Reading Group Notes – ‘Field of Poppies’

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ABOUT THE BOOK

The Big Picture:

Early in the twenty-first century, the world appears to be on the brink of catastrophe. Political and environmental changes and disasters are colluding in the destruction of the planet.

The Comfortable Life:

At the same time many human beings are able to turn a blind eye to the problems, to continue on their merry way, seemingly capable of ignoring the signs of disaster, incapable of action. They are not evil or immoral people (necessarily), but many are overwhelmed by the clear signs of the coming disasters, the probable extinction of life on earth.

The Novel

Field of Poppies begins by briefly drawing the reader’s attention to the bleak facts of the Big Picture, then turns its focus to the finer details of lives in an ordinary rural Australian town. The town itself is perhaps the central ‘character’ in the narrative, which is told by a tree-changing woman, Marsali (rhymes with parsley).

The mood and texture of these two approaches to the world of the novel are presented in sharply contrasting ways, reflected in the design of the text. The realities of the world at large edge their way into Marsali’s consciousness, mostly in regular formal words of wisdom offered by her husband, William. But it is evident that Marsali (and for that matter William and their friends) is unable to deal with the facts and implications of that Big Picture.

Art and Literature are lenses through which Marsali and William try to view the truth, and sometimes the pair seem to glimpse reality, but more often than not it eludes them. Early in the novel their attention is focused on the disappearance and murder of a neighbour, Alice. With this grim reality, come even more hideous revelations. The fate of Alice is ultimately revealed, the lives of Marsali and William are changed, but even so, the pair still appears to be blindly and helplessly sleepwalking into total darkness, living the good life, ignoring every warning sign of doom.

The couple recognise the sinister implications of the arrival in the town of a mining company from China. The town they have grown to love will be changed forever. They don’t see the complex irony in the fact that their new home is the Eureka Tower in Melbourne, a tall and glamorous apartment building owing its name to the celebration of gold-mining and miners in the very area from which they have fled. They persevere in the fantasy of their everyday lives, flying off to Paris for a wedding, seemingly ignorant of the damage the airline industry is doing to the planet.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Carmel Bird grew up in Tasmania, and much of her writing reflects this fact. In 2016 she received the Patrick White Literary Award. Carmel is the author of ten novels and eight collections of short fiction. Her books on writing, Dear Writer Revisited and Writing the Story of Your Life are widely used, as is her anthology of writing from the Stolen Generations, The Stolen Children – Their Stories. She published an anthology of a hundred Australian stories written from 1900 to 2000, titled The Penguin Century of Australian Stories. She has also published children’s books, memoir, and several other anthologies.

www.carmelbird.com

https://carmelbird.wordpress.com

 

COMMENTS on the TEXT


How to describe Field of Poppies? A lush feast of wit and wisdom? Writing so rich you simply want to devour it?  A forensic examination of an Australian country town?

Literary tour de force will have to do. Robert Drewe

***

All the Bird trademark strands – beauty, shock and horror, a genuine story based in the reality of the world, complex imagery, elegant irony and compelling prose.   Gabrielle Lord

***

Field of Poppies is an absolute feast of wit and wisdom. Carmel Bird embroiders a seemingly simple story with the most wonderful observations and colourful mischief. This novel resonates with a long list of contemporary problems. It does so using humour, not anger. It is fun – wry, intelligent, searching, poised and astute. It showcases the human catastrophe with grace and charm. It takes years of experience for a writer to be able to pull off this kind of sorcery. It is wonderful to see Carmel Bird working with such zest and verve. Michael McGirr

***

Sharp yet sensitive, wildly imaginative, and layered with allusion and allegory. Bird’s vivid characters weave together local legend, small-town speculation, art, literature and science in their narration of their selves and lives, all but ignoring the social and ecological destruction taking place around them.

A truly remarkable achievement from a novelist at the height of her powers. Fiona Wright

***

Bold and playful, sharply funny and humane, Carmel Bird’s timely social satire shimmers with layers. She has a gift for distilling the essence of her characters and locations and bringing them together in wonderfully unexpected ways. Her distinctive voice and lightness of touch shine in this penetrating and evocative novel. Michael Sala

***

Highly engaging storytelling that blends and layers reality and extravaganza with ingenious irony, wit and subtlety.

Gerardo Rodriguez Salas

 

 

 

POINTS FOR DISCUSSION

* 1 Tree-changers are often people with the freedom to seek out their own personal ‘lifestyle’. Briefly explain how this all works out for Marsali and William.

* 2 The third section of the novel is titled ‘The Mine’. What is the significance and role of gold throughout the text?

* 3 So many elements of this novel are steeped in irony. Discuss.

* 4 Marsali tells the story in an informal, memoirist tone. She is articulate, privileged, judgmental, sociable, likeable. Moral. Yet her view of the world is skewed, and much of what she says reveals an inability to face reality. Discuss

* 5 In which ways is William the novel’s centre of wisdom and goodness?

* 6 The title of the novel references World War One (as well as a reference to a painting by Monet). The wars of the 20th Century are part of the background fabric of the novel, which frequently descends into moments of ugly violence. The reader doesn’t see the wars, but they form part of the founding fabric of life in the twenty-first century, part of the history of the town of Muckleton. Discuss

* 7 History, geography, mining – discuss the roles of these within the narrative.

* 8 The town of Muckleton is central to the story, as is the general area of the old goldfields. Discuss.

* 9 In contrast to the more or less charmed lives of Marsali and William, are the dysfunctional lives of Saffron and Tonto. Discuss.

* 10 The churches of Muckleton play a key role in the life of the community. Discuss.

* 11 Generally speaking, the people of Muckleton are of good will, and some of their antics give rise to comedy. Discuss.

* 12 The murder of Alice is a grotesque, careless, mindless, alcohol-fuelled act. It is also emblematic, within the novel’s fabric, of human stupidity, and inattention to the plight of the other human beings, the plight of planet itself. Discuss.

* 13 How do the various literary works discussed in the text contribute to the central concerns of the novel?

* 14 What is the role of Monet’s painting ‘Field of Poppies’ in the text?

* 15 What does Marsali’s obsession with and analysis of Monet’s painting tell you about Marsali herself?

* 16 Consider the epigraphs at the beginning of the novel. Discuss these in relation to your reading of the text.

* 17 The poppy as a signifier of sleep is foregrounded in the novel, while the scarlet poppy of Flanders flags the bloodshed and tragedy of human conflict. Consider how the novel plays with these two meanings of the poppy.

* 18 Do you think that the couple, with their baby, who set up their b&b in the house vacated by Marsali and William, are a marker of some sort of hope for humanity?

* 19 Do you think the novel suggests that Marsali and William will ever be punished in some way for their wealthy, careless, carefree lives?

* 20 Marsali and William both belong to reading groups. These are quite different from each other. Discuss.

 

 

 

FURTHER READING

The White Garden – Carmel Bird

Red Shoes – Carmel Bird

Cape Grimm – Carmel Bird

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll

Picnic at Hanging Rock – Joan Lindsay

Jacob’s Room – Virginia Woolf

The Dry – Jane Harper

Soon – Lois Murphy

 

A NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR

A friend went to a gallery where she bought a fancy hair clip, which she gave to me. The image on the hair clip was ‘Woman with a Parasol’, one of Claude Monet’s many depictions of his wife.

I went on a little Monet spree, and naturally I came to ‘Field of Poppies in Argenteuil’. Sometimes it is easy enough to explain how and why an event is the inspiration for a piece of fiction, however I can’t really say why ‘Poppies’ set my imagination in motion, but it did.

Suddenly I had a character who loved, not just that painting, but a faithful copy of it, created by her aunt. The main figure of the woman in ‘Poppies’ is probably the same woman as the one with the parasol. For that matter, she’s carrying a parasol in ‘Poppies’ too. Before I knew it, I was writing about the poppies in Flanders, about the waste and horror of war, leading me on to meditate on the ravages that humans have visited upon the planet itself. Yet as I descended into the bewildering darkness of wars, refugees, climate, disease, overcrowding, starvation, thirst, extinctions – I saw all around me people who lead cheerful, comfortable Australian lives, playing sport, going to the opera, the café, the art gallery, flying to Paris, decorating their hair with fancy clips. My own life is fairly comfortable, for one thing. The novel was beginning to take shape.

I am daily reminded of the urgency needed to attend to looming global disaster. Marsali and William are intended to foreground the dangers inherent in blithely living in a kind of fairyland. At one level, they know everything is spinning out of control; at another level they are powerless to act. The ground beneath their feet is rich in gold that will betray them, and is also seeded with the bones of historic tragedies and massacres. And such things are still happening around them.

It’s ironic (rather horrible actually) that something as apparently innocent and sweet, something so inconsequential, as the fancy hairclip should have set all this in motion.

 

 

CHRISTMAS IN TASMANIA 1943

 

IMG_7304.jpgMy whole attention is on the little angels flittering through the vegetable patch. It’s Christmas Eve in my maternal grandmother’s garden in Tasmania. Cypress hedge, coral roses flushing and blushing, red fish darting in the enigmatic waters of a bottomless pond. But my whole attention is really on those little angels – that’s what I call the cabbage white butterflies – as they perform their dances in search of Christmas nectar. On gravel paths, I run on my two year-old legs, my arms outstretched, fingers splayed, as I proceed in the sure and certain hope that I will catch an angel. My dress is new, blue with white trims, knitted by my grandmother, a gift for Christmas. Her other gift is the shiny shilling she gives to every grandchild every Christmas. I never caught my angel in the veggie garden.

My recollections of that Christmas eve are in fact my earliest memories, and they are sharp and sweet and also sad. For that night was my grandmother’s last. She died on Christmas eve. Her name was Ellen Margaret. So ever after, Christmas eve for me has been tinged with the sorrow of loss. Was it her heart? A stroke? The history of all that has disappeared in the swirl of the mists of time, and what remains are the magic lantern moments with the little angels in the garden.

I can record no memory of what followed. Memory being the apparently whimsical creature that it is, the melancholy that must have filled Christmas Day has been erased. I have a space where there must have been a Christmas tree. Were there gifts? We must have gone church. I would like to be able to say that I saw a flock of angels on the ceiling, heard them singing in the choir. Hark those herald angels. What became of the pudding?

We always spent the long Christmas holidays at the beach with caravans and cousins. But before we left for Bicheno with its penguins and red rocks, or Port Arthur with its stark old prison cells and seagulls, we would go to the cemetery at Carr Villa in Launceston to put a vase of roses, sometimes they were coral, on Ellen Margaret’s grave. We went on the tram, just me and my mother. On the white gravel surface of the grave there was a bloodless porcelain collection of flowers and birds, and a pair of tiny white hands in that sentimental handshake of farewell. There was something about these two right hands, severed as they were from their body of origin, that reminded me of wings. These memorial objects, still and silent, were protected by a glass dome.

My mother ritually cleans the surface of the dome with a damp cloth impregnated with a few drops of methylated spirit, and the birds and flowers come into clearer view. For a while, the air in the cemetery no longer smells of decay and rosemary, but is lashed with the sting of metho. I fill the cheap vase with water that gurgles from a crooked tap. Mother arranges the roses in the vase, titivating the petals with the tips of her fingers. She stands back to admire her work. Titivates a bit more. And we whisper and mumble some prayers. One of these is to the archangel Michael – a warlike fellow with wings and a great spear – a separate species that is a million light years from those little angels among the veggies.

Well, years and light years have now passed by, and with them a merry-go-round variety of Christmas Eves and Christmas Days. Some of them I remember and some of them I forget. However, wrapped in a linen doily, accompanied by a sprig of rosemary, on a shelf, in a cupboard in my house, I have the small white porcelain hands that once lay under the glass dome on Ellen Margaret’s grave.

So what kind of merciless grave-robber am I? Ten years ago I visited the grave at Carr Villa. Some force – the branch of a tree, the pleasures of vandalism, a bolt of lighting? – had smashed the glass dome. Flowers and birds lay in a tragic, monstrous shattered clutter of shards. Twigs and leaves lay everywhere in mushing clumps. Twisted rusty wires poked out from the base of petal and wing. Lying alone, unharmed except for dirt and rust were the voiceless little hands. I tidied up the broken pieces, and pocketed the hands. There was no vase. I left some flowers – I don’t remember what they were – on the surface of snow white pebbles.

When I got home I searched through the collection of embroidered doilys that came to me from my mother. Some of these were done by Ellen Margaret. To my great joy, one of these was a square of white linen worked in shiny white and shades of vermilion. I had always thought there was something bloody about that doily. Now it seemed to be the perfect shroud for the farewell hands. The thumb of the hand on the left is still indelibly stained with rust. A hateful spike of darkly rusted, tormented wire protrudes from the back on which is printed a number ‘5048’, resembling the mark on the back of the neck of an antique porcelain doll. It looks rather like part of a long lost phone number.

These days, on the low table where I always put a Christmas tree, I place the doily, and on it, the hands. Although they are, I have to say, rather creepy, they seem to blend in with the general theme of the red and white of tinsel and baubles and candy canes. I know I am fanciful, but the hands, freighted as they are with meaning and memory, seem to me to carry distinct echoes of the cabbage moths, those little angels that flew about their business in Ellen Margaret’s garden on Christmas Eve, long, long ago.

LITERARY INSPIRATION

From Sebastopol to Muckleton:

An examination of the long history of the inspiration for my novel FIELD OF POPPIES

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IMAGE: Cannon from the war in Crimea 1854 – 56monet.jpg

Field of Poppies in Argenteuil 1873  by  Claude Monet

 

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Photo of my mother, Laura Power, in the Conservatory, City Park, Launceston Tasmania in the early 1930s

Claude Monet painted ‘Field of Poppies in Argenteuil in 1873’. Argenteuil, where the people of ancient Gaul mined for silver, is on the Seine, about twelve kilometres from the centre of Paris. There is, I fancy, a silvery haze drifting across the field. The painting is now in the Musée d’Orsay which is a treasure house of Impressionism. I have never seen the original of this painting, and I am aware that my experience and understanding of the work is therefore flawed. However, this picture was the direct inspiration for my 2019 novel Field of Poppies, which is set in a fictional Australian town called Muckleton.

I chanced upon an image of the painting when I was checking out (on the web) a picture of a Monet woman with a parasol that was reproduced on a large hairclip given to me by a friend. My search led me to other Monets with similar motifs, and suddenly, on my screen, there was ‘Field of Poppies in Argenteuil 1873’. What was it that stopped me in my tracks? What was it that drew me into this particular scene, this impression of a moment, real or imagined, in Argenteuil in 1873?

I am no longer sure what I saw first – was it the great sweep of scarlet poppy petals across the hillside, occupying almost half of the canvas? Perhaps. Because I have now studied this picture in almost endless detail, I can in truth only speculate on the sequence of my reactions. Before I could have known it, I would have been responding to the two sets of human figures, and to the house in the centre of the horizon. And then before I knew it the whole experience of looking would have linked automatically to my memories, my ideas, my desires. Do I love poppies? I do. Do I love French provincial farm houses? I do. Do I love images of nineteenth century women with children and parasols? I do. Do I love the work of Monet, his astonishing way of making the scene shift, of sending a breeze rippling across the landscape? Oh yes. My vision of all this was almost instantaneous. A shock. Was it like having a ‘vision’, being visited by something supernatural? I think it was. Bear with me.

My response to the picture is a reaction to images arranged in a certain geometry, and applied with the specific Monet technique of feathery light and shade. First the response was emotional and sentimental, but before long, as I ‘studied’ the scene, it altered, becoming intellectual, and probing memory and meaning. I had somehow entered the picture, knowing, at some point, that I was being led to construct a narrative involving ‘Field of Poppies in Argenteuil 1873’. As an easy answer to the question: what was the inspiration for the novel Field of Poppies? I say: Monet’s painting.

I propose now to examine what I might mean there by the term ‘inspiration’. Readers sometimes wonder where a writer’s ideas for fiction come from. It’s easy enough to say they come from experience, memory, or a phrase overheard on a bus. I suppose every case is different. This essay is an attempt to explain where the ideas for my novel originated, what set my thoughts going until I ended up with Field of Poppies. What made this picture, for me, a source of grace, of dangerous knowledge, of inspiration for a whole complicated narrative that had apparently nothing to do with that first woman with her parasol, on the hairclip?

I sometimes wonder how it would have been if my first careful examination of the picture had been when I was standing at eye-level to it as it hung on the wall of the gallery. Would the painting have had the same mysterious impact? I think I know that, as I gazed at it, backlit as it was on the screen, my first reaction was to the joy that seems to me to be mixed with the very paint from Monet’s brush. But next I think my focus went to the house that is central, although it is in the distance. A blunt, ideal three-storey place with regular windows and a pale terra cotta roof. There is only the faintest blurry suggestion of a chimney. Then to the woman with the parasol and child at the bottom right. Then swiftly up to the distant woman with parasol and child high up at the top left. My gaze swept back and forth between the women, across the hillside splashed with the blood of a thousand poppies. The horizon where the house sits is a busy ragged line of trees, one of which is tall and bulky, and is definitely dancing on the skyline. The sky is sweetly blue, but densely fluffed with puffs of whitish clouds. Snuggling into a slight dip in the horizon, where one hill-slope folds into another, is the house. I have come back to the house. In the novel, the large house built on the goldfields by an Irish family in the nineteenth century, is at the heart of the lives of the central characters.

I imagine that for the artist this was just another ‘scene’, an impression of the landscape he loved, punctuated by images of two separate women with parasol and child. The inspiration and model for his pictures of women was often his first wife Camille who died in 1879, when she was thirty-two. Claude and Camille had been disowned by each of their families when their first child, Jean, was born out of wedlock in 1867. When Monet did this painting, the sun was still shining in his life. Perhaps the most curious feature of it is the presence of the distant second woman and child as they come over the hill. One of my interpretations is that they are a premonition of Monet’s second marriage. He married Alice Hoschede in 1892, the year following her husband Ernest’s death. In 1877, Ernest Hoschede, a wealthy art collector, had gone bankrupt. Ernest, with Alice and their six children, had moved in with Claude and Camille Monet in Vetheuil. Soon after, Ernest had moved to Belguim, leaving Alice and the children behind. After, it is speculated, and probably even before Camille died, Claude and Alice were having a love affair. This is only the briefest sketch of marital matters in the Monet household. But I think it is worth noting that Jean Monet (1867 – 1914) married Blanche Hoschede (1865 – 1947), the daughter of Alice and Ernest. Hence Blanche was both Monet’s step-daughter and his daughter-in-law. She was also a painter whose work reflects the influence of Monet. So I think I can see why I was intrigued by the meaning of the two women with their parasols in ‘Field of Poppies’.

As I studied the picture very closely on my screen, I allowed my imagination to go to work on the significances of its parts. I felt that the great sweep and splash of the poppies suggested the dead bodies of soldiers killed in Flanders in war, a war that was far in the future when Monet painted the picture. I felt that the arrival of the second woman coming over the horizon was a premonition of the troops coming up over the hill. Something very sinister had inserted itself into the whole picture. A narrative began to form in which the multiple global problems of the present day were in a sense set in motion by the First World War. The words of Herbert Asquith, British Secretary of State for War: ‘We are within measurable, or imaginable distance of real Armageddon. Happily there seems to be no reason why we should be anything more than spectators.’ These words, written the day before Britain entered the First World War, kept playing in my head, suggesting to me the blindness, carelessness, misguidedness, sleepiness of human beings, as matters to be explored. I set the story in a pleasant rural Australian village today, and I niggled away at contemporary complacency, working with satire and very broad metaphor. Monet’s ‘Field of Poppies’ is a key object in the life of the main character, Marsali Swift (whose surname is intended as a reference to Jonathan Swift).

An odd thing was that when I magnified the picture, bit by bit, I discovered a tiny detail about the central house. It is actually visible without magnification. On the top storey there are clearly three windows. There is probably another window obscured by the foliage of a tree. Just where that window would be, there is a tiny black spot with a minute white mark in the centre. As part of the dark atmosphere aroused by the imaginary dead soldiers beneath the poppies, I figured there might be someone with a powerful firearm up there. The gun is trained on the woman in the foreground. She is doomed, and when the second woman moves forward, she also will be shot.

In the novel these things are ‘only’ in Marsali’s imagination, but in this fact lies an aspect of the technique of this particular novel. I didn’t want to present actual historical scenes – everything is mediated through Marsali’s thoughts in her journal. So my encounter with ‘Field of Poppies’ is translated into her lifelong knowledge of it, her great fondness for it, and the narrative is set in motion by her shock response at the loss of the painting during the robbery. She has a much more profound reason for being so connected to the picture than I do. I have puzzled over why this particular painting obsessed me to the extent that it gave rise to a novel. I kept examining the women with their parasols, particularly the larger one in the foreground. I even thought I could envisage, in the folds of her greyish skirt, the sketch of a little horse. Fanciful, yes.

Now, something I often observe about students of fiction writing is that sooner or later many of them seem to write about their mothers, in one way or another. This is really no surprise, since writing fiction (I believe) is an activity by which people try to make sense of their own lives, and such sense-making will frequently take you back to where you began, and who else was there. So one time, when I was staring at the horse-skirted woman in the foreground of the painting, I had an inkling of a photograph of my mother. The woman in the painting is elegant and French; my mother was neither of these things. However, I searched for the photo in question, and I realised the link was probably the hat. So here she is, in the conservatory in the City Park in Launceston Tasmania is the early 1930s. Even the hat – so jaunty in Argenteuil, so practical, if tilted, in the conservatory – can hardly be held responsible for the fact that the image of Camille Monet took me back to my mother. But I think it did. She is accompanied by a child. Could that child be me in my straw hat, carrying a bunch of poppies? There are no poppies in the photo of my mother. I think the great puffs of black and white blooms in the conservatory are begonias. Baskets of Begonias – a title for a novel? Maybe not.

There is a wealth of emotion, for me, in the picture in the conservatory. It was taken years before I was born, but I remember we used to have picnics in the City Park, gaze at the begonias, visit the cages of rabbits and monkeys, marvel at the intricate stone memorial of the Boer War, climb on the Russian Sebastopol gun from the war in the Crimea. Oh, suddenly there are thoughts of war.

That war lasted from 1854 to 1856, so it was over before Monet, who was born in 1840, painted his ‘Field of Poppies in Argenteuil 1873’. Another clear memory from the joyful times in the City Park is of the horrible smell of gas from the nearby gasworks. And then there was the fact that along the side of the park ran a street with a fascinating French name – it was Cimitière Street, because it once led to a cemetery. These days it leads to the Launceston Entertainment Centre. Times change.

So there you have it – in my somewhat fanciful way, I believe I can trace the genesis of Field of Poppies from the Sebastopol gun to the flowers of Argenteuil.

 

 

Resurrection Plant

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This week I am giving a workshop on writing memoir. I have asked the students to bring some objects that will inspire them, will stimulate their memories. When I was looking for something of my own to take to the workshop, I found a lovely thing that used to be kept in a glass-fronted cabinet in my childhood home. It was a carved pepper pot containing, instead of pepper, an old twig. This twig had been brought to Australia from the Middle East after the First World War. It’s called the Rose of Jericho, or the Resurrection Plant. When you immerse the ancient twig in water for about twenty minutes, the gnarled little claw unfolds, opens out, breathes, and it takes the form of a strange brown twiggy flower on a stalk. Bubbles of oxygen form along the fronds. Above are pictures of the pepper pot and the plant. The apparently dead twig is lying there alone. Maybe one day soon I will post a picture of it as it floats in water, resurrected.

FIELD OF POPPIES

 

FOP_COVER.jpgCOMMENTS ON MY NEW NOVEL – ‘FIELD OF POPPIES’ – WHICH IS PUBLISHED IN NOVEMBER 2019 
“How to describe Field of Poppies? A lush feast of wit and wisdom? Writing so rich you simply want to devour it?  A forensic examination of an Australian country town?

Literary tour de force will have to do.”      Robert Drewe

“All the Bird trademark strands – beauty, shock and horror, a genuine story based in the reality of the world, complex imagery, elegant irony and compelling prose.”

Gabrielle Lord

“Field of Poppies is an absolute feast of wit and wisdom. Carmel Bird embroiders a seemingly simple story with the most wonderful observations and colourful mischief. This novel resonates with a long list of contemporary problems. It does so using humour, not anger. It is fun – wry, intelligent, searching, poised and astute. It showcases the human catastrophe with grace and charm. It takes years of experience for a writer to be able to pull off this kind of sorcery. It is wonderful to see Carmel Bird working with such zest and verve.”        Michael McGirr

“Sharp yet sensitive, wildly imaginative, and layered with allusion and allegory. Bird’s vivid characters weave together local legend, small-town speculation, art, literature and science in their narration of their selves and lives, all but ignoring the social and ecological destruction taking place around them.

A truly remarkable achievement from a novelist at the height of her powers.”

Fiona Wright

“Bold and playful, sharply funny and humane, Carmel Bird’s timely social satire shimmers with layers. She has a gift for distilling the essence of her characters and locations and bringing them together in wonderfully unexpected ways. Her distinctive voice and lightness of touch shine in this penetrating and evocative novel.”

Michael Sala

“Highly engaging storytelling that blends and layers reality and extravaganza with ingenious irony, wit and subtlety.”          Gerardo Rodriguez Salas

 

 

Tasmanian Gothic

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Tasmanian Gothic Convict Breaks the Chains

This essay was first published in Mystery Writers Journal, July 2019

In 1955, a high school somewhere in Nashville, Tennessee decided to exchange student essays with a high school in Launceston, Tasmania. I was one of the Tasmanians chosen by my teacher to produce one of the essays. Two things happened:

  1. a) the teacher said she couldn’t send my essay to Nashville because it dealt with unsuitable material
  2. b) I had my first and inspiring lesson in how to respond to censorship

So what was that unsuitable material? I had written about the dark history of Tasmania at a time when that history was still supposed to be suppressed. I had told stories of the attempted genocide of the indigenous people of the island by the British, and I had clarified the fact that the place was originally a prison colony. Oh no! What was the child thinking? In her pale blue school dress with white collar and cuffs, her straw hat, white gloves, blonde hair, green eyes, hockey stick and piano lessons? What was all this about native wars and escaped convicts?

It was my material. And of course the whole experience was a magnificent spur to me to write and never stop writing. Get the story out. Since then – well it’s a long time ago, isn’t it – the truths of the history of Tasmania have gradually come into the spotlight. I imagine that today my essay – alas, long lost – would possibly be refused entry in the exchange because it was too much of a cliché.

I left Tasmania when I was twenty-three. But the dye was cast. My imagination was formed in that place at that time. The early history of Tasmania would forever inform the fiction I would write. My work is often described as ‘Tasmanian Gothic’ and sometimes ‘Tasmanian Noir’. A clue to this is in the title of one of my books, Cape Grimm. The fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm meet the dangerous rocky outcrop on the far, far north-west coast of Tasmania. Even when the scene is set far from the island, there will just about always be a character who goes there, or who originates from there. Sometimes I think that’s just lazy, but when I try to change things, they won’t change, and it turns out the character has no alternative but to have the Tasmanian link. Only four of my twelve novels, Unholy Writ; Open For Inspection; Child of the Twilightand Field of Poppiesare crime fiction proper, but all of them, with the exception of Crisis, are explorations of dark and terrible events. I don’t have a detective, or a who-dun-it scenario; I take what is a kind of sideways approach to the whole matter of the horrors of crime.

In my 1990 novel The Bluebird CaféI invented Woodpecker Point, an old mining town on the north west coast of Tasmania, and also a character called Carrillo Mean, grandson of Philosopher Mean. This Carrillo is a shape-shifting Tasmanian who invades or hovers over much of my work. When he isn’t a character in the narrative, he provides an epigraph for the book, a wise saying that originates from his own vast repertoire of writings. He has his own Facebook page, but is rather careless about it and doesn’t often make posts. He really should pay more attention to these things. His most celebrated books are The Mining of Meaningand The Meaning of Mining. Much of his work is published by his own Bedrock Press.

My new novel Field of Poppies, which will be launched at the Terror Australis festival of crime writing in Cygnet, Tasmania in November 2019, has an epigraph from Carrillo: ‘I was sleepwalking through a field of poppies, somewhere in France.’ The novel is set in an old mining town on the mainland of Australia, but yes, there are characters who come from Tasmania. And the plot might as well be Tasmanian Gothic. There is a horrible contemporary crime, in the context of historic crimes, which are gradually uncovered as the new facts come to light. The mining town appears to be a perfect place for professional people to go to for their retirement, while the wider world is mired in wars and famines and terrorism, not to mention the changes to the climate, the catastrophic weather events, and the disappearance of a million species. There are echoes of the Great War of 1914, a war that looms large in the history of Australia. Was it downhill for the planet after that war? The people of the town just go about their lives as if sweetly half asleep, until everything splits apart when one of them disappears overnight.

And in the end, has anything changed in these people? Not much, it seems. Sleepwalking, dancing into the dark, about to be overtaken by a brand new foreign gold-mine in their little old town. Long ago in this place some people got very rich, thousands died from disease and despair. Whatever next? Is nowhere safe?

In the eighteenth century the British imagined they could contain their criminals on the island of Tasmania, could wipe out the indigenous populations, could develop a nice outpost of empire down there at world’s end. Well, it didn’t work out quite like that, as I noted in 1955, when I was accidentally given the freedom to turn the truths of the past into my own brand of Tasmanian Gothic.

 

 

Biographical Note

Carmel Bird has written twelve novels and eight collections of short fiction. In 2016 she was awarded the Patrick White Literary Award – one of Australia’s most significant prizes. Her interest in indigenous cultures is reflected in the anthology The Stolen Children – Their Stories, which she edited. She has also edited a range of anthologies of both fiction and non-fiction. She now lives in the historic gold-mining town of Castlemaine.

 

FIELD OF POPPIES

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                                                              New Novel

                 Field of Poppiesis published in November 2019 by Transit Lounge.

“It takes years of experience for a writer to be able to pull off this kind of sorcery.”         

                                                                                       Michael McGirr 

The scarlet poppy is a reminder of the First World War, a war that tore civilisation apart in the 20thcentury. The poppy grows wild in the fields around Muckleton, a rural Australian town, where one night a woman called Alice vanishes. The village is turned upside-down. In the world outside Muckleton, the seas are rising, the climate is changing, millions of refugees are dying, forests and species are disappearing. The majority of affluent westerners appear to be living carefree, careless lives. Muckleton tree-changers Marsali and William are involved in the woes of the village, are aware of the worries of the world, and yet they seem to be merrily swept along with the tide that is threatening to overwhelm the planet.

                                Two Odd Sources of Inspiration for this Novel

A friend went to a gallery where she bought a fancy hair clip, which she gave to me. The image on the hair clip was ‘Woman with a Parasol’, one of Claude Monet’s many depictions of his wife.

I went on a little Monet spree, and naturally I came to ‘Field of Poppies in Argenteuil’. Sometimes it is easy enough to explain how and why an event is the inspiration for a piece of fiction, however I can’t really say why ‘Poppies’ set my imagination in motion, but it did.

Suddenly I had a character who loved, not just that painting, but a faithful copy of it, created by her aunt. The main figure of the woman in ‘Poppies’ is probably the same woman as the one with the parasol. For that matter, she’s carrying a parasol in ‘Poppies’ too. Before I knew it, I was writing about the poppies in Flanders, about the waste and horror of war, leading me on to meditate on the ravages that humans have visited upon the planet itself. Yet as I descended into the bewildering darkness of wars, refugees, climate, disease, overcrowding, starvation, thirst, extinctions – I saw all around me people who lead cheerful, comfortable Australian lives, playing sport, going to the opera, the café, the art gallery, flying to Paris, decorating their hair with fancy clips. The novel was beginning to take shape.

I am daily reminded of the urgency needed to attend to looming global disaster. Marsali and William are intended to foreground the dangers inherent in blithely living in a kind of fairyland. I live in something like this fairyland myself. At one level, they know everything is spinning out of control; at another level they are powerless to act. The ground beneath their feet is rich in gold that will betray them, and also seeded with the bones of historic tragedies and massacres. Such things are still happening around them in the wider world.

It’s ironic of course that something as innocent and sweet as the fancy hairclip should have set all this in motion.

Another source of inspiration forField of Poppies was an article I had saved from The Australian Women’s Weekly, June 4 1975. My filing cabinets are full of odd files of rather eclectic bits of information that I seem to have been collecting forever. This was a story about people in London who specialized in producing excellent legal fakes of great paintings. I am interested in the world of art theft (which I explored in my novel Child of the Twilight) and also in the matter of fakes. The character of Marsali’s aunt Clarissa in Field ofPoppies is an amateur painter who made the copy of the Monet Poppiespainting that is one of the key elements in my new novel. The magazine article from 1975 isn’t even particularly detailed or interesting, but it must have fermented away in the filing cabinet, and in my memory, to surface again when I came to construct Field of Poppies.

                                                Comments on Field of Poppies 

Fiona Wright: “Sharp yet sensitive, wildly imaginative, and layered with allusion and allegory. Bird’s vivid characters weave together local legend, small-town speculation, art, literature and science in their narration of their selves and lives, all but ignoring the social and ecological destruction taking place around them.

A truly remarkable achievement from a novelist at the height of her powers.”

Michael Sala: “Bold and playful, sharply funny and humane, Carmel Bird’s timely social satire shimmers with layers. Carmel has a gift for distilling the essence of her characters and locations and bringing them together in wonderfully unexpected ways. Her distinctive voice and lightness of touch shine in this penetrating and evocative novel.”

Gerardo Rodriguez Salas: “Highly engaging storytelling that blends and layers reality and extravaganza with ingenious irony, wit and subtlety.”

Michael McGirr: This is an absolute feast of wit and wisdom. Carmel Bird embroiders a seemingly simple story with the most wonderful observations and colourful mischief. This novel resonates with a long list of contemporary problems. It is wry, intelligent, searching, poised and astute, showcasing the human catastrophe with grace and charm. It takes years of experience for a writer to be able to pull off this kind of sorcery. It is wonderful to see Carmel Bird working with such zest and verve.

Gabrielle Lord: “All the Bird trademark strands – beauty, shock and horror, a genuine story based in the reality of the world, complex imagery, elegant irony and compelling prose.”

Robert Drewe: How to describe Field of Poppies? A lush feast of wit and wisdom? Writing so rich you simply want to devour it?  A forensic examination of an Australian country town? Literary tour de force will have to do.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

REVIEW OF STAR-CROSSED

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This piece which I joyfully wrote on Star-Crossed by Minnie Darke (aka Danielle Wood) was published in ‘Review’ in The Australian in April 2019

If you don’t read your stars, maybe you should. There are all kinds of forces at work in the universe. According to Star-crossed, astral configurations are ‘mapped onto’ your soul at birth.

From the text of Star-crossed: ‘Aquarius. This month sees Venus transitioning from Leo to Virgo, bringing into focus themes of sex, intimacy and trust. Aquarians can expect to be discussing these issues with their romantic partners, but should also anticipate miscommunication in many of their important relationships.’

In the mythical Australian town of Edenvale, a baby boy (star sign Aquarius) and a baby girl (Sagittarius) are born, nine months apart. These are Nick and Justine. Where will destiny lead them? He grows up believing in Astrology; she does not believe. She loves to interfere in things, taking a corrective pen to the spelling mistakes on the greengrocer’s labels. Oh, where will it all end? As children, the two were good friends. Nick becomes an actor; Justine works for a local glossy magazine. Yes, the magazine is called ‘The Alexandria ParkStar’. Nick, intent on rekindling his love affair with ex-girlfriend Laura, will play Romeo (famously star-crossed) on stage; Justine, having by now fallen in love with Nick, devises a personal plan to engage him in romance. This involves Astrology in a most devious and ingenious way. Justine starts to influence Nick’s thoughts and actions by inserting key ideas into the Aquarius horoscopes in the magazine. She writes: ‘You discover a powerful surge of nostalgia for what once was, which also doubles as an intuition of what yet might be.’ She realises that ‘writing hog-shit is surprisingly good fun’. She is drastically tampering with the words of Leo, the weird reclusive official astrologer. Talk about mischief and risks. Oh, Justine, where willit all end?

There will be marvellous twists and turns before the grand finale. Every step along the way has the breathless reader hoping for the best, fearing the worst, swept up in the delicious complexities in the lives of not only Justine and Nick, but of a wealth of other vivid Edenvale characters. Everybody has a star sign, naturally, and the novel works its merry way through the twelve signs of the Zodiac.

It is no secret that the author of this glorious romantic comedy, Minnie Darke, is none other than Danielle Wood who has previously been known for more sober kinds of fiction, as well as for non-fiction. This is one dazzling, versatile writer, working with impeccable skill, sharp wit, frolicsome charm.

The narrative is, as well as being a great story, a swift, satirical, forensic exploration of contemporary society, and of human nature generally. It dances along, now light, now darkening, now light again. ‘Fern – Libra, florist, habitual wearer of a single gerbera behind one ear, stylish re-inventor of vintage dresses, surreptitious smoker of menthol cigarettes and drinker of gin slings, lover of Brat Pack movies and occasional karaoke diva – had taken the risky step of shutting down her mobile flower van and re-opening Hello Petal as a static concern in the Alexandria Park Markets, with all of the new and alarming overhead costs that this move entailed.’

The reader is offered startling direct access to the conversations Justine conducts with her own brain as she makes decisions about what she will and won’t do. Here she is chatting with Brain while searching through a mess of sticky notes for the password to a colleague’s computer. She has, by this time, lost a fair bit of moral rectitude, as she pursues Nick via her construction of his Aquarian horoscopes.

Brain: Your pulse is up.

Justine: Thanks for pointing that out.

Brain: I think you’re experiencing guilt and nervousness.

Justine: Shhhh…I bet it’s still here, somewhere.

Brain is, within the medley of characters whose stars cross and re-cross, one of the most fascinating. It is a bold and economical invention, a neat short-cut to tickle the reader’s fancy, as are the occasional little blocks of dot points that paint rapid pictures of the action. This Minnie Darke composes with a wonderful insouciance.

Sorrow and broken dreams lurk as possibilities, but unlike Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, which underpins the narrative, tragedy has no place in the world of Justine and Nick. Brain says: ‘It’s not as if the horoscopes are…real. They’re all just rubbish. What’s one random phrase compared to another? What harm could it do?’ Quite a bit, as it happens. But oh, the whole wild fabrication will put a smile on every reader’s face.

Mary Had Always Been Fond of Dogs

Writing Memoir

kuukaudenkuva.jpgI was preparing material for a workshop on memoir, in particular memoir inspired by the writers’ recollections of their pets past and present. There were my own memories to call on. The cat who went into mourning when our daughter left home to go to university. He sat on the gatepost staring out into space, waiting for her every afternoon for about a month. Then there was the dog who organized the sale of the house – see ‘Raf the Dog’ https://carmelbird.wordpress.com/2018/03/

Throughout literature, there is no shortage of tales to tell about people and pets. The dedication of animals to humans is one of the great and beautiful mysteries of life on earth. Greyfriars Bobby, the Skye Terrier who guarded his master’s grave for fourteen years, is possibly the star.

However, a story that kept coming back to me was that of Mary Queen of Scots and herlittle Skye Terrier. I haven’t yet decided whether or not I will bring this one up at the workshop – it sort of depends on whether I think the students can handle it. How will I tell? I don’t really know yet. I never intended for the workshop to be grisly. I haven’t seen the latest movie about Mary – it probably includes the story I am about to write.

This dog story haunts me, and I need to write it down. You can find it also in Emma White’s History of Britain in a Hundred Dogs.

When Mary Stuart returned from France to Scotland after her young husband, Francis the Second of France had died (from an ear infection – interesting in itself, I think), she brought with her twenty-two little dogs. (Mary was always fond of dogs.) In 1587 Mary was executed for treason by a particularly incompetent executioner who had to chop away at her neck several times before severing her head. To her beheading Mary had brought a Syke Terrier hidden under her dress. After the execution, people could see something moving beneath her clothing. When the executioner was in the process of removing Mary’s garters (!) he discovered the dog who was guarding the body of his beloved mistress. The dog ran up to where the body was separated from the head, lay down there in a puddle of blood and refused to be moved. When it was finally removed, it pined and died, and no wonder.

I confess that I took the words for the title of this story from within an account I read in a history of Scotland. It seemed to me to be a poignant and almost misleading statement, and it kept ringing in my head – so I used it myself.

Yes, Mary had always been fond of dogs.

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Image of Mary Queen of Scots ascending the scaffold. Where is the Skye Terrier?

BIRDS OF A FEATHER – getting an agent

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NOTE: In August 2018, Irma Gold published on her blog http://www.irmagold.com/blog/an account of how I came to engage my literary agent, Sally Bird (no relation) at Calidris Agency. I am including this story on my blog today because there has been a development. You will need to read through to the end of the tale to get the latest news.

THE STORY:

This is a sweet story of destiny, in seven steps.

One:  I didn’t have an agent. Ages ago an ex-student of mine said she had just engaged an agent whose surname was the same as mine, and furthermore this agent lived in my small country town. I had not heard of this neighbouring agent, and I made no attempt to find her.

Two:  In February 2018 I gave a writing workshop at the Faber Academy. One of the students said her novel was being published the following week, and that she had a wonderful agent who shared my surname and village. I still didn’t wake up.

Three:  Another student in the workshop said he was giving his manuscript to his agent (a different one) the following Monday. Then he said she would have response from publishers within a month.

Four:  Now something about that ‘month’ really got to me. I am sure the student was exaggerating about the speed of response, but as I sat on the train going home, the three points above came together and said ‘agent, agent, agent’. Shazam!

Five:  I went to the website of Sally Bird, Calidris Agency, and we had a meeting, and we realised we lived within five minutes of each other, and, even more important, that we could work with each other. It is a strange relief to me to feel that a professional and widely experienced agent is now going to present my work to publishers.

Six:  As well as having a business relationship, we enjoy each other’s company. ‘Bird’ is my married name, and also Sally’s married name. We have discussed the fashionable idea of having hyphenated surnames: Sally White-Bird and Carmel Power-Bird. How mad would that be? I began here by saying this was a sweet story of destiny – I am wary of events that seem to be working in sync with destiny, but I think I resisted this little series of steps for long enough. I’m glad I gave in in the end. A five-minute walk can do you the world of good.

Seven: Sally is now representing my new novel Field of Poppies. I amso confident and delighted about all this.

So that’s the end of the story as it was published by Irma in 2018. The latest thing is that agent Sally has decided to move back to her native country of New Zealand. No more short walks and cups of tea for us. Our professional relationship continues, but by email and aircraft. I think perhaps I caught her on the wing, just in time.