Carrie Tiffany talks to Gregory Day about Mateship with Birds
Carrie Tiffany made her mark on the Australian literary scene with her first novel, Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living, which was shortlisted for The Orange Prize, the Miles Franklin Literary Award, The Guardian First Book Award and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. It won the Dobbie Award and the West Australian Premier’s Award for Fiction. Novelist Gregory Day spoke to Carrie for Readings about her eagerly awaited second novel, Mateship with Birds.
Deep in the middle of Carrie Tiffany’s new novel, Mateship with Birds, is perhaps a clue to the brilliant surface of her prose:
‘At school number 2502, Cohuna, Little Hazel’s teacher sets aside fifteen minutes on a Friday afternoon for the class to write up their nature diaries … Little Hazel brings pressed leaves and flowers from home and traces around them on the page, but they break apart and it takes too long to colour in the outlines. She takes some advice from Harry and she tries to write what she sees.’
Harry, in this case, is the bachelor dairy farmer who lives next door to Little Hazel. He is good with his cows and a gentle chap, a bird watcher who writes observations about a family of kookaburras in an old milk ledger. He is also instructing Little Hazel’s elder brother Michael in the rather DIY expertise he has gained about sex, not only from his own personal stirrings, but from his clear-eyed observations of the animal world around him.
Harry’s instruction to write what you see seems simple advice, but in Carrie Tiffany’s hands it takes on a layered meaning. In her first novel, Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living, the main character Jean (who teaches embroidery on the government sponsored Better Farming Train as it snakes its way through the Mallee in the 1930s) suggests to the countrywomen that they simply ‘sew the things they see around them’. Jean’s advice, like Harry’s, is both Virgilian and vernacular. And there is something of those two qualities in the vivid clarity of this author’s work.
Interestingly, when Carrie Tiffany arrived in Australia as a six-year-old from England, she was utterly shocked by what she saw. ‘We had a colouring book we were given on the plane. There were gum trees in it and I thought they would be pink like my gums, salmon pink. And when I found that the swans were black, I thought this was outrageous. I thought they’d been painted by the government to match the washed-out look of everything else. It seemed hellish.’
And unlike her family’s former house in Halifax Yorkshire, whose front door opened straight out onto the street, the new house in suburban Perth had a nature strip out the front, complete with its own straggly gum tree. Tiffany remembers not only being fascinated by the extra space of the nature strip, but looking up the street at all the others and imagining that they all must lead somewhere, most probably to the much-fabled ‘bush’, a mythical subject now being inserted into her consciousness at school.
Years later, when as an excruciatingly shy 18-year-old she became the first member of her family to attend university, Tiffany didn’t last long, preferring to take up a job as a ranger in central Australia rather than try to fit in with ‘the sea of private schoolgirls sipping milkshakes on the lawn’. Was she following that childhood nature strip trail to its inevitable destination? Perhaps, though this was not to be the end of the story.
In 2005, 20 or so years after she fled university for the bush, Tiffany’s first novel was published to such acclaim that it took her full circle back to England. Everyman’s Rules was shortlisted for the high profile Orange Prize for women writers and the prestigious Guardian First Book Award. The book which had prompted this somewhat feted return to her country of origin was not about white swans gliding through the Yorkshire rain, but rather the parsimonious dry soils and vast blue skies of the Mallee in northwestern Victoria, in the faraway continent that had jolted her so much as a child. As anyone who has lived in the Mallee will tell you, it can hit you quickly in the eye and then slowly break your heart. In her debut novel, Tiffany explored with great panache the comic possibilities inherent in gung-ho nationalisation programs which throw data at dust storms, and ideas of ‘moving forward’ on a visually astonishing landscape – one that is in many ways unsuited to monocultural concepts or linear time.
Often the best historical writing offers us unexpected insights into our own era, and given Everyman’s Rules’ clever dovetailing of contemporary environmental issues with the historical materialism of the Better Farming Train, many readers have been waiting eagerly for the next offering from Tiffany to appear. She’s taken her time, but finally – with the slim Flaubertian miniature, Mateship with Birds – they get their wish.
This time we’ve moved slightly east on the map of northern Victoria to a squelchy dairy farm on the Gunbower Creek at Cohuna. Mateship with Birds documents the lives of a single mother, Betty, her two children Michael and Little Hazel, and the bachelor dairyman on the next-door farm, Harry. It is a bowerbird of a book, constructed through the accumulation of closely regarded details and objects, and it’s also a moving inquiry into the similarities between the lives, and particularly the sex lives, of people and animals. More so than the first novel, where human culture was painted as vainglorious in the face of circadian realities, in Mateship with Birds Tiffany brings a deep sympathy to her characters’ life on the land, showing the way mortal loneliness abides at the very heart of our deepest connections.
In composing the novel, Tiffany spent a lot of time reading the case studies of Freud and of the British sex-psychologist Havelock Ellis. A remarkable feature of the novel is how she has transposed the pathological exactitude of such documents into a series of intensely local tableaux rich with poignancy and wit. These are people without pretensions. Betty works as a nurse at the local hospital and so is under no illusions about the physical realities of existence. In one memorable vignette, she watches a crow hopping on the bonnet of her car through the ward window as she holds the cheeks of an old man’s arse apart during a faecal impaction. Likewise, Harry is made real by the basic necessities of those around him. In his case, those necessities are largely to do with cows.
‘I spent a lot of time sitting on roadsides looking into paddocks of cows,’ Tiffany says, ‘looking at a particular herd of cows and looking at how they were 20 individual cows standing in a paddock but they weren’t, they were something more than this. And the relationship between animals that happens without speech in a herd, that happens in some other way, some bodily way that’s transferred between them and sort of plugs them together, seemed to me very similar to how families operate. It was fascinating to me that the really good farmers know and respect that in some intrinsic way, they understand that they’re not ever actually just dealing with an individual animal, they’re dealing with a herd, with a family.’
This touching interrelation between animal and human behaviour, and the positive co-dependent nature of communities, lies at the heart of Mateship with Birds. Tiffany expresses this in many ways, including through the written notes Harry makes on the kookaburra family, which, because of the narrow columns of the milk ledger he writes them into, are condensed into short poem-like lines: ‘The sky has sufficient depth / to give each bird / its own strata / its precise allocation of air. / Yet, like us, / they find it difficult / to live in peace’.
Through the agency of Betty’s young daughter Little Hazel, Tiffany shows how the personal foibles of a remote farming community are often impossible to rein in or censor. The idiosyncracies that play themselves out in the sheds of farms take on some hair-raising forms, but in Mateship with Birds, the prose that depicts this is exquisitely without judgement. As well as having its roots in Flaubert’s famous credo – of the author being always present but never visible in the text – this stylistic approach may also be a reaction to the difficulty Tiffany had when employed to write a government report on biodiversity.
‘In the writing of that paper everything about biodiversity had to be scientific. There’s a lot of information now being collected about biodiversity through the observations of individual farmers and landholders, but the committees overseeing the report didn’t want to have any of this information in it, because it didn’t meet their rigorous scientific standards. So all the stuff based on experiencing the landscape because you live on it was all just pushed out and we had to have these appalling facts and figures and all this language that meant nothing and didn’t try to describe or honour in any way the thing it was talking about.’
As well as helping to fund her simultaneous writing of this novel, the exclusion of everything that wasn’t considered to be ‘hard science’ for the government report – in favour of a dry acronym-laden document which talked never of beauty but frequently of ‘amenity’ – helped further crystallise her approach to writing about people on the land.
As a result, Mateship with Birds is a highly aesthetic experience, which in itself is something of a juxtaposition with the stereotypically ad hoc nature of the backblocks culture it presents. But in the heightened pastoral realities of Carrie Tiffany, nothing is taken for granted. We are invited to look again at the country around us, and the ordinary people who know it best. In doing so, we are treated to a refreshed understanding of our fundamental condition, living as we do like all other creatures of the earth.
Gregory Day is a writer, poet and musician, whose three novels so far share the setting of the fictional Victorian coastal town of Mangowak. His latest is The Grand Hotel. In 2011, Day and Carrie Tiffany shared first prize in the Australian Book Review’s Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Prize.