badges, footie jumpers, a tiara and long white gloves to say that you're posh. We had a beautiful pair of giant pinking shears, longer than a school ruler, that had been used to make lingerie in a Flinder's Lane factory when clothes were made at a much higher rate in Melbourne. I just loved that idea. I found that fascinating.
So I rummaged through the collection, did that, had an exhibition on the fifth floor of the circular gallery on the inside of the Dome. But while I was doing that, I looked through a lot of theatre scrapbooks, and I've done some work with Circus Oz and, kind of fascinating... One of my favourite books is Harpo Marx's autobiography.
Nic: I love that.
Kaz: Yeah, it's a really lovely, clever autobiography, which was...
Nic: He was such a terrific man, wasn't he?
Kaz: Yeah. I think written by Rowland Barber as told to, but really interesting stories about the Vaudeville years.
Nic: Harpo Speaks.
Kaz: Harpo Speaks. A lot left out I think and not entirely terrifically feminist. But you know, I do love it. It's my comfort reading that I go back to.
So I was interested in musical and Vaudeville and that sort of stuff, and looking at this scrapbook from about 1905, there was a picture in it which was from 1895 of a woman who had this, she was an actress, clearly, it was like a publicity photo, a carte de visite, they called them. About the size of a postcard, black and white. Obviously, in those years. And she had an enormous hat on the size of a cartwheel, and an explosion of ostrich feathers, and all these blingy brooches in the shape of butterflies. And then her name spelled out on her braid covered bodice, Ada, A-D-A. And I felt, whoa! Who are you?
And it took me two years to find that out, and one year to write the novel about Ada Delroy, the Vaudevillian dancer and comic singer. She had a really tough life. She had, it was a classic rags to riches to rags story. There was a baby that had been left behind in Adelaide, and in the novel, Ada, as it ended up, everybody in the novel except the person Ada's telling her story to was real. So there was Madam Marzella, she had the premier trained cockatoo act in the country, I'll have you know. And Ed Ford, who was a facialist comedian. He could laugh on one side of his face and cry on the other. And all these people who were just trying to make ends meet in a really tough time, no pinch and no insurance, nothing. Very hand to mouth, in the same way as the Marx Brothers started out, but travelling around the world with bonkers magicians, Professor Baldwin who I think might've been bipolar looking... You know, it's very easy to diagnose people with a few decades of...
Kaz: Yeah. He was fascinating, had a clairvoyant act. And Ada danced in 125 yards of white silk, and she stole all of her dancers from Lois Fuller, from the Folies Bérgère. And I tracked... I researched myself stupid until I worked out there was a nine day crossover where Ada and Lois Fuller were both in New York when Lois Fuller was doing those dances first, and the talk of the town in all the newspapers. And I just, I can't prove it but I'm really sure Ada went as many times as she could afford to watch her do that.
And Lois was the real artist. She invented the revolving gel light, to change the colours on a follow spot. She invented lights under the stage. She invented the blackout in the audience, so she had this fire dance that Ada then took all around Australia, and it was... she had this beautiful costume with all these yards and yards of white silk that she had long bamboo sticks underneath, and she would manipulate the sticks so that it would be like a cloud or a flower undulating, this incredible silk. And then the magic lantern, which was the slide projector, would project slides of flames onto Ada, and she would writhe and do this extraordinary dance. People would call the fire brigade in the small mining town, because to them it was so real.
And then suddenly, at the climax of where she was being consumed by the flames, all the lights in the hall would go off, which was the first time that had ever happened. And then the lights, there'd be a pause and everyone would be gasping, and then the lights would come back up and there'd be a little pile of ashes and some gold tinsel on the stage and she would've been consumed by fire.
At the time, this was really remarkable theatre that people were seeing.
Nic: The book is so much a reflection of your journalistic background, first of all the eye for a good story. Seeing that immediately and then going ‘Wow, I've gotta find out more’. And then that perseverance over two years and looking and researching, other people wouldn't... that's true journalism.
Kaz: You get stuck down the rabbit hole.
Nic: You do, don't you?
Kaz: You're there, you just think I've got to...
Nic: And it's so much more fun than writing, isn't it?
Kaz: Yeah, and I loved, I tell you what's really great, being in the 1890s when you're fully vaccinated and you can go home for tea.
Nic: You don't have to worry about those pesky STIs. [Laughter]
Kaz: Yeah! That's right, gosh. Well these poor theatrical women, it didn't matter how they behaved. They were considered dreadful scarlet women, and there was so much discrimination against them. They could be top of the bill, like Ada was, and get paid a third of what the next bloke down on the bill got. I was really interested in that too, how much tenacity she would have had to have, how much feistiness, and how she took every bit of control that she could get, which wasn't much. So she got herself out of the Lancashire cotton mills and the slums of north England, and then got herself into showbiz and just by doing skipping dances and stuff, originally. And then by nicking someone's whole act.
Nic: That's it. Why did you write it as a novel? It could easily have been a work of non... was that, explore areas that you couldn't quite handle, or...?
Kaz: No! It's because I promised a descendant of the Bell family, Ada Delroy Theatrical Troupe, who was writing the family history that I wouldn't write something that usurped her.
Nic: Would you have preferred to do it a non-fiction?
Kaz: There are several times in the middle of those three that I would've. But you know what? It would've been the wrong decision.
I was really scared to write fiction, and I ended up deciding I had to be even more brave and write it in the first person as inhabiting Ada, because I literally wanted to give her a voice. Beause all these rich people of the past, all the governors, the governor's wives, politicians, very famous people leave behind a lot of documents and diaries, and poor people don't. People who really struggle don't leave anything. So I had to reconstruct a lot of that stuff. Motivations, conversations, imagining how she felt about things.
Nic: Did you take your lead from other writers, from people that you had read? Trying to get into the head of characters, or was it just instinct?
Kaz: Kelly Gardiner had written a book called Goddess, in which she wrote about a heroine a couple of centuries ago, and I thought that's brave. That's a really interesting thing to do. I definitely took, what's it called when it's inspiration to not do something, a warning, I don't know. You know that sometimes people write a book, I'm thinking of... who's the Scottish writer who wrote all those heroin addicted...
Nic: The Trainspotting man.
Kaz: Yeah, yeah. Anyway. So he wrote kind of in a Scottish accent. And I hated that. Other people have written books in an Irish accent, and I didn't want to do that. But I did spend a lot of time looking up Lancashire dialect words and theatrical slang, and trying to work it in in a way that it would be either obvious what it meant, or it didn't really matter because it was part of it.
So at one point Ada calls Madam Marzella a ‘vinegar-baked old fussock’ and that actually means ‘gossip’ in Lancastrian old dialect. I just love that kind of, you know, not invented words but old words that've fallen by the wayside. Firkytoodle was the other one, having a bit of a firkytoodle behind the curtain. I guess it's the same as canoodling, it's just one of those words that sounds like that.
Nic: Sounds like it, whatever it is.
Kaz: Yeah, I think it was fun and it could get you into trouble. But there was stuff I knew I didn't want to do. I didn't want it to be impenetrable. And look, a couple of people have said to me ‘It took me a while to get into it, because it's so much in someone else's voice’. But so far no one has owned up to abandoning it.
But I was really glad I did that in the end, because I feel like she does kind of live, it is much easier to imagine her as a real person.
Nic: And it is, and shines a wonderful light on the life of vaudeville. And in a way, vaudeville is an international language you're talking about. Different characters of vaudeville were very similar to what the Australia, America, Britain… Such similarities.
Kaz: Well there were several acts that, like animation now, can be pretty easily adapted. There was a lot of acrobatics, there was shadow puppetry, there was juggling, there was all sorts of things, the strong people acts as well. It's interesting what's gone out of fashion, which is the ballad singing. You know, the sentimental ballad singing. But we just have that in pop music now. But we've still got...
Nic: It's on The Voice.
Kaz: Yeah. Yeah! And it's on Britain's Got Talent. People are still doing vaudeville-ish things on that. But stand-up comedy, I think is the big survivor. And they probably, in those days, didn't think that would be right. And it's interesting to see how stand-up comedy has evolved as its own form of writing, as a narrative story for many people as well as setup gag, setup gag.
Nic: Do you want to write another novel?
Kaz: Well, I was writing another novel, and I'd taken an advance. When people ask me, ‘what's your process’, I say I take the advance...
Nic: [Laughter] Just take the advance and then work it out.
Kaz: And I was writing a book about, a novel that came out of my experience of working in commercial radio. It's a murder mystery, but I wanted to kill so many people that it became a massacre mystery.
Nic: That's a new genre!
Kaz: And I thought, oh no, this is not working. And that's why I changed it to Ada, because I knew I had to write something.
Nic: I'll tell you what, it's a lot of difference between...
Kaz: I know. Well, I think I am a bit of flibbertigibbet. I do like to, as I say, attention span of a grasshopper. But the next thing I'd like to do, I think, is more research. And I think I'm going try and apply for another fellowship somewhere else, and use archives to try and tell another kind of a story. But I think that's going be non-fiction.
Nic: There's a million, a zillion stories, isn't there, in research? I mean if you don't, you know...
Kaz: When people say ‘Where do you get your ideas’, I just think, ‘where do you not get your ideas?’
Nic: I just tell students or people, just go and read an old newspaper, and if you get into newspaper and if you don't have an idea by the end of reading page 4, then there's something wrong with you.
Kaz: It's not in you. That's the thing. And I understand that, it's not right for everybody. But every single person in Ada, every other vaudevillian – because it includes Houdini, he came out to Australia and jumped off the Queen Street Bridge as a PR stunt – but there's a story in all of them.
Nic: Of course.
Kaz: You just gotta decide... it's such a cliché that a lot of writing is editing, but it's true. And I should say, I've always been really lucky, I think, to have good editors at a publishing company, but also to have been trained to accept editing, and to at least discuss it.
Nic: Absolutely. That’s critical, isn't it.
Nic: Being able to...
Kaz: Because they... because you can feel it when something hasn't been edited, and I feel sad for people whose stuff just goes out raw, because they're not going to be able to build their reputations as quickly and as well.
Nic: I'm wondering, have you ever had a garret moment, that time when you've struggled most as a writer and wanted to throw it all in?
Kaz: Several times while I was writing. I nearly didn't finish Ada. I nearly thought look, I'll just say to myself I've had a lovely time doing the research. And that was just courage. That was just having to find the courage. Writing is not a dangerous job, but...
Nic: How do you find that courage? Because a lot of writers get to that point where they want to stop.
Kaz: I took the advance!
Nic: Okay, that's what I was going to…
Kaz: No, no. Because I thought, I really wanted to tell her story. She has a great story, with lots of elements that also tells the story of early Australia about all sorts of things, race and women and loss and love and loyalty, like who do you stick with? Who do you choose to stick with? And all of that stuff that I am kind of fascinated by.
Nic: So you finished it because of your connection to this character you're writing about.
Kaz: That's probably about 500 reasons I finished it, really.
Nic: That's a good one, though. That's a good one.
Kaz: I couldn't leave them there. That felt rude.
Nic: Fair enough. Just finally I'm wondering, what books are on your bedside table right now?
Kaz: As I said, I've just finished The Trauma Cleaner, and I have one waiting for me from reading group. Because we have the sort of reading group where everyone just swaps a whole lot of books, we don't all read one book. The story of Charles Dickens' mistress, as it was known then, the actress who... he was horrible to his wife, and went off, sort of like... I do really love non-fiction, and I kind of feel like I want to get back into fiction. And maybe the way into that is a few classics, maybe I have to go back and read a bit of Jane Austen. But I'm a bit of an Anglophile too. I love all that stuff that you're not allowed to love, like the Mitfords, that kind of non-fiction, I can take any amount of mad aristocracy. And in fact, I've just ordered from secondhand bookshops overseas the full set of Daily Telegraph obituaries that are in about five volumes. There's one rogues, there's one eccentrics, there's one military. So I'm looking forward to it.
Nic: Have you ever written obituaries? Did you have to write them at the newspaper?
Kaz: No, it was very specialised when I was there, and it's not specialised at all now, but I think a well wrought obituary is a beautiful thing.
Nic: Very much so. Thank you very much for joining us, it's been an absolute pleasure chatting with you. Thank you so much for all those wonderful, wonderful guides you've given us over the years.
Kaz: You've not read a single one, Nic! Stop.
Nic: I have, I've got them on the bookshelves. I have! I had to look at Up to Duff. I had to do all that sort of stuff. And last night, seriously, I got out the teen one that I showed my 15 year old.
Kaz : Well that will be handy.
Nic: She was horrified that she was looking at the same things as I was...
Kaz: No, no, well you don't sit there. You walk out of the room, she's got to put it under a pillow!
Nic: That's what I said. I knew, she quickly put it back on the shelf, but I did know that she, I noted that she remembered where she put it.
Kaz: Where it was, yeah. Just let her take it.
Nic: Which is fine. Although she did say to me, she did open at a page and said ‘Do you think I need this advice?’ And it was the pregnancy advice. I said, ‘I hope not’. The unwanted pregnancy…
Kaz: That's fair enough.
Nic: I so hope you don't need that.
Kaz: But my argument about all that stuff is, you want to know about this stuff so you don't have to do it. You don't find yourself accidentally doing it.
Nic: That's exactly right. And we're gonna go through...
Kaz: You're welcome!
Nic: We're going to go through them for years and years to come, and there's gonna be the Living with Old Age and dementia one, we're gonna follow you right to the end until someone writes your obituary for you.
Kaz: Yes! My guide to death.
Nic: Thank you for joining us. It's been an absolute pleasure, Kaz.
Kaz: Thank you.