Q & A with Carmel Bird

Q & A with Carmel Bird
Authors at the National Library
2 October 2015

Carmel Bird, writer of novels, short stories and essays, is coming to the National Library Thursday 22 October 2015 to catch up with long-time friend Marion Halligan and discuss life, literature and Carmel's new collection fo short stories, My Hearts Are Your Hearts, and her new memoir, Fair Game. Below, Carmel gives us a little sneak peek into the experience of writing her latest novel.

What are you reading right now?

For my recent birthday Marion and her partner John gave me the latest novel by John Banville—The Blue Guitar. I raced through that with immense pleasure, and now I am reading Banville’s The Infinities. It has been on my shelf for a while (published in 2009) and I only just got round to reading it. This happens quite often—I get a book and if I don’t read it straight away it can get lost under the next wave of books. I liked The Blue Guitar much more than I am liking The Infinities. They are similar to each other, and similar to many of Banville’s literary novels—dark and funny and wry—but the narrator of The Infinities is the god Hermes, and I am finding him rather tedious. Right now he  is in danger of getting lost forever under the next wave (which includes The Last Love Song by Tracy Daugherty, a biography of Joan Dideon).

How would you describe your latest book?

I actually have two books that have just been published.

One is a collection of short fiction My Hearts Are Your Hearts, published by Spineless Wonders who specialise in publishing short stories. There are twenty stories, most of which have been published in journals and anthologies over the past few years. So they have not been specially written for the collection. They are not a suite of linked stories, but there is a strong thread running through them. This is the examination of the play between good and evil. Such play is sometimes sinister, but often it is funny—in a dark way. And there is an overall sense that the world might be in serious trouble, that mankind is not in as much control as it thinks it is.

The other book is an essay, Fair Game, published by FinlayLloyd in their latest group of five ‘Smalls’. These ‘Smalls’ are tiny books of sixty pages. My essay was inspired by an image on a postcard from the National Library. I first saw the image when Marion’s daughter Lucy sent me the postcard in 1996. I have been, in various ways, working on a response to the image for almost thirty years. Like many Australian writers, I am fascinated by Australian history, and the image on the card really stirred my imagination. It’s an 1832 cartoon of free immigrant women coming from Britain to Tasmania. The startling thing about it is the fact that the artist, Alfred Ducote, has represented the women as gorgeous butterflies, and they dominate the picture. But on close inspection you can see that they have been hustled out of Britain by horrible women with brooms, and are being expected in Tasmania by rapacious men with butterfly nets. This is not a pretty picture.

I think it struck such a chord with me because it dramatizes what I do in most of my own work—on the surface and on first sight you might think that I am drawing a world that is charming and diverting, but when you really pause and take it in, you realise that I am articulating some dark and disturbing truths.  

What was the hardest part of writing your latest book? 

If I think of Fair Game—well it must have been hard because it took thirty years to write sixty pages. 

What was the best part of writing your latest book?

But when I finally did confront whatever the problem was about it, I found that years of experience as a writer gave me the confidence to trace my imaginative process from the desk where I write in the present day, back and back into my own life in Tasmania, and to go deep into the meaning the cartoon has for me. The fabulous thing really was that FinlayLloyd gave me the freedom to do this. 

What are you working on now?

At least three things—an essay about the eruption of Mt St Helens in Washington State, and a short story about Tasman, the Dutch sailor after whom Tasmania is named. And a novel set in contemporary Melbourne. 

What do you love about libraries?

I grew up in Launceston where the public library was in an elegant Georgian building, in one corner of which was a separate children’s library. It had a wonderful goldfish tank. It was a magical place with avenues of books and books and books on shelves. I could go into a kind of trance. My older sister was a great reader and she used to borrow books from the children’s library. She borrowed books by Georgette Heyer and Charles Dickens—among others, but these were the names I knew. Occasionally I would go there with her, but because I was not yet seven, I was not allowed to be a member, not allowed to borrow books. I became so distressed about this that my father decided to take me into the adult library next door where he said I could choose a book and use his card. So, holding my father’s hand, I moved on air along the pavement from one level of paradise where I was forbidden to taste the fruit, to a higher level where I could pick my own apple. This was a golden place in which the shining shelves of books went forever up into a high vastness. We climbed a spiral staircase. Somewhere at the top of this my father found for me the works of Charles Dickens, as I had requested. Choose one, he said. You can have any one you like. I looked for good pictures, and I found Dolly Varden in Barnaby Rudge. This was it. I carried it down to the desk, and I borrowed Barnaby Rudge. I don’t remember many occasions on which I wept, during my childhood. But I do recall the great sorrow and the terrible tears I shed as I was later confronted by the text of Barnaby Rudge. For although I could read quite a few of the words, I could make no sense at all of any of it.

Anyway, that is my memory of the beginning of my love affair with libraries.