The Stella Prize chats with Carrie Tiffany, author of Mateship with Birds
Stella: Who did you admire when you were fourteen?
Carrie: A girl at school called Jodie Brick. She had white-blonde hair, was a netball champion and her boyfriend picked her up after school in a Datsun.
Stella: Why did you become a writer?
Carrie: I’m not sure if there is such a thing as becoming a writer, or being a writer. For me there is just the act of writing. Each sentence feels like it is the first and that it could also be the last. More than anything I wanted to become a reader and I’m pleased to have achieved that. In my early twenties I worked as a park ranger in Central Australia. I live in Melbourne now and work as a farming journalist. I started writing fiction ten or so years ago. I don’t remember any momentous shift, just a hankering to make some sentences of my own.
Stella: Do you have a good writing place? Tell us.
Carrie: Finding a good place to write has been a challenge for me. Mateship with Birds was written in thirteen different locations. Last year I found a fantastic room above a lovely old pub in North Fitzroy. This year I’ve handed it over to my daughter, but I hope to come back to it one day.
Stella: What book would you take with you to a desert island?
Carrie: Surely I can take more than one book?
Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
I first read this at 18 and have been reading it ever since. Flaubert’s story about feckless Emma Bovary, a young woman who marries the local doctor, has a series of terrible affairs and then takes her own life, is tragic at every step. Flaubert is not a moralizer. He shows us all of Emma – her vanity, her willingness, her compulsions. Poor Emma never manages to find the right words to express what she needs and wants. When released, Madame Bovary coined a medical condition – in nineteenth-century France excessive dreaminess in women was termed Bovarysme. I am a sufferer.
The Interpretation of Dreams by Sigmund Freud
My grandfather told me the nightmares of my childhood where due to bad digestion and that I shouldn’t eat sugar before bed. Freud understands that a dream is a story, and that we construct our lives from the stories we tell each other. I’ve only recently begun reading Freud and wish I’d begun earlier. That we are not in control of our minds; that dreams may point to disguised wishes and desires; that the unconscious teems with symbols and representation; all of this makes sense to me.
Illywhacker by Peter Carey
Peter Carey’s 1985 novel about lies and liars is narrated by Herbert Badgery, a 139-year-old con man. I can’t explain how Carey manages to stitch the landscape of Badgery’s itinerant youth into this book, but he does. I can’t explain the structural chaos, the melee of grand characters, the colour and energy in every dazzling sentence. And I’m not sure why we are all still looking for the great Australian novel because this (along with Patrick White’s Riders in the Chariot and Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children) is it.
The Book of Fame by Lloyd Jones
I think I groaned when a friend sent me a copy of this novel, about the 1905 All Blacks world tour, but it’s a masterpiece. Written in the collective voice, composed of odd facts and menus and match scores and players’ lists, the story seeps a kind of impressionistic world, the contradictions of masculinity, the shameful weight of fame.
Dance of the Happy Shades by Alice Munro
This was Munro’s first book of short stories, published in 1968. She is without doubt the best short-story writer alive today. Her stories are always set in south-western Ontario and concern the domestic, childhood relationships, families. She takes the smallest interaction and looks inside it; then looks again. In uncovering what is real she uncovers what is true. Her most recent collection, The View from Castle Rock, is wonderful too.
Stella: How do you know when a story is finished?
Carrie: I know a story or a novel is finished when I can’t take anything else away from it. I keep a line from Philip Larkin’s poem ‘Dockery and Son’ in my notebook:
Why did he think adding meant increase?
To me it was dilution.