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North Melbourne Books: When Melbourne journalist Chrissie O'Brian is asked to write a puff piece about a female crane operator working at the Port of Melbourne, she gets more than she bargained for. Where the Truth Lies is your debut novel. What made you write about the wharves?
Karina Kilmore: I come from a big political and social justice family and on both sides of my family there is a very strong connection to the wharves and sea trade. Right back to the early 1800s, I’m descended from a New Zealand whaling captain but in more recent generations my grandfather and great uncles, even a great aunt, worked on the wharves or trucked goods to the docks. However, I have also studied and worked in business, as a finance journalist, so I understand the profit drive of companies on behalf of their investors and shareholders and I wanted to highlight that tribal difference between the two worlds.
NMB: Your main character, Chrissie, has a compelling backstory. She's vulnerable yet tenacious, determined to prove herself but haunted by her past. How did this character evolve?
KK: Chrissie’s role as a journalist has definitely come from my career working in newspapers. Newsrooms have been such a big and important part of my life and they’re such a great melting pot of people — with lots of great characters! For the purpose of the book, I wanted to show that journalism is such an all-absorbing and demanding job that it’s very easy to completely bury yourself in your work, no matter what is going on with your personal life. I wanted to demonstrate how Chrissie could be at the top of her game during working hours but also be a bit of a wreck after hours. I also liked the idea of having her pushing to expose the truth about others but at the same time, she’s desperate to keep her own secrets hidden. I also wanted to create a constant tension in her private life as well as her work life.
NMB: The story has a gritty, realistic feel, with loads of local colour. Melbourne readers especially will enjoy the descriptions of the city's gardens, backstreets and markets. Did you make a conscious decision to stick to writing what you know?
KK: Actually, I’m not a native of Melbourne so I’m glad you get a real sense of the city. Possibly this is because I see everything with slightly fresher eyes. Sometimes I think we stop seeing what’s around us because we’ve seen it too often. But Melbourne is one of the most fascinating and beautiful cities in the world and I’m amazed by it almost daily. It has such a great creative heart which comes out in almost every part of the city; the huge range of architecture, the cultural traditions in each suburb, the landscape and gardens, the amazing markets, even the sounds, the rivers and the trams — it’s all very Melbourne. I’m lucky to live in the inner city, too, so I’m constantly finding new lanes and secret pockets, sometimes whole suburbs! But like all cities, it also has a dark underside, for example, I live near the North Richmond drug injecting room and I see first-hand, on a daily basis, the violence and poverty of addiction and I don’t shy away from that in the book.
NMB: The novel raises lots of important issues, especially about the role of the media and government trying to stop information getting out under the guise of anti-terror laws. How did your experience as a journalist inform how you tackled this subject?
KK: Media freedom is a huge topic and we are currently in the midst of a massive democracy battle that I fear has already been temporarily lost. I say temporarily because I still have hope that we can correct the damage and have the laws changed. Most governments around the world now have the power, the legislation, to shut down a story if they decide it is against the national interest. And this so-called “national interest” is basically in the hands of a few bureaucrats and whichever politicians happen to be in power at the time. Despite the media uproar at the time, unfortunately, I think these laws didn’t make an impact on most of the population because it was at a time when many people were very skeptical about media ethics and media honesty. It was the beginning of the boom in social media when anyone and everyone was self broadcasting of blogging or setting up internet news sites without the training and ethics of traditional journalists and media companies. And of course, “terrorism” was and still is used as a smokescreen for this ultimate power grab by the politicians.
NMB: What books are you enjoying reading at the moment?
KK: I’m sorry to say I don’t have much time to read for pleasure at the moment as I’m now working on my second novel. However, one recent book that has stayed with me, and little bits keep jumping out at me almost every day, is Archie Roach’s memoir, Tell Me Why. It’s utterly compelling and sad and generous and loving - such an important Australian story. The plot of my new book is also influenced by a different type of Australian story, my great grandfather who at age seven, yes seven, left his poverty-stricken home in Sydney to work for a traveling sheep shearing crew around Victoria. But, of course, the new book is set in present day Melbourne and has Chrissie O’Brian again navigating two worlds, this time investigating a story involving a Collins Street investment company, a wealthy landowner and a team of sheep shearers.
Where the Truth Lies, by Karina Kilmore. Simon and Schuster $29.99