Carmel Bird explores faith, loss and the theft of an icon in her new work Child of the Twilight (February, Fourth Estate). Here she answers questions from National Library of Australia bookshop manager Candice Cappe.
Q The issue of art theft is important in Child of the Twilight, in particular the theft of a religious icon which resembles the infant Jesus—based on a real incident. How much of your work is inspired by real-life events?
A When I heard about the disappearance of the statue from the Roman church I knew I had to write about it. I knew in my heart that this was something I wished to explore in a novel. There is a thread that runs through my work—an interest in, focus on, the centrality of the child, which is of course also central to the Christian faith. This focus in my fiction sometimes leads to disappearing children (as in novel The Bluebird Café), and the fact that this was a stolen miracle-working statue of the infant Christ seemed fascinating to me. I perceived a metaphorical dimension to the disappearance. It came at a time when women appear to be having trouble conceiving, and are able to take advantage of medical procedures such as IVF, and I wished to explore some of the implications of such interventions. There were two real-life matters inspiring me—the statue and IVF. Bringing the two together was absorbing work. The statue is wooden, like the statue of Pinocchio, and stories of the making of children from substances other than human material (flowers, snow) appealed to my imagination.
Q The themes of faith and loss are central throughout the book, almost asking readers to question the beliefs that we live by. Did you set out to pose the questions about myth and belief in this book and do you think faith becomes more important once we have experienced loss?
A It sounds rather routine to say this, but the process is more or less: 1) the inspiration 2) the situation 3) the characters 4) the development of the plot. All these come together at the one time, in the writing, and develop alongside each other. As the work is constructed, the images and ideas work their way along as well. The whole exercise seems to bloom, all its elements opening out simultaneously in the process of the work. I can see, as I read the finished novel, that questions of belief of various kinds are being posed. However I did not set out to pose them. The range of responses people have to tragedy and loss is fascinating and important, and I have explored some of these responses.
A With regard to faith and loss—it does seem (in life) that people frequently seek a religious support in the face of loss, even when there has been little apparent faith beforehand. Religious faith can appear to bring comfort when comfort proves elusive. This novel does not aim to provide clear answers to the great questions of suffering and faith, however it cannot but pose them.
Q The book is narrated in the first person through the eyes of a young woman, Sydney Kent, and the tone is contemporary in style and voice, yet some of the themes and characters have an almost medieval appearance. How important is the idea of mystical legend and folklore in your work?
A Sydney is an American girl who is the product of an IVF procedure whereby all her genetic material originated outside her family. All details and records have been destroyed so that Sydney will never know who she really is. She is in fact a modern mystery, and has developed an interest in ancient fertility mysteries. The wisdom embedded in legend and myth and folklore seems to me to be apposite to the mysteries that will perhaps (or perhaps not) forever surround creation. The medieval flavour of parts of the text foregrounds for the modern reader some of the ancient poetic solutions to modern scientific problems (such as infertility).
Q Your writing appears imaginatively woven together with beautiful descriptive language, which makes me wonder if writing is as much a visual process as an intellectual one for you?
A My work is visual and musical—I work with the images that will bring forward the ideas, and with the rhythms of the language. Within this novel there are many key references to works of art, both genuine and false—these references are an important part of the visual canvas of the text.