What makes the human heart tick?
Carmel Bird, in her new short story collection, My Hearts Are Your Hearts, deftly probes this question. Bird is one of Australia’s foremost writers and the 20 stories in My Hearts pulsate with life, blood and bravura. In this Q&A (as in My Hearts itself) Bird leads us to the arterial sources of these vivid tales and her fascinating creative process.
Tasmania is your birthplace and the setting for a number of the stories in My Hearts are Your Hearts. What was it like to grow up in Tasmania when you did? What role did it play in you becoming a writer?
I was born at the beginning of the Second World War, in a place (Launceston, Tasmania) that was about as far away from the conflict as it was possible to be. But of course everyone everywhere was to a degree affected by the war. My father, who remained in civilian life, working with the design and production of optical instruments used in the war, had the radio on all the time, so my early life was infused with a certain consciousness of what was happening. We had a bomb shelter in the back garden, an underground room wallpapered with lovely pastel prints of maps of the world. We used to play in the garden, where there were many different kinds of fruit trees, wearing gas masks. I recall meeting people in uniform in the street, and becoming lost in a group of them until my mother rescued me.
Throughout my childhood there was a focus, not on the continent of Australia, but on the insularity of the island, and on the magic of countries such as England, America and France. So my imagination was shaped to a degree by all this, and consequently I suppose it all has an effect on the way I write. These are difficult questions. It was, as undisturbed childhood places so often are, paradise of a kind. We roamed the island on holidays, sometimes in a caravan, sometimes with tents, sometimes staying in hotels or with family. I got to know it very well. It’s a most beautiful place. And in those days there was great freedom for children.
You say Tasmania nestles in your ‘heart of heart’ and is ‘the shape of a heart’— but you have lived away from Tasmania for some time. Why does the island still hold such tenderness and fictional possibilities for you?
Fondness for the paradise of the past is a powerful influence on the creative process. I began very early noticing how Tasmania was represented in literature (not to mention in popular perception) and I began to collect quotations about it by people such as Virginia Woolf, Agatha Christie, James Joyce etc, who use it in passing as a faraway inconsequential silly sort of place. So I suppose I am protective of it. And, believe me, it is certainly full of fictional possibilities, no matter which way you play it.
My Hearts are Your Hearts is the first in a new series for Spineless Wonders that combines short stories with authors’ reflections on them. Publisher Bronwyn Mehan says the ‘SW Fiction Plus’ series came about in response to the interest the anthology of stories and essays Cracking the Spine: Ten Short Australian Stories and How They Were Written. Why are readers so hungry to hear from writers about the origins of their stories?
I actually think Cracking the Spine was first of all inspired by the essay I wrote at the end of Dear Writer Revisited — where I described the inspirations and origins of my story ‘From Paradise to Wonderland’. So ‘SW Fiction Plus’ has a longer history than you suggest. But to respond to the question — readers love to listen to writers speaking on the origins of their fiction — and so a whole series of books in which the authors delve into these things alongside their fiction seems to be a fabulous idea, and I imagine it will be something that is invaluable to teachers and students of fiction writing.
In your essay at the back of this collection, called ‘The Story of the Stories’, you admit that, while you often say you ‘did something’ in a story for some reason, the reasons mostly remain inscrutable. Does this mean that the tale behind the tale is often a tall tale? If so, does it matter?
I don’t quite follow this question, really. All I meant was that a writer (this writer) finds that fiction takes on a kind of life of its own, so that the writer can’t really explain where some effect or some idea originated. That’s the mystery of writing fiction I suppose.
‘He Painted Cupids on Soup Plates’ is one of my favourite stories in the collection and I loved the finishing school in Tasmania in 1955, the descriptions of the girls and countryside and how the narrator jogs the plot along through interjections. How can one small fact — in this case that the Tasmanian town of Deloraine was named after a character in a romantic Scottish poem — lead to such a beautifully realised and charming world?
Ah — you’re asking me … I think you have just answered the preceding question. I can say that for years and years I had accepted the name ‘Deloraine’ as just the name of a pretty little town between Launceston and Devonport, and then one day I realised that it came from Walter Scott — and weirdly (the mystery again) the story unravelled itself. I am thrilled that you like it. I was rather nervous — that readers might find it too strange. But sometimes a writer just has to go ahead and see what happens.
In the same story, the narrator says the student failures at the school included ‘a girl called Sunshine Feathers from Lower Snug’. This is a small and piquant example of the humour and playfulness in this collection. What’s your favourite piece of humour in these stories? How frequently does the urge to play arise when you’re writing? What other authors are playful or being humorous in their work in ways you admire?
I knew a girl called Sunshine, but have never named a character Sunshine before. It was time. I had her come from Lower Snug because I have friends who live there and I think it is a fabulous name for a village. And yes, I do like to play around in various ways. Mainly I like the wry tone of the narrator of many of the stories. It’s a narrator who is peering into the lives of the characters, and at the same time is speaking directly to the reader. One joke I am fond of is that nearly all of my books have an epigraph from a fictional character called Carrillo Mean. He always has something wise to say.
In fact I realised that as I write I hear the writing, I imagine it being read aloud, being performed. I like to perform my work to the accompaniment of a bass player, or a pianist.
Perhaps my favourite playful writer is Vladimir Nabokov, and I also love Ford Madox Ford. And Kurt Vonnegut and Fay Weldon.
You write that the ending of ‘My Beloved is Mine and I am His’ shocked you — and might shock your readers. For me, the shock waves rippled from beginning to end and were intensified by Patricia’s high hopes for her life and her subsequent entrapment by ‘love’. How painful was this story to tell? What compelled you to plough on?
The true story from which this piece of fiction sprang mesmerised me, and I actually think that as I wrote I was in a bit of a trance.
There is much evidence in My Hearts are Your Hearts of your quirky and vivid imagination. For example, a girl in a skim milk ad is thought to have ‘Diane’s Fiancé’s Ex-wife’s Brother’s Heart’ (the story’s title). Diane also wants her friend Bree to wrap a helicopter so it looks like a wedding bow and so she can arrive at the church in it on her wedding day. With such a brimming, eclectic imagination how do you pick which ideas to pursue?
I actually write very quickly, and I just let the ideas themselves take hold. It’s really quite exciting. For me.
You have a lot of fun with nomenclature in this collection and I particularly loved Viviana Maria Vincent’s Venus McVicker novels and her V,W,X,Y family, Princess Aldegonda of Naples, the Prince and Pilgrim children and the Tabianka Cellars named after the double-wedding brides Tabitha and Anka. What’s in a name?
A very great deal, Marjorie. I have always thought Marjorie was a pretty name, and I have good friends with the name, but I have never looked it up before — but I am now delighted to learn that it means ‘pearl’ — same as Margaret — and was taken to England from Greece in the twelfth century. Wow!
I love naming characters, and sometimes I take a particular delight, therefore, in NOT naming them, and making them make do with A and B and X and Y and so on. The names usually just leap out at me — and then I sometimes check out their meanings. Sometimes I change them for reasons such as the rhythm of the prose. And of course names place the characters in time and place. Also class. Culture.
There are so many wonderful objects that lend these stories veracity: The little wooden ‘Think of Me’ box, the marcasite watch, the silky gun-metal opera coat, the chocolate hearts, the soup bowl decorated with pink ribbons and blue hearts and flying cupids. Do objects like these usually land in your head along with the stories or do you scrape about later in order to find and insert them?
‘Scrape about and insert???’ Good grief! No no. They come into my mental in-box all on their own. Quite often the objects are the inspiration for the story. Such was the case with the Think of Me box. I found that stored in the garage, and with it was the image that is now on the cover of the book.
But I must say you are a lovely reader — noticing those things.
In ‘Back to the Womb’ a mother gives her uterus to her womb-less daughter who ‘knows it well from the inside’. You say ‘Primrose Mary shouldered her own way into this narrative, and worked a kind of magic on the plot (which had threatened to be too terribly tragic)’. How does such shouldering happen? When and how do you know who is in or out of a story? Do characters often muscle their way in?
Oh — you are wearing me out here. I never think about all this. I suppose I am not really very analytical. Look, I suppose as I write, and as the story of the uterus develops, something in me wants the focus to shift, wants to see a different angle on the lives of the people I am talking about. And here you have the two kinds of names coming right up against each other Y and IT and Primrose Mary — and this gives the narrative a little shake.
You say there was a long gestation for ‘Back to the Womb’: From 1967 when you first heard of Dr Christian Barnard transplanting Denise Darvell’s heart into the chest of Louis Washkansky to 2014 when you saw a TV documentary about uterus transplants in Sweden. You also say that, ‘As an analyst of the story, I am almost as fresh as any other reader.’ What’s the magic here?
I suppose it’s really a matter of being always alert to not just the stories that present themselves, but also to the preoccupations and so on of my own imagination. This is how the womb story came into being. It was late at night and I was sitting in bed with my laptop and the TV (sad?) when the program about the Swedish stuff came on. When it finished I wrote the story. There and then. Done. Now my keen interest in transplants goes back to 1967, and here was a fresh and startling new chapter.
Your title ‘Her Voice was Full of Money, and They Were Careless People’ is inspired by F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Apart from helping conjure this truly great title, how has the work of other authors inspired your own?
Shakespeare, the Bible and all points on and out from there — other writers — innumerable — inspire me with their ability to roll out worlds with words.
Your narrators in this collection are quite daring and chatty. What else can you tell me and A Bigger Brighter World readers about these dauntless raconteurs and their storytelling approaches?
The narrators are a point of view and a voice that seem to split off sideways from me when I come to tell a story. I feel the presence of the reader, and this POV and voice set about dealing with the situation. The narrators sometimes echo what readers might be thinking.
You suggest in your essay about the collection that fairy tales hold a power that you employ in your own stories. What are the defining features of a fairy tale? Are there stories in this collection you would call fairy tales? If so, why?
Well traditional fairy tales are concerned almost always with the fight to the death between good and evil. They visit the realms of the imagination in order to expose and exercise their position. Although I don’t really often send my narratives into deep dark forests and German castles, I am conscious that the events and characters sometimes conform, in some ways, to fairy tale types and agendas. But I don’t think there are any ‘fairy tales’ in this collection. I have had a few in previous collections. And there are direct references to fairy tales. ‘Perhaps the Bird was Wise’ is a case in point. I am always setting out to tell, or show, the truth as it seems to me. By this I mean an imaginative truth, meaning I work with an imaginative realisation of what I see as enduring truths, which can come to life when they are dramatised in the context of a fictional world. There are not, in fact, many happy endings in traditional fairy tales. My work is uncomfortable fiction, and happy endings are not what it is about either. The ‘happy ending’ to the womb story is posed by the wry narrator as a little fillip to the reader.
There are some wonderful descriptions in these stories including several relating to clothing. For example, Dymphna Marquand is ‘a glittering purple scarecrow [running] down through the orchard and down to the river, the cocktail sequins of the mermaid marvel of the dress flittering and glittering and flapping’. Do descriptions as perfect as this arrive as a gift or do you have to work on them? If the latter, any tips?
In a way — the answer to many of your questions is contained in this response: I give in to excitement of writing, to the desire to write, and I give myself the freedom to do it, and I have been doing it for a long time — so that it seems to flow. Those sentences just happen — I do not work on them — and sometimes I think they are so free and un-corralled that I shouldn’t let them stand. I write every day, and have written just about every day for years.
You say that ‘The Legacy of Rita Marquand’ was inspired by the purple dress you still have. You say it also foregrounds one of your preoccupations concerning the changes that occurred in the possibilities of women’s lives in the middle of the twentieth century and that touch on creativity, sexuality, and pregnancy. Are these concerns preoccupations because you’ve lived during their pointy end or revolution? If so, how did they affect you and how might the concerns for women and women artists be different today?
Ah — fertility is one of my key interests. I have lived through the invention of the pill which changed so much for women, and have seen IVF, and dare I say the transplant of the uterus – and yet, and yet, the lives of so many women throughout the world are still crippled (in so many many ways) by gender (which is of course different from fertility, but they are intertwined).
You say that Faith Starr, in ‘Waiting for the Green Man’, is the only character in the collection that wonders about the nature of good and evil but that the whole collection ‘really moves across that question’. In writing twenty stories that touch on the nature of good and evil, what insights have you gleaned?
I wrote the stories over time as a response to questions — there are always questions — of where goodness lies. I don’t suppose I learned anything new. The opposite of goodness is often the detail that piques the interest of a journalist, fiction-writer, reader. It is a truism that you can’t run a newspaper on stories about goodness. The appearance of evil sells stories (which means really that this is what interests people).
At the tail end of the book you will find a little quotation:
The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?
THE BOOK OF JEREMIAH, 17:9
You could almost miss it. But it does end the collection with a question (from a particularly grim source) about the infinite depths of the human heart. It is not meant to be an answer.
I am not making a statement, just posing a question.
I am looking at good and evil — throughout — many of the characters are good. Some are evil. Bad things happen. So do good things. Funny old world. I am actually an optimist, and I see a great goodness in human nature, but — well — I wouldn’t be a fiction writer if I wasn’t alert to the darkness and the cracks and abysses. And the dramatisation of evil brings the existence of goodness into the light.
If I start thinking all is well with the world — I have only to turn on the TV for a reality check.
What have you learned about the nature of the human heart from writing these stories?
That it’s just as I thought — deep.
The title story ‘My Hearts are Your Hearts’ is set at a writer’s festival and two of its authors entwine. You are seasoned festival talent and, with the Sydney Writers Festival almost upon us, I’m wondering what can you reveal from behind the scenes? What’s the beating heart that continues to pulse after the individual and panel performances, the book signings and the exchange of foil-covered chocolate hearts?
OOOOOH — some people go away and write stories about things that happened.
It is the first in Spineless Wonders’ new series, FICTION PLUS. *Order your copy by July 25 at the discount price of $22.99 and you will also receive a free four-month subscription to the Spineless Wonders bookclub worth $15.
To learn more about Carmel Bird’s extensive writing, editing and teaching expertise see www.carmelbird.com. Her blog of personal writing and reviews is www.carmel-bird.blogspot.com. Also see A Bigger Brighter World’s interview with her about Dear Writer Revisited, her indispensable guide for writers, released in 2014.