Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Library at Borroloola

The Library at Borroloola is a place where the books and the building have long since been eaten by white ants. The story of the Borroloola Library is one of the most poignant and mythic of all library stories. If books and libraries are in crisis in 2011, and perhaps they are, imagine if you will, the tale of the library in Borroloola.
Borroloola is 1500 kilometres South East of Darwin, and 60 kilometres from the sea on the Gulf of Carpentaria. In the 1890s a mounted policeman, Cornelius Power, established the library. It is probable that he wrote to the governor of Victoria asking for donations of books. A thousand handsome books apparently came, by ship, and were kept in the jail as there was nowhere else for them to go. Later on there were three thousand books in total. This library became the centre of cultural life in the area, a handful of bushies and a large population of indigenous people borrowing and reading and holding regular open air public discussion on the things they read about. The collection contained the leather bound books that an educated Edwardian Englishman might have had in his house. Dickens, Bronte, Henry James, Kipling, Tennyson, Shakespeare, Aristotle, Plutarch, Homer, Virgil, the Bible – covered in canvas jackets. Ernestine Hill described it as ‘a kindly light of sanity to men half mad with loneliness’. By the late 1950s the library was in an almost total state of decay. Some of the books had been sent to Darwin. But many of them had been borrowed and never returned, and what remained would eventually be eaten by white ants, the pages of works of great literature ending up in the material of the ant hills. When David Attenborough made a documentary about it in the early sixties, he reported that the only remaining book was The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis, and that although the title page was legible, most of the interior had been eaten.
Sic transit Gloria mundi.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Library Thoughts

Library Thoughts
Libraries are changing. Books are changing. There might be a crisis in libraries and books. Are they disappearing? Does it matter?
I was browsing through old copies of TLS and read a review (by Roderick Conway Morris) of a book ‘Venetian Navigators’ by Andrea di Robilant. The book’s about fourteenth century explorations of the far far northern regions of the planet. The reviewer suggests that as the Arctic ice-cap melts and North-West and North-East Passages open up to navigation, the areas explored by the Zen brothers in the fourteenth century will become central to world trade.
A section of the review caught my imagination, reminding me of the role and relevance of both books and libraries. It’s a lovely story about what can happen in a library when you are looking for one thing and your stumble upon something else.
QUOTE from TLS, June 3, 2011.
“Several years ago di Robilant, while researching an altogether different topic, happened upon a miniature volume in the Old and Rare Book Collection at the Marciana Library on Piazza San Marco in Venice. It measured about six by four inches, and glued to the back of it was a larger, crisply engraved wood-cut map. The author was the Venetian nobleman Nicolo Zen, and the title ‘On the Discovery of the Islands of Frislanda, Eslanda, Engroneland, Estotiland and Icaria made by the two Zen Brothers under the Artic Pole.’ The book was published in 1558.”
The accidental discovery of the little old book led to the writing of the book under review. I love stories like that. And I hope libraries and books don’t disappear.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Woodend Writing Workshop


Short Story Workshop with Carmel Bird

The Macedon Ranges Writers Group is running a five-hour workshop for members and community members on November 26th 2011 at the Woodend Community Centre starting at 11:00am. The Victorian Writers Centre and the Woodend Rotary Club are sponsoring the event.

The workshop, writing for young people and adults is being conducted by Carmel Bird who is primarily a writer of fiction, covering both adult and children's writing. Her first collection of short stories was published in 1983, and since then she has published another four collections of short stories, and also novels, essays, anthologies, and books on how to write. She is a leading author of short stories and has published ten novels, three of which have been short listed for the Miles Franklin Award. Her most recent novel is CHILD OF THE TWILIGHT. She is a celebrated teacher of both fiction and memoir-writing, and has published the non-fiction guide WRITING THE STORY OF YOUR LIFE. Carmel is also an experienced editor of many journals and anthologies, including THE STOLEN CHILDREN - THEIR STORIES. Her website is www.carmelbird.com

To book your tickets please go to http://www.trybooking.com/XNS but spaces are limited. To purchase a ticket go into the shopping cart section on the website, just click on full price and select a ticket. The total cost is $40.30. You will not be able to pay on the day.

For further information about the Workshop please call Miranda 0431 114 539 or Christine on 5429 5452 or 0407 012 140. If you would like to hear more about the Writer’s Group call Christine or email Sue Yardley sjyardley@bigpond.com.

Where: Woodend Community Centre
When: Saturday, 26 November, 2011
Time: 11:00 am – 4:00 pm
Bring: Writing materials; lunch; your ticket
Cost: $40 plus 30¢ booking fee
Booking: http://www.trybooking.com/XNS
Inquiries: 5429 5452 or 0431 114 539

Wednesday, July 6, 2011


The brush-footed butterfly is any member of the Nymphalidae family, named for its reduced adult forelegs which are frequently hairy, resembling brushes. I know this because I flicked open a volume of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and there was the brush-foot, complete with pictures of typical members of the family such as mourning cloaks and anglewings. I had never really heard of the brush-foot before, and for more information I googled it and found 29,000 results. That shows you one of the differences between the Britannica and the Web. One other difference is that you can consult the Britannica by saying – tell me anything you like – whereas with the Web you have to have a starting point. Another thing is that on the open page of the Britannica the gaze strays over to the picture of Aleksey Alekseyevich Brusilov who was distinguished primarily for the 1916 Brusilov Breakthrough which contributed to the fall of the Tsar’s government in 1917. I didn’t know that before. He’s got 48,000 results on Google. But the big difference between the Britannica and the Web is that the Web collects only the dust that settles on a keyboard, whereas the Britannica, occupying quite a bit of space on a shelf, has to be dusted with a bunch of feathers quite often.

Writers collect a lot of books, and you sometimes hear them saying what a battle it is to house and control them. I am engaged in such a battle, and I happened to be looking at the Britannica because I was thinking about how much shelf space I could acquire if I threw the encyclopaedia out. Like having silly old grandpa put down. But I discovered that Old Grandpa Britannica is not so silly after all, and mostly I discovered that I love him very much. He is wise and wonderful.

So, I say to myself, is sentimentality going to win over common sense here?

When I was a child I spent endless hours browsing through several different kinds of encyclopaedias. In fact I can still visualize pages of them, words and pictures. The black and white photographs in the Richards’ in particular drift vividly through my memory – the Princes in the Tower, the Sword of Damocles, the Fighting Téméraire (53,000 Google results). So the experience of encyclopaedias is deeply nostalgic, browsing the Britannica takes me back to the pleasures of childhood, denies the passage of time. But it is also a present day pleasure to be found nowhere else. I am not just looking for specific information, I am going on a walk through a landscape I know and don’t know. I can keep walking here for many pleasurable hours. (When I am not dusting or out buying bookshelves.)

All those encyclopaedias I read as a child must have had an effect on me as a writer, but I realize that there were other books also that affected me in different ways. If I try to confine myself to five of those books I come up with: Treasures of English Verse; En Route; ‘The Fly’ by Katherine Mansfield; The Diary of Anne Frank; Barnaby Rudge.

For my sixth birthday my parents gave me Treasures of English Verse, first published by Oxford in 1925, last reprinted in 1942. They were treasures, and I learnt many of them by heart. Even though it was printed in wartime, it is a hardback bound in blue cloth and has a coloured picture as the frontispiece. The cover is faded now, the spine foxed. Etched into the front cover in black is an image of Pegasus flying above clouds and above a strip of stylized water where Art Nouveau images of what might be waves or birds or fish or leaves are flowing. The poems proceed from easy to difficult in three sections, each section signed off with a little woodcut – first an angel, then a Norse ship, then Queen Elizabeth the First. The coloured picture is of a shepherd boy with a flute, and underneath him are lines from Wordsworth’s ‘Written in March’, lines that were delicious then, but strike an ominous note in Eastern Australia today: ‘the rain is over and gone’. The poems begin with ‘The Raindrops’ Message’ by the beautifully named Lucy Diamond and end with George Herbert’s ‘Virtue’, praising the ‘sweet and virtuous soul’ that will live ‘though the whole world turn to coal’. Again I can now read into this a grim ecological message.

I read The Diary of Anne Frank when I was fifteen. I remember sitting in the apricot tree – the book was covered in the brown paper we used to protect books. It is commonplace now for teenagers to read the published diaries of other teenagers, but I had never seen anything like The Diary. It was emotionally freighted with the tragic knowledge that the teenage writer, who broke off the writing on the first of August 1944 was arrested by the Nazis on the fourth of August and died in Bergen-Belsen in 1945. She was fifteen when she died; I was fifteen as I was reading. She was so candid and alive and full of bright innocent hope. I realize now that the reading was a revelation to me, a revelation of how it was possible to write. But it was also a powerful message about the efficacy of writing under pressure, appalling and unimaginable pressure. And I remember experiencing a new feeling of guilt at the realization that when I was frolicking about the garden in Tasmania in the early forties, this girl was hidden in an attic in Amsterdam in fear of her life, able to write: ‘I am young and strong and am living a great adventure.’ Perhaps it was for me an epiphany. ‘The liberation is drawing nearer. Why then should I be in despair?’
Another revelation came about a year later when I read ‘The Fly’ by Katherine Mansfield. Before this I had no concept of the short story form. I woke up to the idea that you could deliver psychological truth via mood, structure, image and language – that the plotting could be stronger because it was subtle, that character would emerge through the other elements of the piece, that the metaphor and the meaning were one. I really was astonished by all that, and delighted, and inspired.
A key book in my development as a reader, and hence as a writer, was Barnaby Rudge. I was seven, and you couldn’t be a member of the children’s library until you were eight. This is now hard to imagine. My older sister was reading David Copperfield, and so I had a passing knowledge of the existence if not the importance of Charles Dickens. My father had pity on me and took me to the adult library saying I could use his card. So – bliss – there I was importantly holding my father’s hand, ascending a magical spiral staircase in a gracious old Georgian building, heading for the Dickens shelf. I selected a leather-bound volume of Barnaby Rudge for two reasons – I thought the title sounded wonderful, and I loved the illustrations, particularly those of Dolly Varden in her bonnet and crinoline. When I came to read the book at home, I found that although I could read a lot of the words, I could not make any sense of most of the sentences. So in an agony of disappointment and rage and wounded pride I sat in tears, slowly turning the pages, making my way through the book, dwelling with relief on the illustrations. This was reading as frozen horror. But I believe it speeded up my determination to read well, and soon enough I turned eight and was admitted to children’s with its fishtank and Enid Blytons.
Then there was the French text book En Route which I started when I was twelve. This was a little blue hardback with a dizzy pattern of dark red calligraphy all over the cover. It was by a genius called E.Saxelby M.A., and was illustrated by another genius called Blam. It, and the subsequent books in the series, followed the lives and adventures of a family named Lépine – Monsieur, Madame, Paul, Bobette and Toto. As with the Treasures of English Verse I still know slabs of these books by heart. I believe that because I moved slowly through the books, particularly the first one, I took in a great many small details of human relationship and psychology, of character and plot and the possibilities of story. The narratives were quite brilliantly constructed and paced. I believe I still draw on elements of the Lépines today as I write.
So from the beginning I truly loved to read, and was quickly led from the intricacies of the texts to a desire to write. It seemed natural.
Just for fun I googled Saxelby, but all I found was an invitation to let Catherine Saxelby guide me ‘through the mumbo-jumbo of how to adopt healthier eating habits.’ No, no, give me Paul and Bobette who eat slices of bread and butter covered in honey. The landscape of words is a beautiful place in which I will continue to wander in sentimentality, but also, I believe, common sense. Sometimes on www; sometimes on the bookshelves.
And then, of course, there’s eBooks. I have finally got there, and I do love them. But I still love Britannica between covers, and also www and so on and so forth.

Friday, June 17, 2011

women and men and books

I begin by accepting the recent figures etc about male/female divide in
literature, and my theory is supported by them.

It seems to me that the gender divide in novels themselves is only a symptom of
the prevailing power structure in western society.

A broad project of literature is to examine where things go
wrong in human affairs.

Human beings are generally inclined to blame somebody
(or fate - of which more later) for the their troubles.

And broadly speaking, I think men tend to blame women and women blame

Western society is still, after all this time, predicated on the idea that men are in
charge of that society.

So at base men are keeping the gates.

When women write the story, the men are to blame for the trouble.
When men write the story it is the women who are to blame.

And men still have the power to see to it that their version of
events is the dominant one. Hence the predominance of male
reviewers and books by men getting reviewed over books by women.

Even when a man is writing, and a man is to blame for the trouble
in the story, the man - it seems to me - still comes out as perversely admirable.
(Humbert Humbert, say.)

The other element is fate. Even when fate is to blame, men and women
still have to respond to that, and so there is no avoiding the male or female
response of some kind.

So what I am saying, in very simple terms, is that when the woman writes the novel the man is the baddie, and vice versa.

I am saying that men are still in power, and so they are still able to push
their version of events which is that Eve was responsible for the fall, and
the woman's version is still being sidelined.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Wheeler Centre

Discussion of Feasts in Madame Bovary, The Leopard etc


Thursday, June 2, 2011

Judge's Report

The following piece is the transcript of a speech

I made at the Belgrave Library where I was

invited to judge a competition in the writing of

short stories long ago in 2000. I have recently

been asked to post it here. It is also on my

website: www.carmelbird.com


I invite you to listen to the voices of the opening sentences from the ten prizewinning stories.

‘I still have the dagger.’

‘It was only at the urging of my son that I took the trip to England.’

‘After his father died he stopped fishing.’

‘The word on the street was that Cherie had lost her fix in someone’s car and he, fat hypocrite, had driven straight to the police and ordered them to get that filthy thing out of his vehicle.’

‘He walks between the stars.’

‘I read a book once. It was called Crosses and was about these two girls who cut themselves with glass because it eases their emotional pain.’

‘Have you ever loved somebody so much you couldn’t eat or sleep?’

‘It was the last week of the summer, but more importantly the end of the disastrous heatwave we had experienced through the scorching past few months.’

‘Hello, I’m a retired racing Greyhound by the name of Rosie and I’d like to tell you about my life as a Greyhound.’

‘Hi, I’m a twelve years old girl. I love my life.’

What you have heard are ten distinctive voices. You have heard confidence. You have probably felt invited in to listen to what might be going to happen. They have probably all got your attention straight away. You want, I imagine, to hear where these beginnings will lead you.

I would like to dwell on the power and significance of the beginnings of stories for a while. I know nothing about any of the writers, and so I don’t know whether they are experienced writers or not. But I do know that quite often when inexperienced writers set out to write a story, they demonstrate, in their words, the fact that they find it difficult to make the shift from the world of everyday reality into the world of imagination. And what they often do, in order to facilitate this shift - they write a sentence or even a paragraph that in fact describes the shift. They say something like: ‘Moonlight fell on the path leading up to the door of the gloomy mansion.’ They take us on a little atmospheric journey as they make their own approach to the world of imaginary beings and events. Now there is no harm in writing such a sentence to begin with, to get yourself in place and to get going, but what every writer has to learn to do is to recognise the purpose of that sentence and then delete it. Nine times out of ten. Because there are really no hard and fast rules to writing fiction. But I promise you that more often than not the sentences of the type I just gave you (Moonlight fell on the path leading up to the door of the gloomy mansion.) are killer sentences. They do not invite the reader into a world; they warn the reader that the writer is in the process of shifting from reality to fiction, and they warn that the writer is feeling uncomfortable. The reader wants to feel safe with the confident voice of the writer. They want to hear something like:

‘Hello, I’m a retired racing Greyhound.’

Another very important element in the writing of a successful story is for the writer to have, as soon as possible, a clear idea of how the story is going to end. Too often stories will just tail off or will end on a false note, a note that doesn’t ring true as on outcome for that story. Student writers often have brilliant ideas for a story - a kind of shining concept that means they will approach the task of writing with great enthusiasm. But then the whole thing starts to fall apart as they go on. I promise you that if they had made a decision about how the story was going to end, they would probably not have had that problem.

There is something deep within the make-up of human beings that makes us long to tell stories and to hear stories. We are story-telling creatures. Now I am often asked whether stories (in competitions, in magazines and so on) have to have a beginning, middle and end. And I happen to believe that the answer is yes, they do. There is such a thing as a piece of writing that is moving, interesting, beautiful, and that lacks those elements, but it is not really a story. It might be a description, or a word game. And that’s OK. But - let’s face it - we all know a story when we hear one. If I the man who mows my lawn or mends the roof says to me: What are you writing, and I say, I’m writing a story, then he says - and he invariably says this: so what is it about? And then he says: so how does it end? He knows, just as you know, that a story begins with a set of circumstances, and that these will change for better or worse, and that the outcome will be satisfying in some way, and will emerge from the workings of the story. Fairy stories are perfect examples of stories. They begin with an event: the king dies. They proceed with the events that follow from that. There is conflict and tension. And they end when the conflict and tension are resolved by certain discoveries, deaths and marriages. Please don’t think that I am advocating only the writing of fairy stories. I merely use them as a good example of the timeless human response to stories.

Now what I have described so far might be called the impulse for the story. The writer is then face with how to construct the thing in order to best present the characters and the dilemmas. You might begin with the final event, for instance, and then fill the reader in on how things led up to that. You might tell everything from the point of view of the main character, or from the point of view of the policeman, or the elephant. These are decisions to be made by the writer when confronted with the material. Writers ask themselves which would be the best way to bring the story and the reader together.

For don’t forget that writing fiction, telling stories, is a form of communication. There are at least three parts to the contract: the writer, the story and the reader. And it is the writer’s job to construct the story I such a beguiling way that there will be a reader. The writer has a responsibility to engage and even entertain - and certainly to move - the reader. Writing a story is job you give yourself - nobody really asks you to do it - so you have to be really strong and convincing. Which brings me back to the idea of confidence. Your voice must be confident. And such confidence is linked to urgency. Any story you tell should really be a story you feel you urgently need to tell. When that urgency is present, the decisions about how to begin, how to end, how to construct what happens in between - these will largely be made at an unconscious level. It is useful to recall the story of Scherezade - she had to interest the Sultan in her stories night after night so that he would not kill her, but would keep coming back for more (stories).

Sometimes students ask me whether there are any subjects that are taboo as material for short stories. I don’t know of any. Of course there are fashions - and sometimes it is OK to follow fashion, and sometimes it isn’t. The range of subject matter in the ten winning stories is very wide. What I wanted was to feel engaged and moved by what I read. There are a couple of things to bear in mind - short stories have a limited number of characters, and the reader’s attention needs to be focused on a limited range of events - perhaps just one event or one aspect of life. I am asked about dialogue. Well, dialogue is a wonderful way to move the story along and to demonstrate the characters. But some people are better at writing dialogue than others. There is no rule that says there needs to be dialogue. If you are not so good at it, don’t do it. Go away and practise, maybe, and write dialogue another time.

I spoke of urgency. The winning story in the adult category ‘Joey’ is a beautiful narrative which speaks with quiet, confident urgency. It is immaculately constructed, employs lively dialogue, and draws the reader through the events to a moving and deeply satisfying conclusion. There is the interplay of close friendship and enduring love, marred by tragedy, between the distinctive characters of the narrator and Joey.

The winner of the teenage section is a story called ‘Distance’. This is a remarkably successful story which uses the element of dream in a very powerful way. It is dangerous and difficult to use dream in fiction. The writing is vivid and lyrical, and the characters are alive in the mind of the reader. The principal character is particularly firm and engaging.

The junior section was won by a story of disaster. ‘Aftermath of the Quake.’ The description is economical and very convincing, told in the first person. There is tension, and then there is relief, and final resolution. A happy ending for the family who are safe, but a scene of devastation all around. This is an ambitious and sophisticated story.

Then the winner of the residents’ category ‘That Gipsy Touch’ is a strong and well constructed story with a very successful sex scene. This story has several vivid characters and an atmosphere of violence, mystery and conflict.

These stories and the runners-up will be bound and made available in the library. Please read them. You will be amazed and entertained. And if you are hoping to write stories of your own, you will find in these inspiration and even instruction. For people who want to write stories must, I believe, read stories. Reading gives you the rhythm of what a story is. You will learn far more about writing from reading good stories than you will from listening to me.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Roving Party Review

Review by Carmel Bird of The Roving Party by Rohan Wilson.

This review is published in Australian Book Review - June 2011

Stories of the impact of European discovery, exploration, invasion and settlement on Australia are naturally a source of fascination to novelists. The microcosm of the island of Tasmania, with its cruel yet beautiful landscapes, and its unforgiving weather, offers these stories with a special kind of eerie horror. Against the landscape, the stories emerge both in concert and in counterpoint, describing the stains which forever disfigure and haunt the place. Tasmania was less a frontier in the American sense of the word, than a dead end.

Although the blood of indigenous Tasmanians still flows in the veins of many people, the principal narrative of the violent fracture and disappearance of the tribes is one of doom and destruction, and like many tales of the conflicts between outsiders and indigenous peoples, the stories are often inhabited by strange heroes and villains. The geography of the island ensures that the atmosphere is bleak, with a sense of terminal horror in the making (an atmosphere notably captured in the 2009 movie Van Diemen’s Land). The non-fiction works of such writers as Henry Reynolds and Lyndall Ryan have vividly documented this period, giving rise to what have been called the history wars between historians who believe the first Tasmanians suffered genocide at the hands of the British, and those who deny this interpretation of events. Fiction, of course, has licence to move into the realm of the imagination, taking inspiration from the apparent facts of history, and moving into the minds and hearts of characters, some of whom have been plucked from history, some of whom have been invented by writers.

This novel is set in the time when Governor Arthur was bringing in his draconian reforms to the colony, ensuring that Van Diemen’s Land was in fact the fiercest dictatorship in the world, an abyss, a hell on earth. In the course of the narrative, Arthur cancels the bounty he had put on the heads of members of indigenous tribes, so that the enterprise driving the group described as the ‘roving party’ who are hunting down the tribesmen, after days and nights of brutal and grotesque activity, is void. The historical figure that looms large in the story is John Batman who is (in the history books) seen as the villain who tricked the tribes of Port Phillip in Victoria into handing over the land on which Melbourne now stands. In The Roving Party Batman is still living in Van Diemen’s Land, leading a very small and motley group in search of native people for capture, involving also massacres. Batman’s group consists of a boy, four convicts, two black trackers, a farmhand, and Black Bill.

Black Bill is the conflicted central character. He sets up a literary echo of Joe Christmas in Light in August, being a black man brought up as white. The abiding motif of the book is smoke, and Black Bill lodges in the reader’s consciousness veiled in a wreath or cloud or smudge of smoke, as if his very being is veiled, ghostly. There are the campfires of the roving party, the pipes the men smoke, and frequently Black Bill scans the heavens for the smoke of tribal fires. At the heart of the narrative are his dreams in which he talks to his unborn child.

Although the whole book follows the party as they roam about the harsh forbidding landscape shooting people and dogs in detailed realistic scenes of graphic gore, there is a deep mythic level located within Black Bill. The novel opens with reference to his unspoken tribal name, a name he has ‘no good use for’, and ends as he whispers the ‘secret name’ of his dead baby son. He longs, at the end, for future dreams in which this dead son will visit him. There is a terrible beauty in this redemptive act of naming. The name ‘Black Bill’ is a nasty British nick-name, and in fact the character is more often designated by the narrative as ‘the Vandemonian’, the only character so named. It raises him to a grand status, yet marks him out for doom. The dead child works as a symbol of the obliteration of the tribes, for it (the mother says it was female, Black Bill says it was male) was in fact monstrously ill-formed and hopeless, like a vestigial gesture of nature. Yet for Black Bill and Katherine (the mother) it remains the spiritual link to themselves, and hence to the blood of the tribe. The baby’s body is incinerated at birth, and Katherine wears the polished skull ‘mooncoloured, pale and jawless’ on a cord around her neck. Bill cups the skull in his hands and whispers to it, ‘desolate of heart’.

If there is one adjective that would cover the story of the roving party it is that one – desolate. There is a catalogue of rapes and murders: ‘As he surveyed the great unbroken blackness circling the camp he was caught from behind by the hair and a broad winking blade cleaved his throat to the vertebra.’ And against this relentless bone-splitting, blood-letting savagery, swirls the sad lyricism of: ‘Bereft of their women and children the clansmen crossed their clanhold at a pace and progressed along the frontier as if they were as insubstantial as the stays of mistfilled light between the silver wattles.’

It comes as no surprise that this grim and astonishing novel was chosen as the winner of this year’s Vogel award. END

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Raf the Dog

Raf the Dog

Published in Meanjin, June 2011

‘All knowledge – the totality of all questions and answers – is contained in the dog.’

Franz Kafka from ‘Investigations of the Dog’.

In the seventeenth century Cervantes wrote a story called ‘The Conversation of Dogs’. It consisted of the midnight conversation between two dogs as overheard by the narrator of the story. And long before that, in the fifth century BC the fables of Aesop recorded the wit, wisdom and character traits of the animals. In more recent times there are the tales of Beatrix Potter and the works of Lewis Carroll. The Mouse and His Child by Russell Hoban is a brilliant modern example of the tradition. Talking animals are most often found in stories for children, although famous examples of adult works in the genre are by Orwell, Chekov and Woolf. Recently Andrew O’Hagan published The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog, and of His Friend Marilyn Monroe which is written by a maltese belonging to the star.

The world is probably divided into two kinds of people, those who like books by dogs and those who don’t. I do. I loved the idea of O’Hagan’s book when I first heard of it, and I was utterly captivated by the reading, thrilled by the wit, energy and rhythm of the writing. The reflections of Maf are superb insights into America in the early sixties, as well as into big subjects such as literature, art, psychology, history and politics. This is philosophy at its most engaging. The view Maf gives of Marilyn is unlike any other, and is ultimately a most lucid and moving one. He can read her mind, and there is a point at which she can read his. He is so wise and wistful, she so fragile and doomed. On the one hand this book is a revelation about all the dogs in literature and art, and on the other it is a novel of profound and highly entertaining insight into the human heart.

It is this novel that has given me the courage to tell the story of

‘Raf the Dog – a Tale of Mystery, Money and the Supernatural’.

Many years ago when I was living in the city I felt the need for a companion in the form of a small white dog. My daughter is an expert at finding cats and dogs for humans, so she was on the case, preferring to give homes to rescued dogs rather than get brand new ones. We investigated several shelters, but to no avail. I grew tired of the hunt and finally decided to buy a new puppy. The price of course began at around $400. This was not going to be easy. Taking a common sense approach I went to the local credit union and opened a special purpose account.

‘What is the purpose?’ asked the teller, not looking up from her keyboard.

‘I am buying a dog.’

There was a sudden burst of sunlight that radiated instantly from within the teller. Her gold bracelets jangled, her spectacles winked, her lovely teeth gleamed at me with pleasure.

‘Oh,’ she said, ‘a dog! What kind of dog?’

‘A maltese.’

‘Oh yes! Yes. They are so beautiful. So sweet. So wise and wistful. You are doing the right thing.’

So I did the right thing and deposited some idiotically small amount of money in the account which was recorded as being ‘For Purchase of Dog’.

Project Dog was under way.

When I got home there was a message on the phone from my daughter.

It said:

‘I have your dog. Call me.’

This was like the message left by a dognapper. Alarming and horrible.

With pounding heart I called back and she told me she was out at the RSPCA with a sad little maltese in her arms. I rushed out to see him, and there he was, a tiny, bewildered, skin and bone creature in a blue knitted jacket staring up at me with big brown eyes. Wise? Yes. Wistful? Oh yes. Love at first sight. He had been abandoned in an outer suburb, and had somehow survived long enough to be rescued. I bought him, and two days later was able to take him home. My daughter likes to name animals, and she named him Rafael, after the Archangel. I took him to visit the lady at the credit union and she lit up all over again.

‘The Archangel!’ she cried.

He has many charming ways, but one of his rather tedious habits consists of sniffing and grubbing vigorously under scruffy bushes by the side of the road. Once he came out of the bush having divested himself of his fancy overcoat. A Superman moment. And another time, having been busily grubbing, he emerged from the bush with something in his mouth. It was a mobile phone.

I took the phone home and worked out how to contact the owner. She said she would come round in a few minutes and collect the phone. Before long she was jogging down the front path, ponytail flying, sunglasses on top of her head, pink lycra and silver trainers flashing in the sun.

‘Hi, I’m Samsara.’ She was bouncing on the spot. I kind of understood how the phone had ended up in the bush.

I said hello and held out the phone. Without a break in the bouncing, she reached out and swept the phone from my palm.

‘Thanks,’ she said, and was gone, bouncing off up the garden path and out the gate.

I never heard from her again. Her name is from Sanskrit, and Wikipedia says it ‘refers to a place, set of objects and possessions, but originally referred to a process of continuous pursuit of flow of life.’ Well, she did seem to be in continuous pursuit of that flow, down the garden path and up again. Did I receive a card, a note, an email, a text? Roses? Champagne? Right, I did not.

A few years later I decided to sell the house in the city and move to the backblocks. There would be an auction. There would be Open For Inspection. On the first day of the inspections I planned, as is proper, to be far away from the house. However that morning my computer packed up, and just before the inspectors were due to arrive, the technician came, so when the people were looking over the house, I was in the study with the tech and the computer. I was trying to pay no attention to what was going on behind me, but suddenly a voice said:

‘Hi, remember me, I’m Samsara.’

Sure enough, there she was, her ponytail intact, her clothes more sober, and in her arms a baby, at her feet a child, behind her a husband. She recalled the incident of the mobile, and then they all moved on, mingling with the other visitors. Were they serious? Well I didn’t hang around on the other Open for Inspection days, but always on the list of people the name Samara would appear.

On auction day, going, going, gone, Samsara bought the house.

No roses, no champagne, just a cheque for the deposit, balance due in sixty days.

How the spectacles of the lady at the credit union sparkled and twinkled. How she clapped her hands and rattled her bracelets.

‘What a dog!’ she said. ‘What a dog!’

Monday, May 2, 2011

little people review

Review by Carmel Bird

of novel Little People by Jane Sullivan

This is a prize-winning novel, runner-up in the 2010 CAL-Scribe Fiction prize for a novel by a writer over 35 years of age. It blends the powerful theme of dogged maternal love with the extraordinary world of P.T.Barnum’s freak shows. I once visited the circus museum in San Antonio, Texas, and for a long time I looked in amazement at the exquisite miniature carriage of General Tom Thumb. So delicate, so doll-like, so sad. The sight of it brought home to me the everyday reality of the strange life of a human being who was not just from another time, but from a branch of the human race that had fashioned a form of success out of disability and adversity.

The novel, a darkly romantic fairytale with fantastic elements of nineteenth century gothic is set in Australia in 1870. The central character is Mary Ann who starts out, Bronte-like, as a governess, but with something more Dickensian-grotesque lying in wait for her. Pregnant to the father of her charges, she desperately seeks an abortion in the hideous back streets of Melbourne. When she is unable to go through with it she finds herself in the river where she rescues someone who appears to be a drowning child. This person is, however, none other than Tom Thumb, the world famous circus dwarf who is touring the country with his troupe. Mary Ann has fallen into very strange company indeed. Is she safe, or has she descended from the frying pan into the fire?

In an historical note the author explains that the troupe did visit Australia for a nine-month tour in 1870, and that Mary Ann’s story is, however, pure fiction. The two elements of history and fiction are woven together to produce the fabric of the action-filled story. The novel unfolds in chapters that are narrated by Mary Ann, while there are occasional sections narrated by other characters, namely the various midgets. (The correct term ‘pituitary dwarfism’ is given in the historical note, but not used in the body of the text.) Each section, presented as a ‘sideshow’, is prefaced by a black and white photograph of the relevant midget. The pictures are poignant, as well as beguiling and fascinating in themselves. While they are a respectable post-modern device, I found them disconcerting. For they constantly reminded me of the factual world of the troupe, when I was actually following the ups and downs of the imagined saga of Mary Ann. The author in her note is frank about the distinctions she drew between the history and the fiction, but the appearance of photographs of the ‘real’ characters somehow serves to undermine the ‘reality’ I desired for the characters of invention. A reader is willing to be swept up in the world of fiction, and to be pulled back with a reminder that it is only fiction after all sets up an interference and a tension that do not serve the tale which is in this case building to a climax way beyond reality.

Water is a dominant motif throughout, Mary Ann frequently being characterised as mermaid-like, with Tennyson’s 1830 poem “The Mermaid” threading its way through the story in ways that are sometimes part of romance, and sometimes part of something very ominous. Mary Ann is a ragged Madonna figure. There is a sense of impending doom and disaster that Mary Ann can’t quite put her finger on, but it dogs her as she valiantly battles to survive and to guard the life of her unborn child. Hideous images of the so-called mermaids that used to be exhibited in museums and freak shows lurk in the muddy gloom that swirls through the narrative, seemingly waiting to swallow up Mary Ann and her baby.

The unborn child is central to the novel’s plot, and it has the dangerous quality of someone messianic. Tom Thumb puts round the story that the child is his, conceived by some kind of electrical magnetism when he and Mary Ann were struggling for survival in the river.

The nine month period of the midgets’ time in Australia is beautifully apt for the gestation of the baby, the progression of the pregnancy lending the novel much of its suspense. The reader is never able to forget that Mary Ann is pregnant. Tom Thumb and his wife Lavinia are also focused on this fact. Childless, the couple are known to borrow babies to dandle in photographs, and there is a deep shuddering fear that they are planning to kidnap Mary Ann’s baby and abandon Mary Ann. With a touching simplicity and innocence, Mary Ann is unable to believe that such wickedness could really be. For she retains, through thick and thin, the blameless perseverance of a Jane Eyre type. But will she win through? Can she, in this bewildering world where good and evil blend like blood and milk in water, can she ever work out who is her Mr Rochester? The reader can see, for the clues are consistently planted, but Mary Ann is blind to her destiny, and herein lies her almost fatal error.

The final section of the novel takes off rather like an episode of Dr Who, and builds to the wild conclusion, with all the elements coming together to amaze the reader. At the very beginning Mary Ann said she had ‘no idea how dangerous the world could be’. How right she was.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

WRITING THE STORY OF YOUR LIFE: Ultimate Guide to Writing Memoir (HarperCollins) by Carmel Bird
At the Perth Writers' Festival 2011 I gave a workshop in writing memoir. Below is an interview that Perth writer Tamara Hunter did with me on that occasion. The interview can also be read on www.waxings.wordpress.com

Tamara Hunter’s Interview With Carmel Bird

at Perth Writers’ Festival

A New York Times writer recently suggested, rather bluntly, that about three quarters of the memoirs on the market should never have seen the light of day. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/30/books/review/Genzlinger-t.html?_r=3&pagewanted=1

There was a time, Neil Genzlinger wrote, when “unremarkable lives went unremarked upon, the way God intended”. Genzlinger knew he sounded harsh, but stuck to his conviction that the memoirs market is an absurdly bloated genre in dire need of culling.

I half expect award-winning Australian writer Carmel Bird to disagree - especially since she’s written an engaging guide for aspiring memoirists and when we spoke was preparing to give a workshop on the subject at the recent Perth Writers Festival.

However Bird, whose extensive catalogue includes a collection of startlingly original short and long fiction and several writing guides, says Genzlinger has a point.

“The best thing he said - and I think this applies to all writing – is if you didn’t feel you were discovering something (as you wrote it) don’t publish it,” she says.

“Another great thing he said is ordeal without perspective is merely an ordeal. I couldn’t agree more. You’ve got to have perspective and perceptiveness and a lot other things - control of language and the like. And then he talked about immature writers writing memoirs and I agree with that as well.”

It turns out that it’s one thing to have a fascinating life or experience - another entirely to write about it compellingly. While many memoirs may walk off the shelf due to the name on the jacket, that doesn’t necessarily make them good memoirs.

“Celebrity memoirs, for instance, are just full of trashy writing and sentimental cliché,” Bird says. “I think the celebs could write - but of course they don't have to bother because the marketing decision is guided not by the quality of the memoir, but by the value of the celebrity.”

Bird doesn’t want to bag anyone but cites a public figure who achieved remarkable things at a young age, only to turn out a memoir which proved to be the least interesting part of the whole story – a book which demonstrated that no matter what that person’s other qualities, they lacked any kind of passion for writing. Passion, says Bird, is key.

“There has to be a dedication and passion for the literary process at some level in order for the experience to be properly communicated, decently communicated, helpfully communicated to other people,” she says.

She refers to one of the books reviewed by Genzlinger -- the only one of four named memoirs to be reviewed positively - and highlights his description of it as a spare, beautiful exploration.

“That’s what we want, beautiful exploration; a beautiful exploration where the writer takes the reader’s hand and says ‘Well, let’s explore this together’, and the reader feels safe. And the reader feels they are having moments of revelation and illumination. That sounds a bit grand, but that’s what literature does – it illuminates you.”

Bird talks beautifully of the writers’ impulse to explain themselves to the world and the world to themselves.

“Sometimes in the process of doing that, the writer discovers that they have some insights about the world to offer to other people,” she says. “That is a gift that they can offer to the world, and when you offer someone a gift - say it’s cookies - you make the best cookies you can. You wrap them up in nice paper and you tie them up with a bow and you write a nice card and you give them as a gift. Writing is the same - you do the best you can.”

So how do you find the writing equivalent of the pretty paper and bow?

“Experience, practice and reading,” Bird responds at once. “Life experience, practising writing, and reading good writing. If you want to write fiction, you read fiction. If you want to write memoirs, you read memoirs.”

Bird - who has taught writing in workshops and classes over many years – is of the considered opinion that anybody who puts their mind to it can write simply, cleanly, and in a way that engages readers, especially once encouraged to throw away cliché and elaborate, empty phrases and vocabulary.

“But in there there’s a writer, isn’t there? They put their mind to it. They don’t only put their mind to it – they put their heart, their mind, their time, their life, everything to it. And if they do that, they can do it.”

Bird, who also wrote the disarming Dear Writer, a series of warm, humorously instructive letters from a fictional manuscript assessor to an aspiring writer of fiction, says memoir writing can be even more emotionally draining than fiction.

“Not always. I mean fiction writing can be very demanding on the writer, depending on what they’re writing about. But memoir writing can really touch the heart of the writer very, very deeply, and be very troubling as they’re writing. Quite often if they write and then read out what they’ve written to their friends or a group of other writers, they find the emotion comes out when they try to read it. It can be really hard.”

Painful as it can be though, Bird says that ultimately writing should be a pleasurable process.

“I mean, if you can’t derive pleasure from it, don’t do it. I’m writing a novel at the moment and I have to dedicate a lot of time every day to that, which means there are other things that I can’t do. Now I would prefer to do the novel than to do the other things, to tell you the truth, but there are choices I have to make.

“On the other hand, as I sit at the computer writing that novel, I’m having the greatest fun. It’s not a funny novel, but I’m having the best time, and I’m getting a lot of pleasure. I’m sitting there discovering something. That’s what I’m doing – I’m discovering. And I can’t do it in my head. I can think up something or other about the novel that’s something I might write tomorrow but until I write it, I don’t discover it, and it’s a marvellous, marvellous feeling to discover the thing as you go along. And when the writer is making those discoveries, the ultimate reader will go along and discover too.”

She comes back to the idea of writing as a gift, saying that once you write something down – even in a diary that isn’t discovered for 100 years – you’re transferring your thoughts, your life, your heart and your feelings to at least one other person.

“We read Samuel Pepys’ diary, from years ago, and the life that brings to that era is extraordinary. Of course he was probably a genius, but anybody can do it to a degree. It doesn’t mean that every memoir is going to be a best seller. Not every child who learns the violin ends up at Carnegie Hall, but they can give pleasure by playing their little concert to their friends, to their family. So I think there is a place for remembering that writing fiction, but in particular writing memoirs, is a gift that the writer is offering the other people.

“Anybody can write. But writing well is about passion and love for the writing, and dedication and discipline and giving it the time and space. And dignity - giving writing its dignity. Technique matters if the writing is to have the strength to engage readers. My book and workshops set out to equip people with techniques of writing.

“I know it sounds kind of airy fairy and impossible, but I do think that if people have some skills, and if they write with the truth of their own hearts, then they will write well.”

· Carmel Bird is a leading Australian novelist and short story writer who has been repeatedly short-listed for the Miles Franklin Award. Her work frequently explores dark or menacing themes in a highly original, witty and unexpected manner. Her novels include Cape Grimm, Red Shoes, The White Garden and The Bluebird Cafe. She is the author of several short story collections and has edited several anthologies including, in1998, The Stolen Children – Their Stories, and most recently, Home Truth. She has also taught writing extensively, and has written three books of writing advice including Writing the Story of Your Life: The Ultimate Guide. Her most recent novel is Child of the Twilight. She grew up in Tasmania and now lives in Victoria.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Perth Writers'Festival

#This weekend I am at the Writers'Festival in Perth.
The festival is at the beautiful University of Western
Australia, and the sun is shining.

#My first session on Saturday
March 5th is with Brenda Walker and Hetti Perkins.
We are discussing the concept of HOME. Donna Ward is in the

#Second session is with Fiona McGregor and Natasha Lester.
We will talk about writing fiction, and how novels have the
ability to reveal what goes on behind the facades of
everyday life. Terri Ann White is in the chair.

#Third is a Sunday workshop on how to write memoir, with
reference to my book "Writing the Story of Your Life".

#Then on Monday there is a session on how fiction
expresses the idea of grief. My novel "Child of the Twilight"
is the one I will be discussing here.
The other writers on the panel are Natasha Lester and Stephen
Dennis Haskell is in the chair.