Monday, November 25, 2013


 On a hot February evening I drove with a friend into a narrow street behind the Town Hall in Fitzroy. High above us along the ridge on the slate roof of a ancient bluestone church were strung, at regular intervals, like pearls on a necklace, seventeen seagulls, facing east, their backs to the setting sun. They were waiting for pickings. Down below, a crowd was gathering around two white Vinnies vans, one van giving away sandwiches the other dispensing free soup, coffee and cordial. I was with the people in the red car behind the vans, the car with a boot full of books. We would stop here for half an hour, offering free books to homeless and disadvantaged people.
While people surged forward to the vans, we put down a rug on the pavement and placed on it rows of books and magazines. A Chinese grandfather brought over his folding chair and gathered up some of the Chinese books for himself, smiling broadly, sipping coffee from a polystyrene cup. One man, disappointed that there was no dictionary on the rug, ordered one for next week. The books are free to take away, like the food. This is the Footpath Library, an initiative of the Lauriston Girls’ School Community Service Program.
Every Sunday night two members of the school staff follow the Vinnies vans which  make six stops at key locations around inner Melbourne. Books are collected from members of the school community, and are stored in the school library – nine shelves where the books, in excellent condition, are stacked three deep. My journey began at the school library. As a book-lover I was dazed by the sight of the tightly packed spines on the shelves –  Minette Walters, Gabrielle Lord, Ruth Rendell, Dean Koontz, Sydney Sheldon. There’s also a huge collection of biography and non-fiction, which is the most popular category with clients of the Footpath Library. And several shelves of books in Chinese. A regular contributor to the supply is Bayside Library Services; one large donation of books came from the State Library of Victoria. We put eight shopping bags of already selected books into the boot of the car in preparation for the night’s work. 
The Footpath Library began when a Sydney woman, Sarah Garnett, was working as a volunteer, serving meals to homeless and disadvantaged people, and started bringing along books for distribution. This small gesture has developed in other cities to become part of the services on which homeless and disadvantaged people rely for sustenance and comfort. Joan Hammonds, the librarian at Lauriston, is the force behind the Melbourne Footpath Library, which has been operating for two years.
My journey continued in North Melbourne where the two Vinnies vans were stocking up. The six regular volunteers, led by long-timers, Norm and Manfred, wore fluorescent orange vests with the blue logo on the back. The 1,500 sandwiches are made from donated bread, with fillings such as tuna, ham, cheese, vegemite. Our first stop was on the edge of a North Melbourne park, and as we drew up a dozen or so clients drifted into view, some with their dogs, making first for the food and coffee, then over to the striped rug where we had placed the books from one of the shopping bags in the boot. This is not a grand operation – the rug is small and displays maybe fifteen books. Joan is quite familiar with the clientele at each stop, and so each bag is filled with things designed to interest them. Magazines such as New Scientist and National Geographic were popular here. There was some discussion over the merits of a book on war by Winston Churchill.
The books lie on the rug, face up, shiny coloured invitations to other worlds. The light is beginning to fade, the empty polystyrene cups are beginning to blow and bowl along the road. A few books have gone. Pack up the vans, the car, drive off. The clients linger by the wire fence to the park, but when I look back, they have dissolved into the pink dusk.
The drive to the Fitzroy Town Hall takes us past the Zoo, the dry parklands where birds are twittering loudly, round College Crescent. The towers of the university halls of residence speak not only of learning and books but also of warmth and community and home. We concentrate on being simply practical, not sentimental, with our car full of books, but there is a temptation to philosophize as we sail along past the have-a-lots on our way to the have-no-muches.
After the Fitzroy Town Hall we head for Hanover House in Southbank. The lights in St Patrick’s glow amber in the twilight as we zip past on our way to a street behind Crown Casino. Again it is easy to wonder about the distinctions, this time between the pulse and glitter of Crown and the quiet dignified gathering of people, two of them in wheelchairs, standing in the pool of light outside the crisis accommodation of Hanover House. We spread out our wares on the red and grey rug. A woman pounces with delight on Boris Starling’s thriller Vodka, provoking mirth among the company.  She takes a couple of other things, and I talk her into taking Kay Cottee’s First Lady. Again the New Scientist and National Geographic are winners.
Next stop is a narrow lane where we park behind buildings, and a few people appear out of the shadows to get their meal and talk among themselves. This lot is not interested in books. But then we get to Flinders Street Station, and like children waiting for the circus, the people are sitting in a long line on the ledge of the stone foundations. One of the regulars is a woman “Annette” who says she has so many books in her room that her landlady has warned her not to bring back any more. Nothing daunted, she picks up a Ruth Rendell, but puts it back saying she already has it. She is thrilled with the autobiography of Barrie Humphries. I think she took about six books to add to her overflowing collection. Two novels by Iain Banks – severe black and white covers – attract the attention of two young men, but then they put them back. This is a busy gathering with a considerable feeling of camaraderie. It feels less isolated, more part of its surroundings, than the other stops. Annette spies a history of the Boy Scouts and gleefully carries it off.
Last stop a street by the Victoria Market where there are just a few people in need of soup and sandwiches, a magazine, a thriller and some conversation. All over until next Sunday.

Thursday, October 31, 2013


Carmel Bird – Interviewed by Madeleine Watts, November 2013
MW: One of the phrases I loved best in your essay was when you wrote, “Storytelling is a mechanism for reflecting on what it is to be human in time and space”. Why do you think the compulsion to tell stories about ourselves is so universal?
CB: The way I see it, the narrative response to life is a characteristic of being human. As a baby develops memory and language, it begins to realise and organize its place in the world by sorting out the characters, plots and settings of its sensual experiences. It realizes pretty early on that one of the great joys of being alive is the power to tell the story of how it is to be alive. Quite quickly the beauty of speculation and fabrication enters, and the stories take a leap into fiction. Little children love to invent parts of the detail of their daily lives, filling in the spaces with characters and ideas that have a flimsy relationship to ordinary reality. Fiction is still telling the teller and the audience the narrative of what it is to be human, even when the details no longer have a human face or an earthly setting. In families some of the stories of family life take hold and are repeated over and over again – and so it is with tribes and national groups – some tales give such delight, or tell such important truths, that they become enshrined in the traditions of the people. I think it is no mistake that ‘fairy tales’ (and other classes of tale such as myth, legend, parable, fable) are widely associated with the child. They sit close to the open minds and hearts of innocence, taking the listener back to a state in which all things are possible, to a place where good and evil are clear and vivid, and where important truths are spoken in ways that are hard to forget. I think of Greek myths, Persian fairy tales, Norse sagas.

MW: You’re an extremely prolific writer, with many novels and short story collections to your name. You’ve also edited several anthologies of essays and stories. How does the practice of writing interact with your work as an editor, particularly given that you’ve co-edited Griffith REVIEW 42 with Julianne?
CB: I love writing fiction, and also essays, and I enjoy very much reflecting on writing, my own and the work of other writers. I also enjoy teaching writing, and editing other people’s work. One task more or less flows into another. Working with Julianne (and also Nicholas Bray) was a terrific experience, one that I have not had before, working in concert. The back and forth and discussion and co-operation were all very stimulating, and the result is really very satisfying and I am proud of my part in the current journal.

MW: You co-edited this edition of Griffith REVIEW, and your opening essay really frames the entire edition, focusing the lens on the central ideas, as it were. What was it about this subject that caught your interest, and how did your ideas come together? For instance, you mention in the essay that the bicentenary of the publication of the Brothers Grimm fairytales gave you cause for reflection.
CB: The subject of the fairy tale has been one of my favourites since childhood, and I have a nice collection of books, both of stories and of scholarship on the subject. Yes, fairy tales have fascinated me for ages. One of the books I have is Mirror Mirror on the Wall, a collection of essays on fairy tales, collected by Kate Bernheimer. Late in 2012, when readers all over the world were celebrating the 200th anniversary of the Grimms, I was re-reading this book, which is American. It sits on the bookshelf next to From the Beast to the Blonde, a book ‘on fairy tales and their tellers’ by Marina Warner, who is English. I had an idle thought that I didn’t have a book on the topic written in Australia. Just then, Charlotte Wood published a short reflection on fairy tales in a weekend newspaper. The idea of a collection of essays on the subject, with an Australian slant, came to me. I developed a proposal which was universally rejected by Australian publishers who felt that there was no interest in the topic in this country. I realized I would have to think a bit laterally. What about a journal instead of a book? Helen Hopcroft suggested I try Griffith Review. The visionary Julianne Schultz decided to go with it – and what a joy it was when Chong at Text Publishing came up with the fabulous cover image of the mermaid in the desert, enclosed in a magic mirror. In looking at fabulations in Australia, it was not possible to confine matters to what might be classified strictly as ‘fairy tales’. So in the editing of the journal Julianne and I (with a great deal of help from Nicholas) moved across the different genres of myth etc.

MW:Your own fiction has often brushed up against themes of colonialism and the legacy of the past. You touch on those aspects of Australian myth and storytelling in your essay, but I wonder what you find so interesting in those themes, what draws you back to them?
CB:  Just as children and families tell stories about themselves, hence establishing a place in the world, so peoples fix on key moments across time in a process of fashioning identity – something that gives shape and meaning, and promises possibility. And those moments – say, the story of Ned Kelly – move into myth that in turn shapes who the people are. The history of non-Aboriginal Australia is so short – myth can take a long time to make itself – and so folk storytelling in Australia is I think unlike such telling in older cultures. The German tales of the Brothers Grimm reference German history – for instance, Hansel and Gretel is, at one level, a famine story. So the colonial story of Australia is vital to me as a writer, even when I might be writing about the present day. The past casts its shadows – think of the forever rippling effects of, for one thing, the First World War. The centre of the novel I am working on now is a dark secret from over half a century back.  

MW: You point out that what makes Australian storytelling different from that of other places is the fact that Aboriginal place was telling itself for tens of thousands of years before European settlement, while from the outside, from the other side of the world, people were dreaming about it. That the difference comes from the meeting of these two legacies of myth. I wonder if you’d be able to speak a little more about that?
CB: I love trying to think about the great stretch of time during which the First Peoples have been in Australia. And the storytelling on rocks and in dance and spoken word. I grew up in Tasmania, and from a very early age I was aware that different people had been there, and didn’t seem to be there any more. In The Bluebird CafĂ© and also in Cape Grimm (two of my novels) there are hauntings by Aboriginal characters in Tasmania. And it has always thrilled me strangely somehow that while life was going on here over the many centuries, people in Europe were trying to imagine what it must be like here, trying to imagine that here even existed. Early on people brought the European folk and fairy tales here, and they have of course survived in the culture, been added to by the many many other different peoples who now make up the population, but there is, I sense, a deep well of stories that are somehow indelibly etched into the land. I am struggling here to explain what I mean. I have always had a sense that there is an Aboriginal presence everywhere here. Just about everywhere here anyway. Certainly in Tasmania. Also a convict presence there. Don’t get me started. As we edited the journal I became more aware of how the Aboriginal stories and the other stories (literary and historical) seemed to be, however subtly, merging. I had a go at expressing it in the essay – I’m not sure how successful I was. Perhaps this was happening only in my own mind? I suppose stories are a process, and there is a long way to go.

MW: I thought it was interesting that you ended your essay on a question. You sketch all the permutations of myth and storytelling in Australia, without giving any aspect more weight than the other. It’s a very open-ended piece, which I think leaves the reader with many questions and serves as a wonderful introduction to the rest of the edition. Was it your intention to structure the piece in that way?

CB: That’s quite funny – because I just ended the last response to your penultimate question with a little question.  
Oh I knew my essay had to be open-ended, as you describe it. I’m pleased you see that I was not giving one element more weight than another. I wanted to invite readers into the discussion, and to lead them to read joyfully the responses of the contributors. Sometimes I was (and am) overwhelmed by the vastness of the topic – the fairy tale in Australia?? (Two question marks – and I don’t really like question marks.) The Annotated Brothers Grimm edited by Maria Tatar lists 237 books as ‘Further Reading on Fairy Tales’ – and that’s nothing to do with Australia at all. The title for my essay ‘Dreaming the Place’ occurred to me after I had written the piece, and it sums up for me the link between ‘place’ which is so very important in Australia, and storytelling which is ultimately a product of the imagination. One of my favourite characters in the story of Australia is Archbishop Moran who (I believe) taught his flock that the New Jerusalem was established in Queensland in 1605. Now there’s a myth to conjure with.
One of the most interesting and powerful myth-making events in my lifetime was the disappearance of Azaria Chamberlain. Simply put, a wild dog abducted a baby girl from a sleeping tent in central Australia, at the Aboriginal sacred site of Ularu – the big red rock. The public and media response to this event chose to characterize the baby’s mother as the bad mother who had killed her own baby. So a motif from folklore drove the unfolding story. And today, the whole terrible saga of the lost child, the wrongfully punished mother has become (as how could it not) a tale set firmly in the lexicon of Australian myths.
For myths (and fairy tales) do not always have happy outcomes, even though the expression ‘fairy tale ending’ means happy ending. In common speech when the term ‘fairy tale’ is invoked, the meaning is generally ‘wondrous, marvelous, good beyond reality.’ And fairy tales have their share of truly horrible moments – the shock of cannibalism in ‘The Juniper Tree’ or the moment with the huntsman in ‘Snow White’. Now there were two wicked (step) mothers. Who knows where those tales really originated? They are more or less set in their own formulas now, their origins lost in time. Whereas the story of Azaria is still part of recent history, her parents and brothers still living. It is, I suppose, an Australian fairy tale in the making. It has a moral. I think you know what it is.
The modern communication media have made a difference (huge) to the way stories are made. Hansel and Gretel would have developed from human to human – there are still humans, but oh, how much farther, how much faster  they can reach.
Am I being open-ended again? 

Tuesday, September 10, 2013


Dear Writer Revisited (2013) is the updated version of the classic Dear Writer which has been inspiring writers since 1988. Go to
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Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Life and Times of a Book
Dear Writer Revisited
In the history of the world, 1988 is not so very long ago; in the history of publishing, it’s forever.  My writing manual Dear Writer was first published by McPhee Gribble in 1988, and was also published by Virago. It was revised, and republished by Random House in 1996. There was a time just before the 1996 publication when Monash students needed copies so I had a limited edition printed by Wild and Woolley. It has also been published in Indonesian. Three years ago, by which time the world of books and publishing had undergone the revolution that is continuing, Dear Writer needed a new revision. I was unable to interest publishers in this idea. I let it rest for a while, and then – about eighteen months ago, I decided I would publish it as an ebook.
Ah – easier said than done.
So the first thing to do was to get the manuscript on file. I didn’t have it. I would have to scan the book and create a file. It so happened that I had only one copy of the (1996) book, the one I needed. I was reluctant to destroy that lone copy, so I tried to buy one, but this was impossible. Then one lovely day when I was visiting children’s author Glenda Millard I saw on the bookshelf her battered copy of Dear Writer. I told her the story of why my need was greater than hers, and she gave me her copy.
Then page by page I scanned it. This was a very tedious process. Even more tedious was the business of converting the scans into a Word file. But then I had the enormous pleasure of doing the big re-write. I realised that although the world of writing – creative writing courses, festivals, book publishing, web publishing, blogs, tweets, ebooks and so forth – had undergone a revolution and was still evolving, the basics of writing fiction had not changed, and the human beings whose imaginations created the stories had not changed either. So the core of Dear Writer was constant. However I needed to acknowledge the changed environment. The exciting thing I did was to allow myself, the author of the book, to intervene in the narrative, to speak to the reader as myself.
I included short comments throughout the text, signalling them with ‘Author’s Note 2013’. These interventions give the whole thing a new dimension, a kind of post-post-modern tone. Letters – and this is a book written in letters from a writing teacher to a new writer – are not something a writing teacher of 2013 would be sending by mail to a student. So the core of Dear Writer Revisited is in the quaint old narrative of the letters, while the reader of the work is conscious that there is a presence, this time ‘Author’ who is owning up to running the show.
All very nice, then. So I have the manuscript of the transformed text. But it isn’t an ebook, is it? Enter Simon Groth of if-books – the Institute for the Future of the Book. Out of the blue he asked me to write an essay on my recent use of technology. So I wrote up the story of Dear Writer thus far. Simon directed me to websites on the production of an ebook.
It was at this point I realised the project was not something I could do alone. I didn’t have the skills to follow the directions, and it would take me a long time, I could see, to acquire those skills.
I asked Bronwyn Mehan at Spineless Wonders if she would help me, advise me, or perhaps take on the production of the ebook. Yes she would take on the production, clever woman. And furthermore, she would like to publish the book, or should I say the pbook. Dear Writer Revisted will be published as a book and as an ebook in October 2013.