Grantlee Kieza is a critically acclaimed Australian author and historian. He focuses primarily on Australian history, and has a knack for breathing life into the past. His recent book Mrs Kelly continues its run in the top ten bestselling list since its publication and displays no signs of going away. At Better Reading, we had to know more, so we had a chat with Grantlee.
Grantlee Kieza: Thank you very much for the support and the kind words. It’s very much appreciated. During the writing process I spoke with and met people from both sides of the Kelly story – some of Ned’s relatives who are still very protective towards him – and the great grandson of Sgt Kennedy one of the three policemen he ambushed and killed at Stringybark Creek. I was very happy that both sides felt that I had treated the story with fairness. While I acknowledge that Mrs Kelly and her family endured tough times and a fair degree of injustice, I don’t try to whitewash any of Ned’s crimes or the fact that his propensity for violence caused his mother, siblings and others a great deal of lasting grief.
BR: Could you explain how you ended up becoming fascinated enough by Ellen Kelly to write a book about her.
GK: I’d been interested in the story of the Kelly Gang since I started primary school about 50 years ago. Back in the 60s I was given an Australian history book – A Pictorial History of Bushrangers and I was fascinated by the old photographs of places in Victoria that I knew and the way they related to the days of the outlaws. A few years ago I saw a photo in a newspaper of Mrs Kelly that was taken in 1923 and which had just been found in a collection belonging to the well-known Victorian detective Fred Piggott. He had gone to visit her just before she died and taken a journalist with him for a rare and final interview. I was amazed by the picture and thought that this woman had lived a remarkable life – spanning the era of the convict ships which transported her husband to Van Diemen’s Land all the way up to the age of the motor car and aeroplane. Sandwiched in between was all that amazing drama and pathos that came with being the mother of Australia’s most infamous bushrangers.
BR: What do you think are the ‘astonishing’ aspects of Ellen Kelly’s life?
GK: I’m hoping that the message comes through that no matter what life throws at you it’s possible to survive just about anything. During her life she had seven of her 12 children die, two from childhood illness, one of them in childbirth, one by suicide, one by gunfire and the most notorious of them, Ned Kelly, at the end of a rope. Her first husband drank himself to death, a lover abandoned her with a new baby, a second husband beat her and disappeared. At the age of 34 she was an impoverished widow with seven small children when a drunken relative turned up and burned her house down. Just about everything in her life that could go wrong did go wrong. One of her sons, Jim, was sent to an adult prison for five years at the age of just 13. At the age of 46 and having given birth to her 12th child, Mrs Kelly faced a capital charge of wounding a policemen and went to jail with a baby at her breast. After somehow making it to old age she then lost a favourite grandson to a machine gun bullet on the Western Front. One of the really gobsmacking things is that while the Kellys had been enemies of the law for much of their lives, Mrs Kelly eventually became a pillar of her local community and was very proud of her youngest son who became a well-respected policeman. Like her grandson Ned Lloyd, he was also a world-renowned rodeo rider.
BR: What were the main factors that drove the Kelly Family to a life of crime?
GK: Poverty, a lack of education and criminal associates. While not excusing the crimes of Ned Kelly, he did have a terrible start to life. Not only was he the desperately poor son of an Irish convict, he was raised on stories about police bullying the downtrodden back home in Ireland, burning them out of their cottages while English landlords grew rich. If that wasn’t enough his early role models – on both sides of his family – were constantly at war with the police.
BR: I suppose the Kelly Family, especially Ned, have an interesting place in Australian culture, put on a pedestal by Sidney Nolan and beer ads alike – what do you think about the way Australian culture has romanticised them?
GK: One of the things I tried to do with this book was tell an honest hard-hitting account of important events in Australian history but without all the mythology. There has been a lot of misinformation about Ned and his gang as though they were some sort of romanticised outlaws, Robin Hood figures hounded by the police. In just about every book about Ned Kelly, his version of events is taken as true. But he was a cop killer on the run – why would his word be taken as gospel? Ned was a dangerous criminal, involved in armed robberies from the age of 14 and by his early 20s the leader of a major crime gang. No wonder the police hounded him. Lost in the story over time is the fact that he also killed three policemen and in this book I have told their stories too. Two of the policemen who died at Stringybark Creek had large families and they did it very tough for years after the killings. The story of Ned and Mrs Kelly is utterly compelling with the cold hard facts alone, let alone any seasoning from half-truths.
BR: As an historian, what are some of the difficulties you face when it comes to bringing the past back to life?
GK: I think the toughest thing is whether to believe oral history or not. Legends and myths spread like wildfire and I have heard some pretty implausible stories about Ned from people who say their great uncle or their mother’s best friend’s schoolmate or their third cousin’s schoolteacher’s brother (etc) knew Ned or held his horse or rode with him or acted as a lookout etc. Even the recollections of people directly involved can be dubious. Ned Kelly’s brother, Jim, for instance once told a reporter that Ned had never shorn a sheep in his life and yet many others of the time said that Ned spent a long time as a shearer working on different properties. Jim also said he was present when Ned shot Constable Fitzpatrick at the Kelly house in Victoria in 1878 but a check of police records shows that Jim was locked up at the time in NSW. Whenever possible I’ve tried to use more than one source to corroborate evidence.
BR: How did you go about researching the book?
GK: I started reading what had been written about Ned and Mrs Kelly during their lifetimes. The contemporary accounts closest to the source. Country newspapers are still very important today in the age of the internet but in the 19th century they were the lifeblood of rural communities and for historians they are magnificent tools that offer a portal into events of long ago. Country newspapers documented everything – from the most minor offences to all the local gossip. They were also accurate barometers of the mood of the people. Contrary to the modern romanticised view of Ned as a folk hero, most of the papers at the time wanted him dead as soon as possible. I looked at court records as well, books that were written while some of the Kellys were still alive and transcripts of the Royal Commission into the Kelly outbreak. I spoke to family members of both the Kellys and the policemen who died trying to arrest them.
BR: Have you read some particularly amazing non-fiction lately?
GK: Yes, I have. Robert Wainwright has a new book out called Miss Muriel Matters about an amazing suffragette and Rob Mundle recently wrote a terrific book called Under Full Sail about the clipper ships that brought so many migrants here in the 19th century to build a modern Australia. I enjoyed Bill Hosking’s book Justice Denied about his days as a judge and defence lawyer and recently I read two excellent books about the 1920s aviator Mrs Jessie Miller – they were written by Chrystopher J Spicer and Carol Baxter.
BR: What can we expect in the future? A new book, perhaps?
GK: I’m working on a few new projects. Probably next will be a biography of Banjo Paterson and the motivations behind his greatest works. He had a fascinating life and I think people will be really surprised with some of the facets of his career and the stories behind works that have become part of Australia’s soul. Next year we might also look at a reworking of my 2015 biography “Monash’’ to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the Australian victories that helped bring about the end to World War 1.
BR: And finally, If you had a time machine and could teleport yourself to any moment in history, what would it be and why?
GK: Wow. Could you imagine being in the crowd listening to Jesus giving his Sermon on the Mount? I don’t think anything could top that for a moment that shaped history.