Book of the Month Mateship with Birds

This month we celebrate Mateship with Birds, the first book to win the Stella Prize. Discover how the Prize shaped Carrie Tiffany’s career and what it was like to be the first author to win the Stella Prize.

What was it like to win the inaugural Stella Prize? Do you think your experience compares to others who have won in later years?

There was huge media interest in this new award and why it had been created. Being the first winner meant I had to engage with questions around diversity and equity in our literary culture more than with questions about my novel. That was challenging. The interviews, lectures, and other speaking events in the first three months after the announcement were demanding. By the end of the year, I was feeling a sense of personal revulsion because, inevitably, I had to repeat myself and in doing so I felt I was being inauthentic.

The award was so clearly necessary I was surprised and disappointed by the negative responses of some Australian journalists and editors. In 2008 my first novel (Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living) had been shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction in the UK. I got to meet and spend time with the wonderful female-only shortlist – Hilary Mantel, Ali Smith, Nicole Krauss and Zadie Smith. The Orange Prize was accepted and treated with a great deal of respect in the UK, so I had assumed it would be the same when a prize for writing by women was established in Australia – not so.

It was a relief when the 2014 Stella Prize winner was announced, and I could celebrate as part of the crowd. Attitudes have certainly changed though. The media are no longer questioning the need for the award and the focus is much more on the longlisted, shortlisted and winning books, which is just as it should be.

You said in your interview with Astrid Edwards on The Garret that you faced some backlash following your win with headlines such as “Bush romance tale wins women’s writing prize”. Do you think these same attitudes exist today? Has Stella, and in turn women in literature, overcome these critics?

I certainly didn’t enjoy an editorial in The Age the day after the award announcement questioning if Carrie Tiffany’s win was really stellar when books by male writers had been excluded from the field. Being described in headlines as “mother wins writing prize,” was depressing and patronising. Some literary editors and journalists clearly felt threatened by the results of the Stella Count and as the first face of the prize I took some heat because of that. I’m pleased to say that I think this has really changed. The conversation is now about the books. Those early Stella women catalysed extraordinary change and created enormous opportunities for women writers.

Writing for me is more of a necessary obsession – it’s how I make sense of the world and I’m happy to consider myself a feverish amateur.

How did the Stella Prize help shape your career?

I think very few writers have “careers” in the traditional sense. There’s no possibility of promotion, no regular income, sick leave or superannuation and the banks will laugh in your face if you apply for a mortgage. Writing for me is more of a necessary obsession – it’s how I make sense of the world and I’m happy to consider myself a feverish amateur. That said, being longlisted, shortlisted, or winning literary prizes is an important boost for writers. I still look back on my Stella win with huge delight and astonishment. It was a very strong shortlist! The prize drew many new readers to Mateship with Birds and I’m sure also created more readers for me when I published my next novel, Exploded View.

The story of Harry and Betty’s relationship with themselves, the land, the family unit, and each other is an observant tale of loneliness and desire. Where did the inspiration for the story come from?

A novel is a machine of many parts and it can be hard to track its exact generation, but I think Mateship with Birds grew from offcuts from an earlier unpublished and discarded text, Freud in the Bush. My fascination with Freud’s case studies proved shallow when I attempted to re-set them in rural Victoria. However, a subversion of Freud’s patient Little Hans led me to create my character Little Hazel. Mateship with Birds is concerned with the animal-human world, what animals might represent and where the divisions between animal and human experience begin and end. I have been obsessed with animals since my childhood, so this felt like very natural subject matter for me.

About the Author

Carrie Tiffany was born in West Yorkshire and grew up in Western Australia. Her first novel, Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living, was shortlisted for the Orange Prize, the Miles Franklin Literary Award, the Guardian First Book Award and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, and won the Dobbie Award for Best First Book and the WA Premier’s Award for Fiction. Mateship with Birds is her second novel.

Judges’ Report








Her second novel, 
Mateship with Birds, is a triumph of noticing and, having noticed, of carefully, meticulously assembling the things that have been noticed into a novel that shows, on almost every page, not just an eye for detail, but also a conviction that every detail is in some way connected and that the connections have meaning. Mateship with Birds seems like a natural extension of Tiffany’s sculptures: her skills in the meticulous piecing-together of fragments are apparent in this novel, where she uses several different kinds of text – letters, diaries, homework, nature notes – to weave a single strong narrative showing the interconnectedness of all things, and supported by a broad and generous world view.

Mateship with Birds is a deceptively gentle-looking novel whose calm surface belies its many sharp and frank observations about the world. Set in country Victoria in the 1950s, it follows the fortunes of two people whose loneliness is offset by the many active strands of their daily lives: Harry, a farmer whose wife has left him for somebody else; and Betty, an aged-care nurse whose two children have no visible father.

Image: The 2013 Stella Prize Judging Panel: Claudia Karvan, Kate Grenville, Rafael Epstein, Kerryn Goldsworthy (Chair), and Fiona Stager.

Mateship with Birds is a deceptively gentle-looking novel whose calm surface belies its many sharp and frank observations about the world.

Mateship with Birds is a deceptively gentle-looking novel whose calm surface belies its many sharp and frank observations about the world. Set in country Victoria in the 1950s, it follows the fortunes of two people whose loneliness is offset by the many active strands of their daily lives: Harry, a farmer whose wife has left him for somebody else; and Betty, an aged-care nurse whose two children have no visible father.

Tiffany uses the two main characters’ interactions with each other and with a small supporting cast to show the intricate interrelations not only between people, but also between human life and the natural world. There’s complex interdependence among species, and human behaviour is reflected in even the smallest, most attentively observed details of the lives of animals and birds.

The novel’s title is borrowed from a 1920s bird-watching book, but in the context of this novel it takes on subtle other meanings. For Mateship with Birds is, above all, about sex and desire: “mateship” here is translated from its familiar Australian meaning into a word for the practice and the art of mating. The book juxtaposes, in unexpected and surprising ways, its observations about love, sex, character, instinct and the natural world to create an original, tender, frank and funny version of the oldest story in the world: how a man and a woman get together.

Read an excerpt

Birregurra, 1949: a boy of thirteen dies of tetanus after being pecked severely on the head by a magpie. Lake Boga, 1951: a local medical man nurses a magpie back to life after striking it with his car. When the bird duly recovers it returns to the bush bearing away the doctor’s lower dentures. Cohuna, 1953: Trevor Mues is coasting up his driveway in his Ford utility when a magpie enters through the driver’s side window, pecks him viciously on the ear and flies out through the window on the other side.

Kookaburras, magpies, butcherbirds, wagtails; the farm birds own the pasture and the bushes and the tree-top sky, but the parrots are supreme. The lemon-crested launch their scouts at sunrise, then the whole flock follows. In the few seconds before they rise the chiacking intensifies; as if each conversation must be shouted to conclusion before they are on the wing. Every morning the massed army parrots – sometimes three or four hundred – fly inland to toil at the crops, every evening they return to the river to roost.

Harry watches the flock work the air as they leave. Their wing effort reduces as soon as they gain height and the sky opens up cleanly in front of them. It’s dawn again. Milking again. The miracle of water into milk via grass must be performed at the start of each new day. Continue reading …

 

This is an extract from Mateship with Birds by Carrie Tiffany, published by Picador Australia (RRP: $22.99, paperback) 

Further Reading

Listen to Carrie Tiffany’s Stella Prize speech.

Read Belinda McKeon‘s review of Mateship with Birds.

Explore what Louise Allan said of Mateship with Birds when she read it as part of the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge 2015.

Read what Bronwyn Lea wrote about Carrie Tiffany’s win in The Conversation.

Click here to get the book club notes for Mateship with Birds.

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