9 February 2016, Melba Spiegeltent, Collingwood, Melbourne, Australia
Carmel Bird was awarded Australian literature's prestigious Patrick White Award at Readings bookshop on 11 November 2016.
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.