It’s always a pleasure to talk to Carrie Tiffany, especially about writing, and with her new book Mateship with Birds* out on the shelves this month I jumped at the opportunity to interview her.
performed at the start of each new day.’
--- Mateship with Birds
The primary story of Mateship with Birds centres on Harry, a dairy farmer in a small town, Cohuna, in regional Victoria in 1953. We are shown Harry’s world, his deepening relationship with his neighbour Betty and her two young children, and the quiet solidness of Harry’s dairy farming existence. It is a quiet novel brimming with longing, and led by the cycle of the days.
PN: Your first novel Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living also took us out into the rural and remote areas of Australia. I wonder if you have a fascination with the regional areas of Australia?
CT: My work as a farm journalist involves talking with farmers, visiting them on their farms often when they are the only person there. The kids are at school, the wife is at work, the farmer might spend most of his days by himself. And I often wonder, as I leave, how someone lives in some of these places, what they do, how do they fill their days. It is something about a person being in the landscape that intrigues me. I was a park ranger in Central Australia years ago and being in that particular landscape and feeling a sense of ownership over the tremendous space and a responsibility to care for it, really affected me.
PN: That’s an interesting reaction to that huge amount of space as most of us do prefer to live on the coast in or near big cities. I wonder if your response might have something to do with you being 6 years old when you arrived from England and first met the idea of Australia. A curiosity rather than a fear?
CT: I’m not sure, although I do remember quite clearly that the first house we lived in in suburban Perth had a nature strip out the front. I had never seen anything like it. Just a scrubby gum tree and some grass right out the front of our door. I was fascinated by all the nature strips. I really felt that the strips were all joined together and that if you followed them they would lead to the bush. At school we did the poetry of Henry Lawson and we had a roll down screen in class that was a manky old, sun-faded Fred Williams painting of the bush. So, perhaps I was simply fascinated by the whole idea. I really wanted to go to the bush.
PN: In Mateship with Birds dairy farming has never sounded so beautiful and essential. Why a dairy farmer? What does dairying allow you, as a writer, to explore?
CT: Even as a child I was fascinated with farming. I would draw squares on paper and call them paddocks and then decide what I was going to put in each paddock. How many horses, where the sheds would be, that sort of thing. And I think I always imagined living on a farm. Through my journalist work I’ve come to believe that different types of farmers are different. Farmers who work with machines, cropping and harvesting, for instance are different to farmers who work with animals. And dairy farming is even a bit more than that. I’ve stood in herds with farmers whose cattle show no fear at all. They lean into the farmer and nibble at them and the farmer is completely comfortable inhabiting their space. I did a lot of research for Mateship with Birds at the State Library of Victoria and I came across one particular journal about dairying with a great quote from a farmer from years ago: The role of the dairy farmer is to keep each individual cow in the prime of her sexual health. It is an intimate job. Even the act of milking, despite its mechanisation these days, requires intimate knowledge of each animal’s health.
PN: And the book is set in 1950s with all that that entails regarding morality and sexuality – is that why you chose this time period?
CT: Well, I’m a slow writer and I had written a whole other book before writing this one. That one won’t ever see daylight but it was set in an earlier period, a similar time to Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living because I was comfortable writing about that time. Gradually though, and this was towards the end of the Howard years when the phrase ‘fifties values’ was being bandied about, I began to be interested in what the 1950s would have meant for people living in regional areas and, specifically, their sexuality.
PN: In Mateship with Birds Harry takes on the challenge of educating Michael, Betty’s son, about sex. He writes letters to Michael detailing his limited experience from his childhood and then with his ex-wife Edna. Pragmatic, with a veil of science, these letters form a kind of exploration of Harry’s own sexual desires. Why the letters? Is Harry simply unknowingly channeling his desire for Betty into these letters? Or is there something else going on?
CT: I’m terribly dyslexic so letters were impossible for me before computers. Now, though, I have a couple of very good friends I correspond with via lengthy emails and there is real pleasure in crafting the emails and I am really interested in the refashioning of yourself that goes on in letters, the thinking through of things.
Mateship with Birds is also completely in third person, which I find very difficult to write, and, as a writer, the letters allow me to break the convention of third person. Once I’ve been writing a character for awhile, I can hear their voice really strongly and letters allow them to have their say, in their own words, on the page. Their turn of phrase at their own pace.
But I did read letters that the psychoanalyst Freud wrote to his very good friend Wilhelm Fleiss. This is at a time before Freud’s theories were established and in them Freud undertakes a sort of self-analysis. These letters allowed him to almost test his ideas about speaking your mind in free association to learn about yourself and I think Harry’s letters have a similar effect on him. They unstop Harry’s desire in someway. Or make his desire tangible. In writing about his sexual past, his sexual, and emotional, future becomes possible.
PN: Harry’s inherent pragmatism and simple joy in observing the creatures he shares the bush with forms a large part of the novel. Is this joy something you think we miss or have lost in our contemporary urban world?
CT: I think the ‘creaturelyness’ of people, the instinct within people to recognise another creature is highlighted in rural areas with animals. One creature to another brings forth an inherent response. I think that to be in the bush and just use your body in the bush is enough. You don’t need the scientific names for anything or to be educated in how to save the bush. Being amongst the bush puts things back in scale and just to be there is enough.
PN: Betty, Harry’s neighbour, is the touchstone for the 1950s morality of a small country town, a single woman with two children with two different fathers. How did Betty appear in your imagination?
CT: I’m really interested in regret and how sometimes events that happen in a passionate youth can shape and fill your life but you don’t realise how big they were until later, sometimes a long time later. There’s this whole modern idea of rewriting yourself and your past but I just don’t believe it’s true. Your past is your past and Betty is coming to terms with her sexual past at an age, she’s 45 years old, that in 1953 was much older than 45 is today.
PN: The one thing that has really stayed with me from the book is the compassion you have for your characters. Even with the character Mues, regardless of how awful he may be, we have an understanding of a life lived. Is this something you set out to consciously do while writing the book?
CT: I’m not interested in writing moral lessons. I’m interested in how we piece things together, how we make sense of our lives after we have lived them. The story of Mues shooting the cockatoos is actually true. Someone had written a letter into Emu, the ornithological journal, detailing his observations of the female cockatoo after he had shot and killed the male. And as we sit with Mues as he watches the female cockatoo trying to feed her dead partner we know that Mues is despairing of the fact that no one cares for him like that. The desire to be desired is the most critical human emotion, to belong to someone, and in that instant, the tenderness of the birds is unbearable for him and so he shoots them all.
PN: And while that may sound downbeat or dark, the novel is full of light and shade with the desire to be desired sitting at its heart. Mateship with Birds, a novel that relays everyday joy with nuance and heartfelt understanding.
Thanks for your time, Carrie. It has been a real pleasure.
*Mateship with Birds is the title of a book of bird notes by Australian nature writer Alec Chisholm [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexander_Hugh_Chisholm]. It was first published in 1922 and can still be found in opportunity shops and second-hand bookstores. Carrie recommends it highly.
Mateship with Birds by Carrie Tiffany is available now in paperback for $19.99.
Carrie Tiffany interview conducted by Pip, 31 January 2012.