Carrie Tiffiany’s Mateship with Birds is The Monthly Book for August.
Watch it here, or read the transcript below.
Carrie Tiffany’s inaugural Stella Prize–winning novel, Mateship with Birds, is set in the 1950s around Cohuna, a town in northern Victoria, and named after a 1922 book of bird notes by Australian writer Alec Chisholm.
Both in this novel and in her first, award-winning book Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living, Tiffany re-creates historical periods through invoking the everyday publications – the guides, manuals, newspapers and magazines – of the age. It’s a marvellous way of steeping the reader in the language, outlook and anxieties of the time.
In Mateship with Birds we meet Betty, who works as a nurse in an old people’s home and lives with her two children on a property outside the town. Living next door is Harry, a dairy farmer, whose wife, Edna, has left him, running off with a man from the bird fanciers’ club. Their lives are full of the practical necessities of running a farm, but also a kind of yearning: they are always wondering about the world around them. Though they are ostensibly ordinary people, Tiffany interests us in the moments of their lives that tell us more about what makes them tick.
The novel is about desire – the longing for sex and love, adventure and acceptance, and the ways desire can be channelled to unusual outlets if life does not unfold in easy ways.
Betty’s teenaged son, Michael, and her young daughter, Little Hazel, are in the mix, too. Hazel is walking to school one day when their neighbour Mues, a cracked rural isolate, invites her to see his pony in a barn on his property. He exposes himself to her, and the child learns how adults disappoint: “They hold one thing in their hand and call it another.” Mues is a cruel man who has a pathetic and bestial interest in one of his ewes. Tiffany handles these scenes brilliantly.
Michael is enamoured with the idea of sex, but has no idea what to do about it. Harry has been taking a fatherly interest in the children, and decides to educate the teenager in the ways of the world, especially as they pertain to sex.
The book adds another dimension to the inner lives of the characters: there are the prose poems Harry writes about a family of kookaburras, the notes Betty makes about the childhood illnesses of her son and daughter, a nature diary kept by Hazel, and the letters that Harry writes to Michael.
Do you think these add to the novel?
What about the relationships the characters have with animals – observing the bird life around them, living closely with a devoted dog, caring for the birthing and lactating cows in a way that is intensely physical – how do these relationships stand in contrast to Mews and his ewe?
How well does Tiffany invoke time and place in this book?
I think Carrie Tiffany has written about the mysteries of sex, masturbation, perversion and the longing for love in a most original and refreshing way, and I found the book full of wisdom and humour.
It asks us to rethink our ideas of what family is, of how a small community might accommodate differences and of what kind of animal we are. We think about what is natural, what is normal, and how our relationships with each other reflect the cycles we might observe in the natural world around us.
Watch my interview with Carrie Tiffany, read the book (and her award-winning first novel, too) and tell us what you think of the book and the questions it raises for you.
RK: But the words “disgusting” and “repulsive” are very strong words to use about a narrator of a book. Why? Why do you think you have such strong feelings about the storyteller?
CT: Probably some of it is chip-on-the-shoulder stuff about my background and my ideas about what a writer might be, that I don’t feel very aligned to, perhaps.
RK: What about your background do you feel isn’t writerly?
CT: Well, I don’t come particularly from a reading household and it was something that I started myself as a teenager. My family was a television family, we grew up on The Two Ronnies and that kind of stuff. Although there was something very discursive when the little Ronnie sits down at the end and tells those stories that flow backwards and forwards. I used to dream that he was my father, actually, and I was sitting at his feet and he was telling me these stories.
RK: Did your father tell you stories? Your real father, not your television father?
CT: Not like those. Perhaps I shouldn’t go there.
RK: So the books, there weren’t old books around in your house or grandparents’ bookshelves? There is something kind of musty and interesting about old books and the idea that they are bound, that they are spiral bound has something of the amateur about them.
CT: They are amateur and they are amateur straining to be literary. I think that’s interesting. One of the things that I found really interesting about Alec Chisholm’s Mateship with Birds, which is not an amateur book, although he is not schooled – he left high school at 13 and he went on to be a journalist and he wrote a lot of books and he went on to be the editor of The Emu, the ornithological magazine for many years. He wrote very widely and in his work this is this unashamed lyrical way of talking about nature, and I was interested in that and interested in giving some of this to the character of Harry, the diary farmer, in Mateship with Birds. I’m involved in science stuff with my work and I get to write about landscapes and how they have an amenity value – I’m not allowed to say that they are beautiful, I’m not allowed to use beautiful language to describe them.
RK: Who is your employer?
CT: The government (laughs). So this is how we come at nature these days. We use terms such as “biodiversity” and “amenity” and we have to quantify everything to justify spending money on it in terms of conservation. But this idea that was around up until fairly recently – remember when Les Hiddins was on the television doing the Bush Tucker Man? He had it – that way of relating. He would say, “She’s a beautiful little lizard or he’s a handsome little bird,” using gender particularly, and this idea of trying to relate to nature in a way that’s lyrical but that makes it a family you’re a part of. To me, that kind of makes sense. Despite all the science I know and I use – I was a park ranger and I still sort of work in this area – when I go bushwalking, when I see a bird that has fallen out of its nest or something, my response is always this tender instinct, really, and I think everybody’s is. To assign feeling to nature is very natural, and I wanted in some ways delicately to push against that in the book.
RK: You mentioned that you were a park ranger and you have written before about being 20 and learning to read, as you say, in Central Australia. You were in Mutitjulu weren’t you? Around the rock there?
RK: And you talk about a librarian called Merv. Tell me about Merv.
CT: Well, the rock is 400 kilometres away from Alice Springs, so over a four-hour drive – and this is pre-internet and computers – but I joined the library in Alice Springs and the librarian, the librarian called Merv, would make book selections for me. This didn’t go so well at first because he sent me, knowing I was a park ranger, [books] like Turtles of the Top End and Ask the Leyland Brothers, and those sort of books. Then he sent me Thea Astley’s The Well-dressed Explorer, and I remember reading that and thinking, “This is remarkable”, and writing back and saying, “More like this!”. And this went on for a few years and he sent me all sorts of books and often I would go to the back of the book and read the list – you know, those old Penguins, particularly, had those great lists that you could send away 10p for and you could get this and this and this. So I would ask for other books or other books by those authors. So I did do a lot of reading in an odd environment in some ways. Perhaps there is something for me about words and landscapes going together in some way.
RK: So you read Thea Astley and Eleanor Dark and Christina Stead and Patrick White …
CT: Xavier Hubert, I was really big on Xavier Hubert then.
RK: I can imagine. So were you trying to understand the country in a way through the writers? I know you were born in England, were you trying to amass an Australian landscape in your head as well? The history and the culture?
CT: In some ways, I think there is something different when you come to a country after you have language. So I was six when we came to Perth from the UK, and I remember trying to make sense of things, coming from UK winter to Perth summer. I think we arrived in February – it was pretty striking. I remember thinking about the space in the country, about there being so much space.
We just lived on a little housing estate outside of Perth and there was a nature strip out the front of the house and I remember being six and standing on this nature strip and looking up through all the nature strips in the street and down, and thinking that they lead somewhere. They all had a straggly gumtree and a bit of grass, and I had this sort of idea that they lead to the bush. That’s what we were learning about in primary school: all this very clichéd stuff, singing ‘Click Go the Shears’ and doing a project on, you know, the wheat industry, where you stuck a cornflake on the page, and the wool industry, where you stuck Mum’s knitting wool on the page. It’s not that different, I think in primary school. So we had this idea of the slightly swashbuckling outback, but this sense that the bush was important to Australia in some way, that it was mythic. I didn’t cope when I went to university. I was the first person in my family to go to university.
RK: What did you study? What did you start to study?
CT: Oh, a mishmash of things, but I did do some anthropology, which was a bit of a stepping stone for the range of work. But I hated it really. I went to the University of Western Australia for a year and nobody talked to me for months on end. I hated all the beautiful private-school girls sitting on the lawns, drinking milkshakes and being confident, and I just wasn’t grown up enough for it, in any sense.
RK: Were you a sort of singular child? Were you shy? Did you have friends before that?
CT: My family moved from the suburbs, my family didn’t survive very long in Western Australia – my dad actually took off. But we lived on the outskirts, in the foothills of Perth, and so I didn’t know very many people who were at uni. It was a different kind of life.
RK: Well, taking off to Central Australia to be a park ranger is very adventurous.
CT: I just took off really. I didn’t have a job to go to and I just did that thing of sort of travelling and working around. I was working as a barmaid in one of the hotels and the rangers used to come in and drink. It was time when they were particularly interested in getting some female rangers to work with the Anangu people in the park. So I was really just in the right place at the right time.
RK: So you’ve worked as an agricultural journalist as well. And to be a journalist in an area like that is technical, it’s social, it’s even philosophical in a way.
CT: Not that I have noticed.
RK: If you roll up and talk to farmers about the way they see their farm or the kinds of work they are doing on it, or the kinds of new information they might need. I mean, the things that come out in Mateship with Birds, the farmer here, is a big thinker. He thinks privately and quietly about the way the world is, in an unschooled fashion but schooled by the landscape in a way. So it made me think about the kind of journalism that you might have done.
CT: Still do. I spend quite a bit of time driving. Not so much now because a lot of it is done over the phone, but I used to spend a lot of time driving around, which I really like, driving around. But I certainly have done quite a lot of thinking about the solitary nature of farming, particularly for men, because it is still particularly men, and the different sides of that, the loneliness of that, but also a kind of succour in that. There is something you get back from being on your own in a place, and I have seen the land coming off people in some ways.
I stayed overnight at a farm some years ago, I was interviewing a farmer, and I stayed overnight and I got up in the morning, this was in the Strathbogies, and he was making tea and he had the window open, and he had his toast crumbs and all of these beautiful little farm birds, who were in no way frightened of him, were actually sitting on the window sill and he was talking to them and just feeding them a few crumbs in his hands. I walked in and he saw me and immediately shut the window and stopped. But that moment for me was very emblematic for Harry and I thought, “What must that be like, to have that kind of connection?”
RK: Because he was tender wasn’t he?
CT: He was very tender, that particular farmer.
RK: In that moment. And the farmer who is constantly tuned in to all kinds of things that are important for him, like the weather and the rainfall and the soils, and making all these computations in a subtle way, an unconscious way, in fact.
CT: It’s an art of noticing, of being tuned in. In some ways that has certain similarities with writing for me. It’s kind of about noticing and trying not to fall back on some existing way of seeing something or knowing something but trying actually to feel it. I know with Harry’s bird writing, I have a friend who is an artist and when I admire her work, she says, “Oh, it’s nothing; it’s look and put.” You know I’d look at something and put it down and think, “What if I tried to apply that to Harry?” Particularly when he was looking at the birds, but he didn’t reach for something, this is probably the ego of narration as well, that he just tries to write what goes across his eye. That sort of intrigued me: whether I could pull this off in some way.
RK: In the book, and we are talking about Mateship with Birds, we meet Betty, who works as a nurse in an old people’s home and lives with her two children on a property. Next door, is this character Harry, this dairy farmer whose wife Edna has left him; she ran off with a man from the bird fanciers’ club, probably a man quite like Mr Chisholm. Their lives are full of a kind of yearning these two, Betty and Harry. They are attracted to each other in a kind of shy way, or a kind of missing-the-point way for a while at least, full of the practical necessities of life, of running the farm, wondering about the world.
Tell me what makes you want to write about these kinds of characters, ones who if you passed them in the street, you may not notice. We meet Betty first when she catches sight of herself in the mirror in one of the shops and she almost doesn’t recognise herself. She is interested, curious about what she looks like but dismisses it because, “who does she think she is?”. These kinds of characters: tell me about why you love them?
CT: That’s a difficult question, I know I could never write a sentence like, “She was beautiful”, and in fact when I read a sentence like that I think, “Yeah, so what?” Nothing comes off it for me. I don’t really know what it means, it’s too easy somehow, it’s too on the surface. I’m more interested in people who are sort of strangers to themselves, in some ways, which I think we all are, and there is sort of a mining of connection and emotion and feeling. I know that the people I write about are always in some ways a combination of myself and my own feelings and sometimes perhaps things in other people that I have seen and observed. I’m not sure if I can really explain any better than that. There is also, for me, a kind of honour in the ordinary. There is something honourable and worthy in that daily struggle, getting up in the morning and looking out the window and feeding your children. It’s not grandiose, and it’s about smaller passions, but still within and of themselves they’re important.
RK: These people have an amazing sort of decency about them, too. I found it funny as well, this book; I laughed quite a lot in it. Edna has run off, as I said, but Betty, who works as a nurse in this old people’s home, she sees these men, who still have an eye for a pretty woman but can’t do anything about it. She visits them at lunchtime and pretends to be their wives, sometimes. Presumably some of them are demented or something. She is going in one door as a nurse and then going in the front door, I imagine with a hat on or something, being the visiting wives. I think that is such a sweet thing to do. How did you get that idea? Had you heard of someone who had ended up doing that?
RK: How can you say you’re not inventive?
CT: Oh, ah.
RK: That’s a great idea! (Laughs.) There should be more of it in old people’s homes.
CT: It is imagined in some ways, but it probably has some bedrock in me. I was married. I am no longer married and one of the things that surprised me, when I was no longer married – and I didn’t think should surprise me, I was taken aback by it, I consider myself a feminist and a fairly independent sort of person – was that I missed being a wife, or I missed being able to say to someone, “This is my husband”. That I was somebody’s wife, particularly in some of those silly things, like filling in medical forms – I don’t know but there was something about it. And I was thinking about that with Betty, even though you think she is doing something for the men, she is actually doing something for herself, as well, and why shouldn’t I be a wife?
RK: Because she has got two children of different parentage and we don’t think she has ever been married before so she is getting her own respectability at lunchtime, as you do. And Harry, who is remembering the way that he learnt about the world, and sex and how ignorant he was, and maybe that had something to do with Edna leaving him, we’re not sure, but he’s decided to tutor Betty’s son, Michael, in the ways of the world, in the ways of women.
I should say here, what I was also was delighted with, with this book, was the relationship between the bovine and Harry’s view of the softness and the femininity of the cows. He was dealing with their mastitis and all of their arrangements; he has to help them birth and he has to look after them and the way his dog loves him. There is a lot of furriness and warmth in this book. You get the feeling that he is good at dealing with animals and he’s just basically turned his sights on female animals, the human variety. Well, there is not much difference between us, is there? We are all animals, and that’s what you are saying, too, in the book.
CT: Yeah, I think so. I think what we do, is that we can’t help but use what we know to make sense of the world, so it makes sense to me that a dairy farmer would use what he knows about his cows to make sense of the world. So he applies that particular framework to it. Also, if you read a lot of the dairy literature, not so much these days because it has got very kind of techie, the animals sort of don’t exist if you read the manuals today, but I read every issue of theVictorian Diary Farmer from 1945 to 1955 in the State Library. They hadn’t been taken out since about 1972.
RK: Funnily enough.
CT: I had to get it from a store, which was lovely. There is this kind of concentration that to be a dairy farmer, you have to keep your animal in peak sexual health and that’s what it is about. It has to do with lactation: she has to become pregnant and she has to calf and she has to be kept in lactation and that generally one man is responsible for this. And in these days of artificial insemination, even starting back in the 1950s, that man is wholly responsible for that. And I did end up writing some things that I ended up cutting – I always do this. I wrote some dreams and scenes where Harry saw himself literally as the bull. I decided that it was just too much, really.
RK: Because he does inseminate by hand doesn’t he?
CT: Yes, he does.
RK: I’m a science nerd too, so I was very interested in the technical details of all of that as well.
CT: Yeah, I’m fascinated by that too.
RK: So, he is up to his elbows in his cows, in a sense, and you have this other character called Mues, who is another neighbour, who is a kind of cracked rural isolate. He exposes himself to the young girl, he’s cruel to animals in a way, apart from the one he has a sexual relationship with, and there is a very funny joke, that I won’t say what it is, because we want people to laugh for themselves at the end. But sometimes I thought it sounded like some of these things actually happened. It’s the sort of thing that you would have read in a local newspaper, with a court report perhaps. Is that where something like that comes from?
CT: Yeah, that’s true: what actually happens between Mues and his sheep, not the detail around it..
RK: Mues and his ewe?
CT: Mues and his ewe. I was in the Western District some years ago with a family and we were driving into town at lunchtime and we has passed this house and it had all these disused out-buildings and it was all rundown and rusty, but there was something really strange about it, as if everything that had been in the house had been taken out, at some point for some reason. I asked the family about this and they told me this story about a man who had been found committing this act with this sheep, and had had quite a long-term relationship with this one sheep, and, the community, he said it in a very kind of matter-of-fact kind of way, and the man was still living there in this house and everyone knew about it. But I was sort of interested in the sort of elasticity of the community that they could accept that. It was big enough to accept that.
RK: Because everyone depends on each other in small communities.
CT: People depend on each other. One of the things that I wanted to interrogate was not so much sex itself but desire. So that involved me investigating what happens with desire in people who are not desirable to other people? What happens to it? It is still within them. Where does it go? So it was a way for me to use that in some way, so that’s a true story that I have sort of changed somewhat and I have had some appalling responses from people to that scene, people who felt it was unnecessary and that it was disgusting. It’s interesting. I did my research into this, I read my Kinsey and in America in the 1940s something like 50–60% of rural youths said that they’d had some sort of sexual contact with animals. So this is not just apocryphal.
RK: No, you haven’t made up bestiality.
CT: No, it did exist.
RK: Where does Freud come in to all of this?
CT: In between writing Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living and this book, I wrote another book, which was called Freud in the Bush, and it imagined Freud coming to Australia. He was invited to Australia in about 1910 but he didn’t come, he sent a paper. In this novel he decides to come and he brings with him a paper called ‘On the Pouch’.
RK: And you wrote the paper in the voice of Freud?
CT: Yes, in the book and he comes to a conference in Melbourne of the Australian Psychoanalytical Society, and he has the afternoon off. He describes in the way of a European gentleman that he is going to get on a train and go and visit the inland, and be home in time for tea. So he gets on a train at Spencer Street Station and it stops at Cohuna and he gets off and it’s February and it’s 50 degrees. He meets some characters, which at that stage are sort of like inversions of his case studies. In fact, the character of Little Hazel, who is the only character who survived and made it into this book, is based on Little Hans. So Little Hazel loves horses and Little Hans was phobic of horses and there were other characters who were based on Freud’s famous case studies: Dora and Elizabeth Von R, and various people. But I wrote this book in a great deal of energy and humour, but as I wrote it, I was reading more Freud, not just the case studies. I read The Interpretation of Dreams and Three Lectures of Psychoanalysis and even as I was writing, I was thinking, “I can’t continue with this.” It really made sense to me.
RK: Were you trying to send him up?
CT: Yeah, it was a parody. It was satirical but it was something that I thought was very, very meaningful, so I ditched it. But a lot of the thinking and some of the characters – well, one of the characters, Little Hazel – moved across into the book. People who do know a little bit about Freud recognise there are some things in the book that are from my reading of Freud. And so what Harry does by writing the letters to Michael is a kind of self-analysis, and it sort of frees him up to be able to act in the end.
RK: His sex advice to young Michael is a mixture of experience, direct experience. What did your friend the painter say? “Look and put.”
CT: Look and put.
RK: But it is also sort of theorising from agricultural principles, which I found very funny, too, and amusing and sweet. About, you know, what soil, what leaf-cover over soil will do to the wetness of the soil, and he is trying to work out from first principles why women might have pubic hair, sort of half way up their bodies.
CT: The pubic bush. He is interested in the pubic bush!
RK: You write so well about sex and you write so well about that kind of a man, and how he would explain things to young Michael. That voice is just remarkable. I don’t know how you can say you are not inventive, if you have invented someone like that.
CT: I don’t think I can answer that.
RK: The way the text is broken up into sections of Harry’s prose. Observations of the kookaburra family, and Betty’s list of accidents that the children have had over the years, and young Hazel’s nature diary and Harry’s sex advice to young Michael in the letters. These things that we write down, the thoughts we have, the way we understand our worlds, in a way that gives us the depth to those characters that we wouldn’t get if we just looked at what was available on the surface, if they walked past on the street. Is that what those insertions in the story are for? They are not big talkers, these people.
CT: They are not big talkers and they are not natural narrators and it would be a conceit to come up with an idea about why they might tell their story in some ways. There is a number of reasons for it. One is my own concern about my own idea of narration, that someone is telling a story, that I am telling a story, that I want them to tell their stories. I love the intertextual things. I am interested in the idea of what might make a book and because I don’t write from the beginning to the end, it’s always a bit of a puzzle for me. I feel like I am making something and I might sit down and make something here or make something there. When I have a certain weight of material, I print it out and I actually physically put it on the floor and I walk around and I look at it, and then I try and work out how it might go together and what the links are and how it is sort of talking to each other. Then I work on it again and again and again. But I am not really sure, even at the end, if I have made a book, or if does it technically qualify as a book. I’m always a bit unsure about that. It also feels a bit like cheating, but I don’t know any other way to do it.
RK: You are an artist, too, in the sense that you put things together like little sculptures. Are you a bit of a bowerbird? Is that what you might be as well, do you think?
CT: I think it might be. I’m more confident in selecting things and in juxtaposing things than the more literary idea of sitting down and crafting something. The idea of making it makes more sense somehow, putting things together that actually exist, rather than holding something in my mind. That seems a bit overwhelming, really.
RK: When did you know this was a book?
CT: I got to this particular weight of material and I had printed it out, but I don’t have anyone who reads for me so it wasn’t until I took it to my agent and had these two weeks of being terribly, terribly nervous and then that reassurance that it was a book. It was an odd book, but it was a book. That’s a sort of relief. I love the fact that people who read it, read it so differently as well and some bits, some threads seem to be much brighter and more important than others as well. That is kind of intriguing to me. It’s a puzzle in which I don’t want everything to be there, but I want things to be representative in some ways. The list of the childhood illnesses is a short-hand way for me to cover all of that backstory that I don’t really want to write in sentences, but I want to show that experience of it in some ways.
RK: The book has been received really well by lots of people – people who want to give you awards and money for it. That must be very warming.
CT: It’s remarkable. It had a kind of very quiet start and I thought, “It’s not going to appeal to everyone.” It hasn’t appealed to everyone. I sometimes wake up in the night and think, “Well, Kate Grenville and JM Coetzee read my book and they thought it was worthy” and I am often gobsmacked by that. I am not often sure where literary critics come from and they are judges [for awards] as well, but for writers who you admire, for them to have read your work and found something in it, that is pretty tremendous.
RK: Carrie Tiffany, thank you for speaking to us at the Monthly Book.
CT: Thank you.