Feature image credit: DMCPR Media
Kirsty Jagger is a journalist by trade, works for the Department of Premier & Cabinet (NSW), and now, thanks to her success in securing the inaugural Heyman Mentorship Award (established by acclaimed Australian author Kathryn Heyman) in 2019, she is also a published author. The Award is presented to a writer from a background of social or economic disadvantage, and the result is her debut novel, Roseghetto.
Jagger’s book takes some inspiration from growing up in the housing commission estates of Sydney’s western suburbs. It follows the childhood and teenage years of Shayla, bookended by her return to the location for much of the story: the recently demolished housing estate of Rosemeadow, which triggers the flood of memories that are contained between the opening and closing chapters.
Glam Adelaide was fortunate enough to grab some time with Kirsty to talk about the book and its influences. My first question was about the where the idea from the book came from and how the Award helped in its realisation.
“It changed the trajectory of the book. I’d spent a couple of years drafting, but I felt it needed something more,” Jagger tells me. “I’d investigated mentoring and joined the Australian Writers’ Mentoring Program, decided to enter for the Award and gave it a red-hot go. I was genuinely surprised to win it! Winning an award, especially as an unpublished author, changes your perspective.”
This statement about being unpublished leads me to ask Kirsty about the timeline from the receipt of the grant to the novel’s publication and whether it was, like so many things, COVID-impacted. “Actually no. Most of book was written during COVID. At the time, I was working in Disaster Communications, with all the bushfire and flood activity, which put the book in the back seat.”
The book is set in various locations, but the central one is that of Rosemeadow. “It’s a real place, community housing in South-West Sydney near Campbelltown. I spent five years living there, before the Campbelltown (Macquarie Fields) Riots. I went back, with my Mum, to be inspired. Journalism is so precise. I found that what I was lacking was the detail. I went there to find it demolished — the house where I grew up was gone — and I thought: “How do I capture it, now it’s gone?’”
The greatest gift that this visit provided for Kirsty was the beginning and end, which is true to life, including the skip bin. While there, Kirsty even spoke to a member of the works team, just as Shayla does. “He told me a lot of people had come back; that was when I knew I wasn’t alone. He even asked my Mum and I if we had ended up somewhere better.” These intricate and intimate details are captured perfectly and were a driving force for the work. “There is a change in suburban landscape, which means a lot of people will feel displacement from the loss. This book provides a grounding point, I hope, showing people from these areas that they are not alone, not forgotten.”
We move on to the central character, Shayla, and the obvious question: What bits of Kirsty are in Shayla? “Shayla is a vehicle, which is why so much happens to her. What happens to her is taken from different people that I’ve met.”
The first core scene, a defining moment for Shayla, is one that many people from this socio-economic landscape — both parents and children — would recognise: the visitation handover. “The earliest scene was palpable — it is visceral and the hardest scene to write. Writing for a three-year-old is not easy — I consulted friends who have a three-year-old and asked them about the language they would use and how they would communicate.”
I mention that, even with the earliest of scenes, when Shayla is quite young, her internalised thoughts are very mature, coupled with the expected language of a toddler. How did Kirsty reconcile that? “Shayla listens. She is exposed to this adult language, from her mother and grandparents who talk about these ‘adult issues,’ before realising that she is in the room. That became the medium to communicate adult concepts to the reader, from the perspective of a child.”
I mention to Kirsty that this epitomises the lyrics of Stephen Sondheim’s ‘Children Will Listen,’ from Into the Woods: “Careful the things you say/Children will listen/Careful the things you do/Children will see and learn.”
Shayla is not only a learner, but a teacher, too. As Kirsty points out to me: “What I really like is that despite horrific acts of violence committed against her, she is not a victim, she doesn’t victimise herself. Unconsciously, there would be impact, but consciously, she does not want to be defined by the act. She’s kind and not judgemental.”
Moving on from the character, I ask Kirsty about another key element that flows across the book: the attention to detail on Shayla’s mother Lauren’s T-shirts and musical taste, combined with the references to TV shows of the time and the books that Shayla escapes into. “That was a strategic decision to create a specific time and place. I have a playlist for every moment of my life. I wanted it to feel very real and capture the time and place, in the late ‘90s/early ‘00s, where kids have gone from playing outside to playing inside.
“I wanted Lauren to be this rock chick, whose life choices reflect the true nature of those bands and their songs. There was a strong toxic masculinity around the music of that time — the idea of love hurts. When you look at the relationships of these artists and listen to the lyrics, they were toxic songs, and their portrayal was glamourised. Shayla sees this impact on her mother and challenges them. They also had a horrible impact on young men, at a time when we were telling them to be strong and masculine, but emotional, sending very mixed messages. It’s an issue for all human beings.”
So, what’s next for Kirsty Jagger?
“I have a few ideas. I’d like to tell Lauren’s story. I am intrigued by her and how she became the woman she is in this book. I am also working on a few other ideas and short stories.”
Thanking Kirsty for her time, she pays me the ultimate compliment: “I think you might be my number one fan!” This is an “award” I am happy to take from her.
N.B.: Kirsty Jagger has created a Spotify book playlist, too – search for “Roseghetto” to enjoy the many songs featured throughout the book.
Interviewed by Glen Christie