Interview by Samuel Elliott
No stranger to the professional writing world, Kaz Cooke has spent over thirty years producing a disparate oeuvre of both fiction and non-fiction, and attaining a string of awards for her efforts. With a journalistic provenance, the life-long Melbourne-based Cooke was also an accomplished cartoonist prior to penning larger works. Since her formative novelist years, she has amassed a collection of best-sellers including Up The Duff, Kidwrangling, Girl Stuff, Girl Stuff 8-12, Women’s Stuff and even several children’s picture books including The Terrible Underpants and Wander Linda Goes Berserk.
It was during completion of a Creative Fellowship at the prestigious State Library of Victoria (2013-15) that Cooke literally unearthed the inspiration for Ada. Now with its nation-wide release (as published by Penguin Random House Australia), Cooke took some time out of her hectic schedule to discuss her exhaustively researched novel depicting the life of titular Ada Bell – one of the most sought-after travelling performers of the bygone era, chronicling her poverty-ravaged beginnings to the dizzying highs of her apex and the tragic fall thereafter.
The origins of writing Ada are very unique.
Indeed! I was doing a creative fellowship at the state library, specifically examining what people had worn back then. One day, I was rummaging around, finding dresses and helmets and amazing devices in their collection, going through all this and I happened across a theatrical book and inside were these things called cabinet postcards that they used to have, which were like PR postcards of the time, that you gave out to people that had crushes on you. One such card I found was this woman and, I had to admit, in my own shallowness, that’s what it drew me.
It was a portrait of ADA with her necklace spelled out ADA, now the joker and cartoonist and writer in me immediately thought of how bad it would’ve been if her name was MARGARETTE, but the closer I looked at the photo, the more questions I asked. Little did I know that that was going to be the next three years of my life, that I would spend the time working out who Ada was. The more I dug, the more I found out, about the fascinating things of the era, I unearthed more and more about the women of the time, about how glamorous it looked from the outside but how gruelling it was in reality. I was completely hooked, so that was it for the next two years, I finished the fellowship and then I went off into ADA land and finally she’s in this book.
How did you find the research aspect of the novel? Was it difficult to become not too bogged down in all the fascinating details that you uncovered? How did you stay afloat in terms of brevity but also making it all realistic and true to the source material?
I didn’t, I sank. [laughs]
I was completely lost in the 1890’s, I didn’t want to come out, I researched for much longer than I probably should have. And also because I found photos of all these amazing people and all the places that they went to, from that world, and I was so glad to be in there, in it and fortunately fully vaccinated.
That was what intrigued me about Ada, because once you looked beyond the photographs, and her beautiful silk dress, there was a really hard life there, what a life, to be orphaned at twelve, but end up performing for the King of Siam and performing all these mysterious and amazing acts, right down to skipping town when they couldn’t pay the bill. If there is such a thing as over-researching, I think I did it. But I know that the trove archives of the Australian newspapers, I spent a lot of hours building a timeline, working out Ada’s life where she was throughout it, I was so excited working on it, wanting to shout out hurrah in this quiet little library. It all seemed to work out in the end.
How did you balance historical events with your own imagination? Did you find that difficult to balance both, did you ever feel that your imagination was running rampant and needed to be brought back or did you ever feel constrained by having to follow historical events?
No, it was the opposite, I sort of had to force myself and allow myself to access my imagination. Having been a journalist for thirty years, it was drummed into me – you can’t make anything up, nothing flowery, nothing imaginative, stick to the facts. So I had to overcome this fear, of allowing myself to imagine, but once I was in there and imagined myself into those times, because I knew that I was scared and had to be brave, I wrote it in first person, so it was in Ada’s voice.
So I used the slang of the time, but I didn’t want to write a book that was unintelligible because of that, so once I had overcome my initial misgivings about that, I loved it, but it was a challenge, to not overstep, or impose my own imagination upon it. But the feminist and racial politics at the time were also important to include as they were.
I sometimes wonder what Ada would think about, would she think I’ve taken a terrible liberty in creating her voice? But knowing her life, how she utilised whatever she had at her disposal, I think she’d think it was ok.
The way in which the story is told is unique and a narrative form seldom seen for an entire feature-length story, that of half-conversation and recounting, how was writing like that?
I think I didn’t know enough to know that it was unusual [Laughs]. Sometimes the best way of breaking a rule is to understand all the rules, and sometimes it’s best to not understand any of the rules at all. So everyone in the book was a real person, records exist of their lives, such as a newspaper story of their balancing act, all of them with the single exception of Horrie.
So then, was the entirely fictitious character of Horrie a liberating or constricting one? Did you find that he served as interjecting yourself into the story, with him asking the questions you would want the answers to etc.?
My editor, Ben Ball, is fantastic at spotting this sort of thing. When we had originally talked about it, he had said to me that I was Horrie, with me being a journalist and asking the questions that I would. I thought about that and I thought – No! I want to be Ada! [Laughs].
I guess that showed my inexperience at writing fiction. Horrie started as a literary device, but I have been doing some volunteer work at Clifton Hill [A charity college for Desiccated Actors and Others of the theatrical profession], I realised that that would be a way, those poor old actors got to the point where they had to sell all their brooches, and there were no pensions, but they are all still there at Clifton Hill and I found that fascinating and I liked the idea and so I wanted to create a representative of them.
The Melbourne of yesteryear is brought to life with loving, vivid descriptions of every aspect of the city – probably the most described locale throughout the entirety of the novel – why Melbourne? Was it because Ada loved it so? Or you? Or both?
All of that, and because she arrived at the absolute peak at the golden era of Melbourne, when everyone was cashed up, the parliament and the public library, all of these architectural marvels of buildings were literally covered in gold leaf, all the cornices and all the decorations, it would’ve been something to truly behold. Of course, there was always poor people, but it was just the most exciting place to be, it was the 4th most well-known city of the world at the time, all these famous people, like Houdini, who’s in the novel, W.C. Fields, Little Titch, all the theatrical stuff, was really interesting, but the society stuff was really interesting too, in 1888.
I love Melbourne and I love Melbournian history, to be able to walk around these places and to imagine what it would’ve been like. It just would’ve been an incredibly amazing place to be a performer of at the time and as a young woman too. To come from the grinding poverty of England and to arrive at this place, what a journey. Whatever happened, she got out of life as much as she could and Melbourne was the place to do it, but of course, she went everywhere else too.
How was it you chose to focus on? Was there a triage process whereby you cherry-picked certain elements, say the costumes, the acts, the performers themselves etc.?
I built the spine of the book as the timeline, and worked out it was going to be from 1888 when Ada arrives at Melbourne, and go through to 1910 when Houdini jumped off the bridge in Melbourne. So I did a graph, like Baldwin [a key figure in the book] for example, showing each year and how old the characters were, and with photographs of each and then I also tracked down some of the Bell descendants, and managed to secure some more photos.
And because of the research I had been doing with the State Library, I thought a lot about how physically uncomfortable it would be, compared to then, now we have couches and antibiotics and corsets aren’t in vogue any longer. Once things were lost then, they were lost forever, no insurance, no pension, so I thought of that, I needed to think my way into it. There’s so many people who helped this, the TB expert of Australia came on-board and a lovely woman who knew all about the tin-silk and fabric of the time, enlightening about how it would rustle and sound amazing, but if you sweated into it, you would go green under the arms – so lots of thinking about that sort of stuff. So many people helped in putting the pieces together and I had editing help from Ben Ball and Rachel Skelly at Penguin, you never do anything on your own.
A type of performance mentioned several times throughout the novel, incorporates blackface into the routine, did you include that so as to show the huge shift in Political Correctness in the years thereafter?
Absolutely! If you studied the Vaudeville and musical acts of the day, everyone had a blackface minstrel act, or that was the entire act, and the songs then featured all the most disgusting epithets and that was considered perfectly acceptable. A century on and Blackface is still a real problem, people keep getting dressed up to this day in blackface and claiming ignorance when confronted about it. It really beggars belief.
One of the things I think that is difficult for a historical novelist, is determining if you will include things that are offensive, or if you omit them, and I wanted to include them to show how wrong this was. Another aspect that came out from this research, was the attitude toward African-American performers of the time, so I wanted to earnestly depict that too.
So, I hope that without being too heavy or preachy, that I’ve properly captured the era and also shown that, while there was discrimination, there was also acceptance too, perhaps ahead of the time. I was careful of the language that was used, but I hope that I’ve conveyed the complexity of it.
One of the main elements of showbiz that you focus on is the stealing of acts, in Ada’s case, The Serpentine Dance, do you think that this was (and possibly still is) rife within showbiz? Do you think there’s anything morally wrong with that?
You only have to be on the periphery of the contemporary comedy world to know that yes people still definitely do steal acts and jokes. That there’s nothing new, that there are archetypes. It’s easier to get caught now, because of Googling and so forth, and in music, for example, things are stolen and it’s called sampling, or a homage, or whatever. I think like most writers, I think copyright is important, but there are some things that you can’t patent and that’s what happened to Louise Fuller [inventor of the Serpentine Dance]. Ada was only one of many. I think they kind of knew that it was wrong, but the stakes were so high then, that if you didn’t perform, you didn’t eat. There’s always some elaborate story as to explaining how they invented it.
So I think in a way they must’ve known that it was more valuable if you were the inventor of the act, but I also think that in those days, it was more policed by the fact that the performers travelled everywhere and crossed to different countries. You can get on a ship in one continent and then got off on another continent and be a completely different person, so that made it easier. Ada stole all Louise’s dances. It was understandable. Louise invented so much, she did so much. She was incredible, Ada was much more focused on nicking what she could and making a living out of it.
No, it’s not OK to steal an act, but you can’t judge people from this distance what people of the time did to stay alive and feed their family. I think there’s a luxury in modern times that you can invent something and hold onto it, but they didn’t have that luxury.
Another element that you depicted was rivalries between performers, particularly that between Ada and Marzella, though you remained largely impartial throughout, was that intentional, or did you also want to depict Marzella in a sympathetic light with redeemable qualities too?
Nup! I have to admit that, Marzella, that kind of sticky-beak mean-spirited person, she did turn out to be the villain in the book, I looked at her in the photos with all the ravens and the cockatoos and she looked like a villain. She travelled with her husband, who invented many types of stage-lights, she would look at you like the way crows would look at you, sideways and sinister. I think that there were moral campaigners at the time that were prepared to condemn women for things that were beyond their control at the time, people that would shame you just for being a woman in the performance biz.
So I actually think I was much more kind to Ada and saw her as the good and bad sides of her and I saw Madam Marzella as the villain, the unforgiving, meddling type with no real redeemable qualities to speak of. I would say that I made my feelings on Marzella obvious [Laughs].
You capture the drudgery of the itinerant lifestyle, yet largely remain upbeat throughout most of the novel? Was this intentional or was that your own always-look-on-the-bright-side attitude coming through?
It was intentional and maybe this is why I liked inhabiting Ada, maybe I have the same irrepressible tendencies like Ada, where I do look on the bright side of life. I think that to promote yourself during that age, to truly talk yourself up in order to book gigs, you had to make the best of it.
That said, I also didn’t want to sugar-coat the real side of what it was like to be a woman in those times. There’s a lot of things that catch up with Ada in the end, but I wanted to have a pervading sense of cheek and optimism which I think you would have to have had, it’s described as “fizz” in the book. I really admire that about Ada. And also I didn’t want to write a depressing book, I didn’t want to spend 3 years writing a depressing book, I wanted to show something that was real and conveyed real feeling. I wanted to tell the story, with all the relevant emotions and difficulties.
What do you think attracted people to the innately tough, demanding lifestyle of a performer?
You can only ask that if you come from now. If you were back then, it would’ve looked far less like a choice and much more like an escape chute out of the working houses and the poor houses, I think anyone that had enough vim and vinegar, needed to look elsewhere to escape, whether it was through song, dance or comedy or something else entirely. But I think you got enough in the showbiz, from the glitz and the glamour, to keep you going. Sure, you would’ve had to front up the hecklers and the unseemly characters along the way, but to have a hall booked for you, and be at the centre would have brought about a feeling of pure joy beyond words.
Ada was bringing such amazing performances to the masses and they loved her for it. Like the one in which she looked like she was being consumed by fire, she was bringing this to them, this was before the movies, it would’ve been a wonderful moment for all involved. It was all about freedom, given any choice, Ada chose freedom every time and that’s something I loved about her. Some people didn’t get that choice, that was another option for her and she took it.
Do you think that there are many amazing performers and acts that are now forever lost to the ages? Is there much being done by any preservation societies, government funded or otherwise, to keep what we have remaining?
I think there are a lot of amazing curators in museums and libraries, also there’s a huge online presence. There’s a wealth of footage available on YouTube for one, if you want to see the historical stuff – you can easily get lost in it.
But I think that there is a continuing ethos, that is timeless and will never be lost, that veritable performer spirit, we see it all the time, like in America’s Got Talent or Britain’s Gotten Talent, where people are using whatever they have, these old skills, like singing and dancing it’s very much the same idea of someone coming from somewhere and wanting to get out of it, through their skills. And comedy is still a way a lot of people make a living. If you know which lens to look through, you can see there are continuing traditions, even in this electronic, social-media obsessed world and that’s fascinating to me, that there will always be people that want to make people laugh etc. Plus there’s always resurgences, look at the ukulele. But what we need in these public institutions, not that just that items exist there, but that they are brought to the prominence and that people can write about them.
Is there anything in your opinion that could be better done to ensure that we retain the history of this amazing cabal of performers?
It’s funding really, pure and simple, funding for public institutions, being able to connect with those that do this as a hobby and those that have professional skills, because you need conservators to keep things together, to digitise things. That’s up to the governments deciding that these are worth keeping things together, the TROVE is amazing, I never would’ve been able to write the book without that. I hope that they never cut funding there, because that would be a huge step back. All of this stuff belongs to all of us, we already own it, we just need to preserve it and find ways to show this to people.
How did you find the writing of Ada compared to your other books? It must be a big departure from some of the YA and children’s fiction you’ve produced.
It was much more similar to writing a column, except with regard to length. I used to think that my perfect form for writing was the 800-word column, because you could get in, make your point, make a few laughs and that would be that. So it was different with a structured story, but there was such a huge freedom in being able to be cheeky and naughty and have this whole other voice, that I found to be incredibly liberating. So I did love it and in some ways, it will be a relief to go back to non-fiction, there’s fewer options, you have to stick to the facts and what people understand. To me, with the non-fiction, the stakes are high, I’ve got to make sure I get it right. But when I’m writing fiction I know it’s OK to make something up and that was fun.
Could you tell us a bit about your writing process, did you find it was different from your norm with Ada?
It’s much easier to write non-fiction, because there’s already something to start with, you’ve got the facts or something you have to convey, and if there’s a deadline, you really have to get to it and you don’t have many excuses, because you can’t argue you don’t have the inspiration. But I did have to bring that discipline to the writing of Ada, there were a couple of times when I thought that I wouldn’t finish it, I thought I could keep writing it forever and be eternally trapped in thinking about what people would be wearing, and the like, because I enjoyed the research so much – in case you couldn’t tell [Laughs].
So I’m relieved that I wrote the book in the end and it’s absolutely terrifying to release it, because there’s still a part of me that will think – will they always laugh at me? That’s what I was thinking, I had to be brave. I’m aware of how lucky I am that I get to write for a living and it seems churlish to complain about it at all, but I did feel that I had to concentrate on finding the courage to do it and I’m glad I did. All the reactions have been positive that I’ve encountered so far and I’m over the moon about that.
Even though Ada has just been released, are you currently working on anything at the moment, can you tell us a bit about that?
I’ve got a project that I’m going to pitch to another library for a creative fellowship and I think something is going to develop from that. I’m about to bring out a new version of Kid Wrangling, I’m always consulting doctors, for each reprint every year, I make sure that they are up-to-update, I’ve consulted about twenty-five doctors about the new version of that. And there’s been interest in having Ada adapted as a play. So yes, plenty in the works.
You can buy Ada from Penguin Random House here: https://www.penguin.com.au/books/ada-9780670077939
Find out more about Kaz Cooke here: http://www.kazcooke.com.au
About the interviewer: Samuel Elliott is a Sydney-based author that has been published in Antic, The Southerly, Compulsive Reader, MoviePilot, Writer’s Bloc, Vertigo, Good Reading, FilmInk, Veranadah, The Big Issue and The Independent. He is currently working on his novel series, ‘Milan Milton: Heiress’ in between completing a degree and working two jobs within the television industry. Find him at: