11th Sep 2012
For Books’ Sake Talks To: Carrie Tiffany
Australian writer Carrie Tiffany’s first novel, Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living was shortlisted for numerous awards, including the Orange Prize and the Miles Franklin Literary Award.
Her latest novel, Mateship with Birds, is set in the outskirts of an Australian country town in the 1950s, and documents the romance between gentle, bird-watching farmer Harry and his neighbour, Betty. Their relationship is complicated when Harry decides to educate Betty’s teenage son about the opposite sex.
By their nature pretty much all writers are avid readers, but speaking to Tiffany it is clear that her love of the written word surpasses your average bookworm. This is even more interesting when you read Tiffany’s autobiographical essay The Books That Fell Like Rain where she reveals that she did not come from a bookish family.
“When my family emigrated from England to Australia (in the early 1970s) we brought a few leather bound Charles Dickens novels,” she explains, when asked to recount exactly when her love of reading began. “I don’t remember my parents reading them, but one slow hot summer when I was eleven or twelve I took one off the shelf and started to read.”
She notes that because they didn’t read novels at school, at the age of fourteen she began visiting a book exchange, and after stumbling upon a copy of Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing began purchasing “every green-spine Virago [she] could find”.
The majority of The Books That Fell Like Rain documents a period of Tiffany’s life working as a park ranger, a time when she particularly relied on books as a form of escapism, and describes the fascinating and heart-warming experience Tiffany had as a remote-reader.
“I lived too far from the local library (an eight-hour round trip by car) so Merv the librarian chose books on my behalf… because I was a park ranger the first month’s books were about starting a home aquarium and four-wheel driving. But slowly we got to know each other and he sent me some wonderful Australian and European literature,” she explains.
Tiffany talks at length about her favourite novels from this time, remembering that she was particularly reluctant to return certain classics such as Flaubert’s Madame Bovary.
I ask about her current literary loves, and she notes that some of the classics that Merv sent her still rank highly in her favourites. “I’ve been reading Naipaul recently and marvelling at his sentences,” she says.
She also expresses a fondness for poetry and the short form, citing E.L. Doctorow’s The Lives of the Poets and Richard Ford’s Wildlife as her favourites.
I am curious as to find out how else Tiffany’s time as a park ranger influenced her as a writer. “Time on your own outside in the elements is good for noticing and for thinking,” she replies. “We can’t help but write what we know. I like to spend time on my own and I like walking in the bush and driving through the country.”
She notes that nature is a useful tool in writing because it is “rich with metaphor and allegory and provides good opportunities for introspection.”
But she is confident that it is reading that has inspired her writing more than anything else. “F.R. Leavis said that literature is the supreme means by which you renew your sensuous and emotional life and learn a new awareness,” she adds.
The title for her second novel, Mateship with Birds, was borrowed from Alex Chilsholm’s book of bird notes of the same name. I ask if this was this that first inspired the story, but Tiffany explains that she had already started writing the novel when she saw it in a second-hand bookshop.
“The tone of Chisholm’s book helped me to imagine the period in which I was writing and the strong, but sentimental chaps with a bit of an obsession about birds,” says Tiffany.
The relationship between Harry, Betty and her children in Mateship with Birds is more intense than usual neighbours, and they become a sort of makeshift family. I ask if this closeness is something Tiffany experienced in her time living in isolated communities, but she is quick to note that by Australian standards these characters are not particularly isolated, living on the outskirts of a country town.
“But I think it’s true that people rely on each other more in rural communities,” she adds. “We’ve just come through a severe drought and our farming families were hit hard. There’s an even stronger sense of community now than before.”
Given that both Mateship with Birds and Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living revolve around an intimate relationship between male and female protagonists, I ask whether Tiffany is influenced by erotica or romantic fiction. Did she write these stories as ‘love stories’?
“Love, particularly burgeoning love between people, is a driving narrative force in our lives,” she replies. “In Mateship with Birds Harry has strong feelings for Betty, but his fatherly feelings towards her children are also critical for him.”
“I don’t seek out erotica or romance, but I’m always delighted to read well-written sex in novels,” she adds.
She also explains that ‘bird’ is rarely used as a euphemism for women in Australia, and therefore the double meaning of the phrase ‘Mateship with Birds’ is likely to have more resonance with readers in the UK.
In Mateship with Birds, Tiffany also shows what is arguably the darker side of desire, most notably with one of the neighbours, Mues, who is referred to in a Guardian review as “an overtly salacious and exploitative character… who lures children (for starters) into his barn.”
“I was thinking about desire,” she explains. “Everyone experiences desire – including people considered undesirable. I wanted to be true to that desire both in the human and animal world. Showing what happens to desire when it has no outlet was part of being truthful to my subject. I’m surprised people have found Mues so ugly. I felt a kind of tenderness for him as I was writing.”
As well as a writer and agricultural journalist, Tiffany has created a number of sculptures, including the piece that was used on the American cover of Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living. But Tiffany is modest of her skills as an artist. “I doubt that I’m a sculptor. I like to make things, but I’m not sure if they are art,” she says.
She notes the work of Australian artist Rosalie Gascoigne as an inspiration to her sculptures, marveling at the way she arranges found objects into patterns, or in a way that reveals their inherent patterns.
Questioned on whether she finds the process of sculpting similar to that of writing, she is in agreement “that both concern the arrangement of parts to make a whole.”
But for Tiffany, her sculptures are often literally connected with her written work. “I think they are an attempt to make the world of the novel real in some way,” she explains. “For Mateship with Birds I made the ‘brand’ that Harry makes for Betty. Like Harry I haven’t shown it to anyone and I doubt that I ever will.”
Currently, Tiffany’s time is dedicated to her work in agricultural journalism, but asked if she has plans to write more fiction, she replies simply, “I would very much like to write another novel.”