'Stories have to sing you know. And a bit of subtlety never goes astray.'
Carmel Bird is one of Australia's most dazzling and imaginative writers. She is a leading author of short stories, novels and books on the art of writing, in addition to editing anthologies of essays and stories. She was awarded the Patrick White Award in 2016. She has had two awards named after her, the most recent The Carmel Bird Digital Collection Award.
Read some of Carmel's work: The Dead Aviatrix, a story from her new collection: https://tablo.io/carmel-bird/the-dead-aviatrix-and-the-stratemeyer-syndicate
An essay on her new collection: https://tablo.io/carmel-bird/the-dead-aviatrix-the-story-of-the-stories
This Q&A with Carmel Bird has been edited from the discussion on State Library of Victoria's space on Tablo. The questions were from a range of people, writers and Carmel's publisher at Spineless Wonders Bronwyn Mehan – specific names have generally not been included.
THE BOOK THE FLYING GIRL MENTIONED IN YOUR STORY ‘THE DEAD AVIATRIX’ IS AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY. THE FLYING GIRL WAS PREVIOUSLY USED AS THE TITLE FOR A NOVEL BY FRANK BAUM (WRITING UNDER THE PSEUDONYM OF EDITH VAN DYNE) AND IT WAS SAID TO BE ‘AN INNOVATIVE BLEND OF GENRES TO CREATE A FEMINIST ADVENTURE’. ARE THERE ENOUGH ‘FEMINIST ADVENTURES’ BEING WRITTEN THESE DAYS? IS THERE STILL A NEED FOR THEM?
The story of ‘The Dead Aviatrix’ is fiction woven from a very broad sweep of facts. The Finch One aviatrix in the story is a reference to Nancy Bird who wrote an autobiography titled ‘My God it’s a Woman!’. Just as I altered her name a little bit from Bird to Finch, so I altered the title of her autobiography to The Flying Girl with its echo of the sitcom The Flying Nun – both these latter titles having a transgressive, amusing feminist air to them. Yes the title is the same as Frank Baum’s feminist novel – he sometimes satirised feminists, but he was often on their side too. The Wizard of Oz is a girl’s adventure – Dorothy leads the way and has the great good Glinda and Aunty Em, as well as the wicked witch of the west.
I seem to see feminist adventure stories for girls everywhere in the bookshops, but I don’t really know about the volume of them being published. I think they’re pretty big business. Particularly in the category of young adult fiction. I think it’s good for girls to read fiction that inspires them to be adventurous. Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas any more.
‘THE MATTER OF THE MOSQUE’ IS QUITE CHILLING, AND HIGHLIGHTS THE UGLINESS AND BANALITY OF PREJUDICE. YOU WROTE THAT YOU USED PEOPLE’S OWN WORDS TO SHOW THEIR BLINDNESS AND SMUGNESS IN OBJECTING TO THE ESTABLISHMENT OF A MOSQUE IN BENDIGO. DO YOU HAVE ANY ADVICE FOR LESS-EXPERIENCED WRITERS ABOUT HOW TO WRITE CONVINCINGLY AND INTRIGUINGLY ABOUT SOCIAL ISSUES?
also HOW DOES A WRITER AVOID THAT DREADFULLY DIDACTIC TONE?
Quite so. Didacticism can kill a story, unless of course the point of the story is to parody didacticism. But, to the original comment, yes, the story is, in a way, all about its structure. The purpose is to lull readers with weirdly boring dialogue, and then to really, really jolt them into consciousness with a horrible hissing paragraph. In order to make a point. The narrative consists of the dialogue I overheard between mothers waiting for their children who were having ballet lessons. Most of the conversation was utterly banal, but every now and again the women remembered the fact that there was controversy in the town about the proposed building of a mosque. This issue was always just below the surface. Their rage and fear and prejudice would boil up and they would stop talking about such things as hairspray and schools and babies, and would spit out vile comments about Muslim people. I constructed the story so that the mothers just go on and on in a boring, mesmerising way, some of their thinking incidentally revealing ignorance and stupidity. Then, just once, I inserted a short paragraph consisting of their poisonous prejudice against the mosque. Then I went back to their boring chatter.
Now I don’t really know what to say to new writers about how I arrived at that structure. Because every issue, every situation has its own best way to come forward in fiction. I suppose the thing is that a writer must often (always, actually) be on the alert for HOW to shape a narrative. I had been aware for months that people were troubled by the idea of the mosque – I would be looking in a shop window, and some random person would come up to me and start ranting about the horrors of Islam – or I would be sitting on a park bench or in a café and people would just start up about it all. I would just say ‘oh’ to them – it is not my thing to engage in such arguments – I go home and write fiction – about most things really. And when I sat in the ballet school waiting for my grand-daughter, I just listened, and the structure of the story kind of unfurled. Nobody spoke to me or took any notice of me. I was just a silent well-behaved grandmother in the corner. There are even little funny bits in the story – because the characters (who are not individual – they’re just voices, like voices in a play I suppose) they do say the odd funny thing.
I know it’s irritating when writers say things like that – the story kind of unfurled – but that is what often happens. You are alert to the world, and I guess that the more experienced you are with material and with words, and perhaps the more prepared you are to experiment – well, things have a way of unfurling. Honestly, get in and do it – just write what seems to be wanting to be written – look, I have written three books about writing – there’s more logical and sensible stuff there about how to do things. The answer is either short, like now – or long, like in the books. Dear Writer Revisited is a good one to start with.
But I can think of one thing to say here – any story of any real worth is going to somehow reflect how you, you personally, think and feel about some aspect of life, some big or small issue or other. And if you put that issue front and centre, and bash the reader over the head with it, the fiction of your story could be so weighed down with earnestness and ugliness that it won’t quite function as a story. Stories have to sing you know. And a bit of subtlety never goes astray.
But look, if there is one thing I would say as part of just about every response to questions about writing – read – read all kinds of writing – inhale it, swallow it, digest it – read it. That’s where you’ll get your inspiration and direction.
ONE OF YOUR NARRATORS HAS A BIT OF A DIG AT ‘LITERARY FICTION’. DO YOU WRITE ‘LITERARY FICTION’? WHAT DOES THE PHRASE MEAN TO YOU? DOES IT ANNOY OR INTRIGUE YOU? IF SO, HOW?
Glad you asked. It’s more than ‘a bit of a dig’ at categories of writing. The whole story, titled ‘The Whirligiggie of Time Brings in His Revenges’ is a little satire on the whims and vagaries of the publishing industry. The common term ‘literary fiction’ is isolated in the text by the use of quote marks.
I look at the broad categories of fiction as a kind of continuum from ‘literary’ to ‘mass market’ – note that the word ‘market’ has made it’s appearance. For these categories are needed in the marketplace – booksellers need to know where to shelve their Finnegan's Wake and where to put their Dan Brown, just as supermarkets need to know where the Doritos are in relation to the French Camembert. There, I’ve just offended Joyce, Brown, Camembert and Doritos. Perhaps the food analogy isn’t so great, but just to run with it for a minute – the high end literary stuff tends to be complex but nourishing, while the low end mass market, not so much. Both can be pleasurable. The difficulty comes when you try to work along the continuum from Joyce to Brown, deciding where the middle is, deciding which books hover on the line between literary and mass market. Generally speaking, you don’t go to Kmart to buy Finnegan’s Wake. Kmarts know what they are doing. They sell The Da Vinci Code.
All this interests me – but I don’t think it intrigues me. Doesn’t annoy me at all. It’s just a thing about the business of writing.
IN ‘SURROGATE’, I LOVED THE FAMILIES CALLED THE SPINES AND THE BACKBONES THAT LIVE NEXT DOOR TO EACH OTHER. THE HUMOUR IS A BRIGHT SPOT IN A STORY THAT ENDS IN TRAGEDY. IT ALSO ENDS WITH A QUOTE FROM THE GRIMM BROTHERS, ‘MY TALE IS DONE AND THERE RUNS A MOUSE AND WHOEVER CATCHES IT CAN MAKE FROM IT A BIG FUR CAP.’ I THOUGHT THE QUOTE ADDED QUITE A SINISTER AURA TO THE END OF THE STORY. TELL US MORE...
Thank you for this question. I think the whole story has a sinister ring. Yes, there is humour, but I think the humour only sharpens the horror. The story was inspired by a controversy about a couple who apparently abandoned a surrogate baby they had paid for because the baby was disabled. So this is a story that showcases and examines a current issue. I have cast the narrative as a fairy story – and fairy stories often do exactly what this story does – they take an issue such as infertility and tell the story of Thumbelina. Or the idea of rape and tell the story of Red Riding Hood. Fairy stories are humorous and horrible – and it’s a fine balance.
As for the line about the mouse at the end – yes that’s how the storytellers of Germany in the nineteenth century often finished off a tale. I think it was just a kind of punctuation – instead of saying The End they had that little piece of interactive suggestion. The line is fun, but, as you say, also infused with threat. Catching and killing the mouse.
MOST LITERARY AWARDS (HAL PORTER, JOSEPHINE ULRICK, ELIZABETH JOLLEY) ARE NAMED AFTER WRITERS WHO ARE NOW DEAD. HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT THE SPINELESS WONDERS SHORT STORY COMPETITION BEING NAMED AFTER YOU?
Dead or alive, it is flattering to have my work in short fiction recognised in this way. I never actually think that Elizabeth Jolley, for example, is really no longer living. I suppose that’s the thing about books, maybe, they have a life of their own anyway. And it’s nice to think that I, in a way, am giving new writers the opportunity to see their work recognised and showcased. I do like to be involved in encouraging young and new writers. This is a small way of doing it.
FURTHER TO THAT, HOW IMPORTANT DO YOU THINK SUCH COMPETITIONS ARE FOR WRITERS?
I talked about this this evening in my speech launching the new digital literary award. Digital or not, it is the same. Short story competitions have always been very important to new writers. They help writers to focus their work as it progresses. They give a time-frame. They provide a kind of excitement and hope. They give the story a destination, and even a validation, although only one story will win. Or in the case of the CB Digital Literary Award, three collections will 'win'. Now isn't that something!
'THE WHIRLGIGGE OF TIME BRINGS HIS REVENGES' TITLE IS TAKEN FROM SHAKESPEARE'S PLAY TWELFTH NIGHT. CAN YOU TELL US WHY THAT LINE SPOKE TO YOU AND IF ANY OTHER AUTHORS OR HISTORICAL TEXTS HAVE INFLUENCED YOUR WRITING AND/OR STORY TITLES?
Thank you for this question... I suppose the word ‘whirligigge’ and its lovely spelling attracted me. And I think it’s a beautiful, beautiful way to talk about people getting their comeuppance – another rather fun word. The whirligigge thing has stayed with me since we performed the play in high school. I once wrote a short story with the title: ‘Made Glorious Summer’ – from Richard the III. Rather hilariously a critic said in a review that I had no right to do that because I was not Shakespeare. Right. Rather a cuckoo comment.
It’s kind of hard to say which writers have ‘influenced’ my writing. There are writers (many) that I admire, and perhaps they influence me, but I’m not quite sure how. I love Nabokov, for instance. Has he had an influence? Look, I don’t know. I gave a story a long title that took two bits of The Great Gatsby and put them together: ‘Her Voice Was Full of Money, and They Were Careless People’. I think that sings – and is very sad. But most of my titles are made up, coming out of the stories themselves. I do enjoy titles.
Once Marion Halligan and I got talking about foxes and fox hunting, and we decided we would each write a story with the title ‘Shooting the Fox’. That was fun. They were very different stories. Marion used the title for the title of a collection.
TO ADD TO MY QUESTION ABOVE, HOW DO YOU COME UP WITH YOUR STORY TITLES?
New writers and students often seem to be uncertain about how to name their stories. I am always amazed that they can’t see and hear the titles in their own narratives. They are always there. I don’t know why it is, but I have always known the title of any story of mine – sometimes before the story is formed, sometimes as soon as the story is written. Occasionally the publisher’s marketing department has stepped in and said I had to change it. They have sometimes won the battle, and have invariably made a bit of a mess of things. But that isn’t what you asked about.
Take the title of ‘The Dead Aviatrix and the Stratemeyer Syndicate’. The story was nine years in the making.
It was inspired by something that happened to me as the writer of a novel some years ago. It was an awful and troubling thing, and I wondered for a long time about how to write about it in a useful and interesting way. The narrative involved my surname Bird and the surname of an Australian woman flier, also Bird. It was a story about publishing. Then one day I was reading online about the phenomenon of the Stratemeyer Syndicate, the first book-packager for children, and I found there a story with a woman flier in it, and I was captivated by the sentence:
The aviatrix sat looking on through all this tumult with a happy smile.
Something went Ping! and suddenly I had the story. Maybe the use of the term ‘aviatrix’ was what did it. A word very much of its time. Female aviator. Not a word that is safe to use seriously any more because it is unfashionable to characterize women workers as being separate from men workers. You are not supposed to say, for instance, ‘actress’. So ‘aviatrix’ was horribly un-PC. In particular I loved the ‘trix’ part of it; I just liked saying it. The story, fermenting for about nine years, just ‘wrote itself’ as writers sometimes say – so annoying – and the title did too. I loved it when the character of the intern invented herself.
Now you may wonder why the title of the story is longer than the title of the collection – well – I believe that book titles often benefit from being very short. Easy to say, easy for people to remember. I wanted to have the word Aviatrix on the cover, and it so happens that people seem to really love the word. So I shortened the title of the story when I used it on the cover. But I retained the longer title for the story itself. The Stratemeyer Syndicate was a very important part of the narrative.
The title of a story sometimes wells up out of the story; sometimes the title comes first, and will not go away. I think that in Dear Writer Revisited I suggest that the writer might talk TO the story, ask it what its title is. Nuts you see.
I WAS WONDERING HOW YOU THINK THE MARKET FOR SHORT STORIES HAS CHANGED IN RECENT YEARS, ESPECIALLY IN REGARDS TO DIGITAL SHORT STORIES, AND HOW YOU ENVISION THINGS CHANGING IN THE FUTURE AS NEW TECHNOLOGY APPEARS AND BECOMES MORE PREVALENT.
Well, Bronwyn* is more au fait with the digital publishing side of things, but from my point of view the more avenues - or platforms as we like to say now - for short stories the better. And if the new medium of the ebook means a writer can include hyperlinks, audio or even video in their stories - why not, I say.
* Bronwyn Mehan is Carmel's publisher at Spineless Wonders.
YOUR STORIES ARE SO LAYERED. THERE'S THE ORDINARY STUFF OF EVERYDAY LIFE (SCHOOL, HOUSES, WINDOWS, STREETS), AND THERE'S BEAUTY (FLOWERS, MUSIC) AND SOMEHOW THERE'S OFTEN AN UNDERCURRENT OF HORROR THAT MAY OR MAY NOT APPEAR BUT ALWAYS SEEMS TO THREATEN. I LOVE COLD CASE! IT'S SO CHILLING. 'VEINED THROATS' TO DESCRIBE THE PETUNIAS; 'BUBBLES OF ICY AIR' FOR THE SNOWBALL BUSH – THE THREAT BEHIND THE BEAUTY. NO REAL QUESTION HERE, JUST ADMIRATION!
Thank you. Yes, there is horror and beauty in this one. Mostly horror.
CARMEL, ONE THING I LOVE ABOUT YOUR WRITING IS THE APPARENT JOY OF WRITING WHICH BUBBLES UP. THERE'S FREQUENTLY A SENSE OF A CONVERSATION WITH THE READER, AND I TEND TO IMAGINE YOU WRITING WITH A SMILE ON YOUR FACE. I STRONGLY SUSPECT THAT THIS EFFORTLESS EFFECT IS THE RESULT OF HARD WORK BUT I WANT TO ASK HOW MUCH YOU ACTUALLY ENJOY THE CREATIVE PROCESS.
From Bronwyn: I can tell you for a fact, that Carmel loves the creative process of talking to readers on Tablo. Should see her face!
Carmel: Eyes staring intently at a bright screen. Is that what you are referring to?
IT WAS GREAT TO SEE THE SHORT STORY CAT PERSON GO VIRAL RECENTLY AND HAVE SO MUCH CONVERSATION AROUND IT - DO YOU THINK SHORT STORIES ARE GOING THROUGH A RENAISSANCE?
From Bronwyn: Funny you should mention that one. Jonathan Green talked about it when he launched Carmel's collection this evening - noting much the same thing - that a story could engender so much discussion.
AS I WAS SAYING THIS EVENING AT THE LAUNCH, THE DEAD AVIATRIX IS THE FIRST IN SPINELESS WONDERS’ NEW DIGITAL SERIES, THE CAPSULE COLLECTIONS. WHAT, I HEAR YOU ASK, IS GOOD ABOUT THE CAPSULE COLLECTIONS FOR READERS? FOR WRITERS? (question FROM CARMEL TO HERSELF)
This is fun, I can answer my own question. Last weekend at a Christmas party I met a librarian who told me something I didn’t know – there are lots of things I don’t know, but this one mattered to your question – he said that in the regional library where he works it is possible for members of the public to borrow from a big collection of ebooks. Now I meet a lot of people who are rather contemptuous of ebooks, and I had for some reason imagined that libraries might be the same. But apparently I was wrong. Instead of saying - Oh, The Dead Aviatrix is ONLY an ebook then – and turning away to spit into the fish-pond – the librarian at the party seemed to be thrilled by the idea.
So there’s one thing that’s good about the Capsule Collections – they might get into libraries, and readers will access them and enjoy them, and the writers will be heard. Writers like that.
The Dead Aviatrix is a straightforward collection of the text of eight stories, but writers for the Capsule Collections will also be able to do experimental and adventurous things with the technology, putting in images and links and videos and whatever.
Readers will have lovely little bundles of stories they can read on public transport. Other readers might be stopped by the traffic police for driving cars while using phones to read fiction. And think of how great avenues of trees, huge forests of redgum will clap their branches and praise Bill Gates to the heavens for sparing them from the pulp mills. Bamboos will sing! You see I have a rather fanciful idea about the sort of wood that goes into paper pulp. I do know that hemlock trees are a good source of paper pulp – and that the hemlock tree is not toxic, unlike the flowering hemlock from the carrot family that is used in murder mysteries. Think of the miles and miles of bookshelves that will not need to be built to house the Capsule Collections. So much for readers.
Writers will be able, when they meet strangers on trains, to whip out their phones and say – Let me read you my latest short story!
With a careless wave of the phone they will be able to say – Check it out at Amazon!
And keen members of the reading public will be able to read their stories for the price of a cup of cheap coffee.
Commerce has entered the conversation. Alas, writers are probably not going to make much money from the little ebooks, but instead of making money, they will have fun. Unless they write a Fifty Shades of Grey story which began as an ebook, and then they will be able to buy a bank.
Unlike the manuscript in the first story in The Dead Aviatrix, the manuscript of the ebook can not be lost in the post. It will be at the mercy of the electronic media of course, but that’s another story. Writers won’t have to wait for weeks for a red and white card in the mailbox, won’t have to drive to the post office and stand in a queue to sign for the heavy parcel of books and carry the parcel to the car in the rain. No – they can just update their system and voila! – the capsule is delivered, ready to be tossed down with a nice cold glass of sparkling mineral water (Note – some writers have been known to favour champagne).
WHAT DO YOU THINK OF TABLO AS A MEANS FOR WRITERS TO SHARE THEIR WORK, AS A MEANS OF DISCOVERING THE WORK OF OTHER AUTHORS?
The first thing people need to know about Tablo how to spell its name. It’s not French, tableau, but T-A-B-L-O. If there’s one thing the internet has taught people it’s the fact that if you can’t get the right letters in the right order you won’t be able to get where you want to go. So – Tablo, a new home for publishing, is a lively online platform devised by an Australian genius called Ash Davies in 2013. You really need to check him and Tablo out online. The aim of Tablo is, put simply, ‘to redefine the traditional publishing model by helping writers connect with readers as they write’. Jemma Birrell, who used to direct the Sydney Writers Festival, is now the Creative Director at Tablo. Writers who sign up can instantly publish their writing, and can receive comments from other writers, and generally find encouragement and support. Writing can be a rather lonely matter – so this powerful online community crossing 150 countries, is a very special and wonderful thing. I think of it as a great big worldwide zoo where writers can be animals, keepers and visitors – all three at once – can be at home, publishing away as they write. Will the monkey in the corner finally write King Lear? And all kinds of writing can be found on Tablo – from erotica to fantasy to memoir, flash fiction, romance, crime – you name it, Tablo does it.
Well, this has been a great deal of fun. Thanks to Cory for being our Moderator. Thanks to the wonderful team at Tablo. Thank you very much to the State Library of Victoria for being our generous hosts both in real life and online. And thanks to the readers (many of whom are also writers) who have given me such probing questions to respond to. Happy flying.