Few Australian writers have made a contribution to Australian literature as significant and sustained as Carmel Bird. Since publishing a collection of short stories in 1983 the Tasmanian-born writer and editor has gone on to publish over thirty books, many of which have been nominated for major awards including the Miles Franklin for which she has been listed three times. There are novels including The Bluebird Café (1990), The White Garden (1995), Red Shoes (1998) and Cape Grimm (2004). Short story collections include The Woodpecker Toy Fact and Other Stories (1997), The Common Rat (1993), Automatic Teller (1996) and The Essential Bird (2005). There are also three children’s books, six non-fiction titles – including the wildly successful writer’s guide Dear Writer (1998, 1996, 2013) – numerous edited anthologies including The Writing on the Wall: Collection of Poetry and Prose by Women (1985), Australian Short Stories (1990) and The Stolen Children: Their Stories (1998) as well as editor posts for Syllable, Fine Line and Meanjin (fiction editor, 2003-2007). Her bewildering dexterity for form has also extended to the writing of a radio play for the ABC and BBC and a ballet for Tasdance. She is generally credited with initiating the formal teaching of creative writing in Melbourne in the 1980s after proposing a course at the Council of Adult Education – which no-one wanted to teach – before moving on to run popular courses at universities including RMIT, Deakin, the Victorian College of the Arts, La Trobe and Monash. Finally, there is the short fiction writing award in her name.
This year Bird has published two new books. My Hearts Are Your Hearts is a collection of twenty short stories that ends with a reflective account of their genesis, while Fair Game is a compelling 60-page essay, published in small format, which sees her return to her birthplace Tasmania, the scene of so much of her writing.
As an interview subject, Bird is energetic, generative and vividly attentive to story and detail. For this interview we conversed over a period of several weeks, starting with a phone call before moving to a long and enthusiastic email exchange. ‘I think best’, she said in early correspondence, ‘with my fingers on the keyboard.’ Generous responses to questions arrived always within 24 hours of being sent, usually late at night or early in the morning, and were often followed with further musings, references or the beginning of a short piece of writing that had been triggered by subjects we’d conversed over earlier in the day. She is fond of suggestive references and of images and often sent visual material to illustrate a point. We have included some of these images in this interview.
Bird lives in country Victoria, having left Tasmania in the 1960s, and she divides her time between writing, travelling for literary workshops and events, and sharing her love of stories and the natural environment with her grandchildren. She writes in a room where the light plays against a golden ash tree and a big disco ball that sits on the desk behind her laptop, filling the room, as she described in another recent interview, with ‘coinspots of light’. Bird has said in the past that reviewers’ sometimes miss the ‘subtleties’ of her work. We discussed her critical reception, her relationship to Tasmania and her writing process, amongst other topics.
Rachel Morley: The first time we spoke on the phone you were in between writing engagements – an event in Tasmania followed by an in-conversation in Canberra with Marion Halligan. Do you do a lot of travelling?
Carmel Bird: Because I have two newish books at the moment I have been going off to other places for public appearances of various kinds. This will continue well into 2016, and I do enjoy it. Long ago I saved an advertisement page from Vanity Fair – I don’t know where it is now, but it is vivid in my memory. It’s a black and white image of an exquisite Edwardian beaded handbag, advertising perfume, with no sign of anything except the bag, which presumably contains among other things the perfume. The caption is: ‘Put all your troubles in a beaded bag and leave home.’ Troubles? Those words, referring as they do to a World War One song I remember from childhood – ‘Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag and smile, smile, smile’ – play in my head whenever I am packing to go to the airport. The whole thing suggests and summarises for me the joy and magical nature of travel as well as the deep emotional meaning of ‘home’. The verb ‘to leave’ is a powerful one. I am quite a good and economical packer – if only everything fitted into a fancy beaded bag.
You’ve reminded me of that lovely quote from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes where he writes, ‘I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.’ And then there’s the peace that comes from arriving home. Gaston Bachelard referred to it as coming back to the house where the dreaming is sheltered and protected – an idea I’ve always loved, especially as far as writing is concerned. Does that idea of home as a site of sheltered dreaming resonate with you?
Yes I think that’s it – I do enjoy the actual moving. It always feels like progress, and why not? And I specially love the Bachelard quote – oh – the house. I do like the word ‘house’ where the dreaming is sheltered and protected. Yes! You can see it resonates with me. The sweet, gracious feeling, the gift, of getting home and opening the door and being welcomed in by just the shelter itself, and by the dreams themselves.
Is it difficult to balance your public commitments with your writing practice?
I complain savagely about having to abandon the laptop and organise travel and pack and actually lock the door behind me and head off, leaving my writing routine behind. But once the actual journey is in motion, I revel in it, and find joy also in the way that inspiration floods in from the time I stash the keys in their designated zip pocket. I don’t take my laptop with me, so I can’t do any serious work, but I take a little paper notebook in which I jot stuff. This will mainly be details that will later go into my journal, and there will also be bits of inspiration for future stories.
‘Journal’ is a rather grand word I think. I call my journal a ‘Book of Three Good Things’. The idea is that I recall three good things from each day and write them down. They can be slight, such as discovering or remembering a word, or they can be larger and more complex – seeing a grandchild for the first time. I make it sound more organised and interesting than it really is. And I can record bad things too, but the focus is on at least three goodies every day. There are no hard and fast rules.
I did wonder whether you kept a journal or notebook. What are some of the newly discovered or remembered words that have caught your attention lately?
A friend recently read me ‘Aubade’ by Philip Larkin, and I remembered we studied an ‘Aubade’ by Edith Sitwell at school. I became fascinated by the word ‘aubade’ – broadly a poem or love song that welcomes the dawn – and I discovered that the form originated in Medieval France. I liked that. Naturally I still have the poetry book we used. It’s called Feet on The Ground. I never understood the title. The editor, Margaret J. O’Donnell, says in her Foreword that she gave it this title because she is taking an ‘unpretentious’ approach. This doesn’t really explain or help.
Another nice recent word was ‘quercus’ meaning ‘oak’. I was in the park with my grandson and we were reading the labels on the trees. We went on to talk about Latin and the Roman Empire and so forth.
Many writers describe themselves as introverts, almost by creative necessity, given the time that’s required for observation, reflection and writing. Do you see yourself as an introvert or extrovert, or perhaps somewhere in between?
Introvert, extrovert. I don’t know. Yes, it takes time to observe, reflect, write and write again. I often think, not in terms of psychology, but in more ordinary terms, and I think I am and always have been observant – and kind of creepy.
There is a moment when this self-awareness dawned on me. I was eight and the mother of the girl across the street had taken poison and died. This was such a blinding and overwhelming event. I thought: I can’t do anything about this. Then a bright and shocking thought, sharp and dangerous, lit up my imagination, and I thought: But I can keep it like a horrible treasure or secret and I can do something with it. Obviously as a child I was not supposed to be talking about it. That was the moment when experience and events and ideas became for me the material, the fabric of fiction. It took many years for this particular material to manifest in my fiction, but I hoarded it until I was ready. The story is told – in a kind of metafiction mode – in ‘Pomona Avenue’, which I think is in The Essential Bird. Horrible, no?
Everybody’s early life is to some extent disrupted by sad, ugly, frightening events, and some people become, as result, writers of fiction, and some don’t. The fiction writer takes those moments and works with them in order to do, I think, broadly two things – one is to make sense for the writer, and the other is to entertain, inform, illuminate, but above all connect with, readers.
That’s exactly it, isn’t it? Writers do tend to collect and store moments from the past – often ones that are dark and difficult to comprehend – only to have them resurface in subsequent writing in ways that might not always be expected. It strikes me that your work sometimes engages with fragmented or collaged memory, and I’d like to ask you about that later, but I want to pursue this idea of using writing to make sense. You wrote somewhere once that ‘inventing narrative’ has long been your way of ‘sorting through the world’. Can you say more about that?
Inventing narrative to sort through the world – that sounds about right. I recently wrote a short story inspired by a series of advertisements for high-end air travel. Other elements in the story are the question of euthanasia, and also the story of the Germanwings plane that crashed in the French Alps. I really love constructing narratives, and I get a great deal of pleasure from writing short fiction. Maybe the essay at the end of My Hearts Are Your Hearts partly explains the function of this sorting process. Writing (fiction and also essays) is really my way of getting perspective, and it feels like a really good thing to do. I am simply always alert to details that seem to jump out at me and stick to other details – and the narrative develops. I often feel when I respond to questions that I haven’t quite got to the bottom of things.
What are your early memories of storytelling and reading?
When I was six I wanted to take books out of the local children’s library, but you had to be older, maybe seven. I was devastated. Insulted, actually. So my father took me round to the adult library – these charming old Launceston buildings no longer exist – where he said I could take out a book on his card. This was magic indeed. He asked me what I wanted to get and, because my older sister was reading David Copperfield I said I would like something by Dickens. My father led the way up a handsome narrow wooden spiral staircase and from a shelf of fat books bound in golden-brown leather I chose Barnaby Rudge. I picked it because it had an illustration of Dolly Varden who was so pretty, flirtatious, and also had the name of a cake we used to get from the nearby cake shop. This cake shop makes an appearance in my novel The Bluebird Café. Nothing special really, just a cake shop, but these things lodge in the memory and the imagination and are on hand for fiction.
Here is the picture that was in the book. It’s by William Powell Frith. I have an old postcard of it that I keep in a frame. Dolly Varden is also the name of a kind of trout, so named, I think, because Dolly had in her wardrobe a green and pink spotted dress, and the trout resembles the dress, I think.
Anyway, I was ecstatic about having the library book. However, when I got it home and set about reading it, I discovered that although I could recognise quite a few words, I was unable to make any sense of it. Weeping all the while, I ran my finger along the lines and turned the pages. Looked at the pictures. My mother read some of it to me, but it didn’t really do it for me after all. I did embark, as soon as I could read better, on a diet of Dickens. And by the time I was ten I was adapting sections of the novels as little dramas. These were one of the first things I wrote. They were either monologues or two-handers for me to perform, alone or with another child, in local eisteddfods. I continued to write these literary adaptations until I was seventeen and left home to go to university in Hobart. Not just Dickens – a lot of Dickens and lot of Lewis Carroll, and a bit of Charles Kingsley, and J.M. Barrie and so forth.
I should add a bit about some storytelling I used to do. I had big Spirax notebooks and in them I used to draw vast families, and I would add the details of their lives and histories. I wish I still had one of these books, but they have disappeared.
It sounds like you grew up in an environment that tended to the wilds of your imagination.
I used to go to a speech teacher down the road called Mrs Marsden. She lived in a romantic house built from dark oiled timber. This is going to sound as if I am fantasising – so be warned. The house had diamond leadlight windows and pointy gables, and crazy paving pathways that wound through a garden of European trees and flower beds. Foxgloves, delphiniums, roses, willows. Little ponds. Fish. Lessons took place in the Blue Sitting Room. Mrs Marsden taught speech and also manners, elaborate manners. One of her special speech projects was the learning by heart of Alice in Wonderland. Another thing was a daily reading from the Old Testament – not for religious or even narrative reasons, but for the language and the music. As part of my performances of the short literary dramas, I had costumes, which I mostly made myself with the help of my mother and a lady up the street called Mrs Winter. The scenery was made by my father. Notable was the giant mushroom he constructed for the Wonderland caterpillar. It had in it holes through which I subtly pulled on a wire a green caterpillar toy belonging to my little brother. Just a couple of months ago when this brother was visiting me from Western Australia, I gave him back his caterpillar.
I was obsessed with William books by Richmal Crompton. I still have my collection of them. Beautiful prose, actually. Terrific dialogue. And the other key literary influence was a blue leather book of the stories of the Brothers Grimm (now lost). It had black and white lithographic illustrations by George Cruikshank, as did several of the novels by Dickens that I also collected. The pictures in the Grimm were somehow much more nasty and transfixing than the ones in the Dickens. The stories haunted me, gripped me in a visceral way, and kind of choked me with horror. The worst one was ‘The Juniper Tree’ and I am still in its thrall.
Another influence was Donald Duck comics, which my father used to read (yes) to my brother and me (really to my brother, but I used to listen). He also read us Wind in the Willows. And there was all the poetry I used to learn in order to recite (terrible word) for eisteddfods. I have a dear little blue poetry book my sister gave me for my sixth birthday. And of course there was always Cole’s Funny Picture Book. That was a big influence, as were encyclopaedias. I have a flimsy book called Pictorial World Atlas from which I learnt about such places as the Taj Mahal, the Parthenon, Sancta Sophia, the Tomb of Columbus, Parliament House Canberra. To get the pictures for this book you had to buy many penny blocks of Nestlé milk chocolate.
And we had two large volumes called The Cyclopedia of Tasmania, being ‘an historical and commercial review’, and containing matters ‘descriptive and biographical, facts, figures, illustrations.’ It is ‘an epitome of progress’. It was first published in 1900. My copy is a facsimile produced in 1988, my brother retaining the real thing. I used to study these books over and over.
You mentioned the Brothers Grimm. That interests me because you do such compelling work with the narratives and motifs associated with fairy stories in your fiction. I’m thinking here for example, of Cape Grimm, which begins with a riveting evocation of fairy tale style and lore. Then there was your 2014 keynote speech to the Australian Fairy Tale Society, which teased out the textures and layers woven into this kind of writing. Can you say a bit more about the formative place of fairy tales in your early reading?
The fairy stories have influenced my work at a deep as well as a superficial level. I think that perhaps because I drank them in at an early age, from one book, and with those pictures too, that they were able to chime with the darker places of my imagination, and to lodge in my ‘heart’ for want of a better word. The rhythms of the prose were also deep and seductive. ‘Once in the middle of winter, when snowflakes were falling like feathers from the sky, a queen sat by her window and sewed. As she sewed, three drops of blood fell upon the snow. And the queen said: I wish I had a child as white as snow and as red as blood and as black as the ebony of this window frame.’ You know the rest. It has everything – the royal mother, the child, the colours of alchemy, the death, the step-mother, poison, the escape, the safety, the danger, the evil, the death-sleep, the kiss of life, the prince – and life goes on. When a child pores over that, over and over again, lessons of all kinds are learned, including lessons in writing fiction. I think the largest space on my bookshelves is taken up with books of and about fairytales.
I would dearly love to edit a collection of new stories by contemporary writers, stories somehow clearly influenced by fairy tales in various ways. Such things are all the rage overseas, but Australian publishers are not particularly interested. I wish I could persuade them (well, just one of them would do) to see that such a book really could sell.
What was high-school like for you? Were you an attentive student?
You bet I was attentive; I had an agenda. I went to Launceston High school, which was selective and co-educational. What I most looked forward to was learning French. At home we had old French books, and I longed to be able to speak and read the language. I was not disappointed. The French teacher was a real French lady. I worshipped her. I still have my French textbooks, and I know some of the stories off by heart. This was at a time (early fifties) when Tasmania was taking in a lot of people from Europe, after the Second World War. I suppose Madame was part of that. I was given two Dutch girls to look after. One of them, Netty, had pure white hair and was incredibly intelligent. I have no idea what became of her, or of the other girl whose name I have forgotten. My aim was to get to university and to get to France. I achieved both those ambitions. Also at high school I had the good fortune to meet a brilliant teacher of English, Loris Russell. In Form Two she said I could ignore English homework and submit each week a section of a novel. She used to give me ten out of ten every week and because I added illustrations she would make it ten plus one or two or three. I know this makes no sense, but it was nice. I became the editor of the school magazine, and I won a school prize in year twelve for a short story. The book I got was Mansfield Park with a red leather cover and graceful watercolour illustrations. When my book The Woodpecker Toy Fact was published in 1987, Miss Russell launched it at a pub in Hobart.
Another great thing about the school was the Art Department. I became obsessed with art and the history of art, and it fed my fascination with France too. In our garden my father built a playhouse for us when we were little, and when I was doing art I turned it into my studio. I also used to go to oil painting lessons at night at the local technical school.
I think it’s impossible to interview you and not talk about Tasmania. It’s been a recurrent theme in your work, your identity as a writer and, it would seem, the way you have come to conceptualise much of the world. How did growing up in Tasmania shape the tenor of your imagination?
Big question. Some of the answer is built into some of the other answers. The place was key, but also the time. I was born early in the second world war and my very early life was spent surrounded by radio bulletins about the war. The war was the focus of everything. My mother was always knitting Red Cross bandages and socks and balaclavas. I learned to knit very early, and made thick white strips for bandages. I could do a straighter edge than my aunt could. My father was not in the armed forces; I am not really sure why. He made a fantastic bomb shelter at the bottom of the garden. We had gas masks and toy akak guns and we used to play at hunting and killing ‘Japs and Germans.’ My mother and aunt used to take me to the movies, which were mostly stories about the war. Once we saw a horror movie called The Spiral Staircase. Murderer hidden in the wardrobe kills girl in wheelchair. I remember it vividly. During celebrations of the end of the war I became lost in a crowd of service people. A circle of big people in khaki. I told them who I was and they returned me to my mother.
I have never enunciated all this about the elements that fed and fashioned my imagination before. It’s a demanding exercise. Those Cruikshank drawings, the war, distant but always present.
I have a treasure that an uncle brought home from the war in the Middle East. It’s a dried up plant called the Rose of Bagdad, or Resurrection Plant. It resembles a little brown claw. If you immerse it in water for about an hour, the claw opens up as if by a miracle. It looks alive; it isn’t of course, but it is, well, magical I suppose. It has always been kept in a fancy little pepper pot – or is it a sugar caster – carved with roses, and I have always taken pleasure in watching it come to life. It is a dead thing that comes from ‘the war’ and if you give it water it will ‘come alive’. This is too simple a metaphor for the flowering of the imagination – well – it doesn’t’ even work – but it just occurred to me to talk about it. A marvellous thing, water.
I wish I could talk more theoretically sometimes. Expressing these things in concrete terms as I do is probably only half the story.
To describe my imagination – it is a combination of very dark and also very light, airy. The result of this can be fiction that shivers along, sometimes dropping into the dark, sometimes whisking up into a realm close to hilarity. I think.
In the concluding essay of My Hearts Are Your Hearts you note that being in Tasmania as a child was like existing in a ‘special kind of nowhere’. Can you say more about what you meant by this?
There is a gatekeeper’s house at the roadside end of the Cataract Gorge in Launceston. When I was a child I thought this was a real fairy tale cottage, and I imagined that one day I might live in it. This dream did in fact materialize. I was the guest of Tasdance who were producing some of my short stories as dance, and they offered me the cottage, which is now part of the accommodations belonging to (probably) Arts Tasmania. I visited it with the intention of staying, and realised that I couldn’t stay there after all. I thought it was dark and uncomfortable and gloomy and lonely and there were rats and possums. Cold, very, very cold. The roof was thick with slimy dead leaves. Possibly a lot like a fairy tale, actually.
Anyway, when I was young I had fairly frequent glimpses of similar outcroppings of the evidence of what I thought was some sort of other reality. This is not unusual in children I suppose. However I was sharply aware that Tasmania, with its profoundly ugly colonial history, the abuse and genocide of the Indigenous peoples, and its position as the forgotten scrap off the southern coast of the sprawling continent, was insignificant to the point of being invisible, even non-existent. I played with this idea in my head and imagined that the whole place was a secret, or even that it really didn’t exist. Yet there I was, leading a perfectly ordinary and satisfactory life in a proper house with fruit trees, lovebirds, a rabbit, a galah and a dog. The place itself is sweet and beautiful in so many ways. It might be related to the supernatural realm of Tir na nOg (sic), land of joy and youth and beauty. My heritage is all Celtic.
You can see it’s hard to explain what was going on in my head. I found living in Tasmania very special and exhilarating.
It’s worth noting though that you grew up dreaming of otherwheres – like Paris.
Here I am in Paris in 1965. I had just bought the coat I am wearing. It was a wonderful dark emerald green sculptured velvet. I don’t know exactly where the fountain was. With my husband I also went to other parts of France, and to England, Scotland, Wales, Belgium, Switzerland, Greece and Italy.
Did it feel like a particularly wild ambition for a young woman from Tasmania?
No, not really. Maybe the ambitions that are formed in childhood must of their nature not feel wild to the dreamer. Everything is in the future; everything is both possible and impossible. But you can tell from what I have said that I was quite practical in my approach. I saved small amounts of money for years. And worked pretty hard on studying the language and culture. I loved French history.
To be there felt marvellous, breath-taking. I was living there, and working as an au pair, and going to lectures at the Sorbonne. Just walking along the streets, getting on the Metro, buying cheese. Actually going to the Louvre and Notre Dame and Deux Magots and Sacré-Cœur and Montmartre and the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe and the Orangerie. The puppets in the Luxembourg Gardens. I first heard of them in my school French books. Doing all that. Imagine. I saw Fonteyn and Nuryev dance Giselle at the Opéra. Forgive me for listing all these places; I just love writing them down.
You drove across America reading Kerouac too. On the Road?
My husband was teaching at UCLA, so we lived in LA. I worked in the bathing suit bit of a department store, and also wrote short stories, none of which has survived as far as I know in any form. There was a man downstairs called Ron, and he was writing stories too. I don’t remember his other name. Perhaps he has written something wonderful. We would read our work to each other. It was he who gave me the Kerouac. When we left LA we drove to New York. I was mostly reading Lolita, which appealed to me more than On the Road, actually. I love Nabokov. Maybe I should try reading On the Road again. Perhaps I am ready for it.
Let’s turn back to Tasmania. I was interested to read you’ve been collecting cuttings and what you call ‘odd little references’ about Tasmania since you were 15.
Yes, I still collect these references. They are just slight mentions of the word ‘Tasmania’ when the writer wants to suggest a distant, inconsequential, maybe silly or even enchanted place. They usually carry a derogatory flavour. Here is one from Between the Acts by Virginia Woolf. I think it was the first one I recorded: ‘She was born, but it was only gossip said so, in Tasmania.’
Part of the reason I ask about this, I suppose, is because in many ways your newly published essay Fair Game seems to take its lead from these odd little references’, perhaps some of those ‘stored moments’ we referred to earlier. One of the many things I like about the essay is its form; it feels like a kind of bricolage, a collage of found items, reflections, memories and cultural histories that pull together a particular reading and way of understanding Tasmania. Does that description fit for you or do you see the work differently?
In a way that is what Fair Game is, although more than being straight ‘collage’, I think perhaps it is characterised by the freedom to fly from one element to another, while taking care of the reader, giving enough connection for the reader to move along with the text. I actually was aware as I wrote the essay that flight itself was a motif. My birth surname is Power, not Bird – Bird is a married name – but I do seem to like the metaphoric quality of Bird.
Fair Game feels like a particularly special book. What does it mean to you?
Yes, it’s a bit odd that it is such a teeny tiny book. I was so long ago captivated by the image of the glorious butterflies flying to their doom, rejected by the vile women in England, captured by the hideous men in Van Diemen’s Land. The narrative of the picture is so stark, so simple; the execution so graphic, brilliant, subtle, sly. I knew as soon as I saw it that it was my inspiration for something, and I did toy with the idea of writing a novel, but not very seriously. I could tell that there was going to be a way that I could record my personal response to the picture, and by so doing, express some of my deepest feelings about the history of Tasmania and my feelings about being Tasmanian.
What really happened in the end (November 2014) was that I was sitting at my desk, looking out the window at the golden ash coming into leaf, and I saw the few petals of the plum blossom caught in the spider web and dancing in the breeze, and I just started to write the essay. I just let it develop as it did. Flying about the place. Such freedom.
I think I am so very fortunate that this essay caught the eye of Julian Davies at FinlayLloyd. Julian was the perfect editor and publisher for it. If he had not published it I would have just put it on my blog, and then I would have put it in a collection of essays, which, by the way, I am compiling. It’s called Vital Links and will include Fair Game and some new as well as other old essays.
How conscious have you been of the politics of your writing, of being, perhaps, part of a conversation that deals with aspects of this country’s history that others would rather not face?
I have always been aware of the politics of the writing. I felt as a child that there was spiritual evidence of the Indigenous people who had disappeared. This was incredibly unfashionable in the 1940s, so unfashionable as to be non-existent except in the imaginations of people like me – and I didn’t know any of those, although Henry Reynolds was growing up in Hobart at the time.
I used to manufacture physical evidence of that fact that Indigenous people had been in the land. I would draw rock art on the sides of the local quarry – I wasn’t even meant to go there – and I would show these to other children as my ‘discoveries’. I also used to search for broad arrows on bricks of old buildings and they were not so hard to find.
Everyone agreed that convicts were real, but of course that was all in the past, and nothing to do with us. I thought it actually was our business. Well, I thought it was romantic and very interesting. Dark and horrible and fascinating.
I am not really saying I was particularly different. Just telling you how it was.
You edited The Stolen Children: Their Stories collection in the late 1990s, which took its lead from the Bringing Them Home Report. I imagine that would have been a very challenging project?
Yes, it was very, very hard work in just about every way you can think of. The publisher was very supportive and so was my partner John O’Meara. Sir Ronald Wilson, President of the Human Rights Commission, was particularly helpful and understanding of what I was doing. But some of the Indigenous writers were highly suspicious of me, as were their legal representatives, and also some of the people at the Human Rights Commission. I understand that the attitudes came from real historic reason, but sometimes it was all very hard for me. One legal woman’s first question to me was an aggressive, ‘who are you working for?’. I wasn’t working for anybody. So I was considered to be particularly dangerous, I think, because they couldn’t place me.
The real names and addresses of the writers were protected so I didn’t know them. I met many obstructions along the way but I became more determined as I went along. I remember that when I had finished the whole manuscript I was so anxious about it that I accidentally deleted the file from my computer. John was able to recover it. One of the Indigenous writers became very interested in the project and would ring me up in the early hours of the morning to discuss it at length.
How did the collection develop and what was your role as editor?
When the report Bringing Them Home was published, as I recall, John rushed into the city and bought a copy and we skimmed it very quickly. The idea of reducing it for popular use was his. So within – oh – a day or two, I had proposed an edited version to Random House. I also had to get permission from the Human Rights Commission. All I wanted to do was to extract the stories that the people of the Stolen Generation had told to the Commission, and showcase them in a smaller book, leaving out all the other material in the Report. And then began the process of contacting the Indigenous storytellers (who remained anonymous, as I have said) and getting their written permission through their legal representatives. Then I added comments from various key people such as John Howard and Veronica Brady and so on.
Let’s turn to your writing practice. You write across many forms – novels, short stories, essays, memoir, and blogs and other electronic text types. Is there a mode in which you feel most comfortable, most at ease?
It’s short fiction. I love it!
Have you ever started a work in one form only to find it needs to take the form of another?
A lot of my fiction has a slightly hybrid flavor – some of the feel of an essay, I think – but no, the form doesn’t change. I did write a little short story about the butterfly women long before I wrote the essay – but that is really just a matter of taking one inspiration and responding to it in two different genres. My boundaries are wavy. I just set about writing really, and the form presents itself with the material as I write.
In his review of My Hearts Are Your Hearts and Fair Game Peter Craven called you a ‘literary artist to [your] fingertips’. He said, ‘[s]he is a writer who believes – and they are rarer than they should be – in composition in the musical phrase. She is a maker of fiction in the tradition of Joyce and of his master Flaubert who writes prose that has the precision of poetry and that uncanny quality poetry has of making the inner life speak. That is because she knows how to make it sound. For Bird, as for Ezra Pound, the emotion is in the cadence…’. How do these observations resonate with the way you think about writing, about the way you approach language, and what you hope your stories might do on the page – and to the reader?
As I write I feel the words singing. Sometimes I actually hum as I write. And I usually read my work aloud after a while. I get great pleasure from doing that, and I make changes – usually small ones. I have been fortunate to have editors such as the wonderful Linda Funnell, Meredith Rose, Hilary McPhee, Sophie Cunningham, Roseanne Fitzgibbon and Julian Davies who have been alert and sensitive to the lyrical nature of what I write. Sometimes I do encounter editors who just don’t get it, and who want to bleach the music out of it all. Then life becomes a bit difficult. But we get there in the end.
A few months ago Ursula Le Guin spoke about the physical energy it takes to write a novel. She said she used to work from 8am to 10pm during what she called ‘peak times’. What kind of hours do you keep when you’re preparing a new work?
Wonderful Ursula Le Guin. Yes, it takes a lot of physical (and mental and emotional) energy – and time and organisation. I work most days. I start at about seven am or earlier. This is when I want to start, but it is also useful because the world doesn’t usually want to interfere until late morning. I don’t have a social life really. I do have family responsibilities. But somehow most days I can write all morning and all night – finishing up about eleven, usually. But, of course, it can go on later.
What does it feel like when you are caught in the heat of dreaming up or writing a story? Do you lose track of time, for example?
Yes, I do lose track of time. I am a mixture of dreaminess and severe practicality though. So there is usually a consciousness at some level that on the outer edges there are places to go and things to do, and so I get there and I do things on time too.
There’s a tendency to ask writers about periods of productivity, like I have just done. There’s the assumption that writers are always writing, that they are compulsive. But this isn’t always the case. Are you one of those writers who is always working on something, or do you go through periods of inactivity where you don’t want to write, or perhaps can’t or won’t?
I’m always writing – even if only in my head. I take notes on paper – often backs of envelopes and other scraps, I confess. But yes, I am always writing. It’s what defines me. If I need defining, what I am is a writer. That’s what I do.
An issue that has being picked up in the arts media recently is the importance of self-care for artists, which can be challenging given the artist’s life often involves freelance work, funding applications, long hours, and voluntary/free labour. Given you’ve been involved in writing and publishing for several decades now, I wonder what you notice about the challenges writers face in building and sustaining healthy, viable and vibrant careers, and any advice you might have for managing the demands of the creative environment?
Healthy, viable and vibrant – gosh, I don’t know much about any of that. I am healthy and I get by and I have a lot of pleasure in the writing. I always put writing first – apart from family. Writing comes before social life, housework. It’s all about the work.
Self-care, funding applications – maybe these are matters for people who are much younger than I am. I used to apply for grants, and sometimes I got the money, and sometimes I didn’t, and so I got jobs. But it was and is still always a matter of putting the writing first and planning the other stuff around it. Actually, I think the one challenge might be to convince other people that the writing is important. And the first person who has to be convinced is the one doing the writing. I never had any trouble convincing myself.
If by ‘voluntary/free labour’ you mean reading everybody’s manuscripts and commenting for nothing – I just don’t do it. I don’t read anybody’s manuscript for love or money. Being employed to teach writing – that’s different – of course then I do read students’ work, and comment, et cetera. But writers often send me their work for comment and even if they offer to pay I don’t do it.
I will read a book and write a comment for the cover because I am interested in doing that. It isn’t love or money – it’s just interesting.
It seems fitting to ask you this because in one way or another, you have dedicated much of your professional life not only to writing but to helping other writers, whether through books like Dear Writer, which has been such a vital resource, through teaching and mentoring, and most recently in My Hearts Are Your Hearts which concludes with a self-reflective essay on practice, influences and inspiration. It leads me to wonder who (or what) you turned to when you were first starting out?
In the late 1960s one of my closest friends was a very senior and experienced court reporter on the Melbourne Herald Sun – Columb Brennan. He used to discuss writing with me, and his comments were so wise and straight-forward. I learnt a great deal from him, and later in the nineties John O’Meara was my very best reader. But most of what I know I got from reading, reading, reading. Not advice. Reading and working it out.
I wonder now what it would have been like to have gone to university classes in writing, to have done a PhD in writing etc. In Australia in the sixties there were no Creative Writing Courses. I recall that in the early eighties I was teaching French at the Melbourne Council of Adult Education – and the director asked me if I taught any other subjects too. I said I could teach people to write short stories and he said that he didn’t think anybody would be interested. I said maybe we could give it a try. So we did. I think it must have been the first short story writing course in Melbourne. (Somebody might correct me here, but I speak to the best of my knowledge.)
And yes, Dear Writer, from 1988, now re-incarnated by Spineless Wonders as Dear Writer Revisited has a place in the hearts and minds of many writers. Also my book on memoir Writing the Story of Your Life gives many people the confidence to start organising their memories for posterity.
Let’s turn now to reviewing and the reception of your work. In 2004 you indicated in an interview that you sometimes felt your work was ‘trivialised by reviewers who perhaps often do not have the time to give to the reading and so miss some of the subtleties of the texts’. Do you still think this is the case?
These days my work is hardly ever reviewed so there is less of a problem I suppose. There was a very strong review in the Australian Book Review – by Susan Midalia – of My Hearts Are Your Hearts – and a most detailed and abundant review by Peter Craven in the Fairfax papers, but that was about all, at least in the print media. I was thrilled by both those readings of the books. There have been nice bits and pieces about them on blogs I think. Actually, when you got in touch with me about doing this interview, I could hardly believe it. Where did you get the idea from I wonder.
You see I don’t have a sense that my work is particularly significant in the scheme of Australian writing. It’s a big country. I have written 30 books, and have had many short-listings. I don’t think short-listings mean much, actually. I’m still having a great time writing and giving masterclasses etc.
The Spanish scholar Gerardo Rodríguez-Salas marked out the territory of your work when he described it as fiction that ‘while being highly individual and varied, sits within the Australian traditions of both Peter Carey’s fabulism and Thea Astley’s humane wit. The work,’ he went on to say, ‘has been compared with that of Angela Carter and Jeannette Winterson, and yet there is a rogue quality about it that brings it into the realm of Kurt Vonnegut and even Gabriel Marquez.’
Gerardo has read my work particularly carefully and sympathetically. Yes, he has marked out its territory, and his description of it is, I think, a real clue to the reason for its not necessarily being part of the Australian literary scene. The rogue quality – what a fabulous term. Not popular, not literary. I can’t write any other way. So there it is. Rogue.
The most recent Stella Count suggests that male authors and reviewers are still dominating coverage. Yet, interestingly, women have started to trump the annual literary prizes and of course the majority of readers and festival attendees are women. How do you see this playing out in the coming years?
Prophecy is not my thing. But I think the Stella Prize is a brilliant innovation, largely because it makes the whole problem so visible. Women have always been the dominant group at literary festivals, and maybe they always will be. It’s such a nice little switch – that Miles Franklin was a woman who wrote under a man’s name, and the prize she sponsored has so often been (in the past) won by men; then her feminine name was Stella, and the Stella prize is just for women. And ‘Stella’ is such a brilliant name anyway. It would of course be fun if men were allowed to enter the Stella Prize. I suppose some man will write under a woman’s name one time soon, and will win. That will be entertaining won’t it?
You’ve been short-listed for the Miles Franklin three times. Is it a prize that feels important to you for your own legacy, or sense of place in the Australian literary canon?
Winning would be marvelous. It’s still the most important literary prize in Australia (I imagine). And one of the ideas of publishing books is to have people read them. Winning important prizes helps this along. Wouldn’t it be great to be as well received as Tim Winton, for instance. But being realistic, it’s a bit of a waste of energy worrying about any of it.
I am trying to unpack this question. Is it this – if you won the Miles Franklin would that give you a place in Australian literary history? I went to the list of past winners just now, and yes, I have heard of most of the writers. I haven’t read all the books. Books disappear, but not completely. It’s nearly always possible to find a copy somewhere, somehow. I searched online for copies of past winning books, and several of them were apparently gone, but I know I could get a copy if I tried hard. And there are still libraries, sort of. Most writers become footnotes, I suppose. I think it is important to enjoy the writing and the publishing and just hope for the best. Agonising over prizes and one’s place in the canon and so on seems to me to be a big waste of time and energy.
Actually, today I had a bit of a shock. One of my favourite books is The Foxglove Saga by Auberon Waugh. I want to give a copy to a friend. So I went online and discovered that it is quite hard to find. I got one, but it was pretty sad really, all that.
I’ll end by asking you this: is there a particular picture of the world or essential provocation or sensibility, perhaps, that you want readers to remember your work by?
I think it isn’t ever possible to control one’s profile after death. Even if one writes an autobiography, most writers disappear. I suppose that doesn’t stop me from thinking about the ideal, being read. But really, I am constantly surprised by the things people think about my work, and by inference, my sensibility. Sometimes reviewers read my work carefully, and comment on it in a way that shows they realize what I am doing. That’s always a great feeling. Susan Midalia’s reading of My Hearts Are Your Hearts in the Australian Book Review chimed with what I thought I was doing. Peter Craven’s reading of both books was specially reflective of the work – and he has written about my books before, articulating aspects of them that drew attention to what I set out to do. And, of course, there are the profound and detailed academic essays Gerardo Rodríguez Salas has written. So there is a record of my work that accords with what I imagine I have been doing all this time, rogue that I am.