INTERVIEW: Debut novelist Kali Napier

Author high resKALI NAPIER worked as an Aboriginal family history researcher for the Queensland government and as a Native Title anthropologist in the mid-west of Western Australia, the setting for her debut historical novel THE SECRETS AT OCEAN’S EDGE. Kali was a finalist in the Hachette Australia Manuscript Development Program 2015 and a longlistee in the Bath Novel Award 2016. The Secrets at Ocean’s Edge was published by Hachette on January 30th 2018.

Congratulations on the publication of The Secrets at Ocean’s Edge. Two of your manuscripts were longlisted for the Bath Novel Award in 2016. How did you decide which one to focus on?

TSAOE High Res CoverThe decision was made for me. The first manuscript I wrote had been selected as part of the Queensland Writers Centre / Hachette Australia Manuscript Development Program in 2015. It was through this program that I met my publisher, who liked the voice, but asked if I had a second book to pitch. That week I’d begun an idea for The Secrets at Ocean’s Edge (then titled An Emu War) and the publisher asked me to write it.

As I soon had two complete manuscripts, I submitted them both to the Bath Novel Award, and, to my utter astonishment, they were both longlisted. As An Emu War wasn’t actually as complete as it should have been, I didn’t have any expectations for it. However, the longlisting gave me the confidence to show the manuscript to my publisher and An Emu War suited her list better. Though the first thing she said was the title would have to go!

How did your book deal come about? 

I have been writing fiction for just over three years. I started by lurking on a now-defunct online writing website, Authonomy, reading chapters people posted up of their manuscripts-in-progress and the detailed editorial feedback provided by other members. I think what excited me most was the Editor’s Desk – a ranking system, like my kids’ rewards charts at school, whereby the top five ‘books’ to hit the desk at the end of each month were read and critiqued by editors at HarperCollins UK. The assumption, I suppose everyone laboured under, was that this was a sure path to a publishing contract and sudden fame and fortune.

When I discovered Authonomy, randomly one day looking for something completely different, I didn’t have the guts or the motivation to actually commit to writing ‘words’, but I wanted to be a writer. So I enrolled in a postgraduate creative writing degree to force myself to write. The main assignment was to write a first chapter of a novel. After twenty-two years of wanting to be a writer, I was surprised at how quickly that first chapter appeared. So I wrote another one, then another one. And five months later I had a complete manuscript.

I submitted it to a national manuscript competition in 2015, without any expectations, while I immersed myself in learning about the Australian publishing industry. I followed agents, book bloggers and publishers on social media. I attended local book launches. I gave readings from my work in cafes. Incredibly, my manuscript was selected as one of nine winners of that manuscript competition in September 2015, exactly a year to the day of setting down its first word. Each of the nine winners signed an exclusive contract for first option with Hachette Australia for a period of one year, though a publishing contract was not a guarantee.

The day after I signed, editors from HarperCollins UK emailed me for the manuscript which had reached number two on the last ever Authonomy Editor’s Desk before the site closed. I found myself in the incredible situation of turning down a big 5 publisher because the manuscript was under contract with another.

Did you consider seeking literary agent representation? 

As part of the Queensland Writers Centre / Hachette Australia Manuscript Development Program, I was given an introduction to an agent; however, events overtook my agent enquiries, and my second manuscript landed in an acquisitions meeting.  To negotiate my contract I contracted a literary agent, but I didn’t feel the need for one throughout the rest of the publication journey. In Australia, it isn’t necessary to have an agent as most publishers and editors are open to directly engaging with the author. Of course, there were times when I didn’t want to bombard my publisher with naïve questions and my neuroses. In terms of selling the book into overseas territories, Hachette Australia has an excellent rights department, and they are currently seeking a UK publisher for The Secrets at Ocean’s Edge.

How are you finding the experience of marketing yourself as a debut author?

I am awful at self-promotion and dislike attention; so, it’s going as well as can be expected under such conditions… I used to have a blog, but it took too much time away from writing, and I don’t feel the traffic was worth the effort. Twitter, Facebook, and, recently, Instagram, have become my preferred platforms. But I try not to blather on about my book too much. It’s best to have authentic engagements. It doesn’t mean that I haven’t found myself cultivating a public persona. I have children, so it’s been important to draw my own lines about what I will and won’t disclose.

Luckily for me, Hachette Australia is magnificent at publicity, so I haven’t had to do too much to promote myself as a debut author. They sourced radio and print media interviews for me, and soon I will be giving ‘meet the author’ talks in local libraries. Actually, I am really excited about getting out from in front of the computer and talking to readers face-to-face.

The idea for the novel was sparked by family history. How did you approach balancing authenticity with crafting a gripping plot? 

I believe too much research can get in the way of a good story.  Planning and writing a novel works best for me if I first research a setting to establish the social framework – the institutions, politics, occupations, specific events, and leisure activities – then place characters within that. I write the first draft quite quickly to get the story arc and character journey down. This version usually has a lot of “xxxx” for me to later fill in the blanks with research.

I may know how I want a character to feel as a consequence of some plot point, but I may not know what the plot point is until the second draft. After the first draft I will usually have a lengthy set of questions, with which I can focus my historical research enquiries. This helps me from falling down too many research rabbit holes! After this stage, drafting becomes an iterative process between inspiration, research, and mapping scenes in a spreadsheet.

How long did it take to write the first draft?

I wrote the first draft in two months, but it had a lot of blanks to fill in with research. The second draft took longer, and once I started the structural editing process, it was another year before the story resembled the one that is published.

So how much is fact and how much is fiction?

This novel has its origins in some family history research I undertook about five years ago. Using tools I’d gained working as a family history researcher, I applied these to the gaps in my own family tree. I’d known nothing of my father’s maternal family as a result of the silencing that comes with second marriages, estrangement, and the institutionalisation of children in homes. But I knew a surname – Wetters.

To my surprise, I discovered that my great grandfather was from the Mid-West of Western Australia, where I had lived for several years, always feeling an outsider in a town where one needs three generations in the boneyard to be considered an insider. I learned that this ancestor of mine had been bankrupt: his sorry business failures, compounded by the hardships of the Great Depression, listed for all to see in a small newspaper article. I also learned he’d moved to the small coastal town of Dongara, leaving a suspicious house fire in his wake.

But I could learn nothing else of him. This inquiry was a dead branch in my family tree which raised questions. What would make someone abandon their home and start again in times of hardship? What might happen if someone’s built a new life, but their past catches up with them?  

The novel is told from multiple viewpoints. Did you write each in turn or weave as you went along?

The story is told through the four main character viewpoints of Lily, her husband Ernie, her daughter Girlie, and her brother Tommy. However, it feels to me as though it is really Lily’s story. When I planned the novel, I knew I would be allotting her the most chapters, followed by Girlie, then Ernie, and lastly Tommy. And this is the order I introduce the characters into the story.

I didn’t plot out the story, but I did know the extent of involvement each character would have in the climax, and worked my backwards as to how each character would reach that point. I wove their stories together as I went along, as character developments sparked reactions in other characters. What surprised me the most were the flashbacks. I had planned for the story to be wholly set in 1932, and yet scenes set in 1919 and 1926 appeared on the page, pretty much exactly where they are now. I didn’t know how some of the scenes linked up until the sixth or seventh draft.

Do you have a favourite character and why?

Yes, I have two favourite characters: Ruby and Lorna. Ruby is feisty and not afraid to speak her mind. It must have been my subconscious working, as it wasn’t intentional to give her the same name as my daughter. If I am any of my characters, I am Lorna. She is like a grown-up Ruby – doesn’t care what others think of her, but gets on with life despite nursing a secret sorrow.

What are you writing now?

I have lived on the east coast of Australia for ten years, but it still doesn’t feel like home. When I chose to set The Secrets at Ocean’s Edge novel in Western Australia, I’d had the naïve thought that this might purge my lingering ties. How wrong I was. One of the themes of the novel is the power of stories to connect you to people and places. Ironically, I became more militantly West Australian as a consequence of writing this book, so I knew I had to set the next one in Brisbane where I now live, to put down roots.

Lastly, any advice for anyone thinking of entering our 2018 award? 

The advice I often hear is often to only submit to agents and competitions when you have a polished manuscript. But sometimes it is impossible to ever stop ‘polishing’. It doesn’t matter if your manuscript doesn’t get listed, because actually submitting your work into the world is the first step on the journey to being an author. And you can always submit it again next year. In the event you are listed, well… The confidence gained is immeasurable, plus you have something to finally write in a ‘bio’ when pitching to agents.

Interview by Caroline Ambrose

Find out more about Kali Napier at

The Secrets at Ocean’s Edge by Kali Napier (Hachette) is out now in paperback in all good Australian bookshops and available online for UK and international readers.

TSAOE High Res CoverEvery family has secrets that bind them together. Ernie, Lily and their daughter Girlie have moved to the west coast of Australia in 1932, having lost almost everything in the Depression. They begin to build a summer guesthouse but discover forming new alliances with the locals isn’t easy. Into this new life wanders Lily’s shell-shocked brother after three harrowing years on the road and seeking answers that will cut to the heart of who Ernie, Lily and Girlie really are.