Wednesday, November 30, 2016


Every published piece of work has its own readership, its own audience. The bedtime story you make up for a three year old is different (I trust) from the poem you write to communicate your grief at the death of a friend. This is of course a dramatic difference, but I choose it to try to show you that the destination, the readership, the audience to which your work is directed, really really matters. And between the work and the audience sit the publishers – and the publishers know what they think the audience will want, because usually the publishers are proposing to sell the work to the audience. 

You have heard the old advice ‘know your enemy’ – that’s a good one – but it’s also a good idea to know your audience, to befriend your audience, and the gatekeepers between you and your audience are publishers – so in a sense you need to ‘know your publishers.’

What you as the producer of the work need to know is – what kind of things do publishers A, B and C like to sell to their audiences? 
How do you discover this? It is not a secret. The publishers make it clear every time they publish something. 

You have to study, to READ what publishers put out. 
You want to have work in Fiddlededee Journal? Then READ a few copies of FJ. You want to have your novel published by MishMash? Then you simply HAVE to read some books by MM. I mean READ them. Take the time to read them.

I know all this sounds so obvious – and you are probably thinking – yes yes yes – tell us something we don’t know – BUT – in my experience (vast)**  I have observed that although writers KNOW what I am saying is true, many, many writers ignore the whole idea, and just go ahead and bombard journals and publishers with their writing which is DOOMED to be rejected because it is going to the WRONG PLACE. 

Look, I know what I have just said is not the be all and the end all (funny expression) to getting work published, but it is just about the first rule.

Other things that will get in your way are publishers who ignore every approach you make to them. You could try barring their way to the exit at a writers’ festival (publishers are notorious for not answering emails – this is not necessarily personal – maybe they just don’t like email). You will really have to work out your own strategies for getting their attention – but I can tell you the first rule of having work published really IS – know your desired audience, and realise that the publishers are the LINK between Beautiful You and your Beautiful Readers.

So that was One Thought – but a good one.
**Sometimes I think that writers might have a secret desire to get work rejected. They will come to me in woe and say their bedtime story has been rejected by Fiddlededee Journal.
Me (astonished): But why would a journal for young violinists consider publishing the story about a family of mice living in a drawer full of embroidered tablecloths?
Writer (also astonished): Oh, I didn’t realise Fiddlededee was for violinists.
Me (weeping): Oh, right, yes, right, I see.

Friday, November 18, 2016


November 11, 2016 I received the Patrick White Literary Award
Robyn Annear gave me the postcard bearing the image of Patrick White's spectacles, Fran Bryson gave me the glowing butterfly, HarperCollins gave me the lilies, Donna Ward took the picture.


At the Stella Awards in 2017, one of my all time favourite authors Andy Griffiths surprised me by speaking very warmly about my 1987 collection 'Woodpecker Point' (originally titled 'The Woodpecker Toy Fact'. He has kindly given me permission to publish his talk here:

Stella spark talk about Carmel Bird
By Andy Griffiths

Thanks so much for the invitation to speak tonight. I’m happy to be at an event celebrating literary woman as I’ve spent my entire writing career surrounded, helped and inspired by many women, one of the most important being my wife Jill who was the editor of my first children’s book, Just Tricking, back in 1997 and who has edited—and increasingly collaborated on the books with me ever since.

I’ve often wondered whether part of the success we’ve enjoyed with the books is due to this blending of our male and female sensibilities. Despite the perception amongst some that our books have special appeal to boys, our audience has always been made up of both boys AND girls … and many of these girls are just as enthusiastic and amused by the taboo & disgusting elements of the stories as the boys.

I’m wary of subscribing to gender stereotypes but I will say that—over the years—I think I have helped Jill to appreciate the humour of the physical slapstick of The Three Stooges (and not just sit there feeling sorry and upset for Curly because Moe is being mean to him) and—in return—she has brought me to a fuller appreciation for the verbal gymnastics of The Marx Brothers.

But before I met Jill I was fortunate enough to read, meet and then be taught by Carmel Bird, a Tasmanian writer then living in Melbourne.

I was aware of her fiction from a book called The Woodpecker Toy Fact, a collection of highly original and darkly humorous stories that were playful, self-aware, personal, honest and utterly unlike anything I’d read to that point. She could take the most ordinary incidents or objects and through sustained attention and exploration transform them into little tableaus of wonder, sadness and delight.

So I was thrilled to find her writing instruction book, Dear Writer, a practical, inspirational, common-sense examination of all aspects of the writers’ life written in the form of a series of letters from a fictional writer to an imaginary beginning student.

In 1990 I attended a two-day summer school writing course run by Carmel at the then newly established Victorian writers centre. She waltzed into the room with an ethereal air—looking not unlike a character you might expect to find in a fairy tale—though whether good, evil or simply mischievous was difficult to tell. She gave us each a piece of white tablecloth and invited us to use it as the starting point for a piece of fiction. I can’t remember exactly what I wrote but I remember it made her smile.

I showed her a collection of writing fragments I’d been working on– and asked her what I’d need to do in order to get it published. She suggested I organize it in some way. I argued it was better to keep it random. “I know that,” she said, conspiratorially, ‘and you know that, but publishers won’t know that.” And so I began the long slow process of organizing—and rewriting—what was to become my first officially published book—a creative writing textbook for use in high school classrooms.

A few months later she invited me to be part of a poetry/short story reading night with her and some other established writers at a hotel in Fitzroy. It was both an amazing show of confidence on her part and a terrifying prospect, but it was reassuring to know that I was doing something right—though I wasn’t quite sure what.

But I kept practising, and two years later, as luck would have it, I discovered Carmel was teaching a year-long graduate diploma of fiction writing at Rusden College in Toorak.

So in 1991 I took leave without pay from my high-school teaching job and enrolled in Carmel’s Monday evening class and spent the rest of my time writing.

During this year she taught me three hugely valuable things.

Firstly, the importance of considering your reader. This was achieved through the often gruelling practice of having to have our stories critiqued by the other students in the class. Carmel would preside sagely over this process, stepping in when things got too brutal.

Secondly she taught me the value of reading widely and introduced me to many important writers including Helen Garner, Henry Handel Richardson, Elizabeth Harrower, Ruth Park, Katherine Mansfield and Barbara Baynton.

And thirdly, by point blank refusing to tell me the magic secret of how to get published—which I was sure all published writers knew—she gently forced me to learn to trust my own idiosyncratic voice and ignore the nagging feeling that because it was my own idiosyncratic voice it must somehow be wrong … which was of course the magic secret all along.

Because of my fondness for writing humour she nudged me in the direction of writing for children – we both agreed that what seemed to be missing from Australian children’s writing at the time was the sort of rambunctious fantasy that we had both enjoyed in the work of Enid Blyton. (She once wrote—or told me—I can’t remember which that she thought the thing with Enid Blyton was not that her stories and characters were unbelievable, but the opposite—they were TOO believable.)

As a fiction writer Carmel has experimented with many different genres and styles. But I always come back to The Woodpecker Toy Fact, especially the passage at the beginning of ‘A Taste of Earth’, which—in retrospect—I think I took to be a sort of mission statement.

“When I read fiction I want the words to take my spirit into the places beneath the surface of the everyday world. I want the freshness of dreams to be again revealed to me. I want to know the loveliness and terror of what lies beyond the last star … to feel the anguish and exhilaration of the fiction writer’s power to create and destroy.”

From reading Carmel’s fiction I have no doubt about her power to create and destroy, and from being a student in her class I can personally attest to her ability to inspire—a true stella spark.

Thursday, October 13, 2016



In Family Skeleton one of Australia’s most prolific and original authors delivers a tale of life-changing family secrets.

Margaret O’Day has always lived an ordered and beautiful life. She’s a beloved mother and grandmother and, as an enthusiastic volunteer and fundraiser, a true pillar of the community. She wouldn’t say her marriage to her husband, Edmund – now sadly deceased – was perfect, but Margaret believes living a good life requires the ability to be accommodating and forgiving, two virtues she has often had occasion to practise. And any unhappiness Edmund caused Margaret wasn’t entirely his fault; how could he live up to the great and glorious man who was her father, Killian O’Day? Edmund nevertheless made sure she had everything she wanted, like the butterfly screen that had stood for years in the foyer of the family business, O’Day Funerals:

"A few feet behind her in the tapestry room stands a tall folding screen, known as the Zephyr screen, framing her mothly presence with its own eerie beauty … It is in five folding sections, eight feet high, made from a deep golden wood voluptuously carved, framing great panels of glass. Between the two pieces of glass are trapped the bodies of dozens of iridescent blue Zephritis butterflies from Peru, their giant wings spread and stilled. Each specimen is matched, underside to underside, with another, so that both sides of the screen are virtually identical … The patterns formed by the wings on the screen are mesmerising, the shimmer and unearthly glow of the colours, the sense of arrested flight. But the truth is that the insects are the stiff little bodies of dead things, creatures captured at the height of their beauty and bloom, trapped now between glass for the pleasure of their killers and admirers … Margaret sometimes formulates these thoughts as her gaze settles on the screen each day, but still she is drawn to the beauty. She delights in it, loves it, her eyes following the designs and patterns made by the insects under the glass."

Into Margaret’s steady and charming world rushes Doria Fogelsong, a distant cousin who is determined to write a comprehensive O’Day family history. And since Margaret and Edmund were themselves cousins, many times removed, who better than Margaret to help Doria flesh out the history? But Margaret isn’t so sure she wants this stranger digging into the family’s past. Not that she has anything to hide, it just feels so unseemly and unnecessary:

"Doria comes to this story as a given, as a presence, and then as an absence. Margaret is the force up against which she is matched, and it’s Margaret, and who she was, that really matters here. It’s the cumulation of the events in Margaret’s life that are really going to converge and swallow Doria up … was Doria a nemesis? Was this how a nemesis worked? But Margaret had done no harm. Nothing for which she should be pursued and punished. She was only trying to do that thing people talk about, trying to ‘come to terms’ with the past."

Unfailingly imaginative, Bird lets a skeleton in a wardrobe – ‘I still have my own teeth’ – in Margaret’s house, narrate the novel. Interspersed with the skeleton’s wry and often scalding narration are snippets from Margaret’s journal, in which she reveals herself as human after all, often just as lost and lonely – and as given to gossip – as anyone. It’s the skeleton who divulges the intricacies of the O’Day family, its joys, controversies and rivalries; Doria would probably kill to have a conversation with it. Margaret touches on a number of these things in her journal, too, though she is far less honest than the skeleton, even as she tells herself she’s being candid: ‘I sometimes astonish myself as I record all these things in my book, but the recording has, in the past few days, become a kind of comfort to me.’

As ever, Bird’s writing is lyrical and transporting. She vividly paints the privileged world Margaret inhabits and the past she has idealised, as well as gracefully exploring the nature of family, loyalty, spirituality and truth:
"She lay down on her back under the trees, gazing up, trying to see as far as she could into the sky. For an instant, an instant that seemed to last for a very long time, Margaret realised she understood something very grand, something inexpressible. She seemed to know, for that fleeting moment, and yet forever, the meaning and the reason of things. She was unable to put this into words, unable even to form the thought, but for the rest of her life she carried the knowledge – or was it just a feeling – of the gift she received there above the river on the afternoon of the picnic."

Perhaps it’s this knowledge, bestowed upon eight-year-old Margaret, that enabled her to get on with life, to withstand the disappointments and betrayals growing up would bring. But Doria sits outside this fundamental understanding of Margaret’s, disrupting the peace she has dwelt in for years, and Bird has great fun exploring Doria’s meaning in the context of Margaret’s world. Family Skeleton is an enchanting examination of what happens when an inconceivable revelation makes the solid earth of a woman’s world crumble beneath her.

Monday, October 3, 2016



Told from the perspective of the observant and sometimes cynical skeleton in the closet, this novel of manners takes the reader into the emotional depths of the lives of a family of funeral directors in a wealthy Melbourne suburb. The patriarch is a charming and amusing philanderer, his wife is a virtuous philanthropist, his mistress is treated as a member of the family. But the sins of the past are about to surface, with catastrophic results. Dark and hilarious, dramatic and moving, Family Skeleton has been compared to the novels of Fay Weldon, Penelope Fitzgerald, Muriel Spark and Anne Tyler.  
Carmel Bird has always been in love with the music of language, the rhythms of speech, the possibilities of fiction. She has written thirty books, including nine other novels and six collections of short fiction.

‘An intensely un-put-down-able novel with a rare pitch perfect ending. What a rich, delicious, suspenseful, witty, sinister, joyous confabulation, wow!’
‘Carmel Bird is a literary artist to her fingertips. She writes prose that has the precision of poetry, and that uncanny quality poetry has of making the inner life speak.’
‘One of Australia’s more prolific and renowned authors, Bird clearly hasn’t lost her enthusiasm and sense of wonder as she enters again the imaginative world of fiction.’

8 1. The Skeleton in the Closet speaks directly to the reader, commenting on the behaviour of the characters, and also telling the reader where to look, what not to bother about. What effect does this narrative device have on the telling of the story?
8  2. Margaret’s life story is mostly revealed in her journal. Does having this intimate view of her give you a sympathy for her that you might not otherwise have had?
8 3. Lillian is different from the other characters in many ways, and she is the central location of goodness in a messy, wicked world. In what ways is she different?
8 4. The Second World War fractured the twentieth century. How did it affect Margaret? How did its ripples reach out into the lives of the O’Days of Toorak?
8 5. You could say that Doria is ‘the stranger who rides into town’. What effect did she have on the lives of the other characters?
8 6. Margaret thinks the past should remain past, even mysterious. Most of the other characters seem to want to explore and expose the past. Who do you think is right?
8 7. The subject matter of the novel is dramatic and serious, yet much of the style of the writing is comic. How do you think these two elements work together? Does the comedy make the drama more memorable?
8 8. The chapters are headed by a short quotation from Edmund. What effect do these sayings have on your reading of the novel?
8 9. The novel ends in such a way that the reader is invited to complete the picture. Do you find this satisfactory, or would you prefer to be told what actually happened?
8 10. What do you think it is that the Skeleton wants the reader to notice in the advertisement for the house sale on page six? When you get to the end of the novel, why not go back and re-read the ad.
8  11. Next door to Bellevue is the Freud House where an eccentric psychoanalyst lives. What is the function of the Freud House in the overall meaning of the narrative?
8 12. There are glancing references to matters such as the indigenous history of Australia, IVF, gays, the presence of the Chinese in contemporary Australia, incest, unmarried mothers, religious prejudice. How do such elements have a place in the tapestry of Margaret’s life?
8 13. What is the role of children in this novel?
8 14. The secret was bound to come out when Ophelia died. But without the presence of Doria, would Margaret have been able to bury that secret forever?
8 15. What is the role of fate in this novel?

816. The Skeleton says to take no notice of such things as the butterflies in the story. He says they are meaningless. What do you think?