I grew up with the sounds of other languages swirling around my youthful ears. Other words, other intonations, different stresses, different meanings.
I found it fascinating that you could have words which meant the same, in translation, but bore different meanings, like calling someone a cow in Arabic or in French. One is a compliment, one is an insult.
But my love affair with history probably began when I was five and standing outside the Geelong Road State School, holding my mother's hand, on a hot summer's day. I was very uneasy and really, really wanting to go home, where there were no big rough children chasing each other and yelling and hitting each other. A boy fell over on that heartless asphalt playground and skinned his knee and there was blood. I was horrified.
Also I was wearing a hand-me-down yellow dress, out of which an orangeade stain had never washed, and I felt unsightly.
I was so small that I was viewing this Breughal scene through a forest of hems and knees. Then I bruised my nose on a straw shopping bag and was trying not to cry when I felt that I was being watched.
Just at my eye level was a small girl; my height. She had a home-made bowl haircut, deep brown beautiful eyes, and a velveteen purple dress with orange skyrockets on it. It was even uglier than mine.
Those eyes told me she was feeling exactly what I was feeling and I knew in an instant that she was my friend. I put out my hand. She put out hers. Her name was Themmy - and she is still my best friend.
But she didn't speak English then, so I had to learn Greek to talk to her; which I did badly, because she wanted to speak English as fast as possible.
But I began to pick out the Greek words in English and suddenly language possessed me. Xenos meant stranger, as in xenophobia; zoo meant animal, as in zoological gardens: poli meant many (and polis meant town); while demos as in democracy meant a community of people.
I became drunk on words and have stayed intoxicated ever since.
And Greece, of course, was the source of ancient stories. I heard them told as though they had happened in the next village: "There was the daughter of a king, and she was called Electra, because of her amber eyes…"
Then I read them in Charles Kingsley's The Heroes. I borrowed books on archaeology from the library. I was enthralled by a civilisation so complete, so beautiful, so old. I read everything I could lay my hands on. I read Henry Treece and Geoffrey Trease and Rosemary Sutcliff.
I wondered, I dreamed, I walked the streets of Ancient Greece, buying a cup of hot spiced wine and listening to the debates in the market place, or couched amongst the asphodel with my goats, chewing a straw and gazing at the Archaic sky. Whenever I didn't like the present I would retreat to the past.
I had an arrangement with the lady who ran the local op shop. I would arrive there at 9am on Saturday, when she opened, and I was allowed to sit on the floor and read as many books as I could until she shut at noon. I only had 10 cents pocket money, enough for one book, and she would let me bring it back and swap it next week if I didn't like it. I have never forgotten her kindness.
But one week, when I was 11 years old, instead of rushing in, plonking myself down and reading voraciously, book after book, I picked up Herodotus' Histories (translated by Aubrey de Selicourt) and started to read. And I was hooked, addicted, trapped and snared.
On the first page was an account of the kidnapping by Phoenicians of Io, daughter of Inarchus, off the beach in Argos, which started the Persian war. This was a whole book, written in ancient times (450-420 BC) that was stuffed with stories. When the shop closed I bought it. I still have it.
Herodotus has never failed me. Many years later I took him to Egypt with me - or rather, I took him back to Egypt; and he was as good a travel guide as Lonely Planet. (Just as Pausanius was right about which Corinthian villages had lice; and Marco Polo was still accurate when I was in China.)
Herodotus wrote about the last stand of the Spartans at Thermopylae in a way which still reduces me to tears, because it is not triumphalist or war loving but just factual.
They fought in a way which will not be forgotten. Here they resisted to the last, with their swords, while they had them, and then with their hands and their teeth, until the Persians, coming on them from behind, finally overwhelmed them.
Their epitaph is: Go tell the Spartans, passer-by That here, obedient to their laws, we lie.
It took me a long time to realise that this is not a complaint. They're boasting. The minds of the Spartans were a long way from mine and therein lies the fascination of historical writing. I cannot, being born in the 20th century, duplicate the mind of someone born 2000 years ago. But I have to try...
My Italian fellow pupils, amused by my very clumsy Calabrese and sketchy Siciliani, told me about the glories of Ancient Rome and the fact that Latin was the base for French and Spanish (but not Greek). I was learning French at school and found again the similar words: feneter and fenetre; table and tavolo; terre and terra.
So I then plunged again into everything I could find about Rome, so different from Greece. And there was so much of it, always more to read. I dived and swam like a dolphin through strange seas of Plautus and Hesiod and Juvenal and Lucan.
First Greece and Rome, and then everywhere else, as I discovered books on other ancient civilisations. Worlds full of fascinating things: Bronze Age cups and Iron Age wheelhouses; rings of ancient bluestone dragged from Wales; step pyramids with blood running down the stairs; warriors in jaguar skins with blue feathered crowns, lost worlds hacked from clinging vines or uncovered under shifting sands.
Kerry and a new history book: a picture of bliss. So when I started writing novels I wrote about the past.
I wrote my first book when I was 16. It was a fantasy, because I loved fantasy and fairy stories; another way of not being here and now.
But then, when I began in earnest - desperate for a distraction from studying law at Melbourne University (I wanted to be a lawyer to help my own people but a lot of Law is mind-bogglingly tedious) - I wrote a series of novels about a highwayman in St Albans (England) in 1840. I was inspired by Legal History research into the number of people who were actually executed in England. I had all the original documents in facsimile in the Baillieu. I had also a wonderful, inspirational professor, Dr Ruth Campbell, who told me always to read the original documents.
"Never trust historians, especially me," she said. So I did as she told me, and read the newspapers for 1928, which was not wasted, because it was the inspiration for my Phryne Fisher books.
But I never lost my love of the ancient world and finally, being young and fizzing with stories, I wrote a book about Cassandra, daughter of the Trojan King Priam, and priestess of Apollo, who prophesied the fall of Troy but was not believed. I researched it as carefully as I could. I re-read all the ancient authors. It took me a year.
Then I asked about for an academic who would launch it, and the semi-divine Dennis Pryor not only read but approved of it. And then, cruel fate, he became my source of last resort.
I recall the night, when writing Medea, that I could not remember the Ancient Greek word for snake. Icthys - fish, yes. But snake, no.
So I just rang Dennis despite the hour - around 3am - and asked him.
He said, Ophis.
I said, 'of course'… and, I believe, simply hung up on the poor man.
He forgave me. I later asked how he knew it was me and he said, quite reasonably, that I was the only person of his wide acquaintance who would ring at such an hour with such an enquiry.
They wouldn't let me do Classics at Melbourne for some bureacratic reason so my Latin is very poor. Dennis was a consummate Latinist; and Juvenal was his main man. Dennis taught Latin to almost everyone. He would start his first lesson by having them decline coca-cola (cocam colam, cocae colae...) Also he was a darling.
His generosity and his tolerance of my insane theories was inexhaustible. He even offered to translate the Orphic Hymns for me, provided I promised not to get involved in the scholarly arguments about Orphism, which are labyrinthine. I promised. He translated.
It was Dennis who taught me that all translation is betrayal. We have to do the best we can... and I have always tried to do so.
I wrote Electra out of curiosity about the original revenge drama.
I wrote Medea because I was shocked that 'everyone' knew that she had killed her own children - despite that being one of several stories about the fate of her children - and because I could find no modern Medea, amongst female murderers.
Women do not kill their children to stop the husband having them. They kill them for other reasons. I wrote a book about real-life female murderers. Medea did not match.
So I wrote about her to find out what had happened. I drew on my knowledge of remnant migrant populations for the people of Colchis; and on archaeological discoveries of females buried with weapons made for their hands; made for the Scyths/Amazons, also mentioned by my beloved friend Herodotus in his Histories.
Ancient Egypt was easier to research than either Greece or Rome, because so much more of it is still extant; including the Ancient Egyptians themselves, in mummified form. But there are always things that either no historian agrees upon, or that they leave out.
Filling those voids for my Egypt book, Out of the Black Land, took me a year's work and a visit to Egypt itself. I found myself at odds with what everyone thinks about Akhnaten; but that wasn't unusual. And I'm not an academic, so I didn't mind.
I love the past. I always feel so safe there. That's why I write historical novels.